By Pat Launer
International fever strikes again this week
We’re having a season both Irish and Greek..
From ‘Antigone’ to ‘The Trojan Women,’
‘ Connemara ’ to ‘The Clearing,’ our stages are brimmin’.
Molière adds La France to the mix
While UCSD offers New Plays, for kicks.
2500 years old and still going strong. “Antigone” can still pack a whallop… and its story still feels fresh.
The story goes that in 441 B.C., the tragedy’s premiere was so successful that Sophocles was made an Athenian general. No wreaths or military promotions these days, but there’s plenty of punch in the play, which is considered one of the greatest and most moving dramas ever written. The timeless tragedy is particularly timely right now, since it concerns the conflict between moral conscience and government policy. The relevance is not lost on the politically astute translator, Marianne McDonald, who brings the poetry and politics to the fore — or the gifted director, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who has the smiling tyrant Creon, King of Thebes, make a splashy entrance under a Greek-English (Gringlish?) banner that says “Mission Accomplished.”
The play, set in Thebes , centers around the four children of Oedipus. His two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, have just killed each other in war. Their uncle, Creon, has become ruler, and he decrees that Eteocles should be buried, but not Polyneices, who is considered a traitor. Antigone defies the order and sets out to bury her brother, without the help of her sister, Ismene, who is too fearful to disobey the law of the land. For her arrogance and rebelliousness, Creon condemns Antigone to be buried alive in a cave, despite the protests of his son, Haemon, who is engaged to her. Creon only recants after the soothsayer Teiresias foretells his horrific fate. But by then it is too late, and a shocking series of deaths ensues.
Although Antigone is the titular heroine, it is Creon who suffers the greatest tragic losses. Both characters are equally stubborn and unyielding. The play questions the meaning of loyalty, piety, rigidity, heroism, self-righteousness, justice, treason and compromise.
Turner Sonnenberg makes some intriguing directorial choices. She opens the play with a passionate kiss between Antigone (Jennifer Eve Kraus) and Haemon (Mark Broadnax). Then she cuts to the sisters, a butch-femme duo, with Ismene (Morgan Trant) kind of delicate and Antigone in fatigues, continuing to wear her combat boots even at the black tie event that welcomes Creon (Dale Morris) home. He enters majestically, smiling smugly, shaking hands with the audience. He is the unbending ruler who will not listen to his people, the despot who puts his law above the gods’. And it is he who takes the most profound emotional journey in the play, and Morris charts the course with gut-wrenching precision. As Antigone, Kraus starts out a bit weak, sounding more SoCal than Greek, more Valley Girl than princess. But she gains in stature, and winds up proud and powerful as she nobly walks off to her death. The chorus comprises an older, clinging couple, Sally Stockton and David S. Cohen. A brilliant stroke at the end is having the Messengers of death and disaster be (and become) the victims they describe; so one ‘morphs into’ Creon’s son, Haemon and the other, Creon’s wife, Eurydice (Laurie Lehmann-Grey). Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson is terrific is the blind Teiresias, otherworldly and unrecognizable with vacant blue eyes and a scraggly beard. But it is Morris whose villainous smile and anguished, tragic cry remain fixed in the mind.
The simple stone set (Amanda Stephens) is evocatively lit (Justin Bieber), and the costumes are appropriate to the tone of the piece (perhaps with the exception of Antigone’s battle garb – a bit too on the nose). This 2500 year-old play deserves to be seen; it continues to resonate and provoke.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through 5/8.
Prepare yourself for a little skull-smashing. “A Skull in Connemara ,” the second play in Martin McDonagh’s “Leenane trilogy,” is a ghastly affair. Bit of a ghostly mystery, really. A dark, biting comedy by the award-winning playwright who’s the first since Shakespeare to have had four plays onstage simultaneously in London . The New York production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” won four Tony Awards, and the San Diego Rep production was highly acclaimed as well. This piece has a lot less depth but it’s equally brittle and brutal.
Like Leenane, Connemara is a town of grave secrets-and-lies. Mick Dowd (Charlie Riendeau) may or may not have murdered his wife, who was killed in a drunk driving accident for which Mick did time. Now he’s got a job digging up graves and disposing of the bones to make room for new cemetery occupants. This time, one of the skeletons belongs to his wife. His new sidekick is a thick-headed teenage troublemaker (Chris Breskly), who’s dogged by his equally dim brother (Christopher White), a cop itching for promotion and trying to be both Starsky and Hutch. Rounding out the cast of venom-spitting tale-tellers is Maryjohnny Rafferty (Grace Delaney), a self-righteous alcoholic bingo addict. In McDonagh’s stark Irish landscape, people don’t band together against the harsh conditions; they turn on each other. And we take ghoulish glee in watching.
Director Forrest Aylsworth keeps up a suspenseful, pulse-raising pace. The stone-wall set (Amanda Stephens) that does double-duty on alternate nights for “Antigone,” is splendidly converted from bare-bones widower’s abode to eerie burial ground (fine lighting by Erin McKown). The grave-digging scene is particularly well handled. And there’s blood and bones and a few surprises to come. Riendeau anchors the sturdy cast, bringing heart and poignancy to the crusty hustler/philosopher, Mick. Young Bresky (definitely a face to watch) is an outstanding mix of innocent and lout, and Delaney is perfectly sourpussed and gossipy (with a genuine Irish accent). White plays lame-brained but officious well; there’s little hint of the cruelty to come, and that makes for something of a shock. There are a surprising number of laughs to be had, but that’s McDonagh’s ironic, bad boy stock in trade. The man loves to make violence, torture, family hatred and grotesquerie amusing. And he always succeeds (he’s killin’ ‘em in New York right now with his discomfiting new play, “The Pillowman”).
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, Sunday- Wednesday nights, through 5/4.
Sometimes, there are good reasons that certain plays are rarely done. “The Bungler” is a case in point. It’s Molière’s first full-length work, with a role the masterful French farceur created for himself. It has the requisite moronic master and ever-clever servant, and the bumbling old fathers who are easily duped. Love thwarted or competed for. And after many trials and revelations, a happy ending. But unlike his later masterpieces of social commentary and conscience (“The Bourgeois Gentleman,” “Tartuffe,” “The Miser,” “The Imaginary Invalid”), this one has little to say, and too much repetition and exposition. Using every shtick in the slapstick/pratfall/commedia book, Terry Glaser only accentuates the inherent weaknesses.
The play made its American ‘debut’ in 2000, billed as “a premiere over 300 years in the making.” First staged in Lyon in 1655 and two years later in Paris , the comedy became the first toehold in Molière’s climb to royal favor and Parisian celebrity, and it remained a staple of the repertoire and a favorite acting vehicle for the playwright. But it is a slim work, hugely influenced by the Italian farces (commedia dell’arte) that Molière saw while touring the provinces. In the twist that the playwright puts on the well-worn plot (boy wants girl, girl is guarded by unpleasant elder; clever servant helps boy outwit elder and get girl), the young man manages to screw up every scheme his valet invents to get him the girl of his dreams. And those schemes and screw-ups do go on…
The new translation, by the witty, skillful Richard Wilbur, maintains the rhyming couplets of the original. While this is quite clever at times, it isn’t equally facile for every actor, and it does drag down the proceedings at times. Fortunately, David Ari, as the servant Mascarille, manages a natural flow of language, all the while cavorting around like a court jester. A recent grad of the UCSD acting program (who did a spectacular job as Richard III last year), Ari gets to show his comic chops, which are considerable. Also displaying more of his ever-expanding range is Jeremiah Lorenz, who’s adorable as Mascarille’s ridiculous and infuriating master, Lélie. The rest of the men are rather, um, broad in their comic antics, but Dimiter Marinov is the funniest. The femmes fatales, Janel DeGuzman and Lisel Gorell-Getz, look pretty, even if their roles are nothing to write home about (in French or English, couplets or prose).
Marty Burnett’s set is an attractive, salmon-colored, Italianate villa, complete with porticos, arches, working center-stage fountain and well-lit (Mia Bane Jacobs) sea. The garishly multi-colored costumes (Jeanne Reith) suit the tone to a T. There are certainly some laughs, but it’s all too too silly for words. And though everyone is working really hard, it shows. The comedy doesn’t feel quite visceral or organic; it’s often forced. You have to realllly like farce to love this one.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through May 15.
the UCSD Baldwin New Play Festival 2005, which got off to a great start last week. By the time we went to press, I’d seen two plays, and will see the other three later this week. I adored the reading of Ken Weitzman’s hilarious “The As If Body Loop.” He is an enormously talented writer, with a great ear, a quirky sense of humor and a broad array of interests. This play, btw, was commissioned by the Arena Stage in Washington , D.C. , where there was a reading on Friday night. So Weitzman was there for that, and then red-eyed it back here for the 10am reading on the campus! The jetsetting playwright is a graduate of the UCSD Playwriting program, and is now part of its faculty. He has a unique and intriguing dramatic voice, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from him in the future.
His latest effort was a delightfully off-the-wall story of a dysfunctional family, one of whom may be a Lamed Vov-nik, according to (arcane) Jewish tradition, the 36 people chosen at birth to carry all the pain of the world. The play’s (also arcane) title comes from the research theory of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who posits an alternate way of experiencing emotions or ‘gut reactions.’ Weitzman extends this to another person, suggesting a ‘sympathetic’ response, or an identical biological reaction in a loved one or onlooker, even in the absence of any initiating stimulus. So these sibs – all pretty wacky—experience each other’s pain, physically and viscerally. The sister (the supposed Lamed Vov-nik, played by Hilary Ward) had to leave her job as a social worker, because she suffered for all her clients. The brothers (Scott Drummond and Eduardo Placer) endure chronic stomach pain, in one case and recurrent facial rashes, in the other. Then there’s there off-the-wall mother (Katie Sigismund), and Santa-dressed father (Owiso Odera), and one of the sister’s patients (Ryan McCarthy), who is perpetually angry. Drummond, Placer and McCarthy were especially excellent, under Amy Cook’s taut, frisky direction.
“Burnt Out,” a brief one-act by Josh Tobiessen, is also a comedy, but of much slighter dimension. Set in an office on a Saturday, the loyal VP of Acquisitions (Sigismund, solid again) comes in to get extra work done and is beleaguered by her demanding boyfriend (Andrew Smith), an obsequious but nefarious co-worker (Brian Hostenske) and an inflamed woman (Quonta Beasley) who’s been displaced and her house deliberately destroyed, to make way for the new ‘Noble Village’ project of the construction company. She’s there to torch the place. Mayhem ensues, and swipes are taken at the corrupt, corporate world of developers. The performances were strong all around, as was Michael Schwartz’s direction (except for an occasional screaming excess). But the play seemed less an exposé than an exercise. Tobiessen, a first year MFA student in playwriting, shows promise in terms of dialogue and comedy. It’ll be fun to watch his skills develop over the next two years.
The Festival continues at UCSD, through April 24.
GREEK TO ME
This year’s SDSU Design-Performance Jury was one of the best in years. The play, selected by the faculty, was Euripides’ “Trojan Women.” Each of the three student groups took a decidedly different approach: one went for the classical, one set the piece in Iraq, and the film students made their little segment in Spanish, in Tijuana, focusing just on the story of Cassandra. The directors and designers acquitted themselves extremely well, under the (gentle) critiques of the jury: Martin Benson, artistic director of South Coast Rep, actors Linda Castro, Jordan Baker (one of the original “Three Tall Women” in Albee’s play) and her husband Kevin Kilner (Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie”). The designers were John Iacovelli (sets), Robert Blackman (costumes) and James Moody (lighting). The interdisciplinary discussions were consistently impressive and provocative. Beeb Salzer, who created this event 21 years ago, just keeps making it better and better. Kudos to all. Try not to miss it next spring!
Plus ça change…. “The Clearing” by English playwright Helen Edmundson, concerns English-Irish strife, 17th century style. The drama, which sags a bit in the first act, takes on interest and immediacy as it personalizes the conflict more and more, focusing on one small community and one family in particular. Robert, an English ‘gentleman,’ has settled into a manor-house in the Irish countryside with his feisty Irish wife. This puts him in the middle of the conflict, torn between the two battling sides, as Cromwell takes power in England and performs a kind of ethnic cleansing, enacting a series of draconian laws that mandated seizure of Irish lands and deportation and resettlement of Irish citizens. Directed by Marc Overton, the piece rose to a climactic, chilling conclusion, as the pragmatic, self-serving husband does emotional battle with his fiercely nationalistic wife. Terri Park was terrific as the high-spirited red-headed Maddy, clad in Kelly green. Brandon Walker proved a compelling narrator, and Jeffrey Jones brought his usual charisma to the small role of a lusty Irish rebel. As Maddy’s husband and neighbor, John Carroll Tessmer and Natalie Sentz made considerable character changes over the course of the play. Kelli Ruttle was enticingly enigmatic as Maddy’s lifelong friend Killiane, though it was the least forcefully written role. The rest of the 9-member cast gave fine support. With a little trimming, this 1993 play would make a provocative addition to the Irish spring we’re having this year.
VIVA VALDEZ !
Luis rides again… Timed to coincide with the opening of “Corridos Remix” at the San Diego Rep, Luis Valdez’ first time back onstage in years, “The Legacy of Luis Valdez, Father of Chicano Theater,” is about to air on City TV. It’s a short, 25-minute documentary I wrote and co-produced with City TV, that we’ve been working on for almost a year. If you live within the City of San Diego , you can see it this weekend on Cable Channel 24 (Cox or Time Warner), at 7pm on Friday, Saturday or Sunday (April 22, 23, 24). Find out what makes Luis a legend, meet his wife and sons, hear why he keeps coming back to San Diego , and what working with him meant to Edward James Olmos and others. The man’s amazing; spending time with him was a privilege and a delight. If you don’t live within the City limits, the show streams live at sandiego.gov.citytv. See it – and lemme know what you think!
WHERE THERE’S A WILL, THERE’S A WAY
… Happy Birthday, dear Willie. Yup, it’s Shakespeare’s 441st Bday, and the San Diego Shakespeare Society is doing him proud. This Saturday, April 23, from 2-4 pm, the society will present a celebratory program (with yours truly as emcee). There will be performances from the Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse and San Diego Rep, as well as by The Cheshire Singers, Poor Players, and San Diego Actors Theatre, in addition to solo pieces from the likes of Priscilla Allen. The Society will pay tribute to its honorary members — Craig Noel, Marianne McDonald and J. Joe Craft. And there’ll be a special induction of Walter and Judith Munk, whose lovely home and Folly Garden Theatre, will serve as the setting. Bring a hat, stay for the reception, and have a blast on the Bard. No charge for the event, but donations are welcomed.
…Simply Shakespeare is a new project created and directed by Patricia Elmore Costa and her San Diego Actors Theatre. At each meeting, open to the public, a Shakespeare play is selected and a company of trained, experienced actors will read it aloud. The catch? Casting is determined by drawing from a hat, right there, in front of the audience. And one lucky observer will get to join in the dramatic fun. Now that’s spontaneous theatermaking! This month’s play is “Much Ado About Nothing.” The reading takes place May 17, 7pm at Diversionary Theatre. The core company includes familiar faces such as Priscilla Allen, Grace Delaney, Celeste Innocenti, Von Schauer, Walter Murray and Elmore Costa herself. Seating is limited, so make a reservation (firstname.lastname@example.org).
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks)
“A Skull in Connemara ” – bone-chilling, bone-bashing dark comic mystery. Excellently acted and directed.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, Sunday-Wednesday nights, through May 4.
“Antigone” – powerful translation and direction, and some outstanding performances, in this 2500 year-old tragedy that still feels fresh today.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, Thursday Friday & Saturday nights and Sunday matinee, through May 8.
“Metamorphoses” – lovely re-creation of Mary Zimmerman brilliant creation (pool and all!), extremely well designed, dressed and directed.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, EXTENDED through May 22.
“Vincent in Brixton” – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; magnificent performances, outstanding direction (by Rick Seer).
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through May 8.
“Woman from the Other Side of the World” – culture-crossing, supernatural play; captivating production.
At the Playhouse on Plaza in National City , through May 7.
“Himself and Nora” – A Joyce-ful love story. A world premiere about James Joyce that may be light fare for literati but it’s well done, intelligent and entertaining.
At the Old Globe Theatre, through April 24.
“The Waverly Gallery” – heart-breaking family dramedy, beautifully acted and directed.
New Village Arts (@ Jazzercize in Carlsbad), through April 30.
“Raisin’ the Rent” – hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’, heartbreakin’ jazz and blues, sung in cabaret style by six killer performers. At Caesar’s Café downtown, through May 22.
“Pageant” – where the girls are guys and the competition is ferocious. Loads of smarm and charm, and a lot of laughs.
At Cygnet Theatre, extended through May 22.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing.
Celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday — at the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.