By Pat Launer
Beauty’s not as simple as Black and White
Though Gibson Girl tries to get it right,
And Rehearsal for Murder has its mystery way
With a play within a play within a play.
THE SHOW: Gibson Girl , a world premiere by San Franciscan Kirsten Greenidge
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: Playwright Greenidge heard an NPR story about Charles Gibson, the early 20th century artist/illustrator who created the ideal of pulchritude, The Gibson Girl, or what he called “the American Girl to all the World.” Her iconic image appeared in magazines such as Harper’s and Collier’s: tiny waist, high-piled hair, elegant but insouciant, serenely self-confident, at once remote and accessible. It made Greenidge wonder what the image of beauty for African American women was, and she set out to write a play that tackled that thorny issue. The result had its first staged readings in 2002, at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival and the Mark Taper Forum’s New Works Festival in L.A. That’s when Moxie Theatre artistic director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg first saw the piece.
It’s definitely a work in progress. Greenidge tried to cram so many perspectives, styles and ideas into the play that it’s comes off as a mishmash, and at the talk-back following the opening, the cast and director admitted that after all their work on the piece, they still couldn’t figure out a good chunk of what the playwright was trying to do or say. And with this heavy-hitting cast and creative team, that’s saying a lot.
There are these sisters, one light-skinned and one dark, who’ve been raised as twins, but that gets called into question in the quick-jump series of non sequitur scenes that lead up to the final revelations (some of which remain unclear or enigmatic even at the end). The girls’ mother is a whack-job. She’ll do anything to get back the husband who has abandoned her, including putting spigots in the trees outside her house (to lure him back from Vermont with the smell of his beloved syrup), sitting herself and her girls in buckets of the sweet-stuff and consulting a psychic weekly for signs of his return and advice for insuring same. One of her daughters, the dark-skinned Win, is a straitlaced ‘good girl’ who just wants to be normal. Her sister Val is anything but. She holes up in the bathroom at school all day, surrounded by mountains of Modess sanitary napkins. She hears tap-shoes and smells oatmeal wherever she goes (insufficient payoff for the stage time this gets). The mother’s sister is an aggressive busybody who’s determined to scout the thrift shops for an alternate man for her sib, though it’d be a helluva lot better for everyone if she tried to get her some professional help. The guy she finds (and plays tug-of-war with over various Goodwill finds) is the brother of a woman pining, for 11 years, for the daughter who was kidnapped from her in a second that she turned her back at Disney World. Now she’s paranoid about everything. Meanwhile, she’s being spied on by a nutty voyeur, a warped student of the father of the ‘twins,’ a distinguished professor, a high-toned, supercilious academic who’s an arch hypocrite and racist, preaching about the ‘purity’ of deep blackness versus the light-skinned “shame that must be corrected and expunged,” and what exactly makes for a beautiful (or perhaps one should say booty-full?) black woman. There are no genuine family reunions at the end, and few people actually get what they’re looking for.
The play has funny, fantastical elements and dark dramatic ones, as well as sermonizing and philosophizing that’s all over the map. The issue of skin color is really fascinating, but it’s barely touched on, and it could/should be the crux of the play, if the notion of Beauty is what the playwright was after. Family features prominently; issues are raised but not resolved. Nobody comes off well here, not the men or the women. And the super-realistic stories (like the grieving mother’s) clash with the fantasy/whimsical elements. But Greenidge has an well-tuned ear and a singular voice; with trimming and shaping, she could really have something here, more in the vein of David Lindsay-Abaire (Kimberly Akimbo) than Suzan-Lori Parks (who also dealt with notions of Black beauty in the provocative Venus, produced by the Fritz Theater in 2000).
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: The performances are excellent, but the play is often exasperating and repetitive. Like the playwright, the director hasn’t quite settled on a uniform tone for the piece, though each segment works well on its own. There’s the wacky mother, Ruth (delightfully off-kilter Yolanda Franklin, playing it totally straight) and her daughter ( no -nonsense Che Lyons and loopy/funny Kaja Amado). The second set of sibs includes Ruth’s intrusive sister, Thelma (humorously imposing Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson) who can’t see any way to help her sister besides male distraction (but why is she looking for a substitute at the thrift stores? Is she, perhaps, searching for a man of Goodwill?). The third sibling set seems to come from another planet. There’s anguished, suspicious/mistrustful Nia (grounded, grief-stricken Monique Gaffney) and her brother, Ladell (nicely understated Mark Christopher Lawrence), who tolerates his sister’s anxiety and tries to help by finding forgotten items at the thrift store, one of which turns out to be a tattered old picture of the missing child. When he steps out of her home, it’s like visiting Oz every time he has to deal with Thompson’s Thelma, who seems to be stalking him. As the Jamaican seer Mademoiselle, a fairly stock character, June Christina Rogers nails the accent and the mystical demeanor. Then there are the other two men. JC, the deserter/ husband (starched, pontificating Anthony Drummond), is inventively seen only on a projection screen, pre-taped. And watching his every move, copying his pipe-wielding presence, is poor hapless Nelson (stammering, off-the-wall, head-thumping Laurence Brown), a janitor who misinterprets JC’s words and becomes a booty-obsessed voyeur who’s set his sights on vulnerable but stiff-spined Nia, who winds up whacking him over the head, which seems about right. His character is totally dispensable, and is played in a comical way that doesn’t match the other characters.
Scenic designer Jerry Sonnenberg has made maximal use of the Diversionary stage, creating four separate, credible playing spaces, the largest of which is the black-and-white tiled ladies room that Val inhabits, piled high with feminine hygiene products, a boombox and books. The costumes (Jennifer Eve Thorn), lighting (Jeff Fightmaster) and sound (Turner Sonnenberg) help to focus attention and define character. But the best of intentions and talent all around can’t elucidate a muddy, flawed script. Greenidge obviously has a great deal to say; in this piece, she’s got to say a little less, more clearly.
THE LOCATION: Moxie Theatre at Diversionary Theatre, through April 30.
THE PLAY’S A KILLER
THE SHOW: Rehearsal for Murder , adapted for the stage by D.D. Brooke, from the made-for-TV movie by Richard Levinson and William Link, who also wrote for “Columbo,” “Mannix” and “Murder, She Wrote”
THE STORY/THE CAST OF CHARACTERS: This is the kind of play Lamb’s Players Theatre handles so well it could do it with its eyes closed. These sorts of murder mysteries (like 2004’s Dial M for Murder) are usually period pieces, and typically require a fairly elaborate set and costumes. But this one’s a backstage murder, set in a theater, so it only required opening up the whole stage and making sure the back wall was freshly painted black. The setting is contemporary, so though the clothes are attractive, they’re not elaborate. This play is newly conceived, and at once over- and underdone. The casting, using Lamb’s ensemble members, employees and regulars, could be pre-ordained.
Deborah Gilmour Smyth is the diva/star of the show that was written by her ever-ruminating and intellectualizing fiancé, portrayed by Robert Smyth. David Heath is the suave leading man. Doren Elias is the sputtering director, KB Mercer the imperious producer, Colleen Kollar the attractive ingénue, Season Marshall the ditsy helpmate (in this case, the clueless assistant to the playwright and, being from the wilds of Maine, she doesn’t even know what breakfast danish is). Always fascinating, though not thoroughly uncommon on Lamb’s stages, there are three real-life couples up there: the Smyths, Elias and Mercer, and Marshall and her spouse, Patrick Duffy, who plays some bit roles. Also in a tiny but effective cameo is Jim Chovick, funny as a moving man on a precarious plank, bringing in the rolltop desk that will help to root out the murderer. That’s a moment of theater magic of a very real kind. A truck is backed up to the theater loading dock, the back doors are swung wide, and out rolls the desk.
Here’s the story setup. One year ago tonight, the leading lady, Monica Welles (Deborah Smyth) was murdered after the opening night performance of Alex’s (Robert Smyth) latest play. The two were about to be married the following day, a secret affair that had just been leaked that day, in the local newspaper gossip column. Devastated by her death, having just left her apartment moments before Monica’s body was discovered, Alex has retreated to a Maine cabin. Now, convinced that Monica’s demise was a murder and not a suicide, he invites back all the ‘suspects’ who were involved in the production, and asks them to read scenes from a new ‘play’ in which they all portray characters very like themselves, who display their murder motives and alibis. There are a few twists along the way, but despite being rather new, the play feels tired, and the first act strains credulity so much it barely makes you want to see whodunit after all. Everyone seems so incredibly dim-witted, and so caricaturish. The final turn of the screw is a bit clever, but my husband, for one, called the killer loooong before it was revealed. It’s all a play within a play within a play and as proof that it wasn’t quite engaging enough in its suspension of disbelief, some rude theatergoer decided to participate in the search, yelling out ‘He’s up here!’ at one supposedly taut dramatic moment. Perhaps the piece hadn’t made that much of a leap from TV after all.
THE PRODUCTION: There are no gripes with the performances, which are uniformly fine, given what the excellent ensemble has to work with, which is standard, stereotyped characters in a tight spot (not always as mysterious and mystifying as its self-congratulatory tone would suggest). Mike Sears does well adding the final soupçon of suspense, though his character seems supremely under-motivated. The lighting (Nate Parde) is aptly dim and eerie and the sound (original music by Deborah Gilmour Smyth, sound design by Patrick Duffy) enhances the proceedings. An innocuous diversion it is; Agatha Christie it ain’t.
THE LOCATION: At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through May 21.
The 23rd annual SDSU Design/Performance/Direction Jury was held last week and, for the 15th year, Edward Albee was in attendance, giving students feedback on their presentations. The play selected by the faculty this year was Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot. Three teams volunteer (or are volunteered) to present to the esteemed jury, which included, in addition to the much-feted if curmudgeonly playwright Albee, many other returnees, such as Martin Benson (artistic director of South Coast Repertory Theatre), set designer John Iacovelli, lighting designer James Moody, costume and set designer Robert Blackman and, new this year, actor/singer Claudette Southerland, a long-time friend of event coordinator/originator Beeb Salzer. Southerland played Smitty in the original Broadway production of How to Succeed.
Last year, since the Theatre Department had joined forces with the Film Department, a film version of the chosen play comprised one of the three group presentations. This year, there was also a musical version of the play, Jerry Herman’s Dear World, presented by the students in the MFA program in musical theater. That was a real treat, and brought yet another dimension to the proceedings. The talented director and performers, all of whom will be graduating next month and hopefully, going on to greater glory, were: Omri Schein, director (also a funny and gifted performer in his own right) and playing the three madwomen at “The Tea Party,” each in superior voice and exhibiting a finely etched character: Ryan Beattie, Jamie Kalama and Kelsey Venter. Delightful scene, and by all accounts, the best song in an otherwise forgettable musical.
The film adaptation, written, directed and designed by the fascinating Andy Aguilera, seemed very loosely based on or inspired by the play. Unlike the source, this truly unnerving piece had no forces of good to counterbalance the encroaching evil. It was a brief, intense, harrowing story of coyotes bringing unsuspecting young folks across the border not for freedom, but for organ harvesting. Chilling. Nicely acted, too. The more conventional group was also unique. The director, Jevon Whetter, is a deaf grad student. One of his designers is hearing impaired. So an interpreter was present throughout the day. The whole event is a wonderful learning experience for anyone involved in any aspect of theater. As all the juror-participants always say, what keeps them coming back is not only their commitment to the training of young theatermakers, but also the joy of spending a day just talking about theater, a treat they rarely get when they’re on deadline and on assignment. Look for next year’s date here next spring, and treat yourself!
A lively and diverse crowd of about 200 artmakers, supporters and advocates gathered at the Birch North Park Theatre on Thursday for the report of the San Diego Foundation’s Arts and Culture Working Group. The mission of the 30 year-old Foundation, whose total asset base exceeds $500million, is philanthropy, education and outreach. The recent research, funded in part by the James Irvine Foundation and US Bank, was intended to make the case for increased patronage for arts and culture in the San Diego region. The Arts & Culture Working Group has been in existence for about three years, and its members include high-profile arts advocates such as Tom Hall, Liz Yamada, Judith Harris and Victoria Hamilton, under the chairmanship of Dr. Roger Cornell.
Promoting the Foundation theme that “We must understand; then we can act,” this 9-month fact-finding survey, pARTicipate San Diego, which questioned 800 San Diegans, came up with some surprising results, among which was the fact that 99% of the local population participates in and attends arts and culture activities (using a broad definition of arts/culture). The highest participation percentages were 79% reading for pleasure, 70% taking photographs and 38% social dancing. The lowest were performing in a play (7%) and dance lessons (6%). But even these numbers are impressive, given the county population of 2.9million. As for attendance at arts/culture events, more than 3 out of 4 San Diegans go to the movies regularly, 2 of 3 regularly visit a library. People with children take their kids with them to arts events 50-80% of the time. And 50% of kids county-wide participate actively in the arts. It was clear that arts/culture is under-funded locally. In fact, San Diego placed near the bottom of the list in a 20-city comparison. However, individual giving (>25% of the population) was higher than the national average. And most surprising, fully 2/3 of the population seems to be willing to pay higher taxes to support arts and culture. For San Diego residents, the top two priorities in the arts were: arts and culture in the classroom and education as the primary way to increase arts patronage. Sadly, only 24 of 42 local school districts participate in county-wide arts and culture programs, and only 2 of the 42 districts have a full-time arts education coordinator. In an effort to fill those gaping education holes, every arts group in the region is providing some measure of arts education; the problems/obstacles are with the schools.
During the Q&A, Karen Evans, Director of Visual and Performing Arts for the San Diego City Schools, stood up and asked for folks to contact her with ideas/projects/programs, willingly offering her contact info: www.sandi.net (click on VAPA, Visual and Performing Arts).
Increasing Public Awareness and Advocacy is one of the top strategies for confronting the San Diego Foundation study’s findings. Other future directions, as reported by Tom Hall, include Arts Education (getting back into every classroom); Cultural Participation Grants (to help arts and culture organizations create new audiences); The Innovation Fun (to support new work); and Donor Engagement (increasing the cultivation of donors and philanthropy). The idea is to make San Diego a high-profile, international arts and culture destination – within the next few years. According to keynote speaker Carol Coletta, host of the syndicated show, “ Smart City ,” in a survey of 25-34 year olds (the entrepreneurial hope of the future of any city), San Diego was among the top three locations for a ‘Dream Job.” Coletta encouraged artsmakers not to think of themselves as ‘supplicants’ but to consider what they contribute to the community when seeking support.
For further information about the San Diego study and future plans, go to www.participatesandiego.org.
In a related matter, a recent study conducted by the Center for Applied Nonprofit Research at USD found that 68% of San Diego ’s nonprofit executive directors are planning to leave their jobs within the next five years (principally through retirement). Mirroring national trends, results also indicated that most organizations have done very little to prepare for a leadership transition of this magnitude. So, if you’d like to join San Diego’s nonprofit leaders in a dialogue, with special guest facilitator Frances Kunreuther, director of the Building Movement Project and author of “Up Next: Generation Change and the Leadership of Nonprofits,” attend the Call to Action: San Diego’s Nonprofit Leadership Challenge on Wednesday, May 31 at the Joan Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice on the campus of USD. Seating is limited. Registration/information is at: www.generationnext.kintera.org or 619-260-7442.
NOT OVER THE HILL
Tales from the Far Side of Fifty , the touching, funny stories written and told by older women (including my sister and my 88 year-old mother ) is sold out for this Sunday’s performance. Maybe there will be some no-shows if you still want to give it a try. Amazing feat, to fill the Lyceum Stage (the larger space) with no advertising and all word of mouth. Obviously, a lot of people want to hear what women have to say about aging… and surprise! It’s not what your Grandma thought!
FORMER LOCALS HITTIN’ THE HEIGHTS
…Mat Smart , talented alum of the UCSD MFA in Playwriting, now living in New York , is premiering his latest project, The Debate Plays this month. These three interconnected comedies, framed in a barroom debate, chronicle the history of a love triangle that includes “broken hearts, cheap drinks, hoop skirts and plenty of Weezer”; the outcome rests with the audience. Through May 13 at the Phil Bosakowski Theatre on West 45th St. Mat was in San Diego this week to catch the premiere’s of his former colleagues’ newest creations, in the UCSD Baldwin New Play Festival 2006 on the campus through April 29. And YOU should be there, too (four plays, two one-acts, always something provocative). Meanwhile, from here Mat was off for a meeting in L.A. about a sitcom idea. Kewl!
…Ivan Hernandez, who’ll play the title role in the La Jolla Playhouse world premiere of the musical, Zhivago, is an alum of the undergraduate theater program at SDSU. From 1994-1999, the handsome Hernandez appeared in many SDSU productions, including Diamonds; Yours, Anne; High Spirits and Romeo and Juliet. Under the direction of Dr. Rick Simas (who’s currently helming the musical version of No Way To Treat a Lady at North Coast Rep), Ivan performed in many local events, including BRAVO San Diego . After his moves to L.A. and then New York , Ivan continued to win praise for his many musical roles, most recently in his New York City Opera debut as the hunk, Joey, in The Most Happy Fella, where his notices lauded his looks, voice – and very tight pants. When director Des McAnuff cast him as the lead in Zhivago, Ivan was still under contract to NYCO, so he flew back and forth between NY and SD to start rehearsals here and fulfill his obligations back East. Whatta guy!
CAN’T MISS THIS!
… Don’t forget to take a moment to acknowledge Shakespeare’s 442nd birthday this Sunday. You can celebrate officially at San Diego ’s FIRST ANNUAL STUDENT SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL, brought to us by the San Diego Shakespeare Society. Students from 22 schools (grades K-12) will begin their procession through Balboa Park at the Organ Pavilion at 12:30pm on SATURDAY, APRIL 29, followed by presentations on various stages. The event is free and lasts till 4:30pm. For info about the Festival and the Shakespeare Society’s Birthday Bash for the Bard this Saturday, April 22, go to sandiegoshakespearesociety.org.
… Can’t top this! You’ve heard of the Three Tenors… how ‘bout The Three Mini Tenors? These extraordinary young boys – Stefan Wendel, Darien Sepulveda and Daniel Myers — who collectively have performed with the San Diego Opera, Lyric Opera, Symphony Orchestra, Starlight, Moonlight and others, will be making their world premiere together: April 30 at 6pm (reception at 4) at the Lazarideus ARK Center for the Arts, 899 C St. (9th & C) downtown.
… Trouble sleeping? Get out and have some fun… this Friday April 21 and Saturday, April 22, is San Diego Theatre Sports’ IMPROV-A-THON, a 28-hourfundraising improv marathon. Amazingly, there’s a new show every two hours. At The Fun House, near Cygnet Theatre: 6822 El Cajon Blvd.
…Don’t miss the command performance of I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda at 6th @ Penn. See the Patté Award-winning performance of Monique Gaffney, along with Dale Morris, in this heart-wrenching one-act. May 7-10 only. www.sixthatpenn.com
… coming up at Schroeder’s Club and Cabaret at the Westin Horton Plaza – the club’s namesake, the multi-talented Todd Schroeder. The Angeleno is not in town that often, so grab this opportunity to see a fabulous pianist and performer. Friday, May 12 only. www.schroeders.cc , firstname.lastname@example.org , 858-794-9044.
… if your creative bent tends toward the visual arts, check this out: The city of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture is looking for an artist/team to design, fabricate and install an educational space at the soon-to-be Serra Mesa/Kearny Mesa Branch Library. The lead artist must permanently reside in California . Applications for this $250,000-450,000 project are due June 7. For Qualifications and Application Checklist, go to: http://www.sandiego.gov/arts-culture/pucliart.shtml
TWO THEATER LOSSES
Two impressive contributors to the theater world passed away last week:
Dame Muriel Spark, whose spare and humorous novels made her one of the most admired British writers of the postwar years, died in Tuscany at age 88. Her 1961 novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie , later adapted into a very successful play and movie, made her famous internationally (though some say “The Girls of Slender Means ” was her best book). Jay Presson Allen wrote the play adaptation (1968), which I’ll never forget seeing on Broadway, with the heart-stopping Zoe Caldwell in the role of the influential 1930s Edinburgh teacher whose students adore her, betray her and never forget her. The 1969 film, which I just rented last week, starred another Dame, Maggie Smith, who was young, sexy, startling. The piece still packs an emotional punch, especially for a former teacher.
Endesha Ida May Holland died at age 61 of a degenerative neurological disease she’d been battling the past 15 years. She wrote the autobiographical From the Mississippi Delta, which played at the Old Globe in 1992. A heartrending story of poverty, prostitution, Civil Rights and the KKK, the work still reflected the optimism and triumph of its author.
Maybe the two playwrights will collaborate in the next life. Creativity never dies….
Oops! Last week, when I talked about the “fantasy radio variety show,” LIVE from the SDMA Ballroom: The Great Broadcast of 1926 ,, I got the day right, but the date wrong. It’s actually Wednesday, May 17 at 7pm in the San Diego Museum of Art. The event, with live music, dancing, mocktails and the Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra for Radio Drama (headed up by superstar sound-effects-man Scott Paulson), commemorates the San Diego Museum of Art’s 80th birthday and its history in Balboa Park. In the Museum’s Copley Auditorium. For info and tickets ($8-12), call 629-696-1966.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Tongue of a Bird –fascinating but flawed play, wonderful production, excellently directed and finely acted
At the 10th Avenue Theatre, through April 23.
The Housekeeper – a goofy romantic comedy that isn’t as dark, bleak, funny or screwy as it thinks it is, but the actors are milking every minute (and they could go even further)
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through April 26
What the Butler Saw – deeply disturbed, hilariously funny. A pitch-perfect black farce, wonderfully acted and comically timed
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through April 30.
The Constant Wife – a gorgeously designed, fast-paced and funny production
At the Old Globe Theatre, through May 7.
My Fair Lady – spectacularly inventive production; beautifully designed, directed, acted and sung
At Cygnet Theatre, EXTENDED to May 7.
Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit – drop-dead uproarious. RUN, don’t saunter, to see this side-splitting spoof of Broadway shows, with the mega-talented Off Broadway cast. Limited engagement; what are you waiting for?
At the Theatre in Old Town , through June 4.
Spring has finally sprung! Enjoy the gorgeous weather, and then, when the light fades, head to the theater… As the Performing Arts League always put it: ‘When the sun goes down, the curtain goes up!’
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.