By Pat Launer
‘For Reasons that Remain Unclear,’
‘The Merchant‘ ‘ …met a Woodcutter’ here
And while asking for more, ‘Oliver’ Twist
Glimpsed ‘The Accidental Death of an Anarchist.’
“The Merchant of Venice ” is one of Shakespeare’s most controversial and contentious plays. No matter how you tweak, massage or interpret it, the piece is fraught with racial slurs and frank anti-Semitism. This is a reflection of its times (it’s set in the 16th century), but it often doesn’t go down easily.
Poor Players artistic director Richard Baird has brought a heartfelt sensitivity to the play. His Shylock is marvelously portrayed — a shabby, heavily accented immigrant (perhaps a bit too shabby for his substantial financial holdings), who is highly principled. He makes a bargain, reluctantly agreeing to lend money to the merchant Antonio who has spat upon him numerous times in the street (here, he wipes his hands after every encounter with the Jewish moneylender). The lender wants his pound of flesh. This is a very Jewish Shylock, with his prayer fringes hanging out over his pants. A man who prays, whose daughter, Jessica (Jen Meyer), though she converts to Christianity, does not forget her heritage. Early on, she sings ‘My Yiddishe Mama’ as she putters around the house. Later, in a heart-stopping final moment, when she learns of her father’s fate, she drops to her knees and sings ‘ Kol Nidre ,’ the ancient Aramaic prayer that renounces all prior vows, sung on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. Throughout the play, Jewish-inflected music underscores the action (design by Jesse Keller). This is a setting that fosters understanding, maybe even compassion.
It’s not an incendiary production; it’s a thoughtful one. A production that brings out the dark side (and some of the humor) of the play. And makes Shylock, if not a sympathetic character (I thought he was), at the very least a comprehensible and not detestable one. His fatal flaw, of course, is that he shows no mercy in the (tense, suspenseful) courtroom scene. His knife is drawn, and it’s held to Antonio’s chest. We hold our breaths. Shylock is offered money, is asked to back down. But this man is too far in; he’s already lost his daughter to a Christian, and she ran off with many of his prized possessions. He holds fast. And with no ability to give mercy, he gets none. He is stripped of everything. In the end, everyone gets what s/he wants. All the couples are united. Antonio’s lost ships (and money) are returned. But Shylock is unduly and irrevocably punished, not only emotionally and financially; he is also made to renounce his religion. To this particular Shylock, that seems tantamount to death.
Baird’s direction has infused the play with multi-hued shades of meaning. He does his usual trimming and updating, to fine effect, and makes excellent use of the wide-deep, black-box space (the Academy of Performing Arts ). Bassanio , who seeks to borrow money from Antonio, setting in motion the central action of the drama, makes his appearance by pulling up in a car (the large metal garage doors are repeatedly used well). His rowdy young friends (less hateful and disgustingly anti-Semitic than in some productions) sport cellphones and warm-up suits. We first see Bassanio’s love, Portia (wooing her necessitates the extra money he seeks to borrow) in a tiny bikini, sunning herself. Beth Everhart is wonderful in the role, saucy and smart, beautiful and rational. She’s delightful in the courting rituals, powerful in the courtroom scene. As her beloved, Basanio , Nick Kennedy does his best work, portraying a loyal friend and a worthy suitor. John Tessmer makes Antonio less likable than usual. He’s dour and depressive, appearing first at a piano, playing a slow and deliberate ‘ Für Elise.’ He displays abject terror during the trial, and is noticeably shaken afterward. His lip-lock with Bassanio is provocative (and somewhat enigmatic).
The rest of the cast, as is often the case with Poor Players, isn’t quite up to this level of professionalism or depth of character. Once again, Baird towers over the rest. He is a powerhouse performer and a thoughtful, thought-provoking director. It’s terrific that he’s getting out and being seen around town – in the Actors Alliance reading (see below) and come September, at North Coast Rep (he plays Mercutio in their “Romeo and Juliet”). He likes to helm his ‘home’ company, but if he ventures out, he should go far (professionally, of course; we hope not geographically!).
Poor Players at the Academy of Performing Arts on Alvarado Canyon Rd. through August 14.
Patrick has led a charmed life. He writes for Hollywood , travels on expense account, boasts an expansive, expensive existence. But he’s unable to love or trust or maintain a relationship. It all goes back to his childhood. One fateful (barely believable) day in Rome , he serendipitously meets up with the source of his lifelong angst. When an American priest asks him for directions, a harrowing scenario is set in motion, in Mart Crowley’s 1996 drama, “For Reasons that Remain Unclear.” Crowley is best known for his groundbreaking 1968 play (and outstanding 1970 film), “The Boys in the Band,” which shone an unblinking spotlight on queer culture. Thirty years later, Crowley took on the Catholic Church and its pedophilic priests.
Patrick recognizes the priest immediately, the man who emotionally crippled him 20 years ago in a tiny Mississippi catholic school. So he invites him out to lunch, plies him with food and drink, loosens him up, gets him to talk. And gradually, in a suspenseful, spellbinding, merciless 80-minute game of cat-and-mouse, he encircles and entraps him. Like Shylock, he has his moment to offer mercy and forgiveness. He, too, is resolute.
Under Claudio Raygoza’s taut and relentless direction, the play crackles and sizzles. We know what’s coming long before the (surprisingly) unsuspecting priest. But we wait it out, watching him twist in the wind. Observing the metaphorical noose uncoil and tighten. It’s thrilling theater. And Jeffrey Jones, with his nervous energy and kinetic intensity, heightens the anxiety factor for the onlooker as well as the prey. His performance is riveting; he starts out distracted, edgy, taking his time, tossing off sarcastic quips. And then, the cataclysmic revelations erupt. As the priest, Jerry Phalen starts out stiff and superficial. Although he crumples credibly when attacked, we never get to see the depth of his dark, depraved soul; we only hear about it. But he serves as a hypocritical foil. It’s stomach-churning to speculate on the aftermath of this stifling, unsettling scenario; clearly, these two men will never be the same.
Meanwhile, Claudio Raygoza, who also designed the lush, detailed set (a plush Rome hotel room) continues to mine the rich vein of politically charged plays (last year, he did magnificent work, as artistic/executive director ion theatre, on two Patté Award-winning productions, “Saturday Night at the Palace” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” He next sinks his teeth into “ .. Marat/Sade .” Delectable to contemplate.
At 6th@ Penn Theatre, through July 24.
NOH WAY TO TREAT A LADY
Two years ago, scholar/ philanthropist/dramatist Marianne McDonald wrote a one-act play dedicated to her deceased daughter, Kirstie . It was her first non-adaptation or translation. Now, in an expanded version, under the banner of Zen Productions, in association with Asian Story Theatre , she’s premiering “ .. and then he met a woodcutter.” Billed as “a theatrical mix of Noh, moving meditation and multimedia,” the piece poses, among others, this dramatic question: When death approaches, will we be ready, waiting, or running?
Strikingly designed (Kris Clark) and directed (George Yé ), with some gorgeous language and imagery, the play is set in 12th Century Japan, just after the inter-clan Battle of Dan no Ura . The stark, minimalist production begins with the haunting sound of the koto , beautifully played by Reiko Obata. A lone mountain pine spreads out across a bare stage. Eric Lotze’s subtle lighting and Shulamit Nelson’s eye-catching costumes (ornate kimonos juxtaposed with the garb of a monk, a woodcutter, a samurai warrior) help to set the scenes, which are underscored by video projections (Norm MacKinnon). There’s a fascinating mix of the oblique and the on-the-nose here. The characters are just suggestions, not fully fleshed-out, kind of like a sumi’e brush painting. The projections are overly detailed in their blood and gore, too direct in their references to Vietnam , Iraq , George Bush. The voiceovers also reiterate what’s already shown and known. The play itself has little drama, no climax. It’s decidedly spare and Asian in feel and language, but it cries out for crisis, conflict and a dramatic arc.
The minimal story concerns a number of people who meet on a mountain top. The monk, Makoto (Alex Cua ), represents the Buddhist philosophies of life, love and death. To him, it’s all part of the ever-changing Flow. Mayumi (Cynthia Yamauchi DeCuir ) is a distraught young mother whose child and husband were murdered during the recent conflagration. A romantic idealist who’s lost everything she staked her life on, she sees no alternative but to end her life. The appearance of a wild, independent and emotionally needy young girl, Midori (Catherine Sharp), stays her hand and makes her realize that there’s still work for her to do, that her life is worth living. A pugilistic, uncompromising samurai, Yasunari (Paul Champy ) also has a change of heart, when he spurns his master to protect the two women, who should be his sworn enemies. And then comes the Woodcutter (Nick Mata), a transparent symbol of death. He takes a philosophical stroll with the monk, who welcomes this next cycle of his life.
Yé’s direction is indeed reminiscent of Noh theater — slow, deliberate, stylized. Characters face front and address their interactions to the audience, more than to each other. White-face, shadows, stylized dance are used. The result has the sense of a legend or fable, but feels more like a homily. There’s a good deal of preaching, and didactic espousal of philosophies. The acting style is minimalist, too, and not everyone pulls it off effectively; lines are read in impassive monotone; there is little emotion displayed, so we don’t come to care about any of the characters or what happens to them. The overall effect is attractive but distancing. The language and look are often quite beautiful. And the lessons about meeting the challenges of life and love, accepting the inevitability of death, are substantial, if you’re willing to enter the meditational state of the piece to absorb them.
At Cygnet Theatre, through July 31.
DO DO , RON RON
I think this should be declared Ron Choularton Week in San Diego . The ultra-versatile, ever-popular actor gave two show-stopping showcase performances. First, he’s playing Fagin in the Starlight Theatre production of “Oliver,” the 1963 family-friendly musical with score, book and lyrics by Lionel Bart. Choularton was the highlight of this otherwise fairly lackluster production. And, on his night off, he did an absolutely side-splitting turn as the Madman in Dario Fo’s uproarious political satire, “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” a one-night-only reading (On Book On Stage) from the Actors Alliance, directed by Sam Woodhouse.
We all know Ron had terrific comic chops, but who knew he could sing and hoof so credibly? He was a hoot as the miserly, musical and somewhat paternal Fagin, cavorting about as he told the boys to ‘pick a pocket or two’ and displayed both depth and humor in ‘Reviewing the Situation.’ He didn’t just play for laughs, as some Fagins do. And he didn’t portray some (anti-)Semitic villain, either. He’s playful, stingy, protective and self-serving. And damn funny when it’s called for. There isn’t much else to recommend this production, except for Misty Cotton as Nancy, whose powerful voice makes the troubling character less bawdy than some, but no less devoted to the monstrous and abusive Bill Sykes (T. Eric Hart, who showed, in “Jekyll and Hyde” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” that he can really sing, but surprisingly, pretty much Rex Harrisoned his way through his numbers in “Oliver”).
Under Gregg Osborn’s direction, coupled with the rock-bottom-basic choreography of Jack Tygett and Joyce Schumaker , there’s a dearth of energy and vitality in this production. The pace is sluggish and plodding. No one really seems to be having fun. Even the kids are a disappointment. The chorus (does it have to be all boys?) is weak in the singing and acting department, though taken individually, there are some talented kids on that stage. But a lot more liveliness and considerably more vocal vigor are needed to make the orphanage and Fagin scenes robust, credible, even watchable/listenable. On opening night, the kids all seemed to be counting; none of their moves was organic or well integrated. Since there are many capable people onstage — including sweet-voiced young Ian Brininstool as Oliver, Jacob Sampson as The Artful Dodger, James Paul Kruse as Mr. Bumble and Charlene Dibelka as Widow Corney — and no one shows much personality or charisma (few seem to have fully developed characters; they all just say lines and sing songs), the responsibility has to rest with the director. The set (multi-level wood with sections that are rotated by a brawny — and visible – stagehand) appeared precarious at times, with all its staircases. Actors approached it gingerly, and two tripped on opening night. There were many mic problems and even the normally sharp, stop-on-a-dime, plane-responsive, famous freezes were sloppy and under-rehearsed. The costumes (‘designed and coordinated’ by Suzi Arnson ) were fine, though Nancy and Bet (Sarah Sumner) are perhaps a tad too nicely dressed for their caste and characters. Cotton’s voice and Choularton’s capers make the evening worthwhile, but as good as that is, it isn’t enough.
Now when it came to the “Anarchist,” Woodhouse assembled a stellar cast, including Richard Baird, M’Lafi Thompson, Bernard Baldan , Mike Sears and Laurie Lehmann-Gray, but as talented as they all are, they fell in the shadow of Choularton, who was channeling Robin Williams in his manic, hyperverbal, accent-changing, neck-snapping, side-splitting performance. Except for Bernard Baldan , who played an angry cop, these folks are not naturals for comedy or satire; they’re all known as more serious actors and none of them quite captured the ironic tone of the piece. But Choularton seemingly can do anything… and he did, in this wacky role of a lunatic who takes on other voices, accents, styles and personas to confound the police and show just what bumbling idiots they are in trying to cover up the fall from a window of an anarchist who was under their charge. The timing for this hysterical exposé couldn’t have been more perfect, what with the goings-on in Washington and San Diego this week.
Don’t miss these Actors Alliance readings; they’re always worth seeing – and often worth a good guffaw. The next one is Christopher Fry’s “Tiger at the Gates,” directed by Brendon Fox, coming up at a date TBA.
“Oliver” continues in the Starlight Bowl through July 24.
YO HO HO , MATEYS!
Beware! Pirates are making a serious (actually not-so-serious) comeback. Thanks to Johnny Depp , whose wink-nudge “Pirate of the Caribbean ” made the swashbucklers attractive all over again. Forget Hook and Smee (and Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch). Gilbert and Sullivan 1879 comic opera, “The Pirates of Penzance,” still sings – especially in the 1980 update (that starred Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt) at the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park . I saw that production, with all its campy mirth. Kline was incredible – a dashing, agile force of nature. Ronstadt had the pipes, but she’s no actor. And she never moved. She stood center-stage and sang her songs.
So now, along comes Moonlight Stage Productions, with a witty, charming, attractive and thoroughly engaging production of the ‘New Version’ of “Pirates.” First off, let me say that the singing is spectacular, and the robust, 12-piece orchestra (devilishly decked out in pirate headgear), under the baton of Chief Piratess Elan McMahan, is in excellent form. Fresh from his blustery, boastful turn as Gaston in Moonlight’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Randall Dodge is back, striking and amusing as the swaggering if sentimental Pirate King. His bass-baritone is mellow and marvelous; his moves are superb. He does tend to mug, and he dances on the edge of over-the-top, but he’s such a thoroughly engaging performer that he’s irresistible. As the ingénues, two newcomers to Moonlight make stellar debuts. Adorable and charming Richard Bermudez (who has a strong, rich tenor voice) is Frederic, the poor soul who, by a cruel stroke of misapprehension, was accidentally apprenticed to a pirate instead of a pilot. When he meets the lovely Mabel (Melissa Hoff), he’s smitten. And no wonder. Hoff is a golden-voiced beauty who’s been operatically trained since she was 8. But she’s turned her prodigious vocal talents (an incredibly supple soprano) to musical theater. Which is probably where she met her talented husband, Christian Hoff, who’s heading for Broadway after his smash premiere in “Jersey Boys” at the La Jolla Playhouse (he played Four Season Tommy DeVito ). Wonder what these two sound like singing in the shower! Oh, what a night!!
So, here’s Hoff, with this crystalline voice that, unlike other operatic vocal apparatuses, makes every word clear and comprehensible. She’s a charming Mabel, saucy and a bit self-involved. She’s one of the many daughters of the Modern Major General (Jeffrey Arnold Wolf, who does a great job on his signature song). As Ruth, she of the pirate/pilot miscommunication, Susan E.V. Boland does a serviceable acting job, but her sharp singing transitions from chest to head voice are jarring. The chorus of Daughters, in their various frilly, sherbet-toned outfits (costumes courtesy of The Theatre Company) features some excellent voices and individualized personalities.
Don and Bonnie Ward have pulled out all the stops. Their high-spirited, imaginative direction and choreography make superb use of the stage, the apron, the orchestra pit and the aisles. The Pirate numbers are especially sprightly. The only misstep is the Policemen, who should be staged like goofy/incompetent Keystone Kops. The rubber-limbed Sergeant (Joshua Breckenridge) is dancing in a whole other style (“Pippin,” anyone?) — too modern and not suited to the mood or timeframe. The cops’ choreography is so busy it actually interferes with their bumbling, funny numbers (especially “When the Foeman Bears His Steel”).
Overall, this production looks and sounds great. And this 126 year-old musical, silly though it may be, holds up surprisingly well. Thanks, Moonlight — for making pirates sing again!
At Moonlight Amphitheatre, through July 31.
‘R & J’ THE BILINGUAL WAY
This weekend or next, check out “Romeo y Julieta , a Binational Project,” an educational outreach program that partners the Old Globe with the Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT). It’s a cultural exchange for students on both sides of the border, exploring the timeless teen tragedy in an adaptation/translation by director Peter Webster, show set out to make the play hip, young and relevant. The cast of 60 hails from nine U.S. and Mexican high schools, with anchor performances by professional actors in the ‘adult’ roles. They’ve been working together for more than two years. The trilingual production will play, depending on the audience, in Spanish, English or Mixteca , an indigenous Indian language. The piece dovetails perfectly with the required literature curriculum for 9th graders in California . The academic aim of the project was to develop in participants five fundamental values: tolerance, mature interpersonal relationships, rejection of violence, awareness of the danger of using drugs and acceptance of cultural and ethnic diversity. The dramatic objective is crossing political and artistic borders. Director Webster has a history of creating projects that embrace a wide array of cultural, social and ethnic points of view, including an Afro-centric “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The traveling ‘R&J’ production plays in Tijuana July 22-24 and in San Diego July 29 (at the Casa del Prado in Balboa Park ) and July 30 (Memorial Park in Chula Vista , which sent students from four schools). All performances are FREE and open to the public.
It’s called “Simply Shakespeare,” and it features a bevy of experienced actors, reading a pre-selected play. But they don’t know what role they’ll be playing until the night of the ‘performance.’ Character names are drawn from a hat, right in front of the audience. “Dangerous and spontaneous,” they call it. The next presentation of this San Diego Actors Theatre project is “The Taming of the Shrew,” (the OTHER most controversial/contentious, politically incorrect play by the Bard, creating as much debate and disagreement as “The Merchant of Venice”). In addition to the joy of hearing the text with no distractions, one lucky volunteer audience member will get to read one of the roles. Seating is limited, so reservations are recommended (showboxoffice.com).
At Diversionary Theatre, Monday, July 25 at 7pm.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“For Reasons that Remain Unclear” – taut, intense, suspenseful. A gripping tale of revelation and revenge, superbly directed (Claudio Raygoza). Magnificent performance by Jeffrey Jones.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through July 24.
“The Pirates of Penzance ” – great fun! Swashbuckling Pirates, Damsels in Distress, bumbling cops and a Modern Major General. Who could ask for anything more? But wait! There are glorious voices and a splendid orchestra to boot! A good time will be had by all.
At Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista ; thru July 31.
“The Merchant of Venice ” – Richard Baird does it again. Excellent direction, marvelous performance (Shylock). Sensitive and nuanced production.
At the Academy of Performing Arts in la Mesa ; thru August 14.
“The Maids” – beautifully directed ( Ulla Wolcz ), excellently performed (by Columbia U. grad students who make this dark 50-minutes absolutely riveting.
At Adams Avenue Studio, EXTENDED through July 23.
“Tomfoolery” – great comical/cynical/musical fun. Tom Lehrer’s satirical songs are timeless… and versatile, irresistible performer Kristen Mengelkoch makes them sing!
A Renaissance Theatre co-productions , at North Coast Repertory Theatre, through August 7.
“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, in repertory, 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, in repertory, through October 2.
“ 42nd Street ” – glorious celebration of Bway’s glory days. Wonderful performances, outstanding choreography and dancing. Sheer delight!
At the Welk Resort Theatre, through August 28.
“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 , closing (after >250 performances), on September 4.
Create your own Midsummer Night’s Dream — at the theater.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.