By Pat Launer
Love is a matter of risk and surprises
It comes in all styles, shapes and sizes,
Whether ‘First Love’ or mother-love, from shriek to sigh
There’s always more than meets the eye.
Getting on in years, they have no time to waste. If they’re gonna fall in and out of love, fight, make up, come apart and stay together, they’d better do it fast. That’s the premise of Charles Mee’s late-life “First Love.” It’s a surreal 2001 dramedy, rife with regrets, one-liners, acrimony and affection. It’s an absurdist fantasy. But in the inaugural production of InnerMission Productions, it feels like a naturalistic kitchen-sink comedy. The phantasmal scenes, featuring pert, young Brenna Briski , are not as fantastical as they should be. The pace is pokier. The whole approach to the piece is one of stark realism rather than a time-crunching fantasia. George Soete and Joan Westmoreland do solid work in the roles of the homeless Harold and feisty Edith, though the tone of the acting doesn’t always match the tenor of the piece.
They meet not-so-cute on a park bench; she shoves him over, bullies him, then takes him home. They sing songs, dance in an old-fashioned way, do a strip-tease, attempt sex, reveal their fetishes, and unload a lifetime of baggage. But there isn’t enough playfulness or sexiness here. Everyone’s working hard, but no one seems to have a firm grasp on the piece. Carla Nell’s direction is not precise and specific enough. She’s trying to do too much (technically and otherwise), when something more simple, speedy and stylized would have worked so much better. These are disgruntled ’50-60s radicals (“We lost a lot when we lost Communism,” Edith laments). This isn’t Golden Pond (that’s coming in November to the Avo). There should be one single, shared highly intimate and ultra-charged mind-body-and-soul when they rapturously recite Ginsberg’s “Howl” in unison. There should be a palpable sensuality and mutual attraction. The rage is played best, but the raw sex — and Harold’s sexual fantasies — are played down. Here, the ever-intruding visions of a ‘young thing’ are more confusing than enlightening or amusing.
Stagehands waft in and out, adding set pieces that really aren’t necessary (though the changes are made silently and seamlessly). The lighting is garish and intrusive. Admittedly, the play is flawed; it is far less grand or grandiloquent than the other parts of Mee’s love trilogy, “Big Love” and “True Love,” which riff on Greek dramas. This much smaller piece plays more like the poignant comedy, “I’m Not Rappaport ,” though that’s not quite the intention. But it was a risky undertaking for a young director and a new company. It’ll be fascinating to see what they do next.
At St. Cecilia’s, through September 3.
MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
What if the world just took a day off? It’d be great not to go to work (well, for some people; others are too obsessed to think the planet with continue to rotate without them). But that also means no TV, no restaurants, no phone service, no police. EVERYONE is off. It’s an experiment the world is willing to try in Kristina Meek’s “The Day After Yesterday,” an imaginative work that’s getting its premiere at North Park Vaudeville, under the aegis of GB Productions. Fascinating premise, an imaginative contemplation of time. But poor workaholic Gina (totally believable Kathleen Massé ) can’t conceive of a World Wide Day Off. Whatever will she do with all that time and no computer to log into? Her slacker live-in boyfriend, Dirk (cute and credible Robby Lyons), a wannabe guitarist who tests computer games for a ‘living,’ thinks it’s a super idea, and a great way for Gina to chill out for once. He decides he won’t breathe for the day, and runs off and finds a TV reporter, Josanne (the engagingly smarmy, ever-smiley Stephanie Jackson) to interview him. Meanwhile, Gina is still living in the past, frightened of the apple-tossing talking trees in “The Wizard of Oz” and regretting the breakup of her last relationship (and engagement), which her awful, demeaning mother (Summer Golden) never fails to rub her nose in. Said mother also shows up as Fear in Gina’s nightmares, underscoring all the self-doubts and self-flagellations that escalate and haunt during her non-waking hours.
Ultimately, time takes its toll on Gina (as does her mother, who also becomes annoying to us. Golden’s lisp and overbearing stage persona wear out their welcome). In a ‘Groundhog Day’ scenario, Gina relives some experiences and conversations, and foresees others. She’s trapped, or free-floating, in the time-space continuum. This changes her perspective on life and Dirk and maybe even her mother. There’s a wonderful moment when Gina and Dirk come together, and she tries to understand what’s happening to her, time-wise. Dirk calms her, lies with her, and just before a blackout, she says “What day do you think it’ll be tomorrow?” That should have been the end of the play. But Meek, who also serves as director, goes on and on, for many more scenes (punctuated by painfully slow and totally unnecessary costume changes and blackouts). Meek’s dialogue is snappy, real. She has some intriguing ideas. But like most playwrights, she’d benefit from an outside eye and opinion. She’s definitely a writer to watch; next time, she should give the directorial reins to someone else and see what new dramatic magic can be wrought.
At North Park Vaudeville and Candy Shoppe, through September 10.
The final weekend of the Fritz Blitz of New Plays by California Writers was the best. A full-length play , ” Munched,” by San Franciscan Kim Porter, brought the Blitz to an auspicious and haunting close. The play concerns Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Munchausen’s syndrome is named for the Baron von Munchausen , legendary 18th century confabulator. In that disorder, the patient pleas for treatment and hospitalization for an acute, symptomatic but imaginary illness. In the disease ‘by proxy,’ it’s the parent/caregiver of the afflicted who is creating the disease or disability, to attract attention to him/herself, as martyr and suffering savior. So this is the setup in “Munched.”
Marybeth has been accused of killing her first two daughters and making her third sick in all sorts of dastardly ways (putting feces in her IV, inducing diarrhea and vomiting). By the time she’s 6, Katie has been hospitalized seven times, once for 28 days. One night, Marybeth is dragged away from the hospital bedside where she’s resolutely stationed herself, and hauled off to jail. She spends 25 years incarcerated.
In captivating ways, the play flashes back and forward from past to present. Mother and daughter, situated on opposite sides of the stage, tell their sides of the story. Marybeth insists she’s been misunderstood. Katie is trying to piece it all together, having just found all her mother’s letters and having gone through the court transcripts and all the sensationalized newspaper reports, which gave rise to a book, “Mothered or Smothered: The Marybeth Paxton Story.” Katie wants to get to the truth. How much did her little lies cost her mother? Is it possible that Marybeth was “Munched,” that is, falsely accused of Munchausen’s by proxy? Porter doesn’t give us any easy answers; in fact, as the tension builds, as mother and daughter are finally reunited, the questions and uncertainly mount. The climactic ending is disturbing, to say the least, it doesn’t leave us feeling fulfilled or assured.
As directed by Emily Cornelius, the play moved at a pulse-quickening pace. The production was simple; Katie sitting in a car seat, her mother pacing in her apartment. Other people (all of them played by Monique Gaffney and Brian Taraz) move in and out of the action. A nurse, a cop, a parole officer, a be-turbaned weirdo. So many chilling details, so much to absorb .. But the direction and performances make it easy. Kathi Diamant is terrific as Marybeth, a mass (mess?) of emotional extremes; she’s loving, angry, tender, guilt-ridden, furious and destructive. She hasn’t accepted her diagnosis or fate, even after decades in the slammer. She insists on her innocence. Katie doesn’t seem so quick to forgive, but she’s got her own demons; is she a survivor or a facilitator? Jeannine Marquie is outstanding in this role, which encompasses a variety of other character impersonations, including a very funny turn as a gossip-mongering librarian. Some of Taraz’ generally unsavory array of characters tend to morph into each other, but Gaffney is precise and detailed in each of her portrayals, some of which are acidic, some benign, some officious and others just plain weird. She does a superb job. The set and lighting are simple; the words and emotions carry all (new theater companies, take note!).
This proved a potent, provocative ending to the Blitz.
Lisa is torn between two mothers. Her birth mother, whom she hasn’t seen since birth, is manic-depressive and homeless. Her adoptive mother is selfish and nasty. Karen Paull’s “Flesh and Blood” is loosely based on her own life experience as an adopted child who, after many years, tracked down her troubled birth mother. But she’s taken a lot of poetic license, both in content and style, abetted by director Karen Berthel .
Paull has moved herself and her troupe, Electra Theatre Company (ETC), from San Francisco to San Diego . Their mission is “building a creative environment for emerging women theater artists.” In that domain, they join the Moxie Theatre, also premiering this year, and the (currently quiescent) Women’s Repertory Theatre. This first local ETC production (the play premiered in SF) shows the promise of ingenuity and inventiveness in writing and directing. But not everything works. The piece swings wildly from earnest to absurd, sentimental to slapstick. Song and dance numbers are woven into the sometimes dour or ridiculous scenes, to varying effect. Leslie Gold is particularly striking as the birth mother, Judith. Her wild eyes and often-lucid madness are heartbreaking. Misty Reams is engaging as the hapless daughter, Lisa. The rest of the cast tends toward acting excess — Katherine Forbes as the platinum, self-involved stepmother; Debbie Nicastro as the singing alter-ego Jazzmine ; and Laurie Reynolds and lithe, agile Wendy Savage in a variety of roles (both best as mental patients). There are comic moments and serious ones, but the emotional and dramatic roller coaster ride is often dizzying.
Clearly, ETC isn’t afraid to tackle tough themes in unconventional ways. It’ll be fun to see what the transplanted company is up to next.
At Adams Avenue Studio of the Arts, through September 4.
WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT
Due to “major technical difficulties,” the Poor Players are postponing the official opening of their gender-bending “As You Like It” (could it be costume malfunctions??). The production still debuts this weekend at the Hearth Theatre of San Marcos, but it’s now a ‘preview weekend’ with Pay-What-You-May prices. The regular run continues in San Marcos through September 11 and resumes Sept. 16-18 and 23-24 at Sun Valley High Theatre in Ramona. And there’ll be a special benefit performance at the Munks ’ Folly Theatre in La Jolla , Sun. Sept. 25 at 3:30pm.
AUGUST’S WORST AUGUST
Timing is everything. August Wilson, considered one of America ’s greatest living playwrights, just completed the tenth and final play of his epic cycle chronicling the 20th century of African American life, decade by decade, mostly centered on one Pittsburgh neighborhood. His final installment, “Radio Golf,” is currently running at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. Wilson finished just in the nick of time. The 60 year-old two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner just announced that he’s been diagnosed with liver cancer, which is inoperable. This is a genuine tragedy for the American theater. Miracles certainly have been known to happen onstage; this would be a great time for a little magic offstage.
GOOD TIMES AT THE GLOBE
In this, the 70th anniversary of the Old Globe Theatre, the good times just keep rollin ’. Last week was the splendid 90th Birthday Bash for founding director Craig Noel. And this week, the introduction of “ Chita Rivera: The Dancers’ Life.”
The Bday party was filled with humor and good wishes, jabs at Craig and the unveiling of his new statue in the Globe lobby (it’s only missing his signature fisherman’s cap and cigarette). Some eleven associate artists (including Katherine McGrath, Jonathan McMurtry, Harry Groener and Dakin Matthews) took to the stage to sing Craig’s praises. Jack O’Brien, that incomparable orator, served as MC at the sumptuous dinner. He said, with a wink, there are two things you learn when working with Craig: one, never mention his birthday (or, God forbid, sing that awful birthday song). And two, never ask him what he thinks of your work unless you really want to hear the truth. Craig was delightful (if self-effacing), and being the mensch that he is, took his time at the microphone to praise the other theaters in town, large and small. What a guy!
And what a gal Chita Rivera is. She looks fabulous, and was an Energizer livewire at the press preview of her new show, which begins previews September 10 and moves right on to NY after the close on Oct. 23. The first-act musical number came from the first act, and featured the attractive, multi-racial, 11-member cast, which includes two very young girls who play Chita ’s daughter – and Brian Stokes Mitchell’s wife). The dance medley from “West Side Story” was not quite a finished product, but it definitely showed promise and potential. Director/choreographer Graciela Daniele called the Globe “one of my favorite theaters,” and dubbed Chita “my favorite star – not only our leader and inspiration in theater, but also a force of nature.” I interviewed Chita for ‘Full Focus,’ and she was a warm, personal, forthcoming, ebullient delight. Watch this column for further info on the air date.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“I Am My Own Wife” – another opportunity to see Jefferson Mays’ dazzling performance as the German transvestite who was a survivor and an enigma. Provocative play, incredible acting. Don’t miss it this time. Or if you saw it before, see it again; it’s as stellar as the first time!
At the La Jolla Playhouse, through September 11.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
Closing weekend (after >250 performances) at the Theatre in Old Town –through Sept. 4.
“The Winter’s Tale” – beautifully designed and directed. Director Darko Tresnjak is a wonder, and he teases outstanding performances from his talented ensemble.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“Macbeth” – marvelous direction (Paul Mullins), costumes (Linda Cho ) and truly spooky, chilling moments make this “ MacB ” a standout.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“The Comedy of Errors” – Director Darko Tresnjak shows his sillier side, with a farcical, slapstick production that’s precisely directed and humorously performed.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
Okay, no more summer excuses; it’s Back to School – and Back-to-Theater time!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.