By Pat Launer
Moral questions in Collected Stories; and someone always takes the Fall
While Seussical reminds us “A person’s a person no matter how small.”
THE SHOW: COLLECTED STORIES, Donald Margulies’ fact-based fiction… about fact-based fiction
THE BACKSTORY: In 1994, the knighted English poet, Sir Stephen Spender, sued novelist David Leavitt for plagiarism, arguing that “While England Sleeps,” Leavitt’s fictional account of literary London in the 1930’s, used substantial unattributed material from Spender’s autobiography, “World Within World.” Spender was particularly incensed by Leavitt’s defamatory account of his relationship with a lover. The poet won the court battle, but only under English law, which is more restrictive in terms of what can be written about an identifiable living person. In an American court, Spender probably would have had no recourse. And even in England , one’s right to control the story of his own life ends with his death, since the dead cannot be libeled. Spender died a year after the suit, in 1995. The conflagration wasn’t considered to be just an issue of copyright, but of “moral right.”
THE STORY: Riffing on this international literary brouhaha, Margulies wrote Collected Stories, tweaking some of the details and changing the protagonists to females: an established, cantankerous short story writer and her terrified/adoring grad student, a raw talent in need of shaping, shepherding and mentoring. Over the course of six years, they develop a close friendship, a collegial relationship and ultimately, a competitive rivalry. Ruth, the older woman, has confided a crucial, very personal story from her life, about an early Mat-December affair with the late poet Delmore Schwartz. Lisa remembers every detail and later runs with the story, putting Ruth’s life experiences into her own novel, to Ruth’s horror and dismay. The title is a double entendre; both women start out writing short story collections. And what writers do is collect stories, from myriad sources. But perhaps there’s a line that can’t be crossed.
THE PRODUCTION: Marty Burnett has designed yet another expertly detailed living space (with the help of set dresser/prop-wizard Bonnie Durben). Ruth’s Greenwich Village apartment is replete with grimy windows and a lifetime of accumulated books and papers. Chris Rynne’s lighting keeps it evocatively sepia-toned and M. Scott Grabau provides apt city sounds. Jeanne Reith’s costumes are perfect for the period (1990s) and personalities.
THE PLAYERS: In many productions of this provocative and well-written play, the deck is unequivocally stacked in Ruth’s favor. She is a formidable, multi-faceted character, and Kandis Chappell, a consummate actor, one of San Diego ’s finest, thoroughly embraces and inhabits the role she initiated at South Coast Rep and then reprised at the Old Globe. I’ve watched her create this character three times; as she has revisited Ruth, her portrayal has gotten deeper and richer, more profound, more aching. Over the course of the play, she evolves from a confident, sarcastic, somewhat supercilious academic to a shriveled, sickly, broken woman, lonely and forgotten. Her final scene, after an acrimonious interaction, is beautifully enacted and painful to watch. It’s a breathtaking performance. Under the astute and acute direction of David Ellenstein, Amanda Sitton definitely holds her own. Lisa’s star is rising as Ruth’s is fading. She develops from a bumbling, stammering but ambitious acolyte into a cocky independent, who claims (just as Leavitt did) that her creation was paying tribute to the older writer. It’s a less showy, juicy role, but Sitton works wonders with it. And unlike prior productions, there’s actually an element of doubt here. Each woman makes valid points. Each is assured in her position. Each has a personal axe to grind. It’s luscious food for thought – about age and youth, friendship, a writer’s responsibility, an ethical quandary. The moral ambiguity enhances the play, so the questions linger: Who actually owns a story? What are the limits of loyalty, friendship, confidentiality? Lisa claims that she was just doing what Ruth had taught her: a writer must be ruthless, hardening herself to doing without relationships if people resent being used for the benefit of literature, to appease a grateful public — and posterity. When questions of ‘moral responsibility’ surface daily, relative to questionable memoirs, or a newspaper’s right to publish information about programs that impinge on personal rights, you know that Margulies was and is onto something important.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, through August 13
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
OH THE THINKS YOU CAN THINK
THE SHOW: SEUSSICAL, The Musical, is a 2000 creation of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who struck literary gold adapting Ragtime (this show was co-conceived with Monty Python’s Eric Idle)
THE STORY/THE BACKSTORY: Based on characters and elements from 20 books by the late La Jollan Theodor Geisel (AKA Dr. Seuss), Seussical is a bit of a hodgepodge that gets bogged down in its effervescent effort to bring the zany Seuss creations to life and teach some of the books’ life lessons as well. As Ahrens put it, “We tried to be truthful to the innocent anarchy in the books. There is a deep concern in them for the planet, for human beings and how we should behave forward one another.” Flaherty felt deeply about the two characters living in societies that don’t prize individualism – Horton the Elephant and JoJo the kid. Their duet, “Alone in the Universe,” is truly touching. But a lot of the other stories get tangled up in each other: there’s Horton’s problems with the other animals in the Jungle of Nool, not to mention his having to hatch an egg and respond to the anguished cries of the tiny Whos. Then he has to deal with being taken away to the circus. Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, there’s sybaritic, irresponsible Mayzie (the one who dumps her egg on Horton and flies off on holiday), and there’s poor, bedraggled and lovelorn Gertrude McFuzz, who only has one feather in her pathetic tail; add in the nasty Sour Kangaroo, and General Genghis Kahn Schmitz, who’s supposed to train the imagination out of beleaguered JoJo, who can’t seem to stay out of his fantasies and in the real world. Somewhere along the line, Horton loses the Whos and later gets put on trial and… well, it’s a lot to follow for a little kid. But there’s a lot to love in the Moonlight production.
THE PRODUCTION: When Cathy Rigby flew into the Civic Theatre in the touring production (2002), the musical was charmless and effortful, trying too hard to be likable and liked. But Moonlight Stage Productions has brought back the whimsy and enchantment. It’s a magical production, with a colorful, inventive array of costumes (rented from the Music Theatre of Wichita), a wonderful-sounding orchestra in the pit (under the direction of Elan McMahan), excellent performances and fine dancing, thanks to lively co-direction by David Engel and Kathy Brombacher. The night I was there, the only problem was the sound; the mics were inconsistent and unreliable. But every other element was sheer delight.
THE PLAYERS: Equity actor Justin Robertson, who’s performed in ten prior Moonlight productions, brings an abundance of heart and compassion to frumpy, dumpy, ever-faithful Horton. Eric Vest is adorable and irresistible as the mischievous MC, the Cat in the Hat. He gets to show off his vocal chops, comic array of antics and dialects as well as his physical agility. Twelve year-old Troy Hussmann makes JoJo a very credible kid and Vonetta Mixson unleashes a powerhouse voice as the Sour Kangaroo (though her acting leans in the direction of Shriek). Christa Jackson is cute and spunky as that devoted Horton-lover, Gertrude, who learns a lesson about Being Yourself. Brittany Paige oozes sexy insouciance as Mayzie. Randall Dodge and Omri Schein bring their usual comical acumen to small roles. This is such a fun show for the whole family – and there are some valuable messages in there for all.
THE LOCATION: Moonlight at Brengle Terrace Park in Vista , through July 9
ADDENDUM : Talk about your improvisation! Last Friday, on the way to the evening performance, Vonetta Mixson (sour Kangaroo) got caught in the horrific I-15 traffic caused by fire and freeway closure. There was no understudy, and the show was delayed for almost an hour. The plucky cast and imaginative director Kathy Brombacher saved the day – to the delight of the audience. Tina Marie Honor stepped in to learn the basics of the role. The actors mingled with the audience, for photos, chats and autographs. Steven Knoll-Gentry, who plays the Grinch, read “Green Eggs and Ham,” with folks joining in on the lines they remembered. Ultimately, the makeshift understudy went on. That’s live theater at its best… turning adversity into festivity.
TAKING A FALL
THE SHOW: FALL, a slightly dark comedy by Bridget Carpenter, a 2002-03 Guggenheim Fellow who lives in Los Angeles
THE STORY/THE BACKSTORY: The 30-something Carpenter was inspired by her own brush with swing dance lessons. She visualized herself as a 14 year-old girl who learns about leading and following, pressure and holding back. So Carpenter set her bittersweet comedy at a family dance camp on Catalina Island . Lydia is grudgingly missing the first week of school to spend ‘family time’ at the camp with her parents, whose relationship is teetering; though they don’t tell her as much, she knows. So she fantasizes affairs that her parents are having with various and sundry campsters of both sexes. As Lydia plays out her scuba daydreams in imaginative underwater sequences, she feels her first adolescent sexual stirrings, and falls for an older man (age 23), a colleague of her mother’s, who first rejects and then encourages this unsavory dalliance. The ending is a tad unsatisfying all around. The play makes some sharp tonal shifts, from a realistic coming-of-age story at the beginning, to a fantasy in the middle, then it takes that seedy, objectionable turn before ending fairly neatly, though with secrets left unrevealed. But hail to Moxie, in this final show of their inaugural season, for bringing forth yet another female voice. Some of the plays they’ve chosen, and their writers, are not yet fully developed. But perhaps we’ll see, over time, that the Moxie of the Moxie-gals introduced San Diego to the dramatic movers and shakers of tomorrow.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: There’s more than a tinge of melodrama in the play, and the symbolism (dance, scuba, falling) is heavy-handed. But Carpenter has an excellent ear for dialogue and especially nails the young girl, who is marvelously played by Nicole Monet, Monet is perfect in every hormonally-driven moment of adolescent angst. She is smart/smartass and snappish, sarcastic and pouty but not annoyingly whiny. It’s a wonderfully believable performance. Her parents aren’t written half as well, though Craig Huisenga manages another of those affably benign, humane dads with aplomb (this one’s too-cutely named Dog). Liv Kellgren plays a somewhat icy, testy Mom. Robert Kirk is less credible as Jack, the pedophile who goes unpunished for a heinous act treated surprisingly lightly here. Brandon Walker plays Gopal, a philosophical (and as written, obviously Indian) young dance and scuba instructor, with a goofy geekiness and bemused condescension that could be more subtly honed. In her local solo directing debut, Jennifer Eve Thorn does a fine job, rolling with the tone changes and maintaining a balanced sense of humor, drama and whimsy. She makes effective (though repetitive) use of dancers who wordlessly course through the action, in silhouette and downstage, to facilitate scene changes or underscore the dance metaphor (they’re called LEAD and FOLLOW). Having been to the local Swing Dance clubs, I’d have to say that these two are far from the highest echelon of dancer, and their choreography is less than scintillating. But they execute their steps with attitude. It would help if the other cast members had a bit more skilled footwork (they are, after all, teachers and/or long-time students of dance).
The multi-level set (Mia Bane Jacobs) allows for the titular falling, and for climbing and jumping; the cast, especially Monet, rises well to the challenge. The semi-circular scrim-wall is strongly reminiscent of the pavilion at Catalina, and it works wonderfully for the projected dancing and dance instruction. Rachel LeVine’s sound design is aptly evocative. There are many delights in this production, but the play still feels unpolished and unsatisfying.
THE LOCATION: Moxie at Diversionary Theatre, through July 16.
…JEWISH PLAY FOR HAM MAVENS
Did you know that the Ham Capital of the U.S. is Dubuque , Iowa ? Well, that’s where Day of Atonement, a new play by local playwright Janet S. Tiger, just won a cash award and full production at the Dubuque Fine Arts Society National One-Act Playwriting Contest. Tiger has won a prize in the competition an unprecedented five times. But this is the first time in a dozen years that she’ll actually show up for her world premiere. The Jewish-themed play concerns two lifelong New York friends who face Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) together. Tiger’s other winning works were: The Waiting Room (1982), The Affidavit (1983), Blind Woman’s Bluff (1984) and Curse of the Duchess (1990). “There are no ham actors in these shows,” Tiger assures us. “One thing I really appreciate about the productions is the quality of the actors.” Her most recent play, Renny’s Story, about a Holocaust survivor, had a brief, standing-O, sold-out run in San Diego this spring. She’s planning to bring it back in 2007. In the meantime, The Towel Lady will be performed repeatedly at the Swedenborgian Hall as part of the University Heights Arts Open on Sept. 16-17 (see www.uharts.org for info on the weekend event).
NOTE: In order to make her way to Dubuque , Tiger designed a hip rainbow T-shirt; part of the profits will go to the Swedenborgian Church , in support of their arts programs. The shirt lists famous gay people (Alexander Hamilton – who knew??)
…. Energetic, engaging and ever-busy local actor Jason Heil will be stepping into a higher profile role in Zhivago this weekend at the La Jolla Playhouse. The show, which will undoubtedly be Broadway-bound (as will, very likely, The Wiz and The Farnsworth Connection, all directed by Des McAnuff in his final year as LJP artistic director) closes July 9.
… Don’t miss playwright Athol Fugard and writer/scholar Marianne McDonald in a fund-raising reading of Medea the Beginning by McDonald … Jason the End by Fugard. Proceeds will benefit 6th @ Penn Theatre. Sunday, August 27 only. 7:30pm. $50 donation. 619-688-9210.
END OF AN ERA
Lloyd Richards , a pioneering African American director, died last week on his 87th birthday. He was one of the most influential figures in modern American theater, championing generations of young playwrights. In the 1980s, he served as dean of the Yale School of Drama, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and of the National Playwrights Conference, as well as directing commercial theatre ventures on Broadway.
Once again, the Old Globe is either prescient…. or the kiss of death. They planned for a revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig months before her death in January. And they also included in their 2006 season August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, last seen at the Globe in 1991 — directed by Lloyd Richards. Now, both Wilson and Richards are gone. Richards made a name for himself in 1959, when he brought the play of a young unknown, Lorraine Hansberry, to Broadway. The cast of A Raisin in the Sun included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands and Louis Gossett, among others; it went up against all odds – and was a landmark moment in American theater and social history. In 1987, Richards won the Tony Award for best director, for the touching August Wilson play, Fences. But in 1996, after directing five of Wilson ’s plays, the two parted ways, though they stated on reasonably good terms .
Others writers whose careers Richard’s helped launch or develop were: Wendy Wasserstein, Christopher Durang, Lee Blessing and David Henry Hwang. He helmed several plays by influential South African playwright (and half-time San Diego resident) Athol Fugard. He also made a mark in terms of his emphasis on the role of the dramaturge as a ‘mediator’ between the playwright and director. When asked about his directing style, he once said, “I try to permit the actor to arrive where I want him to arrive, without telling him where I want him to be.” As actor Charles S. Dutton put it: “He’d say one word or one sentence, and it would just open the door to a whole world in approaching the character. His nuances had nuances.”
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Collected Stories – fascinating, fact-based premise about writers and stories and who owns what; superbly performed
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through August 13
Seussical – delightful, high-spirited production, featuring an excellent ensemble
Moonlight Stage Productions at Brengle Terrace Park in Vista , through July 9
Mother Courage – still one of the most potent anti-war statements around; beautifully, simply, elegantly presented
At the La Jolla Playhouse, through July 23
Krapp’s Last Tape –wonderfully crafted, intensely precise performance by Claudio Raygoza
Ion theatre in their new downtown theater space, New World Stage, through July 9.
Christmas on Mars –wacky and wildly over the top; well performed, but not for everyone
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through July 9
Zhivago – the world premiere musical has all the romance and extravagance you anticipated. You’re sure to get caught up in the legendary Russian romance. Catch it here before it heads to Broadway…
At the La Jolla Playhouse, through July 9.
Amadeus – it beats you over the head with its messages, but it’s a great story (whatever part of it is actually factual) and it’s very well presented by a fine, committed cast
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through July 23
Cool off (or get heated up!) at the theater!
© 2006 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.