By Pat Launer
On the Long Christmas Ride to Trovatore
Foreign Bodies reveal a harrowing story.
THE SHOW: The Long Christmas Ride Home , written in 2003 by Pulitzer prize-winner Paula Vogel
THE BACKSTORY: Vogel has said she never likes one of her plays to look like another. She loves to experiment with form and time, as we’ve seen in other Vogel plays that have been presented in San Diego: the Pulitzer-winning How I Learned to Drive (at the SD Rep in 1998, opening this weekend at Lynx Performance Theatre), Hot ‘n’ Throbbing and Baltimore Waltz (Fritz Theatre, 1997 and 1994, respectively) and The Mineola Twins (Diversionary Theatre, 2000). She is still haunted by the 1988 death of her brother from AIDS, which was the focal point of Baltimore Waltz, and that specter emerges in this drama as well. A car and traumatized children appear in this and other plays. Christmas Ride also pays homage to the works of Thornton Wilder, particularly his one-acts, The Long Christmas Dinner and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden. But Ride’s visitation from the other world is also reminiscent of Our Town. Vogel has something else on her mind, too: a Japanese esthetic, including the music, art and bunraku puppets. And she’s also included a scene of Indonesian shadow puppetry and modern interpretive dance. Amazingly, it all works.
THE STORY: A Father, Mother and their three children take a fateful trip to church and then to Grandma and Grandpa’s house one Christmas. At the Universalist Unitarian church (they’re a “ Uni-Uni ” family, since Dad’s Jewish and Mom’s Catholic), a substitute minister gives a slideshow presentation about Japanese woodblocks, ukiyo -e (here defined as “the floating world”), to make some point about the universality of experience. Sensitive, 9-year old Stephen is smitten (like the playwright) by Japanese culture. Meanwhile, back at Grandma’s, there’s a terrible battle between Dad and Grandpa (concerning Stephen’s sensitivity and presumed sexuality) and the family storms out in a huff, into the frigid night. In the car, there’s another horrible fight, between the unhappy, sarcastic mother and the dismissive, philandering father, which results in a near-death experience for all, as the car swerves off the road and onto a precipice. This is a life-defining, traumatizing incident for the children, who are played, according to Vogel’s’ wishes, by life-size puppets. When the kids grow up (now portrayed by actors), events of that night will play out again in their later lives. It is the collective holding of breath at the moment of crisis that draws and binds the sibs together, even after death. And this shared experience provides the sense of hope and redemption in an otherwise dark and disturbing drama (punctuated occasionally by arch humor).
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The minimalist Japanese feel greets you from the get-go. David Weiner’s set entails a few piles of snow and a bench that converts into a ‘car.’ Each puppet is manipulated by two people, an actor and a puppeteer from the Puppetry Center of San Diego that designed themr . In order to foster the uncanny resemblance between the puppets and their ‘characters,’ the Puppetry Center worked from pictures of the actors at the children’s specified ages (7, 9, 12). The puppet movements are fantastic (in both senses of the word). Their lifelike actions moves are offset by their hauntingly vacant eyes (and this, too, was intended by the playwright). Later in the play, each of the actors steps away from the puppet to reveal the adult that child grew up to become, seriously scarred by that eventful Christmas outing, each sib in turn rejected by a lover. There are multiple distancing effects, from the puppets to the presentational style, most of the script told in monologues or narration, actors facing forward and addressing the audience. Still, the drama is riveting. The magical return of Stephen from the other world, the spiral of life/time in the upstage corner, the symbolic use of audible, communal breath multiple – all demonstrate how horrific experiences can be unifying. There’s an element of healing and hope at the end, in spite of the pain, damage and dysfunction.
As the Man/Woman narrators, Dana Hooley and John Rosen are saddled with the toughest task, facing front (à la Wilder), never looking at each other, barely interacting. But when they do, in that one seminal car-seat moment, it’s chilling. In providing exposition, narration and all the children’s dialogue, both are highly controlled – until they explode. Very powerful. As the adult children, all three actors — Chris Buess , Amanda Cooley Davis and Crystal Verdon — give excellent performances. Buess takes the most substantial journey – within his character and across the Great Divide. He movingly conveys all the anguish, otherworldliness and healing the role requires. Like his ‘sibs,’ he does a great job with the puppet and then a fine turn in joining dancer Ozzie Carnan , Jr. in the brief, expressive interpretive dance (choreographed by Peter G. Kalivas ). Also indicated in the text (but to my mind gratuitous and unnecessary) is Stephen’s anonymous — and ultimately deadly — sexual encounter, which is shown in silhouette, behind a screen. I accepted the scene more after I saw how Vogel had described it: “Stephen and anonymous partner simulate a sexual act that means this play will never be performed in Texas .”
Jennifer Setlow’s lighting design dramatizes the mood and facilitates subtle scene changes. And underscoring all the action, creating a definitively Asian soundscape, is the music and percussion of Andrew Jacobs, who plays several instruments and manages to simulate the plucked, stringy sound of a Japanese shamisen . The whole beautiful, touching production, one of the best ever at Diversionary, is unified by the vision of director Lisa Berger, who perfectly captures the spirit, the spirituality and the heart of the play.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, through April 15
THE STORY: Though the plot is often described as absurd and/or incoherent, the main characters comprise the usual tenor-soprano-baritone triangle. However, Verdi always strived for an element of surprise at the heart of his stories. In Il trovatore , it’s Azucena , the gypsy. Unnervingly for some, most of the crucial action of the opera takes place offstage, which creates a surreal atmosphere. That dark, moody ambiance is perfectly captured in this high-concept production.
Here’s a brief plot synopsis: In war-torn 15th century Spain , two brothers, separated in infancy, know nothing of each other’s existence. One (the Count di Luna) has been raised by his own royal family; the other (Manrico, the mysterious troubadour/ trovatore and leader of the peasant revolt) was stolen as a baby and brought up by a gypsy ( Azucena ). Over the course of the opera, the sibs clash repeatedly: as rivals for the love of Leonora; as enemies in a bitter civil war; and as adversaries in a bloody family feud. In the final moments, the secret of their relationship is revealed by Manrico’s gypsy ‘mother,’ who is hellbent on avenging the death of her mother, burned at the stake years ago by the Count’s father. By the time the revelations come, it’s too late; lives and loves have already been lost.
THE PLAYERS: Overall, the singing is quite wonderful. Each performer etches out a character and artfully captures Verdi’s lush and beautiful score. There was a last-minute cast change, when Nicola Rossi Giordano, the previously announced Manrico, was forced to leave the production due to vocal cord damage (singer’s nodule). Argentine tenor Darío Volonté to the rescue! He’s performed in San Diego before (in the 2004 production of Turandot ), and has assayed the role of Manrico some 70 times. He only had a week to rehearse with the company, but by the Tuesday performance, you’d never have known it. The production was smooth and seemingly effortless in all ways (though the huge, moving set pieces were a tad noisy).
In all of Volonté’s solos, he brought emotion and energy to his performance. His mid-range is marvelous; at times he seemed to be straining for the upper notes. But he nailed the long-sustained high-C in his third-act tour de force, “Di quella pira .” Still, when he sang duets and trios, he was overpowered by the other, more potent voices. This was a stellar array of singers. Italian soprano Paoletta Marrocu is magnificent as the loving but ill-fated Leonora, with her crystalline tone, supple versatility and palpable passion. Romanian baritone Alexandru Agache matches her in vocal force and nuance, as the brutal and envious Count di Luna, who will stop at nothing to win Leonora, even as she’ll do anything to be with Manrico. In 2000, mezzo soprano Marianne Cornetti played an excellent Amneris in San Diego Opera’s Aida. She’s even more impressive as the gypsy Azucena ; her vocal and dramatic range are equally imposing; her voice is warm, rich and supple. Hao Jiang Tian displays a commanding bass in the show-opening exposition. “Di due figli vivea padre beato .” San Diego-born Priti Gandhi, who returned to her hometown last year to play Cinderella at San Diego Lyric Opera, where she made her professional debut, once again showed her earnestness and vibrant mezzo as Leonora’s companion, Inez. There’s brilliant shading in the vocal work throughout, both in the principals and the exceptional 52-voice chorus. And the 59-piece San Diego Orchestra, under the baton of Edoardo Müller, does justice to Verdi with lyrical phrasing and emotional vitality.
THE PRODUCTION : This gorgeously stylized production is co-owned by the Los Angeles Opera and Washington National Opera. British director Stephen Lawless, making his San Diego Opera debut, highlights all the darkness of the story – and the swordplay. His production is marvelously designed (Benoit Dugardyn , sets; Martin Pakledinaz , costumes) and lit (design by Joan Sullivan Genthe , executed here by Michael McNamara). There’s an other -worldly feel to the textured, oversized, gunmetal grey panels that feature myriad openings and configurations, both grandiose and ominous. Nearly every scene creates a jaw-dropping, often painterly stage picture; the third-act post-battle castle strewn with corpses resembles a Rembrandt tableau of shadow and light. Due to the rake of the stage, the chorus is always at various levels (which always enhances visual interest); all their inventive staging is a marvel. They huddle in a confining circle, crawl like vermin from small breaches in the massive walls, hang perilously from the rafters. In this tale of violence and revenge, Lawless focuses on one thematic through-line: swords. They are jammed into the floor, pulled from their mooring, flashed in sword-play, and clashed in the famous “Anvil Chorus.” In the final scene, when a witch-burning flame blazes up center-stage, the swords tilt precariously in the half-light, like ancient cemetery crosses. Searing images in a daring and unconventional production.
THE LOCATION: Civic Theatre, through April 4
THE READING : Vox Nova Theatre continued its impressive first season with a fourth reading: Foreign Bodies, a world premiere by acclaimed New York playwright Susan Yankowitz . The provocative new thriller looks at outsiders of all stripes, from teen lesbians to sexually ambivalent lawyers to serial killers. Young Tom finds himself in prison, accused of the grisly murder of a prostitute. Leonard, a successful corporate lawyer tired of the starched, white-collar world, steps up to Tom’s defense. As they dance around each other in the prison conference room, we peer into Tom’s twisted mind and Leonard’s problematic homelife (a somewhat wayward daughter and wife).
Vox Nova associate Kirsten Brandt, former artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre (here to direct Hold Please at the Globe, opening 4/5), coaxed excellent performances from her cast. The females were fine: DeAnna Driscoll as the frustrated/neglected wife; Sara Plaisted as the daughter and Whitney Thomas as her African American girlfriend. But the show belonged to Ralph Elias and John DeCarlo as Len and Tom. Their interactions were fraught and intense. Elias revealed all the colors and facets of a bemused middle-aged man who doesn’t really understand himself or his passions and drives. The drama was a stellar showcase for DeCarlo , who did notable work in Little Eyolf and Bug, both with considerable detail and nuance. But he snuggled right into this particular role, an insightful young guy who might be a toxic misogynist and a sociopath, who seems forthright but manipulates minds and situations with frightening dexterity. Outstanding performance. I hope he and Elias get to repeat their turns in a full production.
The play still needs some tweaking and tightening. The ambiguity of the piece is very intriguing; it would benefit from even more uncertainty throughout, especially in the case of the girls’ relationship and the wife’s dalliance. The talk-back gave the New York-based Yankowitz some excellent suggestions. It was the most content-rich post-show discussion I’ve ever seen. The house was filled with actors, directors and writers, who offered thought-provoking recommendations. What was exciting about the piece, besides Yankowitz’s marvelously realistic and insightful dialogue, was the questions it left us with – about guilt and innocence and sexual orientation and whodunit and who might do it again. The play ended on a titillating note of ambiguity.
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… WHAT DO YOU THINK ??.. KPBS is hoping to increase the activity on its Arts/Culture website (which is, especially in the theater section, kinda paltry). So why don’t you go online at kpbs.org, and post a COMMENT on my reviews? I’ll be glad to have an online chat with you!
… With so many awful acts going on around the world, it’s a great time to celebrate the Resilience of the Human Spirit. That’s what 6th @ Penn is calling its Human Rights Festival 2007 (April 8-August 12), which kicks off this weekend with a double bill: Backbone: A Personal Story of Triumph, a commissioned Butoh dance work by Charlene Penner, and The Heliopause , Eric Henry Sanders’ play about the 1994 atrocities in Rwanda. Sunday-Wednesday nights, through 4/24.
… Bye, Bye Broadway: Local actor/musician Steve Gouveia is ready to leave the New York production of Jersey Boys, after some 600+ performances. His last appearance on the Great White Way is April 30. But he’s not done with the Four Seasons yet. He’ll be joining the “ Chicago tour” of the megahit musical (though he’ll never actually perform in Chicago ), stopping first in San Francisco for a couple of months and then heading to L.A. , and finally, we’ll welcome him back to San Diego , when the show arrives at the Civic Theatre (10/17-11/11). The best news is that he’s no longer just a singer/player; he’ll be taking over the role of Nick Massi , an early Season (and the first to die). Amazing for someone whose voice can soar into the stratosphere (just like Frankie Valli’s !) , he’ll now be singing the bass part! He did play Nick on Broadway for about 6 weeks over the course of the run. It’s of course bittersweet for him to leave the original JBs : “We’ve been a family forever,” Steve writes. “The crew, the house band, the cast, everyone. I’m only the second to leave ( Tituss Burgess left a while ago for the Wiz at the Playhouse).” Now, with a new cast and new audiences, Steve is looking forward to being on the road …and we’re looking forward to welcoming him back home!
…Also on the road… actor/director Glenn Paris, who’s moving northward from Starlight Theatre, where he served as box office manager, to the La Jolla Playhouse, which recruited him to join the Development team. He’ll start as Individual Giving Officer and will be working with the Inner Circle patrons. No stranger to the world of garnering financial support, Glenn served as Development Director at the San Diego Rep from 2004-2006.
.. Now, back to Starlight, they have an opening for a full-time, 12-month Box Office Manager. If you’re interested, email your resume and cover letter, with salary history/requirements to: firstname.lastname@example.org . And speaking of openings, Young Audiences of San Diego, at 43, the county’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization whose sole mission is arts education, is looking for a part-time Office Manger/Event Coordinator. Email or fax resume to email@example.com , 619-282-7598.
… No longer in Our Town .. but not forgotten. The indefatigable George Flint, founder of the much-lamented Renaissance Theatre Company, is still going strong in Chicago , theatrically and otherwise. After several runs of Love Letters with his lovely/loving wife, Vally , he’s now directing a group of senior thespians in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the high-end facility where they live, which sports a full-scale theater facility. When he was 18, George played young George. Now about to turn 87 (on April 6), he’s become the Stage Manager. Go get ‘em, George!
… Delays and Re-schedules: Due to illness and other misfortunes, two local productions have been delayed. Lynx Theatre’s How I Learned to Drive will open on Sunday, April 1 and will run through May 6. New Vision Theatre’s production of How the Other Half Loves, directed by actor/director Al Valletta, will run from 3/30-4/15 at the Sunshine Brooks Theatre in Oceanside . 760-529-9140.
… Shakespeare on pointe: The San Diego Ballet is presenting Shakespeare’s Sonnets this weekend, one day only, March 31st at 2:30 & 8pm at Mandeville Auditorium. Sounds dreamy…
…The Divine Miss B… Just confirmed: megawatt talent Karole Foreman, who’s done such great work in so many shows at the San Diego Rep, will be returning to San Diego to take on the role of Josephine Baker in the Common Ground Theatre production of Josephine Tonight!, a musical about the singer/dancer/showbiz legend who went from rags to riches, from the South to Harlem to Broadway to Paris. With Common Ground artistic director Floyd Gaffney at the helm, the show runs May 3-20 in the Lyceum Theatre. Underwriters welcome now.
… La Mancha , Olé !… The 12 year-old Hispanic Arts Theatre, in association with M.E.Ch.A . at USD ( Movimiento Estudantil Chicano/a de Aztlán ) , is presenting a staged reading/singing of the Tony Award-winning musical classic, Man of La Mancha. Carlos Mendoza, artistic director of the non-profit theater group, has assembled an all-Hispanic cast from San Diego , Orange and L.A. Counties . Two of the performers, Benjamin Mendoza and Mauricio Mendoza, are USD alums. View the show from a different perspective, and check out the local Latino talent. The performance will take place in the Shiley Theatre on the campus of USD; Sunday, April 22 at 3pm and 7pm. 619-260-2727.
… If you’ve missed it before, don’t miss it again… the SDSU Design/Performance Jury, initiated and overseen by scenic design-master Beeb Salzer. This is the 23rd year of the event, which features three student groups presenting their direction and design ideas (and a scene) from a play chosen by the faculty and judged by an imposing array of professionals, which this year includes playwright Edward Albee, South Coast Rep artistic director Martin Benson, scenic designer John Iacovelli , lighting designer York Kennedy, costume designer Maggie Morgan and actor/director Sean Murray. This year’s play selection (which will be adapted by one group in the form of a film) is Fuente Ovejuna , by Spain ’s greatest playwright, Lope de Vega. It’s a searing, politically relevant drama of class, tyranny, bravery and revolt, written in the 17th century, set late in the 15thC, during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. The exciting event is open to the public, and it’s the kind of luxury few theatermakers have (which is why all the participating jurors, including Albee, return year after year): a day devoted entirely to talking theater. You’d be amazed what you can learn. Friday, April 6, 9am-2:30pm (with a lunch break), in the Experimental Theatre on the campus of SDSU.
… Local successes: Cygnet Theatre’s production of The Matchmaker has been extended through 4/15. And over at 6th @ Penn, Glengarry Glen Ross proved to be the highest grossing show in the theater’s 6-year history. For the show’s extension, the a ctors, director and stage manager received over $1800 in bonuses. In the final five weeks of the run, there was never an empty seat. Perhaps as positive spillover (and hopefully from new theatergoers, attracted by the David Mamet name/reputation), The Oresteia, which opens April 5, is already selling well.
… A principal without principles… In Wilton High School, Wilton, CN, school drama productions, in the state-of-the-art, $10million auditorium, range from big musicals to classics like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. But for the spring semester, students in the advanced theater class took on a bigger challenge; they created an original play, Voices in Conflict, about the war in Iraq . They compiled reflections of soldiers, including a heartbreaking letter from a 2005 Wilton High grad killed last September at age 19. But shortly before the show was set to open, the principal, Timothy H. Canty , who’s tangled with students before over free speech, canceled the play, citing questions of ‘political balance and context.’ Even after the students made changes to the script, which the principal considered ‘too antiwar,’ he would not renege, insisting that the piece was still too inflammatory. In a letter to the New York Times, which first posted the story, novelist/playwright Ira Levin wrote, “Wilton, Conn., where I lived in the 1960s, was the inspiration for Stepford, the fictional town I later wrote about in ‘The Stepford Wives’ [his novel which became a film – twice]. I’m not surprised, therefore, to learn that Wilton High School has a Stepford principal… It’s heartening, though to know that not all the Wilton High students have been Stepfordized . The ones who created and rehearsed the banished play .. are obviously thoughtful young people with minds of their own. I salute them.” Shameful story. Will this ugly phase in our history ever end??
… Surprising stats: As The Producers prepares for its final performances on Broadway, it’s interesting to note how it’ll go down in history. The musical, written by Mel Brooks, won 12 Tony Awards , breaking the record held for 37 years by Hello Dolly! , which had won 10. But neither show appears among Broadway’s 10 longest-running shows (re: broadwayworld.com). The Phantom of the Opera is number one, still running (as of this week, nearly 8000 performances), thankfully relegating Cats to the #2 position (don’t even ask what number it’d be in my estimation!), followed by Les Miz, A Chorus Line, Oh! Calcutta!, and these still-open shows: Beauty and the Beast, Rent and Chicago . The last two on the Top 10 list are Miss Saigon and, still running, The Lion King. Dolly is number 16 and The Producers logs in at #18.
.. A problem like Maria… Reality TV doesn’t always have really good results. Case in point: The BBC show, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria,” that searched for a lead for the London revival of The Sound of Music, yielded a novice performer, Connie Fisher who, it turns out, couldn’t hack the 8-performance-a-week schedule, and had to take a two-week leave to rest her voice. Now her major competitor, runner-up/understudy Aoife Mulholland , will sub for her twice a week. Here at home, the voting was completed this week on “Grease: You’re the One That I Want,” to cast the Broadway revival. The winners were Laura Osnes and Max Crumm , neither of whom has Broadway or Broadway touring experience. Though the American knockoff show was anything but a success — it spent much of its run in last place in its time slot — it was fairly effective as a commercial for the $10 million Broadway production, which opens in July with a comfortable advance sale of $8 million. Hope the new stars can sing through the run. If you can make it there…..
… My new obsession: John and I have gotten hooked on the Sundance TV show, “Slings and Arrows” (a sly reference to Hamlet). It’s all about a Canadian theater company, struggling top stay afloat (isn’t every theater company?). Each season focuses on one production, which is the through-line. Season 1 was Hamlet, Season 2 Macbeth and Season 3, ongoing, is King Lear. The characters and performances are terrific (many of the actors have stage experience), and the onstage and behind-the-scenes intrigue is too familiar and just too much fun. If you don’t get the Sundance Channel (which we don’t) you can rent it thru Netflix (the preceding was not a paid commercial message). Check it out, though. As a theater-lover, you’ll get a real kick out of it.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Il Trovatore – a gorgeously designed, high-concept production, magnificently sung
SD Opera at the Civic Theatre: March 30, April 1, April 4
The Long Christmas Ride Home, A Puppet Play with Actors – surprising, disturbing, unpredictable and excellently executed (Note: These puppets and this play are definitely not for kids)
Diversionary Theatre, through April 15
The Adoption Project: Triad – dance, art and drama combine provocatively to capture three perspectives on the complex, multi-faceted issue of adoption
Mo’olelo at Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park , through April 1
Taking Flight – beautiful, funny, tender, dramatic solo performance by Adriana Sevan , all about the limits of love and friendship in the wake of 9/11
Lyceum Space, Horton Plaza , through April 1
Restoration Comedy – funny, bawdy, well acted, gorgeously designed and costumed; the Restoration rides again… and women come out on top!
The Old Globe Theatre, through April 8
Fiddler on the Roof – wonderful nostalgia, wonderfully sung
At the Welk Theatre, through April 1
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
March seems to be going out like a lion. But whatever the weather, you can always duck into a theater!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.