By Pat Launer
It was ‘A Thousand Clowns’ all right, some males sans introspect;
From the blood-sucking, singing ‘Bat Boy’ to the oxymoron ‘Male Intellect.’
When you’re trapped in a Kafkaesque circumstance
Make like Martha and Gina: ‘When life’s weird, we dance!’
What do you get when you cross Tommy, Hedwig, Dracula, Edward Scissorhands and JC Superstar? A charismatic weirdo, of course. It’s Bat Boy, now (briefly) appearing in “Bat Boy ,The Musical,” a wacky, garish sendup of tabloid stories and trailer trash, science-fiction and small-town mentality, ‘50s horror films, rock and movie musicals and even magical realism. It’s actually loosely based in reality, if you want to call a Weekly World News article ‘real.’ In 1992, the supermarket rag reported that a half-bat, half-boy had been found in a cave in tiny Hope Falls, West Virginia (yeah, and I saw Elvis). Actor/writer Keythe Farley and playwright/screenwriter/director Brian Flemming couldn’t resist. They had a field day with the story and called on composer/lyricist Laurence O’Keefe (like Farley, a member of L.A. ’s Actors’ Gang) to make it a satiric songfest. An offbeat, off-the-wall hit Off Broadway, where it won the Outer Critics Circle Award as Best Musical of 2001,”Bat Boy” also bit hard in London, and he could soon be attacking a movie theater near you. Cult king John Landis (“An American Werewolf in London ,” “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” “The Blues Brothers”) is on the prowl to direct.
In the meantime, the SDSU Theatre Dept. has scored the local premiere. And director Rick Simas has done a killer job with this batty show that puts the vamp (musical and otherwise) back in vampire. When the Bat Boy is first captured in the redneck town, he’s taken to the home of the local veterinarian (wonderful Jan Cranford), a guy who already drinks too much and feels ignored by his wife (energetic and expansive Ryan Beattie). Now she really has someone to dote on; she dubs him Edgar and tries to civilize the boy wonder (played by the charming and compelling Estonian, Jakko Maltis ), introducing him to everything from Darwin to Disneyland, teaching all the mores and etiquette of civilized (read: small-town) society. But no matter how nattily he’s dressed, Edgar remains an outcast, what with his fangs, pointy ears and unquenchable blood-thirst. Nevertheless, the nubile daughter of the vet (adorable Nicole Werner) falls hard, and doesn’t seem to mind that he sometimes hangs upside down. He’s rejected by the town, accused of killing the cattle. There’s a message of tolerance in there somewhere, and oblique references to salvation and crucifixion, but the dark undertone sports a Darwinian imperative: society be damned, genetics will out. The boy will be a bat after all. The dejected/rejected husband will take his revenge, the tables will turn multiple times and tragedy will ensue, of course.
Despite the self-mocking tone, the show also has a decidedly sentimental side. It’s all great fun, with the riotous trailer-trash townsfolk (Kevin Maldarelli , Omri Schein , Elizabeth Bouros and Jamie Kalama are especially outstanding); the rockin ’ revivalist, the bespangled Rev. Billy Bob Brimstone (outrageous and uproarious Omri Schein ), and the sensitive but no-nonsense Sheriff (funny straight-arrow Kelly Baldwin). But then there’s that wacko scene in the forest, with all the furry, upright animals (the fantastic costumes are by Naomi Spinak ) and the outlandish appearance of the gilded satyr, Pan. Huh?? Well, bats, beauties, big butts, tiny cows, why not that, too?? It’s wild, witty and inordinately over the top. But the production is fantastic. The songs are often hip and witty, the singing is uniformly terrific (about half the cast are talented MFA musical theater students) and the moves are clever and cool (choreography by SDSU MFA alum Alison Bretches ). The set (Loren Schreiber) is a marvelously dark, spooky, mobile affair and the lighting (Brian Shevelenko ) has all the eeriness and special effects you’d expect. It’s great, goofy fun — a succulent jumble of shock, schlock and rock.
At SDSU’s Don Powell Theatre, through March 20.
Okay, men are jerks, right? Assholes, actually, if you believe the guy personifying “The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron.” He knows it, he confesses it, he’s trying to get over it. Bobby’s fiancée has just dumped him, and he’s bereft and soul-searching, making repeat onstage ‘visits’ to his cluttered, rational, beer-guzzling left brain as well as his pathetically undeveloped, emotional/communicative right brain. He’s trying to achieve balance between the two, while waiting for his ex to call; she told him she would, in two weeks’ time.
The long-running one-man show, which has played all over the country and abroad (having been translated into Swedish, Finnish and German, among others), was conceived by Robert Dubac about ten years ago. I spoke to Bob recently and he swore the story wasn’t autobiographical, though elements and incidents “came from [his] experience. He actually met his wife during his early performances of the show. She’s an actor, too, and it’s her voice we hear giving the woman’s POV during the show. Needless to say, the success of “The Male Intellect” took him by surprise. “It’s grown beyond my dreams,” he said from Texas , where he’s performing the show again. He was on tour last year, stopping at the Civic Theatre, and then came back to initiate the sitting production at the Theatre in Old Town . Meanwhile, Ford Austin has taken over here, and the night I saw the show, another regular, Miles Stroth , was performing. Dubac , who spent ten years doing standup, but was also trained in theater by the legendary actor/director/teacher Sanford Meisner , first came up with the idea as a ‘filler’ between acting gigs on TV, in film and in theater. “I wanted a little security blanket,” he said. Now he could retire on his ‘Oxymoronic’ cottage industry. But instead, he’s still performing the show, while working on another one (a piece called “Piss and Moan,” about the unthinking, lemming mentality in our country, and uncovering the ‘truth’ in politics, media and religion. “That’s where our angst is coming from,” he says). He retains control of the original piece, and said (jokingly??) the major criterion for taking on the role is a desire to learn it (90 minutes, multiple characters). Mastering the oxy-moron reportedly takes about 2-3 months; all the performers stick pretty closely to Dubac’s rhythm, pace and formula for success.
So, back in Old Town , this guy is looking for What Women Want, and what men actually have (including a penis, which, we are told, is the root cause of most of their inconsiderate and unconscionable acts toward women). Women take a hit here, too, which is why the show appeals to both genders; both the Red Hats and the adolescent boys in the audience when I was there spent most of their time nudging each other and laughing uproariously.
There isn’t any new ground broken in the Battle Between the Sexes (it’s a slightly different spin from “Defending the Caveman”), but the role requires considerable talent (and memory), improvisational ability (there is some interaction with the audience) and an ability to play several disparate characters (the redneck bachelor, psycho-babbling Frenchman, etc.). Stroth , whose background is in improv (he was a student of the Del Close of Chicago, the “father of long-form improvisation”), has toured with “The Male Intellect” on and off since 1996. He was likable and engaging, and humorously interactive. It’s a great date show, and a fun gals’ or guys’ night out. You may not learn anything new, but you’re sure to laugh your head off (and recognize a thing or two).
P.S. You’ll probably see Austin in the role for the next month or so, and then Dubac is due back in San Diego for a couple of weeks at the beginning of May.
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing.
These days, Herb Gardner ’s “A Thousand Clowns” (1962) can make people squirm a bit. It’s about an irresponsible surrogate single father and the threat of having his custodial nephew yanked away by the Child Welfare Board and put into foster care. Not so funny any more. But there are still plenty of laughs in the Tony-nominated comedy, and Murray Burns, immature, overgrown adolescent that he is, can still seem pretty appealing at times. He eschews humdrum lives and boring jobs. He quit his own, writing for ‘Chuckles the Chipmunk,’ and now he plays hooky daily and sometimes encourages his super-bright, precocious 12 year-old nephew, Nick (Henry Metcalf, who alternates with James Patterson) to do the same. They live an unconventional life, to be sure, and neither of them seems unhappy with it (though Nick could do with less slobbiness from his careless/carefree uncle). But then the Welfare Board shows up, in the guise of a Good Cop/Bad Cop duo: the dreary, lackluster rule-follower, Albert (Randy Howell) and the perky young grad, Sandra Markowitz (Kathryn Venverloh ), out on her first assignment and already overly involved in the case. In one of the more instantaneous and unlikely turnarounds in the theater, she decides to split from Albert, her fiancé, and stay with Murray – thereby allowing some of the ‘thousand clowns’ stuffed into the little circus-car that is her life and personality, to bust out for a romantic, liberating free-for-all. There’s still the Welfare Board to deal with, and thanks to the cajoling of Murray’s staid but successful brother, Arnold (Ralph Elias), a job to return to, writing once again for the pathetically insecure and obnoxious TV kids’ show host, Chuckles (Mark C. Petrich ). The one-liners spew nonstop, and there’s even a still-relevant message about not compromising your personal integrity for the sake of money and conformity.
When Gardner adapted his stage play into a screenplay in 1965 (with Jason Robards reprising his Broadway performance), “A Thousand Clowns” became one of the first of the counterculture, anti-establishment films, a genre that probably reached its apex in the early ‘70s. Gardner chose his targets well: they’re still easy marks: TV, advertising, tedium, predictability and sellout. What is life, Murray would argue, without a sense of serendipity?
The North Coast Repertory Theatre production is careful and competent, though you couldn’t call it a knockout. Most of the characters on this stage seem decidedly more Midwest than New York – with the exception of the sad and solid Elias and the aptly ridiculous Petrich . Matt Thompson’s Murray is appealing but not irresistible, as he must be to make us really care. But he does give us moments of humor and poignancy. And he plays well off 13 year-old Metcalf, who’s a delight as Nick, deadpan and funny, off-handed and talented. Venverloh actually manages to make the nonsensical role of Sandra credible in some weird way. Howell plays Albert like a stick-figure — but he doesn’t have much to work with. Elias’ direction is unfussy; there isn’t too much business, though the pace could be more varied. Marty Burnett’s set looks great as a shabby but surprisingly expansive New York apartment, with its Venetian blinds, faux Tiffany lamps, wood trim and requisite brick wall outside the window. But it’s a lot more neat and tidy than you’d expect from Murray . Shelly Williams’ costumes are spot-on, and M. Scott Grabau’s lighting is just fine. George Yé’s sound design is a hoot, ranging from Dylan and Dean-o to Mr. Clean. Overall, it’s a hit-and-miss production, but still good for plenty of laughs, and audiences seem to be loving it.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through April 3.
There are some beautiful images in Eveoke Dance Theatre’s “Parting the Sea.” Butoh dancer Charlene Penner pushing a huge ‘boulder’ slowly, painstakingly, across the vast expanse of the cavernous old Wonder Bread Factory. The face and hands provocatively projected on a large, suspended ‘moon,’ ever-vigilant, hiding and revealing sad but watchful eyes. Two women intertwined, then separated and trying to reconnect. A pebble-strewn body of water, then the rocks lined up to create a barrier. The parched thirst of isolation, the challenge of crossing the divide, the joy of community and cooperation, the relief at reunion. These elements of Gina Angelique’s latest creation are stunning. But the piece doesn’t hang together as a whole. And it’d be hard to deduce all the intended references without reading the director/choreographer’s notes. And even then…. There are just too many elements here, and they don’t always cohere.
Angelique has certainly addressed the issue of borders and boundaries before, and she does that effectively in this piece as well. But it’s murky to tell a tale of connection and disconnection, barriers and overcoming them, while at the same time trying to include the myths of Sisyphus (that one’s easy to discern here, Penner endlessly pushing that great hulking weight back and forth) and Narcissus (an extremely opaque retelling). A wonderful combination of artist and activist, Angelique obviously has a lot on her mind in these tough times – but it doesn’t all fit in one dance piece.
The Narcissus story seemed a sad misuse of the enormous talents of Anthony Rodriguez, who’s grown, over six-years with the company, into a marvelous dancer. He is dressed as a clown; he cavorts ridiculously – though his Mummenschanz -like turn in a large, vermiform green cylinder is spectacular. He’s so able and energetic. Why does he have to be costumed like a tawdry woman, in garish clothes (costumes by Angelique, Tonette Higgins and Sarah Karpicus )) and paraded around in silly cartoonish makeup? Even if the message is supposed to be a question of identity addressed to Durga (Narcissus meets Durga ?? Where did that come from??), it just doesn’t make sense. At the end, when Rodriguez apparently strips away the artifice to reveal his ‘true’ self, he’s left exposed, in white underwear. ( Penner’s costumes, too, did her no favors). Then there’s the inexplicable presence of Durga , the Hindu Mother Goddess (a reflection and manifestation of supreme beauty and deadly power), who is ostensibly giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on whether each of these characters is ready to become him/her self. The Child (engagingly played by Yvonne Hernandez) is the most transparent character. The rest of the “fairy tale” has to be read in the program notes to be understood. And it’s still difficult to follow. Nikki Dunnan and Erika Malone are lovely and often heartbreaking as each plays “Half of One,” torn apart and seeking to reunite.
The choreography is intriguing and very well executed. The music is an interesting admixture of traditional folk songs sung by Leadbelly and others (“Skip to My Lou,” “Pick a Bale of Cotton”), as well as a Traditional Indian Lullaby, a haunting melody sung repeatedly (perhaps too many times) by Angelique’s talented sister, Danielle LoPresti , and contemporary work by the likes of Zap Mama and DJ Spooky and Bang on a Can. The dance idiom is also all over the map, too, from balletic to hiphop . Angelique is at her creative best when she has one single theme and focus (e.g., “Anne Frank: Dances of a Young Girl”). Often, her trenchant political content is too on-the-nose. This time, her multiple messages were baffling and nearly impenetrable. But the accompanying photography exhibit, by Maria Teresa Fernandez, provocative images of the US/Mexico border, tells a more compelling tale in a more direct, succinct manner.
At the old Wonder Bread Factory near Petco Park , through March 26.
He’s one of the few authors whose name has become an adjectival household word. “Kafkaesque” suggests irrational, disorienting, often menacing complexity, a sense of impending danger, often applied to the surreal maze of bureaucratic or governmental machinations. The man who inspired the word, Franz Kafka, was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, though most of his work was published posthumously, after he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1924, at age 41. Kafka was born in Prague , where his middle-class Jewish family and lifelong job in an insurance agency heightened his persistent feelings of inferiority, guilt, resentment, confinement and alienation. All these sensations make a striking appearance in “The Trial,” which was published in 1925. The story was fodder for films by Andre Gide and Jean-Louis Barrault (1947) and Orson Welles (who, in 1962, adapted and directed what he considered to be his best film, with Anthony Perkins in the lead). The 1973 stage adaptation, by quirky English actor/director/writer Stephen Berkoff , just completed a short run presented by Full Circle Theatre, a local company that encourages young talent and specializes in cross-generational work.
The excellent ensemble of 15 ranged from La Jolla High School students (the production was mounted in the school’s Parker Auditorium) to Actors Alliance members to Equity actor Pricilla Allen. Under the astute guidance of Mike Auer, who’s making an impressive return to directing after a ten-year hiatus, “The Trial” was staged in a perfectly surreal, Kafkaesque tone. Auer’s direction was stark and specific; several characters and the Choir (a Greek chorus of sorts) carried a construction resembling a rectangular doorframe; these were moved with precision to create rooms, corridors, and a cathedral, often surrounding the hero to reflect the confusion of his labyrinthine peregrinations and his unraveling mind.
The ill-fated central character, Joseph K, was wonderfully portrayed by Matt Harrington, a former local and national Shakespeare competition winner who went on to attend NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London . A bureaucratic bank functionary, Joseph K has been arrested one morning for an unspecified crime. The play follows his fruitless attempts to discover what he’s done and how he can acquit himself. He alternates between despair and frustration as it becomes increasingly clear that the law is a shifting, amorphous house of sand, built on myth, rumor and supposition; the people who say they can help him know little more than he does. He encounters enigmatic, seductive women of uncertain influence (students Tina Emami and Reem Mahmood ), an authoritative but ultimately powerless and dissipated lawyer (Priscilla Allen, fine as a male and provocative in two female roles), and a flamboyant Italian painter (Todd Peters, consistently delightful and noteworthy) who can offer only ostentatious exclamations that mask ominous advice.
The mood of the production shifted wildly from realistic to nightmarish to absurd. The dark undertone of Kafka’s disturbing story was underscored by a constant shift of large-screen projections, a mix of beautifully evocative realistic settings and abstract art (Auer is also credited with Slide Design). One couldn’t help thinking about Guantánamo or the ‘terrorist’ ‘holding pens’ all around this country, where folks are being incarcerated without being charged, without a trial or access to legal counsel – sometimes for years. Written in 1917, “The Trial” presaged the Holocaust, but Kafka would feel right at home in our own age of political doublespeak and Homeland (in )Security . This outstanding production had far too short a run. It should be brought back intact; it deserved a far larger audience.
If was an incredible treat to see the Martha Graham Dance Company. I remember seeing them many years ago in New York , when Graham was still alive and dancing. Though no one in the current troupe has quite the same emotional force or charisma of the late, great choreographer (who died in 1991), the corps remains spectacular. The oldest and most famous contemporary dance company in America still maintains magnificent precision, and the stage pictures (and costumes) Graham created 65 years ago are still breathtaking. It’s been a decade since they visited San Diego, and they performed to wildly enthusiastic crowds for two nights last weekend, as part of the La Jolla Music Society’s “American Movement: Martha Graham and Aaron Copland Festival.”
Both programs opened with “Appalachian Spring,” the gorgeously evocative piece Copland, the American master, composed for Graham; he called it “Ballet for Martha,” and reportedly had no image of Early American pioneer settlers in mind when he wrote it; he was surprised that she’d renamed and reframed it. But what she did with it was sheer genius. With a magnificently minimalist set (Isamu Noguchi’s suggestive prairie house-frame, fence and rocker), Graham introduces the characters that form the burgeoning wilderness community: the Bride, The Husbandman, the Revivalist and his Followers and the Pioneering Woman. The choreography is whimsical, restricted by religious constraint, filled with longing and love, shot through with wisdom and a deeply satisfying sense of freedom and promise. The red-dressed, statuesque Katherine Crockett made for a stately Pioneering Woman and as The Bride, Miki Orihara exuded all the fresh-faced hope and exuberance of youth. The dark “Errand into the Maze” (music by Gian Carlo Menotti) depicted a confrontation with a menacing, unnamed Fear. Alessandra Prosperi did a gorgeous job fending off and ultimately triumphing over the sinister, horned Christophe Jeannot , whose flawless body seemed to be chiseled from stone. The many faces of love were featured in “Diversion of Angels,” where Yuko Suzuki shone as the Woman in Yellow. The evening ended with the gut-wrenching “Sketches from Chronicle,” which focused on war, destruction, desolation, lamentation and reconstruction. Elizabeth Auclair’s “Red Shroud,” an ultra-long dress that turned from black to blood-red, achingly expressed the pain of war-torn women everywhere. What a thrilling evening… one I felt privileged to attend.
Carlsbad Playreaders scores again. For their second production under new management, the company presented another winner: Donald Margulies’ “Dinner with Friends,” which garnered the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. The play premiered here at the Old Globe in 2001, with a drop-dead set that overshadowed the text and the characters. It wasn’t clear whether the problem was the play or the production. Well, Robert Dahey’s directorial work with a wonderful cast cleared that up. The play, when done right, is funny, touching and significant; it has a great deal to say about marriage, relationship, friendship, loyalty and betrayal.
The characters, far from the obnoxious, annoying, overly rich, self-involved monstrosities they had seemed to me when I saw the full production, are in fact multi-faceted, flesh-and-blood, flawed individuals. It was a very moving production, full of heart and believable anguish. Two couples, who have been friends for years, are individually and communally shocked by the separation and pending divorce of one pair, after the man leaves his spouse for another woman. Most of the play concerns the aftershocks, though there is one flashback to earlier times.
Each of the skilled actors dug deep in this superbly staged reading, which featured just enough action and physical contact to make the relationships palpable, and attractive opening videos to establish the New England/Cape Cod setting. Amy Scholl, who directed this season’s first production at the Carlsbad Library (the hilarious “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”), was spectacular as Karen, the control-freak food-nut who is nurturing (in her way) but also rigid, judgmental and unforgiving. Her foodaholic mate (they’re ever-cooking food writers) is charmingly played by Jason Heil , as a man at odds with himself and his life, but whose commitment and self-searching will see him through. As the splitting couple, Natalie Maisel was adorable in her pained and then contented adult state, though a tad less than the hippy-dippy, artistic free spirit the text calls for in her earlier incarnation. Terry Scheidt was excellent as the lawyer who leaves her and who tries to make his case to his friends. With Margulies’ pitch -perfect ear for dialogue and character development, each in turn earns our sympathy — and our loathing — during the course of the evening. And they all make us go out thinking about our own lives and relationships. Splendid.
Next month’s offering at the Carlsbad Library: “The Clearing,” by Helen Edmundson , directed by Marc Overton; April 18 at 7:30pm. Be there
MARK YOUR CALENDAR…
Go Greek – at the 22nd annual SDSU Design-Performance Jury. The nationally unique event will be held this year on Friday, April 15, from 9:00-2:30 in the Experimental Theatre. This year’s play is Euripides’ “The Trojan Women,” and three teams of students will offer up (for sacrifice??) to a panel of jurors and a general audience, their designs for a hypothetical full-scale production of the play. The director describes his intentions, the costume, scenic and lighting designers present their renderings and a short scene is enacted. Then the jurors critique the students’ work. This is a daunting experience for theatrical wannabes, to be sure, but an excellent learning experience for them – and for the rapt observers. The panel this year, selected by Beeb Salzer, who created the jury two decades ago, includes Martin Benson, artistic director of the Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory Theatre; theater, concert and TV lighting designer James Moody; costume designer Molly Maginnis , who’s done most of her work in film; Broadway and TV set designer John Iacovelli ; and actors Jordan Baker (original cast of Albee’s “Three Tall Women”) and her husband Kevin Kilner (Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie”), joined by local Linda Castro, who’s directed and co-produced over fifty staged readings of Greek dramas, under the umbrella of her GrassRoots Greeks, as well as winning multiple awards last year for her work in “Kimberly Akimbo.” Linda, soon to leave San Diego , is a regular on the TV show, “Veronica Mars.”
Since the Theater Department at SDSU is now part of the merged School of Theatre , Television and Film, the third group presentation of the day will relate to a screen rather than a stage production. That change was implemented last year, and it made for fascinating discussion. So take your mind off Tax Day, and get a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the making of theater — and theater professionals.
SAN DIEGO SEES IT FIRST!
The national tour of the new musical, “Little Women,” will begin in San Diego this summer. Maureen McGovern, currently playing the girls’ mother, Marmee , on Broadway, will reprise the role on the road… at the Civic Theatre this August. No word yet on who’s playing Jo, the role that Sutton Foster (the understudy who became an overnight star, first at the La Jolla Playhouse and then on Broadway, in “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) is now nailing in New York . Wouldn’t it be cool to welcome her back here?
NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ LIST
“Bat Boy” – superb production of a wacky, campy rock musical; excellently directed, acted, sung, designed, choreographed and costumed.
At SDSU’s Don Powell Theatre, though March 20.
“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.
“Arms and the Man” – beautifully directed and acted, gorgeously costumed. A stellar production all around.
At Moonlight’s Avo Theatre, though March 20.
“Pageant” – where the girls are guys and the competition is ferocious. Loads of smarm and charm, and a lot of laughs.
At Cygnet Theatre, through April 17.
“Vigil” – Ron Choularton at his darkly hilarious best. A reprise of his beloved, prize-winning performance.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through March 27.
Private Fittings – frothy, frivolous, Feydeau farce, updated and upended – done up, Des-style – and done well.
At La Jolla Playhouse, through March 27.
“Thunder at Dawn” – a timely/timeless tale of soldiers on desert duty. Taut, intense and provocative.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through March 20.
“I Just Stopped By to See the Man” – Blues in the Night. Director Seret Scott has marshaled an outstanding cast – and they all beautifully sing the blues. Lovely production.
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, EXTENDED through March 20.
Spring is here! So take your bloomin ’ buddies to the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.