By Pat Launer
The Heart of a Dog is a very weird place
There are Happy Endings in Night Music and Ace.
If all this theater makes you feel thin-skinned
Just stand up and aim your Nipples to the Wind.
THE SHOW: Ace, a new musical having its West coast premiere at the Old Globe. Book and lyrics by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker ; music by Richard Oberacker . The show debuted at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in September, then moved to Cincinnati ’s Playhouse in the Park. The hope is for a Broadway run after San Diego
THE STORY: The play was inspired by real-life experiences: the father of co-writer Taylor trained to be a pilot, and his mother had a near-fatal bout of depression. Both these elements appear in the story, which concerns three generations of men who are obsessed with flying (but we’re not supposed to know they’re related till the very end; we do). Through a series of dream sequences, we learn of the romances of the grandfather and then the father, each of whom went striding off to war (WWI and II, respectively) to fulfill his destiny and his fixation on flight. Each fighter pilot left behind an adoring wife who happened to be pregnant. Neither man returned home. The women were the worse for wear and their sons never knew their fathers. So now we come to Billy, the 10 year-old who’s really the centerpiece of the play. His father, he’s been told, abandoned the family before he was born (though why a mother would concoct that far more heinous story, rather than telling her son his father was killed during the war, is beyond me). Billy’s Mom never got over the loss; she spiraled downward and is now in a psychiatric facility, trying to claw her way back to life and her son. Billy is angry, uncommunicative, teased mercilessly by his peers, kicked out of several schools. He’s placed with childless foster parents who try to find the key to his unhappiness — and inadvertently, they do. The foster father buys Billy a model of a Flying Tiger airplane. And from then on, his life is never the same. He starts having nighttime visitations, from a stranger named Ace, who takes him time-traveling and reveals all the secrets of his past. Meanwhile, Emily, a similarly geeky outcast at school, fancies herself Nancy Drew, and sets out to solve the mystery of Billy’s nocturnal excursions (singing, amusingly “Now I’m On Your Case”).
Ultimately, the foster parents get Billy to interact, he finally understands his past (and his obsession, and his nighttime visitor), he confronts his mother in a teary reunion, Emily feels satisfied that the case is solved and all’s right with the world. None of the females fares very well here. The social worker is a frump. The grandmother is a shrew. The mother is a nutcase. And the foster Mom, though she dresses like Donna Reed, is terribly undomestic and can’t even bake a batch of cookies (an excuse for a very funny number, “Make It From Scratch”). There are simulated dogfights and many anthemic songs. The two love stories are similar – and repetitive. The music also takes on a sameness, and isn’t particularly remarkable or memorable. There’s a lost opportunity here, to make some real comment about the cost of war and the loved ones left behind to grieve. But it’s all glossed over, treated lightly, leaning heavily on the sentimental. It’s hard to ignore the fact that exalting and extolling the thrill of battle is a questionable pursuit at this particular time in our country’s history.
THE PRODUCTION: The set (David Korins ) has the multilevel look of a giant biplane. Director Stafford Arima utilizes the space effectively, placing his ensemble on various levels. But there is surprisingly little choreography (credited to Andrew Palermo); it’s mostly stylized poses, even during the battle scenes. The wartime excitement is conveyed with sound (John H. Shivers and David Patridge ) and light (Christopher Akerlind ). There are some moments that cry out for a choreographed production number, like the waltz, the military formations and those battle scenes. The ten-member orchestra, under the baton of David Kreppel , sounds robust, and there’s a nice array of instruments, including a cello and French horn.
THE PLAYERS: The cast is highly competent, but the characters aren’t very deeply etched. The most compelling characters– and performers – are the two kids, and the two who taunt them. Young Noah Galvin lives up to his name; he’s galvanizing. He is natural, credible, unaffected. You believe every moment of his acting, and his singing is powerful and thoroughly convincing as well. As his bespectacled, “beanpole” sidekick, Gabrielle Boyadjian (in real life a high school freshman), is terrific, too, and irresistible, despite the smartass nerdiness of her character. She has wonderful comic timing and a knockout voice. The two local kids, Ian Brininstool and Maddie Shea Baldwin, hold their own excellently, as the school bully and his sidekick. Michael Arden, who was something of a rock star in the ill-fated Dylan/Tharp show, The Times They Are a- Changin ’ at the Globe last year, is aptly dashing as the first young fighter pilot, but he doesn’t get much to bite into here. That’s also true of Darren Ritchie as Ace, though he’s the catalyst for all that happens. The women are all good, but generally relegated to a fairly inconsequential position in the play. It’s a boy’s fantasy, start to finish.
THE LOCATION: Old Globe Theatre, through February 18
THREE’S A CROWD
THE SHOW: Happy Endings Are Extra , an American premiere written by South African Ashraf Johaardien , has been produced in South Africa and Ireland . Kicking off Diversionary’s new “Queer Theatre – Taking Center Stage” program, the play was chosen from 79 submissions
THE STORY: The action, inspired by a gruesome gay massacre in Cape Town , 2003, is set in that city and year. It shines a light into a dark corner of suburban society, the shadowy world of massage parlors, drug deals and boys for rent. Gabriel is an itchy, confused, bisexual man engaged to sexually and emotionally frustrated Chantelle , who for some reason tolerates his dalliances with male prostitutes (though she has her own questionable liaisons). Then, when Gabriel falls in love with an underage rent-boy, everything begins to go awry. Each (unlikable) character is in search of a little happiness, which is erroneously defined in terms of sex. There is no honesty here, with self or others. All three fail to acknowledge the unhappiness that drives their actions. Sexual identity is fluid; sex is sublimation, revenge, aggression. The language is gritty at times, lyrical at others. But there’s very little true communication.
THE PRODUCTION/ THE PLAYERS: There’s s decided coolness and distancing to the production, from the screen projections to the clear acrylic chairs ( set by Greg Stevens). There’s a flatness and dispassion to the performances that belies the anger, guilt and resentment roiling beneath the placid surface. With little warmth in the language, the environs or the interactions, it’s hard to connect. Anahid Shahrik , making a welcome return to local stages, wears a number of sensuous outfits (costumes by Shulamit Nelson) and Michael Purvis is a very attractive man. But in view of all the sex talk (and some sex action), there’s very little heat, and no eroticism, which should be a critical element of the piece. Claudio Raygoza, as the middle-aged man in search of youth, gives an intense performance; Purvis and Shahrik are earnest as well. Neither the writer nor the director, Rosina Reynolds, leaves much room for imagination; we are told and shown everything (there’s actually a lot more telling than showing in the script overall). The projections of seminal lines from the text foretell or underline significant points unnecessarily. The so-called shock ending is spelled out too specifically, even after we’ve gotten (or predicted) the grisly outcome. Trust us; we can figure it out; really, we can.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, through February 11
IT’S A DOG’S LIFE
THE SHOW: Heart of a Dog, an adaptation (by Frank Galati, first produced in 1985) of a satirical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov , short story writer, playwright and novelist of the early Soviet period. Written in 1925, the book was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. Bulgakov is not well known in the U.S. , but he is required reading in Russian schools
THE STORY/THE BACKSTORY: The novel, a political parable, is a satirical examination of one of the goals of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917: to create a new breed of man, uncorrupted by the past and above petit bourgeois concerns. “The Heart of a Dog” savages the rigid Soviet mind-set, science fiction, and a pseudoscientific theory of the 1920s that held out the promise of sexual rejuvenation through surgical transplantation of monkey glands.
The play’s action takes place in Moscow shortly after 1917 . Our narrator, a homeless mutt named Sharik , is captured for experimentation by a member of the rapidly shrinking Russian intelligentsia , an esteemed doctor by the name of Philip Philipovich Preobrajensky (his last name is derived from a Russian word that can means transformation or metamorphosis ). The well-known doctor, who rejuvenates people by hormonal manipulations, has had great success with people in high places, though there have been some unfortunate side-effects, like The Man With Green Hair (but he’s pleased with his permanent erection). When the professor transplants the testes and pituitary gland of a recently dead criminal into the scrawny body of the dog, Sharik not only learns to walk upright and talk, but becomes “Comrade Sharikov ,” the head of the Moscow Communal Property Administration in charge of exterminating homeless cats. With its sly analogies to Dr. Faustus , Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau , the story has been interpreted either as a mockery of the Soviet utopian attempt to radically improve human nature, or as a wry comment on scientists’ efforts to interfere with nature. Either interpretation is decidedly relevant these days.
THE PLAYERS/ THE PRODUCTION: Director Charlie Oates, chair of the UCSD Dept. of Theatre and Dance, and his capable cast, are obviously having a field day with this work. The production retains all the satirical tone of the original. And the tables are turned on the audience, who sits onstage, surrounded by playing spaces, while the entire Mandell Weiss Forum is used — including shenanigans up and down the aisle stairs. The six-member ensemble portrays some 15 characters, each a gross exaggeration of the thuggish, mindless proletariat and the supercilious intelligentsia. Second-year MFA student Brandon Taylor strikes the perfectly clueless, gentlemanly tone as the Frankensteinian genius. But the most amazing performance is by the marvelously canine Ryan Shams, who wears nothing but little bikini briefs at first, and then the garish outfit of the sordid, seedy man-dog he has become (yellow socks and patent leather loafers and all). His dog-like actions are terrific, as are his howls and canine boorishness (lifting his leg and humping at the most inopportune moments – including in the vicinity of audience members). It’s a masterful performance, and he’s hilarious throughout (Shams will be much missed when he graduates this spring). We sympathize with the poor beleaguered creature – to a point. Then, when he becomes intolerable (not only a lout, but an officious official, to boot), we don’t mind when the professor reverses the procedure. Let sleeping dogs lie.
THE PLAYERS: UCSD Theatre and Dance in the Mandell Weiss Forum , through January 27
THE SHOW: Nipples to the Wind, a two-actor show that spotlights 14 wacky women; written and performed by stand-up comedian/playwright Paula Coco, with her aunt, Janye Anderson (who’s only a few years older). The vignettes are set off by original music created by Nashville singer/songwriter Kacey Jones. The team is currently in negotiations for a New York (Broadway) run
THE BACKSTORY: It isn’t just a provocative title. And don’t expect any breast-baring in the show. “Nipples to the Wind” is an old Texas expression that reflects a kind of ‘put on your big-girl panties and deal with it’ mentality. It means ‘face the world with confidence: head up, chest out.’ The two performers, and their alter-egos, Jessie Mae and Pearl , have a greeting card business (cards for sale in the lobby). Their intention is to reach “those who refuse to live in a black-and-white world.” Theirs is a flamboyant fashion statement, Coco has said, that suggests that “no accessory is too big or overstated; the bolder the better.” And that’s pretty much true of their costumes in the show; outré and over-the-top (some make them look like drag queens, especially the Jessie Mae and Pearl getups). Uncredited, most of the outfits admittedly come from the ladies’ own closets.
THE PLAYERS/ THE PRODUCTION: The show is opened by Jones, singing one of her uproarious songs, the post-plastic surgery ballad, “How Do You Like These Babies Now?” The just-released “Nipples” CD features 16 songs (most by Jones) sung by Jones as well as local singer/songwriter Deborah Liv Johnson and Connecticut singer/actor Tracey James. Jones, btw, was the lead singer and writer for the all-girl cult group, Ethel and the Shameless Hussies. She’s very funny, even when she’s just doing stand-up (“I have a new Muslim name: Seldom been Laid ”). Her other witty ditties include “Is It My Chicken or My Dumplings That Keep You Comin ’ Back for More?” and “I Could Get Over Him if I Could Get Under You .”
There’s a down-home, Southern sensibility to a number of the show’s characters, from soused, Spam-casserole-making Brenda (Anderson), the put-upon wife; to the over- turquoised Bunny (Coco), founder/artistic director and playwright-in-residence of a community theater who “made a spiritual pilgrimage to Santa Fe,” where she learned to “dive in and swim in the lake of me”; to, comical, stereotype-spewing Susie (Coco), the Little League Mom who loses it at a game and winds up jailed for assault and battery; to Mavis (Anderson), the furry- slippered biddy who tells it like it really is in her annual Christmas letter. The extended, oversexed school sex lecture and the school dance chaperones are a little less amusing. In the second act, Coco gets to display her outstanding mime skills (don’t worry, no glass boxes; just very amusing makeup application). Coco scores again as Flora, the self-absorbed blonde Latina who answers the suicide hotline. The two performers play three roles, nearly overlapping, as a trio of sisters at the confessional, each dissing the others and telling her own side of their sordid family story. There aren’t really any messages here, no new insights. Just a bevy of wacky women trying to make it through their lives, in very humorous ways. The costume and set changes are fast and funny. It’s one big escape… with laughs.
THE LOCATION: The show was at the Avo Playhouse, and it’s returning to the California Center for the Arts, Feb. 1-3. www.nipplestothewind.com
EINE KLEINE NACHTMUSIK
The highly anticipated staged reading of A Little Night Music, a benefit for Cygnet Theatre, revealed all the challenges of this rarely-seen 1973 Stephen Sondheim creation. The last local production, as far as I can recall, was at Moonlight in 1995. It’s a punishingly difficult piece. First, it’s composed completely in ¾ waltz time. Based on a Bergman film, with title borrowed from Mozart, it’s set in turn-of-the-last-century Sweden (a setting heightened here by having a real Swede onstage – Anne-Charlotte Harvey, though singing isn’t her métier). It’s wry, witty, Sondheim-cynical, concerning the cross-class and inter-age debauchery of the upper crust. The lyrics are incredibly clever. But there are the eternal challenges of that pesky Greek chorus (though well sung in this reading), the rat-a-tat pace of the words and the atonal songs. Very few performers anywhere can master all the elements, and that proved true here as well. Those who excelled at all three: the rapid-fire lyrics; tricky, rangy melodies and acting requirements were: Melissa Fernandes as the randy maid, Petra ; Melinda Gilb as the promiscuous actress, Desirée ; Sandy Campbell as the frustrated, conniving Countess; and Sean Cox as the depressed/repressed seminarian, Henrik. The rest of the cast manages one or two elements with aplomb, but most often, either the songs’ vocal gymnastics or the speed of the lyrics seemed to elude the performers. And this was unequivocally a top-notch cast. Given the extreme exigencies of the show, I hope the Cygnets think long and hard about a full production, which they’ve already announced for 2008. The two-night SRO audiences seemed to adore the reading (not having to stage all these trysts and waltzes was a blessing). Even so…..
NEWS AND VIEWS
… See yourself – and others – at the Pattés: The pix are in!! Check out all of Ken Jacques ’ ab-fab shots of the 10th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence at www.patteproductions.com . And while you’re there, you can watch the whole (unedited) show!
… We’re here, we’re queer: Diversionary Theatre continues its “Queer Theatre, Taking Center Stage” series of new and little-known works. Next up is the last play penned by Tennessee Williams, Something Cloudy, Something Clear. Written in 1980, it was suppressed for a decade after Williams’ death. A potent autobiographical work framed as a memory play, the story a doomed triangle spending the summer of 1940 on a Provincetown : a young playwright and two beautiful dancers. With its fantasies and ghostly visitations, the play is an unflinching look at the life of a gay artist and all the gritty compromises that entailed mid-century. Ruff Yeager directs, and I’m thrilled to be part of this amazing cast (with Sam Woodhouse playing my husband): Robin Christ, Jeannine Marquie, Lance Rogers, Jill Drexler, Erick Sunquist , Duane Leake and Ted Reis. What fun! Wednesday, Jan. 31, 7:30pm at Diversionary Theatre. www.diversionary.org
More Reading s :
… Carlsbad Playreaders is at it again! Their next offering is The Ladies of the Camellias, by Lillian Groag, directed by Marc Overton and featuring Rosina Reynolds and Erika Beth Phillips (who appeared onstage together in the Patté Award-winning Ensemble of Mo’oelo’s Since Africa). Set in Paris, 1897, the play tells what might have happened had two of the stage’s great divas, Sarah Bernhardt (Reynolds) and Eleonora Duse (Phillips), crossed paths during a time of great political upheaval. Also part of the impressive cast: Overton, Richard Baird, Matt Scott, Brandon Walker and Kürt Norby (so excellent in Starlight’s Patté Award-winning Urinetown ). Monday, February 5, 7:30pm at the Carlsbad Library, 1775 Dove Lane .
… Asian Story Theatre has teamed up with the San Diego Public Library to develop a new play, an adaptation of “Dear Miss Breed,” by Joanne Oppenheim. The non-fiction work, released last year, documents the life of a local librarian who maintained a correspondence with over two dozen young Japanese-American San Diegans, age 5-19, while they were incarcerated by the government during World War II. The free staged reading (a workshop production), directed by Andy Lowe, former artistic director of the Asian American Repertory Theatre, takes place Jan. 31 at 7:30pm, at the new digs of the Actors Alliance, at NTC: 2650 Truxtun Road, Suite 203; 619-527-2816. A full production is slated for July.
… Applauz Theatre in El Cajon has re-scheduled its musical staged reading of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. This 1984 masterwork, directed by Tim Heitman , concerns art, the creative process , painter Georges Seurat and the creation of his provocative “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte .” Feb. 8-11 at 450 Fletcher Parkway, Suite 201 ; El Cajon 92020; 619-440-6714.
…ion theatre presents a reading of Awake and Sing, the 1935 Clifford Odets play about the impoverished, dysfunctional Berger family. Glenn Paris directs members of the excellent ensemble from the NATion Project (The Glass Menagerie and The Grapes of Wrath). At 6th@Penn Theatre, on Sunday, Jan. 28, 5pm.
…Need a Theatre? They’ve got a Space !… NTC is putting out feelers to the theater community. They have a big chunk of space in one of the recently renovated buildings that may meet the needs of a theater company (or several). The potential performance venue has 2660 square feet and up to 15ft. ceilings. It’s City-approved for occupancy up to 134. There’s adjacent space for a lobby and backstage area, and plenty of free parking. NTC exec director Alan Ziter would be happy to show the area to any groups who’d like to create a new performance space. Heaven knows we need one! firstname.lastname@example.org , 619-573-9315 before February 6.
…Got Menopause? Sing out, Louise !… After years in Florida , L.A. and New York , Menopause, the Musical has finally arrived in San Diego . The musical parody is set to 25 classic Baby Boomer songs, including “Puff, My God I’m Draggin ’,” and “ Stayin ’ Awake, Stayin ’ Alive.” As the press release puts it, you’ll “discover why nearly 7 million fans worldwide are laughing.” At the Lyceum Theatre, March 9-August 26. Don’t forget (even if your memory isn’t what it used to be…). www.sandiegorep.com
… R&J, a different way: Bell Junior High School in Paradise Hills is mounting a Kabuki version of Romeo and Juliet, conceived and directed by a Bell alumnus who’s now a junior in high school. Bet you haven’t seen that before! The drama teacher, Hale Maher, has been running a successful drama program for seven years. Scout out some new talent, Feb. 20-22, 6pm at 620 Briarwood Rd. 92139
.. Making a good impression: The Edwards Twins, celebrity impersonators, are bringing their show to the Lyceum Theatre. Last month, they appeared at the Birch North Park Theatre. And now, they’re baaack , as Elton John, Tina Turner, Babs Streisand, Bette Midler, Cher , Billy Joel and more. The California-born brothers, Anthony and Eddie Edwards, are identical twins who’ve been doing their “Celebrities On Stage” show for more than 20 years. They have some 100 superstars in their repertoire and they pride themselves on being “accurate to the smallest detail.” They perform here February 8-11. Opening night, Feb. 8, is a fundraiser for Stepping Stone, a non-profit alcohol and drug recovery agency serving the GLBT communities of the San Diego region. www.theedwardstwins.com
… …A sign of the (ugly) times: St. John’s University , one of the country’s largest Roman Catholic colleges, has forbid the performance of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues on campus. The three-day production was to be mounted by a 21 year-old senior as part of the V-Day College Campaign, an annual festival that raises money to stop violence against women and girls. “We fully support the value of raising awareness and education on systematic violence against women,” the Rev. James J. Maher, vice president of student affairs, said. “We also reserve the right not to support student life activities that we deem inappropriate.” The student is considering performing the play off campus. Nipples to the wind, girl!
Locally (no censorship!), The Vagina Monologues will be performed at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista , Feb. 16-18. Proceeds benefit Casas Seguras in Chula Vista . www.onstageplayhouse.org
… Shaky start to a new year: Two of Jean Isaacs’ dancers had to be replaced just before her Cabaret Dances 2007 premiered earlier this month. Nikki Dunnan’s foot injury prevents her from performing in Eveoke Dance Theatre’s upcoming Luna – Dances of Love. For the first several performances (the run is Feb. 2-25, at various locations), choreographer/artistic director Gina Angelique will be stepping in. Over at the Theatre Dept. at UCSD, there was the recent, sudden loss of the husband of warm, caring and crisply efficient PR liaison Carolyn Passeneau . Faculty member Jim Winker and faculty-by-association Moira Keefe (wife of department chair Charlie Oates, a writer/performer in her own right) each lost a parent.
But the final blow was the shocking death of Chris Parry, lighting designer extraordinaire, and head of the lighting design program at UCSD. The international tributes have been pouring in. At a memorial to Chris organized by the family last weekend, Steven Adler, Professor of Theatre and Provost of Earl Warren College at UCSD, presented a heartfelt eulogy for his good and dear friend. He praised his brilliance as an artist, his “wonderfully dry sense of humor,” his abhorrence of vegetables and dislike of reading plays: “’Just tell me the story !, ’ he would demand. He [just] wanted to get his hands dirty in tech rehearsals, where his contributions could take shape.” Adler paid tribute to Parry as a teacher, a friend, a father and a mentor. But most of all, he extolled his work: Chris, he said, “had the gift of designer second sight; he truly understood the alchemy of transforming the flow of electrons into a dazzling, dimensional world of light and shadow. …[ He] had the soul of a poet. He knew, in every fiber of his being, how to exploit his palette of light to create the most expressive dramatic environment imaginable. Directors and designers loved to collaborate with him, because they knew that Chris was a selfless colleague who was fiercely dedicated to the creation of a seamless and unified dramatic event.” What better tribute could any theatermaker hope for?
The Department has scheduled its own event, “A Tribute to Chris Parry: Let There Be Light,” which will take place on Sunday, February 25 at 4:00pm in the Weiss Forum on the UCSD campus. On Thursday, February 1st, the UCSD LGBT Resource Center will host a remembrance from 5-7pm. Chris was a member of the UCSD LGBT Speaker’s Bureau, and frequented their out-faculty receptions. For directions and parking information, go to http://lgbt.ucsd.edu/about_location.shtml
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Yellowman – provocative play, marvelously designed and directed, superbly acted
At Cygnet Theatre, through February 11
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Prepare for the Ground Hog… burrow into a theater near you.
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.