By Pat Launer
The plays are varied; the playwrights are heady;
Prepare yourself, get set; get ready.
Tragedy, drama and comedy uncouth;
Sophocles, Kushner and Shakespeare, forsooth!
If you suffer from intellectual terrors,
You’re just right for the Comedy of Errors.
But if your taste is tragic or Greek
Oedipus Tyrannus is the guy you’ll seek.
And if politics is your sanctus sanctorum
You’ll make a mad dash to the Mark Taper Forum!
Translator Marianne McDonald says it’s “arguably the greatest play ever written.” You may know it as “Oedipus Rex” (the Latin title) but she prefers to calls her latest translation by its Greek name, “Oedipus Tyrannus.” In any language, it’s a masterpiece. Penned by Sophocles around 427 B.C., the story of the doomed Theban king has been enormously influential, appearing in works by Seneca, Homer, Cocteau, Anouilh, Stravinsky and of course, Freud (source of the infamous ‘Oedipus complex’). Btw and fyi, the name is typically pronounced EE-di-puss in England and ED-i-puss in the U.S. (thus spake McDonald).
I had always wondered what Oedipus’ father, Laius, had done to deserve the horrific curse, that any son born to him and Queen Jocasta would wind up murdering his father and bedding his mother. That question is unanswered in Sophocles’ play, but according to Cotterell’s Encyclopedia of Mythology, as a guest at the court of Pelops, King Laius had taken sexual advantage of the host’s young son, Chrysippus… and that did it. The king and queen vowed not to have children, but as legend has it, one liquor-ridden night, they threw caution to the winds and a child was conceived. At birth, the infant was pierced in the feet (hence his name, Oedipus, meaning “swell-foot”) and left to die on a mountainside, a fairly common practice for unwanted children in ancient Greece. The boy was rescued by a shepherd and well, the rest is mythological and theatrical history.
McDonald’s new translation is terrific; it’s poetic and lyrical, crystalline in its clarity. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, George Ye has capably directed a consummate cast. Matt Scott is magnificent as the tragic Oedipus, all brashness and bravado at the outset, sure of himself and his position as King, and passionate in his love of Jocasta. By the end, due to his dogged determination and insistence on knowing all the facts, he has gone from buoyant self-confidence through ruthless rage, finally descending into the most abject despair (his bone-chilling cry of recognition and acknowledgment is unforgettable) — a thoroughly broken, shattered man. And yet, he has shown incredible courage, fortitude and spirit, to face the truth, his identity and his fate.
There is something so primal in this story that it’s impossible not to be profoundly moved, especially when the language is clear and the performances are precise. Scott has a few facial grimaces that become repetitive and intrusive, but his presentation is otherwise flawless. Cristina Soria is a sensuous and sympathetic Jocasta; her relationship with her husband/son is sexual, palpable. Jack Banning is powerful as the blind prophet Tiresias. Marc Overton is potent as Creon, the brother of the Queen, and David Cohen is excellent as the shepherd who reveals all (and his moment of shared realization with Oedipus, one man cradling the other, is heart-breaking). Catie Marron and Abbey Grace Howe are lovely at the conclusion, as the King’s two grieving daughters; Marron is so credible in her weeping it’s gut-wrenching. The sole disappointment in the production is the Chorus, which is inconsistent in its unity, articulatory precision and emotional response. Only Cohen reacted to the horrifying news of Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus’ self-mutilation; the rest of the group remained impassive, remote, distracted. This weakened one of the most devastating speeches in theater. But it couldn’t undermine an otherwise spectacularly robust, eloquent, stirring theatrical experience.
ANGELS IN AFGHANISTAN
It was no easy task for Tony Kushner to follow up on his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork, “Angels in America.” But the brilliant playwright has done it again with “Homebody/Kabul.” Now playing at the Mark Taper Forum in the Steppenwolf Theatre production directed by the justly-acclaimed Frank Galati, the play is nothing short of breathtaking. Kushner, in my opinion one of the great minds of our age, was prescient when he wrote the piece, long before 9/11. (We can only hope that his insights remain reliable; he predicts that Bush will lose next November’s election). The piece is beautiful, emotional, profound, political, overpowering and empowering.
Set in 1998, it concerns the titular Homebody, a disaffected English housewife who escapes from the world (and her empty marriage) into books. In her by-now-famous 40-minute opening monologue, she reads to us from a dusty guidebook on Kabul, which allows her to give us a detailed history of the country and its repeated conquest and subjugation by foreign powers. Though the play is all about Afghanistan, much of the text could be replaced with ‘Iraq’ and the issues, resentments, bitterness, antipathy and attacks would remain the same. This is the Middle Eastern view of 21st century Anglo-
American imperialism, as written by a poet, dramatist, activist. We never see the Homebody again, but we recognize her as a close cousin to Harper, a central character in “Angels,” a half-crazed sage who may have hallucinations but who also sees through the daily detritus to the truth. The Homebody is also a little off-kilter, and when she disappears into Kabul (and may or may not be dead), her husband and estranged daughter drag us along with them into the drug-addled, anarchic, Tajik/Talib world of intrigue, confusion, political deal-making, cover-ups, violence and despair. There are a few predictable outcomes in the story, but there are also many unanswered questions, which is what always gives Kushner’s work an extra jolt and an intellectual thrill.
The language is glorious. No one else has the vocabulary of this playwright, the breadth and depth of subject matter, or the ability to combine poetry and politics without resorting to polemics. The 3 1/2 hours fly. The characters are fascinating, the performances stellar. Linda Emond, who originated the role on Broadway, is amazing as the Homebody, with her meandering flights of language, imagery and unhappiness. As her daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal (recently richly awarded for her onscreen performance in “Secretary”) is by turns angry, tough, stubborn, hurt, aggressive and brave. Rita Wolf is haunting as the tormented Afghani, Mahala. Firdous Bamji plays a deliciously enigmatic and enterprising Afghani and Bill Camp is perfect as the twisted Quango Twitleton, a role for which he won an Obie in the Off-Broadway run. The rest of the company is expert and endlessly inventive. The set, costumes and lighting are evocative, and the original music (by Joe Cerqua) is stirring.
In the program, there’s a quote from Kushner: “The fundamental question is: ‘Are we made by history or do we make history?’ And the answer is, ‘Yes.'” Kushner holds up the mirror and forces us to look. What we do with that vision is up to us. But someone needs to keep trying to make us see. Thank God for Tony Kushner; he may just turn out to be our savior.
Shakespeare is introduced to Monty Python by the Three Stooges. Blame it all on Aquila (pronounced uh-KWILL-uh) the Pun. The London/New York-based Aquila Theatre has brought its clownish antics to the La Jolla Playhouse in a high-speed, hyperactive “Comedy of Errors.” It’s slapstick, it’s New Vaudeville, it’s a dumb-show (albeit a smart one), it’s rubber-legged and hair-trigger timed. You can’t help but laugh and love it, though it does tend to wear out its welcome after a bit (despite the fact that it’s distilled Shakespeare’s early comedy down to a neck-snapping two hours). A little silliness goes a long way… and these guys never say die. Just exactly how many times need a man be kicked in the groin? Women’s breasts are also a source of unending merriment. The Bard becomes The Bawd. The ole Stratfordite probably would’ve loved this. Theater for the masses, lowest common denominator and all that. Undeniably, though, at times it’s wildly imaginative. Incredibly talented and flexible, the troupe of nine seems like a cast of thousands, making split-second costume and character changes that leave the audience (and often themselves) breathless.
Since they’re a traveling company, Aquila uses few props, and heavily enlists audience imagination. This is an enchanted land created by sheer theater magic. A couple of pastel-colored ‘tents’ spring up like fast-frame-photography flowers and form exotic villages; a string of overturned baskets swirls heavenward, snakelike, and becomes a date-palm. You connect the dots; or not. Things go by so fast, what you missed is either gone, or will be repeated 15 times for effect. In view of all the antic-frantic traffic (there isn’t a sedentary second on the stage), the language is amazingly clear and well spoken. If you can’t follow Shakespeare’s circuitous story of twins separated at birth, and subject, years later, on the coast of Turkey, to an nonstop string of mistaken identities, have no fear. The physical farce will be with you. Plenty of comedy; no room for errors. Every move is brilliantly choreographed (direction by adaptor/co-creator Robert Richmond). The twins are outstanding: Richard Willis as Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus, and Louis Butelli (he of the Gumby-like body) as the twin Dromios. There’s singing, dancing, pratfalls and every comic shtick in the book. A low-life philandering husband and a regal harridan wife. A saddle-shoed, pigeon-toed teeny-bopper who falls for what she thinks is her brother-in-law (though oddly, one twin speaks Cockney, the other Oxbridge). The two Dromios seem American. The whole hodgepodge defies scrutiny; you have to take it as it is, or find some other show to see. If you like your comedy low and broad, physical, screamy, frenetic and feverish, have I got a show for you!
GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN…
On Sunday, Oct. 19, 6th@Penn Theatre inaugurated its Year of the San Diego Woman in Theatre. A delightful and festive event, with music by Bridget Brigitte (a sweet-voiced singer-songwriter, who writes robust lyrics, plays guitar and keyboards, and just happens to be the daughter of Marianne McDonald, to boot); “4am” (soon-to-be renamed ‘4am Rising’) , with its gorgeous four-part harmonies; and Leigh Scarritt, who swept in to introduce North County native Scott Dreier, sang an adorable duet with him (from “Little Shop of Horrors”) and then disappeared, as if by wizardry. Dale Morris had asked me to say a few words about the State of the Theatre in San Diego, and this is the gist of what I said:
The theater has long been called The Fabulous Invalid, ever ailing, never dying. ‘Twas ever thus, and so it is now. I have some grins and groans about the current state of local theater, but generally speaking, I’m hopeful.
On the down side, we’re all in a financial/fiscal crunch. Arts funding is down at the personal, city, state, and federal level. Subscriptions are also down, in general. Theater companies have been tightening their belts, and that often means decreased staff or productions, and more mainstream, audience-friendly fare. And yet, crazy as it seems in these awful monetary times, theater folk, the MOST optimistic of any group, are starting new theaters… and we’ve developed some new spaces. Sean Murray has opened Cygnet, the Iris Theatre has geared up, and ARK and the Kroc Center are gaining popularity as presenting spaces. Of course, 6th @ Penn (under the aegis of the indefatigable Dale Morris) has done an amazing job of providing space for individuals and groups, new work and old, which is a tremendous boon to everyone.
There’s been more cross-pollination among theaters, and this is wonderful. Large theaters do it, and opera companies, so it should certainly be pursued by smaller companies who really need to pool their resources. Collaborations between such groups as Grass Roots Greeks and Sledgehammer, Asian American Repertory Theatre and Diversionary, are very encouraging. Small theaters have been advertising each other’s productions, too, in flyers and program inserts. There has been some effort to collaborate on marketing, advertising and PR, but there needs to be even more.
I’d also like to suggest more intense marketing to young audiences. This is, after all, the future of theater — onstage and off. There have been more young performers in more local productions, and more family fare presented. But there should be more active recruitment of young audiences around the county, as well as continued outreach into the schools, which now provide such limited arts exposure and education.
I’d like to put out a call for more political theater. In these terrible times, when the whole world has turned upside-down, the theater has to do the job it was designed to do: inspire, ignite, enrage, incite, force us to look at ourselves — who we are, who we could be and who we have become.
On that subject, the Grass Roots Greeks, led by Linda Castro and David Cohen, along with translator/adaptor Marianne McDonald, have done invaluable work in bringing the Greek classics back to us, to remind us of where we’ve come from — in the theater and in our lives. Bravo to all of them.
There has been a plethora of new work all around, and that’s extremely encouraging. The time of the dark Monday night is over; there are readings around town nearly every week. I’m breathless, and I just can’t keep up. That’s exciting, and many of the new plays are by local writers. Let’s keep that creative energy flowing!
We still haven’t and maybe never will figure out exactly who this San Diego Audience is. They support many many ‘fluffy’ shows, light, entertaining, mindless. But then, just when you lose faith and think you can’t put something thought-provoking out there, the audiences will surprise you and flock to see it. Don’t give up hope. Keep building; sooner or later, someone will come!!
My final suggestion is aimed at theater companies and theatermakers. It’s my pet theater peeve: that damn Arts Calendar thing again. It’s in place now; PLEASE USE IT. When I looked at my PDA for the weekend of Nov. 8, I saw EIGHT openings. And the next weekend? None. It’s easy to list, and easy to look up. PLEASE PLEASE go to www.sandiegoperforms.com and list your openings and check on other groups’ openings. (Once you’re at the site, go to What’s Playing, and then the Opening Night Calendar page; instructions on how to post are on that page). It’s hard on all of us when you force the critics to choose among productions, and this also delays the review for some companies. Everyone loses.
Beyond that, keep the faith, the hope and the good work. To audience members, keep coming. And as for you indomitable theatermakers: We who applaud you salute you!
THE ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Oedipus Tyrannus” — lyrical, crystalline translation by Marianne McDonald; outstanding performances; at 6th @ Penn through 11/2
“Homebody/Kabul” — well worth the trip to L.A…. Tony Kushner is the genius — and conscience — of the American theater; politics, humor and introspection, beautifully done in this Steppenwolf production; at the Mark Taper Forum through November 9
“The Boys Next Door” — wonderful performances, touching and often humorous play; at Lamb’s Players Theatre through November 16
“Blue/Orange” — provocative brain-twister about shrinks and crazies, racism and institutions; in the Globe’s Cassius Carter, through October 26
“Proof” — thought-provoking Pulitzer Prize-winning play; at San Diego Repertory Theatre; EXTENDED to November 2
“Anna in the Tropics” — check out the beautiful, newly redesigned South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa and be ravished by this lush, seductive play about language and love; through Oct. 25
“Annie Get Your Gun” — delightful production with two great leads and wonderful costumes; at the Lawrence Welk Resort Theatre, through November 8
“Beehive” — one of San Diego’s longest-running musical hits, is closing soon; all those great girl-group songs; irresistible! At the Theatre in Old Town, through January 4 only.
Yippee!! Politics is back onstage… at several theaters. Consider it a cure for electoral dyspepsia and a cause for post-recall celebration.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.