By Pat Launer
A theatrical week of uncommon behavior:
A Caribbean ‘Tempest,’ a Southern savior;
A knee-slapping, knuckle-snapping drama-queen nun,
A kick-line kicking off summer theater fun;
A PR singer and penile sages;
Expect the unexpected on San Diego stages.
As if Shakespeare hadn’t taken enough guff for “The Taming of the Shrew” (misogyny) and “The Merchant of Venice” (anti-Semitism), along comes Iris Theatre to remind us that “The Tempest” isn’t in a teapot, either. In 1969, Martinique writer Aimé Césaire turned his West Indian sensibilities to the Bard’s last play, the magical shipwreck fantasy some consider his most beautiful work. To Césaire, it’s more a colonialist nightmare than a midsummer night’s dream. His political screed is called “A Tempest,” and it rails and rages more than the winds in the titular storm. It must also be viewed against the backdrop of colonial power in the playwright’s native island during the ’50s and ’60s.
The focus of this polemic (French-to-English translation uncredited in the current production) is the relationship between the authoritarian Prospero and the ‘savage’ Caliban. Whereas Shakespeare focused his attention on the power struggle among the various members of the shipwrecked Italian court, Césaire chooses to emphasize the intercultural imperialist conflict. Prospero is no longer the wronged man, avenged and ultimately avuncular; he is the arch villain of the piece, and Caliban is transformed from rebel to hero– earth-bound, nature-loving, ethically superior. Shakespeare’s lilting, lyrical songs are replaced with slave and working-class tunes (which most of the company cannot sing convincingly, or even on key). The (supposedly) mixed-race house-slave (Ariel) is pitted against the black field-slave (Caliban). In another smacks-of-the-’60s moment, Caliban rejects his name, and says to Prospero, “Call me X” (would that be Malcolm??). But the cause of freedom, especially in these war-torn times, is eternally apt.
Returning the slave to his rightful place (as ruler of his own kingdom) is Césaire’s apparent intent — in both the fictional narrative and the world outside the play. It’s agit-prop at work, and the Iris Theatre presents it as such, opening with a black-clad band of actors who (in some cases, reluctantly, “La Mancha”-like ) take over the roles. There’s a great deal of good intention all around, but the result is very long (2 1/2 hours) and very variable (a huge range in acting, dancing and singing style and acumen). The lack of a clearly defined racial divide (inherent in the writing) and a change in the sexual dynamic between the protagonist and antagonish (a female Prospero) serve to muddy the waters. Trina Kaplan isn’t as angry or demeaning as this role demands, and her last-minute turnaround seems particularly unmotivated. No bio is given for the compelling Jean-Jacques Tshina, who plays Caliban, but his strong accent sometimes blurs his words. Jade Folia is visually striking but not dramatically gripping as Ariel. Sylvia Enrique has some bright, energetic and humorous moments as self-serving Stephano, drunk on wine and potential power. The Afro-Caribbean drumming and the puppet/gods also enliven the piece, but the direction (Claudio Raygoza) is too far-reaching and unfocused, and with a cast of 15, there are too many people bumping into each other (often literally) on the tiny stage of the not-easy-to-find-under-the trolley-trestles Academy of Performing Arts in the Mission Gorge area.
It’s commendable that a small, new theater company would take such a weighty political risk. These days, political theater is especially bracing (see “Pentecost” at the Globe). But smaller and simpler is usually better (unless you have a budget like the Globe). Nevertheless, kudos go to Iris for opening our eyes to an alternate perspective.
Jesus goes to Georgia in “Cotton Patch Gospel.” The Gospel never goes out of style, especially at Lamb’s Players Theatre, which is bringing back this Southern comfort-food for the third time (last seen in 1988 and 1991). It’s preaching to the choir, and the choir would be best to attend; the rest of us ‘heathens,’ especially non-Christians, will find less to enlighten and entertain us. But there are, in the Harry Chapin score, a few ballads and ditties to remind us why that late, great singer/songwriter was so revered. We relish the inspiringly amusing musical moments like “It Isn’t Easy” (growing’ up to be Jesus, with no steady job and no steady girl”) and the riotous two sides of a pseudo-recording: “No Busy Signals on the Hotline to God” and “Spitball Me Lord Over the Home Plate of Life.” More of that spirit would’ve gone a long way, but a talented, chameleon cast (the juggling, agile, slithering snake Ryan Drummond; Mark Christopher Lawrence as both proselytizer and non-believer; and Rick Meads as suave Savior and others), is adroitly directed by Deborah Gilmour-Smyth. The book (by Tom Key and Russell Treyz) over-simplifies and humorizes the story, bringing it home (if home is redneck-land), but the modern relevance of the tale is made clear if you take a jaded political view, at a time when a new Southern leader is among us, trying to get folks to follow him, claiming the Bible gives him the go-ahead for all kinds of miraculous (and non-traditional) acts (though his are of a more bellicose nature). Oops, my “biases are showing. ‘Nuff said on that subject.
With all the references to women (Mary and others) it would’ve been nice to have a female in the mix, since the boffo bluegrass band, The 7th Day Buskers, comprise five additional talented guys. The harmonies would still hold… and the drag-work would, too. For those who didn’t get enough down-home, foot-tappin’ rhythm in the Rep’s recent “Fire on the Mountain,” you can put a little more fire in your belly with this good ole boy, Jesus.
TECHIES RULE; GLOBE PLAYERS ROCK
If you can make nerds and lawyers laugh, you’re a Tony contender. The Old Globe Players, a hilarious, ad hoc performing group, rocked the 2nd annual bioFusion Awards at the Old Globe Theatre last week. The trio featured Becky Biegelson — no-nonsense media-maven by day, sultry chanteuse (in sneakers) by night, plus Globe Development expert Robert Ford, and the aforementioned Gumby-like Ryan Drummond, who sang “I Made A Clone” to the rapt, designer-gene audience. Drummond seems to be onto something: spreading The Word for Lamb’s on the weekends, and on his off-nights, spreading the seed). Ford wrote the ever-clever lyrics, which hit a high point in his Rodgers & Hammerstein duet with Biegelson, “These Are a Few of My Favorite Drugs.” Biegelson herself brought the house down with her heartbreaking rendition of Martha Stewart’s penal lament (à la Evita), “I was not guilty of inside trading.” And why was I there, you may wonder. I came to see my attorney (lawyer-scientist-humorist Richard Warburg of Foley & Lardner, co-sponsors of the event) who emceed the evening that honored the best in San Diego biotech. He was uproarious in his self-flagellating, lawyer-bashing performance, which featured a costume change (cued to pertinent film-clips) with every entrance, from an ‘Animal House’ toga to Austin Powers and Blues Brothers getups. I haven’t had so much fun at an awards event since… the Pattes!
UPCOMING EVENTS WORTH MENTIONING:
… Okay, I” don’t really think the dancing penises are worth another mention, but they are in town, standing up for themselves at the Lyceum, and I alluded to them in the poem up top, so they had to pop up somewhere in the body here.
…Now, for a musical kick, check out ARTS TIX KICKS, this Thursday, June 26 at the Times Arts Tix booth at Horton Plaza Park (in front of Planet Hollywood). You can get a preview of the stellar musical fare being served up this summer on San Diego stages. The Performing Arts League (who runs Arts Tix in Horton Plaza and online @ sandiegoperforms.com) wants you to kick up your heels, too… watching free performances from the Christian Community Theatre production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (boy, He’s making a comeback this week!), “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (from the new Cygnet Theatre), Diversionary’s “Falsettos,” The Theatre in Old Town’s “Beehive,” La Jolla Stage Company’s upcoming “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” not to mention previews from the San Diego Guild of Puppetry, Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theatre, Culture Shock, and more. I’ll even be there to kick off the event, which runs 11:30-1:00. Munch your lunch, watch a killer kick-line, and don’t kick yourself later for missing these FREE preview performances.
……It may be Nun of your business, but Sister is back — so watch your back. This is one religious-themed show that doesn’t discriminate. If you didn’t go to Catholic school, you’ll laugh your head off; if you did, you might die laughing. “LATE NIGHT CATECHISM” returns to the California Center for the Arts, Escondido and though I didn’t see this particular production (Jane Morris and Nonie Newton Breen alternating in the Sisterly solo role), I’m sure these Women in Black will bring you to your knees. As an extra bonus, after intimidating you into sitting up straight, raising your hand, and reverting to all those other goodie-two-shoes Catholic behaviors, Sister encourages you to ask all the questions that have been dogging you all these years. Like: Did Adam and Eve have belly-buttons? Why shouldn’t good girls wear patent leather shoes? Was Billy Joel right when he said “Catholic girls start much too late”? And What was the Immaculate Conception anyway? (Hint: If you actually know the correct — trick! — answer to this one, you may win a prize… another dashboard Madonna for your car, perhaps). If you don’t go, there’ll be hell to pay — and you’ll really have something to confess!
…..In a different spiritual vein, sniff out “PETALS OF THE ROSE,” which promises to be another mesmerizing Butoh dance performance by Charlene Penner (this weekend, June 27-29 only) at 6th@ Penn (and no, Dale did NOT ask me to write that).
….. And check out (or recommend to your parent-friends) the exciting new program at the La Jolla Playhouse that allows folks with kids to go to grownup theater. It’s called PLAY AND PLAY, and it permits parents to attend a Saturday matinee performance, while their children (age 6-10) participate in a fun, kid-friendly theater workshop. There’s one this Saturday, June 28, for the “Fraulein Else” matinee. The program starts at 1:30, 1/2 hour before the show begins, and ends when it ends). The next program, for the American premiere of “The Country,” is Saturday August 16.
And now, a new addition to this column….
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST:
“Fraulein Else” at La Jolla Playhouse – a stellar performance by Francesca Faridany
“Pentecost” at the Old Globe – a thought-provoking thriller about politics and art
[sic] at Sledgehammer – nasty, delicious, po-mo urban angst
“Rounding Third” – Little League story with some Big League laughs
Okay, sports-fans… that’s it for this week. Pray for the sun… and don’t forget to put a little drama in your life.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.