By Pat Launer
This week was a fairly mathematical one:
2 Rooms, 3 Oranges and a Raisin in the Sun.
In his poem, “A Dream Deferred,” Langston Hughes wondered whether dreams forgotten or postponed “dry up like a raisin in the sun… or …explode.”
And that’s precisely the theme of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking classic, “A Raisin in the Sun.“ It was the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway, and it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play 1958-9.
The powerful drama focuses on the Youngers, a black, working-class family in 1950s Chicago, striving to realize their individual and collective dreams of education, prosperity, and a better life. It’s a deeply satisfying examination of the struggle for integrity and legacy in the face of inner turmoil and societal racism.
Until it was revived last year on Broadway (starring Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs), it was often considered dated, outmoded. Perhaps the kitchen-sink style is a bit frayed, but the substance is ripped right out of today’s news. And the wattage of the play is undimmed.
Besides issues of higher education for African Americans, and the role of males in its matriarchal society, there are questions of pride, wealth, legacy, feminism, Civil Rights, abortion and housing discrimination. Hansberry was way ahead of her time. And given her themes, it makes excellent sense that the new Ion Theatre and Common Ground Theatre have hooked up with the Fair Housing Council of San Diego for this production.
Inside the theater, we’re confronting the elusive American Dream. Outside, in the lobby, the presenters have posted stats on the percentage of minority populations who are currently discriminated against in their attempts at obtaining housing: from 22% of cases for African Americans to 28% for Native Americans. Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders are not far behind.
But the play is not inherently political or pedantic. It’s a potent story of the internal and external pressures bearing down on one family. Ultimately, it’s about the power of love. And everyone’s need for enough room to nurture a dream. A financial windfall, $10,000 in insurance money, is in the mail following the death of the father of the family. Each person has a private plan for the money — a house in a white neighborhood, a med school education, a business venture. Fate, luck and family loyalty play a prominent role, too.
“Mama,” the playwright wrote to her mother during a tryout run in New Haven before the Broadway opening, “it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life, and I think it will help a lot of people to understand how we are just as complicated as they are — and just as mixed up — but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks people who are the very essence of human dignity.”
The brilliant, energetic Hansberry died of cancer in 1965, at age 34. but her sister was present at opening night of the San Diego production. It was a thrilling capper to a marvelous evening, watching this beautiful relative of a world-changing writer come up onstage and celebrate with local audiences.
Under the deft direction of Claudio Raygoza, one of San Diego’s finest talents, these characters become fully realized, multi-dimensional and thoroughly recognizable. The performances are finely nuanced and entirely credible.
Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, too rarely seen on local stages, is a powerhouse, a force of nature, a pillar of dignity and strength as the matriarch of the family. As her son, a broken man who loses his dream but gains his self-respect, Shaun T. Evans rides an emotional roller-caster from rage to despair. We’re carried along on his rocky journey, and he nearly breaks our hearts. P. Shekinah Perkins is stalwart and affecting as his long-suffering wife, and Khalil Reed-Blevins is cute and solid as their young son. Monique Gaffney is a terrific blast of sass, energy, effusiveness and anger as the rebellious sister who’s open to change and changing the world. Elzie Billops is attractive and sensitive as her African beau, and Dominic Jones is aptly self-righteous and smarmy as her upper-class suitor. Dale Marris is chilling as the uptight white man who makes the family an ugly offer.
Raygoza also designed the set, a South Side living room and working kitchen (running water, functional stovetop), with a bedroom upstage behind a scrim. The lighting (Mitchell Simkovsky) may have given the rundown house too rosy a glow, but the costumes (Dana La’Nae Roberts) are spot-on.
Hansberry wrote her prescient “Raisin” before the before the end of segregation in America, before the civil rights movement gained momentum, before feminism kicked in. In some domains, we’ve changed enormously in the nearly half-century since her Broadway debut; in others, not at all. But despite its high drama and moments of despair, the play is infused with humor (nicely mined by Raygoza et al.) and hope. And this production is cause for celebration.
At the Lyceum Theatre., through October 3.
COUNTING OUR BLESSINGS
It seems like Blessing-time in San Diego. Diversionary is presenting Lee Blessing’s “Thief River,” the La Jolla Playhouse has commissioned a new work, “The Scottish Play” and “Two Rooms” (originally commissioned by the Playhouse in 1988) is getting an excellent local revival courtesy of Stone Soup Theatre. Blessing likes to tug at the zeitgeist. “Two Rooms” is one of three La Jolla Playhouse commissions in which he positions media as a contemporary battleground, in terms of nuclear issues (the multiple award-winning “A Walk in the Woods,” 1987), serial killers (“Down the Road,” 1989), and terrorists and hostages in “Two Rooms.” He always manages to make the political personal.
Here, we meet an American captive held by Lebanese terrorists — lying blindfolded, handcuffed, ragged, filthy and uncertain of his whereabouts, writing imaginary letters to his wife. She, meanwhile, waits at home, in a stark, bare, lightless room she’s created to commune with her husband. She has tried every means to secure his release, and she’s pulled at, perhaps manipulated, by two opposing forces — the U.S. government (a functionary who wants her to maintain silence) and the Media (a reporter who wants her to speak out). Both might seem to care for the agitated, frustrated Lainie more than they really do. Each has a distinct agenda: protect the President and his foreign policy — or expose its lack of action and concern for the victims and their families.
Stone Soup Theatre made their debut — and their mark — with politically charged plays such as “Death and the Maiden” (2001) and last year’s “Boy Gets Girl.” This fifth production is as searing and gripping as its predecessors. Like her Stone Soup co-founders, director Therese Schneck is an alumna of SDSU. Her first La Jolla directing gig (she has credits at the American Dramatic Academy in Oxford, England) is a spare, forceful production of this disturbing play. Against an austere backdrop of a (blood?)-spattered wall, scrawled with Arabic graffiti, there’s a mat on the floor. Keep it simple; that’s how it is in Michael’s bleak cell and in Lainie’s self-imposed, self-created prison cubicle. This keeps all the focus on the emotion, the uncertainties, the deceptions and power-struggles. Occasionally, slide projections illustrate something in the text: photos of smiling, gun-toting child-terrorists, or pictures of Michael and Lainie in happier times. As in Blessing’s non-linear “Thief River,” the cross-fading short scenes sometimes become tiring. And perhaps the play could have been done in 90 intermissionless minutes. But this is a quibble; the piece is so timely and the cast so competent, that we’re caught up in the fear, the loathing and the depressing repetition of history.
Paul Morgavo is a thoughtful teacher-type as Michael, who wonders why he took at job at the American University of Beirut to begin with, putting himself and his wife in danger. His reports of suffering, torture, losing track of time are gut-wrenching. Rebecca Johannsen mines the depths of Lainie’s despair and devotion. Julie Sachs makes Ellen Van Oss an officious governmental functionary, with unconvincing attempts at heart, an organ obviously lost long ago in the line of duty. Landon Vaughn makes the enigmatic Walker a sympathetic character. In the text, it’s not clear if he really does care for Lainie… whether he’s cultivating a relationship with her — or just doggedly going after a story by whatever means necessary. In Vaughn’s hands and under Schneck’s direction, he’s calculating but concerned — perhaps beyond journalistic bounds, but credibly so.
The scenes where Michael and Lainie are together, at first not making eye contact, later touching and interacting — are poignant, heartbreaking. Stone Soup has mounted another thought-provoking winner. Catch it if you can. (see below for special added performance).
At the Firehouse in La Jolla, through the weekend (9/26). A special performance has just been added for November 1 (the night before the election) at SDSU. The post-show forum will feature professors, foreign affairs experts — and perhaps even playwright Lee Blessing.
“The Love of Three Oranges” continues the New Vaudeville tradition established by Des McAnuff at the La Jolla Playhouse — in performances by the likes of Bill Irwin, The Flying Karamozov Brothers and others. In this one, Mump and Smoot meet the Teletubbies in Oz.
Based on Carlo Gozzi’s 1761 scenario (that is, a mere plot outline encouraging extensive actor improvisation), the play later inspired Prokofiev to write an off-the-wall opera ( 1921). Now the young Romanian director, Nona Ciobanu, has “freely adapted” the piece, which has been further tweaked for American sensibilities by James Magruder, former literary manager at the Playhouse (1990-1991).
Gozzi’s original was a “dramatic fable,” populated by the stock characters of the 16th century commedia dell’arte. His farcical story was partly political; the play was written to show the enduring potential of the old forms (like commedia) and to ridicule their adversary, playwright Carlo Goldoni, who created a new “comedy of character,” in the style of the 17th century French farceur, Molière.
In 1996, the La Jolla playhouse brought us the Theatre for a New Audience production of Gozzi’s “The Green Bird,” directed and co-designed by that theatrical wizard, Julie Taymor. “The Love of Three Oranges” has some of its own charm and inventiveness, but it doesn’t have the eye-popping, jaw-dropping magic of that coming-of-age story.
This tale also has a depressed central character (there a king, here a prince). The doleful Tartaglia is suffering from “incurable hypochondria,” which looks a lot like crippling melancholy and lethargy. He can only be cured by an overdose of laughter, but no one, not even his hyper-agile, hyperactive clown/sidekick Truffaldino, can help him. His father, King Silvio, is becoming impatient; he wants to pass the mantle. (But why he wears shoes on his hands and pulls himself around, legless, like a seal, is beyond me).
Meanwhile, the prime minister Leandro and the king’s niece, Clarice, are plotting to grab the throne. They are protected and abetted by the dread, though sometimes bumbling witch, Fata Morgana (here played as a blundering drag-queen). Somehow (in the opera, it’s by exposing her shriveled backside; here, the cause is less clear), Morgana sends the Prince into peals of laughter. Infuriated, s/he puts a curse on the Prince, forcing him to fall in love with three oranges, which he must traverse the globe to find. He doesn’t yet know it, but inside each orange is a princess. One of them he’ll wed; the other two are quickly dispatched and die of thirst, when the somewhat unreliable Truffaldino breaks them open to get himself a drink. So much for them. The last orange becomes the lovable but vapid princess Ninetta, who is transformed by Smeraldina, slave to Morgana. In the opera, Ninetta is turned into a rat; here, a dove (oddly enough, a large blue-green puppet bird, highly reminiscent of the life-size Taymor creations for “The Green Bird”). Okay, so, after a few more twists and turns, Smeraldina rebels against Morgana, the pretenders to the throne are banished, and the prince and princess wed. whew!
But what’s it all really about?? A journey from illness to health? From loneliness to love? There isn’t much dramatic payoff, and it’s certainly a fairy tale without a moral. But some of it is fun to watch.
Ciobanu has wrapped her production around an endlessly elastic fabric that stretches up-down-and-across the stage as backdrop, mountain, water, ogre, you name it. This orange-tinted (what else?) curtain becomes a character in its own right — giving birth to the prince at the outset and hiding all manner of good- and evil-doers throughout. The costumes are all ultra-stretch, too, and look like footless, baby-jammy sleepers. The “Ridiculous People” of the opera become kvetchy courtiers who whine in high-pitched nonsense noises that sound like a cross between the meaningless squeals of the Teletubbies and the invented linguistic legerdemain of Mump and Smoot (you knew I’d get back to them some time, right??). And the journey to confront the ogre-behind-the curtain (who harbors the oranges) is like a disaster-strewn yellow (orange?) brick road.
The shenanigans and local/topical references are silly at times, and the zaniness wears thin. But some of the images are quite striking. And all the nine players (three of whom are third-year MFA acting students at UCSD) are chameleon-like shapeshifters, portraying some 33 characters. Most of the action is precisely choreographed by very adept peformers. Especially agile are John Altieri as the athletic Truffaldino and Jim Parsons as the goofy, big-balloon-bellied Tartaglia.
Perhaps this Orange Odyssey could have been made a bit more… fruitful. It all seemed so jejune and pointless. But the opening night audience laughed its collective head off. So maybe it’s just me. If you love this kind of madcap, nonsensical mayhem, have yourself a ball… er, orange.
At La Jolla Playhouse, through October 17.
If you’ve never tried “Trolley Dances,” you are in for a serious, sensuous, whimsical treat. For the 6th year, Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater presents its moveable feast of site-specific dance. Last year’s presentations were breathtaking. This year’s tour begins at the County Administration Center (1600 Pacific Highway), where audiences meet their Trolley Tour Guide and view a Jean Isaacs dance that features music by the Monarch School’s Steel Band. Then, you board the trolley and you’re off — for dances choreographed by: Faith Jensen-Ismay, using a mixed-ability cast in Little Italy; San Diego newcomer Gabriel Masson, whose piece will be at the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art; New Yorker Monica Bill-Barnes; and Grace Shinhae Jun, who’s created an eclectic blend of hip-hop and modern dance. The trip culminates at the new Omni Hotel, where Alison Dietterle-Smith and Jean Isaacs collaborate on something guaranteed to be wild and wonderful. The event takes place on two Saturdays — September 25 and October 2 — and one Sunday — October 3. Tours leave every 45 minutes from 10:00-3:00. Tickets are $12-18 (free for those in wheelchairs and children 6 and under). www.sandiegodancetheater.org.
SHAKESPEARE, ACT III, Sonnet 1
Fourteen lines of fabulousness. Come hear local celebs present their poetic favorites at the San Diego Shakespeare Society’s 3rd annual Celebration of the Sonnet on Monday, October 4 at 7pm at the Old Globe Theatre. I’ll be the emcee… happily introducing celebrity sonneteers like Jonathan McMurtry, Jack Montgomery and Antonio “TJ” Johnson, the Opera’s Nic Reveles, word-maven Richard Lederer, City Schools Superintendent Alan Bersin, playwright Stephen Metcalfe and his 13 year-old daughter. Queen Elizabeth will be there; why shouldn’t you? Tix are $15 and include strolling Elizabethan musicians and a sonnet for every season.
WEEKEND WALK… (last chance!!)
Celebrate 15 years of a wonder-walk…Join Melissa Supera Fernandes and Manny Fernandes (and John and me and other theaterfolk and regular people) at AIDS Walk 2004, this Sunday, September 26 in Balboa Park. Be part of San Diego’s largest one-day HIV/AIDS fundraiser. It only costs $25, you know it’s a good cause….and it’s really a lot of fun.. To sign up, go to: http://www.kintera.org/faf/home/default.asp?ievent=45685 and select the Time Warner Team. If that link doesn’t work, try www.aidswalksd.org . Join us for a worthy event and a great day in the Park. Hope to seeya there!
Some of you may have seen “Trial by Fire: The Making of a Theater Professional,” the documentary I wrote, hosted and co-produced with San Diego City TV, about the Design-Performance Jury at SDSU. Well, we just won 1st place in Performing Arts at the National Government Programming Awards. Woohoo! Our City TV has twice been named Best Government Channel in the Nation. Just one more reason to be proud of local presentations.
AND NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS‘ PRODUCTIONS:
“Two Rooms” — tense, gripping drama about terrorists’ hostages — and the families who are left behind. An aptly spare; excellent production. Stone Soup Theatre at the La Jolla Firehouse; through September 26. A special performance will be held Nov. 1 (the night before the election), at SDSU with a post-show discussion.
“A Raisin in the Sun” — terrific production of a ground-breaking classic that’s still timely and touching. Ion Theatre in association with Common Ground Theatre and the San Diego Council for Fair Housing. At the Lyceum, through October 3.
“Remains” — the world premiere of Seema Sueko’s semi-autobiographical play, and her new Mo’olelo Theatre. Searing drama that tells the MidEast story from a fresh perspective. Excellently directed and acted. At ARK Theatre, through October 3.
“Thief River” — taut production, sad story … of homophobia (and intolerance) in small-town America. At Diversionary Theatre, through October 2.
“The Chosen” — North Coast Repertory Theatre artistic director David Ellenstein has poured his heart and soul into this lovely, touching reworking of Chaim Potok’s acclaimed novel. A marvelous ensemble and a glorious production. At North Coast Rep, extended through October 31.
“Art” — a lovely pas de trois from a trio of Lamb’s favorites, in an intelligent, thought-provoking play. At Lamb’s Players Theatre, extended through September 19.
“Two Noble Kinsmen” – director Darko Tresnjak offers us a beautiful production of a less-than-perfect, partly-Shakespearean tragicomedy. Not all the cast is up to the task, but the creative team does stellar work, and even rarely-seen Shakespeare is worth seeing. Outdoors at the Globe, in repertory with “As You Like It” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” Last “Kinsmen” performance Sept. 24.
“As You Like It” — Karen Carpenter’s farewell to the Globe is her best work yet. Light and breezy, adorable if not deep. Outdoors at the Globe, in repertory with “Antony and Cleopatra” and “Two Noble Kinsmen.” Last “As You” performance October 1.
“Antony and Cleopatra” — The queen rules! In Darko Tresnjak’s beautiful-looking production, neither Antony nor Caesar can hold a candle to the Egyptian monarch… but Enobarbus is up to the task… and the whole is lovely to look at. Outdoors at the Globe, in repertory with “As You Like It” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” Last “A&C” performance October 3.
Autumn has begun — so Fall into the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.