By Pat Launer
The Grinch, y’know, is one nasty fella
Like Lucifer in La Pastorela
While Ma Rainey, red-hot from New York to Biloxi ,
Could surely deliver a stage Full of Moxie.
THE SHOW: A Holiday Full of Moxie, two one-acts that include the winner of the first Moxie Playwriting Contest; Moxie’s first foray into Encinitas, where it would like to set up home-base. So far, it looks like the community is supportive and welcoming.
THE STORY/THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The shows are presented in the cafetorium of an elementary school. That means the chairs are bridge and the distance from the stage is vast. But the Moxies have put down two mattress-like arrangements that are great for the kids… so they can lie down on the job as if they’re watching TV. The scenic design (Amy Chini) is basic for both pieces. The costumes (Ken Imaizumi) are cute. The lighting (Chris Walsh) is particularly noteworthy in the second play, where the final moments are beautifully spot lit and reflected in an upturned face, to match the mood and the hopeful ending.
The first play, A Claus for Alarm, by Amy Chini and Tom Zohar, is the winner of the 2006 Moxie Playwriting Contest, but it’s hard to see why, unless there weren’t very many submissions. The premise is fine; Mrs. Claus has had it and, all alone on Christmas Eve in the frigid hinterlands (not a Starbuck’s in sight!), she’s fed up and ready to leave Nicky-Boy for good. But it’s not really clear why; she alludes to deferring her own dreams, but we never find out what those were. She laments a lack of affection and attention, but there isn’t enough there there to give us a sense of who she is and what tipped her over. When the (goofy, up-speak Valley-Girl/Boy) elves come to cheer her up and convince her to stay, we have no idea why they have such a commitment to her, since they obviously don’t know her very well. And if their only motivation is that they don’t want their boss to get upset and interfere with the assembly-line work, that’s a fairly anti-feminist take on the whole situation. The characters are cardboard caricatures, each with one particular trait (the aggressive elf, the ditsy singing duo, the sensitive macho guy). Mrs. Claus is kind of a cipher. Is she just feeling sorry for herself and looking for sympathy? Who’s her sister and why did she call her? Where is she off to? We learn how the Clauses met, and what initially made her give up everything for him. But what exactly does she DO up there while he’s planning, creating and delivering? She’s not what you’d call a female role model. Jo Dempsey gives her some credibility, but she doesn’t seem much older than the adolescent elves. Except for the loudmouthed Tootsie, the girl-elves are hard to distinguish. Tim Parker is cute as the elfin guy. The arc of the piece is unsatisfying and the production, directed by Katie Rodda, feels amateurish overall.
And then, magic happens. Those same awkward, gawky players morph into graceful dancers, for Mrs. Frank’s Third Grade Class Presents. The setup is fairly pedestrian; it’s show-and-tell day (what’s now called Sharing Time) in Little Brook Elementary School, and the students, from a wide array of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, are asked to describe their family’s traditions of the season. (Thorn grew up in just such a neighborhood, in Rancho Peñasquitos, and drew her tales from her memories of the diversity that surrounded her). The stories are interesting and informative, well written and well told (all narrated by Jo Dempsey as the teacher). But it’s Erika Malone’s direction that makes the piece rise high above a mere series of cultural reports. Malone, a long-time member of Eveoke Dance Theatre, currently its director of education and outreach, brings her dancerly sensibility to this company of performers, and somehow manages to make them look stronger as dancers than they were as actors in the first play (though all bill themselves as actors). Every beautifully stylized move is precisely choreographed. At the outset, the black-clad students don masks which serve to generalize them, though their stories are very specific and particular. There’s Mandy (Kaja Amado, a natural comic) whose family always makes up a basket of food and gifts for those more needy than they. Sue-Jean Kim (lithe Ashley Montgomery) tells about Korean Lunar New Year (celebrated in February), when no one sleeps the night before, but all make and fly kites the next day – a scene beautifully enacted by the group with diaphanous silken fabric. Rebecca (intriguing Kara Hayes) comes from a mixed marriage; her mother is Jewish, her father a Protestant. Although Dad converted to Judaism, the family honors both religious traditions; they’ve even invented a cross-cultural one of their own – a palm tree (representing the palm fronds used in a Jewish ceremony) adorned with ornaments. Rebecca tells the story of Hanukkah (more or less), and in one lovely stage picture, the ensemble becomes an uplifted, uplifting menorah. And then there’s Chris (Tim Parker, whose behind-the-mask moves deftly convey a feeling of sadness and self-effacement). He comes from one of those needy families; his mother is a single, working mom, who doesn’t even get any time off for the Christmas holiday. But when she does come home, she brings a basket from the church. And what’s in that basket, and the little silver box (the same secret box that Mandy had delicately packed in her segment) expresses the touching emotion of the play and the munificent spirit of the season. A beautiful sentiment and final stage picture.
I thought perhaps this play would be too distancing or symbolic for the kids in the audience. But they seemed rapt; the movement and color, and the stories themselves, seemed to rivet even the littlest ones. There was surely something for everybody in this piece, which is just what you’d hope from family-friendly holiday fare.
THE PLACE: Flora Vista Elementary School in Encinitas, through December 23
MORE GREEN THAN MEAN
THE SHOW: Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas , the ninth incarnation of the local musical, composed by Mel Marvin, with book and lyrics by Timothy Mason, directed by Jack O’Brien. At the same time, O’Brien is the consultant (credited as Production Creator and Supervisor) on the Broadway production of The Grinch, which garnered tepid reviews but is raking in the audiences and the bucks. That success must have oozed West ; the San Diego production has been selling very well, and was extended to the end of the month.
THE STORY: Holy Horton! If you don’t know the story, you must’ve been living under some Truffula tree for the past 50 years. Everyone in and outside Whoville knows the tale of the Green Meanie, who hates the holiday but manages to get his heart to grow three sizes one Christmas Eve, thanks to endearing and irresistible Cindy-Lou Who.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The wonderfully evocative set (John Lee Beatty) still looks like it sprang right out of the book, all pink and white and red and snowy and bulbous. Those Who costumes (Robert Morgan) are still hilarious, with their tri-color patterns and ovoid, full-diaper shape, but the Grinch’s costume seems to be a little worse for the wear, the fur faded and raggy-looking. The lighting (Pat Collins), sound (Paul Peterson) and other special effects are still exciting. Associate director Brendon Fox (former Globe employee, making a welcome return), keeps the pace up and the action lively. The show is as upbeat and sparkly and energetic as ever. But while it’s all well executed, there aren’t any real star-turns here. Except maybe for Skylar Starrs Siben, who played Cindy-Lou on the night I was there (she alternates with Mackenzie Holmes, who made an adorable Cindy-Lou last year). Kevin Bailey is fine, but doesn’t leave a strong impression as Old Max; Ryan Drummond is cute and frisky as Young Max. Scott Dreier stepped in as J.P. Who for our performance, and he was charming, lending his rich voice to the marvelous quartets of the central Who family. Sarah Sumner, so enchanting in Urinetown at Starlight last summer, is a strong new addition as Mama Who. As the Grinch, Jay Goede isn’t especially nasty or scary, but he wields his claw-like digits like Edward Scissorhands, to the kids’ delight. It really is all about the kids. The rhymes (the new ones, added to the original to stretch the short tale into 70 minutes) are puny compared to those of the brilliantly creative Dr. Seuss (former San Diegan Ted Geisel). But the singing, the sentiment, the snowfall, the duet of Cindy-Lou and the Grinch – it’s all pretty hard to resist.
THE PLACE: The Old Globe Theatre space, extended through December 29
FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE MANGER
THE SHOW: La Pastorela de la Estrella, presented, for the past 17 years, by Teatro Máscara Mágica, written by Max Branscomb and directed by William Virchis
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: The pastorela is a folk-art form that was brought to the New World by Franciscan missionaries in the early 1500s. The tradition remains most active in Mexico , where more than 2500 unique versions of the rhyming Christmas story are produced annually. It’s kind of a medieval morality play, combining Christian myth with indigenous traditions; consider it the B-plot of the Nativity. The Pastorela (from the Italian word for ‘shepherd’) tells the tale of the journey of the pastores (shepherds) to Bethlehem , to witness the birth of Jesus. The trip is fraught with temptations, distractions and dangers. Noble archangels battle nasty devils for the souls of humanity. In many productions, and always locally, heroes and villains appear as popular figures from the news and from our diverse cultural heritage. The music (and singalongs) includes Christmas carols sung in English and/or Spanish (choose your language; this year the Spanish lyrics are not provided to the audience). In his curtain speech, Bill Virchis referred to the Pastorela as “the Chicano version of ‘The Night Before Christmas.’”
THE PRODUCTION: In the past, Branscomb has tapped into the zeitgeist and made his pieces silly/funny as well as politically edgy. This year, there’s a lot more of the former than the latter. We do get a crack about Cheney’s hunting and a mention of E. coli in spinach. There are a few arcane references to Kim Jung Il , Justin Timberlake and Brian Bilbray attack ads. But there isn’t the usual array of really topical, relevant slams, just a bunch of tossed-off allusions. Even the angels and devils feel musty. They’ve appeared as everything from the Ninja Turtles to Cesar Chavez. But this time, it’s all about the dated and the dead: from Selena to the Blues Brothers (the rap number is one amusing exception). The songs, too, are dubious. Of course, there’s “Feliz Navidad.” But why on earth “YMCA?” The references seem directed to the Boomer generation, though the puerile humor (and the piñata at the end) are definitely geared to the younger set. Speaking of set, interestingly, it was left over from the November USD/Globe MFA production of Much Ado About Nothing. It worked fine. The costumes (April Lowry-Leon) are perfect: ragtag earthtones and serapes for the shepherds; white tux tails for the Archangel Michael (aka Miguel) and horns and pointy tails for the devil and his minions.
THE PLAYERS: Since Bill Virchis left Southwestern College and became the Director of Visual and Performing Arts for the Sweetwater Union High School District , the students he’s brought to the cast are younger and generally less experienced. But the ensemble has always been a mixed bag of pros and amateurs. One of the strongest performances, especially vocally, is put in by lovely Jessica Lerner as Estrella, the Star of Bethlehem. The senior at the Coronado School of the Arts sings like an angel. Her rendition of “Vamos Todos a Belen” would melt even Lucifer’s rock-hard heart. Also vocally strong is Willie Greene as the Archangel Michael (and his impression of Satchmo is cool, too – though anyone in the audience under the age of 50 probably has no idea what he’s up to). As Lust, Erica Parast, who’s appeared in seven Máscara Mágica Pastorelas, proves to be a real pro — a recording artist who lets loose to outstanding effect in a signature Selena number (“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”). Bryant Hernandez is lovable as Crespo, the sheep, and Toni Calingay is adorable as Popo the dog. In an entertaining way, the loosely structured, folksy production underscores the reason for the season.
THE PLACE: On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through December 23
BLACK AND BLUES
THE SHOW: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom , third in the series of August Wilson readings presented by Cygnet Theatre in collaboration with The San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre. This one, directed by Calvin Manson, featured two performances at Cygnet, sold out both times (On the second night, Dec. 18, they had to turn away 35 people!)
THE STORY: This was August Wilson’s first play, written in 1984, set in 1927. It’s the only one of Wilson ’s cycle of ten plays chronicling the 20th century African American experience that isn’t set in his native Pittsburgh . It was also the first to appear on Broadway.
The Harlem Renaissance is in its tenth year. Jazz is on the threshold of the swing and Big Band era. And Ma Rainey, “the Mother of the Blues,” swoops into a New York recording studio an hour late (with her latest girlfriend in tow), very much the demanding diva, complaining about the climatic conditions, the songs, just about everything. Refusing to do anything without her Coca Cola. Insisting that her stuttering nephew have a speaking part on the record. And completely rejecting any new arrangement of her songs. By all definitions, the real Ma Rainey was a powerhouse, a superstar; a woman who served as her own manager, created and took charge of her own music. She wrote about race relations, economic abuse, even lesbianism. She isn’t a very likable character in this play, but she’s a force of nature.
The focus of the piece is on her band: four skilled black studio musicians interacting with two unsavory white guys – Ma’s neurotic producer and her milquetoast agent. This is the setup for a searing exploration of inter-and intra-racial conflict, and the African American search for identity, which is at the core of all Wilson ’s works. The play’s title, which refers to a dance (the Black Bottom), is the name of a song Ma wrote when she toured the Minstrel shows. The dramatic tension stems from Levee, the funny, aggressive, defiant trumpet player, who wants to update Ma’s signature number. It’s the backstage antics — how the guys do the dozens, teasing each other, competing, arguing, joking and ultimately arriving at a moment of senseless tragedy – which form the thrilling heart of this shocking, lyrical, musical piece of theater. The provocative play gave mainstream white audiences perhaps their first glimpse of what black talk is really like when whites aren’t around (and it’s pretty rough language). Like most of Wilson ’s work, it plays like a jam session, a concatenation of smooth or angular jazz riffs and bluesy ruminations.
THE PLAYERS: Director Calvin Manson cast extremely well, and coaxed outstanding performances from his ensemble. Ayinde Watson was a marvel as Levee, especially since he hadn’t acted since childhood. His proud Mama flew out from New York to see her boy perform. Ida Rehm did a fine job as Ma, and lent her sultry voice to the musical numbers. An excellent band (uncredited in the program) provided musical punctuation and interpretation. All members of the jive-talking theatrical band were excellent: Quincy Williams as Toledo , the provocateur; Ron Johnson as Cutler, the peacemaker; and Kalif Price, who looked physically amazing as Rocky in The Rocky Horror Show at Southwestern College , proved that he isn’t just a pretty face/body, as the bass-man, Slow Drag. The rest of the cast — Charmen Jackson, Anthony Bell, George Weinberg-Harter, Steven J. Warner and narrator Derek Wilton – acquitted themselves well. All these readings absolutely must be seen. Wilson was one of the great American playwrights, and this auspicious collaboration is definitely doing him justice. There are two more readings in the spring (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson). But this series of five is already proving to be such a huge success that its artistic director, Antonio ‘TJ’ Johnson promises that we’ll be seeing the other five of Wilson’s ten-play cycle in 2007.
THE PLACE: One more performance: Feb 25th, at the Performance Annex in City Heights , perfectly timed for Black History Month
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET (Don’t miss it this time!)
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Chronos is on the prowl… Chronos Theatre Group, like many other companies, is the victim of the much-lamented loss of the New World Stage downtown. The space, created by ion theatre founders Claudia Raygoza and Glenn Paris, was booked through next year. Now Chronos has been forced to postpone its season of staged readings of cross-cultural classics. According to managing director Doug Hoehn, the company is in negotiation for another space; they’ll announce the details in early 2007. The new season will include Peace by Aristophanes, which was canceled due to the surprise closing of the New World Stage. The inhospitable attitude of the City toward the arts will continue to have far-reaching repercussions.
… Black Ensemble Theatre’s co-founder/artistic director, Rhys Green, has just been named an associate artist of 6th @ Penn Theatre. A graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., Rhys went on to obtain his BFA in acting at the California Institute of the Arts. He then joined NYU’s ‘creative arts team,’ teaching conflict resolution through the New York Public School System. He’s been a teaching artist with North Coast Rep, La Jolla Playhouse and the Asian Story Theatre . He has performed in five 6th @ Penn productions, directed one and participated in many readings. In the current production of The Bacchae, translated by McDonald, Rhys is a forceful Cadmus. Rhys joins fellow associate artists Doug Lay , Leigh Scarritt and resident playwright Marianne McDonald.
… And speaking of Marianne McDonald, she just had a life-threatening experience – a ruptured appendix that has her returning to the hospital every day for intravenous medication/antibiotics infusions. Apparently, Marianne was writhing on the floor in pain, but she refused to get treatment until she finished her grades for the semester at UCSD. Now that’s dedication! Here’s to a very speedy recovery, Marianne!
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
A Holiday Full of Moxie – worth the trip for the highly inventive staging of the second play; beautifully realized Moxie at Flora Vista Elementary School in Encinitas, through December 23
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom –excellent reading, terrific ensemble, with a backup band and an especially strong performance by newcomer Ayinde Watson. Cygnet Theatre in collaboration with The San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre. The reading repeats Feb. 25 at the Performance Annex in City Heights .
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play – marvelous singing and heartfelt performances, backed by brilliant sound effects
At Cygnet Theatre, through December 24
The Bacchae – intense, timely, well conceived
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through December 23
Only a couple more days till the Big One (and it’s still Hanukkah, too!)… You still have time to give the gift of Theater!
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.