By Pat Launer
Hard to believe, but isn’t it nifty
That this column is my number 150?
Comedies, tragedies, deaths and scares,
It’s all piled up (just like The Chairs).
We’ve been through it together, by hell and by heck,
By Hannah and Martin, by Chiang Kai Chek.
From the depths of drama, together we’d soar
To Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
So, congrats to us all, in so many ways
For the joy of hundreds of awesome plays.
THE SHOW: HANNAH AND MARTIN, the Southern California premiere of a gripping drama by Kate Fodor, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Hannah Arendt
THE STORY: Truth is often so much stranger than fiction. Playwright Fodor, recently named by the New York Times as one of “Eight to Watch” in the theater world, took a few literary licenses. But mostly, she stuck to the facts, which are pretty incredible. In the shadow of World War II. Hannah Arendt was a student of the great philosopher, Martin Heidegger. They became lovers; she was 18 and he was 35. So far, no neck-snapping surprises. But she was Jewish and he was an ardent Nazi sympathizer. He never put anyone to death, but he never helped his Jewish colleagues either, including his dear friend (another of Hannah’s teachers), Karl Jaspers, passively allowing him to lose his teaching position at the University. In 1941, Hannah escaped to the U.S. and became an acclaimed, if controversial, journalist, scholar, teacher and political theorist. It was she who, in covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, coined the eyebrow-raising phrase “the banality of evil.”
In order to make a point about the pervasive influence of teachers, Fodor has Arendt covering the Nuremberg Trials (rather than Eichmann’s), so she can shine a light on Baldur von Schirach, Hitler’s Youth Organizer. He serves as impetus for the dramatic question: Are you more culpable if your role in life is shaping minds as a teacher? Though Fodor would say yes, and Arendt might have agreed, when it came to Heidegger, perhaps her heart overruled her head, and she reversed her position. At first writing the University supporting his removal from his teaching post, she later reneged, begging the authorities to reinstate him, because it would be the students who’d suffer if he couldn’t teach. To add one more strikingly incomprehensible act to the mix, Heidegger never recanted. “I’ll apologize to the world when Hitler comes back to apologize to me,” he says in the play. After the war, Hannah and Martin did meet again, and this is where Fodor takes her liberties and employs an intriguing imagination, creating a sparks-flying second-act scene that centers on passion and principle, guilt and responsibility, and the limits of forgiveness.
The play jumps forward and backward in time, which is fine, and generally not difficult to follow. The ending is a tad unsatisfying, and it’s not clear that, just to make a point, the character of von Schirach is entirely necessary. But Fodor has a great deal of talent and ingenuity, and a strong literary voice. The issues she confronts are crucial and relevant, especially in these days of amorality and unwarranted violence.
THE PLAYER/THE PRODUCTION: The production is excellent. Francine Chemnick has cast beautifully and directed with extreme sensitivity and a precise vision. Christina Barsi, a recent graduate of the Bachelor of Arts program in Theatre at UCSD, is marvelous as Arendt. She is smart and headstrong, though she clearly and believably loses her head (and heart) to Heidegger, a condition she seems to have maintained until death (1975). Barsi captures the intelligence and the incongruities with élan. Stan Madruga is making a wonderfully welcome return to San Diego stages (I still remember his magnificent performance as John Barrymore in I Hate Hamlet, at North Coast Repertory Theatre in 1994). He is perfect as Heidegger, handsome, supercilious, condescending, sure in his intellect and supremacy. He arrogantly claims to have “taught Hannah to think.” Even when he kisses her hem or writes her passionate love poems, there is a decidedly patronizing paternalism about him. Their German accents are strong, and proved challenging for some theatergoers, but they are thoroughly authentic. Tracey McNeil, who used to perform frequently on local stages, is also making a delightful comeback (I clearly recall her outstanding performance in the Fritz Theater’s 1996 production of Sight Unseen). Here, she’s potent and quite credible as Jaspers’ wife, Gertrude. Mark C. Petrich is warm and gentle as the put-upon Jaspers. Connie Di Grazia strikes just the right notes of resentment and distrust as Heidegger’s wife, Effride. Tony Malanga, Krista Bell and Jude Evans provide solid backup. David Weiner’s deceptively simple, multi-level set allows for multiple playing spaces, which are effectively lit by Rick Mittleider. Shulamit Nelson’s costumes range from the dowdy to the divine, deftly defining character and era.
Beyond all the philosophy and rhetoric, this is a shocking, stirring and fiery love story, blisteringly told.
THE LOCATION: Laterthanever Productions in the Lyceum Space, through July 2.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
NOTE: Co –producer and production dramaturge Kathy Jones, retired SDSU professor and Hannah Arendt specialist (her producing partner, Federico Moramarco, who founded laterthanever productions, is also a former SDSU faculty member), received a prestigious award from the National Endowment for the Humanities to direct an intensive Hannah Arendt seminar here in San Diego this summer — for 15 teachers selected in a nationwide competition. There’s certainly a great deal of knowledge and gravitas behind this thought-provoking production.
THE SHOW: CHIANG KAI CHEK, by the ever-fascinating, iconoclastic Charles L. Mee
THE STORY/THE PRODUCTION: Mee begins his play like this: “The piece plays out at a very slow, dream-like pace.
The setting is beautiful, exquisite.” Sledgehammer founder and returning artistic director Scott Feldsher took him at his word. Perhaps a bit too literally. The piece plays out at a soporific snail’s pace. There is no story to speak of, very little dialogue, in fact. The actions are beautiful, the singing unique and often searing. There are the signature early-Sledge design elements of blinding light and deafening noise. But this is Noh theater cast in slow-drying plaster. It’s painstakingly protracted and nothing much happens. A singer walks in and out of a pool of water. A dancer in white mask and clothes moves evocatively on a central platform. Each character takes more than one earnest, deliberate mince across perilously narrow planks. And the only character who speaks says maybe 50 lines total, all the while building a house of cards. Mee has written some terrifically inventive plays; Feldsher has done some jaw-dropping work. But this one is only for the very very patient and perseverant. Those who don’t mind a text that only in the most oblique ways relates to the title. Stories of violence and horror are told, some of them a virtual catalogue of the grisly tortures at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Graib. They’re juxtaposed with sunny family photos, kids swimming, projected behind the ( non) action. It’s all so… last century Sledgehammer. The symbolism is both glaring and obscure. The 90 minutes is short but seems endless. And the house of cards falls.
It’s all supposed to be about doctrinaire leaders who go astray, who fall victim to their own ideology and perpetrate deadly deeds in the name of their steadfast beliefs. Power corrupts. But we knew that. Still, the message is pertinent, it’s relevant, this couldn’t be a better time. But if you didn’t read the program notes or the advance/previews, you’d be hard pressed to extract all that from this opaque piece. It isn’t just about Taiwan ’s post-war dictator, of course. It’s about all those leaders, present and past, some very present, whose authority overtakes them, power unchecked.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Every individual element of the production is outstanding. The moves of Eveoke Dance Theatre’s Ericka Moore, are gorgeous, some choreographed, some improvised. Mezzo soprano Markee Rambo-Hood has a marvelously rangy voice, especially delicious in her lower register. Nick Carvajal sits on a platform upstage, playing cacophonous noises that sometimes approach music, and other times, whiney cats or screeching bats (music composed by Tim Root). And through it all, in a wonderfully still, intricate performance, John Polak carefully places the cards, barely moving an extraneous muscle, keeping his voice and face steady and unwavering. At times, after a particularly brutal description, the wisp of a self-satisfied smile crosses his lips. Nick Fouch’s set design – the three platforms, the pool – is starkly Asian and beautiful, but except for the whiteface makeup, and Sarah Golden’s kimono-inspired costumes, you’d never get any hint of Chiang or anyone else from the Far East. Chris Hall’s lighting sustains the still, everything’s-happening-beneath-the-surface mood.
It’s a felicitous collaboration of Sledgehammer and Eveoke, both sharing the new Tenth Avenue Theatre space. But is it as deep and profound as it professes to be? It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
THE LOCATION: Sledgehammer at the 10th Avenue Theatre, through July 2.
THE SHOWS: THE CHAIRS, the third part of the trio of the Absurd presented by ion theatre; this is an Ionesco classic; the other two pieces, playing in repertory on alternating nights, are a Beckett double-header performed by Claudio Raygoza, directed by Glenn Paris
THE BACKSTORY: Executive artistic director Claudio Raygoza and producing artistic director Glenn Paris have switched roles. For the Beckett plays, Paris directs Raygoza. For the Ionesco, Raygoza directs Paris . Both fare better in the other roles. In this classic 1952 piece (though it’s called Theatre of the Absurd, the term wasn’t coined until a decade later, by theater critic Martin Esslin) , an elderly couple (age 94 and 95), isolated in a building surrounded by water, reminisce about their past and enact a present that is populated by imaginary people. Like the old man in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, they realize that they’ve dismally failed to meet their potential. But now, the Old Man is ready to spread his message, an important imparting that is meant to save humanity. Not trusting his own powers of presentation, he has hired an Orator for the momentous event, to which he’s invited the local hordes, the rich and influential, all the way up to the Emperor. The pair is teetering (literally and figuratively) on the edge of death. They scurry around frenetically, bringing chairs, through myriad entrances, for their flock of invisible visitors. The stage fills with chairs, until there is no more room for the hosts. And then, when the Orator arrives…. well, in case you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin it for you. Suffice it to say that the messenger is as incoherent as the message — which makes for an aptly inscrutable ending, the whole meant to ask if real communication, real connection, is ever possible. Some have suggested that the piece represents Ionesco’s own life – an endless array of vacant chairs and actors who don’t understand his message. In the program for the original production, the playwright wrote: “As the world is incomprehensible to me, I am waiting for someone to explain it.” Well, don’t look at me.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Ionesco subtitled his play “a tragic farce.” So it’s important not to take it too seriously – or to make it inane. The ion theatre production errs in the direction of the former. The production just isn’t preposterous or farcical enough, though the situation is certainly absurd and outlandish. I’ve seen productions where the audience is in hysterics, because the piece is played by vaudevillians and is intended for belly-laughs. But this mounting of the play is not sufficiently bleak or raucous or poignant. We don’t really come to care enough about the couple, so their end isn’t tragic. And though Paris is solid enough and DeAnna Driscoll is riveting to watch, they don’t really make us see that roomful of imaginary friends, and that is crucial to the piece. Driscoll’s physicality is excellent, and she’s best trying to squeeze herself through the crowd. But we can’t really conjure up this throng, so we’re kind of watching a pathetic version of “ Harvey ” without the laughs. Raygoza’s set is fine, with all its doors, and Rachel Levine punctuates the action with a sound design filled with the sloshes and splashes and motors of boats and plummeting bodies. Peter Herman does a wonderful job with the Methuselah hair and makeup, the perfect complement to Jeannie Galioto’s dusty, ragged costumes. I far preferred my dose of the meaninglessness of life in Raygoza’s spellbinding performance in Krapp’s Last Tape. Don’t miss it.
THE LOCATION: At the new downtown theater space, New World Stage, through July 9; in repertory with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and Not I.
THE SHOW: LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR, Neil Simon’s 27th play (1993), perhaps his funniest, presented as the start of the third season for the Sullivan Players, directed by beloved local acting teacher DJ Sullivan
THE STORY: Simon is recollecting his comedy beginnings and paying homage to the comic geniuses with whom he shared a small space in the 1950s, on the 23rd floor of a building overlooking 57th Street in New York , writing material for Sid Caesar and the groundbreaking TV program, “Your Show of Shows.” The real cast of characters, thinly disguised, included Simon as the young newbie, and veterans Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart, who made each other and America laugh for 90 minutes every week in the early days of television. Often called “The Harvard of Comedy,” the room was a tinderbox of fragile egos, a bedlam of mayhem, neuroses, nonstop gags, personal problems and constant one-upmanship perpetrated by a team of brilliantly funny social misfits. Like most Simon plays after his first few, there’s a melancholy undertone. Here, it’s about the growing encroachment of McCarthyism, spineless executives and sponsors who demand a dumbing-down of the show for a Midwest mentality that forces first the diminution and then the destruction of the program. They have to move over for the likes of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.”
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION The first act is absolutely side-splitting as these funniest men in America – plus one lone woman, who can swear with the best of ‘em – try to one-up each other in punchlines. It’s gut-busting Borscht Belt in the middle of Manhattan . The second act falters – both in the text and the production. But the rat-a-tat timing of that first act can just about sustain you through the evening. Val, the stressed-out head writer (funny/bumbling George Weinberg-Harter), is a Russian émigré who takes a Berlitz course so he can curse without an accent. With his heavy Slavic speech, Weinberg-Harter sounds like a less cynical, more comic André Codrescu, the darling of NPR, though in reality, he’s a stand-in for Mel Tolkin. Kevin Six is hilarious, both physically (he’s an agile trapeze artist who can pratfall like a clown and leap like a ballet dancer) as Milt, the fast-talking insult artist who’s always in trouble with his wife and the boss (and he does the best comic turns in an ill-fitting suit). Sandy Hotchiss Gullans is very solid as the lone female, touch-as-nails Carol (aka Selma Diamond), who’s credibly pregnant in the second act. Lauren Zimmerman is pertly humorous as the ditsy secretary with comic aspirations of her own. John Martin, fresh from his uproarious turn in Ruff Yeager’s new play reading last week, isn’t quite as believable here. He has the requisite apoplectic rages; he bullies, he roars; he seems drunk (the boss, the brilliant Max Prince, the Sid Caesar stand-in, tends to deal with his anxiety and paranoia by mixing tranquilizers and alcohol). But Martin doesn’t show the other side of this should-be sympathetic character. By all reports, he’s generous to a fault, devoutly devoted to preserving the show. The shading needs to be more subtle, the multi facets more polished. Harrison Myers has just the right ingenuousness for Lucas, the young Simon. Greg Rohde and Michael McClure play their roles more low-key and serious, and at times, they swallow or throw away some fine comic lines. Not so with Lou Cruciani, who plays Ira, the hypochondriac whose dream is to have a virus named after him. This character is purported to be a cross between Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Cruciani even looks like Brooks, and he’s very very funny in the role – and this, according to his bio, despite studying for years and doing showcases and film work, is “the first full-fledged play he has been in.” Onward and upward, Louie!
Director Sullivan, an actor and teacher for more than 38 years, actually spent time years ago with “Doc” Simon, when she represented the Screen Actors Guild at an AFI taping of Simon’s life. She vividly recalls Simon talking about those good old days, and his love for the writers he’d worked with on the Caesar show, including his brother Danny and Carl Reiner, both of whom were also present for the taping. Simon vowed that some day he would write about his experience as a novice on that program, in the Golden Age of television. And the rest, as they say….
Sullivan has an excellent ear for the rhythm and tempo of these seven Jews and an Irishman. The production values are basic but serviceable and the costumes (Sheila Rosen) are just right for the period and the character. Walk loudly and carry a big shtick.
THE LOCATION: The Sullivan Players on the Swedenborgian Stage, through June 25.
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
TRAGEDY AND HEALING
In America – so frequently reviled for its denial of death – ready to deal with grief? Novelist Joan Didion is currently adapting her much-lauded memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about the sudden death of her husband and the fatal illness of her daughter, into a stage play – a monologue to be performed by Vanessa Redgrave. And tapping into that zeitgeist, along comes our own Todd Salovey, associate director at the San Diego Rep and 13-year artistic director of the Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival, creating a world premiere, his first theater work, an adaptation of The Blessing of a Broken Heart. Based on the spiritual memoir of the same name by Sherri Mandell, it’s the deeply moving story of an American woman who lived with her family in a settlement on the West Bank of Israel . One day, her loving, fun-loving 13 year-old, Koby, cut school with a friend and ducked into a cave in the nearby wadi. Their bodies were later found, bludgeoned to death with large rocks, their blood smeared around the cave. Sherri’s story is one of profound grief, but also healing and redemption. She describes her sorrow and heartache in the most graphic and poetic detail. But she also knows that she must move on, must continue to live, must not succumb to her anguish. Although there are many Jewish elements in the play, the story is universal, of mothers and sons, of guilt and protectiveness, of faith and healing. Salovey directed this first staged reading, which was beautifully, achingly performed by L.A. actor Lisa Robbins, with talented San Diegan Daniel Myers as The Boy, lending his natural goodness and innocence, and his pure, sweet, crystalline voice to several Hebrew songs — even his own Bar Mitzvah portion. He’s 13 like Koby was, and it’s clear that the play touched him, too. The piece still needs some shaping; there are too many framing devices (entering the cave, stories about birds) and too many apparent endings. But in the post-performance talk-back, the audience agreed that the play has legs, and should go further. Not clear if it’s right for a mainstage production or more appropriate for a tour to various organizations of all religious and political persuasions. I’ll be interested to see how the piece progresses and evolves over time.
IN THE NEWS
A celebration of the life of JOHN CHRISTOPHER GUTH, 1965-2006
The memorial celebration of John’s life was held on Monday, June 19 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, his home away from home, where’d he’d spent 17 years of his too-short life. The program, planned by the family and stage managed by John’s long-time friend, former NCRT managing director Sue Schaffner, was probably the most heartfelt and heartwarming memorial celebration I’ve ever been to. It’s tragic, of course, a 40 year-old dying suddenly and unexpectedly. And everyone who spoke tried to bring levity and funny John-stories to the proceedings. But everyone broke down a bit, too. Speaking there was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. John was a very special person, who meant so much to so many, who gave of himself selflessly, who always thought of others before himself. I was happy that he’d actually gotten to hear the poem I wrote for him in farewell – eight months ago when he first left San Diego , to move to Oakland with his new love. Rob was there, of course, and he was blessedly embraced by the family, a close and very loving group. The songs presented were wonderful – appropriate, earnest, affectionate – by Sandy Campbell, Debbie Luce (who flew in from Canada to be there) and ending the event on a teary note, Sean Murray, singing, at the family’s request, “The Impossible Dream,” recalling when John played Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. And then, the emcee du jour, NCRT artistic director David Ellenstein, completed the afternoon with the coup de grâce… he paid tribute to John in the best way the theater can – with a standing ovation. The SRO crowd rose as one, and gave prolonged applause (one actor later quipped that it was the most genuine standing O he’d ever seen).
I was pleased to announce that, in honor of John and his 9-year commitment to the Patté Awards (he’s the only person, besides me, who’s been with the awards since the beginning), I’ll be creating a new Patté Award, the JOHN GUTH AWARD FOR BEHIND-THE-SCENES BRILLIANCE, to champion the theater’s unsung heroes, hard-working backbones of the community, like John. If you’d like to do something in John’s honor, the family requests that donations be made to The Theatre School @ NCRT.
The surprise news of the week (though I did hear a few rumors) is the imminent departure of two-time Tony winner Des McAnuff from the La Jolla Playhouse. The Playhouse announced that he won’t be renewing his contract, which expires in April 2007. Hot on the heels of his big successes with Jersey Boys, Des may be moving on to a film career (Jersey Boys, the movie musical?). In the meantime, he’ll fulfill his commitments to the Playhouse, including his 21st century re-imagining of The Wiz and the Page to Stage workshop production of The Farnsworth Connection. The Playhouse is naming him ‘Director Emeritus,’ which sounds far too old and farty for him. In that capacity, he’ll maintain a relationship with the Playhouse. According to Canada ’s leading source for online news, globeandmail.com, McAnuff will be one of a trio of new advisors who’ll serve as an artistic director troika at the Stratford Festival in Canada , not far from Toronto , where he began his career as a composer/lyricist. In the 1970s, he wrote and/or composed half a dozen plays, including Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which he reworked for the La Jolla Playhouse in 2001. Under his artistic directorship, from 1983-1994 and then again from 2001 to the present, the Playhouse has won more than 300 awards for excellence. The shows McAnuff has taken to Broadway have garnered 18 Tony Awards, in various categories. Just last month, the Drama League presented him with the Julia Hansen Award for Excellence in Directing, in recognition of his lifetime of work (though it’s still not enough to qualify for ‘emeritus’ status!). Des has definitely raised the profile of San Diego nationwide. We wish him well in his future endeavors, and look forward to his final two productions at the La Jolla Playhouse. Of course, we’ll always be watching his progress with interest.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR…
… The FunHouse improv theater is running a special throughout the summer, offering all their shows at a flat $10. That includes “Someone Will Win FIVE Dollars! – The Improv Game Show” on Fridays, “TheatreSports – The Improvisation Competition” Saturdays at 7:45pm, “The Really Really Big Big Improv Comedy Show Show” on Saturdays at 9:45pm and every Friday in Aust at 9:45pm, “MySpace: The Musical. Info at www.improvise.net .
… and now, for something completely different: Take 40 beautiful women, singing, playing instruments and dancing. Add acrobats and circus performers. And stir in a display of the ancient Chinese art of face changing (imperceptibly changing more than 10 masks in less than 20 seconds to convey a range of emotions). Voila! You’ve just cooked up Dynastaes – Legends of Sichuan. It’s a musical exploration of China ’s many dynasties and ethnicities. At the Civic Theatre this Friday and Saturday, June 23 and 24 only. www.asiamediainc.com ; 619-521-8008.
… wanna build up your base? Increase cultural patronage in San Diego ? Come to the Arts & Culture Roundtable Discussion, and choose your date: Friday, July 7, 9:30-11:30am OR Thursday, July 27, 1-3:00pm. Refreshments will be served. Participate in a dialogue about “Understanding the San Diego Region,” a research project on arts and culture from the San Diego Foundation. Space is limited; rsvp to www.pARTicipatesandiego.org , 619-814-1326.
… Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company will host a Sneak Peek of Since Africa and share details about MY HOME, the Theater Literacy after school program the company is offering this fall. Since Africa , by Mia McCullough, is the story of Ater, a “Lost boy of Sudan ,” and the two volunteers who try to help him adjust to life in urban America . The three are forced to confront questions about identity, loss, ritual and grief. Directed by Seema Sueko, the show will run in October. The Sneak Peek takes place on July 25. www.moolelo.net.
… A world-renowned playwright and an internationally celebrated scholar/playwright/translator… together again. Athol Fugard and Marianne McDonald will do a reading to raise funds for 6th @ Penn Theatre. Medea the Beginning by McDonald … Jason the End by Fugard. You WON’T want to miss this. Sunday, August 27 only. 7:30pm. $50 donation. 619-688-9210.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Hannah and Martin – provocative story and a fascinating play, expertly acted and directed
Laterthanever productions at the Lyceum, through July 2.
Laughter on the 23rd Floor – Neil Simon at his funniest; the laughs fly fast and furious
The Sullivan Players on the Swedenborgian Stage, through June 25
Krapp’s Last Tape –beautifully crafted, intensely precise performance by Claudio Raygoza
Ion theatre in their new downtown theater space, New World Stage, through July 9.
Amadeus – it’s talky and prolix and beats you over the head with its messages, but it’s a great story (whatever part of it is actually factual) and it’s very well presented by a fine, committed cast
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through July 23
Christmas on Mars –wacky and wildly over the top; well performed, but not for everyone
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through July 9
The Violet Hour – lovely production of a flawed but thought-provoking play by the Time-obsessed Richard Greenberg
At the Old Globe Theatre, through June 25
Zhivago – the world premiere musical has all the romance and extravagance you anticipated. You’re sure to get caught up in the legendary Russian romance. Catch it here before it heads to Broadway…
At the La Jolla Playhouse, through July 9.
Okay, it’s officially summer . Come in out of the sun… and celebrate local theater.
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.