By Pat Launer
A “Brownstone’ holds many secrets within
And a ‘Prodigal Son’ is steeped in sin;
As Macbeth would predict, before his fall:
‘Stuff Happens’ to us all.
When I first saw “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” in New York (the original Broadway production starred Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl), it was devastating. It was just like what I’d heard about the opening night of “Death of a Salesman.” The audience was so stunned at the end that there wasn’t a sound — for almost a minute. And then, they came out of that trance-state and roared with applause.
The piece is dark and deep — and it’s not really about a man falling in love with a goat — though that’s the titillating premise. It’s about tolerance and the limits of love; repressed sexuality, forbidden desire and our last remaining taboos; where lines are drawn and the consequences of stepping over those lines. It’s about the pain of love under siege. Albee subtitled the play “Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy.”
The plot concerns an architect at the top of his game — 50 years old, happily married, wildly successful (just having received an international prize and a major commission). Then, he confesses to his best friend, who forces him to tell his wife and young, gay son, that he’s having an extramarital affair — with a goat named Sylvia. It’s tearing him apart; ultimately, in true tragic style, it destroys his family and his life. The setup sounds funny, and as in the brutal “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” which this play resembles in many ways — including its brilliance — there are many intelligent, witty moments. But this is really a very earnest play, turning on extremely serious issues. Yet very little of the gravitas makes its way into the San Diego Repertory Theatre production.
The splendid opening scene of clever, George-and-Martha repartee, has been turned into a virtual sitcom. Not for one minute did I believe that this inattentive, forgetful man (Douglas Roberts) was a world renowned architect. Instead of seeming smart and competent, if distraught, distracted and conflicted, he appeared absent-minded and stupid. He was even dressed shabbily (costumes by Jennifer Brawn Gittings, who does much better for the other characters), despite the fact that he lives in a gorgeous, skylit Manhattan apartment (dazzling scenic design by Nick Fouch). As his wife, Stevie, Deborah Van Valkenburgh is intellectually sharp, sassy and tough — and a lot more believable — but she plays anger much more than despair.
In the midst of their playful Noel Coward banter, he lets slip his secret. She thinks it’s a joke. And in many ways, it’s treated like that throughout this production. Instead of the audience leaving the theater in a dazed state of distress, discussing the painful issues raised, the opening night crowd filed out laughing, elbowing each other with goat one-liners.
After all the grueling details come to light, the long confrontation between husband and wife is intense and destructive — both emotionally and physically, as Stevie systematically smashes the beautiful objets in their well-appointed home, mirroring the way her husband has shattered their lives. Some of it works; some of it plays like melodrama. This man seems to have no problem loving two females; he doesn’t seem to be torn apart by inner turmoil. That lack of subtext skews the whole play. The “Judas” friend (coarsely and credibly played by Ralph Elias) and the conflicted gay son (Joel Rieck, who goes in and out of plausibility) are just foils here; they barely register.
With all its foul-mouthed language and incendiary themes, the Tony Award-winning play should be as shocking as “Virginia Woolf” was when it opened in 1962. That was undoubtedly part of Albee’s intent. There isn’t much that can shock us any more. But this story can. Or should. Director Sam Woodhouse appears to have chosen the text over the subtext, the humor over the deadly seriousness. This was a disturbing production — but for the wrong reasons.
At San Diego Repertory Theatre; through November 21.
THE GREAT THANE
Macbeth hath murdered sleep. Ever since I saw the Poor Players production, and especially Richard Baird’s performance in the title role, I’ve been haunted by it. And I don’t think it was because I saw it on Halloween. Baird is a riveting performer — and a fascinating director. His Macbeth is a mass of macho hubris, ambition, vehemence and angst. He’s a violent man; his teasing is physically aggressive with males. Even his symbiotic relationship with his lovely-but-vicious wife (Beth Everhart) is brutally sexual; he’s borderline abusive in how he grabs her, holds her and even how he kisses her.
This is a powerful production. Darkness pierced by flashlight. The Weird Sisters in camouflage, the soldiers carrying automatic weapons. The ghost scenes are downright scary as Macbeth is unnerved and upended — and unnerves us, as his mind unravels under the weight of what he’s done. Though the direction and ensemble work are good, the performances are variable; in any event, everyone else pales beside the compelling and charismatic Baird, whose line-readings are fascinating and distinctive, and whose mastery of Shakespearean power and poetry is impeccable. Pared-down, intense, more than a little spooky (as it should be), this “Macbeth” (and this Macbeth) are most assuredly worth seeing.
At Adams Avenue Theatre, through November 14.
NEW YORK STATE OF MIND
The SDSU MFA program in musical theater (one of only three in the country) loves to unearth and produce little-known or rarely-seen musicals. A decade ago, long before it arrived on Broadway last year, they mounted Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” a montage of presidential murderers and wannabes. Two years ago, they did “A New Brain,” William Finn’s dark story of a writer undergoing neurosurgery. Now, they’ve brought “Brownstone” to life. It’s been a work-in-alteration since its 1979 workshop production, and director Paula Kalustian has made some nifty additions, including a (sort of Greek) chorus of three, who ‘comment’ on all the activities, while also serving as set-movers, dressers, consciences, harmonizers and occasionally, comic relief.
The setting (expertly designed by Lura Coyne to fit neatly into SDSU’s small Experimental Theatre space) is the singular, titular New York domicile that, in this case, allows us to peer into five cramped, radiator-heated apartments. The residents are physically and emotionally boxed off, though they periodically bump into each other and occasionally break out of the “Camouflage” of Big City anonymity. With its fairly predictable storyline and often repetitive score, the show seems like a weak cross between “Company” and “Baby,” though creators Peter Larson, Josh Rubins and Andrew Cadiff have nowhere near the wit and depth of a Sondheim or Maltby and Shire. Like “Rent,” the show depicts a year in the life… A new guy moves into the building and no one talks to him. Gradually, he gets to know his neighbors, who are lonely, splitting up, feeling sad, getting nowhere, etc. He falls in and out of love/lust. And winds up generally content — loving, as they all do in their quirky ways, the “Pretty City.”
The individual characters are not all that interesting: a ditsy blonde who just broke up with her boyfriend and can’t figure out how to be alone (adorable Nicole Werner, who has a delightful onstage presence); a married couple (Jerry Jay Cranford and Jamie Kalama) comprising a blocked, taciturn writer and his long-suffering, biological clock-ticking wife; an edgy female lawyer (Ryan Beattie) who dreams of a place in the country. The new guy’s a jock (Justin Harlin). That’s about it. They don’t interact much; they sing lots of ballads. The musical accompaniment (Terry O’Donnell on piano, Wendy Thomson on keyboard) was fine, though sometimes the percussion (Brian Eisenberg) sounded canned.
It’s not a groundbreaking show, nor does it harbor any surprises, even though it won a Richard Rodgers Award for best new musical some years back. But this production was swift and pleasant, and a little bittersweet. It was great get another San Diego premiere. Kalustian directed inventively and highlighted the talent of her new MFA class. It’ll be fun to watch them grow over the next two years — and to see them in “Bat Boy” next spring.
PREACHIN’ TO THE CHOIR
I caught the closing weekend of the Ira Aldridge Repertory Players’ production of “Prodigal Son,” which was billed as a “hand-clapping, foot-stomping” gospel musical. It wasn’t. It was a series of unrelated sermons and gospel songs. The text, compiled and augmented by director Calvin Manson, was adapted from James Weldon Johnson’s “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse,” published in 1927. The parable of the Prodigal Son was only one segment, and it didn’t provide a through-line for the 90-minute piece. There was no thematic linking, and no structural or chronological order.
The setting is a small church, and the ‘choir’ enters first, awaiting the arrival of the preacher (Jay Walthour), who greets the ‘congregation’ as he enters. Very friendly and intimate. The stories, sermons and ‘testimonials’ start with the Book of Genesis, which seemed reasonable enough. A “lonely” God says “I think I’m gonna make me a world.” After a few songs (including a touching version of “Amazing Grace”), we move on to the Flood. Before you know it, we’re talkin’ Moses (“Go Down Moses”), followed by the Crucifixion (“Were You There When They Crucified My Lord”). And then it’s the parable of the Prodigal Son and his sojourn in the sinful Babylon. Huh? Where’d that sequence come from??
There was lots of wonderful music and terrific a capella singing (musical direction by Gail Gipson), though the ‘score’ was light on upbeat numbers of the promised “hand-clappin’, foot-stompin'” variety and heavy on highly emotional ballads, psalms and solos. Although the admirable intent was to highlight a slice of African American heritage, there was no drama or movement or theatricality in the piece, which felt much more like a church-service for true believers than a general-audience show. The attractive, brightly colored background paintings of abstracted silhouettes (by talented 13 year-old Maisha Banks Manson) were produced on shiny paper with shiny paint, so they reflected the light and were often difficult to see
This shoestring production at the Community Actors Theatre featured excellent singers, but they were admittedly strained by 90 minutes of a capella singing. A keyboard would’ve helped. And some choreography. And a narrative arc. The concert style worked fine for Manson’s outstanding production of “An Evenin’ with Billie Holiday,” but a larger-cast show (5 women, 5 men) demands more action and interaction.
It was amazing that, for a short time, San Diego had two gospel shows playing at once — with African American casts, drawing huge African American audiences — many folks who’d never been to the theater before (a fact confirmed by local powerhouse Lisa Payton, a super-talented member of the magnificent cast of “Crowns” — which also closed this past weekend). That’s a triumph for our town.
“Stuff Happens,” said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the looting of priceless artifacts in Baghdad in April, 2003. That heinous remark served as inspiration for acclaimed British playwright David Hare, whose latest work received its world premiere at the National Theatre in September and a recent all-star reading in New York.
The lengthy, wordy piece mixes documentary fact and behind-the-scenes speculation about the lead-up to the war in Iraq. The transcripts speak for themselves — but they do speak… on and on. Nobody comes out looking very good, but Colin Powell serves as a kind of tragic hero, who starts with integrity and ultimately falls into step with the rest of the nefarious power-brokers. The docudrama format may have worked well in England, but it fell disappointingly flat at the recent one-night reading here in San Diego.
Kudos to Laurie Lehman-Grey (and her co-producers, Linda Castro and director-of-the-evening Forrest Aylsworth) for bringing this controversial piece to us just before the election. But it must have lost something in the translation — or in the production. The cast, unlike others that have assayed these near-stereotypical roles, rarely tried to emulate the well-known characters they were portraying. Few even attempted any accent. Standouts were David Cohen as Paul “Wolfie” Wolfowitz (also outstanding as the verry French ambassador to the U.N.), Dale Morris as Donald “Rummie” Rumsfeld, Ron Choularton as Tony Blair and Michaun Burton as Condoleezza “Condie” Rice. The play was long and dry and didn’t add much new information; we’ve heard it all before. But Hare uses the quotes to highlight the relationships between the political players; this only worked occasionally here (most convincingly, the interactions between Powell and the French ambassador; and the desperate pleas of the vain, sycophantic lapdog, Tony Blair to the non-committal, monosyllabic Bush). Lehman-Grey and her cohorts did us all a great favor with their 4-week series called Artists for Intelligent Politics. The local audiences were large and lively, intelligent, curious and well-informed. If only that were a national epidemic.
HOT STUFF, COMIN’ UP
… … Don’t miss the AASD (Actors Alliance of San Diego) Fundraiser/Gala on Monday, November 8. The re-scheduled event will feature a Silent Auction, live music by much-admired singer/songwriter Todd Schroeder and some stellar theatrical entertainment: including excerpts from North Coast Rep’s soon-to-be-open musical, “The Last Five Years” (with Erin Cronican and Jeremiah Lorenz); the acclaimed production of the soon-to-be-reprised “Kimberly Akimbo” (with Linda Castro, Matt Scott and Jason Connors) and the highly lauded “Shirley Valentine” (starring Rosina Reynolds). The event runs from 6:30-10pm at Schroeder’s Club and Cabaret at the Westin Horton Plaza. 619-640-3900; firstname.lastname@example.org
… The new Moxie Theatre (co-founded by artistic director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, with Jennifer Kraus, Jo Anne Glover and Liv Kellgren) will mount a reprise production of “Kimberly Akimbo,” with the spectacular original cast intact. Sonnenberg directs Linda Castro, Matt Scott, Jo Anne Glover, Liv Kellgren and Jason Connors. A deliciously dark comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire, the play will make you howl and bring you to tears. See it — or see it again. At the Lyceum Theatre, December 4-24. Proceeds will help develop Moxie’s first full season, which will premiere Fall 2005. 760-634-3965.
… Attention must be paid… to the latest Playwrights Project commission. “Hyper-Focus” is a new play with music, written by Jim Knable, a prior winner of the statewide Plays by Young Writers contest. His last commission was “The Best Mistake” about adult illiteracy. This one, also touring in the schools, concerns Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). As a third grader, T.J. feels defined by his disorder; by 9th grade, with the problem under control, he’s able to focus on his assets and strengths — and becomes a HS rock star. The production, which stars Barbara Cole, Tommy Friedman, Jeannine Marquie, John Nutten and Wanetah Walmsley, is co-directed by those parents-to-be (yet another collaboration), D. Candis Paule and Robert May. Wednesday, November 10 at 7:30pm at the Neurosciences Institute Auditiourm in La Jolla. 619-239-8222; www.playwrightsproject.com
…The Greeks are back — bearing gifts of theater. The ancient wisdom is more relevant today than ever… and the Grassroots Greeks (helmed by Linda Castro and David Cohen) are hoping, in their continued readings, that we don’t miss the timeliness or the brilliant philosophical musings — not to mention the high drama. Their popular readings series has a new home at the Centro Cultural de la Raza, on the edge of Balboa Park. Be surprised — and inspired. Next up: “Ajax,” Sophocles’ powerful tale of a doomed hero of the Trojan War. Monday, November 8 at 7m; discussion to follow. Reservations strongly recommended: 619-235-6125.
…And don’t forget to tune in to KPBS/NPR on Tuesdays during November and December, when Susan Stamberg talks to stage and screen writers like Nora Ephron, John Waters, Edward Albee and Marsha Norman, to ask them to pick their favorite “Scenes I Wish I’d Written.”
NOW, HERE’S THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST:
“Macbeth” — Poor Players’ pared-down, bare bones production features a killer lead performance by artistic director Richard Baird.
At Adams Avenue Theatre, through November 14.
“Fit to Be Tied” — hilarious, dark, richly delicious. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and her excellent cast mine all the wacky, warped humor of Nicky Silver. Perfect holiday antidote.
At Diversionary Theatre, through December 4.
“Jersey Boys” — smash-hit world premiere musical, telling the rock ‘n’ roll, rags-to-riches story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Fantastic fun! Run, scamper, scurry — see it!
At La Jolla Playhouse, extended through December 5.
“A Dream Play” — gorgeous, riveting production that recreates a dream-state and turns reality upside down. Wonderful design work, compelling performances.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through November 21.
“Mrs. Farnsworth” — a juicy little anti-Bush comedy, with a fine cast and a few intriguing twists. At the ARK Theatre, through October 31.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” — Jack O’Brien-directed world premiere musical starring John Lithgow and the amazing Norbert Leo Butz. A little raunchy but very funny. Catch it here, now, before it heads to New York. At the Old Globe Theatre, extended through Nov. 7.
“Dial M for Murder” — striking production of a Hitchcockian mystery. At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through November 14.
If you’re still reeling from the election (as I am) you can get away from it all — at the theater.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.