By Pat Launer
Robots and Bach and murder, oh my!
How local theater doth satisfy!
Girl genius/science whizzes are proliferating on local stages. And it’s about time. First there was “Kid-Simple,” and now there’s Jenny Chow (or more accurately, Jennifer Marcus). “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow” is a delightful stretch for the Old Globe. A cyber-story written by a young unknown (with plenty of net-refs and off-color language). Directed by and starring locals. And designed by locals, too. Way cool!
There are many ways to consider this play, written by 30 year-old Yale Drama student Rolin Jones. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s about ingenuity and scientific creation. It’s about mothers and daughters, self-discovery and identity, accepting less than perfection, living up (or down) to expectations. At the outset, it’s awash in sitcom one-liners. At the end, it’s somewhat unresolved. And throughout, there’s the faintest whiff of … devaluing women. All the characters are flawed, but the females seem irredeemably so, from the emotionally impaired wunderkind to her defective robotic doppelganger, from her relentlessly cruel adoptive mother to her helpless, ineffectual birth mother. Alas. Can’t a compelling, young central female character be inspiring? Well, maybe that’s for another Jones play.
In this one, Jennifer is an obsessive-compulsive, agoraphobic prodigy. She lives in a gated Calabasas community with her former-fireman stay-at-home dad and her nasty, disappointed-in-her, work-obsessed mom. But she longs to make contact with her birth mother in China. Trapped in her room and online at all times, she comes up with the idea of creating a robot to make the trip for her. She reconnects with a wild-haired, maniacal professor who helps her score a sub-contract job with the government, so she can get spare parts. She calls her alter-ego Jenny Chow, named for herself and her birth mother, and trains her to be independent, thinking and ‘normal’ — as normal as anyone can be in this wacky world. There’s her goofy, pizza-delivering pothead friend Todd, who also seems to have something of a social communication disorder. Then there’s the online Mormon who locates her birth-mother in China — in exchange for cyber-sex. And the nerdy Southerner who consults with her on the government contract. It’s all pretty wild and woolly, and by and large, it’s pulled off beautifully on the Carter stage.
Overall, “Jenny Chow” is engaging and stimulating. As directed by Sledgehammer’s Kirsten Brandt, it’s inventive and imaginative. And the acting is delightful. Seema Sueko is a jumpy, hyperactive dynamo, who perfectly captures the little nuances of her various disorders — the compulsion to make the same trip out of her room every time, in exactly the same way, tapping or touching exactly the same items. And, when her adoptive mother tries to force her out of the house, having a full-on hysterical, agoraphobic fit. Very disturbing, very convincing. If only she’d come a little further in her frailties and disabilities by the end.
Steve Pickering makes for a caring if inept father, Zachary Quinto is aptly and endearingly dim-witted as Todd (“I’ve got four words for you: ‘Po-ceed with Caution!'”); Kelly VanKirk is hilarious in the rest of the male roles; and as the robotic Jenny, Michelle Wong is attractive and incredibly agile (her bio does note that this Bishops School alum was a two-year National Champion in cheerleading, and she gets to show her balancing, leaping, spinning stuff here). The weak link is Jordan Baker, who can’t seem to find the heart of Jenny’s beleaguered and disappointed workaholic Mom. We have no sympathy for her, and we need to, or else she’s nothing but an awful, hateful person. Yes, she’s had to take over the breadwinning after her husband’s accident. Yes, after all her years of trying to conceive, she thought Jennifer was and would be her ‘perfect baby,’ but she’s got to have more facets than the angry, screechy harridan she’s portrayed as here.
The design elements work creatively with the constraints of an arena stage. Much of the discourse is actually conducted online; the subtitle of the piece is, after all, “An Instant Message with Excitable Music.” A large computer screen is suggested, and rotated on a turntable periodically (though not much, and not to significant effect). Jennifer’s room is on that turntable, an ultra-bright, pink-orange assemblage of electronics plus beanbag chair (designed by Michelle Riel). The mid-theater stairways serve as the locales of her various online contacts. David Lee Cuthbert works his usual magic with the lighting, including a specially-lit Rubiks-type cube, backlit floor-squares and a mass of bulbous white Chinese lanterns that hang overhead. Pal Peterson’s sound design is aptly cyber-savvy and at appropriate times, Asian-tinged.
There are many glib, facile moments here, but also some genuine emotional ones. Jones has his finger on the pulse of his own generation, though he has a penchant for caricature. But, under the expert guidance of Kirsten Brandt, his quirky mix of humor and pathos, and his Gen-X sense of ill-defined identity come together as much more than just an emoticon.
MAID TO ORDER
It was big news in 1933. Two maids, the reportedly incestuous Pepin sisters, committed a horrific crime, murdering their mistress. The sensational story was reshaped into more than 25 adaptations — books, films, opera, plays, including “ The Maids” by Jean Genet (1948), and more recently, the 2000 movie, “Murderous Maids.”
The news item caught the eye of Genet, who had a pretty sensational story in his own right. Born to a young Parisian prostitute in 1910, he was given up for adoption and placed in a series of foster homes. Falsely accused of theft when he was a child, he resolved thereafter to become a real thief, and was in and out of prison his whole life. Flagrantly homosexual, he spent years as a prostitute and degenerate. The criminal underworld always seemed to be his preferred milieu. He claimed that the world rejected him, so he rejected the world. The thrust of his work was always anti-bourgeois, fetishistic, celebrating perversity. Yet Genet’s works are in some ways humane, in their protection and defense of misfits, social outcasts, and the oppressed.
“The Maids,” his first play, reflected his lifelong disdain for authority, and in its Absurdist structure, is less concerned with the literal truth of the maids’ story than the inner workings of their minds. It’s jam-packed with illusions created by the sisters as a way to combat their oppressive circumstances. They feel ashamed and dirty because of their poverty, and they act out elaborate role-plays in which they employ cutting insults and even physical violence in their sado-masochistic “ceremony,” the most cherished time of their day.
The deceptions they create are so powerful, they confuse both sisters’ sense of reality; several times, Claire refers to Solange as “Claire,” and in Solange’s final monologue, she plays and addresses a dizzying array of characters. The rituals are not the only illusion in the self-conscious play, which consistently draws attention to its theatricality. Solange vicariously revels in the escapist stories Claire writes. Madame fantasizes about a criminal escape with her incarcerated lover. In the highly enigmatic final monologue, Solange becomes writer, actor and detached narrator, commenting on what happens after the “play” has ended.
Genet even suggested an additional layer of artifice; he recommended that all three women’s roles be played by young men, which reflects another theme familiar to his work: that gender is just another mask we wear (it’s theater, too).
In this striking 6th @ Penn production, Sam Woodhouse has stuck with female actors, precisely directed. But he adds yet another level of illusion; all the action is projected on three small TV screens. Claire, ever suspicious that someone is watching them, films their actions for her own (perverse) enjoyment.
The play, and this production, shatter illusions about love, hate and the very nature of reality. Cruelty, sexual jealousy, deceit and self-loathing infuse nearly every line. The sisters’ desperation, passion, revulsion and desire twist their tortured lives into an inexorable spiral toward freedom at any cost, paid for in guilt, degradation and death. Like much of Genet’s work, “The Maids” is a tale of connections that choke, maim and kill; the connections we think will bind us together serve only to highlight our alienation from one another.
In the tiny 6th @ Penn Theater, the production is appropriately claustrophobic. Adorned with paper flowers and crammed to bursting with Madame’s myriad slips, stoles, dresses and underthings — draped over doorways, wires and hangers — there’s barely room to breathe (effective set design by Kevin Judge). The nicely subtle lighting (Jennifer Setlow) is dark, shadowy, as ominous as the action on the stage, which is punctuated by a soundscape (George Ye) ranging from rock music to mournful mass melodies (Lacrymosa, Sanctus).
At the dark heart of the drama is the shifting power dynamics of this dangerous duo… who is older, who younger; who is master, who slave; who is seducer and who seduced. As Claire, the younger, more feminine of the two, Laurie Lehmann-Gray is excellent when she mimics Madame, French accent and all. She turns on a dime emotionally, although she is less dominant than the script might suggest. Dana Hooley has perhaps the more difficult task as Solange, a character with few endearing traits, posed as the unrelenting negative against which Genet contrasts the more humane emotions. Hooley plays at a high pitch, but she modulates well when needed. There is less chemistry and sexuality between the two than the situation and stark language of the play imply. Anne Tran does her best work as the frivolous, unthinkingly imperious Madame. The temperature of the whole piece is both heated and cooled by her gorgeous, sensual presence.
According to Genet, life is just a row of mirrors intended to confound the oppressed, bamboozle the sensitive and — with any luck — confuse the audience. This production achieved his intention. This piece isn’t for everyone. But nearly 60 years after its premiere, it still manages to be both unnerving and disturbing.
SIX MEN AND AN ORGAN COMPETITION
On Book On Stage has done it again — organized a thrilling evening of theatrical titillation, with the reading of a new play, “Bach in Leipzig,” by young (30-something) Brooklynite Itamar Moses. The playwright wanted to be there Monday night at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage but he demurred, since the play is being workshopped at this moment at New York Stage and Film. It’s slated for a full production at Milwaukee Rep next spring.
The play is a delicious historical comedy that pits six ruthless 18th century German organists against one another as they vie for the most coveted musical post in Europe, chief organist at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. The Master, Johann Kuhnau, has died, and auditions for the post are announced, sparking cold-blooded competition. There’s truth in these historical events, and in the existence of the main characters, ranging from the incredibly prolific and acclaimed Georg Philipp Telemann to the timeless Johann Sebastian Bach (who wasn’t half as well known at the time), to a host of others — conveniently selected by Moses to be named either Johann or Georg, a running joke in the play.
The piece gets off to a slow start with a very long monologue (terrifically delivered by Sean Murray) in the form of a letter (missives abound throughout the play) which establishes the time — 1722 — and the situation. The writing is clever and there are innumerable sarcastic asides, double entendres and misunderstandings. As theater, it’s farcical. But as music — the structure of which it closely parallels — it’s a fugue, handily and extensively defined and described in the text so we don’t miss the point. It’s a “fabric of sound” into which no one, until Bach, has inserted six different voices intertwining, each with its own thrust and melody.
In the play, as in a fugue, a subject is announced in one voice, imitated in succession by each of the other voices, and brought to a contrapuntal crescendo. Jokes, themes, references and confusions recur repeatedly. The musical allusions come fast and furious, and are only exceeded by the self-referential theater terms and in-jokes. Oh, and let’s not forget the religious disquisitions, which are fine (if lengthy) when they’re poking fun at the battling Calvinists and Lutherans, but leave a lot of us behind when they bring in the Pietists. Though some of the religious distinctions no longer apply, the debate over innovation vs. tradition has never left us — in music or religion, theater, politics, or life.
There’s little action in the first act, as each character (or fugal ‘voice’) enters and tells his story, then has some superficially polite but reprehensible interaction with another voice, and then another ‘episode’ ensues. This would make it difficult (read: static) to stage, but a highly imaginative director might figure out some exciting way to make it sing (so to speak).
To everyone’s delight, there happened to be three such potential directors onstage for the reading: Cygnet’s artistic director Sean Murray, North Coast Rep’s David Ellenstein and the peripatetic and skillful Robert May. The Murray-May interactions were especially amusing. Manuel Fernandes and Ryan McKinney (recent grad of the MFA Musical Theatre program at SDSU), provided most of the comic relief. Nick Cordileone (most often seen at Lamb’s) was as stalwart as usual, and Ellenstein had a small but showy role as the puffed-up but frustrated second banana, always behind Telemann (and later, Bach). Paul Bourque was amusing as The Greatest Organist in Germany. With minimal rehearsal and enormous depth of content and character to contend with, these guys did a spectacular job.
History is the springboard, but there’s a lot more here… perhaps a bit too much. A little trimming would go a long way. But Moses obviously has a thinking mind, an ear for dialogue and a way with wit. He’s definitely someone to watch. And I’ll be watching for these directors to grace us with their onstage talents more often. Bravo to director Brendon Fox, the Actors Alliance, and the wonderful cast.
THE LONG GOODBYE
Well, it’s finally time for me to (publicly) bid a very fond farewell to Chuck Zito, who’s returning to New York to be with family and loved one(s). During his all-too-brief 3 1/2 year tenure as executive director, Diversionary Theatre rose to its highest heights. Thank you, Chuck, for your professionalism and judgment, for making everyone feel welcome at Diversionary, and for seeing that the theater presented fine, challenging and well-wrought work. All good luck to you in all your future endeavors.
THE BIG TEASE
Get out the Aqua-Net. Besides Jack O’Brien, there’s another local “Hairspray” connection. Jesse Johnson, a former player at San Diego Junior Theatre, will be coming home with the touring production in July at the Civic Theatre (7/6-18X). His most recent JT credits were Tony in “West Side Story (2000) and Daniel Beauxhomme, the male lead in “Once on This Island” (2002).
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“The Maids” — darkly disturbing, enigmatic, and not for everyone, this 56 year-old Genet classic tells a murderous tale of incest, jealousy and dangerous games. A risky/sexy production at 6th @ Penn, through July 25.
“The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow” — fascinating premise, a stellar local lead and excellent direction; at the Globe’s Cassius Carter, through July 18.
“An Experiment with an Airpump” — wonderfully intelligent, provocative play, excellently acted and directed. Absolutely not to be missed. At Adams Avenue Studio of the Arts, through June 27.
“Continental Divide” — a pair of plays, for anyone who cares about the state of the Union, the political process, and our loss of idealism (and has a long attention span). In repertory at the La Jolla Playhouse, through August 1.
“Kid-Simple” — wildly imaginative, and just plain wild. A sound-feast and act-fest. At Sledgehammer Theatre, through July 11.
“Bed and Sofa” – delightfully quirky little musical, gorgeously designed and sung. See it, for sure! At Cygnet Theatre, through July 18.
Celebrate the end of June Gloom (we hope)… at the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.