By Pat Launer
Accused murderers get the call
In The People vs. Mona and Brothers All.
And that murderous family is at it once more:
The Lion , his sons and Queen Eleanor.
THE SHOW: The People vs. Mona, the latest creation by composer/lyricist Jim Wann (“Pump Boys and Dinettes”) in collaboration with Patricia Miller (who co-wrote the book)
THE STORY/THE PLAYERS: As the opening song goes, “All roads lead to Tippo .” Tippo , Georgia , that is. It’s a small, “tapped-out town” somewhere between Savannah and Atlanta , home of “gators and gospel… nats and McGnats ” (the onstage band). Nothin’ much ever happens in Tippo , except that CC’s been murdered, and Mona’s been arrested – and it was their wedding night. The guitar- slingin ’ bar-owner, Mona (charming, talented undergraduate Kelsey Venter) is being defended by the good-natured, nerdy, never–won-a-case lawyer, Jim (affable, mellow-voiced Kelly Baldwin), while the prosecutor is Jim’s snooty fiancée, the jealous, ambitious, self-serving Mavis (capable, clever Ryan Beattie). The presiding judge, who moonlights as Reverend Rosetta Purify (delightful Jamie Kalama), spews homilies and belts gospel. There’s the pert, pink-clad former cheerleader/current journalist Tish Thomas (adorable Nicole Werner) and a bunch of testifying eccentrics: the shady, musical theater- lovin ’ traffic officer (down-home Juston Harlin ), the ‘Legendary Litigator’ Euple R. Pugh and motel proprietor Rafsanjani Patel (both hilariously played by Omri Schein ), the blues-singing ‘Blind Willie’ Carter (Jason Mallery , great with the music, a little garbled on the dialogue) and the coroner, energetically played by Jevon Whetter , a deaf actor in the master’s program who signs his lines – and follows the choreographic moves incredibly well. A Music department senior, Wyatt Ellison, effectively plays a small role – and two instruments. Most of the rest are graduating MFA students in musical theater, who’ve developed into a really gifted group.
So, whodunit? And will Jim get Mona? Will Mavis be mad? Will Mavis be Mayor? Will the Frog Pad, America ’s oldest jukejoint , be saved? There’s only one way to find out.
THE PRODUCTION: Paula Kalustian’s direction and choreography are charming and clever. The set (Sean Fanning) is all neon signs and courtroom scenes, excellently lit by Melissa Lewis. The costumes are pitch-perfect (Erin Pearson) and the wigs (especially Tish’s ) are sky-high. All the design elements are wonderfully integrated. And the band (often amusingly be- hatted ) is outstanding, featuring musical director Terry O’Donnell on keyboards, Byron Delto on guitar and banjo and Adrian Ahearn on bass and steel drums. The music ranges from country to calypso (there’s even some limbo thrown in), with blues and gospel and doo wop to boot. And the lyrics are a hoot. The story couldn’t be goofier, but the production couldn’t be more engaging and enjoyable.
THE LOCATION: In SDSU’s Don Powell Theatre, through March 5.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
HE AIN’T HEAVY
THE SHOW: Brothers All, a new play by Howard Rubenstein, based on Dostoevsky’s 1879 masterwork, “The Brothers Karamazov.” The 75 year-old retired local M.D. wrote his first play in 1997; his Greek translations/adaptations have been published and locally awarded.
THE STORY: As in the novel, the central plot concerns a wealthy, penny-pinching, debauched and lecherous Father ( Karleton , instead of Karamazov), and his four disparate sons, each intended to represent a different side of the Russian character: the spoiled prodigal son (here Douglas, for Dmitri ), the tortured intellect (Ian, for Ivan), the spiritual searcher (Alex, for Alyosha ) and the bastard Melvin ( Smerdyakov ).
The father, depraved, irrational and self-indulgent, vies for the same woman as his son Douglas, who is good-hearted, passionate and dissolute. Ian takes up with Doug’s ex-fiancée. And Melvin imitates and perverts Ian’s nihilistic ideas. Although Dostoevsky considered Alyosha to be his hero, representing a certain Christian ideal, Alex is more or less a cipher, meek and ineffectual. On the other side of the religious divide, Ian is the spokesman for Rationalism, questioning faith and rejecting religion; but as his mind begins to unravel, he is visited regularly by the Devil.
Once the characters are established, the story hinges on the Father’s murder and Doug’s arrest and trial. The famous “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” sequence from the book is here enacted as a play Ian has written, a parable that displays religious doubt and cynicism, and functions as a blasphemous critique of religious orthodoxy and the Catholic Church. Like the novel, the play is a contemplation of faith and religious institutions in an age of skepticism, as well as a murder mystery and a courtroom thriller. But Dostoevsky’s conclusion was a testament to the goodness and bravery humans are capable of. We get no such upbeat, hopeful message here; the play winds to a dark and disquieting end.
THE PLAYERS/ THE PRODUCTION: Unlike most new work, this is a large cast piece (14 actors/21 roles), which will make it difficult to be widely produced. It’s an earnest effort to distill a lengthy, brilliant, complex novel down to 2 ½ hours of stage-time. A little long, a tad prolix and a mite repetitive, the piece introduces many characters but doesn’t provide much of Dostoevsky’s celebrated psychological depth, which keeps us from becoming emotionally involved. But we do get a strong sense of poor hapless Douglas in Jonathan Wlcox’s compelling portrayal, and Jesse Keller’s Ian devolves excellently. Director Barry Bosworth makes for an aptly despicable Dad, and abusive patriarch who fiendishly plays with everyone’s minds and probably deserves to die. Though there is some indicating and gesticulating, the acting overall is solid and credible. Terence Burke is disturbing as the Cardinal/Inquisitor and forceful as the courtroom Prosecutor. Ryan Schulze is perfectly insouciant and insidious as the Devilish Visitor, Donal Pugh is fine (and well accented) as the German Doctor and Tony Misiano is sly and misguided as the much-ignored Melvin. The confessional scene between Melvin and Ian is particularly potent. Bosworth designed the basic set, the variable but appropriate costumes and the sound, with especially nice use of various versions of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” The piece could be trimmed and some of the characterizations deepened, but Brothers All is an impressive writing endeavor, well mounted and enacted, and it provides plenty of food for thought.
THE LOCATION: 6TH @ Penn Theatre, through March 15.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Good Bet
ALL IN THE FAMILY
THE SHOW: The Lion in Winter began as a play (1966) and went on to be immortalized on film (1968)
THE STORY: Monsters, schemers and star turns. James Goldman’s deliciously wicked historical/comical drama made a knockout movie (Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn are seared in our collective memory), which marked the film debut of Anthony Hopkins (as Richard) and Timothy Dalton (Prince Philip). The 2003 TV version featured Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart. The play is not for the faint of heart.
The year is 1183 (“we’re all barbarians,” goes one of the immortal lines). It’s Christmas and the conniving King Henry II, age 50, is ready to name his successor. He summons his frightfully dysfunctional family: his scheming wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, whom he’s kept locked in a dungeon for a decade so she won’t plot against him; and his three repugnant sons – who will later become Richard the Lionhearted and King John, and poor, neglected, middle-child Geoffrey, who never got to be king at all. Just to spice things up, Henry adds his mistress to the mix — Princess Alais , whom he’d love to marry – if only he can annul his 31-year marriage; and her brother, the youthful but crafty King Philip of France. With the fate of a good chunk of the known world up for grabs, there’s more deviously regal maneuvering and machinations than you can shake a truncheon at, all enacted with vicious wit.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: In his Director’s notes, David Kelso cautions the audience to “remember that it’s not about provinces and thrones and kingdoms… it’s about a family.” Well, actually, it IS about sovereignty and provinces and thrones, and that’s exactly what sets it apart from, say, your dysfunctional family. The regal underpinnings, the fate of countries and kingdoms, are exactly what distinguishes the play from a kitchen-sink drama. But you’d never know it from this Scripps Ranch Theatre production. There’s something so flat, so matter-of-fact about the acting that it’s downright unnerving. Only Charlie Riendeau, reprising his Patté Award-winning turn as Henry (at the Broadway Theatre in 2004), rises to the level of royalty and ferocity required by the brilliant text. And even he seems tamped down from his original, electrifying performance. But he does exhibit an exhilarating array of emotions. Everyone else plays pretty much one note. Jill Drexler, who’s won a Patté Award as a dysfunctional mother before (in Diversionary’s Fit To Be Tied) and excellently portrayed another wacko maternal unit in the Carlsbad Playreaders ’ Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, here seems like some frustrated soccer-mom whose kids are exasperatingly out of control, instead of the richest, most powerful and most devious woman of her era. I think Drexler just doesn’t have that kind of viciousness in her; she can be drolly sarcastic, but the imperious Eleanor is a gorgon, and she has to be ferocious as well as funny, playful as a kitten and venomous as a viper. That joyful maliciousness is nowhere to be found. Here, her appallingly unpleasant sons are annoying (John Antonov’s Geoffrey) or cloying (Michael Oravec’s John) or angry (John DeCarlo’s Richard). Alais (Danielle Rhoads) is a clinging cipher and her brother Phillip (Nick Sampson) doesn’t have the guts or gravitas the role requires. The set (James Caputo) is perfectly gray, arched and chilly, but it doesn’t need all those fussy and frequent changes. The costumes (Gretel Smith) are unflattering and unattractive (the royal women’s outfits are drab, and one son wears plaid, another court-jester diamonds). It’s punishingly difficult to get the tone of this play right; this production is a valiant effort but it seems woefully misconceived.
THE LOCATION: Scripps Ranch Theatre at the Legler Benbough Theatre on the campus of Alliant University (formerly USIU), through March 11.
YOU SAW IT HERE FIRST…
The American Theatre Critics Association just released the names of the six finalists in its annual new play competition, and one of them is in San Diego right now. Lee Blessing’s provocative drama about memory and identity, A Body of Water, joins new works by Amy Freed (her hilarious Shakespeare authorship play, The Beard of Avon, plays at UCSD this May), the late August Wilson, Adam Rapp, Bruce Norris and monologist Steven Tomlinson. The first place winner and two runner-ups will be announced at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville on April 1.
‘SWEET’ and PRETTY in PINK
It’s just been announced that the touring production of the recent Broadway revival of Sweet Charity, the Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musical that starred Christina Applegate, begins its national circuit in San Diego . And Molly Ringwald (most remembered in the films “Sweet Sixteen” and “Pretty in Pink”) will portray the titular dance-hall hostess with the heart of gold.
Celebrate Women’s Herstory Month . It’s the 3rd annual multisensory event that lasts for seven hours and features some ab-fab local female talent performing on two stages, including Danielle LoPresti and the Masses (amazingly talented activist/singer sister of choreographer Gina Angelique, who’ll be the keynote speaker), Ericka Moore of Eveoke Dance Theatre, Laura Preble, Alicia Champion, Marcia Foreman, Sarah Green, The New Dadaists and more. Each featured performer will highlight a heroine, past or present, who’s important to her. There will be booths with goods and flyers, as well as voter registration and fun for the kids, too. Part of the proceeds will benefit The Women’s Resource Center at the LGBT Center of San Diego, which provides support and resources to under-served women in the community. Tix are $7-12 (kids 5 and under Free). The co-sponsors are two local, women-owned, activist record companies, Say It Records and Champ Records, in conjunction with The Center. Sunday, March 26, at the newly renovated Kung Food on 5th Ave. at Qunice ; for further info, contact Kelly Bowen at 619-379-4834.
THE FAR SIDE
“Tales from the Far Side of 50” premiered in November, and it was a knockout. The one-night performance was filled with unforgettable Senior moments – poignant, heartbreaking and hilarious stories. Now advance sales are commencing for the April 23 reprise at the Lyceum Theatre. Based on the writings of 14 ‘Golden Oldies’ age 58-88, the show evoked laughter and tears. Get your ticket before March 6 and avoid the box office surcharge (discounted price: $20 general admission; seniors and full-time students, $15). Make chex payable to: TellTale Productions, 13119 Caminito Mar Villa; Del Mar CA 92014. For further info/group sales, contact writer/producer Lonnie Hewitt at email@example.com.
The Fun-House, the improv troupe that performs in the Rolando area near Cygnet and SDSU, is going to go under without a little help from its friends. To avoid closure, they’ve scheduled The Improv-a-Thon: 28 Non-Stop Hours of Improv. In the lead-up, they’re looking for donations of money, auction items and supplies. Each performer needs to raise $800 to cover lease renewal and repair/maintenance. Help Milo Shapiro and his gang continue to do their thing, at http://store.yhahoo.com/sdtheatresports-store/donate.html.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (Critic’s Picks);
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
The People vs. Mona – delightful production of a daffy but endearing new musical.
In SDSU’s Don Powell Theatre, through March 5.
Brothers All – a new play, a mammoth undertaking, based on Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” Needs a trim, but it’s well written, well acted
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through March 15.
A Body of Water – an unnerving, 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, through March 19.
Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star – Lively, funny, extremely well executed.
At The Theatre in Old Town , through March 19.
Stay warm and dry – in a theater near you!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.