By Pat Launer
Everything old is new again,
And the messages are hefty:
From the battleground of Virginia Woolf
To 1984 and Lefty.
THE SHOW: Edward Albee’s 1962 masterwork still has the power to shock. And even moreso in the acclaimed production that rocked New York and London — and garnered, for its stars, a Tony Award (Bill Irwin) and the London Evening Standard and Critics Circle Awards (Kathleen Turner). The 1966 movie, directed by Mike Nichols, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (her best performance ever), was a knockout.
THE BACKSTORY: When it premiered, the scorching drama won six Tony Awards and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and it was a frontrunner for the Pulitzer Prize. But, it being the early ‘60s, the language was so rough and the sexual themes so controversial that the Pulitzer committee ‘s selection was overruled by the award’s advisory board, the trustees of Columbia University . Two members of the committee resigned in protest. Now, for this new production (NY, 2005), the language has been updated, which is to say, it’s even more blistering than before. Apparently, shock value is still important. Albee revised the piece in 2004. So now, instead of Martha shrieking out, “Screw you!” just as their hapless young guests enter George and Martha’s humble academic abode at 2am, she howls a more forceful “Fuck you!” Another surprising change is the omission of a seminal scene between George and Honey (perhaps it was just omitted on the night I was there??), in which she drunkenly reveals why she hasn’t had any more pregnancies, hysterical or otherwise.
Just for the record, here’s a quote from Albee on how he came up with the title, on a night he saw graffiti scrawled in a bar:
“I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf . . . Who’s afraid of living life without false illusions? And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.”
THE STORY: And so, his play is set on a New England university campus. And the protagonists/antagonists are quite intellectual. And brutal. And brutally funny. Martha and George, a bitter, hard-drinking, middle-aged couple, invite a new professor and his wife to their house after a party . Martha is the daughter of the president of the university where George is a history professor (a “flop,” according to Martha, because he never became the chair of the Department so he could be groomed to take over her father’s legacy).Hunky, strapping, 28 year-old Nick is a biology professor, and Honey is his mousy, brandy -abusing, often-upchucking wife. Once they arrive, Martha and George continue drinking and engage in a merciless round of dangerous games, including ‘Get the Guest’ and ‘Hump the Hostess.’ They trade vicious verbal, and sometimes physical, abuses in front of Nick and Honey, who are fascinated, titillated, disgusted and embarrassed; they stay even though the abuse turns pointedly their way. They seem to be a younger version of George and Martha. They, too, are likely to wind up inebriated, beaten down and deeply disillusioned. Their relationship is also built on fantasy, illusion and deception. In the evening’s alcoholic haze, all secrets are revealed, and it’s not completely clear what the morning mop-up will bring. The themes of loss and abandonment, which run through much of Albee’s work, are palpable here.
THE PLAYERS /THE PRODUCTION: Bill Irwin, that mega-talented New Vaudevillian, he of the Gumby-body (I don’t think I’ll ever forget his brilliance in Fool Moon), has twisted himself into a sagging S-shape to inhabit the slump-shouldered, henpecked George. But in a soft-spoken, understated way, he gradually reveals that he’s got fangs as sharp as Martha’s, that he can be just as ruthless and diabolical. Their mutually warped conception of love peeks through the darkness of this stultifying night. The dialogue is rendered in a brilliantly natural and unaffected manner; there’s no grandstanding, no ostentatious acting displays . But it’s Turner’s show, all the way. She is a whirlwind force, the whiskey voiced “Earth Mother,” a full-bodied harridan. She runs ferociously through the entire emotional palette, shading the garish colors as she goes. Gorgeous performance, though her wardrobe (Jane Greenwood) is far from flattering. In the second scene, when she should make a rather sexually provocative re-entrance, she looks as frumpy as she did in scene one, with print palazzo pants that do her no favors. Turner isn’t the ingénue she was when she made her film debut in “body Heat,” but still has the sensuous goods, though they’re certainly not physically highlighted here. As Nick, David Furr has just the right Aryan god looks, and he’s potent in his portrayal (he played the role on Broadway, but not in the original production). Kathleen Early (who has not yet performed on Broadway) at first seems to be channeling the whiney, mush-mouthed Sandy Dennis of the film. But then, she settles into the role and puts her own stamp on it; as she gets drunker, she becomes more interesting and worthy of note. I still miss her confessional scene. And I still haven’t seen a Honey as terrific and riveting as Carla Harting, who appeared in the 2001 production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
Back in L.A. , John Lee Beatty’s set is an aptly worn, woody, book-filled, unkempt/ignored domicile for these oft-intoxicated intellectuals. Director Anthony Page, former artistic director at London’s Royal Court Theatre, underscores the humor (Martha’s stashing clothes under the sofa-pillows before the guests arrive) and makes some scenes really harrowing (this is the most frighteningly violent production I’ve seen; G&M really go at each other). This splendid production is unequivocally worth the drive north. The play never fails to deliver; it’s still completely capable of taking your breath away.
THE LOCATION: the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. , through March 18
WAR IS PEACE
THE SHOW: 1984 , the memorable, political novel by George Orwell, newly adapted by Michael Gene Sullivan, and presented by the experimental, L.A.-based Actors’ Gang, directed by its founder (in 1981), Academy Award-winning actor/writer/producer/director and political activist Tim Robbins. Bravely hosted by the Poway Center for the Performing Arts, the show attracted an active, attentive and enthusiastic sellout crowd. Too bad it was only here for one night
THE BACKSTORY: When journalist/novelist/essaying George Orwell (pen name of Indian-born Brit Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1950) wrote his two seminal works, “Animal Farm” and “1984,” both critical of fascism , communism and totalitarianism , he was near the end of his life. Completed in 1948, 1984 (the title perhaps just a numerical transposition, perhaps something more sinister) was originally called “ The Last Man in Europe .” The book has left a lasting legacy, and its relevance to today is chilling. Big Brother is indeed watching, and there is more Doublespeak and Doublethink in our lives than ever before. Orwell defined Doublethink as being able to “hold two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accept both of them.” Kind of like, the day after this performance, when Dick Cheney called Britain ’s announced withdrawal of troops “ an affirmation that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well,” at the same time he was staunchly supporting the “surge” of the American presence in the war-torn country. Setting the entire play in the interrogation room smacked strongly of Guantánamo, and the ruthless tortures called up images of Abu Graib . Viewed as revolutionary and politically dangerous, the book has been banned by libraries in many totalitarian countries, though it’s been translated into 62 languages. Those shiver-inducing slogans seem particularly relevant now: War is Peace; Ignorance is Strength.
THE STORY: Among the most famous and most-cited dystopias in literature (the merry dystopic triumvirate includes Aldous Huxley ‘s “ Brave New World ,” and Ray Bradbury ‘s “ Fahrenheit 451 ”), 1984 tells the story of Winston Smith and his degradation by the autocratic state in which he lives. He seems to stand alone against the corrupt reality of his world. He ekes out a squalid existence in the ruins of London . He works in the Ministry of Truth, where he spends his days doctoring the historical record, in order to comply with The Party’s version of the past, the present, the future and the truth. Discontented and disillusioned, he keeps a journal of his negative thoughts and opinions. In the play, the diary provides most of the narrative; it’s read and enacted by Winston’s tightassed guards and tormentors, under the ever-watchful eye of a disembodied head that appears through a small, high window and is heard as a voiceover, demanding details, names, facts, and ordering torture when what’s requested isn’t sufficiently forthcoming. The obvious intention is to ‘break’ Winston (the final humiliation is “Room 101,” his personal hell, every person’s individual conception of the worst torture imaginable), so that he’ll betray his secret beloved, Julia, and profess undying love for Big Brother. Only then will he be killed.
THE PLAYERS/PRODUCTION : The stark setting (designed by Richard Hoover and Sibyl Wickersheimer ), is a prison cell of sorts, lit by angular shafts of shadowy light (design by Bosco Flanagan) with a sunken torture area center stage. The costumes (Allison Leach) are ragged, torn standard-issue stuff for the prisoner and uniform-like navy and white for his interrogators, Party Members 1-4, who do a terrific job of portraying a variety of characters, including Winston and his lover. Brian Hinkley is heartbreaking as Winston, the one shard of sanity in this shattered, funhouse-mirror of a world. Excellent ensemble, tautly directed. Kudos to Robbins and his Gang, who continue (through his writings, including the recent Embedded and Exonerated) to speak out, using theater as their political platform.
MORE PERTINENT POLITICS
It was an undergraduate production at UCSD, which meant no reviews, but Waiting for Lefty still packed its punch. Written in 1935, the one-act was the first produced play by Clifford Odets, a member of the prestigious Group Theatre, founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg. The play is a series of angry or heart-rending vignettes enacted by a group of union cab drivers to illustrate their debate of the merits of a labor strike. The topicality, 60 years later, is unnerving. “If Big Business went sentimental over human life, there’d be no Big Business,” one character says. “Doctors don’t run medicine in this country,” says another, as a poor, critically ill patient is booted out in favor of a wealthy, well-connected one. In view of the local supermarket strike debacle, which might be nearing a reprise, and a story on NPR the other day about L.A. hospitals literally dumping their indigent patients on the streets of skid row, the arguments in the play are particularly potent and resonant. Odets is having something of a resurgence of late; his work was considered dusty and dated for a time, but Awake and Sing was recently revived on Broadway and other productions are springing up everywhere. This production, directed by UCSD MFA alum and theater faculty member Cynthia Stokes, is muscular and energetic; I wish I could say more. Just see it, for all the right historical and dramatic reasons. Through March 3 only, in 157 Galbraith Hall.
Also on campus this week… the memorial for Chris Parry, beloved UCSD teacher/lighting designer and Tony Award-winner. The event was co-hosted by those “boys from Brooklyn ,” provost Steven Adler and playwright Allan Havis, both faculty in the Theatre Dept. The tone was loving , heartfelt, remorseful and humorous. Lots of amusing anecdotes were told, including by Chris’ ex-wife. The pictures of his lighting designs were stunning; the photo montages were endearing and heartbreaking. Since Chris won his Tony for The Who’s Tommy, the Red Dirt Band flew in from their current gig on Broadway in Jersey Boys, to perform a medley from Tommy, with Des McAnuff and Steve Gouveia on vocals. Though the timing was unfortunate (the 2-hour event began 90-minutes before Oscar-launch), there was an impressive turnout. Most striking was, at the end, when one of Chris’ students came up to speak, inviting all his fellow students and alumni, those who had been most directly and closely influenced by Chris, to come up onstage. About 2/3 of the mostly-full Mandell Weiss Forum trooped onto the stage. Even six weeks after the tragedy, they were still obviously haunted and profoundly affected by this giant loss to the theater community, local and international.
NEWS AND VIEWS…
…LUIS LIVES !. .. Check out “The Legacy of Luis Valdez, Father of Chicano Theater,” the documentary that I wrote and co-produced with City TV’s Rick Bollinger, at the San Diego Latino Film Festival. The film spends time with the mega-talented Valdez family, as well as others Luis has touched and influenced, from Edward James Olmos to locals Sam Woodhouse, Jorge Huerta, Bill Virchis and Todd Salovey. Luis recently wrote me: “With all humility, our whole family truly loves the portrait of us that you have captured on film. It truly is a blessing to be so honored.” The 20-minute doc screens on March 10 at 3:30pm, at the Ultra-Star Cinemas (screen #6), Hazard Center .
.. CREDIT FOR CRAIG… for being the Father of San Diego Theatre. You still have time to add your voice to the Old Globe’s nomination of Craig Noel for the NEA’s 2007 National Medal of Arts. Just go to this website to fill out the online form: http://apps.nea.gov/Medals/NominationForm.aspx . Then send your anecdote or supportive message, about Craig’s influence on your life and/or work, to Becky Biegelsen by March 9 ( email@example.com ). If you need background info on Craig, see his bio at http://www.theoldglobe.org/people/director_bios.html#craig. Craig made a conscious decision, long ago, to stay in San Diego , not to venture out to New York , Hollywood or anywhere else. He wanted to make his mark here. And he surely has. Now we can all help put him on the national map, where he belongs.
… SAKS AND THE SINGLE GIRL… KPBS Celebrates COAST TO COAST FASHION with Saks Fifth Avenue, an exclusive evening of cocktails (four bars), cuisine (from 26 local chefs), and new styles in a store-wide fashion show. The really fun part is that some of those ‘models’ will be KPBS personalities, including yours truly ( gimme that bling !). Other familiar KPBS faces and voices who will strut Saks’ sartorial stuff include Kathi Diamant, Dwane Brown, John Decker, Tom Fudge, Amy Isackson , Mike Marcotte and Amita Sharma. Music will be provided by Halloran from FM 94.9, and the store will remain open for event guests only. Thursday, March 15, 7-10pm. $40 general admission; proceeds benefit KPBS. 619-594-6787kpbs.org/celebrates
…REP REAPS REWARDS… The San Diego Repertory Theatre won big at the 17th Annual Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Theatre Awards. Their production of Intimate Apparel snagged six awards, including Best Costumes (Jennifer Brawn Gittings ), Lighting (Jennifer Setlow), Set Design (Fred Kinney), Supporting Female (Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson), Supporting Male (Michael Sheppard) and Producer (Tom Parrish, SD Rep). The four honors for ‘ da Kink in My Hair included Best Director (Marion J. Caffey ), Ensemble Cast (which included local Lisa H. Payton), Sound (M. Scott Grabau), and Playwright (trey anthony ). Congrats to all!
…ANOTHER RUN OF ‘RENNY’ … Award-winning playwright Janet S. Tiger will discuss her play, Renny’s Story, an inspiring, true tale of Holocaust survival, on March 18 at 10am at Ohr Shalom Synagogue. Renny Grynblatt Kurshenbaum disguised herself as a Catholic farmgirl , fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and escaped a death camp. But what happened to her young son? The play seeks to solve the 60 year-old mystery. Kimberly Kaplan, star of the one-woman show, will present an excerpt. The complete drama, which sold out every performance last year, will be presented on April 8 and 21st at Ohr Shalom, (Third and Laurel ). No charge for the lecture.rennysstory.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
RETURN OF THE READING
…Cygnet Theatre and San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre are back with another in their fabulous series of August Wilson readings. Floyd Gaffney directs Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the 1988 play set in 1911, about a man and a people who’ve “lost their song.” Get your tickets soon; these stellar events keep selling out. March 5, 6 and 13. http://www.cygnettheatre.com/aw.php
… Carlsbad Playreaders presents Jason Miller’s Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning drama, That Championship Season, in which a basketball team holds its annual reunion, recalling the state championship they won 20 years before. Humor, cynicism and compassion are awash in booze, bitterness, bigotry and disappointment. Directed by Tom Reusing, who also performs. The coach is played by Dave Kurner, the former-actor father of NVA co-founder Kristianne Kurner. 7:30pm on Monday, March 12, at the Carlsbad City Library.
AND ON THE CAMPUSES… Deep into the semester/quarter, theater students are hard at it all over town. Here’s a smattering of academic doings:
…USD opens Marat/Sade, Peter Weiss’ brutal exploration of human suffering and revolution, written in 1963, set in the Charendon Asylum in 1808, just after the French Revolution. Directed by Sabin Epstein and Robert Barry Fleming. March 14-23 in the Studio Theatre. For mature audiences . www.globemfa.org .
.. Both SDSU and Southwestern College are presenting Electricidad , a provocative adaptation of Sophocles’ Electra, set in the barrio of East L.A., written by MacArthur ‘genius’ award-winner Luis Alfaro.. SDSU March 9-18, in the Experimental Theatre. www.theatre.sdsu.edu . Southwestern: March 15-25 in Mayan Hall; swccd.edu/eventscalendar
…The Grossmont College Theatre Arts Dept is presenting David Auburn’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Proof, about the link between genius and madness. March 8-17, Mayan Hall; www.grossmont.edu/theatrebrochur
… Palomar College Performing Arts is staging a rare musical from “the man who owned Broadway.” The Tavern (A Melodrama) by George M. Cohan , is a burlesque mystery, and director Pat Larmer has added a Vaudeville Variety Show. March 2-11 in the Howard Brubech Theatre, San Marcos ; www.palomarperforms.com
.. Mira Costa College opens A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum this weekend, the musical that espouses the dramatic philosophy, “Tragedy tomorrow, Comedy tonight!” Farcical fun ripped from Plautus, the Roman playwright who penned vaudevillian laugh-fests 2000 years ago. March 2-11 in the Mira Costa Theatre, Oceanside . http://www.miracosta.edu/OfficeOfThePresident/PIO/Events/index.htm#theatre
…The San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts is featuring what I think may be the San Diego premiere of Purlie , the 1970 Broadway musical satire of race relations , focused on a self-taught preacher who returns to his Jim Crow Georgia home to win a small victory for freedom. The original, based on the Ossie Davis play, Purlie Victorious, starred Melba Moore, Cleavon Little and Linda Hopkins. March 22-31, in the Florence Johnson Grand Theatre; www.scpa.sandi.net
…The Coronado School of the Arts wraps up its production of Thornton Wilder’s wildly imaginative 1942 romp, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Skin of Our Teeth, the same weekend Cygnet opens its production of Wilder’s The Matchmaker. Through the archetypal Antrobus family, Skin shows how history repeats itself… over thousands of years; from the Ice Age to the 20th century, nothing ever changes. Same old natural disasters, same old humans who never learn from their mistakes, though they still manage to survive by their wits and resilience. March 2-3 in the school’s glamorous new theater. And speaking of the new theater, CoSA and Coronado High School are hosting a Community Open House to introduce their new Performing Arts Center. Saturday, March 3, 12-5pm. Tours , performances and refreshments, with the Skin of Our Teeth performance to follow at 7pm. The daytime event is free. http://www.cosa.coronado.k12.ca.us/calendar.html#theatre
.. And in the realm of talented student performers, check out the San Diego English-Speaking Union ’s Annual Shakespeare Competition. Local high schoolers compete with a monologue and a sonnet. From 1-3:30, I’ll be judging, as will Claudio Raygoza. The moderator is Mike Auer, executive director of the Student Shakespeare Festival. The finalists perform from 4:15-6pm, and the winner goes to the national competition in New York . Sunday, March 4 in UCSD’s Mandeville Auditorium. Admission is free.
… Speaking of the San Diego Shakespeare Society, they’re about to sponsor the showing of a new (2006) film version of As You Like It, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Kevin Kline. Saturday, March 17, 10:15am-12:30pm, in the Mission Valley Library; free admission, limited seating. Opening remarks by KPBS film critic Beth Accomando . A Q&A will follow the film. And, still on the subject of Shakespeare, on Saturday, March 31, the San Diego Ballet presents “Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” directed and choreographed by Javier Velasco. Performances are at 2:30 and 8pm in UCSD’s Mandeville Auditorium. 619-294-7311.
..Back at SDSU, Leslie Seiters , a new faculty member in the Dance Division of the School of Music and Dance, will showcase her choreography in two new pieces: Hypothetically She Would Find Her Here and Incidental Fear of Numbers, which focuses on our culture’s preoccupation with excess. Seiters , a dancer, choreographer, director, visual artist and teacher who founded Leslie Seiters ’ Little Known Dance Theater, will perform in both pieces, demonstrating how she combines visual and movement arts through live performance. March 9 & 10 in the Studio Theatre, ENS-200, on the SDSU campus. 619-594-1696
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – the stellar New York/London production, featuring killer performances by Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin
The Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. , through March 18
Three Sisters – beautifully detailed, well acted production that mines the humor underneath the pathos
New Village Arts at Carlsbad Jazzercise, running in repertory with The Three Sisters, through March 18
Crimes of the Heart – a whole lotta humor and heart, outstandingly directed and performed
New Village Arts at Carlsbad Jazzercise, running in repertory with The Three Sisters, through March 18
The Four of Us – a smart, clever world premiere, extremely well presented
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through March 11
Glengarry Glen Ross – perfect Mamet pacing by a crackerjack ensemble
6th @ Penn Theatre, EXTENDED through March 25
The Secret Garden – the singing trumps everything else; a vocally magical cast
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through March 11
Fiddler on the Roof – wonderful nostalgia, wonderfully sung
At the Welk Theatre, through April 1
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
March forth… into a theater!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.