By Pat Launer
From 3rd-grade Shakespeareans on up the Food Chain
To the McDermott Trio’s legerdemain.
While Angels and obsessives bitch and whine;
Shirley gives herself a Valentine.
“Shirley Valentine” can’t quite figure out how she got where she is. How did that high school rebel turn into this frumpy housefrau? The 46 year-old lower-class Liverpudlian is a little lost. Bored, ignored, emotionally abused — by a dominating but distant husband and alienated offspring. What she needs is a change from her humdrum routine. But she’s lost her sense of adventure — and her sense of self. Leaving scares her. Would her husband survive without his dinner on the table at precisely the same time every night? Would her kids do okay? Would they even notice she was gone? Shirley’s having a midlife meltdown.
Without money, power, a decent job or much of an education, she may be more trapped than many. But this Everywoman is made of strong stuff. When a friend offers her a free ticket to Greece, she hesitates, equivocates, self-berates. But finally, she goes. And it changes her life. In fact, it gives her back her life. And it introduces her to the legendary Island of Clitoris, which she’d never visited before. This thanks to a Greek fling that only serves as catalyst to her self-rediscovery.
Willy Russell’s 1989 play still holds up. And it’s not just about disenchanted women in loveless marriages. It’s about any middle-ager who looks in the mirror one day and says “Is that all there is?” or “It didn’t all turn out the way I planned.” So if you’ve reached that stage, you’ll be moved and touched; you’ll laugh, you’ll ache; maybe you’ll even weep. And you’ll adore having Rosina Reynolds as your guide through this midlife morass. She’s magnificent, playing all her family members, plus some female friends and of course, her Greek paramour. It’s a deliciously filling performance that goes straight to the gut. Under George Flint’s skillful direction, the piece is pitch-perfect and perfectly paced. Jerry Sonnenberg’s set design is delightfully detailed (including a working stove) in the cramped, English-apartment first act and suggestively spare in the Greek-seacoast second act. The sound, lights and costumes (Robert May, Karin Filijan, Jeanne Reith) ideally support and complement the proceedings. But this is All About Rosina… and she emerges triumphant.
You have to be a little perverse, more than a bit off-the-wall, to really ‘get’ and ‘do’ Nicky Silver. San Diegans who’ve succeeded best with the quintessentially funny/cynical New York playwright, like the long-lamented Bryan Bevell, had that loopy edge themselves, and celebrated it in Silver’s wacko work. Michael Hemmingson nailed it when he directed the local premiere of “The Food Chain” in 1999.
I don’t know Globe guest director Matt August. He has impressive credits. But this is his first Nicky Silver play, and he’s just not on the right wavelength. He’s directed a big, broad sitcom, not a dark, edgy, farcical exploration of obsession. There is no sense of the wild, New York neurotic that Silver and his characters are. There is no sexuality in a play that is about four-way, mixed-gender sexual attraction/obsession. This is TV, not the claustrophobic, off-beat lunacy that is a Silver opus.
Written in three days in 1994, the piece reads and plays like a fever dream. It ran for a year Off Broadway. As in all the chatty, Silver works, we glimpse a rarely-seen underbelly of society. Nutcase characters beg for tolerance, understanding and communication. In this play (not the playwright’s best), people are obsessed with food and with each other. Sometimes simultaneously, but never in healthy ways. And, de rigueur in a quickSilver creation, there’s a monstrous mother, a dysfunctional son, and a large dose of infidelity, confused sexuality and eating disorders.
Amanda Dolor (apt name) starts the first act hysterical (Christa Scott-Reed maintains that shrieky level pretty much throughout). Her husband of three weeks has been missing for two. In desperation, she calls a Crisis Hotline and is subjected to the rantings of the recently widowed, middle-aged and misguided Bea. In the second act, we meet the hunky Serge, his pathetic, gargantuan ex-lover Otto and the first act’s missing person, Ford. Everyone is obsessed with eating, with not eating, with Serge or with Ford. In this production, almost everyone has the same type of tantrum; they jump up and down like toddlers. The repetitive pace and tone become soporific, and the humor falls flat. There’s no edge here, no subtext. Every character plays the surface; they’re all caricatures. There is no pain underneath. Little pathos juxtaposed with the (false, over-the-top) hilarity. So we walk away with nothing. Those who knew the play were annoyed, even angry, that this production was so shallow and off-base.
August even underplays Amanda’s eating disorder. I’ll never forget a little piece of stage business that Hemmingson gave actor Lisa Pedace in the first, frenetic scene of his production. Amanda kept weighing herself, fretting about her size and shape; she wanted to but wouldn’t eat. At one point, before she stepped on the scale for the umpteenth time, she removed a bobby pin. That was a stroke of genius that spoke volumes, established by someone who really understood weight-obsession. We never see that side of Amanda here; she’s just a hyperverbal, hyperactive mess.
On the other end of the culinary continuum, there’s Otto Woodnick (another good name; played by Michael Lluberes). He’s always stuffing his face, but not once all evening is he believably consuming anything; he just puts it in his mouth and spews and spits it out while talking. This really isn’t very credible (though it’s awfully messy), especially in such a small theater, where you’re practically on top of the actors. Years ago, in 1990, when John Fleck played the title character in “The Granny” in the Cassius Carter, he really, truly, literally ate through the play. The current production is a case of acting — faux eating, if you will.
The silent husband is a cipher; we learn nothing of him from Rod Brogan’s portrayal. Paolo Andino’s Serge does the macho poses well, but his character has no flesh and bones (and, for a stud-muffin, a bit more flesh than it should). As for Marilyn Sokol’s Bea, she’s pure New York Jewish Mama, but without any heart or soul. That’s the problem all around. Despite obviously earnest acting efforts and fine technical support (James F Noone’s set, Holly Poe Durbin’s costumes, Chris Rynne’s lighting and Paul Peterson’s sound), there’s no edge, no depth, no heart.
In the Playwright’s Notes to his brilliant, Pulitzer and Tony-winning “Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches,” Tony Kushner specifically says “The play benefits from a pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly…” Alas, if only designers paid more attention to playwrights. At SDSU, in the newly merged School of Theatre, Television and Fil m, the production relied heavily on the HBO version and on oversized, clunkily movable scenery. An opening sequence of historical photos, projected on the massive set, had that macro/micro-cosmic feel of Mike Nichols’ HBO production, but it lacked finesse, and many of the (quite significant) heads were chopped off by the angularity of the ‘wall.’ This craggy, mountain-like wall was the main feature of the production. It stole focus. It added time. It moved at a glacial (and fairly noisy) pace. And its ever-changing configurations made no particular sense. After awhile, they made me dizzy. And, as a result, the production (long as written) logged in at 3 1/2 hours — yikes! Even HBO got it down to three!
That said, I can admit that there was a lot of effort and energy put into this mammoth undertaking. And the cast was competent, if not universally compelling. Best of all was Chritopher Buess, who also did wonderful work in the spectacular “Laramie Project” at SDSU last year. Here, he’s forceful and engaging as Prior, the AIDS-afflicted ‘Prophet’ who’s visited (and sexually charged) by an Angel (skillfully costumed and suspended Leah Johnson). Stephen Schmitz is sturdy as Joe Pitt, the conflicted Mormon. Dan Morrison has moments as Prior’s neurotic Jewish lover, Louis and so does Martin Katz as the equally neurotic and Jewish legal fiend, Roy Cohn. Mariko Barajas did a nice job as Rabbi Chemelwitz, though every time she banged her hand on the coffin, I winced. The rest of the cast made a valiant effort, but they just weren’t quite up to the task, either not deep or neurotic or convincing enough. But kudos to director Nick Reid and the whole Department for taking on the challenge (and even doing Part II as well, though I didn’t get to see it). Keep taking the risks; the payoff is great.
WELL, I WENT TO A GARDEN PARTY….
Two, in fact. At gorgeous homes. Which provided glorious settings for outdoor performances.
The ever-philanthropical and open-hearted Marianne McDonald opened her home for a benefit for Asian American Repertory Theatre and 6th @ Penn. The evening was lovely, enhanced by a magnificent al fresco concert by the McDermott Trio: three sisters (Kerry, violin; Maureen, cello and Anne-Marie, piano) who make beautiful music together — Schubert’s luxuriant Piano Trio in B-flat Major, in this case. As night fell, Marianne rushed in with flashlights; the plucky musicians played on, to everyone’s delight. Warm words of support were provided by the beloved local-arts mainstay, County Supervisor Pam Slater, and by Nancy Laturno Bojanic, executive director of Mainly Mozart. Couldn’t have been a more delectable event, and I think it did well for the theaters, too.
On Saturday afternoon, in a perfectly appropriate garden of earthly delight — the La Jolla home of Judith and Walter Munk — an irresistible troop of troupers performed an adorably abbreviated version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” These were 21 third graders from La Jolla Country Day School who, a month ago, brought part of this piece to the Sacramento Theatre for California Youth, as part of a statewide showcase for exemplary theater students and their educators. By report, they brought the audience to its feet.
They scored big here, too — with the relatives and supporters of the Shakespeare Society who witnessed the full (40-minute) production. A very adult and elaborately attired Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots welcomed the assemblage, and the Globe’s Craig Noel gave a heartfelt talk extolling the virtues of an early start on the path to theater and Shakespeare. Paraphrasing a Pope (on the subject of encouraging lifelong Catholics), Craig used the line for which I quote him so often: “Give me a child till he’s 7, and I’ll give you a theatergoer for life.” Amen!
And hats off to all of these engaging, budding theatermakers. Standouts in this beautifully-costumed production were: Nicole Athill (Hippolyta), Riley Reid (Lysander), Sam Jacobs (Oberon), Miquela Fiori (Titania) and Billy Schleimer (Puck). Hope to see you all onstage soon!
And hope to see the plans for a Shakespeare Festival for School Children of San Diego County come to fruition. The Shakespeare Society is working with the Globe to make it happen. For info or to get involved, go to www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org.
ALOHA AND BON CHANCE….
A sad but fond farewell to Rick Prickett, San Diego’s first ConVis Director of Cultural Tourism, who’s off to new adventures in Hawaii. He helped make the Art + Sol project a success, and hopes theater companies will continue to list their events and openings on the website: www.sandiegoartandsol.com .
Here’s to you, Rick… All good luck, and thanks for spreading the word, nationwide, about the broad range of the arts and culture San Diego has to offer. Mahalo!
I’ll be Guest Hosting Full Focus on KPBS-TV show this week, probably for the last time. After this, the Thursday Arts show will be no more. So tune in for a fascinating discussion of the effect of arts organizations on their neighborhoods and communities, as we focus on North Park (the renovation of the North Park Theatre and the Main Street redevelopment project) and Coronado (the influence of Lamb’s Players Theatre)… Be there: Wednesday, May 5, at 6:30 and 11pm (KPBS-TV, channel 15/cable 11).
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Shirley Valentine” — triumphant, multi-layered performance by Rosina Reynolds; warm, funny, touching. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through June 6, and at North Coast Repertory Theatre from June 10-13.
“Fully Committed” — return, command performance of David McBean’s hilarious tour de force. Don’t miss it this time! Cygnet Theatre, April 30-May 16 only.
“M. Butterfly” — last chance to see the most amazing (true) story ever told! Excellently co-produced by Diversionary and Asian American Rep. At Diversionary Theatre, through May 8
Celebrate Cinco de Mayo — with cerveza and teatro!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.