By Pat Launer
Fest Actors and Sisters Rosensweig swear
That Hip Hop is virtually everywhere.
THE SHOW: THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG, the late Wendy Wasserstein’s 1992 play that’s a kind of riff on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. It’s the Old Globe’s first presentation of a Wasserstein play; too bad it had to come after her death – though, in a prescient move, the production was planned before the beloved playwright died this past January. When it premiered on Broadway, the comedy was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Play
THE STORY: It’s hard for me to be totally objective, as a Brooklyn-born member of a three-sister family, one of whom is a travel writer and another is a radio personality – just like the Rosensweigs. These Three Sisters come together at the posh London digs of the eldest, Sara, to celebrate her post-hysterectomy 54th birthday (Note: Wendy, who also had two sisters, died at age 55. her older sister died a year earlier. Virtually every one of her plays chronologues a time in her own life – and the lives of women of her age — and there’s always a character who’s very much like her). Though all three Rosensweigs bear traces of the playwright, it’s Dr. Gorgeous’ personality who sparkles with Wendy’s wit and one-liners. In fact, the play doesn’t really take off till she enters. She and youngest sister Pfeni’s improbable beau – the wildly flamboyant, broadly hilarious Jeffrey (probable stand-in for Christopher Durang, Wendy’s best-bud since their Yale days) are the most interesting characters, though they, too, are more than a tad cartoonish. Not much happens (very Chekhovian). Boyfriends come and go; sisters flatter, battle, compete, demean, storm out and then come together. They rediscover their sibling connections and their heritage. And then they disperse again. But Wendy’s always been more about character than plot. Here, religion and politics are thrown into the mix. Both Sara and Pfeni have run away from their religion, but Gorgeous is still observant, and is in fact, leading a tour group of the Temple Beth El sisterhood (who make several seminal offstage contributions to the story). It is Merv who makes Sara re-consider her roots, and all the New York Jewishness that she’s tried so assiduously to leave behind. In the background (politics and feminist concerns always lurk somewhere in Wasserstein’s plays) is the collapse of the Soviet Union and “the end of the decade of the Bimbo.”
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: The production, under the direction of David Warren, got off to a slow and rocky start on opening night. Sarah is the centerpiece of the play, but in some ways, she’s the least interesting character. And in the role, Janet Zarish is the least believable of the sisters. She doesn’t feel like the managing director of the Hong Kong-Shanghai Bank. She’s as bitter and cynical, nasty and sarcastic as described, but she doesn’t seem as intelligent and powerful as everyone says. This is one of the play’s weaknesses; the sisters are forever telling each other what their strengths and weaknesses are. Especially their strengths. ‘You’re brilliant’ is flung at Sara too many times for credibility. The Chekhov Sisters don’t do that (neither does my family). As peripatetic Pfeni, Deirdre Lovejoy isn’t quite as eccentric as she’s described, nor as exciting as the ever-fascinating Jeffrey seems to find her. Only Jackie Hoffman, as Dr. Gorgeous Teitelbaum, fully lives up to expectations. She’s aptly frumpy and funny, she gets all the best lines, and she delivers them with excellent comic panache. She’s absolutely, as Gorgeous would say, “funsy.” Marty Lodge is appropriately stuffy in the thankless, straw-man role of Nicholas Pym, the conservative Thatcher MP who’s dating divorced Sara (and a zillion other women), much to everyone’s dismay. Mark Blum is delightful as Merv, the nice Jewish furrier from New York . He’s not as pushy or obnoxious as some have played him. He’s just a nice guy, and in this production, you can actually understand why someone like Sara would consider someone like him. He’s everything she’s run away from, but in a mensch-y kind of way. Stefanie Nava is fine as Sara’s smart, political activist daughter, Tess (named for the Thomas Hardy heroine; literary allusions fly fast and furious here), though as her lower-class Liverpool/Lithuanian lover, Mark J. Sullivan sounds more Scottish than Liverpudlian. But he’s got the right youthful cluelessness for this un-worldly counter-revolutionary, unaware of how much he’s drowning in the Rosensweigs’ sea of hyper-verbal culture and erudition.
David Warren has a feel for the time and tenor of the piece, though the production doesn’t always precisely hit the mark in balancing the comic and serious tones that are Wasserstein’s hallmark. Some of the problems are in the play. But perhaps this year especially, we should cut Wendy some extra slack. The production is beautifully designed (by Alexander Dodge); the high-ceilinged, marble-pillared apartment is elegantly furnished. David Woolard, who designed the character-defining costumes, also outfitted Zhivago at the La Jolla Playhouse.
So, relax. You’ll laugh a little, maybe you’ll think a little. That’s what Wendy’s all about.
Interesting Side-Note: The period-perfect, scratchy-recording of a women’s singing group (music arrangements and vocal direction by Cris O’Bryon) is by Mosaic, a local female quintet of which (the newly pregnant) Globe PR director Becky Biegelsen is a member. They are supposed to be Sara’s college group, and they sound great for the era (well executed sound design by Paul Peterson).
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe Theatre, through August 20
ACTORS ON PARADE
So far, from what I’ve seen (two of six programs), the 16TH ANNUAL ACTORS FESTIVAL is a winner. Festival artistic director George Soete seems to have done a splendid job. The print materials – flyer and programs – are top-flight; very professional, colorful, clear and user-friendly (‘twasn’t ever thus).
Program 1 was outstanding; it was one of the consistently strongest Festival evenings I can remember.
It opened with a late-life, little-known Tennessee Williams one-act, I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow. Written for television (PBS) in 1970, the piece came out of emotional ebb in Williams’ life. His best work was behind him, and his later efforts were repeatedly reviled by critics. “I’ve written my symphonies,” he said. “Why can’t I be allowed to write chamber music?” Like so many of his late ‘chamber’ works, this was written when he was in his drugged out ‘stoned age,’ after the 1963 death of his partner, Frank Merlo. It concerns, as so many of his creations do, isolation and loneliness; the difficulty of communication, the individual’s solitary search for the values and meaning that are absent in the modern world. In most of these plays, people try to depend on someone else – but they find the disappointing result insufficient for life support. Need, loss, regret and despair take center stage. There are no fading Southern belles here, no sly, lyrical humor. The characters don’t even have names; they’re called One and Two: a sickly, reclusive woman, and a teacher who can barely communicate (in vain, he seeks help in a “clinic”). It’s a mournful duet, played to perfection by two consummate actors – Priscilla Allen and Bill Dunnam– directed by DJ Sullivan. They admit that, in whatever way they can, they love each other; he’s terrified of losing her, but she won’t let him help and she won’t let him get close. The play’s original title was “Dragon Country,” which One describes as “the country of pain… an uninhabitable country which is inhabited. Each one crossing through that huge, barren country has his own separate track to follow across it alone. … In this country of endured unendurable pain, each one is absorbed, deafened, blinded by his own journey…” Bleak view of life, achingly presented.
Rocking Chair Riddle is written, produced and performed by Barbara Cole. She calls it the prequel to her solo show, Surviving Chrysalis, which won Best of the Fest in 2004.She’s a thoroughly engaging onstage presence, but the piece, about motherhood (“I’m a Mom; how flippin’ weird is that?”) and its inherent compromises (“I am just a milking machine!”), is more a showcase than a play. Under the direction of Amy Mayer, Cole deftly plays an array of amusing characters, by just slinging a baby blanket around her head or waist, while she talks about women, mothers, disappointment, depression, the craziness and danger of the world, and a guest on ‘Oprah’ who gave advice on how to live every day with passion: “Visualize yourself in your golden years, rocking in a rocking chair. Ask yourself: What is it you would have regretted not doing?’ and Do It Now!” So, Cole’s character decides to get back into the theater world and audition again. Meanwhile, she’s harshly judged by various relatives and friends. Her paunchy, cigarette-smoking sister-in-law, talking of the “antibiotic fluid” in which babies float, is funniest. Ultimately, Cole decides she just wants to be a mom (“I don’t want to look back and regret that I didn’t know what it was like to be present”). Not a huge dramatic arc, but a pleasant trip to coming-to-terms.
Next up was the wacky but disturbing Roquefort, by Ted LoRusso. A man (Mike Sears) kicks his wife (Lisa Berger) and disparages his son, who keeps hiding in someone’s coal bin (timeframe??). The couple comes home and finds a note that their unhappy offspring has turned himself into a head of lettuce. The ensuing off-the-wall interactions are underlain by a dark vein of mutual cruelty and abuse, a childhood cycle replayed in parenthood and in a marriage where violence is mundane and sex is used as a threat and a weapon. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s painted and played very well (direction by Jeffrey Ingman), however grim the underlying subject.
Comedy and pain also intertwine in Welcome to Group, where Edwin Eigner is the ineffectual facilitator of a seriously dysfunctional men’s ‘discussion group.’ Playwright George Soete has gone wild with this one, which features a welcome return to the stage by Tom Vegh, a founder of Diversionary Theatre. He’s the New Guy in the Group, and it takes quite a while till he gets a chance to tell his horrific, suicidal story; the others are so self-absorbed in their own lives and craziness. All four ‘patients’ are good, but Haig KoshKarian is especially noteworthy as the compulsive talker who tells endless, pointless, boring stories about his wife (“I have relationship issues,” he confesses. Don’t they all!). Wives are the major topic; Michael Hubbard gets beaten by his spouse and John Hyatt has an acute anger problem (and he’s got a gun). Jonathan Sacks nearly steals the show as an acerbic, self-loathing paranoiac (“I’m pathetic, but at least I’m rational”). Eigner made a funny entrance the night I was there, spontaneously picking up a stray piece of lettuce, left onstage from the preceding play, and stuffing it in his mouth. Very clever. At the end, as one group member locks and loads and another starts slashing himself with a razor, the oblivious leader proclaims it a “good session” and they adjourn. Another nasty/funny one. Soete definitely has a way with words. And Michael Thomas Tower directed with just the right, light touch.
What an Interesting Person You Probably Are was the winner for the Festival 2005 one-minute play competition, but I’m still trying to figure out why. Written, produced and directed by Fredi Towbin, it’s a sad but aimless moment spent with an aging, demented father and his thoughtless, insensitive son (David Paa). Kenny Taylor is excellent as the bewildered Dad, but the play, like his mind, just wanders off.
The evening ended on a strange but somewhat hopeful note, Patricia Loughrey’s We Do It Broken, directed by George Soete. With the sound of birds in the background, Sarah (Julie Sachs) comes downstage and addresses the audience, about her condo, her girlfriend, “real estate versus love.” And then, she starts telling about the wounded stranger who showed up on her doorstep, dressed in camouflage, bloodied, bandaged, with a deep gash in her forehead. At first, in a touch of wry humor, Sarah thinks she’ll invite her to join her book club. But then the stranger starts with the messages: “The battle has turned. Try not to lose ground.” For awhile, we’re as much in the dark as Sarah. It’s all very mysterious. Then the enigmatic character begins talking (in the third person) about how “Nothing is ever lost. Everyone finally finds home.” It’s back to real estate again, but not really. She is a messenger, from the women’s struggle, from the Other Side. “This is not a metaphor,” she insists. “The battle is real… all of these women. Fighting against the enemy.” Loughrey, who’s written HIV education plays, and serves as dramaturge for Diversionary’s playreading series, sure knows how to build suspense; and there is a final moment of release. This play, excellently acted by Sachs and Jerusah Neal, is for the crying “little girls of the future.” And for the living women of the present: Never give up the fight.
Program 5 was well done overall, but not as strong as Program 1 – and neither were the plays. The evening opened with David Wiener’s Bride on the Rocks (see other News about David below). Michelle de Francesco was terrific as an abandoned bride, still in her gorgeous gown and veil, drinking herself into a stupor as the straight-man bartender (Dave Rethoret) tries to cheer her up. She flops, she weeps, she wails, she burps, she upchucks. Her physical comedy is hugely entertaining, as are many of her lines, and she’s very well directed by Lia Metz. The play’s premise isn’t new, though it’s well handled, and the piece trails off and peters out at the end. But it’s a wild and fun ride while it lasts.
No Shoulder , by Nina Shengold, is another short play with intriguing characters and situation but an unsatisfying finish. Peg Humphrey plays a middle-aged woman, driving alone on a rainy Seattle night, when she nearly hits a hitchhiker. The young girl (Michelle Kendall), drenched and homeless, slips in beside her and they begin to share their broken histories, surprising commonalities — and even a forbidden cigarette. Humphrey delivers her lines fairly well, but there’s no way she could be driving a car while she’s saying them. And when she nearly gets in an accident – twice – she has virtually no emotional response. Kendall does a fine job as the damaged and neglected adolescent. There’s a lot of buildup to a (by then predictable) revelation; then Shengold tacks on a cheesy ending and buttons it with an explanatory platitude (at the moment of death, it’s not the life you led that passes before you; it’s the life that you missed).
Okra Curry on the Amtrak , by Madhushree Ghosh, directed by Leslie Ridgeway, is in the same vein, a very short little piece of older woman/younger woman experience-sharing and advice-giving. It also ends by hitting the nail too firmly on the head, but the trip is a thoroughly fun one, worth it just to see D’Ann Paton’s marvelous performance as a traditional, sari-clad Indian wife, who knows just how to make a luscious curry – and to use it to her advantage. Jolene Hui is fine as the assimilated American (“my parents are Indian”) who’s also in an abusive relationship but doesn’t know what to do about it. Curry to the rescue.
The Madness of Lady Bright, an early play by Lanford Wilson, is the story of a lonely, fading drag queen in crisis. Lady Bright is alone, but accompanied by two characters who manifest his/her madness – giving voice and encouragement to his/her less sane thoughts and taking on the roles of characters in his memories and hallucinations. Nick Mata plays Lady Bright’s Norma Desmond moments to the hilt. He is flamboyant and outrageous, prancing, dancing and gaily (pun intended) singing along to scratchy old phonograph records. He’s fascinating company, but we soon learn that he’s depressed, friendless and self-loathing. He’s getting older; he’s in decline. No one calls or comes to visit. His major telephone exchanges are with Dial-a-Prayer, the weather and American Airlines. An excellent performance, but the play is so repetitive it becomes tiresome (if Lady B said “I’m going insane” one more time, I was going to scream). Each of the two harpies who haunt him (Gareth Fisher and Sandra Ruiz) has a shining onstage second (Fisher is especially engaging as a hunky young trick), but their presence, as directed by Joey Landwehr, seems more annoying than edifying. The play, however, has historical significance. It was first produced in Greenwich Village on May 18, 1964, at the Caffe Cino, a coffeehouse named for its openly gay owner/operator, Joe Cino. Some consider it the first modern gay play where, as one observer put it, “gays weren’t portrayed as villains who deserved to die.”
By far the most comic piece of the program was the capper, Leslie Ridgeway’s Cold Beer, a funny, futuristic satire. Ridgeway was working overtime on this evening; she directed the Okra piece, and produced and performed in her own play. At rise, a kind of Big Brother is spewing 1984-type aphorisms (“Work to Live, Live to Work”). It seems that no- neck, alcohol-ignorant space aliens have taken over the world, and turned it into one big brewery, which churns out the worst of all possible beers – natural lite. Everyone’s being forced to be relocated and ‘reassigned.’ All except Leda (Ridgeway) and her mother (June Gottlieb) who are hiding out in someone else’s (now abandoned) house. Though the President and Congress bought right into the whole plan (Ted Kennedy is in charge of the Boston brewery), and Rush Limbaugh and his minions are encouraging everyone to cooperate, Leda, a writer like her deceased father, refuses; she’s busy making posters for some sort of protest, bucking the system and trying to save the human race – and the First Amendment — scrawling quotes from Thomas Paine, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King on her placards. Her father, she feels, would approve. In alternate moments, she’s having screaming/cursing arguments with her Mom. And then Joe enters (funny/stodgy Chris Wiley). A former photographer, he’s totally bought into the system and is trying to convince Leda that her new life in the brewery and the climate-controlled City Center will be great, with its uniforms, robot maids and ‘environment centers’ you can visit if you want to experience seasons. There are humorous references to Homer Simpson and schlock painter Thomas Kincaid, as well as digs at society’s non-support of the arts. Art, says Joe, “is for people who don’t like food, warmth or comfort.” The relevance to our own crazy times is clear (though the mother character seems superfluous). The performances are high quality and perfectly pitched; Angela Miller directs with a nimble touch and a fine sense of the absurdity of this not-so-far-distant time – and our own.
THE LOCATION: The Lyceum Theatre, through July 30. Program 5 repeats on July 29
THE SHOW: HIP HOP IS EVERYWHERE, the choreographic debut of Eveoke Dance Theatre’s Anthony Rodriguez, who’s shone in the company for 6-7 years. Hip hop was always his preference and specialty, and now he’s applying it to a wide range of cultures and genres
THE STORY/PLAYERS/PRODUCTION: There’s no overall story, though the second half of the evening features the kind of narrative dance pieces Eveoke favors. The first act comprises nine pieces, set to music from diverse locales: Bali, Africa, Israel , Afghanistan , Bulgaria , China , Ireland . Rodriguez is trying to show that there’s always a place for hip hop, everywhere and anywhere. Some of the work is exciting and energizing, especially when Rodriguez himself is performing it. Many of the pieces are not uniquely identifiable with a given country or area, except for the Saharan, Chinese, Irish and the South Pacific ‘Drum Dance.’ Though Rodriguez often tries to inject humor into his work, much of it is of the adolescent potty variety (gas-passing and bowel-moving). After the latter piece (is that symbolic of something related to Israel ? That was the musical accompaniment), a young child at the performance I attended shouted out, “That’s gross!” No argument there.
The use of props, as is the wont of Rodriguez’ mentor, Eveoke founder/choreographer Gina Angelique, wasn’t always effective. The brooms and flyswatters came off as more silly than inspired. The hip hop conceit makes for some limitations in the dance vocabulary, but by and large the idea works, especially in the Saharan stomps, the South Pacific Drum Dance, the mannered, stylized Chinese number and the high-spirited, high-stepping Irish piece (to the music of The Chieftains), which was the ebullient act-ender. The Irish proved to be the strongest group dance; when the choreography related to the country rather than to some extraneous concept, the work was more successful. Many cultures were impossible to guess without the program. Rather than riffing on the music, and borrowing from the culture, some other idea was superimposed (the aforementioned swatters and scatology, graduation caps, Krazy-glued shoes, dental floss, a shaken coke can) to dubious effect. There were several delicious solos by Rodriguez, and engaging dances that featured Erika Malone and long-time Eveoke member Nikki Dunnan.
After the exuberance of the first act, the second act was a serious, mismatched downer. Angelique choreographed “Hip Hop is in Women,” a dark, disturbing piece about abuse. And there she was, before the performance, saying that the evening will prove that hip hop isn’t misogynist or violent. This piece was both, though it was intended to be a feminist take on the music/dance form. The Ursula Rucker songs were depressing (about abused women and children “destined for demise”) and the dance-narrative often just illustrated the lyrics in an overly didactic, presentational way. There was no subtlety here; it left little to the imagination (dolls were stomped on all over the stage) and little for the audience to bring to the work. The second half of the act featured a companion piece, “Hip Hop is in Men,” created by Rodriguez. This told a powerful story of sexual identity, machismo, friendship, competition and ultimately, distressingly, the vicious cycle of violence that cannot be broken.
Rodriguez definitely shows impressive talent and promise as a choreographer. It will be wonderful for local audiences to watch as he and his creations mature.
THE LOCATION: The 10TH Avenue Theatre, through August 13
.. Lyric Opera San Diego announced that its new Academy for the Performing Arts has been recognized by the San Diego City Schools Visual and Performing Arts Department (VAPA) as a preferred provider “to promote community collaboration and improve student achievement by providing comprehensive hands-on skill development to middle and high school students who have expressed an interest in pursuing careers in the performing arts.” The new Academy will operate year-round at the restored, historic Birch North Park Theatre; the first session launched on July 10. Thanks to a $5000 grant from the San Diego Foundation, five San Diego students will receive scholarships to attend the Academy. Those completing the summer session will be trained in professional musical theater audition (song, monologue and basic dance steps) and will showcase their skills onstage on August 10th, with a performance that includes a condensed version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance .
…More news from San Diego playwright David Wiener: His play, An Honest Arrangement , which won Best Play in the 2006 New York City 15-Minute Play Festival, will be produced Off Broadway this fall. His latest creation, Bride on the Rocks, is premiering at the Actors Festival (repeats July 29; see review, above)
…Dylan redux … Word has it that Twyla Tharp is significantly reworking The Times They Are a Changin’ before its upcoming Broadway opening (previews begin on Sept. 25). She’s known for her last-minute revamping, and the Dylan-tuned dansical, that premiered last winter at the Old Globe, sure needed a lot of a-changin’. Critics, and the show’s producers, were disappointed that real choreography took a backseat to the concept and the songs. Tharp has altered a good deal of the cast; she jettisoned all but two of the original dancers, replacing them with performers from her own company, many of whom were doing Movin’ Out on Broadway (the show closed last December) and on the road while the Dylan show was in rehearsal. Most noteworthy is the addition of the mega-talented, Tony nominated John Selya. Because her ensemble now consists of dancers of Selya’s caliber, they have been given much more dancing in the show. That’s a relief. Jenn Colella, miscast as the female singing lead, will be replaced by Caren Lyn Manuel, who appeared on Broadway in Rent and Brooklyn : The Musical. Colella was far too ‘ country ’ for the music, but Manuel is closer to the Dylan oeuvre; her mother was what Tharp calls “a hard-core hippie.” There’s already a Tony-nom buzz about the male singing leads, Thom Sesma and Michael Arden, who play the competitive father and son in the ramshackle circus that is the play’s dubious setting. The reclusive, elusive Dylan MAY be there on opening night.
… Get your tickets for a provocative local presentation: playwright Athol Fugard and writer/scholar Marianne McDonald in a fund-raising reading of Medea the Beginning by McDonald … Jason the End by Fugard. Proceeds will benefit 6th @ Penn Theatre. 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)
The 16th Annual Actors Alliance – a wonderful showcase of some stellar local talent
In the Lyceum Space, through July 30
The Sisters Rosensweig – a flawed but sometimes effective production, but you owe it to Wendy (Wasserstein) to see her first production at the Old Globe
At the Old Globe, through August 20
Fully Committed – virtuoso performance by David McBean, who’s better than ever (this is a reprise production)
At Cygnet Theatre, through August 13
Iphigenia at Aulis – modern production and translation make the well-presented play timeless and politically relevant
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through August 6
Collected Stories – fascinating, fact-based premise about writers and stories and who owns what; superbly performed
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through July 30
Titus Andronicus – a lot of political references and many laughs along with the gore; as director Darko Tresnjak puts it, his production is “bloody good fun!”
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through September 30
Othello – potent production. robustly acted and directed
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 1
Yikes! — August already! Maintain your cool — at the theater.
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.