By Pat Launer
The Remains of the week
Were generally bleak:
From the man-eating meanie
(that Todd-man, Sweeney)
To the Midwest sliver
Of injustice, Thief River.
But the visions weren’t all dark and shady
I saw Maternal Spirits and a very Fair Lady.
The scene opens with a spotlight on a cardboard box. The mother hesitates, and then begins to remove the sad, motley contents… all that’s left of her daughter, a sprightly, energetic 20 year-old who left home exactly three months ago and is now nothing more than a few trinkets and a diary. As the mother tearfully starts to read, we enter the world of “Remains,“ the world premiere by Seema Sueko that inaugurates her new theater troupe, Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company. The name is a Hawaiian word meaning tale, story, narrative. The first tale Sueko tells is partly her own.
A decade ago, Sueko, a Muslim American, traveled to Israel, to get a firsthand view of the Mideast crisis, and to find her own truths. In the play, Laila Ahmed also goes to Tel Aviv University in search of peace for the region and for herself. Sueko plays Laila with the same ebullient adolescence she brought to her stellar lead performance in “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow.” That portrayal was so potent, in fact, that it landed her the same role in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of the Rolin Jones play. She’ll leave “Remains” two weeks into the run and Janet Hayatshahi will take over. I’m sure it’ll be worth seeing again, because the two actors have very different styles and energy, and each will undoubtedly bring a very different spin to the character.
Linda Libby is terrific as the grieving mother; her anguish is palpable and she breaks our hearts. All she wants is to know what happened, and to get some justice — an apology from Israel and a formal investigation from the U.S. government. There is one other onstage presence, though Libby and Sueko adroitly play several other characters (oddly, Libby sometimes plays Laila, which is confusing and doesn’t make sense). The third woman is the assistant to the Senator (the politician herself is too busy speaking to the Rotary to visit the mourning mother). Kathryn Venverloh brings a steely, bureaucratic insensitivity to this role, which, in an earlier incarnation, was written as an unbelievable airhead. Venverloh makes Maggie Monson a rather chilling., heartless budding politico.
San Diego newcomer Siobhan Sullivan does an excellent job maintaining a fine-point focus, without histrionics or fussy stage business. Robert Dahey’s set is spare and suggestive — a stone arch, a black platform, a sofa — and Sullivan makes excellent use of it. The sound design is also a case of double duty — Paul James Kruse is now performing in “Sweeney Todd,” just as Dahey was simultaneously directing “Maternal Spirits”. The soundscape is moody and evocative.
I attended the reading of an earlier version of the play some months ago. Sueko has tightened it considerably, made it more balanced and equanimical, though still uncertain in terms of the variety of truths the hopelessly war-torn Middle East has to tell. The structure of the piece, with diary readings, is a tricky one. And knowing the outcome at the outset (that Laila dies), with no clear resolution of what happened to her, decreases the dramatic arc and payoff. But deft directing and acting bring the play alive and make us care and think, listen and learn. And that seems to be the goal of Sueko’s play and her new theater company. Brava on both counts!
At the ARK Center for the Performing Arts, on Kettner Blvd., through October 3.
STOLEN MOMENTS, STOLEN LIVES
Speaking of complex or problematic structures, Lee Blessing’s “Thief River” takes place in three different timeframes, and shuttles back and forth between them like an airbus. The searing story concerns Gil and Ray in their late teens, their forties and their early 70s –1948, 1973 and 2001. Gil is branded a homosexual early on, and he’s beaten up for it. In an effort to protect him, Ray takes Gil to his family’s abandoned farmhouse, where the two of them are discovered and threatened with death. As the story gradually unfolds in time-leaps, we learn that there was a murder, coupled with a lifetime of lies, betrayal and pain. Ray could never openly acknowledge his passion for Gil, though he wrote to him, loyally and lovingly, for 25 years. Ray sticks to the straight and narrow, marrying his high school sweetheart, siring a homophobic son, becoming a pillar of his small-town Midwest community. But Gil remains unfinished business. And as they come together at various times in their lives, Ray’s resolve to deny his true nature and his true love strengthens, vacillates, wavers, collapses. It’s a universal story of forbidden love and abject prejudice, though some ‘outsiders’ or ‘misfits’ can’t ‘hide’ as well as Ray. But the venom and vehemence of those who hate The Other is no less virulent today.
Director Jeffrey Inman keeps the emotions taut and the tension high in this powerful Diversionary Theatre production. He’s cast three pairs of men, surprisingly similar in appearance, to play Gil and Ray at different ages. The midlife coupling is the best; Devlin Dolan maintains the edgy intensity of the young, defiant Gil and Karl Backus shows a serious, sad-eyed settling in the mature Ray. They’re also convincing in secondary roles, as a menacing drifter (Dolan) and his tightass nephew (Backus). In their youth, Gil (Lance Meeker) was reckless, and Ray (Dale Jeter) was fearful. As old men (Lloyd Gray and Jonathan Dunn-Rankin), they’re both resigned to their life-choices, but not happy about them, and still as feisty and testy as ever. In his two roles (Gil 3 and the farmer, Perry), Gray is less than convincing. Dunn-Rankin overplays his mellifluous voice as Ray 3, dragging out his vowels till the cows come home. But he brings a forceful, fearsome energy to his portrayal of Ray’s crusty grandfather, a brittle farmer who does what needs to be done.
James Ferguson has designed an aptly drab farmhouse interior with dirty walls and peeling paint. The lighting (Jeff Fightmaster) and sound (Tiya Coleman) inventively juxtapose the hard edges of the story with the bucolic surroundings. It’s a potent and thought-provoking production overall.
At Diversionary Theatre, through October 2.
A CLOSE SHAVE FROM THE DEMON BARBER
Attend the tale of “Sweeney Todd.“ Starlight Musical Theatre has, with outstanding results. Butcher knife bared, director Brian Wells has dug into a darkly delicious treat — meat pies! The gory, Grand Guignol tale of the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is filled with anger, revenge, intrigue and murder. Although there’s humor in the lyrics (it is the very-clever Sondheim, after all), Wells doesn’t go for any comical moments in his staging (as Duane Daniels did four years ago at the Fritz). Wells stays on the dark side, with plenty of smoke and shadowy lighting (nicely done by Eric Lotze), and an excellent sound design by Mark Hartshorn, except for the shrill, ear-piercing whistle-shriek every time someone is killed. The set, rented from Performance Riverside, is perfect, with its bridge and multiple levels, and the huge, fiery oven where Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett dump their tonsorial customers.
The cast is outstanding. Broadway veteran Norman Large creates a brooding, monomaniacal Sweeney who will not be distracted, or deflected from his self-destructive desire for revenge — on the judge who falsely sentenced him to 15 years of prison, or the rest of the crummy world that he views as vermin and scum. This makes for an excellent contrast with Melinda Gilb’s ultra-upbeat, ever-resourceful Mrs. Lovett. She played the role she was born for at the Fritz in 2000, and she’s even better now. Doug Carfrae doesn’t give Judge Turpin the sinister mien of many who have gone before, nor (alas) does he take his sexual obsession with his ward, Johanna, to extremes. But he sings well and seems less malevolent than most. Paul James Kruse does fine work as The Beadle, and showcases his beautiful, rangy voice. Robert Townsend and Amy Gillette are an adorable couple — visually and musically — as the naïve sailor Anthony and the blonde beauty, Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter and the Judge’s prisoner/ward. Carey Curtis Smith isn’t as funny as some Signor Pirelli (the conman/barber), but his voice soars. Matthew Rocheleau is also a vocal powerhouse (and less doltish than some) as young Tobias, who, simple as he is, figures out what’s going on in the cellar. As the Beggar Woman, Julie Jacobs gets to show off her magnificent vocal prowess yet again (she’s been very busy this year). Under the direction of Parmer Fuller, the robust nine-piece orchestra sounds much bigger. And director Wells has used strategies other than the signature Starlight ‘freeze’ in response to the planes, so the interruption is really unobtrusive. A masterful stroke!
“Sweeney” is definitely one of Sondheim’s best. Three cheers to Starlight for taking on the challenge — and for doing such a killer job!
At Starlight Bowl, through the weekend (Sept. 19).
MOTHER KNOWS BEST (NOT!)
Mirth is in our midst once again, courtesy of local playwright Jim Caputo. Excellently represented in the recent Actors Festival (“At Rise,” one of the Best of the Fest, and winner of an Outstanding Writing award) and the Fritz Blitz (“Body Shop,” which appeared in last year’s Actors Festival), Now Caputo is back on the boards with a local premiere, “Maternal Spirits,“ which has already won plaudits at the Palm Springs International Playwriting Festival and the Ashland (OR) New Play Festival.
Here we have bitter, divorced Jane, who would be the female counterpart of a misogynist, if only there were a word for it. She’s smart, sassy, cynical –and she nearly bites Frank’s head off in the hilarious first scene when he mistakes her for one of his Personals dates. Besides having been burned by a jerky ex, Jane has to contend with a meddling Jewish Mother who makes her crazy every minute of the day. How the Jane-Frank relationship evolves is a very funny journey that features several highly amusing twists and turns, even if we’ve more or less heard/seen the premise before. But Caputo has a winning way with dialogue and character. The second act does get a bit treacly, and the pace slows down, but then the laughs pick up again and all’s right with the world by the end.
Robert Dahey’s uncluttered direction keeps the repartee rippling. Caputo’s imaginative set design is far too elaborate for a light, limber comedy like this. The four panels that rotate for each scene would serve the piece better if each were a different locale, and no time-stealing reorientation were needed. In all fairness, two stagehands and a stage manager were out sick the night I was there. But even so, less inter-scene activity would be more.
The acting was generally skillful and enjoyable. Sandy Campbell, well known around town for her lovely soprano, doesn’t get to sing a note, but she certainly exercises her acting muscles, and proves both dramatically and comically agile. She has wonderful chemistry with Jonathan Sachs, totally credible as the slightly nerdy Mensch who aptly billed himself as ‘Steady and Reliable’ in his personal ads. Pat DiMeo is funny as the unstoppable Momma Rose, though in the thankless role of the Mother, Lee Donnelly never really takes flight.
Caputo is a comical guy, a fine, supple writer and a local treasure. Here’s to more full productions of his work on San Diego stages.
A Scripps Ranch Theatre production, at the Legler Benbough Theatre, on the campus of Alliant University (formerly USIU); through October 10.
READINGS THAT SING…
It was sooo much more than loverly. I was looking forward to the special, all-star, staged reading of Lerner and Loewe’s beloved “My Fair Lady” at Cygnet Theatre… but I got a lot more than I bargained for. What an amazing, impressive array of San Diego talent! What humor and musical ability! What a truckload of onstage ham!! And what a great reminder of the brilliant, funny, well-written, timeless show this is.
With very little rehearsal time — few, if any, with the entire cast at once, the performers seemed genuinely amazed and amused by each other’s antics. There was a bit of ad-libbing, too, and the SRO/standing-O audience repeatedly roared with laughter. Director Tim Irving assembled an incredible cast, and gave them more staging than one would expect in a reading. David McBean was excellent on piano, and a hoot as the foppish Freddie. Julie Jacobs was a golden-voiced marvel as Liza Doolittle. Her vocal chops, her impish, irresistible presence and her acting acumen just keep getting better and better. Sean Murray was wonderfully arch and supercilious as Prof. Henry Higgins and Jim Chovick was his perfect foil as Col Pickering. Ron Choularton was uproarious as Liza’s half-cocked, cockney father and Rosina Reynolds was aptly imperious as Higgins’ mother. Linda Libby proved solid, as always, in the minor role of Mrs. Pierce, and the Ensemble was splendid, in voice and movement: Erin Cronican (who also set the scenes), Lee Lampard, Andy Collins, and Bryce Chaddick. Amazing book and lyrics; luscious score. Every song is a winner; they just don’t write ’em like that any more. Here’s hoping that, by some scheduling miracle, this production could actually be mounted with this cast intact. A wider audience should have the opportunity to share in the genius and the fun.
….No music, but “Ethel Sings.” As another in its series of staged readings, 6th @ Penn presents the premiere of a dark romantic comedy by Joan Beber. Set in New York, 1953, it’s the story of Ethel Rosenberg, told from her perspective, from the time she was a teenager and first met husband Julius, to their impending execution for allegedly passing classified information to the Soviet Union. The playwright’s father, Sam Beber, was a second cousin of Ethel’s who met the Rosenbergs in prison shortly before they were put to death. “I wrote Ethel’s story,” says Joan Beber, “as a reminder that the great freedoms we relish in American can disappear with little warning. We must be ever-vigilant to forces that would destroy freedom.” Performances are 7:30pm, October 4, 5, and 6 only. Tickets are $15.00, $7.50 for students and for members of AASD, AEA, SAG and the Lawrence Family JCC. (619) 688-9210; www.sixthatpenn.com
More SHAKESPEAREAN ACTS
The San Diego Shakespeare Society is in almost constant flight with the Swan of Avon! Next two events:
“An Exciting Evening with the Bard ,” featuring showcase Shakespeare performances by local actors from the Coronado Playhouse, Poor Players and South Bay high schools. And, there’ll be a keynote address from Jan Gist, the acclaimed/accomplished voice/speech coach at the Globe. Her talk sports a sexy title: “Shakespeare’s Shapely Language.” Monday, September 24 at 7pm at the Chula Vista Library (365 F Street). Admission is free; for info call 619-583-8525 or 619-426-1936.
And then, there’s sonnet-mania. Check out local celebs presenting 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’m thrilled to be serving as emcee… and introducing the sonnet-readers du jour, including theatermakers Jack Montgomery and Antonion “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.. and even Queen Elizabeth I. Tix are $15; 100 will be distributed free to San Diego students, through the City and County ARTSPack Program. Enjoy strolling Elizabethan musicians and a fresh breath of the Bard… and you can “compare [it] to a summer’s day.”
And if you’re a REAL Shakespeare aficionado, you’ll want to know that the British Library has just put the quartos online. These were the earliest versions of Shakespeare’s plays, which began appearing in 1594, in the form of small, cheap pamphlets (‘quartos’) which would cost as little as sixpence. Twenty-one of Shakespeare’s 37+ plays were published as quartos before 1642; m any were sold to the audience at the end of a performance. But they haven’t been seen in public for centuries. Since the Bard left no manuscripts behind, the quartos are as close as we can get to what he actually wrote. Now, we’re all in luck: the plays can be viewed online at www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/homepage.html.
News from New York….
Josh Ellis, former Communications Director at the La Jolla Playhouse, who recently moved back to the City, was wowed by the workshop presentation of “Harmony,” the musical that premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997. Written by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman, the show concerned the amazing story of the Comedian Harmonists, who made magnificent music (and comedy) in 1930s Germany — until the Nazis disbanded the group and destroyed all their work, after discovering that three of the Harmonists were Jewish. The play has undergone a good deal of revision, and according to Josh, who spent two decades as a publicist for Broadway shows, “They have a winner! It’s wonderful. The focus is stronger, the libretto is tougher and the payoff is greater. It’s now a mature work that doesn’t go for easy laughs and has an intensity that kept the audience (of 200 theater professionals) riveted. An amazing nine (!!!) separate musical numbers stopped the show cold. I haven’t seen anything like that in years. At the end, you could hear people sobbing loudly. Everyone jumped to their feet, clapping like mad. People congratulated each other for just being there. It was that kind of event, not just a show. Like “I Am My Own Wife,” “Harmony” is now a richer theater experience than it was in its world premier. It’s damn near perfect. I smell a hit.”
Watch for more from the Harmonists… and get your tickets when you can — as soon as it finds a Broadway theater and opening date, which sounds likely. Once again, we were there on the ground floor. Go get ’em, San Diego!
On a much sadder note, let’s all take a minute to mourn the passing of one of the musical theater’s all-time greats — Fred Ebb, the incredibly witty lyricist who died Saturday in New York. His heart attack, at age 76, creates a huge vacuum in the musical theater universe. Ebb’s collaboration with composer John Kander was one of the longest-running partnerships in the history of the American musical — nearly 40 years and a dozen shows, most famously, “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” Wherever he is, we know they’ll be singing his songs.
THERE’S STILL TIME…
Let’s go, theater-lovers! Join Melissa Supera Fernandes and Manny Fernandes (and John and me and others) at AIDS Walk 2004. Sunday, September 26 in Balboa Park. Be a 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, go to www.aidswalksd.org . Join us for a worthy event and a great day in the Park. Hope to seeya there!
AND NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS‘ PRODUCTIONS:
“Sweeney Todd” –dark, delicious production of one of Sondheim’s best. Beautiful look, spectacularly sung. At Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park, through the weekend (9/19).
“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 different 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 through October 24.
“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.
Happy 5765! Start the New Year (Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 15) off right… at the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.