By Pat Launer
Certainty and ‘Doubt’ appear
In ‘The Waverly Gallery’ and ‘King Lear’
But love’s unswerving, sure and Begorra ,
In the musical tale of ‘Himself and Nora.’
Somewhere on Waverly Place, in Greenwich Village , a life is slipping away. Gladys Green, once a firebrand, politico, social activist and socialite, is losing her memory and her marbles as her family looks helplessly on. She’s a tough old bird — a lawyer who in her later years, opened an art gallery, a matriarch with tireless verve and joie de vivre. And now, “The Waverly Gallery” is being taken back by the landlord, Gladys can barely live alone, her hearing and mind are fading and she’s driving everyone nuts. They feel powerless and guilty; clueless, she can’t understand why they’re so irritable all the time.
Kenneth Lonergan’s family drama, a 2001 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, has the strong scent of veracity because it’s intensely autobiographical. Standing in for the playwright, moving in and out of the action, is Dan, Gladys’ grandson and our narrator. This is a play of memory and regret. It taps into our mixed feelings of sympathy, tolerance, hope, despair and impatience with our aging parents, and our abject fear of fading before our time. It is particularly chilling in this Terri Schiavo moment of history. There is no precipitous event here; Gladys gradually recedes into a haze of muddled memories, as we watch, along with the family, horrified. Lonergan calls it a comedy, and he sprinkles the 90-minute piece with wry, dry humor. But the laughs emerge through gritted teeth and clenched throats. This play is a heart-breaker.
Under the keen, assured direction of Kristianne Kurner, the production at New Village Arts is impeccable, gut-wrenching and tear-jerking. Kurner keeps the pace timed to a New York minute; all those tricky, multi-conversation dinner-table interactions, everyone talking at once and overlapping, are pitch-perfect. The set is wonderfully suggestive, an abstract jumble of picture frames suspended above the action, and a few hanging in the ‘gallery’ playing space, which is flanked by Gladys’ apartment and the dining room of her daughter’s house (lovely, unfussy design by Kurner and John Zamora). The lighting and sound add to the mood, but it’s the actors who draw us in and keep us riveted.
Sandra Ellis-Troy is spectacular as Gladys. She has gotten inside the soul of this woman, letting her energy come through, and her confusion, her relentless interest in others but her inability to retain anything she’s heard (so she asks the same questions over and over), her flights of fanciful memory that give us glimpses of who she once was, and slyly provide all the history we need to know. As her mind breaks down, her body bends over, until, at the end, she’s nearly L-shaped. A wonderful, aching performance. Francis Gercke, marvelously understated, shows all the caring and frustration of an ambivalent grandson. His direct confrontations with the audience are a bit clunky as written, but they seem poignantly conspiratorial as presented. Dana Case is terrific as Gladys’ weary, put-upon daughter Ellen, devoted but beaten-down, unwilling to put her mother away but unable to conceive of living with her. It’s a finely etched, delicately nuanced and thoroughly credible characterization. Jack Missett has a harder role to inhabit; Ellen’s second husband, Howard, is an ill-defined character, a shrink without tact, a blunt realist in a family of pussy-footers. Jeffrey Jones does solidly unassuming work as Don, another enigmatic (and unnecessary?) character — a naïve, deluded New England artist (nice job on the accent!) who settles into Gladys’ gallery, hoping for his Big Break. Symbolically (if heavy-handedly), he’s also trying to preserve the past, painting his own mother and her possessions in the most minute, if uninspired, detail .
“Old age,” the saying goes, “isn’t for sissies.” It takes the indomitable will of a Gladys to withstand the loss of memory, perception, intellect, identity and relationship that aging and dementia can inflict. “It’s not true that if you try, you’ll prevail,” Dan tells us in his life-affirming, philosophical coda. “It must be worth a lot to be alive.”
At the New Village Arts, through April 30.
IRISH MUSE AND MUSIC
Jimmy and Nora should only look so good. “Himself and Nora,” the world premiere musical at the Old Globe, focuses on James Joyce and his muse, Nora Barnacle. They’re played by two stunning actors – Matt Bogart and Kate Shindle . Though the protagonists sprang from different social classes, that distinction is not obvious here, neither in manner, dress nor speech. The well-educated Joyce is considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century – though (as he prophesies in the play) people revere more than read him. His ground-breaking, stream-of-consciousness masterwork, “Ulysses,” is often named as the greatest novel of the 20th century. Nora, on the other hand, was a chambermaid. And though, as represented here, he was an awful, condescending boor and a self-centered drunkard, their love endured 27 years of unwedded companionship and then, finally, ten years of marital connection, if not unalloyed bliss.
Although the new musical touches on the constraints and censures of the Church, the politics of the time (heavy on the Irish nationalism, of which Joyce was not, as suggested here, a supporter), the hardships of the writing life (especially when losing one’s eyesight), poverty, bastard children (one of whom is schizophrenic, the other alcoholic), this is really, at heart, a sentimental love story. This unlikely relationship endures. Nora’s earthy, bawdy demeanor and country way with words gave Joyce inspiration for writing about his homeland, which he could only love or appreciate from afar. He exiled himself from his beloved Dublin to Trieste , then Paris , and finally Zurich . Each of these locales appears suggestively in this small chamber musical that sports a cast of five who skillfully (thanks to the ingenious direction of Jeff Calhoun and Joseph Hardy) make it seem like there’s a whole chorus of performers.
The book (by Sheila Walsh) is at times intelligent and witty, as punch-drunk on words as the Joyces were. There is verbal crossfire in some of the songs, too — most notably “Touch Kiss” (lyrics by Walsh and composer/ orchestrator Jonathan Brielle). And Shindle gets to sing a brassy, anthemic number (“Stand Fast”) about self-worth and self-determination, Jimmy Joyce be damned. Most of the music is unremarkable, though I did walk out humming “River Liffey ,” a clever ditty that tongue-twists its way through a long list of lovely, lilting Irish town-names (“ Kilkenny , Connemarra , Kildare… ” ) .
The performances are outstanding. Shindle , a former Miss America , is gorgeous as Nora; in this telling of the story, it’s easy to see why he was so besotted by her and so jealous when she flaunted her lusty ways. Bogart’s Joyce, adorable though he may be, is a snobby self-aggrandizer; “I’m James Joyce!” he’s fond of proclaiming, as an excuse for all his bad behavior. But she loves him unswervingly, and puts up with a great deal, including poverty, drunkenness, out-of-wedlock children, frequent moves and doubts and his obsession with his work. As a large cast of characters, from a stock-priest who represents the entire (judgmental, disdainful) Catholic Church, to Ezra Pound, to Joyce’s parents and patrons and children, David Edwards, Franks Mastrone and Kathy Santen are terrific – in a dizzying range of acting, singing and dancing styles.
The book has its troubles, with its cursory coverage of tremendous amounts of physical and emotional territory and the a silly rise-from-the-dead ending (“You think me dead ?“ Joyce exclaims, and gets up to dance a jig for the finale). The sermonizing priest becomes a tad more than a clerical caricature at the end, saying, significantly, ‘You need me to write.’ In its way, the Church, like Nora, enflamed Joyce’s passions, and gave him something to write about.
Brielle’s music sounds a lot less Irish than one would hope, his orchestrations are pedestrian and frequently synthesized (no Irish instruments in the pit!) and most of his melodies are fluffy and forgettable. This show presents the Joyce Lite of the writers’ themes, style and substance, and The Emerald Isle of American fantasy, scrubbed clean (not too green, with a bit of blarney and a wee nip of whiskey). Somehow, in the mystifying magic of theater, all the less-than-perfect parts come together to make an entertaining evening of theater, a steamy love story, a whiff of the literary and the life of a writer, and a treat of performances. It may work better in an even smaller space, but Tobin Ost’s all-purpose, rotating scenic design and suggestive costumes, and Michael Gilliam’s evocative lighting make the piece feel intimate. It’s likely that the more you know of Joyce and Ireland , literature and history, the less you’ll love this show. But taken on its own terms, “ Himself and Nora” is a language-rich, love-besotted American musical shamrock.
At the Old Globe Theatre, through April 24.
A MOUNTAIN OF A MAN
It’s the Everest of acting. Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is a role of crags and peaks, precipices and declivities. This mountain of a man, this mad monarch, has devotees who will stand by him in exile or thunderstorm, and detractors (and daughters) who will stop at nothing to destroy his supremacy and sanity. On paper, it seemed that San Diego Repertory Theatre associate artistic director Todd Salovey had assembled a stellar cast, an exciting array of talent. But as it turns out, the whole is far less than the sum of its parts, which are so disparate and discombobulated that one wonders what exactly was going on behind the scenes. There are multiple acting styles and inexplicable characterizations (gorgon sisters, a fairly flat Fool, a fey Oswald). The timeframe is unidentifiable: the stone monoliths suggest ancient stelae , but could be anywhere, anytime. The costumes ( Giulio Cesare Perrone ) are a mishmash, wildly varied and singularly unflattering on just about every body type. Even the colors don’t add up (e.g., why was Cordelia in black and white like the Duke of Burgundy, when it was the King of France whom she married?). Why the outrageous, outstretched feathers on Goneril and the golden (Madonna-like) bustier (accent on the bust) on Regan? And why on earth sneakers on poor Tom O’Bedlam (aka Edgar), who is the sole proprietor of outrageous anachronisms (he whips a plastic water bottle and a can of soda from his backpack)? So much of this production is unmotivated and inexplicable. Why does Lear have long, tangled dreadlocks (which repeatedly get in his way so he has to resort to flipping them out of his face like an adolescent female flirt)? And why does he seem to be clothed in the Cookie Monster’s ragged blue bathrobe? Why in heaven’s name does he make a post-tempest entrance in a wheelchair? What was everyone thinking?? It is the costumes that distract most, but there are so many ‘Huh?’ moments in this production that it’s hard to concentrate on the story, much less be moved by the proceedings. You can hear the gears grinding all through the evening; nothing feels organic, though there are some credible, even moving, moments.
As the misguided king, Sam Woodhouse is clearly working very hard, articulating very precisely, giving his all. But there isn’t the depth of soul or the scope of emotional excursion that the punishingly difficult role demands. There are times when he seems believably regal, rashly imprudent, wild with anger or grief (a high point is his anguished, blood-curdling cry when he carries in the dead Cordelia ). But we need more intensity, heart and profundity. Armin Shimerman is a straight-ahead, likable Fool, but one who, alas, cannot sing. Peter van Norden is sound and solid as the faithful Kent , though he doesn’t change much (except for mussed-up hair) when he makes the transition from Earl to servant. As that other foolish father, Gloucester , the stalwart Jonathan McMurtry is best in his blindness. The fearsome violence of Ruff Yaeger as Regan’s husband Cornwall , and the decency of Matthew Henerson as Goneril’s noble Albany , offset the unshaded malevolence of the Evil Sisters (the formidable Linda Libby and the beautiful Karole Foreman). This Cordelia ( Marielle Heller) is a cipher; she barely registers as a character, and fails to garner our sympathy, respect or interest. As the brothers Gloucester , Hassan El- Amin is potent as Edmund and J. Todd Adams shows nuance and variation as Edgar (though his accents do tend to waver and stray).
It’s been a peculiar and disappointing journey from the nearly flawless, heart-rending reading of the play last year (with many of the same participants) to this underwhelming muddle of caricatures and conflicting ideas. Each of the contributors has done much better work; here’s to more felicitous collaborations.
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through April 17.
MORAL RECTITUDE IN THE RECTORY
There’s certainty .. and there’s “Doubt.” John Patrick Shanley’s latest work is being hailed in New York as the best new play of the season. I second the motion. At the same time as the intense and provocative drama moves from the Manhattan Theatre Club to Broadway, Pasadena Playhouse has, amazingly, scored the rights, and is presenting the West coast premiere, starring Linda Hunt. The play is set in St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx ; it’s based precisely, as is one of the nuns, on Shanley’s own early experience at St. Anthony’s.
It’s 1964, a year after JFK’s assassination. The country is changing, and so is the Church. Sister Aloysius, the principal of the school, represents the old ‘spare-the-rod’ approach. She’s tough-as-nails, tolerates no nonsense, refuses to allow “secular” songs like ‘Frosty the Snowman’ in the Christmas pageant, abhors the use of ballpoint (rather than fountain) pens. She thinks art is “a waste of time.” The gentle Sister James, a youthful enthusiast, is excited about history and dramatically tries to communicate that excitement in her classroom; Sister Aloysius is not amused. She cautions her junior to be a “fierce moral guardian… vigilant .. canny … skeptical.” The progressive young priest, Father Flynn, coaches basketball and gives fiery sermons; one, about Doubt, opens the play. He says “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” Off the pulpit, he schedules ‘bull-sessions’ (on “How to Be a Man”) and believes that the priests and nuns should be “friendlier” to the students, “like members of their families.” He’s become the protector of one particular altar boy, the only black pupil in the school. Sister James saw them leave the Rectory together; the boy smelled of liquor and “looked frightened” when he returned to class. From this, Sister Aloysius concludes that Father Flynn gave the youngster the wine and did a lot more than that. She is resolute, absolute, unswerving in her conviction. The affable Priest professes his innocence. The young sister doesn’t know what to think. And the boy’s street-smart mother – well, she has a whole different take on the situation.
The brilliance of this play is that there is no resolution. We are left with our own doubts. In view of all the sexual abuse scandals in the church, we tend to think the priest might be guilty. But this hidebound nun has built her case exclusively on suspicion and intuition. Could he have done something untoward? Could she just be threatened by him and his ‘modern’ ways? Does she just set out to destroy him? Is the Church hierarchy predisposed against women, rendering them powerless, no matter how right they may be? This is the landscape of this fascinating, thought-provoking play.
But at the Pasadena Playhouse, as directed by Claudia Weill , the situation is skewed, the deck is stacked. The priest (adorable Jonathan Cake, a native of England who sports an amusingly overexaggerated Bronx accent) is engaging and attractive, articulate and jauntily guiltless. As played by Linda Hunt (best known for her Oscar-winning performance in “The Year of Living Dangerously”), Sister Aloysius is rigid, harsh, almost malevolent in her relentless attempts to bring this man down. If she doesn’t show a little heart and humanity, the play doesn’t work. She becomes a merciless, one-dimensional monster and our sympathies swerve toward him. (In the post-show discussion, most of the audience voted in his favor). We feel for poor Sister James (the wide-eyed, frightened-looking Mandy Freund) and are shocked by the viewpoints of the ultra-pragmatic mother (the very solid Patrice Pitman Quinn). If Hunt weren’t playing such a personal vendetta, if she seemed believably concerned about the children under her aegis, then we might come to really question and suspect Father Flynn. Instead, the balance is disrupted and the play is seriously affected. But it’s still important, challenging, disturbing and absolutely worth seeing.
At the Pasadena Playhouse, through April 10.
SISTERS ARE DOIN’ IT FOR THEMSELVES
It was a couple of cupcakes short of a baker’s dozen. “Talking With…” the first On Book On Stage reading of 2005 presented by AASD, the Actors Alliance of San Diego, was just too scrumptious for words. Director (and AASD Board member) David Ellenstein assembled eleven outstanding actors for this delicious series of monologues, written by the elusive, mysterious Jane Martin (nobody knows the identity, even the gender, of the award-winning writer).
The play won the American Theatre Critics Association Award for Best Regional Play in 1982. It’s all about women. Women talking about how they cope, how they survive the nastiness and injustices of the world…. whether it’s by escaping into Oz or charming snakes. Each little piece is a brightly polished gem in its own right, and each of these talented AASD members made them sparkle and shine. The performers read like a local Who’s Who. The first act featured hilarious Linda Libby (as a jaded actress); Theresa Layne (a housewife dressed in scraps, escaping her boring life in mental trips to Oz); Brooke McCormick (a wild- ropin ’ rodeo gal); Priscilla Allen (a bathrobed plastic-lover, who wants to take up residence in McDonald’s); Moriah Angeline (who gets into the zen of baton twirling); and a heartbreaking piece about her mother’s death achingly enacted by Jennifer Austin. Act Two featured Sandra Ellis-Troy (an engaging, aging woman drawn to light); Rhianna Basore (in the breath-stopping throes of a 23-hour labor, on the verge of delivering her “dragon,” an abnormal child); Rachael Van Wormer (a seasoned, Southern, fundamentalist, third generation snake-handler); gorgeous Amanda Sitton in a very funny, menacing audition; and Robin Christ, beautifully matter-of-fact as a woman ‘marked,’ scarred inside and out. Whatta pack of high-powered pulchritude! Pure, estrogen-enhanced genius.
NTC = “THAT’S CULTURE!”
That Ziter guy sure knows how to throw a party! As the executive director of the NTC Foundation, Alan Ziter and his team invited the community to come out last week for the “Historic Phase 1 Launch” of the NTC Promenade. They introduced the 18 groups that are ready to move into the first two buildings – “a synergy of diverse community groups,” as Ziter put it. You really have to see this place to get a feel for its size, scope and potential impact on the City. The site is enormous, really mind-boggling. The Promenade alone is ¾ mile long; that’s 28 acres and 26 historic buildings. There’s 125 acres of park and open space. Then there are the educational, office , hotel, residential and retail/commercial districts that add up to another 200+ acres. The development of the Promenade is a $125 million project with the goal of creating a center for arts, culture, science and technology. The City’s lease extends for 55 years. The plan is to make this “a fun, interactive, touch-and-play place,” said Ziter .
The Music and Dance buildings will be home to the San Diego Youth Symphony, Westwind Brass and Tam Tam Mandingue (the wonderful drumming group that entertained the ‘troops’ at the Launch), Malashock Dance, San Diego Ballet, Jean Isaacs’ Dance Theatre, Lower Left Dance and Performance Collective, and the San Diego Dance Alliance. Other members of the wildly varied “first class of NTC recruits” include Aquatic Adventures, Walkabout International, VozAlta , Visions Art Quilt Gallery and the San Diego Watercolor Society. Two of the criteria for acceptance (there were many more applicants than could be accommodated) were a willingness to a) collaborate and b) perform/practice openly, so the visiting public can watch the arts in action.
“Every city needs a new destination every five years,” said NTC Foundation Board of Directors Chair Phil Blair. “It’s been the Zoo and Sea World and Legoland , and now the Midway. Next is NTC.” Speaking for the entire (impressive and high-profile) Board, he said admiringly of Ziter’s tenure at the helm: “He’s been here four years in his one year here.” The first buildings are slated to come to life this October, and Phase 2 is planned for 2007. Starting next February, the Promenade will be the new home to the U.S. Chess Championship. As Ziter so cleverly put it, “Games of strategy are back at NTC.” He’s planning to maintain the historical significance of the site, while shifting the focus “from bootcamp to ballet, reveille to Ravel.” The new recruits, says Ziter (who always has a way with words), “are music companies and dance troupes, artists and galleries, environmentalists and recreationalists who are being invited to till with creative plowshares the same ground once ruled by the military sword.” En garde !
AND DON’T FORGET…
… SDSU’s 22nd annual Design Performance Jury, Friday, April 15, from 9:00-2:30 in the Experimental Theatre.
… UCSD’s Baldwin New Play Festival 2005, April 11-23.
NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ LIST
“The Waverly Gallery” – heart-breaking family dramedy , beautifully acted and directed.
New Village Arts (@ Jazzercize in Carlsbad ), through April 30.
“Himself and Nora” – A Joyce- ful love story. A world premiere about James Joyce that may be light fare for literati but it’s well done, intelligent and entertaining.
At the Old Globe Theatre, through April 24.
“Doubt” – fascinating, important, thought-provoking play. Bonus: Can be seen on this coast while it’s opening on Broadway! Time called it “The #1 show of the year.” Sure to be a Tony contender… catch it if you can!
At the Pasadena Playhouse, through April 10.
“ Antony and Cleopatra” – a colossal Antony and a seductive Cleo make for a wild ride, a highly sensual (if sometimes uneven) production by those antic, “No holds Bard” players.
Poor Players at the Academy of Performing Arts on Alvarado Ct. Rd.; through April 10.
“Pageant” – where the girls are guys and the competition is ferocious. Loads of smarm and charm, and a lot of laughs.
At Cygnet Theatre, extended through May 22.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing.
If we have ‘April Showers,’ I think we’re all gonna shoot ourselves! It’s high-time to Spring into the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.