By Pat Launer
Three eras, historically speaking;
Each gets dramatic or comic tweaking:
From ‘40s Hollywood and the ‘Jew Movie’ scam
To ‘A Piece of My Heart’ left behind in ‘ Nam .
And the modern-day singing of ‘Bad Date’ blues
( which is tempered, at least, by buying new shoes).
THE SHOW: ‘A Piece of My Heart,’ by Shirley Lauro (1991) based on the 1985 book of the same name by writer/filmmaker Keith Walker, in which he interviewed 26 female Vietnam veterans
THE SCOOP: The heart-breaking (sometimes gut-wrenching), poignant, and largely untold stories of women who went to Vietnam and found it hard to come Back in the World.
THE STORY and BACKSTORY: It’s estimated that some 15,000 women volunteered to serve in Vietnam . Amazingly, the exact number is not known. We know how many weapons were bought and how many Vietnamese lives were lost, but not the number of our own citizens who signed up, out of duty, bravery, curiosity, self-sacrifice or naiveté, to serve their country during war – mostly as nurses, or Red Cross workers, and in one case in this script, an idealistic entertainer. Lauro’s play, which tells six women’s stories (with one man standing in for all their male experiences), has been seeing a resurgence since 2001. And it’s no wonder. Although the piece is decidedly non-partisan, it’s hard not to draw parallels to today, as we stand mired in another aimless, pointless war, with 1/3 of returning veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress and at risk for substance abuse and suicide (both of which are represented in these coming-home stories). In her own way, each woman takes the journey from ambition to horror to disillusionment to healing.
Mobilizing the community to get these chronicles heard – by both young and old — the fledgling Mo’olelo Theatre teamed up with two organizations: the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center (one of the costumes belongs to a Navy nurse; many vets were consultants to the production and are participating in post-show discussions and school visits) and Young Audiences of San Diego (which will allow the piece to be seen by 11th and 12th graders county-wide)..
Made up mostly of monologues, the stories are linked together to make these women comrades without arms. We jump in and out of the various stories, and though each tale is dramatic in its own right, there’s little dramatic arc to the play. The first act comprises the sign-up motivations and then horrors or war; the second, more moving, deals with the difficulties of returning to a civilian life devoid of the wartime adrenaline, camaraderie or meaning. The ending is one of sadness placed in a positive light. We learn that “Women die in combat even though they never carry a gun.” After all is said and done, their stories aren’t very different from the men’s; but their general neglect (and sometime sexual abuse) is.
Interesting side-note : There were only seven women’s names on the Vietnam War Memorial wall. But in 1993, a Vietnam Women’s Memorial was erected on the National Mall in Washington , D.C. . The 6 1/2 foot-high bronze sculpture depicts three women attending a fallen soldier, an image that perfectly reflects the narratives in this play.
THE PLAYERS: This is a lovely ensemble piece, performed by a skilled ensemble. The characters are drawn to represent a range of rationales and motivations for going into this war. Erika Beth Phillips is solid throughout as no-nonsense Martha, the ‘Navy brat’ who became, inevitably, a Navy nurse. Nicole Gabriella Scipione is the wide-eyed, big-smile blonde, who takes her Texas all-girl band on a tour of bases, in the hope of doing some good and earning some money (which was never forthcoming). She’s the one subject to gang rape, which is ignored by military brass. At first, Scipione seems mindless, with her flighty mien and wispy voice (playing guitar and singing ‘60s folk songs), but she grows in depth from her overseas experiences and takes a heartbreaking nosedive on her return to the States.
Five days before the show opened, director Siobhan Sullivan stepped into the role of Sissy, a nurse who “just wanted to save the world.” Sullivan blends in beautifully with the rest of the cast – and her comfort in the role on opening night was impressive.
As the Vassar grad Whitney, Natalie Salins transforms from a tight-lipped, Red Cross rich girl (in “a Dixie cup hat and girdle”) into a beautiful but lost woman. Seema Sueko, artistic director of Mo’olelo , brings her energy and enthusiasm to the most conflicted character, at least at first; an anti-war hippie, Leeann volunteered in order to pay for her last year of nursing school, planning to get sent to Hawaii . She gets quite an education instead, but in her way, she remains an activist to the end.
Valerie J. Ludwig plays Steele, a long-term, polyglot WAC specializing in intelligence, who runs into racism at every turn. Ludwig gives an aptly steely performance, resigned but resolute.
Lance Arthur Smith does a masterful job of playing a wide array of military types, from the sensitive to the monstrous, the dying to the maimed, and most amusingly, the barking drill sergeant who gives pre-show instructions to the audience, to which they dutifully respond, as demanded, “Sir, yes Sir.”
THE PRODUCTION : As director, Sullivan finds every way possible to keep the action and the tension high. She’s ably abetted by Paul Peterson’s marvelous sound design and Kim Palma’s wonderful lighting. The final image, of the names on the Vietnam War Memorial projected across the standing cast, will remain in memory for a long time to come. As their bodies thrust the names into relief, they seem hauntingly corpselike, yet at the same time, they give human dimension to some of those 58,191 faceless names.
THE LOCATION : Mo’olelo at the Veteran’s Museum and Memorial Center across from Balboa Park , through November 6.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
SHOES, GLORIOUS SHOES
THE SHOW: Bad Dates (2003), by Theresa Rebeck
THE SCOOP: One of the 10 most produced plays in American professional theaters this season, the piece is a trifle, but it’s a one-woman star-turn, and our local star delivers the goods
THE STORY: Haley is a recent divorcee, now a single mom, trying to get her life back on track .. on a new tack. She moves to New York with her 14 year-old daughter (whom we encounter only as highly amped rock music emanating from an adjacent bedroom). Haley lands a job at a restaurant, which turns out to be a money-laundering front. She finds herself temporarily running the place (while the Romanian mobsters are incarcerated) and gets in some hot water, at the same time as she goes on some horrendously ‘Bad Dates.’ Oh, and did we mention her shoe fetish? She has 600 pairs, and spends most of her stage-time trying on outfits and footwear for her potentially amorous encounters. Ho hum .
THE PLAYERS DeAnna Driscoll is terrific company. You’d love to hang out with her, have her as your friend, hear about her adventures, borrow her shoes. She’s adorable, irresistible, engaging, amusing, self-effacing, introspective, forthright, loyal, eternally optimistic. She even has a few good lines. But there isn’t much new turf trod here. I’ve been in the return-to-dating scene. I also had good stories to tell. And I have a lot of shoes. But does that necessarily make for a great night of theater? Well, a truckload of women in the audience seem to think so. In fact, the cross-cultural, cross-linguistic response has been so positive that the Rep is beginning live simultaneous Spanish translations three performances a week, using the theater’s wireless transmission system. The translation of Bad Dates/ Citas Saladas was undertaken by Yolanda S. Walther-Meade of Crossborder Public Relations, and will be performed alternately by Elvia Saelee , Madonna Chavez and Julia Parades, students from the San Diego City College Theatre Department; under the supervision of REP literary & casting assistant Sonya Lopez.
THE PRODUCTION : The set (Mike Buckley) is superb: sky-high stacks of shoeboxes which, under attractive nighttime lighting (Jeff Fightmaster ), become the New York skyline. Shoes are suspended from the fly-space, and strewn around the bedroom, which is littered with clothes and stocked with closets (though they could be more crammed-full, judging from personal experience). Rachel LeVine provides an energetic sound design, to match the bubbly rhythm director Rosina Reynolds has established. The content’s a little vapid, the ending’s a little pat. But hey! It’s an evening away from the tube.
THE LOCATION: At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through November 13.
PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM
THE SHOW: Adam Baum and the Jew Movie, written by Toronto-born, Juilliard-trained, San Francisco-based Daniel Goldfarb
THE SCOOP: Provocative title and subject, sensitively staged, well acted
THE BACKSTORY: Not all gentiles know that using ‘Jew’ as a noun or adjective has a pejorative connotation. So most Jewish people will bristle at the title of this play, even though the playwright is Jewish, too. He defends his choice because the inspiration for the main character, legendary film mogul Sam Goldwyn (in the play, Sam Baum) would have used just those words. But 6th @ Penn knows that the title has raised hackles, so they’ve scheduled a forum about the play, which will take place on November 3 at Temple Ohr Shalom ( 3rd Avenue ) at 6:45pm. The symposium will be moderated by Shirley Fishman, associate artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, and will include Glenn Paris, the director, as well as representatives of the Anti-Defamation League and the Lipinsky Institute for Judaic Studies. Admission is free and attendees will receive vouchers for 1/2 –price tickets to the play.
THE STORY: In 1946, Sam Goldwyn contracted Ring Lardner, Jr. to write the definitive film about anti-Semitism. An Eastern European immigrant, he was obsessed with assimilation, so he purposely hired a gentile writer. He’s in a time-crunch, since his rival, producer Darryl F. Zanuck , is already deeply involved in creating his own movie about anti-Semitism, “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947, three Oscars) with screenplay by a Jewish writer Moss Hart.
Interesting aside (not in the play): Zanuck was actively discouraged from making the film, which had been passed over by virtually every studio in town (most of which were run by Jews). The policy of simply not talking about discrimination was upheld at the highest levels in Hollywood — even by immigrant studio execs who themselves were denied membership in Los Angeles country clubs. So this is the world of the play, which isn’t as far removed from our world as you might think. When I first moved to La Jolla in 1979, it hadn’t been that long since the’ no-Jews’ policy was a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ in the real estate business. Even Jonas Salk was a contentious figure when he sought a site for his research institute. For decades, the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club excluded Jews. So this tale of the past is not ancient history.
Now we come to Sam Baum (sounds like ‘bomb’, but only outside New York City , where it would be pronounced with the same vowel as ‘gown’). He’s given his beloved son the name of Adam, a rather poor nuclear joke (Adam Baum, get it?); the 13 year-old is ridiculed mercilessly at school. Sam Baum is so much Sam Goldwyn that he speaks in many of Goldwyn’s world-famous language- manglings , like “Include me out” and “I’ve got two words for you: Im Possible”). He’s loaded with money, gives gifts extravagantly (though there’s always a hidden emotional pricetag ), and he demeans and humiliates everyone – from his unseen secretary to his captive writer (“You’re under contract!”) to his darling offspring (in one of the most chilling moments of the play). Baum believes that “ America can only handle one Jew movie a year – a decade!” and “You can’t have a Jew write a Jew in pictures.” In fact, he only allows Jewish actors (including his son) to play Indians in his pictures. The guy he hires as screenwriter is the very WASPy Garfield Hampson (a stand-in for Lardner), who supposedly champions the underdog but comes from a supercilious, probably anti-Semitic life of privilege. For the movie, he does his research – too much for Sam’s good: “You’ve written the script as a Jew and not as a Gentile,” he reproves. Sam wants escapism; Gar wants realism. (Sam thinks the Jewish family he creates is “too Jewish.” “You wanna send a message?” Sam snaps, “Call Western Union!”)
Identity is everything here. Sam wants so badly to be an American, he turns his back on his Jewishness . But still, his son must have a Bar Mitzvah, the ostentation of which disgusts Gar. At the same time, surreptitiously, Sam is trying to track down his European relatives who, two years after the war, are still missing. There are many layers here, many issues. A number of emotional crises. It isn’t a perfect play, but it’s certainly a thought-provoking one.
THE PLAYERS and PRODUCTION: The play is a bit tonally uncertain: it doesn’t seem to be sure if it’s a comedy, drama or history. But director Glenn Paris keeps the pace lively and makes the comic and dramatic moments work. Ralph Elias is outstanding as Sam. It’s a showy role, full of bluster and humor, but the character also takes quite an emotional ride, from bullying to vomiting, anger to despair. Elias is credible, accent and all, in every moment. As Gar, Paris cast Max Macke , a member of Poor Players, where he’s portrayed all the corpulent Shakespearean character roles – like Falstaff and Toby Belch; (but he’s now at trim fighting weight). His Gar is a hapless guy, a bit disingenuous, supercilious, at times condescending, but under Sam’s thumb, he’s repeatedly made to squirm. The character is less fleshed out than Sam’s, but Macke’s low-key approach provides excellent counterpoint to Elias’ expansive performance. Zev Lerner is wonderful as young Adam, the Bar Mitzvah boy who idolizes his father but is also frightened, and at one point, enraged by him. His is a small but poignant role, and Lerner does a splendid job (Jacob Sampson plays the role in weeks 6 and 7 of the run). Paris keeps most of the focus on the high-stakes cat-and-mouse game between Sam and Gar.
The set Claudio Raygoza) is a lot less opulent than a mogul’s studio or home study should be. The costumes (Jeannie Galioto ) are spot-on – love those cowboy PJs (credited to Ingrid Helton, Lily Pad) that Lerner wears!
THE LOCATION: At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through November 9.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
…Well, if you missed it, you missed something really terrific. The San Diego Shakespeare Society’s 4th annual Celebrity Sonnet Presentations was spectacular. It was by far the most varied of shows: TJ Johnson did his piece as blues, Seema Sueko did a Paul Anka song (go figure!), Teacher of the Year Guillermo Gomez did one of his sonnets in Spanish, the Cheshire Singers sang theirs a capella and Javier Velasco brought two gorgeous ballet dancers to accompany him. There were other delights (including an adorably Elizabethan-attired brother and sister, age 9 and 12), but those were the highlights. Don’t miss this event next year; you’ve never heard Shakespeare like this! Proceeds to benefit the Shakespeare Society Student Festival (coming your way in 2006). www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org .
… and another stellar event you might’ve missed: the farewell fiesta for John Guth , who’s been the PR/communications go-to guy for North Coast Rep for 17 years. John has been ever-cheerful, ever-helpful, ever-efficient, ever-musical and comical… and he will be sorely missed. NCRT artistic director David Ellenstein asked each attendee to come up with one word that best described John, and a awesome array of adjectives it was — all richly deserved. It’s a bittersweet departure; we hate to see him go, but he’s moving up to the Bay Area to live with his new love. And who can argue with that?? Much luck, love, happiness and fulfillment in the North, John. And many thanks for all the wonderful things you’ve done – onstage and off, work-wise and otherwise.
…NO TRICK: A HALLOWEEN TREAT: Show up in Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein costume and you get in free! – to Sledgehammer’s “Frankenstein Project v.2” on Monday, 31 at 8pm. If you’re not in full regalia, it’s Pay-What-You-Can.
… Halloween alternative… at Dia de los Muertos : when the living meet the dead, a late-night presentation 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!
… ‘Tales from the Far Side of Fifty’ – 14 women from 58-87 share their stories and songs about the problems, terrors and humor of post middle-age. Little old ladies – NOT! ( my 87 year-old spitfire of a mother is one of ‘em, and my sister, Lonnie Burstein Hewitt, is the writer/producer). Delicia Turner Sonnenberg directs. These are Wild Women; hear ‘em roar ! Sunday, November 20 at 1:30pm in the Recital Hall of Balboa Park (near the Automotive Museum ). For info: firstname.lastname@example.org
…There’s no accounting for (British) taste… The BBC Radio survey of the UK ’s favorite musicals (a poll of 400,000 radio listeners) came up with some surprising results: Les Misérables was number one (still playing in London ’s West End since its opening in 1985; producers boast that the show has been seen by more than 50 million people worldwide. The contest ran for six months, with 50 shows in contention. The rest of the top ten were as follows: The Phantom of the Opera, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (now THAT’s a surprise!), The King and I , Sunset Boulevard, Evita, Chess, The Rocky Horror Show, Follies and Hair. The number of voters was impressive, but their choices were… well, unexpected in some cases. Interesting that there was no sign of American classics like Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, Annie Get Your Gun, Funny Girl, Gypsy, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, etc. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers??? Go figure.
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)
Adam Baum and the Jew Movie – provocative title, little-known story. Thinly-veiled tale of Sam Goldwyn (and other early Hollywood moguls – all Eastern European Jewish immigrants who were so eager to assimilate they turned against everything they knew and loved). Wonderfully nuanced performance by Ralph Elias.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through November 9.
A Piece of My Heart – the untold story of the women who volunteered to serve in Vietnam . Earnest text and performances, with some really gut-wrenching moments.
Mo’olelo at the Veteran’s Museum and Memorial Center across from Balboa Park , through November 6.
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.
“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 scary out there! Take refuge in the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.