By Pat Launer
Guilt and innocence, corruption and greed
Drama and satire without a screed;
On the comic side is ‘The Miser’s’ bravado
And the ludicrous laws of The Mikado;
‘The Smell of the Kill’ incites murderous joy
Principle’s at stake in ‘The Winslow Boy.’
As each of these plays rightly demonstrates
There’s always a ‘Tiger at the Gates.’
THE SHOW: ‘The Miser, Molière’s 1668 satire, is one of his character plays, where a single trait is center stage, and everything revolves around that. This visiting production by Minneapolis ’ Tony Award-winning Théâtre de la Jeune Lune includes six lucky local actors, who get to work with this stellar and highly accomplished company
THE SCOOP: A brilliant, drop-dead gorgeous production, magnificently conceived, directed and performed. The incomparable physicality, backed by a monochromatic tonality, are breathtaking.
THE STORY: Harpagon is the world’s stingiest man. He has money, but he worships and hoards it. He values it above everything, even the well-being of those closest to him. His avarice clouds his judgment, tangles him up in various romances – his son’s, his daughter’s and his own mismatch (with his son’s beloved). He is obsessed and paranoid, and a striking reflection of our own greedy, materialistic times. With all its genius at physical comedy, the production mines all the darkness, despair and danger of a ‘society’ ruled by avarice and surrounded by sycophants. The vibrant, modern, often crude and coarse translation by long-time Jeune Lune collaborator, David Ball, is a delight. But as the remarkable director, Dominique Serrand , has said, this play is like our times – “cynical and without hope.” Deception and lies surround the tyrant; truth is punishable by death. Serrand told me it’s “a mean play for mean times. It’s very funny, but it’s brutal.”
THE PLAYERS: The company is incredible. Many of them trained at the prestigious Lecoq School of theatre in Paris , which is known for its focus on movement and physicality. The precision of the direction and the meticulousness of the moves are astonishing. Each time this production travels, Jeune Lune takes on players, usually students. But though the piece is presented on the campus of UCSD, it is a sextet of pros who were fortunate enough to get the training and experience of performing with this marvelous troupe. Given the ragged, droopy costumes and pallid, bizarre makeup, it was impossible to recognize them, but there they were: David Tierney (who snagged an actual speaking role), Lance Rogers (who got to bear his butt, or parts thereof) and making up the rest of the ensemble, Brianne Kostielney , Jeannine Marquie, Wendy Waddell, and Jaysen Waller. This is something they’ll undoubtedly remember for a lifetime.
In the central roles, Steven Epp is sheer genius as the Miserly Harpagon . With his tattered clothes, pale face, and sprouts of hair, he glides and glowers, uses his hands like props, moves like a dancer. Avoiding him( and thwarting) him at all costs is the servant La Flèche (Nathan Keepers), whose simian agility has him scaling walls and perching on a chair stuck to the wall eight feet off the ground. Sarah Agnew, with her prolonged vowels and piercing whine, is hilarious as Harpagon’s daughter Élise , who makes an unforgettable entrance in the second act, sliding and rolling on a warped, movable floor that’s suddenly got a 30-degree tilt. Barbara Kingsley is very funny as the wheeler-dealer matchmaker Frosine , Natalie Moore is a hoot with her fractured English as the foreign object of everyone’s desire, Mariane . Remo Airaldi does a terrific turn as round-bodied Master Jacques, who is both a coachman and a baker, whichever is more convenient at the moment.
THE PRODUCTION : Dominique Serrand has directed with a meticulous exactitude that juxtaposes the droll and the tragic, slapstick and despair. The set ( Riccardo Hernandez), costumes (Sonya Berlovitz ), lighting (Marcus Dilliard ) and sound (David Remedios ) are of a seamless piece; this is a world in decay. Everything (and everyone) is faded, tattered, broken. The hole in the roof is mirrored in the torn clothing. Plaster falls from the ceiling or is picked off the walls. The rooms are bare, the horses are dying ( Harpagon steals their oats), and things are only getting worse.
THE LOCATION: Théâtre de la Jeune Lune at the La Jolla Playhouse, through November 13.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Very Best Bet
EAST MEETS WEST: HERE’S a HOWDY-DO
THE SHOW: The Mikado (1885), Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular operetta
THE SCOOP: A competent production, nicely designed and well sung.
THE STORY & BACKSTORY: The idea for The Mikado first sprang into the mind of playwright W.S. Gilbert when an old Japanese sword, which had been hanging on the wall of his study for years, suddenly fell from its place. Gilbert took this as an omen and determined to leave his own country alone for awhile and turn his biting satire instead toward the East (but only externally).
The plot of The Mikado revolves around young Nanki-Poo , who’s banished himself from the little town of Titipu , rather than marry the aging gorgon Katisha . He’s really in love with the ditsy, self-adoring Yum-Yum, who’s engaged to her guardian, the tailor Ko-Ko , but Ko-Ko’s been condemned to death for the capital crime of flirting. Through the bizarre machinations of the law, Ko-Ko has been granted a reprieve – and promoted to the post of Lord High Executioner, even though he can barely life his sword, let alone use it. Searching for a surrogate victim to execute, since the Mikado is demanding that heads roll, he lights on Nanki-Poo . He’s been encouraged and abetted by Pooh-Bah, The Lord High Everything Else, a ponderous aggregation of conflicts of interest, a complete cabinet of ministers rolled into one. The Mikado is a ridiculous and cruel leader, who fantasizes sadisctically just how every punishment can ‘fit’ the crime. Crooked bargains are struck, ludicrous laws are exposed, and the Mikado declares that “virtue is triumphant only in theatrical performances.” However, by the end, everyone gets more or less what s/he wants; matchups and marriages abound.
THE PLAYERS –Lisa Archibeque’s voice soars over all – both in pitch and quality. The silver-voiced soprano, a UCSD graduate (in theater) brings skill and substance to the role of one of the earliest onstage airheads. She’s vocally stronger than Jonathan Michael Knapp’s Nanki-poo , but he has a highly engaging presence. As the multi-titled Pooh-Bah, Joe Pechota demonstrates a resonant voice and a flair for comedy. Joseph Grienenberger is also amusing as the cowardly Ko-Ko . Like Grienenberger , Martha Jane Weaver is reprising a role (in her case, Katisha ) played at Lyric Opera before. Her long green fingernails and makeup to match really make the jilted lover a witchy woman, a desperate and pitiful one at that.
THE PRODUCTION : The minimalist sets and colorful costumes (co-production with Light Opera Oklahoma) are perfect for the piece. A hanging kimono, visible during the striking overture, is replaced by pale panels suggestive of Japanese landscape woodcuts. The sole set-piece is a vibrant red footbridge. Comedy is king in this production, directed and conducted by Lyric Opera’s artistic director, Leon Natker . His staging is heavy on vaudeville moves and shtick. The 32-piece orchestra sounds wonderful in the new space, which really steals the show. The stunning, $8 million refurbishment of the North Park Theatre (now known as the Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theatre) is worth the price of admission alone. The acoustics are as fine as the loving restoration of architectural details (even if the seats are a bit snug). There’s a Starbuck’s in the lobby and a restaurant to come. This should turn into a community centerpiece; everyone at Lyric Opera was justly proud on opening night.
THE LOCATION: At the newly restored North Park Theatre, through October 30.
WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL
THE SHOW: The Winslow Boy, written by Terence Rattigan in 1946, based on a true incident that occurred in 1908.
THE SCOOP: Beautifully done. Just the kind of intense, dramatic period piece the Lambies excel at – in design and execution
THE STORY: As in the source material, a 13 year old naval cadet is accused of a petty theft and expelled from school, despite his protests of innocence. The boy’s father believes an injustice has been done, and he seeks legal recourse in a case that drew national attention. It’s ‘a well-made play,’ a tad old-fashioned, propounding decidedly unfashionable values: an ordinary citizen goes up against the intransigence of a self-protective establishment in a stratified, hierarchical society still bound up in 19th century mores, for the mere purpose of righting a wrong and seeking fairness in an unfair world. The costly battle ends his daughter’s engagement and nearly destroys the family. But right makes might. The play skewers the press (consider this exchange: “What shall I say to them?” “Whatever you say will have little bearing on what they write”), and champions feminism; the daughter is a Suffragette, an agent of social change who thoroughly supports her father’s case. As the intelligent, often witty text reminds us, “It is easy to do justice. It is very hard to do right.” David Mamet effectively adapted the play for the screen in 1999, and according to one L.A. critic, an audience of jaded and “show me” journalists “burst into applause at the end” of a screening.
THE PLAYERS and PRODUCTION: Director Deborah Gilmour Smyth has marshaled a marvelous cast. Under her sensitive direction, each etches a sharply delineated, credible character. As the crusty but principled patriarch, Jim Chovick speaks with formality and surface brusqueness, but an underlying gentleness shines through. K.B. Mercer is wonderful as his feisty but deferential wife. As their offspring, Kevin Koppman-Gue is the vulnerable, sympathetic pre-adolescent at the center of the case, though principle soon overtakes the details. Kürt Norby is jaunty as the lively older brother and Colleen Kollar is lovely and forthright, staunch and sensible as Catherine, the heroine. Her fiancé (Jon Lorenz0 turns out to be far too conservative and strait-laced for her. And the portly lawyer who adores her (John Rosen) isn’t right either. She has to come around to the arrogant attorney who defends her brother (slick and self-important Jason Weil, who gets the last, titillating word). As a peek at the ‘other half,’ Jillian Frost plays a vacuous journalist and Dana Hooley a feisty Cockney maid.
The design is delectable; Mike Buckley’s fastidiously detailed set (complete with flickering downstage fireplace) is perfectly complemented by the subtleties of Nathan Peirson’s lighting and an uncredited sound design. Jeanne Reith’s costumes are stunning; each character changes repeatedly during the course of the four scenes that span the years prior to WW I (1914-1918). The hats alone (for the men and the women) are a treat. .
THE LOCATION: At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through November 20.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: The Smell of the Kill, written by Michele Lowe, is a relatively new play (2002) that takes place in the present. But it feels like we’ve been here before.
THE SCOOP: Irredeemably retro; if this is the New Feminism… ugh. It’s Female Empowerment, of a sort; and satire, of a sort. If you’re that sort…. Feels like a sitcom to me — but the performances are wonderful.
THE STORY: Three women are stuck in the kitchen of a beautiful home. They’re not really friends; they’re thrown together repeatedly because their spouses are college buddies. They don’t even seem to like each other. But they’re banished to the kitchen while the men smoke post- prandial cigars and work on their putts (or is that putz ?). The gals gossip and snipe and take random and pointed potshots at each other. Gradually, we learn about the monsters they’re married to (who, mercifully, but in a rather arch and snarky writing ploy, never appear onstage. They’re only represented by the voice of Christopher M. Williams (who doesn’t even get a curtain call). Pretty soon, the guys get stuck in the expensive, expansive meat locker Nicky’s bankrupted husband has recently purchased to store his hunting bounty. The wives spend the rest of the one-act deciding whether they should get them out or leave ‘em in the deep freeze.
THE PLAYERS: These are stock characters: the career-oriented redhead, the stay-at-home brunette and the oversexed, ditsy blonde (who only wants a baby, and would consider stealing her friend’s). One’s husband is an embezzler, the other’s is a womanizer and the third, uninterested in sex or babies, is a control freak who makes his wife check in with him every two hours. Frankly, I don’t know any couples like this – nor would I want to. If this is supposed to be a satire, it doesn’t have enough edge or bite (or subtlety). Despite the back-stories, it’s a one-joke play. But under Brendon Fox’s assured direction, these three actresses do a bangup job with these less than multi-dimensional characters. As the frustrated stay-at-home, Melinda Gilb starts out relentlessly bitchy but shows her more fragile, wounded side later on, when she’s forced to acknowledge her husband’s infidelities. Terri Park is the indomitable one, juggling motherhood and professional success. Brooke McCormick does a great deal with dumb-blonde Molly (and she’s beautiful to boot – especially fortunate since she spends most of the show in her sexy underwear). Lowe has a good ear for natural discourse, and she’s injected plenty of funny lines, but they’re strictly of the laugh-track variety. Setup and ba-da-bing ! Fox brings nervous comic tension to the situation, but there is, after all, just one problem (unless you count the offstage baby puking a serious problem). Zany solutions to complex problems are TV fare in my book. But audiences were howling when I was there, so it’s just one woman’s opinion.
THE PRODUCTION : Marty Burnett’s set is a dazzling, black and white, forced perspective, high-end kitchen. Jeanne Reith’s costumes are class- and character-defining . Bonnie Durbin’s props, as always, are meticulous. Chris Rynne’s lighting and M.Scott Grabau’s sound design (especially the floor-rattling pounding of ‘the guys’) are quite effective ..
THE LOCATION: At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through November 13.
TIGER, TIGER BURNING BRIGHT
.. If you missed the latest Actors Alliance reading, “Tiger at the Gates,” you really missed something special: French playwright Jean Giraudoux’s timely black comedy was written in 1935 and translated into English in 1955. But half to three-quarters of a century doesn’t dim its power. A re-interpretation of Greek mythology, it’s about Hector, Paris, Ulysses and Helen of Troy. It’s also (as translated by Christopher Fry) a satire of love and war, a tale of greed, selfishness, moral frailty, war-mongering and herd mentality. But it’s not all deep and heavy; there are many moments of comic relief that highlight the vibrant writing and sharp characterization. The play is timeless because it can be applied and interpreted to almost any era. His play has been viewed as a commentary on the growing menace of Nazism and as a warning against appeasing totalitarianism. There couldn’t be a better time to revisit the piece, in the current climate of divisiveness concerning imperialism and jingoism, pacifism and unjust war, the perceived machismo and manliness of battle vs. the limbless victims of combat folly. This reading convinced me that a full production should be mounted—and soon.
Former Globe associate director Brendon Fox (yup, Brendon again!), a master at casting, assembled a stellar ensemble. He could easily have double-cast the huge play. But since he was helming a reading, he had the luxury of 21 performers, spread across the Lamb’s stage (and the ornate Winslow Boy set). Even without benefit of costumes or makeup, each performer totally looked, acted and felt like the colorful characters s/he portrayed: Jennifer Austin as the beautiful, complex and enigmatic vixen. Helen; handsome Brennan Taylor as young Paris , smitten by her siren allure. As his brother, the war-weary Hector, Jason Heil portrayed a noble realist, returning to Troy , to his pregnant, no-nonsense wife, Hecuba (Robin Christ), ready to retire from the horrors of battle. But he has to face off with his father, the war-hungry Priam (stalwart, white-bearded Tim West) and the pompous, pontificating (and often hilarious) poet, Demekos (Michael Rich Sears), not to mention the combative, bellicose crowd.
Scene-stealing star-turns were provided by Lance Smith as hotheaded Ajax , and Marcus Overton as Busiris , an unscrupulous lawyer, self-proclaimed interpreter of the truth, for whom the truth proves to be a slippery business. He’s eager to invoke a legal statute to support either side of an argument, whichever benefits him more – or saves his skin — truth be damned (“No poet ever interpreted nature as freely as a lawyer interprets the truth”). But it was Richard Baird who gave the most riveting performance. His Ulysses was a master of regal restraint. A magnificent, finely nuanced characterization. And one of Baird’s last in San Diego . He’ll appear in Diversionary’s A Bright Room Called Day, and then head off to Ashland for the prestigious Shakespeare Festival, where he’s snagged one of very few 10-month contracts. Their gain, our great loss. Let’s just hope he returns to San Diego when he’s done — to grace our stages with even more stature and skill.
…Sonnet Manias: DON’T MISS IT!! The San Diego Shakespeare Society’s annual Celebrity Sonnet Presentations is Monday, October 24 in the Old Globe Theatre. Readings will be by actors: Kandis Chappell, Rosina Reynolds, Ron Choularton, TJ Johnson, Seema Sueko, Joey Landwehr and Dakin Matthews. And stellar others: The Cheshire Singers, KPBS’ Martha Barnette , director Darko Tresnjak, choreographer Javier Velasco, author Alan Russell, pastor Rev. Dr. Mikel Taxer , educators Diane Sinor and Jack Winans , and student actors Rebecca and Daniel Myers (ages 9 and 12). The emcee is yours truly, with stage management by David Cohen. This Monday, Oct. 24 at 7pm. Proceeds to benefit the Shakespeare Society Student Festival (coming your way in 2006). www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org .
… Also on Monday, October 24, the next Carlsbad Playreaders ’ reading: Neil LaBute’s dark, disturbing “bash,” a stark confrontation of impassive, everyday violence. Directed by Walt Jones, featuring Lisa Christensen, Candace McAdams, Mike Sears and Brennan Taylor.
…The Women’s Repertory Theatre is back… with a one-night stand of “Stripped and Teased: I Could Drink a Case of You… and other Tales,” written and performed by practicing sociologist/performance artist Kimberly Dark. A juicy and controversial contemplation of gender and female sexuality, the work has been called “forthright….honest… daring… unpretentious… powerful.” 7pm on October 23, at the newly restored North Park Theatre. 619-239-8836.
… Just got an email from actor/singer/guitarist Steve Gouveia, who’s having a blast in New York , in previews for Jersey Boys, which opens Nov. 6 (and I’ll be there!). Steve says “It looks like the show is going to be a huge hit. We get lots of people from New Jersey who scream and holler when we mention their state. The audiences are responding pretty much the same as they did in La Jolla , but the local pride of the show is definitely different. It creates a whole different vibe in the theater.” As a New York friend put it, “ It was hard to tell if JERSEY BOYS was the name of the show or a description of the audience.” This week, the theater that’s housing Jersey Boys was rechristened in honor of the late, great playwright August Wilson, who died of liver cancer on October 2 at age 60. During the ceremony, the Quote of the Week came from Jack Viertel , creative director of the Broadway theater-owners, Jujamcyn : “We finally succeeded in making the Great White Way a little less white,” he said.
… Congrats to Dr. Marianne McDonald, fo whom a festschrift was just dedicated (for you non-academics, that’s a collection of articles by the colleagues, friends and/or former students of a noted scholar, published in her honor). “Rebel Women,” edited by John Dillon and Stephen Wilmer, was published in association with Trinity College , Dublin . The 12 essays, by leading academics, writers and theater practitioners, examine how ancient Greek heroines are represented in their original contexts and on today’s stages. One piece is by acclaimed Northern Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. Way to go, Marianne! We’re proud!
… Speaking of the Nobel (pause)… Harold (long pause) Pinter … won the Big Prize for Literature this week. The 75 year-old British playwright, poet and political activist uses spare and often menacing language to explore themes of powerlessness, domination and the faceless tyranny of the state. As the Swedish Academy put it, Pinter “forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.” In his plays, the best known of which are The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and The Caretaker, Pinter’s characters speak in non sequiturs and sentence fragments; they fail to listen and fail to understand. He is, said NY Times theater critic Ben Brantley, “the greatest living practitioner of viral theater.” Great theater, Brantley explained, “ the kind that changes the way you see and hear the world, acts like a virus. It creeps into the bloodstream, without your really knowing it, while you are watching a performance. Then it grows, it mutates, it seizes the senses. And often it won’t leave you for hours, even days, after the curtain has come down.” In recent years, Pinter has been extremely outspoken about the Iraq war. Last March, accepting the Wilfred Owen prize for his antiwar poetry, he said, “We have brought torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random murder, misery and degradation to the Iraqi people and call it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East .’” The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe , Pinter said the anti-Semitism he experienced as a child influenced his later work. This year, the playwright underwent treatment for cancer of the esophagus. He said he’s probably written his last play (“I’ve written 29 plays. Isn’t that enough?”), but he still plans to act in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in 2006, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Royal Court Theater in London .
… It’s late October. so spend some time beyond the grave… at Dia de los Muertos : when the living meet the dead, a late-night alternative to more traditional Halloween celebrations. Under the banner of Chronos Theatre Group, Celeste Innocenti , Sara Jane Nash, Tom Hall, Doug Hoehn and Crystal Verdon promise something “chilling and creepy, but also mysterious, moody and magical,” including readings from Poe, Dickens, Stoker and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, 10:30pm on October 29. Get spooked!
….Magnificent Moxie Makes Midnight Magic: Since the buzz is so great on the too-short-run of their knockout premiere, Dog Act, the Moxie theatre gals have decided to stage a special, pay-what-you-can-performance (with all proceeds going to the artists) on Saturday night, Oct. 22, at midnight. So many other actors who are in productions want to see this one… so this is your chance! RSVP’s to Delicia@moxietheatre.com or 619/247-7467
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks );
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
The Miser – magnificent; theater magic. Théâtre de la Jeune Lune mines the darkness beneath the farcically comic surface. The physical production is gorgeous – as are the set, makeup, movement, direction, acting. It’s all good. Very good.
At La Jolla Playhouse, through November 13.
“The Winslow Boy” – beautifully designed and acted. A wonderful ensemble piece, with striking philosophical resonance.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through November 20.
“Dog Act” – deliciously funny, wild, witty and wacky. A post-apocalyptic vaudeville fable. Linguistically lavish and artistically awesome.
Moxie Theatre premieres at Diversionary Theatre, through October 23.
“In Arabia , We’d All Be Kings” – dark, intense, depressing… but beautifully performed.
At Lynx Theatre Performance Space, through October 23.
“Curse of the Starving Class” – grim and gritty nightmare of the American Dream. Sam Shepard at his bleakest, with flashes of wily humor. Wonderfully performed, a highly felicitous collaboration all around.
Co-produced by New Village Arts and Cygnet Theatre; at Cygnet, through November 6.
“The Prince of L.A. ” – a provocative peek behind the curtain of secrecy that shrouds the Catholic Church; an intriguing verse play, well written, directed and acted.
The Old Globe’ Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through October 30.
“ Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” – like visiting with (theater) royalty. At 72, Chita still has the style, grace and ‘attitude’ she was, apparently, born with. In her singing/dancing narrative, she’s warm and lovable, gracious and irresistible. See her before she heads back to Broadway.
At the Old Globe, SECOND EXTENSION, through November 6.
“Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star” – if you haven’t had your fill of menopausal musicals, this is great for a date (the guys remind us it’s called MENopause ). Excellent performances , some cute/clever bits and songs.
At The Theatre in Old Town , through January 1.
It’s not the end of October yet; there’s still time to scare up some theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.