By Pat Launer
I skipped through the theater week Merrily,
From Richard to Eurydice,
From Gypsy music to local dance,
The State of our Arts spans a broad expanse.
The 2nd annual State of the Arts and Culture presentation drew a formidable crowd (500, I’d guess) to the Civic Theatre last week. The Mayor opened the proceedings by applauding the 82 non-profit arts/culture organizations that are supported by the City’s Commission for Arts & Culture. Cumulatively, last year, these groups provided more than 5000 jobs, spent $116.2 million, sold more than 1.6 million out-of-city admissions to tourists who then contributed about $210 million to our local economy. As I think we’ve all heard by now, Richard Florida’s book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” cited San Diego as the nation’s third most creative city. The Mayor envisioned us on the world stage as an arts and culture mecca (which is what Travelocity.com declared us some time ago). However, the underdog theme of ‘We’re better than we think” kept rearing its head throughout the event.
The bright spots on the horizon are the imminent development of NTC, the renovation of the Balboa Theatre, and the Public Arts Master Plan, which the City Council is due to consider this spring. San Diego, we were told, is on the cutting edge of ‘new urbanism,’ a notion which was reinforced by the keynote speaker, John Norquist, President and CEO of The Congress for the New Urbanism, author of “The Wealth of Cities” (which is a confessed favorite of the Mayor, a book that guided and inspired his election campaign).
Norquist gave a slide-supported talk that seemed to be his boilerplate tour-speech, with a few comments about San Diego tacked on at the end. He spoke of “strip-sprawl sterilization,” the loss of business/arts-friendly Main Streets, and perhaps most relevant, celebrating not only the big arts and culture organizations, but also the small and struggling ones. (Happily, that is one intent of this weekly online newsletter).
Guatemalan-born architect Teddy Cruz spoke passionately but frustratedly about the three Vision Plans for San Diego that have been enthusiastically generated over the years and then, disappointingly, shelved. He strongly criticized the attention given to public arts projects like Spirit of the Seas, which do nothing to enhance or augment our natural environment.
ConVis president Reint Reinders was the most upbeat (that’s his job, right?), saying “We’re potentially on our way to becoming a world-class city.” Cultural tourism, he reported, is up 13%. “We need to stop beating ourselves up all the time,” he advised, and focus on the best of San Diego, present and future. His forward-looking optimism included making San Diego cultural tourism equal to that of New York and D.C. (our upstaging neighbor to the north was conspicuously omitted); establishing an annual, world-class arts/culture festival like Spoleto, Edinburgh or Cannes; developing a waterfront Opera House; and going all out in 2010 for the 100th anniversary of our cultural icon, Balboa Park. Model projects, all. Let’s hope they happen; let’s make them happen!
The event ended with the wonderful tenor-baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” from “The Pearl Fishers,” whose Zandra Rhodes-designed set served as backdrop for the proceedings. Though the singers — Michael Schade and Russell Braun — were in excellent voice, and Opera director Ian Campbell crowed that this production will go on to New York, San Francisco and Detroit, there was no intro, setup or translation of the piece, and without any context it was a lot less powerful.
The objective of this event remains unclear. For the most part, it seemed an odd mix of self-congratulation, self-deprecation and preaching to the choir. Most of the attendees appeared to be patrons or participants in the arts community, plus a few City Councilors. Is this the audience that really needs to hear this information? There was no focused celebration of the past or call to arms for the future. Most people walked away scratching their heads; what exactly was this all for?
But if it served at least one definitive function: underscoring the arts community’s unwavering support for Proposition C which, by raising the City of San Diego’s hotel room tax (Transient Occupancy Tax or TOT), allows tourists to help pay for police, fire and paramedic services, and support a wide range of arts and cultural institutions.
TO HELL AND BACK
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice inspired both the Greeks (Appolonius) and the Romans (Virgil and Ovid), not to mention myriad creative artists ever since (most recently, in San Diego, in John Malashock’s 2001 choreography of “Misjudgment in Paris”).
The myth concerns the superhumanly gifted musician, Orpheus, son of the Muse Calliope, who falls in love with the beautiful Eurydice. Just after their wedding, Eurydice is stung by a viper while fleeing the advances of another man, and she dies. Orpheus is determined to retrieve her from the Underworld; even there, no one who’s heard his irresistible music can refuse his request. But there is one condition; he cannot look back at his wife as she follows him to the upper world. Just as they are about to step out of the cavern into the light, Orpheus turns around to see her, and she vanishes, lost into the world of shades forever. He is not permitted to go back again. Grief-stricken, Orpheus still makes his beautiful music, but he shuns the company of other people. Ultimately, he dies a horrible death at the hands of Thracian women (in the throes of a Bacchic orgy) who tear him limb from limb. His parts, dumped in the river, are borne along to the shore of the island of Lesbos; they are collected by the Muses and buried at the foot of Mt. Olympus, where, it is said, the nightingales still sing more sweetly than anywhere else.
Orpheus usually gets top billing in the retelling of the tale. But UCSD Theatre and Dance is more concerned with the story of “Eurydice” in the play by Sarah Dart Ruhl, which premiered last year at Madison Rep in Wisconsin. This production is directed by guest artist Daniel Fish.
We get the scoop from Eurydice’s point of view. Here (as in Malashock’s version), Orpheus is so consumed with his music, he’s a less than attentive lover (“too busy listening to his own thoughts”). But when Eurydice wanders off from her wedding celebration, she meets a strange Man/|Child who tempts her away to the Land of the Dead, where she meets her long-deceased father, a “subversive” who’s the only one among The Stones who has retained the old words and memories, because he has not yet swum in nor drunk the filthy water of the river of forgetting. The others, we are told, “speak the language of dead people. Like potatoes sleeping in the dirt.” Eurydice is happy being with her father; the trike-riding Underworld adolescent ruler promises to become a Man; she’s re-learning all the forgotten words of her language, resting her head in her father’s lap. So when Orpheus comes to get her, she leaves somewhat reluctantly and then chooses to return, though by then her father has drunk the water and she has to re-teach him the words.
It’s a twisted re-telling. In Freudian terms, a girl chooses her father over her husband. She says “A wedding is for daughters and fathers; they stop being married to each other on that day.” Here, the father-daughter relationship is more deep, lasting and profound than the lovers.’ But beyond this, and some poetic, though enigmatic language, more is left unexplained than is clarified or revealed. There is peripheral focus on innocence, knowledge and willful ignorance. The Underworld Stones (Big Stone, Little Stone and Loud Stone) are here played as couch-potato slackers, who’ve given up on everything.
The whole venture is rather opaque and unsatisfying, but it sure is dazzling to look at. Ruhl’s piece presents a designer’s field-day, calling as it does for an elevator of rain (magnificent!!), a chorus of stones and a father who builds his daughter a room of string in the land of the dead.
Scenic designer (and second year MFA student) Melpemone Katakalos has created a mysterious mountain of circular shapes that, when they come tumbling down, turn out to have been the bottoms of a hundred-plus large plastic water-cooler bottles. The crash is startling, the symbolism unclear (a stylized River Styx?), but the image is shockingly beautiful. In the Underworld, Eurydice trips over the bottles as she tries to find her way, literally and figuratively. Letters from Orpheus float down around her. These seem to be modern Gen Xers with existential angst, asking Eternal Questions like. What is marriage? Who is really Interesting? “How does a person remember to forget?”
Both the design and the direction seem to obfuscate rather than clarify, though the Father (Corey Brill) is a thoroughly likable lawn-mowing Niceguy, the Man/Child (José Chavarry) is a creepily, ambiguous, insecure adolescent, and the Stones (Jennifer Chang, Mark Smith, Genevieve Hardison) are a whiny, disapproving Greek chorus. This Orpheus (Garrett Neergaard) is pretty much a cipher. Eurydice (Katherine Sigismund) seems like a lost child who finds her place in Daddy’s lap. The evening (however brief) doesn’t add up, but it paints a striking — if disturbing — picture of love and family life.
RETURN OF THE HUMPBACK WHALE
“Richard III” is back (with his famous back). And he’s nastier and ghastlier than ever. But, in the UCSD production, his language, motives and machinations are crystal clear. This magnificent production , adapted and directed by faculty member (and respected actor) Jim Winker, makes the play more relevant and chilling than ever.
Set in the 20th century, the tragedy takes place in the “underground labyrinthine Bunker” 237, where we’ve all been holed up for several months. There’s a war going on above us. And now, for our amusement, ten actors from the State Theater are performing Shakespeare’s villainous drama. Periodically, the action stops when bombs drop ‘overhead.’ Some of the actors are visibly shaken, and they’re consoled by their comrades. At the end, when they’re supposed to be hacking the mad king to death, one of the actors gets out of control, and she keeps whacking at the ‘body’ behind the bench; this is clearly outside the action of the play, and it shows the stress of being cowed by fear and anger. We can relate; we’re all a little jumpy these days. Power-mad politicians are all around us.
This is gripping, compelling theater, and it works wonderfully in the dim, black-box Mandell Weiss Forum Studio. We start to feel claustrophobic, hemmed in, we jump at the sounds of battle ‘outside.’ And ‘inside,’ we watch Richard wage war on the world, killing off anything and everything in his path to get the English crown. But by then, of course, he’s so paranoid, he self-destructs. This is the end most megalomaniacs meet; we can only hope it happens sooner than later.
There’s a marvelous focus and clarity to this production. Winker has done a masterful job with the text and the direction. The language is crystalline; the political allegiances are made clear on the stage and in the Director’s Notes, which specify the various families and loyalties. And scrawled in chalk all along the black walls, are silhouettes of the succession of English kings and some of their famous utterances. This fits perfectly with the bomb-shelter detritus of survival suspended around the room and along the walls (scenic design by Mina Kinukawa). The costumes, by Emily Pepper, are a glorious hodgepodge of layers and styles, rags and resistance gear that looks terrifically tattered and apt in this setting. And the performances are stellar. Each of the 10 company members plays multiple roles (of either gender) with convincing precision. As the humpbacked monster himself, constrained by leg and arm braces, David Ari is forceful, vicious, reptilian, smarmy, calculating and riveting. It’s a chilling performance.
An unfortunately abbreviated run for a production that should have been seen by everyone who cares about theater, politics and Shakespeare.
It may not have been his best musical, but it was a time-twisting groundbreaker when it premiered. Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” one of the theater’s mythic failures, only lasted 16 performances when it premiered on Broadway in 1981. It wasn’t much better received when a revised version (with contributions from director James Lapine) was presented at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985. it was frankly forgettable, though it boasted a cast of now-familiar names like Marin Mazzie, John Rubenstein and Chip Zien. The ‘definitive’ version was staged in New York in 1994. The show garnered London’s Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 2001. But by all accounts, the recent Kennedy Center ‘reunion’ production (bringing together the original cast), was the really definitive one, and proved to be an unabashed tear-jerker for everyone lucky enough to attend.
The musical was based on the 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which also moved backwards in time. The piece starts as a friendship dissolves and ends as it is being born. We first meet successful filmmaker Franklin Shepard in 1980. But the story spirals backward to 1955, and we realize that Frank used to be an idealistic composer, but he’s dumped his best friends and his standards, seduced by Hollywood glitz and greed.
In this tale of slippery dreams and ethics, disenchantment and disillusionment, selling out, leaving the theater world for film, the recurring musical question is “How did we get here from there?” Voyeuristically, we watch as youthful idealism gives way to compromise, alcoholism and failure of the heart. The show has often been considered autobiographical. There are stunningly self-referential lines sprinkled throughout, not the least amusing of which is “There’s not a tune you can hum. Gimme some melody.”
At SDSU, “Merrily” represents the swan-song of the talented SDSU MFA musical theater students who are about to graduate (wouldn’t it have been more apt — and avian! — if “Honk” had been their swan song? Never mind…).
Paula Kalustian has directed with a light hand. The humor is underscored, but a good deal of the pathos is missing. The cast of two dozen works hard and sings well, in a gorgeous array of ever-changing period costumes (designed by Megan Ann Richardson). Alison Bretches does her best work (besides the choreography for the aforementioned “Honk!”) as Mary Flynn, the would-be novelist who sells out to alcohol — and gasp!– becoming a critic. Matthew Weeden, the centerpiece of 2002’s “A New Brain,” is funny and engaging as shleppy Charley Kringas, Frank’s oldest friend and lyricist/collaborator. Susan DeLeon is sassy and controlling as the Broadway actress who gets her hooks into Frank and drags him off to Hollywood, to support them both in style. Kristen Mengelkoch does a fine job with Beth, Frank’s trusting, heartsick, left-behind wife (who, with her lovely voice, gets to sing the show’s most beautiful and most-recorded song, “Not a Day Goes By”). As Frank, Ryan David McKinney is capable and likable; he doesn’t have the nasty edge of the selfish anti-hero the character really is. We never quite feel that he’s done this to his friends, just that all these things sort of happened. And so the audience loses something important in the over-long evening: the depth of caring that would really make the show sing. But there are many joys in this production, including a great little 3-piece orchestra, under the direction of pianist Terry O’Donnell. If you like musicals, or Sondheim, or sobering, “Where did it all go?’ ruminations, you missed a good roll with “Merrily.”
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
You might think that a dance piece inspired by photographs of AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa would be dark and depressing. But choreographer Jean Isaacs turned the opportunity into a deeply moving expression of hope.
The photographs, by Art Myers, came from an orphanage in Kenya called Nyumbani (Swahili for ‘home’). “The Song of Nyumbani” is what Isaacs called her world premiere piece, which formed half of the dance evening at Mandeville Auditorium last Friday. The other half of “Body LENSCAPE” was also a world premiere, the Patricia Rincon Dance Collective’s “Rush Stop.” Video projections featured prominently here, too. These futuristic cyberscapes depicted clocks and men or women running endlessly, frantically. The theme was the race against time, the eternal rush-and-hurry of our culture. The subject has been covered many times before, and no really new ground was broken here. But Rincon’s often-balletic choreography, in its slo-mo and its frenzied pace, managed to be by turns whimsical and anguished. At times, the dance complemented the projections; at other times, it was antithetical to the image. Sometimes, there just seemed to be too much visual activity going on at once. The seven dancers were excellent, and the piece had some marvelous moments. Perhaps it was an unfortunate pairing with the San Diego Dance Theater creation, however. When juxtaposed with photos and statistics of the 11 million orphaned African children, our obsession with Time seems puny, superficial and inconsequential.
Jean Isaacs’ half of the evening began with an 8-minute mini-documentary (by Ané & Gina Vecchione) about Myers’ visit to Kenya, how it inspired Isaacs to create a dance piece, and how it falls perfectly in line with her concern for “humanity in all its messiness.” She was determined, she said, to make this “a celebration of the human spirit.” And it most certainly is.
The dancers (one of whom, the outstanding Victor Alonso, also performed with the Patricia Rincon company) communicated all the hurt, history, joy and pain of Africans and African Americans. The onstage addition of the 60-voice Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir added a depth and intensity that is hard to describe. The rich, lush sound of the multicultural chorus (under the direction of Ken Anderson), singing the songs of slavery, faith and hope, heightened and dignified the evening and sent us all home with a song in our hearts and a sliver of optimism despite the dire situation of the children and the continent. The photographs were heartbreaking, the poverty palpable. But what big, bright eyes these kids had, even the sickest of them. These children did not seem to be in despair; they were living their lives to the best of their abilities. And that was a potent message. Taken all together, the dance, the music (even gut-wrenching, beautifully rendered songs like “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”) elevated and celebrated the human spirit.
GYPSY IN MY SOUL
My octogenarian mother has been doing international folk dance for more than 60 years. As she puts it, “Folk dancing is something you never forget how to do — just like riding a bike or f***ing” (she says the word without compunction…. but this is a family website).
So, for her 86th birthday, I knew she’d enjoy “Gypsy Spirit: Journey of the Roma,” featuring the Budapest Dance Ensemble and the Kálmán Balogh Gypsy Cimbalom Band. I actually didn’t know too much about the history of the Roma and was surprised to learn that the migration of the multicultural Romani people began in India in the 11th century; they eventually made their way to Europe through Hungary, picking up customs along the way. In Europe, mistaken for Egyptians, they were called “Gypsies,” and they became known for their passion and exotic energy.
Both were amply displayed in this touring production, which featured more music than dance and more Hungarians than actual Roma. But the music was spectacular: the violinists and clarinetist were terrific, as was musical director/composer/arranger Balogh, one of the world’s best known players of that beautiful, sensuous/wood, dulcimer-like cimbalom.
The choreography, while vibrant and exciting, became repetitive; the dance vocabulary seemed limited, with an excess of showy, body-thumping, leg-swinging competitive machismo among the men, while the rapid female steps had little flash. This seems to be typical in ethnic/folk dance from many countries (Irish, Russian, etc.); the men get all the good moves, the women serve as decoration. Even in the animal kingdom, it’s the males who get the ostentatious display. But we all know where the real flamboyance is!!
The projected B&W slides of the gypsy camps and wagons were fascinating, but the computer-generated animations were tedious (does EVERY dance performance now require electronic projections?)
The Poway Center for the Performing Arts is such a lovely venue. 807 seats, and I’m told that, because of the way it’s configured, even if only 300 of them are occupied, the house looks full. I wish more companies would make use of this space, especially in these belt-tightening times, when the producing Poway Foundation has cut back on its annual number of presentations/performances and there are so many theater groups looking for space. The Center is interested in partnering or straight rentals (858-679-4261).
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Macbeth” — just as dark, spooky, intense and supernatural as you’d expect from Sledgehammer; it doesn’t disappoint. At St. Cecilia’s through March 21
“Fully Committed” — a spectacular tour de force by David McBean; he’s a knockout: 40 characters, accents, dialects, humor, pathos — and a whole lot more! At Cygnet Theatre, EXTENDED through March 7
Watch out! March is coming in like a lion — with wind, rain and a volcanic Primary Election. Vote like your life depended on it — It does!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.