By Pat Launer
Seeing lots of theater can be hell or heaven;
This week I hit Lucky Seven.
Seven shows is a lot to have seen;
I was like a veritable ‘Hamletmachine.’
There was heart and music, rhythm and soul
From’ Oliver,’ the ‘Grinch,’ and ‘George, Kurt and Cole.’
Some shows were funny; some were compelling,
Like ‘Story Theatre’ and ‘Asking and Telling.’
But by the time Sunday finally came
I was definitely at the ‘End (of my) game.’
Shows I caught just before they closed:
It’s New Year’s Eve, 1938, and Mitzi St. Clair, a New York socialite, has invited us up to her penthouse to celebrate. She sips champagne, drapes herself on piano or fainting couch, and regales us with stories of her nights with George Gershwin, Kurt Weill and Cole Porter — stories humorously knit together to provide a background against which to sing some of these masters’ fabulous songs. Everyone is there with us (everyone who was a live at the time, that is, from Pablo to Albert, from Tellulah to Gertrude Stein). Mitzi greets them all with aplomb, but by the end, when all three of her erstwhile flames appear, she’s running ragged, and singing snippets of songs to each in a hilarious musical whirlwind. Debra Wanger never loses her cool. In her platinum Harlow hair, dripping in jewels, she’s dazzling company. And she does great work interpreting all the songs (pianist for the evening was Ron Councell, a great foil for her; he alternated with Rayme Sciaroni). Everything was lovely, including the witty script by Wanger and that ever-amusing song-and shtick man, Phil Johnson. My only gripe was that, in an effort to be totally (musically) true to the period, every song was sung in a vibrato that began (very early on) to wear on my nerves. Wanger obviously can hit notes cleanly and purely, as she showed in her delightful turn in Lyric Opera’s “Oliver!” a few months back. This stylization tended to make many of the songs sound similar; she could have lost the conceit early on without losing any of her authenticity. Otherwise, the evening sparkled, from the snazzy (uncredited) set to the glittery jewelry and gown to the warmth of her delightful characterization. What a swell party it was!
SOMETIMES MORE IS LESS… There were more people onstage than for “Cats” or “Les Miz,” bragged the producer, Cameron Mackintosh. Yet it still didn’t sound like there were enough voices in this “Oliver!,” especially on the part of the kids. And some of the leads left a bit to be desired. This wasn’t a thoroughly Broadway-caliber touring production (brought to us by Broadway/San Diego) primarily because it wasn’t a Union (Equity) gig. But you certainly couldn’t quibble with the sets, costumes or lighting. The multiple set changes were fantastic, and the lighting was breathtaking with every scene. Andrew Blau as the Artful Dodger nearly stole the show, though in the title role, Justin Pereira was sweet and engaging. A recent college grad, Renata Renee Wilson did a lovely job as Nancy. The rest of the adults were passable, certainly no better than those in the Lyric Opera San Diego production this past September. But those songs always sound great (“Consider Yourself,” “Food, Glorious Food,” etc.). I still have trouble with Nancy’s relationship with Bill Sykes, and how she stays with him “As Long as He Needs Me.” ‘Course, it’s not much different from Beatrice in “A View from the Bridge.” Why do these women stay with these abusive men? Would that it were only in fiction. Oh well, this is supposed to be a light musical (“Carousel,” anyone?? Same abused-woman story)… It was possible to enjoy it for what it was. There were lots of people present who apparently had never seen it before, probably have no idea that it’s a riff on Dickens and if they do, this may still be the closest they get to the old guy’s writing. But any literary exposure is better than none. To paraphrase from the score, “If you don’t mind literature diluted… it’s a fine life!”
A BEAUTIFULLY BLOOMING IRIS
Managed to catch the final, back-to-back performances of Iris Theatre’s “Endgame” and “The Hamletmachine.” And all I can say is — Wow! Artistic director Claudio Raygoza proved what a master he is — at acting and directing! Both plays are a humongous challenge, but that didn’t faze Raygoza; he seems to go for the guts and the gusto every time out, since the company’s founding last spring. He also appears to prefer the political edge; his last venture was Martinique writer Aimé Césaire’s tricky “A Tempest.” Now, it’s Heiner Mueller’s “Hamletmachine,” a power-packed, stream-of-consciousness that was written in the late ’70s and foreshadowed the liberal resistance of Europe 30 years later. It’s a mind-blowing meditation on the power of reactionary ideology to turn human beings into repressive monsters. A collage of violence and fantasy, its ‘historical pessimism’ roused heavy criticism in the playwright’s native country (Germany); it proves a perfect pairing with the dead, empty world of Beckett’s “Endgame.” Raygoza even seems to tease the audience, sneaking Beckett’s opening lines, ” Finished, nearly finished, ” into his “Hamletmachine.” His dramatic vision is spectacular; the stage pictures in Hamletmachine were glorious; you didn’t know where to direct your attention first, so much was happening onstage, often in slow-motion. He used every inch of the wide expanse at the much-hidden Academy of Performing Arts in the Mission Gorge area. Boy! You need a compass to find your way in and out of there. And you could use a guide to interpreting all the arcane references, double or triple entendres and unrelenting innuendo in “Hamletmachine.” Fragments and fragmentation make both plays tricky to interpret.
“I want to be a machine,” says Hamlet, played by the incandescent Daniel Heath, who is also a wonderfully stiff, robotic Clov in “Endgame.” Heiner Mueller was obsessed with the relationship of the individual to the state or collective, the costs of revolution and the challenges facing a new socialist society. Performances of his pieces, which would sometimes last for hours, always emphasized the visual and auditory experience; there is, in fact, minimal text, but it’s fraught with explosive connotations, crisscrossing in complex patterns. In a sense, “Hamletmachine” is about a period where nothing seems to have much value, the hierarchy of values is lost. Interwoven is the hesitancy of Hamlet, the tragedy of Ophelia, the brutality of Claudius, the complicity of Gertrude, the loyalty of Horatio. And Heiner Mueller adds the fantasy sex and violence among them. With its nudity, brutality, lipstick-scrawling on mirrors, backlit skeletal remains, white-face and black body-painting, and eclectic musical backdrop, this was an assault (and I mean that in a good way) on all the senses.
After this, the inaction and repetitiveness of “Endgame” become even more powerful. Here’s in a bare room, outside of which the world seems to have died, a blind, chair-bound autocrat, Hamm (brilliantly, malevolently, played by Raygoza) keeps his servant, Clov at bay and his parents, Nagg and Nell (Brain Cleaver and Sylvia Enrique) confined to trash cans. Here, the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being. “Endgame” is a darkly comic allegory of man’s condition: human weakness, frustration and helplessness. As in many of Beckett’s works, the characters are victims of decrepitude and paralysis; what human bonds are formed take the shape of dependency or tyrant and victim. Language is used as the only weapon to combat chaos, while at the same time, its incapacity for any complete expression of ‘truth’ is exposed. The idea of the ‘endgame,’ which derives from chess, denotes the last, entirely predictable, stage of the game. Outside, all seems dead; inside, characters pass the time mortifying each other and toying with fears and illusions of possible change, all along sensing the inevitability of their end. It’s all about the absurdity and meaninglessness of the human condition. And Raygoza’s quietly controlled direction and acting convey it to a T.
The two plays comprised an enigmatic, brain-teasing, stimulating and often exciting theater duet.
Still going strong….
SHOW AND TELL
Following three years of interviews with military and non-military personnel, gay and straight, Marc Wolf created “Another American: Asking and Telling,” a collage of reportage, in the style of Anna Deveare Smith, which confronts, from multiple perspectives, the response to the military’s Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell rule on homosexuality. It’s a chilling tale, told in a no-frills, back-to-basics way by talented Russell Garrett. With just a shift of position or posture (as directed by Rosina Reynolds), Garrett conveys nearly two dozen characters, male and female, and gives us their take on Clinton’s first official act in office. It didn’t endear the new President to the military; it probably resulted in many deaths. One of those, a young man about to be discharged, was beaten so badly that his face was unrecognizable to his mother in his coffin. This piece, which comes is the slow-to-start second act, is one of the most poignant and memorable of the evening. At two acts and 2+ hours, the show tends to drag at times. It would be tighter and crisper if it were shorter. Sometimes, it’s not clear who we’re hearing from, till halfway through a monologue; once, I wasn’t sure if the character was male or female; some people made repeat appearances that wasn’t always transparent, and it was too dark to read the program listing of every segment’s title and character. Smith would use, as they did in other “reporting/re-enactment” shows like “The Laramie Project,” a simple costume/prop (scarf, glasses) that helped to distinguish the rapidly-changing faces. Here, the problem is even greater, since so many of those ‘military types’ are so similar; this doesn’t cut a wide swath through the general population. This no-frills approach weakened the performance, which was generally quite compelling, and of course, the stories are often gut-wrenching. It certainly doesn’t seem like we’ve learned anything from 20th century history — i.e., that silencing a community can have disastrous repercussions. These are voices that need to be heard, but I wish Wolf had tried to tie them together to make some sort of point, rather than taking this scatter-shot approach that lays all the opinions out there without any particular organization or structure. A few nips, tucks and tweaks, and this would be the powerful evening of theater it should be.
ONCE UPON A TIME…
In story theater, the actors move in and out of the action, narrating, characterizing, observing. In North Coast Rep’s “Story Theatre,” we watch them warm up and interact (even with the incoming audience) from the outset. As conceived by its creators, Paul Sills and Chicago’s Second City improv troupe (1970), the show breaks down the fourth wall and lets the audience backstage, as it were. There actually is no backstage. Everything that’s going to be used or needed (hats, scarves, instruments) is in plain view, and so are the actors, seemingly enjoying each other’s performances throughout.
NCRT artistic director David Ellenstein has led his corps of nine with a light touch (but probably somewhat of a firm hand to obtain the precise, controlled result — though he told me that this improvisational/collaborational approach to rehearsals was very different for him). It evolved well; the roles played in enacting the tales of Aesop and the Brothers Grimm suited the ensemble well. There were, as is so often the case, some standouts in terms of dramatic flexibility. When you combine acting and physical malleability, no one came close to Jonathan Scott Meza, who writhed, jumped, skulked, back-flipped, and moved like greased lightning. And right behind him was Randall Dodge, who showed vocal ability (in a couple of accompanying folk songs) as a hilarious, buck-toothed Ass in “The Bremen Town Musicians,” and in his Gropenfuhrer imitation. Laura Bozanich and Fred Harlow were also amusing and wide-ranging in multiple roles. The others did good work, too: Monique Gaffney, Season Hamilton, Jerry Lee, Kim Strassburger, and David Stinnett on guitar. The proceedings get silly at times, and several pieces can be dropped easily so the show runs a brisk 90 minutes without intermission, rather than going on for two acts and two hours. As for the conga line with audience members, well, let’s just say that’s never been a fave of mine. But many theatergoers find it fun. The show makes for great family fare without having to be tied to the season. Lots of laughs, though some of the background music was a bit too ‘kute’ for words. But we laughed, and we learned a little something (like, how dark some of those so-called children’s fables can be — and how nasty and manipulative some of those people and animals are). Well, that’s not just in stories; that’s life, ain’t it?
GREEN AND MEAN
Hadn’t seen “the Grinch” for several years… and it’s changed. A little less glitzy, a little more heart. And a LOT more locals. I thought the time was right, this being the Seuss centennial. And I wasn’t disappointed.
It was a hoot to see David Brannen playing the Mean, Green One… and he was joined by so many local favorites: Steve Gunderson and Melinda Gilb; Jessa Watson a nd Phil Johnson; Alex Apostolidis (back from the wilds of the Northwest for this show) and Warren G. Nolan. Jeez, it felt like Old Home Week in the theater. What a kick! Rusty Ross reprised his role as Young Max, and he was as fresh and funny (and terrific) as the first time I saw him in 1998. Ken Paige is a marvelous addition as Old Max; his commanding voice booms out deliciously and was especially apt for “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (which wasn’t in the first version five years ago, but the rights have since been acquired). Excellent addition, since I always walked out singing that song anyway.
Oh, and speaking of additions, 6 year-old Shawn Moriah Sullivan is amazing as Cindy-Lou Who. Is she the youngest ever? Seems like it. She’s delightful and her interactions with the Grinch have been expanded, so it’s clearer now why and how she managed to snag (and expand) the heart of His Greenness. Both Maxes seem to sing more (watch for Jim Chovick stepping into the role of Old Max come Dec. 9), and that’s great. Brannen is a lot less scary than Guy Paul was in his Kiss-like, tongue-writhing incarnations for the past several years. Too bad he doesn’t get more opportunity to show his dancing prowess.
I went on a Tuesday morning at 10:30 and except for school chaperones, I was the only grownup there. I love seeing the show with all those kids going gaga. I felt great for the rest of the day. Grab a kid — or the child within — and Go Green again.
MORE HOLLY JOLLIES
….Don’t forget Giftix for ab-fab stocking stuffers… Or, as the Performing Arts League puts it, “Wrap up a show this holiday.” These little ho-ho-humdingers come in increments of $10 and they’re accepted at more than 60 San Diego theaters. Now that’s a dramatic seasonal gift! Go to www.sandiegoperforms.com and get ’em while they’re hot.
….Speaking of the Performing Arts League, outgoing executive director Alan Ziter, who’s done so much for the county in the past 18 years, will be my guest on “Full Focus” on KPBS-TV this Thursday evening, Dec. 4, 6:30 and 11:30 pm (channel 11, cable 15). He’s in transition, moving on to another exciting job… as Pres. and CEO of the NTC Foundations, where he’ll oversee the development of a new arts, civic and cultural district for San Diego. In the first segment of the show, Mark Hiss (of Where magazine) will join me to talk about the plethora of holiday arts/culture offerings around town. Be there… and make your own season brighter!
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” — a walk down memory lane (as the book springs gorgeously to life) or an eye-popping treat for a little one. New and improved! Through Dec. 31 at the Old Globe.
“Story Theatre” — The Grimm Brothers were aptly named! And Aesop wasn’t far behind. Fairy tales come to life in inventive ways. Great ensemble, fun for the family. At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through December 21.
“A View from the Bridge” –spectacular ensemble work from Renaissance Theatre, in a play that never goes out of style; at Cygnet Theatre (near SDSU) through December 14
“Orphans” — taut, intense and dramatic; Pinter’s “Caretaker” taken to violent extremes. Wonderfully acted; extended through December 23 at Jazzercise in Carlsbad.
“Plays by Young Writers 2003” — extraordinary work by writers age 10-18. You absolutely MUST see Brandon Alter’s “Forty Miles from Tel Aviv.” Brilliant. Through Dec. 6 at the Lyceum Theatre.
“Beehive” — one of San Diego’s longest-running musical hits, is closing soon; all those great girl-group songs; irresistible! And Jenn Grinels (recently so stellar in “Hedwig”) returns… without the beard! At the Theatre in Old Town, through January 4 only.
Happy December… Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow (somewhere else!!)
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.