By Pat Launer
Political relevance, German and Greek,
It doesn’t matter what language you speak:
‘ Biedermann ’ and ‘ Ajax ’ could be living today
Plus, the ‘Beautiful’ boys have a lot to say,
And we hear what a Death Row inmate thinks
Indicting the system, thanks to Lynx.
Watch the Young Playwrights hone their craft:
We clucked and clapped and sighed and laughed.
THE SHOW: Biedermann and the Firebugs, a darkly comic satire by Max Frisch (1911-1991)
THE BACKSTORY: Swiss novelist/playwright Max Frisch was influenced stylistically (though not politically) by his 1947 meeting with Bertolt Brecht, and thematically by his obsession with post-war guilt and the origins of Nazism. Biedermann , first written as a radio play (1953), then revised for television and stage (1958), extended his ongoing fascination with existential questions of identity, morality and culpability.
THE STORY, THE PLAYERS: In a time of rampant fear and paranoia, a town is being victimized by arsonists. Wealthy but sleazy hair tonic mogul Gottlieb Biedermann (pitch-perfect Tim Irving), his fussy, materialistic wife (amusingly overanxious Laura Bozanich) and their muddled maid (funny Lisel Gorell-Getz) live in fear. Ignoring the (silly and not very well synchronized) Chorus of firefighters (Kim Strassburger , Jerry Lee and Joshua Harrell – all much better in other roles), Biedermann allows a burly stranger(hilariously doltish, clownish Daren Scott) to talk his way into the house, invite in his smarmy friend (deliciously oily Joshua Everett Johnson) and pack the attic with explosives. [An inspired reunion of those George-and-Lenny ‘Mice and Men’ comrades]. Biedermann believes all pyromaniacs should be hanged, but when they set up shop in his own house, he overlooks the facts whacking him in the face and placates the intruders, hoping to cultivate their friendship and prove his civility and humanity. He refuses to see them for what they are and, through ignorance and inaction, contributes to his own demise. He even supplies the final, incendiary match.
This madcap tragicomedy of self-deception is subtitled ‘A Morality Play Without a Moral,’ and one might say, without morals. It’s just the ticket for our own perilous times, a wacky but potent, argument against personal and political complacency.
THE PRODUCTION: In adapting the play, from the translation by Michael Bullock, Tim Irving and Cygnet artistic director Sean Murray wisely deleted the addled “afterpiece,” keeping the tone tight, fast-moving and generally quite amusing. Using a broad comic style, Murray creates caricatures more than characters, but the parable and its disturbing intimations come through loud and clear (especially loud, in the case of the ineffectual Chorus). The set (designed by Murray ), with its off-kilter house and mini-mountain of (smoking) community rooftops, underscores the madcap tone. The sound (M. Scott Grabau) and lighting (Eric Lotze) highlight the inanity and insanity. The costumes (Shulamit Nelson) and makeup are delightfully droll, from the Heidi-like getup on Gorell-Getz to the shabby (former waiter) tails on Johnson to Bozanich’s ever-changing high-end outfits and equally high hair.
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, through February 12.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
AJAX , THE FOAMING WARRIOR…
THE SHOW: Sophocles’ Ajax , perhaps the playwright’s earliest surviving play, is a story of war, heroes, politics and paradoxes, as relevant today as when it was first produced ca.440 B.C.
THE STORY: After the death of Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Trojan War, Agamemnon promises to bestow his armor on the bravest of the Greeks. Judges are appointed to decide, and according to the version of Ajax , widely considered to be the second greatest warrior, Odysseus (who came up with the Trojan Horse idea) somehow unjustly influences the vote. Enraged, Ajax sets out to kill the Greek leaders; he goes mad (thanks to the goddess Athena) and slaughters a herd of animals instead. When he realizes what he’s done, he falls on his own sword, to die with honor.
The play is extraordinary in several ways: it makes a hero out of a suicide, and brings an Olympian god (Athena) onstage. It juxtaposes bravery and hubris, self-aggrandizement and loss of self-esteem. It asks what makes a hero. Is it the warrior or the manipulator (i.e., the politician)? It’s easy to be swept up in the madness of war. All the characters wish awful things on their enemies, while at the same time, respectfully praying for the gods to smile on them and their allies. In ancient Greece , the heroic code of behavior went something like this: ‘Do well to your friends; Do ill to your neighbors.’ So, does anything go , and is all fair in war? Does an eye-for-an-eye mentality justify brutality and blind vengeance?
The play holds considerable resonance for today: from barbaric torture to fixed elections, from the machinations of politicians to how we treat our war-ravaged veterans. What is the place – or result — of pride, humiliation, revenge? And ultimately, how do we define a war ‘hero’ – is it the soldier or the politician? Must the warrior die for honor? Can the politician employ statesmanship and compromise without abusing power and manipulating outcomes? As in ancient times, the jury is still out.
Marianne McDonald’s translation is robust and lyrical, lucid and comprehensible. It shows the awful ramifications of military madness and blood lust, and the need for an honest sense of honor – and shame. It places the emphasis on adaptability and compromise, pity, compassion and forgiveness. And as for our heroes? it’s not an either/or proposition. We need both the warrior and the politician. And if they play fair, exhibit honor and conscience, treat other humans humanely and take responsibility for their acts, we should give them their just rewards.
THE PLAYERS, THE PRODUCTION: The production is spartan (no pun intended) but provocative and compelling, though the cast is variable, with several noteworthy performances. At the center, Laurence Brown is a force of nature as the mad, untamed Ajax . He mines the character for all his layers of emotion. His anger and anguish are juxtaposed with the calm, controlled (and perhaps controlling) figure of Odysseus, powerfully and subtly portrayed by Max Macke , who keeps getting better with every performance. Robust work is also displayed by Brandon Walker as Ajax ’s grieving brother, Teucer (though he shouldn’t let his emotions get in the way of his clarity of speech); and Patricia Elmore Costa (making a welcome return to the stage) as Menelaus and Fred Harlow as Agamemnon. Morgan Trant is heartbreaking as Tecmessa , the distraught and rejected wife of Ajax . Director Forrest Aylsworth and his creative team (projection designer Paul Savage, lighting designer Elvira Perez, set designer Amanda Stephens, costumer Jeannie Galioto ) have come up with inventive ways to deal with the goddess and gore of the play. The projections show us all that needs to be seen (the eyes of Athena and the moving silhouette of Ajax ’s son are particularly effective). Some of the performers need stronger vocal power and articulatory clarity. But in this story, and this translation, the messages come through loud and clear.
THE LOCATION: 6th @ Penn Theatre, through February 5.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet . We could all use a little reminder about the price of war and vengeance and unchecked ruthlessness.
BOYS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN
THE SHOW: Beautiful Thing, by Liverpudlian Jonathan Harvey, is another tale of ‘the love that dare not speak its name.’
THE SCOOP: There seems to be a limitless supply of coming-out stories, or tales of hidden gay love. And now that the movies are getting into the act, too (cf. “ Brokeback Mountain ”), there’s really gonna be no end.
THE STORY: Well, it’s far from the wilds of Wyoming . The play is set in Thamesmead , a working-class community of row-houses (projects?) in southeast London . It’s 1993, and smart-but-nerdy Jamie cuts school when it comes to sports-time. His neighbor Leah has already been expelled; his other neighbor, Ste (short for Steve), attends classes regularly and also plays soccer, but takes refuge in Jamie’s house whenever possible, to avoid his abusive father and brother. Jamie’s tough-but-tender, upwardly mobile mother, Sandra, welcomes Jamie in, even when her slacker/hippie boyfriend, Tony, is in residence. Turns out that both Leah and Jamie are interested in Ste, who gradually comes to realize how he feels about Jamie, as they tentatively explore a relationship, and each other.
The characters are fascinating, the dialogue is spicily regional, the relationships are intriguing, the performances are terrific. It’s the play that’s the weak link. Unmotivated details and untied threads abound. But that didn’t stop the 1993 love story from becoming a 1996 film.
THE PLAYERS: Director Rosina Reynolds has assembled an outstanding cast, and she gives them delicious stage business. Matt Barrs is thoroughly likable and appealing as Jamie, struggling with his emotions and identity. As Ste, Joseph Panwitz exhibits a credible macho exterior to mask his sensitivity and pain. Angry Leah – Rachael Van Wormer, in a knockout performance – also looking like a knockout (with spiky black and pink hair and wild outfits) — is obsessed with Mama Cass, escaping into the dead singer’s past in some twisted effort to refashion her own. The drug scene is pretty ridiculous, but she plays it brilliantly. Go-with-the-flow Tony is a fairly extraneous, unnecessary character, but John DeCarlo makes him a nice, supportive guy, not much of a go-getter, someone who doesn’t bring all that much to the mix – except unconditional acceptance, which is a rare commodity in this hardscrabble neighborhood. The most fascinating, multi-faceted character is Sandra, and Jillian Frost nails her with a warm, funny, angular, sexy, irresistible performance. Tough love, but she’s one helluva mom.
THE PRODUCTION: David Weiner’s set features undifferentiated attached brick apartments. One wilted hanging plant bears testimony to Sandra’s first place prize in the Barman’s contest. Jeff Miller did a fine job with the fight, and Jeff Fightmaster does a fine job with the lights. Shulamit Nelson’s costumes are a hoot; Frost and Van Wormer’s get-ups are especially yummy. Though the story is nothing new, it’s tenderly and sensitively (but not sentimentally) told, and there’s plenty of humor. You can also amuse yourself acquiring new expressions (like ‘bubble and squeak’ or ‘spotted dick’ — both yucky-sounding foods!). Come for the weird foodstuffs; stay for the killer performances.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, through February 5.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
SERVING UP A SLICE OF (IN )JUSTICE
THE SHOW: The Exonerated, by husband-wife team Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (both appeared in the indie film “At the End of the Day”)
THE SCOOP/THE STORY: Based on 40 interviews the couple conducted with wrongfully convicted Death Row inmates, this piece ran for 18 months Off Broadway (as a reading, with rotating celebrity casts) and was made into a movie in 2005. The stories of one woman and five men are presented as interwoven monologues, and they’re heart-breaking, gut-wrenching tales of the miscarriage of justice, of bigots and racists, liars and political opportunists, who helped to convict these prisoners and to keep them incarcerated for years, sometimes decades, before some extraordinary circumstance (assiduous students or attorneys or journalists) helped to get them released, in one case just hours before a scheduled electrocution.
THE PLAYERS: Once again, Lynx founder/artistic director Al Germani has assembled a spectacular cast, some of whom are becoming stapes at his fledgling theater. He’s found his niche, with dark, daring, disturbing theater (two Patté-winning ensemble pieces preceded this one: Jesus Hopped the A Train and In Arabia We’d All Be Kings).
Each actor is forced to dig way down, to plumb psychological depths that result in an emotional crisis for almost every character (well, everyone except the three monstrous representatives of the arresting officers, prosecutors, glib witnesses, etc. – played with chilling Southern insouciance by Jonathan Sachs, Andrew Kennedy and Bill Kehayias ). It’s great to see Ed Hofmeister back on the boards – as one of the title characters – the others are Darrell Allbrighton , Linda Libby, David B. Phillips, Walter Ritter and Lloyd Roberson II — each of whom tells a horrific story, not only of how they were framed and treated, but how, after they fell in that deep, dark well, they scratched and clawed their way out, trying to re-establish a life, and a sense of self, faith or redemption. They are magnificent, broken and noble, beaten down but indomitable. And well supported by the family members, played by Veronica Murphy, Julie Sachs and Che Lyons. Libby’s and Hofmeister’s stories are particularly ghastly (he told me he calls it “blood and guts work”); both actors just rip your heart out.
THE PRODUCTION: There’s a terrifying stillness to the production. Before the show begins, the characters sit in chairs, splayed across the floor, each immobile, limp and crumpled as a collapsed marionette. The light is dim; the pauses are frequent and deadly. The words are harsh – and healing. There’s an angle here, to be sure; the play serves as an indictment of the American legal system and its inherent fallibility, which makes for a powerful argument against capital punishment.
Just one (ancillary) question: Why does the theater itself have to be so dark (and potentially dangerous)? Germani prowls around with a flashlight; the rest of us stumble over the steps and risers and hope for the best. The actors may have to sit in semi-darkness, but why the audience? As one friend put it, the whole experience – finding the theater, getting in successfully and seeing the play – is somewhat like visiting a haunted house.
THE LOCATION: Lynx Performance Space in the Rose Canyon area, through February 9.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
NEW PLAYS, YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS
The 21st annual Plays by Young Writers ‘05 is an outstanding conflation of strong writing and powerful performances. I managed to see all but two plays (one reading, one full production) and I was extremely impressed. This year’s state competition winners seemed to be focused on entering adolescence and establishing identity, but their takes on the subject were widely diverse and wildly imaginative.
Consider the 12-minute reading, Joe, the Tomato, by 11 year-old Stephen Whiting, who attends High Tech Middle School in Point Loma. He wrote his first play last spring, in DeAnna Driscoll’s drama class. It concerns Joe (engaging Thomas Villegas) who’s 18 tomato years old and still hasn’t turned red. He takes the risk of hopping off the vine prematurely, trying to rush the process, with the help of his slightly older buddy, Mike Tomato (funny Rhys Green). But the red paint peels, and Joe learns a lesson about patience, timing and self-esteem. Two of the other readings, both by San Diegans, concern young people finding their way in a new town, new school, new environment: Idaho Lament, by 13 year-old Ben Kelly and Sara’s Volleyball Dreams, by Zoë Sanchez, age 12. Both are brief but intriguing, and well performed — by Olivia Espinosa, who effectively plays the mother in both pieces, Thomas Villegas, Justin Lang and (excellent as the new kids)Fred Harlow and Rhianna Basore .
The full productions are especially provocative and extremely well directed and performed. Matthew Bohrer , whom I considered one of the Faces to Watch in 2002, has blossomed into a top-drawer talent. He’s outstanding in Step into the Night, by Kit Steinkellner , 18 (now a junior at UCLA), directed by Glenn Paris. Bohrer’s totally natural, believable and unaffected as a highly literate young man bravely confronting cancer – and the prom. Heartfelt writing, wonderful performance. Though we’d hate to lose him, here’s hoping he gets into his first-choice college: Yale.
Fascinating that this angst-ridden adolescent, who finds asking out a girl as harrowing as facing death, was written by a female. And equally interesting that This Girl is a Bird, about a woman feeling trapped in a relationship, was created by a guy. So much for writing exclusively about what you know.
Ruff Yeager and Esther Emery justified the Outstanding Direction Pattés they just won. Both marvelously incorporated dance into their productions. Emery directed This Girl is a Bird, by Will Alden, 16, of Santa Monica . Robert Milz and Jennifer Sowden effectively played Man and Woman. Sowden , who’s choreographed other productions around town, moves like the wind, gracefully ‘flying’ around the stage, as the ‘bird’ whose wings are being clipped by a man who suffocates her with love and demands. Yeager directed A Man of His Word, by 18 year-old San Diegan Mariah MacCarthy , who was inspired by her “fixation with dancing girls.” The piece was first presented as a workshop at Skidmore College , which the playwright directed. Yeager brought in choreographer Mary Reich, who punctuated the action of this enigmatic, disturbing drama of sexual tension with sensual, suggestive dance (performed by Coco Campbell, Amanda Waal and Brian Schaefer). The story concerns an irresistible but icy woman (inscrutable Sara Plaisted ) and the man (hapless Jaysen Waller) who falls so hopelessly in love with her that he’ll do anything… absolutely anything, to woo her, and especially to make her smile. That includes paying a deadly visit to a former neighbor (avuncular, if sinister, Pat Moran). The story, and the stage pictures, are haunting.
Spanish Rhapsody concerns another new kid in a new class. This first play by 16 year-old La Jollan Emily Bookstein , who comes from a musical family, was created after the writer realized that “the Meaning of Life is simply a movie.” That ‘movie’ is acted out in a high school Spanish class, after Eric (intense Alec Voorhies ) reveals his obsession with completing a piece of music left unfinished by his deceased father. Ignored by a ditsy teacher (humorously stilted Cherry Lorenzana ), he and his fellow students (adorably wacky and energetic Dominque Alerno , Remy Remigio and Michelle Rewoldt ) act out their lives, musically, filmically and with ultimate enlightenment. Refreshingly intelligent and inventive piece, excellently directed by Anne Tran.
The Playwrights Project sponsors the second oldest young people’s playwriting contest in the country. Isn’t this something you should get in on?
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through January 22.
ON FLUTE, ON POINT, ON TARGET
While I was on a Youth kick, I caught a morning performance of an abridged version of The Magic Flute, collaboration between San Diego City Ballet and Classics for Kids. The piece was created (and choreographed by Elizabeth Wistrich ) in 2001, but it was perfect for the 2006 year-long San Diego celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday. (Did you know that San Diego is staging the largest, multi-company, cross-medium celebration in North America ? Amazing!). Anyway, for each of the past eight years, City Ballet and Classics for Kids have collaborated on an educational production (actually this year, they presented two – “Adventures in Color” in November and The Magic Flute this month). During this run, there will be a total of eight shows (at the Birch North Park Theatre and the California Center for the Arts Escondido) that will reach 8000 elementary school children; there’s also one public performance. During the coming weekend, which is Mozart’s actual birthday, City Ballet will present three performances of The Magic Flute and the “Concerto for Flute and Harp.”
I was blown away by the high quality of this production. Every detail and aspect was spectacular. The 27-musicians-strong Classics for Kids Philharmonic, under the assured direction of Dana Mambourg (who introduced the piece to the 750 squirmy but incredibly attentive kids in the Birch Theatre), sounded lively, confident and robust, with especially excellent flute solos by Ann Erwin. The dancers were marvelous – particularly the leaps and entrechats of Timothy Coleman as Prince Tamino and the beautiful point-work of Mira Cook as Princess Pamina . Gerardo Gil exhibited delightful skill and humor as the cowardly bird-catcher, Papageno . The animals and helpers/guides, mostly on point, were graceful and lovely, sporting the imaginative costumes of David Heuvel and Tamlin Henahan , with fanciful masks by Clark Mires (long time no see at the theater!). The singers were outstanding: Lisa Archibeque , so vocally powerful as Yum-Yum in Lyric Opera’s recent Mikado, brings her glorious soprano to the role of Pamina . San Diego native Renee Calvo (a member of the San Diego Opera Chorus) does lovely work as the loving Papagena . Abdiel Gonzalez displays a rich, lush baritone as her beloved, Papageno . Tenor Randall Bills is fine as Tomino ; Barbara Tobler does a marvelous job with the vocal complexities and coloratura turns of the Queen of the Night.
The only complaint is that the condensed version made the (already tricky and inconsistent) plotline even murkier. Good thing the schools were given source material to review with the students in advance; it’s hard to believe they’d be able to follow the storyline cold. But overall, the production was very true to the source: magical, fanciful – and proof positive that love and music conquer all.
Through January 24, at the Birch North park Theatre and California Center for the Arts, Escondido .
If you missed it, check out the link to the full, uncut-for-TV show at www.patteproductions.com ), where there are also lots of GREAT pictures of the fabulous event.
And speaking of fabulous parts of it, I was blown away by Mike Buckley singing his acceptance, though I couldn’t figure out how he knew what he was winning for (I never leak that info). Well, mystery solved. His writer/wife, Patricia Morris Buckley, told me that he’d written three versions of the song – and just prayed that he wouldn’t mix up the names from the various shows! Well, he did a stellar job! (We haven’t heard him sing recently, but he did some great work in Lambs’ musicals).
COMING TO A THEATER NEAR YOU…..
Monday, January 23… there are FOUR enticing readings: at 6th@ Penn ( Chronos Theatre Group’s Dr. Faustus), North Coast Rep ( a new play, Leon’s Dictionary , by Stephanie Satie ) , the Lyceum (Black Ensemble Theatre’s Two Trains Running) and Diversionary (the Actors Alliance On Book/ OnStage reading of The Birthday Party).
It speaks well for the theater community that we have so many options… but it sure makes it hard to choose!!
..On January 24, This is Our Youth, the play that established the reputation of playwright/screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan (The Waverly Gallery, Lobby Hero) will be presented as a staged reading by Brandon Walker, Rachael Van Wormer and Tom Zohar, directed by Joey Landwehr . The piece follows three disillusioned young folks on the Upper West Side of New York at the dawn of the Reagan era. Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 7m, at Diversionary Theatre.
… Look out for Laura Bozanich, currently pretty funny in Biedermann … reprising her outrageous Eve’s Tail, two performances only: February 6 and 7, 8pm at Cygnet Theatre. Call 619-337-1526, www.cygnettheatre.com.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (Critic’s Picks);
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Plays By Young Writers ‘05 – this 21st installment is a particularly excellent one: outstanding writing, directing and acting. Check it out before it’s gone.
Through Jan. 22, On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage.
The Magic Flute – a collaboration between San Diego City Ballet and Classics for Kids. Gorgeous costumes, dancing, music and singing. Celebrate Mozart’s birthday in style; introduce him to a child!
Through January 24, at the Birch North Park Theatre and California Center for the Arts, Escondido .
Biedermann and the Firebugs – wacky satire, hilarious performances.
Cygnet Theatre, through February 12.
Ajax – 2500 year-old war-time play that’s still politically relevant
6th @ Penn Theatre, through February 5.
The Exonerated — dark stories,killer performances
Lynx Performance Space in the Rose Canyon area, through February 9.
Pete ‘n’ Keely – A funny, silly revue with knockout performances by Randall Dodge and Kristen Mengelkoch, two of our most delightful and talented musical theater comics.
At the Ramona Mainstage Theatre, through January 22.
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 , EXTENDED through March 30 – and maybe beyond.
To paraphrase the King, I have a dream…. That everyone went to the theater regularly!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.