By Pat Launer
Not too much theater this week (as if!)
From ‘Butterfly’ to ‘Lucky Stiff’
And Pinter’s back, with brilliant flashes,
Turning his ‘Lover’ into ‘Ashes.’
If ever there was someone born to do Pinter, it’s Ron Choularton. I’ve seen him do several of the acclaimed English actor/director/playwright’s piquant, oblique creations. Ron has just the right blend of detached cynicism and sly humor. I’ve even seen him in one of the shows currently at 6th @ Penn: “The Lover.” A decade ago, it was with Gayle Feldman, in a double bill with Pinter’s “One for the Road,” featuring Bobby Larsen (and whatever happened to him?… Another perfect Pinterian). Those two plays were thematically linked by brutality. Now, pairing “The Lover” with “Ashes to Ashes” places the focus on marital disharmony and miscommunication. And Choularton is excellently teamed up with the talented Cristina Soria; it’s a lovely, felicitous match. Robert May directs with a knowing hand. He’s got the timing and famous Pinteresque pauses exactly right… and the menace is always there, lurking in the shadows.
“The Lover,” originally written for British TV in 1963, opens in a suburban English living room, where a man casually asks his wife, “Is your lover coming today? Will he be staying long?” And we’re off on a wild and, for a while at least, a shocking ride. But then we come to see exactly what’s afoot. It’s a tight, close, claustrophobic piece about fantasy and infidelity; the game these two are playing is brutal and the cost is high. Each of the actors makes wonderfully subtle but masterful transitions into another ‘self.’
“Ashes to Ashes” is a lot more opaque. At times, the couple seems more like a shrink and a patient than a husband and wife. He’s so clinical; she’s so scattered… and so damaged. Between reports of quotidian life, she intersperses flashbacks, memories of fierce sexual encounters and horrific, Holocaust-like atrocities. Pinter has said that he was inspired to write the 1996 play after reading a biography of Hitler’s architect, Albert Speers — a very civilized man (like the academic husband, Devlin) whom he associates with extreme cruelty (an unseen man described by wife Rebecca, a sadistic lover who’s capable of ripping babies out of the arms of screaming mothers). This is the height of sexual non-communication, stifled marriage and repressed memory, where the everyday anecdotes tell even more than the traumatic, tormented recollections. With her tiny, nervous movements and distracted, unfocused mien, Soria portrays a woman in profound pain who walls off the true depth of her agony even as she fails to conceal it. Choularton is both dense and intense, dispassionate and inflammatory. Their emotional pas de deux is harrowing, and the balance of power shifts momentously but imperceptibly between them. In both plays, husband and lover blend in disturbing ways. A seething sexuality underlies both pieces, which are at once cynical, funny, enigmatic and unsettling. My favorite kind of theater experience — if it’s yours, don’t miss it!
MAY THE FARCE BE WITH YOU…
Perhaps the most striking thing about “Lucky Stiff” is that it was the first Off-Broadway show created by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. At times, it’s hard to believe these are the same folks who gave us “Ragtime.” But some people are visionaries. When the show opened in New York in 1988, then-New York Times theater critic Frank Rich (sometimes known as “The Butcher of Broadway,” who, btw, writes fantastic commentaries in the Times now; I like him soooo much better than I did when he was a critic. His writings on all things cultural — especially Mel Gibson — are nothing short of spectacular.. but I digress…) urged readers to “cherish” Ahrens and Flaherty, “both for their promise and for their willingness to embrace old-style musical comedy silliness without apologies.” Rich speculated that, in time, the team “might give their generation its own Bells Are Ringing or Pajama Game . ” Well, they gave us “Ragtime” (and “Once On This Island,” a quirky Caribbean fantasy) and there’s plenty more, one hopes, where those came from.
As for “Lucky Stiff,” well, it’s cute and clever at times, and tuneful. But also enormously silly (without apology, as Frank said). It was based on a novel, The Man Who Broke The Bank at Monte Carlo , a slight comic yarn by English writer Michael Butterworth, which was published in 1983 and set in the principality of Monaco in the 1920s,
The light-hearted musical follows the escapades of milquetoast English shoe salesman Harry Witherspoon, who stands to inherit six million dollars from his recently deceased uncle if, and only if, he agrees to take the stuffed corpse to Monte Carlo for the vacation his Uncle Anthony never had. The wimpy, sad-sack young nephew must follow a strict set of instructions that include accompanying his preserved, wheelchair-bound Mafioso uncle in activities such as high-stakes gambling, sky diving, and scuba. Stolen jewels, secret identities, a love interest, missing objects and persons, slamming doors and a home for dogs also figure in as plot complications. For me, the musical is primarily of historical interest. It does produce a few laughs, but mainly, it shows off the burgeoning talents of these (at the time) upcoming theater writers. Starlight produced the play in 1999, with a local cast of all-stars: Leigh Scarritt, Eric Anderson, Tracey Hughes, James Saba and Alexandra Auckland.
Moonlight’s artistic director Kathy Brombacher has assembled her own up-and-coming stars: the ebullient, energetic chameleon Julie Jacobs, hilarious as the myopic Brooklyn femme fatale; Spencer Moses as her nerdy/neurotic optometrist brother; Shirley Giltner as a sexy, feather-bedecked Josephine Baker-like chanteuse; Don Ward in a bevy of roles, including a croupier, an Old Texan and a Nun; conductor/pianist Don LeMaster in a hysterical turn as a lounge lizard (“I learned everything I know from Phil Johnson,” he later confided to me) and, as the clueless ingénues, the adorably irresistible Tristan Poje and the too-cute and not-half-geeky-enough-for-her-drippy-role Stacy Goldsmith.
The singing is consistently high caliber, Brombacher keeps the action aptly hopping frenetically, as the characters (in Roslyn Lehman’s cute costumes) flit in and out of bedrooms and doors in Marty Burnett’s whimsical set of movable boxes that resemble giant dice. It’s goofy beyond belief, but perfect for a mindless evening of sheer, unadulterated theater fun.
Through March 21 at the Avo Playhouse in Vista.
BLACK AND WHITE BUTTERFLY
Internationally acclaimed director/designer Robert Wilson doesn’t work in this country that often, even though he hails from Texas (is that in this country??). Most of his work is overseas. Only last year, he made his first foray to Los Angeles, for a stunning production of Georg Büchner’s “Woyzeck.” It’s a production I think I may never forget. So when I heard that his take on Puccini’s beloved “Madama Butterfly” was opening at L.A. Opera, I wouldn’t dream of missing it.
This is a production Wilson mounted 11 years ago for the Opera Bastille in Paris. Unlike his brilliantly colorful “Woyzeck,” and the usual opulence of the opera, his conception is practically monochromatic. The set is bare, the costumes are all black, white or gray. The only color is subtly changing hues projected on the upstage wall, and a bit of his signature sharply focused light, provocatively capturing one element or image, just a hand, in one incomparable case. It’s all beautifully stark, and forces the focus onto the action, emotion and the music.
The movement is highly stylized, as is Wilson’s custom, but here, the ashy faces and slo-mo moves are highly reminiscent of Japanese noh and kabuki, which is perfectly apt for the Nagasaki setting. All the required actions — from the tea-serving to the flower-strewing to the suicide — are mimed; there are no props. The body and hands are maintained for long stretches in ritualized poses which make for some gorgeous stage pictures.
The familiar story, though set in 1900, couldn’t keep me from thinking about our current position in the world. The brash American swaggers in, takes over, even sets up house. And then he disappears, leaving the foreigners in his wake to mop up his mess and fend for themselves.
In the L.A. Opera production, there are three alternating Cio-Cio Sans; we heard the superb-voiced Xiu Wei Sun, a worldwide veteran of the role. Her delicate movements and facial expressions, even when she was joyful, were heart-breaking. Her supple soprano was rich with emotion and range. As Pinkerton, tenor Valter Borin seemed less comfortable in Wilson’s style; he has a commanding presence, but his moves were less precise and his voice less powerful. Under the baton of Kent Nagano, the orchestra performed with rich lyrical grace. Unlike many, more fussy and opulent opera productions, the emotion here was almost exclusively in the music. It worked just fine, and made you see the piece in a new light. In this case, as in many minimalist creations less is intriguingly more.
Just a reminder (it may be self-promotion — but it’s theater!) to check out the documentary I wrote, co-produced and hosted for City TV, airing this week on KPBS-TV. If you’re a theater-lover, you’ll love it!
It’s called “Trial by Fire: The Making of a Theater Professional,” and it shines a spotlight on the SDSU Design/Performance Jury, a 20 year-old program that’s unique in the country. Join me as I follow three student groups through the process of preparing to go before a public audience — and a jury of high-power professionals — to describe and defend their theatrical choices. Exciting stuff. Really.
Check it out on “Full Focus” — Thursday, March 11 at 6:30pm on KPBS-TV (channel 15/cable 11).
LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE, part 2
If you’re gonna be a theater person, be dramatic! Last Thursday, after the performance of “The Fantasticks” at North Coast Repertory Theatre, actor Randall Dodge (who played the dashing El Gallo) asked the audience to help him give a special birthday greeting to his girlfriend, Kelly Premo. He called her up onstage and told her he wanted this birthday to be one she would always Remember. As pianist/musical director Cris O’Bryon began playing the show’s most unforgettable tune, “Try to Remember,” and the audience gasped, Dodge reached into his pocket, got down on one knee and said, “Would you be my wife?” The audience cheered and wept; Kelly was so overcome, the best she could do was nod.
This is getting to be a theatrical trend. If anyone wants to follow, follow, follow… step right up onstage.
IN MEMORIAM…. A GRAY DAY…
He was the quintessential neurotic, the eternally self-examining uber-WASP. An award-wining actor, writer and monologist. And then, one day in January, Spalding Gray disappeared. On March 6, his body was pulled from the East River. The cause of death wasn’t immediately known, but the 62 year-old Gray had a history of depression and had attempted suicide before. His mother killed herself when she was 52.
I interviewed him several times, each time winning a journalism award for the result. He was funny, but not really that engaging or likable. He always seemed to be doing shtick, even when he was being brutally honest. Of course, that was his shtick — navel-watching that examined every bodily need, function and failure and riffing on his many medical (as well as international) exploits and escapades. He didn’t really listen in a conversation; he just talked. And he was often great to listen to, on and off stage, though after several years, I began to tire of his monologues, and wished he’d look outside himself a bit more. I certainly never wished him ill. Clearly, he had bad (depressive) genes.
But, despite many well-received forays into stage and film work (he even started New York’s acclaimed Wooster Group in 1977, with Elizabeth Lecompte), he accomplished what few other people could: he managed to achieve success and garner a following just by sitting at a desk on a bare stage with nothing but a glass of water, wearing a plaid flannel shirt and khakis, and reading, in a muted New England accent, his personal musings on himself and his life. He seemed tailor-made for the Stage Manager in “Our Town” (the 1989 revival, which won a Tony Award).
When I spoke to him in 1995 (well, actually, he spoke to me; that, too, was a monologue), he called what he did “the talking cure.” He writes his life, he said, to understand it, for catharsis, to “rein in the chaos.” It worked so well for us; too bad, too sad, that it didn’t work better for him. R.I.P.
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Ashes to Ashes” and “The Lover” — dark, cynical, enigmatic, delicious; wonderful performances by Ron Choularton and Cristina Soria, directed by Robert May… At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through April 4.
“Macbeth” — just as dark, spooky, intense and supernatural as you’d expect from Sledgehammer; it doesn’t disappoint. At St. Cecilia’s through March 21
Well, I guess I’ve come full cycle here — from ‘Ashes’ to ashes. Be happy, go to the theater — and stay out of the East River.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.