By Pat Launer
Tab was a gay-boy
Synge did The Playboy
‘ tween Johnny and his Frankie.
THE SHOW: Playboy of the Western World , the masterwork of acclaimed Irish playwright John Millington Synge
THE BACKSTORY/ THE STORY: When it opened at Dublin ’s Abbey Theatre in 1907, the play incited riots. The audience hissed and stamped their feet, sang patriotic songs to drown out the dialogue, and shouted ‘Kill the author!” There were fights and demonstrations at subsequence performances and arrests were made nightly. Eggs, potatoes and even a slice of fruitcake were hurled at the actors during the play and it seemed unlikely that much of the text was even heard. The complaints concerned the unsentimental way in which Irish peasant life was portrayed, the comic treatment of alleged manslaughter and exceeding the limits of decency. The Sinn Fein political organization claimed the play contained “the foulest language we have ever listened to on a public platform.” Incredibly, the most offensive line contained a reference to a woman’s “shift” or undergarment which, like “knickers,” had bawdy connotations. The play stoked an already red-hot nationalistic fire. It was considered an affront to Irish culture, promulgating negative stereotypes. This wasn’t the holy and peaceful place they believed rural Ireland to be at the turn of the 20th century. Nearly 100 years later, dramatic perceptions of rural Ireland haven’t changed much at all. Witness the plays of Martin McDonagh (recent Oscar-winner, whose latest American production, The Lieutenant of Inishmore , is currently wowing New York audiences). McDonagh is an obvious heir to Synge’s deliciously dark portrayals of Ireland and its peasantry, both men creating a gleefully bleak jumble of alcohol, violence, poetry and wit.
Set in a remote corner of County Mayo , in the windswept West of Ireland, Synge’s story concerns Christy Mahon, a doltish stranger who staggers into a small town, claiming to be fleeing the law, after having murdered his abusive, tyrannical father. He attracts the attention of the men and the adoration of the local women. The villagers interpret the story as an epic tale of courage and turn him into a local hero. His appalling tale becomes more exaggerated with every retelling. Soon, he has insinuated himself into the family of a local publican and helped to overturn the engagement of the saucy, sharp-tongued daughter, Pegeen Mike, and her drab, religious, cowardly fiancé, Shawn. As Christy’s fame grows, so do his self-confidence, eloquence and athletic prowess. He woos Pegeen Mike, who sees him as her escape from a loveless marriage and an uneventful life. When Christy’s story is discredited, he’s revealed to be no more heroic than the townsfolk, and they turn on him as rapidly as they embraced him. Disappointment and disillusionment reign at the end.
First labeled a “farce” by its author, and then an “extravaganza,” the play’s darkly comic elements are rooted in tragedy. Despite its backcountry setting, it remains startlingly relevant in its searing exploration of identity, hypocrisy, self-delusion, lost opportunity and the fickle nature of celebrity.
THE PLAYERS/ THE PRODUCTION: New Village Arts co-founders Francis Gercke and Kristianne Kurner serve as jubilant co-directors, teasing out all the humor, drama, romance and pathos in the play. In their earnestness to achieve complete verisimilitude, however, they went overboard with the accents. The often-lyrical text is peppered with slang and colloquialisms, but the cast has been coached by Dublin native (and amusing cast-member) Grace Delaney to speak so authentically that large stretches of dialogue are virtually unintelligible. And that’s a pity, because the language is so lyrical and beautiful. When I saw the Druid Theatre production of the play last summer in Galway , the regionalisms were completely comprehensible; it shouldn’t be less understandable with an American cast! Other than that, the ensemble is wonderful, grounded by a luminous, marvelously cheeky performance by Jessica John as the strong-willed, unconventional Pegeen Mike; her facial expressions and emotional reactions are priceless, her anger and disenchantment are palpable and her final moment, alone with her loss and misery in the midst of a roomful of people, is heartbreaking. Kurner has great fun with the Widow Quinn, often played as a wizened old hag. Here, her attractiveness and youthful energy add a wicked sexual charge to the character, and the triangle of desire between Pegeen , Christy and the Widow is delectable. Both women are admirably strong-willed, even though each commits at least one shameful act. But they have the guts to challenge (male) authority and thwart social convention. The most conservative, conformist character is Shawn Keogh, usually played as an uptight, upright prig, who refuses to put one toe outside the confines of the Catholic Church. He won’t marry Pegeen until he has permission from the Vatican , and he even refuses to be alone with her in fear of the priest’s disapproval. Brandon Walker’s portrayal is not the usual sniveling bore; his Shawn is unnervingly hysterical and aggressively ridiculous instead of being pious, serious, righteous and gutless.
Gercke is delightful as Christy’s bloodied, bludgeoned father, who keeps returning from the ‘dead.’ As his witless son, Joshua Everett Johnson drags us along on Christy’s dizzying journey, from dim-witted, stuttering idiocy to menacing intensity, from uncertainty to arrogance, disdain and despair. It’s a fine, finely calibrated performance. The accents come and go in the townsmen: white-bearded Tim West as Pegeen’s sensible-but-inebriated Da and his drinking-buddies, Pat Moran and Jack Missett. But they bring earthy humor to the mix. As the ninnies who fawn over Christy, Rachael VanWormer, Aurora RuPert , Monique Fleming and Grace Delaney are less the tittering young adolescents one might expect, but they are amusing in their misguided hero-worship.
Kurner’s scenic design is all woody authenticity, with Pat Hansen’s detailed props contributing a great deal to re-creating a back-country pub. Eric Lotze’s lighting alternates sepia tones with otherworldly light filtering through the window (a tad disconcerting in the first scene, since it’s supposed to be a cold, dark night). Johnson’s sound design adds to the coherent sense of place, as do Michelle Hunt’s wonderful costumes, especially the dour color palette and the rags on Gercke (though West seems a bit overdressed for this rural environment in his first scene).
Overall, it’s a lively, lovely production. If they tone down the dialect, the play will completely captivate and provoke you (but you can leave the eggs, fruit and veggies at home).
THE LOCATION: New Village Arts at Jazzercise in Carlsbad , through April 1.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
As a special incentive on St. Pat’s Day, March 17, NVA is offering a $17 ticket price, which includes live Irish music, corned beef sandwiches and “pints” before the show, and a discount coupon to an Irish pub in downtown Carlsbad . March 19 is San Diego Night, with a special $15 ticket price (or 2 for $24) for San Diegans, with free dessert at Carlsbad ’s King’s Restaurant. And on March 23, there’s a Talk-Back with the actors, directors and a featured speaker, and complimentary wine before the show.
Addendum : On opening night, before the show began, Gercke and Kurner happily announced their acquisition of a permanent home, thanks to the Carlsbad City Council. They just signed a five-year lease on a space at the corner of Faraday and El Camino in Carlsbad . That’s great news for NVA and for North County . An October production of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart was announced, a collaboration with the equally-excellent Backyard Productions. Let’s hope they can recreate the magic they brought to Carlsbad Playreaders last fall; Kurner directed a stellar cast, including Jessica John, Lisel Gorell-Getz and Amanda Sitton as the soap opera Southern sisters, with excellent support from Beth Everhart, John Polak and Mark Emerson (who’s about to graduate from UCSD: hope he’ll stay around after his summer stint in the La Jolla Playhouse production of Zhivago ).
We could all use a little romance in our lives. And Carlsbad Playreaders delivered the goods this week, with a poignant performance of Terrence McNally’s sweet Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune . I thought it would be the final directing gig of the talented, Patté Award-winning Joe Ward, who’s about to graduate from UCSD. But he’ll be back next month at the Baldwin New Play Festival (April 19-29). A good thing for San Diego . Here, he displayed his prodigious skills even in a one-night reading. Of course, since there’s usually minimal rehearsal for a reading, kudos must go to the actors, too.
Larissa Paige Kokernot is best known to local audiences as a director; like Ward, she’s a product of UCSD’s MFA program in Directing. But she’s had a long career in acting, primarily in Minneapolis (including performances at the acclaimed Guthrie Theatre and Théâtre de la Jeune Lune ). She also had a role in the Oscar-nominated film, “ Fargo ,” opposite Steve Buscemi . Her husband is a gifted writer/screenwriter, Karl Gadjusek , who was co-director of San Diego ’s experimental, off-the-wall Theatre E years ago. The other Equity actor in this touching, two-character play was James Newcomb, who recently played the title role in Richard the Third at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he spent 12 seasons, and will play Jekyll and Hyde this summer (presumably interacting with recent Ashland arrival Richard Baird). Locally, Newcomb has served as a fight choreographer for the Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego Rep and San Diego Opera. The two had a lovely chemistry as an ordinary, middle-aged couple – a waitress and a cook – both lonely, looking for love, but afraid to dive in. Johnny is edgy, compulsive, pushy ; he’s seen what he wants and he goes for it with a vengeance, half-scaring Frankie out of her wits. Kokernot struck just the right tone: funny, wisecracking, skeptical, reluctant, vulnerable . Newcomb was engaging and appealing, but perhaps not quite anxious/aggressive enough. Still, it was a very satisfying evening of theater, with Sacha Denison, a recent arrival from Santa Barbara , where she received her BFA in acting, doing a fine job in reading the sometimes provocatively sexual stage directions. It was a feast for the imagination.
Next up at Carlsbad Playreaders : Laura Cunningham’s Beautiful Bodies, about a baby shower run amok, directed by the ever-busy Kristianne Kurner.
REMAINS OF THE DAY
Seema Sueko , founder/ artistic director of Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, scored a box office success earlier this month at St. Mary’s University in Minnesota , where her Patté Award-winning play, remains, was produced. In addition to the McDonald Playwriting Award the play won at the 2004 Pattés, remains also garnered the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s “Artistic and Cultural Achievement Award.” Next up for Mo’olelo: A workshop / play reading of The Adoption Project: Triad , which “ ventures into the emotional labyrinth of adoption. W ritten by Kimber Lee, with additional research conducted by Seema Sueko and Kathryn Venverloh , the play will get its first public reading Monday, March 27, 2006, 7:00 PM at Diversionary Theatre;
Info or reservations: 619-342-7395 or email@example.com .
Last week, I mentioned Mat Smart, UCSD alum from the MFA Playwriting program, who in 2004, wrote the wonderful, provocative play, The Hopper Collection, which premiered at the Baldwin New Play Festival. It had a professional world premiere production at San Francisco ’s Magic Theatre. And now it’s getting its East coast premiere at The Huntington Theatre in Boston . Ironically, one of the leading roles is played by another former San Diegan, the charismatic Bruce McKenzie. Man, I’d love to see him play Daniel, the beaten-down prizefighter who doesn’t know when to quit. This character and his wife are a variation of Albee’s George and Martha, playing out a marriage based on anger and fueled by fantasy. The Boston Globe said McKenzie “conveys both the menace and sensitivity his character requires.” And they called the 26 year-old Smart “wise beyond his years about how people live, and don’t live, their lives.” I just heard from Mat, and he’s busy working on commissions from South Coast Rep and the Huntington , as well as a musical based on “Moby Dick” that’s scheduled to go up this summer at White Horse Theatre Company in Chicago . Way to go!
ANOTHER UCSD ALUM MAKES GOOD
Joy Osmanski , adorable actor whom I named one of the Faces to Watch in 2002, just premiered in the new TV show, “The Loop ,” which first appeared in a prime slot – on Wednesday right after “American Idol,” but will air regularly on Thursday nights at 8:30pm. Joy plays Darcy, the cheerful, optimistic member of this Gen-X group, despite being stuck in a job for which she’s vastly overqualified. Check her out!
Oceanside ’s Sunshine Brooks Theatre is back in business. Last summer, it was taken over by New Vision Theatre, which is run by John and Yolanda Kalb. The new resident management and production company plans to mount five productions a year, mostly comedies, with a drama or musical thrown in for good measure. Since September, they’ve put up Arsenic and Old Lace, The Odd Couple, The Foreigner and Noises Off. The current production, running through April 1, is On Golden Pond, in which John Kalb stars (he also played Oscar in The Odd Couple), as crusty, aging Norman Thayer, who gets a new lease on life. The Kalbs have been involved in community theatre for about ten years, starting in San Juan Capistrano, where John built sets, acted, wrote music (he’s a long-time singer/songwriter/guitarist) and Yolanda did props, costumes and set decoration. They started New Vision as a response to the RFP Oceanside put out for the Brooks Theatre in 2003. The City has made many renovations to the 197-seat theater, and the Kalbs plan to run New Vision productions, and to make the space also available for rental; needless to say, the company is actively seeking volunteers. Contact numbers: Box Office: 7160-529-9140. Business Office: 760-231-9471.
TAB, YOU’RE IT…
Tab Hunter , the closeted babe-magnet of the ‘50s is now 75 years old and still handsome. Next Tuesday, I’ll be doing a live onstage interview with him as part of the Distinguished Author Series of the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture at the Lawrence Family JCC. Tab’s new book is “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star.” So, if you wanna hear how he got made (and by whom), come to the JCC in La Jolla on Tuesday, March 21 at 7:30pm. Tix are $10-12; 858-362-1348; www.lfjcc.org
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
The Playboy of the Western World – excellently done (if a wee bit heavy on the accents); skillfully combines all the drama, grisly humor and hero worship Synge intended
New Village Arts at Jazzercise in Carlsbad , through April 1
A Body of Water – an unsettling, thought-provoking piece of theater, outstandingly acted, directed and designed
On the Old Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through March 19.
Into the Woods – well played, well sung, well seen
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, EXTENDED through March 26.
Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star – Lively, funny, excellently executed.
At The Theatre in Old Town , through March 19.
My Fair Lady – spectacularly inventive production; beautifully designed, directed, acted and sung
At Cygnet Theatre, through April 23.
What the Butler Saw – deeply disturbed, hilariously funny. A pitch-perfect black farce, wonderfully acted and comically timed
At 6th @ Penn Theatre (Thurs-Sat.), through April 30.
Celebrate St. Pat’s — and Spring — at the theater!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.