By Pat Launer
Women on the verge and men unkind:
“Princess Ida” and “A Lie of the Mind”
With “Hyper-Focus,” it’s plain to see:
They’re all probably suffering from ADD!
In this season of crazy, senseless acts, “A Lie of the Mind” (which is what some might call the recent election) fits right in. Here, an inability to distinguish fact from fantasy, and a surfeit of destructive emotions seem to be the God-given right of every American – or at least of the Western white-trash that is the special domain of playwright Sam Shepard.
This complex, edgy, often-inscrutable 1985 drama has a neatly parallel structure. The focus is on two dysfunctional families linked by a damaged relationship. Central characters, the abusive Jake and the beaten-unto-brain-damage Beth, each have a brother who tries to act as a voice of reason in the midst of a marital free-fall. Both protagonists have mothers who take them back without any curiosity about the horror that brought them home. Their fathers are absent – literally or figuratively. The equally wacko households – one in Montana, one in California — are juxtaposed on a split stage. In the bold, visceral collaborative production of New Village Arts and Backyard Productions, the two homesteads are aptly tilted, separated by large boluses of tumbleweed.
In this bleak, Big Sky setting of loneliness and desperation, there’s a wide array of ways folks inflict pain on each other. Every character is self-obsessed and deluded; they exist in their own little worlds, refusing to see what they don’t want to see, and they’re profoundly unresponsive to those around them. Everyone hankers after something elusive that, once actually obtained, is unsatisfying, or unrecognized, or more damaging than what came before.
It’s a very complicated piece of theater that is deftly co-directed by NVA co-founders, Francis Gercke and his mate, Kristianne Kurner. They mine the black humor and the surprising compassion inherent in this gritty epic, populated by a mostly pitiful and unlikable bunch of low-life Middle Americans.
The catalyst for all the ensuing disaster is Jake, whom Fran Gercke plays as a frustrated, volatile paranoiac. He’s suffocated by his shrewish mother, haunted by his alcoholic father, scrambling for answers and suffering for his past. When we first meet him, he thinks he’s killed Beth.
She, meanwhile, achingly and fearlessly played by Kristianne Kurner, is bruised and bandaged, struggling to emerge from a haze of pain and neurological damage. Kurner brings a marvelous childlike vulnerability to the role, and a strength of character that makes us sit up and take notice when she rambles aphasically with mangled wisdom.
[Interesting aside: The play was written just after Shepard’s longtime collaborator, legendary theatermaker Joseph Chaikin, sustained a stroke. Having met him several years before his death, I found it remarkable how similar Beth’s speech is to the rhythms and cadences of Chaikin’s hesitant output, which distilled the essence of language down to a few well-chosen words of heightened meaning].
The rest of the cast is no less skilled. Sandra Ellis-Troy is gut-wrenching as Jake’s obscenely possessive mother, an abandoned wife blinded by bitterness and rage, who wants revenge on her dead husband but still hopes to make her way toward a new life. As her son, Joshua Everett Johnson effectively tries to be rational and do the right thing, but he’s wounded in the family crossfire and generally baffled by life. As his sister, Sally, Jessica John has a good deal of the family rage, and a better grasp on the family’s history.
Out in the Montana woods, Beth’s family is a real humdinger. Her parents epitomize all that can go wrong with a relationship sustained by force of habit. Jack Missett, in his very finest performance, consummately plays the gruff, prickly patriarch, who’s written as a kind of caricature of fatherhood, dedicated to the suppression of the “feebleminded women” who plague him. He has a self-involved, ruthless, utilitarian approach to life (shoot first; ask questions later) that stifles and alienates those around him. As his wife, Dana Case is heartbreaking, a spacey, tittering eccentric whose dedication to self-sacrifice helps her endure her husband’s neglect. A genuinely sympathetic character, she may be oppressed, but she’s still in command of her humanity. Their son, Mike, masterfully played by Daren Scott, is a hotheaded woodsman, who tries to protect his sister – with a gun. Dedicated to righting wrongs and seeking revenge, he’s a rough-hewn copy of his Dad, eager to shoot and slow to forgive.
Ironically, in this landscape of miscommunication and alienation, the only ones with a genuine desire to connect are Jake and Beth – and every other character is trying desperately to keep them apart.
When all the thematic elements condense and converge, the play can be viewed as a parable of ‘Manifest Destiny,’ our nation’s belief in God-given entitlement, regardless of the consequences – especially the effects on other people. This 19th century belief is alive and well today, leading once again to reckless, belligerent acts energized by an overweening sense of limitless freedom and the right to subjugate others. Sound familiar? Though the play is two decades old, it’s not hard to see through the veil of chaos and confusion to the disturbed current State of the Union. In the final scene, while disaster shadows every corner, the mismatched, American Gothic Montana couple blithely go on folding the flag. But with its faint glimmer of hope, the play is also about coping with loss and moving on. In spite of all the rage and violence, self-deception and disillusionment, maybe there’s something in there we can learn.
At the Jazzercise Studio Space in Carlsbad; through November 28.
The war between the sexes, 19th century style. Gilbert & Sullivan’s eighth operetta, “Princess Ida,” first opened at the Savoy Theatre in 1884. The only three-acter in the famed collaborators’ canon, “Princess Ida” was based on a 13-year-old play called “The Princess,” which Gilbert had written earlier as a parody of a poem of the same title by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Here, we find overly serious students and professors at a women’s university defying a marriage-by-force ultimatum proffered by a militaristic king and his testosterone-driven court. Ultimately, however, the princess is unable to pursue her noble aims (which include educating women to be the ruling sex and considering men to be ´Nature’s sole mistake”), and in the end, she is forced to surrender to her prince. Along the way to the finale, we’re confronted by kidnappings, combat and men in drag.
The operetta was a satire of the Women’s Rights Movement (a concern of that time – and every one since!) and it bears the distinct scent of sexism. The original opened to mixed reviews, and it had the shortest run of any first production of a G&S work. But many considered this to be one of Sullivan’s best scores, lush and majestic.
In the Lyric Opera San Diego production, the act-opening stage pictures are glorious, and the ensemble work is excellent (generally outshining any individual performance). The Finale to Act 1 is particularly inspiring, with robust singing by the huge cast of 36. The 21-piece orchestra, under the baton of the show’s director, Leon Natker, sounds top-notch. The costumes and makeup (Pam Stompoly) are charming. The voices of the lead players are all robust, and highly operatic. Gilbert and Sullivan can be done quite effectively as musical comedy, which tends to heighten the humor (since the lyrics are typically far more intelligible). One of my favorite productions of “The Pirates of Penzance,” for example, starred Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt.
This cast boasts operatic chops and bios, but it makes the play seem far more portentous than it is – and clocking in at nearly three hours (three acts, two intermissions), the proceedings do not exactly fly by. Some of the action is downright silly (and the hand motions and antic moves don’t help); other elements are unintentionally comical.
As the titular Princess, Kathleen Halm has a powerful voice and an imperious presence. Chad Frisque is engaging as Hilarion, her macho (though sometimes cross-dressed) betrothed. John Christian Edward (adorable) and Joe Pechota make for amusing sidekicks. Joseph Grienenberger is quite funny as the nasty hunchbacked King Gama. As his benevolent counterpart, King Hildebrand, Joe Zilvinskis has a delightful presence (but he fusses too much with his beautiful costume’s oversized sleeves). In the small role of the female acolyte, Melissa, Fran Hartshorn does a noteworthy job. Overall, the direction is uninspired, the fight scenes seem ludicrous, and the lyrics aren’t always comprehensible, though the singing is admirable. Perhaps the most significant part of this production is that it’s the last for Lyric Opera in the Casa del Prado Theatre, which they’ve shared, for years, with the San Diego Junior Theatre. Next fall, the 26 year-old company moves into a brand, spanking new space — the renovated North Park Theatre. The grand opening gala is October 1, and the inaugural production (October 14-20) will be the ever-popular, ever-enduring “Mikado.” In the meantime, they’ll spotlight the “Stars of Lyric Opera” in a special concert in March, at Sherwood Auditorium.
At the Casa del Prado Theatre in Balboa Park, through November 21.
Fifteen years ago, when he was just 14, Jim Knable began a winning streak in the Playwrights Project’s statewide Young Playwrights contest; his creations were chosen and produced for three consecutive years. Now almost 30, he’s living in New York and working as a screenwriter, songwriter and playwright — who happens to have the same agent as David Mamet. His latest effort, “Hyper-Focus,” is the Playwrights Project’s second commission of a kid-friendly touring play – and by far his best play yet. It concerns Attention Deficit Disorder, and it’s touring local schools — to an extremely enthusiastic reception. The only public performance took place last week at the Neurosciences Institute, and it was exceptionally well received. Many in the audience either had ADD or had kids or students with the disorder. They had insights and gained knowledge. Having myself worked with many young students with ADD, I was particularly impressed with how accurately Knable captured the intricacies of the problem, how it is perceived by others – and how it feels from the ‘inside.’ His song about competing stimuli fighting for attention inside the brain of his appealing protagonist was terrific!
The production was inventively staged by D. Candis Paule and Robert May (their first directing collaboration – and a most felicitous one). Their cast is delightful, headed by San Diego newcomer Tommy Friedman as T.J. (né Thomas Jefferson), the very credible young man with ADD, and the spunky/talented Jeannine Marquie as his adolescent heartthrob. Their meet-cute scenes are irresistible – and painfully real. Barbara Cole plays a highly supportive Mom, Wanetah Walmsley a less-than-sympathetic Teacher, and John Nutten is a hoot in multiple roles, including psychologist Dr. Sigmund and an inspiring teacher, Mr. Franklin, who dresses as Ben Franklin and understands the needs of this struggling young student – and just about saves his life. What really saves T.J., though (besides the love of a good (young) woman) is the gift of a guitar — which gives his frustration a creative outlet and allows Knable to squeeze some songs (functional, if at times silly) into the mix. The simple, ethereal, Chagall-like painted backdrop (also a little Jackson Pollock, in its symbolic representation of an overworked brain) is the wonderful creation of Beeb Salzer, who doesn’t design half enough around town any more.
So listen up and pay attention to this: If you know a youngster, or a school, that would benefit from an on-site performance of this thought-provoking, funny, touching and informative play, contact the Playwrights Project pronto (619-239-8222; email@example.com).
And don’t miss the next installment of Plays by Young Writers, to see the next batch of winners — of the 2004 California Young Playwrights contest, on the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, January 13-23.
HOT STUFF, COMIN’ UP
Mark your calendar for:
… This week’s installment of “A Way With Words” on KPBS radio (89.5 FM), Nov. 20 and 21. I created an all-theater Verbivore Challenge, to stump Richard Lederer and his new partner, Martha Barnette. Tune in and see how YOU do!! Saturday at 4pm or Sunday at 10am. If you miss it on air, it’ll stay online for a week, at kpbs.org (click on Radio, then go to KPBS Productions, then to A Way With Words, then to ‘This Week on A Way With Words’).
… January 10, 2005 – The 8th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence… Be there or be square… But, if you miss it in person, you can catch it on KPBS TV in January (details and dates to follow).
… “The Play’s The Thing: A Photographic Odyssey Through Theatre in San Diego.” GET IT WHILE IT’S HOT – just off the presses! The gorgeous new coffee-table photography book by Ken Jacques (with Intro by Sam Woodhouse and Foreword by Yours Truly) is now available for pre-ordering… It’ll make a terrific holiday gift for all the thespians on your shopping list. Go to www.sunbeltbooks.com to pre-order. Be the first (theater) kid on your block with this beautiful book!
…The L.A. reprise of Deaf West Theatre’s spectacular, bilingual (English-American Sign Language) “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” returning after its big run on Broadway. At the Ahmanson Theatre for just two weeks in January — 1/11-23/05). 213-628-2772; www.ahmansontheatre.org. Don’t miss it this time; you’ve never seen anything quite like it!
NOW, HERE’S THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED’ LIST:
“A Lie of the Mind” – tense, intense, riveting. Taut, terrific direction, outstanding performances. Damaged, dysfunctional families rule in this shattering Sam Shepard drama.
New Village Arts at Jazzercize in Carlsbad, through November 21.
“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.
Santa Ana is here; Santa Claus is coming. Celebrate the seasons — at the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.