By Pat Launer
It was a week of spiritual connection:
From a crucifixion to a ‘Resurrection,’
With Hell and Heaven charting their course
In C.S. Lewis’ ‘Great Divorce’
And ‘Frankie and Johnny’ were overheard
Saying, L’amour? Bien sur — C’est L’Absurd!
For more than 50 years, Arthur Miller has been the conscience of the country. His plays have underscored our hypocrisy, conflicted loyalties and flagging sense of personal and societal responsibility. “Resurrection Blues” has all these elements, but I don’t think it’ll ever be up there in the pantheon of his classic ‘greats.’
It’s his first foray into satire, and that’s been a big surprise for many people. But the premise of this play was actually foreshadowed a dozen years ago, when Miller wrote a trenchant, Swiftian piece in the New York Times advocating, with mock solemnity, the privatization of executions to be enacted for paying customers in Shea Stadium. “The take would be sizeable, considering the immense number of Americans in favor of capital punishment,” Miller wrote. “The condemned would, of course, get a percentage of the gate to be negotiated by his agent or a promoter if he so desired… ” see? He does have a sense of humor. But frankly, his latest play would do better without it.
Of course, the timing of this production is impeccable. We’ve heard discussions of public TV viewing of capital punishment. And the audience is already paying to see a crucifixion, thanks to Mr. Gibson. Of course, the excesses of our greed and materialism are ever-spiraling upward, and the nefarious underpinnings of political decisions… well, what can we say in this election year? And now, just when we need it most, it’s Miller-time.
In “Resurrection Blues,” a dictator in an unnamed South American country has twin crises on his hands: his country is beset by drugs, violence, civil war and gross economic inequities; and a young man from the mountains has achieved a Christ-like following. The dictator decides to solve both problems by crucifying the Messianic revolutionary and selling the broadcast rights of the event to an American television station for megabucks which would go a long way to bailing him out.
There’s a moral fervor about the piece, which exposes media vulgarity and excessive consumerism, not to mention hypocrisy at the governmental, religious, political, personal and professional level. But Miller veers off-course, from moralist to moralizer. Much of the play is sober and preachy; the rest is implausible or heavy-handed. We’ve got an all-powerful General who’s impotent; a pregnant, insecure strong-but-weak TV director who calls her Jewish Mother in times of stress, and who falls into bed with the man who embodies everything she’s against; a shallow, greedy, one-dimensional TV executive; and the drugged-out hippie acolyte of the spiritual leader who gets to have the last word. There are other less-than-fleshed-out characters, such as the failed-suicide, crippled apostle of the Messiah, niece of the General, who is the mouthpiece of moral outrage. She engages in heated exchanges with her father, an equivocating intellectual who’s going through his own spiritual and psychological crisis, and who ultimately learns, as does the General, that All You Need is Love.
While the play may nail American society to the cross of economic corruption and media monstrousness, it isn’t a satisfying spectacle for the paying customer. And director Mark Lamos and his cast don’t do too much to help. On opening night, though the production was earnest, everyone was declaiming, nearly screaming. There was barely a connected, credible interaction or conversation all evening. But the monologues, of which there were many — some smugly comic, some sermonizing — were consistently well executed — especially those of the beret-wearing intellectual, Henri (Daniel Davis) and the druggy/disciple Stanley (Bruce Bohne). The acting approaches varied widely; some performers were far more able to capture the satirical style than others. Few lived up to the whimsy of scenic designer Riccardo Hernández’s attractive, Crayola-colored set, bright red panels imprinted with a Spanish-language constitution and flanked by a cartoonish green palm tree.
The points about the military-political-media axis are made with sledgehammer subtlety it’s impossible to ignore. And Arthur Miller was right there in the audience, for gosh sakes. And that was inspiration enough. But the play felt unpolished, disappointing and disengaging.
Just in the nick of time, I caught the near-final performances of the two Vantage Theatre productions at the Lyceum: “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” and “C’est L’Absurd.” And even though I’d seen two of the three pieces before, I was happy to pay another visit. Priscilla Allen does a star-turn in both the Absurds, but Charlie Riendeau certainly holds his own (inside the Phonograph horn) in Jean Cocteau’s “The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower.” The duo was humorous and vastly varied in their voices and accents. Lovely performances! And those costumes! In her set, costume and art design, Nadja Lancelot does a splendid job of evoking Picasso, who created the original set and costumes for the 1917 premiere. The black and white Eiffel-like painted drop, the cubist masks with Picasso-perspective faces — sheer delight.
The first time I saw “The Wedding,” last year at the Actors Festival (smaller space, the Ark Theatre), it seemed tighter, more specifically choreographed (by Esther Emery and director Robert Salerno). This time, it was a bit looser, seemingly more random in movement. but the cast of 16 remained quite strong, and highly amusing, capturing the right, light touch for the absurdist, bizarre proceedings that skewer society — its technological inanities, lack of communication, need to document every act, and create faux-celebrations. Once again, Jim Turner was noteworthy as the hapless Photographer, who tries to take a picture of the wedding party, but can’t get control of his camera (technology on the fritz — then as now!); hunters, lions, ostriches, bathing beauties and all manner of weird stuff keeps coming out of it. Turner’s moves are pure Buster Keaton; his malleable face and rubber-legged body are perfect in this silent-film pantomime charade.
Turner appears again, with Allen, in Ionesco’s “The Painting.” She is terrific as The Corpulent Gentleman, a rich but parsimonious man who pretends to care about and collect art, while he abuses the poor, starving artist (Turner). But he is victimized too, by his invalid sister (Laura Bozanich, very funny) who seems like his prey at first, and then emerges from that sham to do a sadistic number on her bro. The tables turn with breakneck speed, and the physical and linguistic pas de deux is hilarious. Allen is big and broad and comical; Turner does his Little Tramp bit. Bozanich is a monstrous chameleon. Jennifer Eve Kraus and Rachael van Wormer provide ballast. But this is Allen’s show, and under Salerno’s direction, she sparkles and shines, commanding the stage, showing off her expansive talent and prodigious humor. A vicious commentary on the art world and the perception of beauty, not to mention sibling S&M. A perfect mate for the “Wedding,” in a witty translation by designer Lancelot and director Salerno.
Speaking of revisits, Lamb’s Players Theatre has returned to C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce,” which was adapted for the stage by Lamb’s artistic director Robert Smyth. After a successful premiere in England, the company presented a small, one-night production last spring. That, too, was so well received, that they decided to mount a full production.
“The Great Divorce” is Lewis’s “ Divine Comedy .” The narrator in the allegory bears strong resemblance to the writer, but is here transformed into a wide-eyed, inquisitive young woman (Cynthia Gerber). The author’s Virgil is the Scottish writer George MacDonald . His title is a riff on William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” which suggests that there will be an ideal union of the secular and divine, or Heaven and Hell. Lewis sees instead an unbridgeable divide.
Set at first in a nondescript neighborhood, the seeker is taken on a bus trip from Hell to Heaven. Hell is a bleak, dreary Grey Town, vast and lonely, hovering in a perpetual rainy twilight. Heaven is a Bright Plain, an idyllic wilderness paradise, a garden country of rivers, mountains and trees. On their day-trip, the ghosts meet in Heaven those they knew when alive; these Spirits try to persuade them to remain, which they can do if they turn to God rather than concentrating on themselves.
Often considered a brief masterwork of Christian thinking, Lewis’s book expounds the theory that those who are in heaven are there because they want to be, and those who are in hell are there because they want to be. In other words, it’s more about faith and free will than divine judgment. The fantasy underscores the ability of humans to rationalize and justify their (our?) behavior, whether it be as an overbearing mother, an under-appreciated writer, a cynic who believes everything is a sham, a man riddled with lust, or an entrepreneur consumed by career.
The wizards at Lamb’s bring all their copious talents to bear in recreating this dreamlike, phantasmagoric journey. Jeanne Reith creates a spectacular array of fantastical costumes. Deborah Gilmour Smyth composed an eerie, ethereal soundscape and Nathan Pierson provides ghostly lighting. Mike Buckley’s set is a double mountain of detritus, the stuff of everyday living: chairs and suitcases, all the things that consume us and must ultimately be left behind.
Robert Smyth directs the ensemble and joins it for the multiple roles each enacts on the various planes of the afterlife. All get to play to type and exercise their accents (some to better effect than others). But the second act does drag on, and the text devolves into theological sermonizing when MacDonald (David Cochran Heath) starts his lecture/explanation of all that we’ve already seen and intuited. A 90-minute more-condensed version would make all the points as well, and maintain audience focus and attention. This meditation on good and evil can be provocative and at times it is wondrous to behold. But briefer would be better.
A LOCAL TREASURE LOST…
On February 19, a great chapter of San Diego theater history was brought to a premature close. After a long struggle with illness, Martin Gerrish, age 78, went to the Great Stage in the sky.
The influential local actor/director started the Drama Department at Grossmont College, where he taught for 25 years (1961-1986). In 1976, he became president and founder of Octad-One Productions, which presented provocative plays that he acted in or directed and often designed and constructed. Over the years, he was involved in more than 100 productions around town, at theaters such as the Old Globe (where he won three Atlas Award — for playing King Henry II in “The Lion in Winter,” Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and for directing “The Runner Stumbles”), North Coast Rep, Coronado Playhouse, Lamplighters and the Mission Playhouse. He appeared in a movie, “Bottom of the Bottle” (1956), with Joseph Cotton and Jack Carson. In 1985, he began a small summer Shakespeare festival, Shakespeare by the Lake, which created a lovely, picnic-friendly setting for pared-down productions of the Bard’s comedies — nestled in the grass, next to the little manmade lake beside the ECPAC amphitheater.
In his collection of memories is a note from Craig Noel, dated February 13, 1976, following his appearance in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“I know on several occasions I told you how much I liked your Big Daddy,” wrote Craig, “but I want to tell you that it is one of the finest performances ever seen at the Globe Theatre. It was really a consummate interpretation of the role… Bless you and best wishes.”
Gerrish was dashing in his youth, reminiscent of the young Olivier. By the time I met him and his hard-working, costume-designing wife, Elaine (who died in 1993, after 43 years of marriage), he was a snow-white-bearded, dignified fellow known as a tough taskmaster but a terrific actor and director. I used to love going to those intimate little productions in the Marketplace at the Grove, near SDSU. I saw a marvelous “Rose Tattoo” (starring the late, lamented Terri Orr). I adored seeing Martin performing in “Dear Liar,” the Bernard Shaw/Mrs. Patrick Campbell epistolary duologue (by Jerome Kilty), with the never-to-be-forgotten Katherine Faulconer, who was a Grossmont College colleague and Octad board member. That show was directed by Gerrish’s long-time companion, Bill Farnum.
The same year, 1995, though he always said he only wanted to direct, Gerrish again got roped into acting — in Israel Horovitz’s “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard.” The serio-comedy concerned an old curmudgeon who, as a teacher, flunked many of his students, including the central female character.
“It parallels a great deal my own career,” Gerrish admitted to me at the time. “I taught for 25 years. And according to some of my students, I was a difficult as Jack Brackish, the main character in the play.”
But like the character, he also will be long remembered, by those he encouraged, like Donald Pugh, Wayne Erreca and Jeffrey Jones, and those of us in the audience whom he surprised, thrilled and inspired. Craig Noel called Martin Gerrish “a true craftsman; a wonderful performer and an imaginative director.” I couldn’t agree more.
There will be a gathering of friends and family in La Mesa this Sunday, April 4 from 4-7pm. For further info, contact Clark Myers (619-589-0147) or Trina Kaplan (858-278-5018; firstname.lastname@example.org ).
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Kiss of the Spider Woman” – spectacular performances, provocative play; at 6th @ Penn Theatre, final performance Wed. 3/31. Miss this at your own peril!!
“Ashes to Ashes” and “The Lover” — dark, cynical, enigmatic, delicious; wonderful performances by Ron Choularton and Cristina Soria, directed by Robert May… At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through the weekend (closing April 4).
“Macbeth” — just as dark, spooky, intense and supernatural as you’d expect from Sledgehammer; it doesn’t disappoint. At St. Cecilia’s; EXTENDED through April 3.
“The Gingerbread Lady” — wonderful ensemble work, delicious performances; serious Simon; Renaissance theatre at Cygnet; through April 25.
“M. Butterfly” — the most amazing (true) story ever told! Excellently co-produced by Diversionary and Asian American Rep; at Diversionary Theatre, through May 8
“Two Sisters and a Piano” — passion and politics from Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz; steamy story, provocative performances; on the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through April 11
Think PEACE this Palm Sunday and Passover…. And then go to the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.