By Pat Launer
Everything but the kitchen sink
Appeared in the shtick of Mendel, Inc.
And the flutter of wings could often be heard
In a soaring production of Tongue of a Bird.
THE SHOW: Tongue of a Bird , written in 1999 by Ellen McLaughlin, best known as the angel who crashed through the ceiling in the original (and Broadway) production of Angels in America
THE STORY: It’s all about search and rescue, holding on and letting go. Maxine was a little girl when her mother was carted off to a psychiatric hospital; she ultimately committed suicide. The daughter (in a play filled with unfulfilled mother-daughter relationships) remembers nothing, and has spent her life searching for clues, answers and understanding. Her mother appears to her regularly in the guise of the famously lost aviatrix, Amelia Earhart. Meanwhile (to prolong the endless imagery of birds and flight), Maxine has become a rescue pilot, and she has a perfect record of success. She’s currently on assignment, the last resort of a desperate mother whose 12-year old was abducted and has been missing for 11 days in the snowy Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York . The young girl, bloody but cheerful, also shows up in Maxine’s dream and waking states, partly as a stand-in for her own younger self. Now, Maxine has returned to the town of her youth, Loon Lake (yet another metaphor, a hovering intimation of the hereditary horrors of mental illness), to stay with her gruff but fading grandma, a Polish-speaking WWII survivor who has her own visions, demons and losses to contend with. There is revelation and redemption at the end, but not all losses are regained.
The play is problematic, overburdened by symbolism and metaphor. Sometimes the writing soars; McLaughlin employs some beautifully lyrical, poetic language, but she bundles it into long-winded monologues that deflate the potency of her prose. In the L.A./Broadway production which featured the incomparable, Tony Award-winning Cherry Jones and the irrepressible Marion Seldes, the challenges of the play could not be overcome. And the dead mother, consistently suspended by wires in mid-air, in an uncomfortably horizontal position, was often more ludicrous than dramatic.
THE PLAYERS/ THE PRODUCTION: The piece is in safe and caring hands under the direction of the gifted Esther Emery. Wisely, she does away with the Peter Pan suspension (which is, of course, reminiscent of McLaughlin’s own onstage ‘flight’ in 1993). As the mentally unstable mother, the graceful, agile Robin Christ drapes herself on the upper reaches of Nick Fouch’s wonderfully inventive and suggestive multi-level set. She hangs over the edge of a high platform, balances on a chair, leans on a slanted window frame in her ‘visitations,’ providing details of her incarceration and electroshock therapy (a description of which provides the play’s title, comparing the experience to the raucous shrieks emanating from the black tongues of wild avians). Dressed like Earhart (fine costume design by Jennifer Brawn Gittings), but later transformed into an ethereal, ascending wraith (there’s the Angel again!), she’s the key to all the mysteries, but we have to pick through her pronouncements, since she veers wildly, as she probably did in life, between loopiness and lucidity. Down on terra firma, or in the cleverly constructed cockpit of a Cessna, Julie Anderson Sachs grounds the play with her no-nonsense portrayal of Maxine, a seeker who fears her future, the loss of her grandma (and her mind), not being able to find the young girl (bouncily played by a blue-clad, bloody Abbey Howe), not being remembered. Wendy Waddell is gut-wrenching, heartbreaking as the anguished mother who will never forget her daughter. And June Gottlieb is both Old World and otherworldly as Maxine’s evasive, enigmatic granny. This quintet of skillful females makes you care about a play that has enchantments but also many frustrating and distancing moments. Emery and Fouch, along with lighting designer Valerie Breyne, create beautiful stage pictures, underscored by Ruff Yeager’s haunting original music and Rachel Le Vine’s unsettling sounds of flapping wings. The play may not take flight, but the production soars.
THE LOCATION: At the new 10th Avenue Theatre, Stone Soup’s new official residence (also home to Eveoke Dance Theatre and Sledgehammer Theatre), through April 23. There’s a special Pay What You Can performance on Monday, April 10.
BOTTOM LINE : Best Bet
It was a dark and stormy night. The traffic was horrific. And there was a ballgame at the stadium. But an impressive number of theater diehards still made it to the Lyceum Theatre for the reprise reading of Mendel, Inc., which was first presented in 2004 as part of the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival. This comic, vaudeville-inspired piece, a hit on Broadway in 1929, was created by a former comedy writer for Fanny Brice, David Freedman, whose son (age 80+, same name) was present and spoke to the audience at the end. Very inspirational. He’s still teaching in the Jewish Studies Department of UCSD, and a friend of mine said he was the best teacher she ever had. Freedman gave the background of the piece, told how his family provided the models (he was probably the lisping young son) and how the show was stolen and the scenery chewed by the acclaimed comedy team of Smith and Dale, who play the farcical uncles, Shtrudel and Schnaps.
The play focuses on the ups and downs (and humor!) of the Jewish immigrant experience in early 20th century New York . A lot of the original 2004 cast, also directed by Todd Salovey, was back, including me as the Mother, Zelde; Rachael van Wormer and Ari Lerner as my kids; Debbie Davis as the neighbor/janitor; Peter van Norden and Ralph Elias as the comic duo; Dimiter Marinov as the wealthy Uptowner and Barbara Cole as the Narrator (and several others). New additions this time out were Matt Henerson, excellent as Mendel, my shleppily good-hearted, ever-upbeat inventor husband; Sonya Bender as our other daughter; Chris Williams and Jimmy Zangrilli as Lillian’s (Rachael’s) suitors, and Craig Huisenga as a former resident of the Lower East Side, where the action is set. The audience seemed to love it, and maybe the Rep will , too – enough to mount a full production. Stay tuned for further details.
Just in time for the Bard’s 442nd birthday (April 23), there are lots of celebrational happenings around town.
The SDSU Opera Theatre is presenting “Shakespeare Goes to the Opera,” a dramatic presentation set in the Bard’s private study. Characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream come to entertain the Swan of Avon with selections from operas that were inspired by some of his greatest works: Midsummer (Britten), Romeo and Juliet (Gounod), Macbeth (Verdi), Hamlet (by French composer Ambroise Thomas) and more. Reservations at 619-594-1696 or at the Music and Dance box office on campus. April 28-30 in Smith Recital Hall on the SDSU campus.
And, thanks to the San Diego Shakespeare Society, the FIRST ANNUAL STUDENT SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL debuts in Balboa Park this month. There’ll be singing, dancing, juggling, puppetry, fencing and emoting on two stages along the Prado, as pupils from 22 schools (grades K-12) and various arts organizations from around the county give presentations of Shakespeare’s works. The Festival is designed to make Shakespeare come alive for young people, by giving them the opportunity to be active participants rather than just observers. Students have been preparing by studying the sonnets, the plays and the time-period. The festivities begin at 12:30pm on SATURDAY, APRIL 29, with a procession from the Organ Pavilion to the stages. The event is free. Even Queen Elizabeth I (Tara Pool) and Mary, Queen of Scots (Susan Abernethy) will be there. Shouldn’t you? For info, go to www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org.
IF YOU CAN MAKE IT THERE…
New York City is creating a new office to “aggressively pitch NYC around the world as the nation’s art and cultural capital” by helping nonprofit organizations, especially those in the arts, cope with the high costs that threaten survival. “We won’t and can’t be complacent,” said New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The new office will be part of the city’s Economic Development Corporation. Government support of the arts is crucial at all levels – local, state and federal. The arts define a culture – for the present and the future.
SOMETHING TO SEE… OR DO…
… the next Carlsbad Playreaders presentation – a reading of Beautiful Bodies by Laura Shaine Cunningham is coming up and it promises to be another winner. Come to Claire’s baby shower, and join the five friends who haven’t spoken to her in months. Variety called the play a “hip, savvy, nervy Manhattan comedy… full of smart, catty chatter.” Directed by New Village Arts’ Kristianne Kurner, the reading features a bevy of beauties: Monique Gaffney, Jessica John, Brooke McCormick, Erika Beth Phillips, Amanda Sitton and Kim Strassburger. Will that array of talent, it can’t miss. Monday, April 10 at 7:30pm in the Carlsbad Library.
… and if you’ve never seen the wacky and wonderful Moira Keefe, you won’t wanna miss her command performance, which was a sellout last year at North Coast Rep: “Life With a Teenager… I’m Having a Hot Flashback.” Moira is a wildwoman, and her ordeals with menopause and a teen daughter (which forces her to revisit – and compare/contrast — her own outrageous adolescence) are nothing short of hilarious. All this PLUS a balance beam and a pogo stick. Ya can’t beat that. At North Coast Repertory Theatre, Monday, April 17, 7:30pm.
… check out (or participate in) the Talent Showcase presented by Pandeli Lazaridi and the Lazaridus Foundation, every Tuesday night, 7:30-9:30pm at the ARK Center for the Arts, now located underneath the historical Hotel Churchill, 899 C Street (corner of 9th & C). It’s a live-audience opportunity for singers of all types/styles to strut their stuff. Agents, producers and musical directors have been invited. Call for auditions: 619-232-2792. email@example.com
… and don’t forget the IMPROV-A-THON, a 28-hour improv marathon to save San Diego Theatre Sports and help them continue to do what they do so amusingly and entertainingly. Friday April 21 and Saturday, April 22, starting with Fakespeare, the Improvised Shakespeare Play (Friday, 8pm), and continuing with new shows every two hours, including Midnight Tales of Terror (Friday at the witching hour), The Blue Show (Saturday 2am), The USS Improvise (Saturday 2pm), a one-hour preview of their latest concoction, MySpace: The Musical (Sat. 6pm), followed by SoapScum: The Soap Opera No One Wrote (Sat. 8pm) and culminating with the All-Star Improv Competition (Sat. 10pm). Three of the Theatre Sports players have vowed to perform for the entire 28 hours! T ake a friend or a date, have some laughs, and support a local arts organization. You’ll be glad you did.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Tongue of a Bird –fascinating but flawed play, wonderful production
At the 10th Avenue Theatre, through April 23.
Intimate Apparel – beautifully conceived production of a heartbreaking turn-of-the-last century story.
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through April 9
The Twilight of the Golds – provocative premise, admirable ensemble
At Diversionary Theatre, through April 9
The Housekeeper – a goofy romantic comedy that isn’t as dark, bleak, funny or screwy as it thinks it is, but the actors are milking every minute (and they could go even further)
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through April 26
What the Butler Saw – deeply disturbed, hilariously funny. A pitch-perfect black farce, wonderfully acted and comically timed
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through April 30.
My Fair Lady – spectacularly inventive production; beautifully designed, directed, acted and sung
At Cygnet Theatre EXTENDED to May 7.
Think of it this way: Daylight Savings Time gives you extra hours to attend theater!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.