By Pat Launer
Once upon a time, ‘When the World Was Green,’
‘The Clouds, the Ocean and Everything in Between’
Were visible from “Golda’s Balcony;’
It was just ‘As You Like It,’ for all to see.
But something went awry with the Master Plan…
In the hopes of a fix, I ‘Stopped By to See the Man. ’
A slick, smooth outer surface. But underneath, it’s juicy and complex. If you’re not careful, it turns to mush. But if you handle it right, it’s a delicious treat. The same could be said of the mango which takes center stage in the final scene, and the play itself. Director Kirsten Brandt knows how to handle them both. For her final production as artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre, she’s given us a beautiful, masterfully understated parting gift.
“When the World Was Green: A Cook’s Fable,” is an enigmatic, elegiac play. It’s lyrical and haunting, a perfect combination of the bleak, poetic work of Sam Shepard and the stark, staccato post-stroke communication of Joseph Chaikin. Set in a prison cell, on death row, in an unknown place, the play intersperses tales of perfect climates and perfect meals, tantalizing rivers and titillating treats, with talk of Hitler and torture, terror and destruction, murder and revenge. The Old Man was once a fabulous chef; he savored the smell, taste, touch and essence of food. But he spent his life in pursuit of his cousin, fulfilling his destiny to kill, perpetuating the family vendetta that has lasted for seven generations. After all his plotting and planning, in the end, he murdered the wrong man. Now, sitting in death row, he’s just exhausted; he can’t sleep, won’t eat, just waits for the end.
The young Interviewer who visits him is seeking a story, searching for her own truth. She never knew her father, and she’s also on a lifelong quest. The mistaken murder victim may or may not be her father. She is capable of putting an end to the killing and vengeance, just with the wave of her hand. Or she can seek retribution.
The imagination, we’re told, is as varied as the stars. So we each bring our own interpretation to the play. As The Old Man recounts the horrors around him, he says, by way of justifying decades of annihilation: “This is the story they told me; what else could I believe?” That line should send a shiver down our collective spine… What stories have been told over time — to others, to us — to explain away war or persecution, devastation or death? How many generations-old conflicts are there in history or the present (or in 1996 when the play was written) whose roots can only be described mythologically? .No surprise that The Old Man is done in. But when he thinks about the land of his birth and its rich bounty, when he remembers meals he’s cooked and eaten, he enters a rhapsodic, poetic trance-state. As the Interviewer recalls her own past, the intertwined memories form a joint narrative of regret and loss, through which the two transcend the past and find mutual forgiveness and redemption.
Brandt and her cast have brought exquisite sensitivity to this brief, elliptical piece of theater. The direction is spare and meticulous. Jim Chovick is wonderfully unassuming and empty as the broken Old Man, a true poet when he talks about food, an artist when he touches it, ending the play with the slow, sensual peeling of that mango. Laura Lee Juliano is straightforward, both direct and indirect, as the Interviewer, hurt but willing to heal. Ruff Yaeger underscores the piece with his original compositions of tinkly, New Age piano music.. He can be seen periodically, provocatively behind a scrim, not just as accompanist, but as the pianist cousin, or perhaps the lost father. Very powerful stage pictures, abetted by Nick Fouch’s stark prison wall, with just a sliver of window, and Jennifer Setlow’s shadowy lighting. It’s a short, stark piece of theater, an ideal parting shot from the gifted Brandt: personal and political, mythical and lyrical. A bittersweet send-off indeed.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through March 13.
MY BLUES HEAVEN
There was Robert Johnson and the legendary crossroads. And there were blues-players, white and black, inspired and influenced by him. White guys who made a fortune off the musical anguish of African Americans. And American blacks who rejected the blues, because it was the voice of the past and of pain. It’s all there in “I Just Stopped By to See the Man. ” That’s what makes it interesting, and also what makes it feel a tad derivative. But English playwright Stephen Jeffreys injects enough humor and unpredictability into the mix to keep it riveting. Each of his characters harbors a secret, and each has an unmet need.
It’s 1975. Jesse, an aging bluesman, is dead for all intents and purposes. He’s let the world believe that he perished in a car crash with his wife years ago. Now he’s hung up his guitar and retreated to a spartan shack in the Mississippi Delta, buried in the Bible and in a church that considers blues ‘the devil’s music.’ One night, a swaggering, doped-up English rocker comes smashing through window. Karl is a superstar who’s made a truckload of money from Jesse’s music. While playing a nearby gig, he followed his nose and his hunches and found Jesse out. Now he needs the master again. His career is flagging, his group is disbanding, and he wants Jesse to pick up that old untouched guitar and come back up onstage with him. It’s tempting, but in addition to his own doubts, Jesse has to deal with his silent, seething daughter. The Angela Davis-looking offspring seems like a convenient foil or contrivance, but she’s got something of an interesting story, too.
She’s an activist on the lam, betrayed by her male counterparts and by the Movement, taking refuge with her father. If he goes public, she’s a goner. There’s a whole lotta manipulation going on here. Who’s using whom and who reaps the benefits? Director Seret Scott has teased marvelously subtle performances from her terrific cast. Henry Afro-Bradley lets the wonderfully layered character of Jesse unfold slowly and crescendo. When, late in the play, he breaks into the blues, it’s a joyful noise, full of heart, soul and decades of loss and suppression. Tracey A. Leigh makes the most of Della’s less fleshed-out character, and she takes a lovely little turn at the blues herself. Manoel Felciano is kinetic and charismatic as Karl, the hyper-rich, hyperactive rock-man who plays a mean guitar and can really wail those blues. The costumes (Charlotte Devaux) are pitch-perfect for Jesse and Karl but surprisingly frumpy and unmatched for Della. Robert Mark Morgan’s scenic design is excellent; there’s a rough emptiness to this cabin, a detailed lack of sentimentality. The play has a bracingly indefinite ending. It isn’t quite clear how these characters will end up. But something has happened to them here, and they may never be the same for it. That slightly untidy wrap-up gives the piece an enticing verisimilitude. We’re struck by the power of the blues to touch the soul and change lives. Theater does that, too.
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through March 13.
For the opener of its 2005 season, Asian American Repertory Theatre is presenting “The Clouds, the Ocean and Everything in Between.” Michael Premsrirat’s first full-length play won the 2000 East West Players New Voices Playwriting Competition and received a reading at the Public Theater’s New Work Now! Festival in 2001. It’s still a work in progress, according to AART producing artistic director Andy Lowe, whose outstanding program notes tell you everything you need to know about the mindset of the piece. When he first read it, Lowe writes, “I was struck by its raw edge and youthful energy, grounded in its characteristically Gen-X characters who mask hope and idealism with angst and cynicism.” In truth, there’s a lot more of the latter than the former in the play, but it’s an unblinking look at a disturbingly lost generation. Their language use (not to mention their drug and alcohol use), their fragile sense of connection and identity, their intellectual and professional flailing, their lack of depth and soul – they’re all here, in profusion. There’s even a character who self-mutilates with a razor blade so she can feel something. On top of all their generational angst, this group adds Asian minority status, and the endless assaults of racism, stereotypes and intolerance.
Lowe plays Boy, an eternal adolescent, the head of his college graduating class who gets lost in real life. His childhood best-buddy is Tuesday (April Doctolero), equally snarky, smart, sarcastic and adrift. And then Ceilidh (Jyl Kaneshiro) comes into their lives; she’s wild, unpredictable, unreliable, unfettered. They both fall in love with her, but after a senior year of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, she disappears, for a long time. There are some surprises and revelations, even an interaction with her Midwestern boyfriend (Bill George). At the end, something changes, but we’re not sure how things will turn out.
Also not clear, and somewhat more grating, is how much of the repetition, redundancy and foreshadowing are attributable to the play or to the direction (Rhys Green). The central trio’s acting is excellent, at times unnervingly, disturbingly real. But the production is overly fussy; there’s too much unnecessary rearrangement of set pieces (scenic design by Chris Kennedy), too much reiteration of special lighting effects (Eric Lotze). The sound design (Stephanie Celustka) is fine until the end, when we need it most, to establish the locale of a potentially life-changing meeting (is it a nursery? An orphanage? A playground? A fantasy?).
This young playwright has a way with dialogue and a voice worth listening to. For Gen-Xers, he holds a starkly familiar mirror up for self-scrutiny; for non-Xers, this is a startling introduction or elucidation of the sensibilities of these thirty-somethings. To AART, I’d just like to say: Less is often more. Simplicity can be profound. Stillness and silence can speak volumes. Trust your audience. They’re smart and savvy, too.
At the Playhouse on Plaza in National City, through March 5.
SHE BIRTHED A NATION…
She had no more than an eighth grade education, but she went on to help found a nation and serve as its Prime Minister. She was a powerhouse, an indomitable, indefatigable force of nature. Golda Meir, with all her magnetism and truculence, her personality and personal failings, is brought to us, frenetic, energetic and larger than life, in “Golda’s Balcony.” Last fall, the play became the longest-running one-woman show in Broadway history. Tovah Feldshuh’s heart-stopping performance garnered a Tony nomination (Best Actress), the Drama Desk Award for Best Solo Performance and the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Actress.
Written by William Gibson (an Irish Catholic), the play is a soul-stirring evocation of the birth of Israel and its never-ending struggles for survival. We meet Golda at the end of her life, sick, ailing, hacking and smoking non-stop, recalling her birth in Russia, her childhood in Milwaukee, her early zeal for Zionism, to the dismay of her parents and her young husband. But she finally fulfills her destiny, emigrates to Palestine, lives on a kibbutz, has two children, and meets David Ben Gurion. When he (reluctantly) sends her to the U.S. to raise funds for the fledgling country, she gives a speech so thrilling and inspiring, it’s amazing that the L.A. audience didn’t rise from its seats, checkbook in hand. The play flip-flops backward and forward in time, returning over and over to the harrowing Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel nearly unleashed its nuclear capability. The anguish, the decisions, the last-minute contacts from Kissinger; we get swept up in the madness, held in edge-of-the-seat suspense.
Feldshuh’s performance is brilliant; she’s a whirlwind of pronouncements, accents, dialects, characters and memories. She’s neurotic, excitable, intransigent, maternal (more, apparently to her country than her kids). The design work is a bit schmaltzy at times, but it aptly evokes an era and an area: the desert-toned, irregular stone wall supports occasional projections of Golda’s family and Jewish leaders; the silence is repeatedly punctured by the ear-splitting sound of bombs. The direction is impressive, the makeup/wig work outstanding. The story is both unnerving and irresistible. The acting is unforgettable. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to see someone and something truly amazing. Hurry, though. Feldshuh won’t be playing the role for long; rumor has it that Patty Duke is taking over for the rest of the national tour. She may do a fine job, but the character is obviously in Feldshuh’s heart and gut. When she came out onstage at the end, she spoke warmly to the standing-O audience, concluding with the following hopeful exhortation: “If in our lifetimes, we could witness the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of Communism and the dismantling of apartheid, then surely we can see peace in the Middle East.” Amen to that.
Limited run at the Wadsworth Theatre in L.A., just extended through February 26; 213-365-3500, www.ticketmaster.com.
Sir Peter Hall is a theatrical legend. His Theater Royal Bath production of “As You Like It” came to L.A. bearing the laurels of triumph and success. So it was with extreme excitement that I made the northbound trek, thrilled to get another chance to see Hall at work. The extra bonus here was that the director’s daughter, 22 year-old Rebecca Hall, was playing the gender-bending Rosalind. I was prepared for the darkness of the proceedings, the undertone of love as torment, life as unpredictable and often cruel. But I was taken aback by the blandness – in the colors, costumes, set, pace, even the performances. They were all competent and convincing; the language, not surprisingly, well handled. But nothing was stellar, outstanding, breathtaking. This isn’t an “As You like It” I’ll remember for the rest of my days. In fact, disappointingly, I’ve forgotten most of it already. As startling as it may seem, I enjoyed many elements of UCSD’s recent production more. Director Larissa Kokernot and her designers made more imaginative, inventive choices.
To be sure, neither production was all sweetness and light. A dark undercurrent runs through the play. Life in the court of the Duke is capricious; brothers hate and banish their siblings; love is unrequited. One character (Jaques) is a melancholy misanthrope. And, especially in the bleak-but-magical Forest of Arden, things change in a flash. In a nanosecond, the nasty Oliver comes to love his heretofore detested brother, and he falls head over heels for Celia (the diminutive but powerful Rebecca Callard); he’s a new man. The malevolent Duke has a sudden reversal, too; he goes off to a monastery and hands over the reins of power to his banished brother.
The stage is nearly bare at first. The court is more desolate than the Forest. But later, as winter gives way to spring, there’s a lovely greening of the lacy forest leaves. The costumes veer from English raingear to shapeless hopsack (John Gunter is credited as general ‘designer’). The courtiers wear black shirts and slacks, though Rosalind and Celia sport bright, simple gowns. My companion asked if all English productions are so minimalist. Indeed, this one takes ‘unfussy’ to the extreme.
The performances are generally engaging, though mannered at times, and there’s a surprising amount of face-slapping. I preferred Ms. Hall’s swaggering Ganymede to her paler, less interesting Rosalind. She is “more than common tall” to be sure, yet her voice is high and reedy, and it doesn’t change much with her gender. Dan Stevens, a recent Cambridge grad, makes an endearing Orlando. Michael Siberry’sTouchstone, a jester dressed in modern motley (an oversized, garish patchwork blazer with plaid knee sox) is sometimes a bit over-zealous with his clever lines; he raced through them at critical moments. Philip Voss’ Jaques seems more surly than melancholy, but he takes great joy in the Fool; his impatience with the lovesick Orlando is palpable. The country-men, William and Silvius, are played like dufuses; the wenches are unmemorable (at UCSD they were wonderful to look at, bawdy in a modern, Goth way). Both productions tended toward modern attire; neither was consistent in its look. Both made the most of the “seven stages of man” speech, giving it meaning but not undue heft. Both mined the humor as well as the darkness of the play. Neither was thoroughly satisfying, though both had elements to commend them. It speaks incredibly well of our local training program that a student-directed production can be compared favorably to the work of an international icon.
At the Ahmanson Theatre in LA, through March 27.
ATTENTION HAS BEEN PAID
He was the conscience of the country. He wasn’t afraid to take on the McCarthy witch-hunts (“The Crucible“) or immigration informants (“A View from the Bridge”) or war profiteering (“All My Sons”). His older plays still feel freshly significant and timely. He took the regal operatic centerpiece of Greek tragedy, and transposed it into the simple, whistled tune of the common man. Arthur Miller was a towering force in the American theater – literally and figuratively. Last year, when he was in town for the local premiere of “Resurrection Blues,” he still stood tall. In every way. I felt privileged to have met him, talked to him, sat near him. He was soft-spoken, self-effacing and ever-gracious. That was his reputation. His legacy is his insight into human nature and behavior, and perhaps most of all, his Pulitzer Prize-winning, pathetically unforgettable Everyman, Willy Loman (“Death of a Salesman”) who became, like so many downsized American workers of recent years, obsolete and useless. In his work, Miller strived to confront what he called “profound social needs.” He may have seemed a little moralistic, doctrinaire or old-fashioned to some, but he had an all-too-rare artistic soul, a healthy distrust of social institutions, a frighteningly accurate understanding of family dynamics and a deep, abiding belief in personal responsibility. He was one of the greats of the American theater, and he holds a significant place on the world stage. He had the uncommon fortune to have his plays become classics during his lifetime. He will always represent the best our country has to offer. We may not see his like again. But for me, in the theater, it’ll always be Miller-time.
NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED‘ LIST:
“Golda’s Balcony” – a brilliant, bravura performance; the story of a powerhouse woman who helped birth a nation.
At the Wadsworth Theatre in L.A., just extended through February 26.
“When the World Was Green” – Kirsten Brandt’s beautifully spare, precise farewell to Sledge and San Diego. Understated, evocative design and performances.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through March 13.
“I Just Stopped By to See the Man” – Blues in the Night. Director Seret Scott has marshaled an outstanding cast – and they all sing the blues. Lovely production.
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through March 13.
“Wrinkles” – three generations of high-powered, hard-nosed Southern women reveal secrets they didn’t know they shared. Outstanding performances.
At Diversionary Theatre, through February 19.
“The Gin Game” – alternating casts in this taut, touching, funny, often brutal and unblinking look at old age. Cast B is wonderful; I haven’t seen Cast A. But this is a show (perhaps even a cautionary tale) for everyone, of any age.
At the Broadway Theatre in Vista , through February 27.
“Take Me Out” – funny, thought-provoking play about the coming-out of a sports superstar… Baseball, comedy, drama — and a big Bonus! — all those naked men!
At the Old Globe Theatre, EXTENDED through February 27.
It’s Presidents’ Week… so be a leader and take your ‘throng’ to the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.