By Pat Launer
Poor Charlie Brown; his life’s a mess
And Phaedra’s in extreme distress.
Soothe the beasts in dramatic fashion
With a touch of Love, Valour and Compassion!
If you saw it before or if you missed it, you’ve just got to see it this time! Terrence McNally at his most brilliant — hysterically funny and heartbreakingly affecting. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You’ll want to see it again. It’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and it’s back six years after its Diversionary Theatre debut to inaugurate the theater’s tenth anniversary.
In a way, it feels very New York: sitting around shooting the breeze with a choreographer, a costumer, a dancer, a lawyer, an accountant, etc. etc. But though the jokes are urban and theatrical, the themes of age, youth and the passage of time are universal. In the eight years since the piece won the Tony Award for Best Play, the AIDS crisis has risen and fallen — and started creeping back on the rise again. So it’s as timely as ever. These days, AIDS is not as obsessive a topic as it used to be — but maybe it should be.
Any way you look at it, these eight middle-aged gay guys are just so smart and entertaining… they’re terrific company, even as they’re sleeping with their partners, their friends’ partners and all drooling (as was the audience — both male and female!) over the luscious young thing that’s joined them for the weekend. The laugh-lines come in torrents, in veritable tsunamis, and they drown you in hilarity.
The ensemble is outstanding — much stronger than the earlier one, which had a few weak links. Now, there are high-level, high-octane performances throughout. Returning to improve on their prior stabs at these juicy characters are: Dan Gruber, even more compelling as the cynical attorney, Perry; and Joshua Harrell, convincing as his strait-laced ‘husband’ of many years; and the gut-splitting Tim Irving as the prancing musical theater queen, Buzz, who has a song for every occasion — even his own impending demise from AIDS. The dynamic additions to this cast include Manuel Fernandes, delightful as the credibly stuttering choreographer who’s losing his touch – and maybe his boyfriend; Vincent Smetana as said boyfriend, a blind naïf who’s not quite as naive as he first seems; Dennis J. Scott, wonderful as the twin good guy/bad guy English brothers, with their on-the-nose names (John and James Jeckyll), and the beautiful-bodied, adorable, irresistible Jeremiah Maestas as the young dancer Ramon, who bares all (repeatedly, to everyone’s delight) and has no qualms about toying with or bedding any one of these middle-aged men. Each character gets to come downstage and talk to the audience, confiding secrets and telling tales from these three holiday weekends during one unforgettable summer.
Michelle Riel’s set is just a suggestion of the rambling, upstate-New York country home-on-a-lake; a painterly, brush-stroked sky backing a raked, lime-green wood-slatted floor, which opens up to become a raft with lake below. Chris Rynne’s lighting emphasizes and underscores, with George Ye’s sound providing just the right back-country backdrop. And Shulamit Nelson’s costumes — from the personality-marking pj’s to the pink tutus at the end (they all do a Swan Lake sendup for an AIDS benefit) are luscious.
The 1997 production was marvelously directed by Sean Murray. He’s been a bit busy establishing a new theater (his Cygnet-ure) so he just ran over to Diversionary for casting and to tweak things at the end. Tim Irving did double duty, taking up the directorial reins even as he bared his butt in a housewifely apron. The joint direction is tight (even if all the butts aren’t!) and perfectly timed. Great fun throughout. A wonderful evening of mirth and contemplation, friendship, honesty, aggression, forgiveness and of course, love. You’d be out of your mind to miss it.
WHAT”S MY LINE?
Phaedra is all tied up in knots. Maybe that’s why the stage at Sledgehammer is strung with thread. Or maybe she’s come undone. Or perhaps her Friend is gathering up all the strands of her life. Or is this all about the ties that bind? Perhaps it’s an arcane mythological reference to Phaedra’s sister, Ariadne, whose skeins helped her husband, Theseus, find his way through the Labyrinth to slay the Minotaur (after which he abandoned Ariadne and her sister Phaedra married him). Or maybe it’s a physicalization of the line, ‘What good is love if it dies strangled in its own cord?” Or, are directors Kirsten Brandt and David Tierney just stringing us along? Is it all just for the sake of image? Like the rose-petals that spew from the mouth of Phaedra’s Friend (Monique Gaffney) when she first comes onstage?
In any event, the West coast premiere of Susan Yankowitz’s “Phaedra in Delirium” at first unravels verrrry slowly. Toward the end, after all the revelations, it’s race-car rapid, as the Friend cuts the remaining strings with a scissors. It’s all so… symbolic. And not all of it works. But it sure is beautiful to look at. David Cuthbert has made his usual magic with the laser-focus, attention-directing lighting. There’s a large, four-poster bed center stage; the evocative set (Mathilda de Luce) and costumes (Mary Larson) are white… but there’s not much purity here.
Phaedra is a woman tormented. A relative newlywed, she’s fallen desperately in love with her young stepson. But unlike the original myth, this wasn’t the work of the gods. It’s her own doing; mostly, she’s trying to recapture her youth… so she becomes enamored of a younger version of her husband and thereby, herself. It makes the play a lot less lofty, and much more self-involved than the retellings of Euripides or Racine. Here, it’s all about Phaedra’s obsession with her age. She doesn’t eat, she doesn’t sleep; she just stares in the mirror. “I hate nature,” she says. “I hate what she does to us…. Every woman who’s reached my age knows what I mean. Suddenly, overnight, we become invisible.” Well, she’s not invisible to Theseus. But then, no attractive woman is. He’s cast here as a porcine philanderer, who’s never at home, and has to have his tasty female treats morning, noon and night, “and then a nightcap, always a nightcap.” Ugh.
The disengaging problem is that none of the characters is at all likable or sympathetic. The Friend, written as “an androgynous person of either gender,” is not distinguished as a female companion to Phaedra (that part’s clear) and also a male comrade to Hippolytus (that gets lost, though we’re supposed to catch it in the subtle addition of driving gloves). The Friend’s motivations, in convincing Phaedra to confess her love to the pure and chaste Hippolytus, are murky. Is she a malevolent instigator, an overly compassionate enabler, or is she in love with Phaedra herself – or all of the above? It’s not evident in the text, the direction, or Monique Gaffney’s portrayal, which is beguiling but enigmatic. And Hippolytus (as played by David Stanbra) is a cipher; we don’t know who he is at all – A misogynist? A closet gay man? Just a nature-lover who shuns human connection? Totally ambiguous, but not in an intriguing way.
As Theseus, Ruff Yeager is virile and volatile. He’s extreme in his tastes and emotions, and verbally and physically abusive – nearly murderous – to Phaedra at the end. The final scenes between husband and wife are extremely potent, even breath-stopping at times.
Robin Christ’s performance as Phaedra is outstanding. However, it’s disturbing that she doesn’t agonize as much over the telling as the aging. Her inexorable descent and self-destruction come pretty fast; the Friend convinces her with alacrity, and this, too, weakens the tragic intensity.
Overall, there’s much to admire and much to question. And maybe that’s what the Greek plays were all about.
A FEW GOOD MEN
Charles Schulz’ comic strip, ‘Peanuts,’ was renowned and beloved for its psychological depth in the guise of childlike simplicity. The same should be true of Clark Gesner’s musicalized version, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” which premiered in 1967 and was significantly schmaltzed up to win some performance Tonys in its 1999 Broadway revival. Director Leigh Scarritt has used the more recent edition for her production at La Jolla Stage Company. Adding some 30 bodies, ranging from age 5 or 6 to the full-blown main-character adults, does nothing to enhance the play or its captivating characters. Making poignant solos (e.g., The Kite song) into huge production numbers takes away from and obscures the personality (in this case, Charlie Brown’s) and eliminates all the pathos in his pitiful, sad-sack life. Nonetheless, Marc Ciemiewicz (grad student in the SDSU MFA musical theater program) rises above the din to portray a genuinely touching Charlie Brown. And as Linus, Rayme Ciaroni gives the only other nuanced performance — not a caricature, but a real, believable character; not loud, screamy and over-the-top as the rest of the proceedings tend to be. The kids in the audience loved it all, though — and maybe the kid in you will, too.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Love! Valour! Compassion!” — the boys are back in town! And what fabulous company they are. Through 10/11
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — Jeremiah Lorenz is fabulous, and the band, though ultra-loud, is killer. The Cygnet is hatched, and it soars; through 10/12.
“Sight Unseen” — provocative play; well crafted, well acted production; through 9/7
“Private Lives” — the most deliciously Cowardly lines! Smart, funny production @ Lamb’s Players Theatre; through 9/21
We’re surrounded by theatrical emotions of operatic proportion.. After a lazy summer, you need to put a little drama in your life!
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.