By Pat Launer
Women’s place and the price of beauty:
In ‘The Waiting Room’ and ‘ Cosi fan Tutte ’
And two haunting JCs from days long gone:
‘Jim Crow’ and the one in ‘Thunder at Dawn.’
WHAT A CROSS TO BEAR
It was just a routine ‘nail detail’ in the desert. The soldiers were assigned to crucify another criminal. But though they try, as always, to drink their memories away, they just can’t shake this one. The image stays with them; they’re haunted by the look of the man and the response of the crowd. Maybe this wasn’t just another ‘yahoo’ like the rest. “Thunder at Dawn,” by L.A.-based playwright Max Enscoe , has a fascinating premise, and it’s a fine match for Lamb’s Players Theatre (which has mounted the play before). Set in a sandy wasteland, it seems very contemporary – the way the guys are dressed (desert camouflage- designed by Kevin Jordan) and the way they talk and handle each other (roughly), this could easily be Iraq or Afghanistan . But it’s Palestine and the ‘criminal,’ never mentioned by name, is the Son of God. One by one, these three – a captain, a sergeant major and a private — get spooked by their memories, and in thrall to the power of what they’ve seen and done. Then, when the private gets assigned to guard the tomb and comes back to report that it’s empty, all hell breaks loose.
Actually, hell is breaking loose all through the production, which is one of its weaknesses. As directed by Kerry Meads, these guys are pretty much screaming at each other all the time. Though there are definitely nuances in the characterizations, this gives a sameness of tone to the proceedings. Robert Smyth mines all the depth of character possible in this gruff but conflicted C.O. with a wheezy laugh. David Cochran Heath is the company ‘intellect,’ the cynic who’s the last to get on board. The less complex private, played by Nick Cordileone, is frightened at first, but first to realize the gravity of the situation and the authority of the victim. A great deal of tension is created, a considerable amount of (very believable) physical aggression is displayed. But the language is surprisingly watered down for all this pugnacity. Could the text really have said “He couldn’t find his NAVEL in the dark without a map?” Seems unlikely; that sure isn’t the expression I know!). Of course, this issue just came to a head on PBS in the past week; do stations air the genuinely raw language of the soldiers in Iraq in the “Frontline” piece, or should a tamer, more watered-down version be sent out? PBS and Lamb’s seem to have made the latter decision (though KPBS stood up and aired the unexpurgated original). In any event, “Thunder at Dawn” is an intense and provocative play. If the theme engages, stirs or moves you, you’ll be knocked out by this heartfelt and ferocious production.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through March 20.
“ Cosi fan Tutte .” “All Women are the Same.” But if Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte (his librettist) thought all females are faithless, the same is certainly regularly said of modern-day males; and I doubt it was different way back when. Plus, look what these semi-sadistic guys put their fiancées through! So maybe the opera is an equal opportunity satirizer . Lust and fickleness are omni-gender human nature.
The piece is a comedy and the San Diego Opera mines every bit of humor, to present a thoroughly charming, enchanting production, gorgeously designed, excellently acted and beautifully sung. The local company created the glorious sets (Allen Moyer) and costumes (David O. Roberts) in 1999 – re-locating the 1790 opera to 1912 at the Hotel del Coronado. The look of the premiere was so appealing that other companies, in the U.S. and abroad, have already rented the goods and reproduced the production.
Mozart’s music is superb, and the cast does especially well in the many mellifluous ensemble numbers. Not only are the voices superb, but the acting is especially strong. Tenor Michael Schade and baritone Russell Braun are hilarious, in and out of their disguises, as they try to outdo each other in braggadocio and tempt each other’s girlfriends into unfaithfulness. When they succeed, they are palpably distraught. As the susceptible sisters, soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot and mezzo Phyllis Pancella are delightful, though Cabot is a bit less the actress and a tad raw at the low end of her range. As the conniving maid, who dons two different male costumes (re-entering as a doctor and a cleric), soprano Sheryl Woods displays an impressive array of voices and acute comic timing. Bass-Baritone Dean Peterson is fine as the cynical misogynist who precipitates all the shenanigans.
Under the baton of Karen Keltner , the Orchestra sounds splendid. Particular kudos to director Leon Major, who keeps the action thrumming and makes imaginative use of the chorus, creating ancillary characters and adding loads of delicious stage business for them. In sum, a smashing Night at the Opera.
At the Civic Theatre, through March 2.
BEAUTY IS A BEAST
One has trouble with her feet, the other with her abdominal organs, the third with her breasts. Three women meet in a doctor’s office; they come from different centuries but they share a common malady: striving, at great pains, to achieve their society’s distorted definition of beauty. The toes of the 18th century Chinese flower are falling off one by one; she’s developed gangrene and can barely walk, since her feet were bound at age five. A tightly corseted Victorian wife suffers from 19th century hysteria – which, says her controlling husband-doctor, is due to over-education, and can only be treated by hysterectomy. And a modern-day American secretary is having serious trouble with her third set of breast implants.
“The Waiting Room,” by Lisa Loomer , is a sad/funny, pathetic, incendiary, surreal piece of work. With barbed wit and a tone that’s been called “angry compassion,” the playwright walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy; these reality-based female horror stories provide the writer with ample opportunity to gleefully skewer uncaring doctors, corrupt drug companies, the FDA, the self-help movement – and men. It makes for great theater when it’s done well, which it definitely is at SDSU.
Faculty director Randy Reinholz has marshaled an outstanding undergraduate cast. The three young women are terrific: Emi Nishimura as delicate but steely Forgiveness from Heaven; Heddy Lahmann as the upright, uptight, Freud-reading Victorian, Victoria; and Brittany Fenison as the tough, insouciant Jerseyite , Wanda. Adam Parker is thoroughly believable as the doctor-who-has-a-problem-and-an-epiphany; S.Michael Barron and Adam Wilensky are a humorously dynamic duo as the nefarious, self-serving drug-company shareholder and FDA slimeball . Nick McElroy provides additional comic relief as a masseur, nurse and bartender. Jennifer Hanson’s costumes are beautiful – apt for every century. Lura Coyne’s set design is low-tech malleable, and moved with alacrity. Reinholz keeps the pace lively, the characters credible and the humor rich and dark. It’s a disappointingly short run for a play that has so much to say. Catch it if you can.
In the Experimental Theatre on the campus of SDSU; through February 27.
THURGOOD AND THURMOND
It was an excellently provocative idea to juxtapose the virulent segregationist, Strom Thurmond, with the influential civil rights advocate, Thurgood Marshall, America’s first Black Supreme Court Justice. Alan Havis ’ latest play, “The Haunting of Jim Crow,” was commissioned by UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College, to help mark the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional. That this is also Black History Month was equally fortuitous.
The play extends from the 1950s Eisenhower years to the present. It opens with a schoolteacher in her classroom (the ever-credible Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson) addressing us, her high school social studies class, telling us about the history and helping to recount and comment on the proceedings. During the course of the brief, 90-minute play, we meet Strom Thurmond (convincingly played by Dale Morris) and Thurgood Marshall (excellently enacted by Anthony Drummond), as well as other justices (Dick Emmet , Craig Huisenga ) and a powerful NAACP friend of Marshall’s, Carl Murphy (Laurence Brown). A great deal of time is given to the most fascinating, bizarre and hypocritical chapter of the story: the illegitimate offspring of Thurmond, daughter of a 16 year-old black maid. Only after Thurmond’s death in 2003, did Essie Mae Washington Williams come forward. Our ‘teacher,’ a former student of Essie Mae’s, has a few questions she’d like to ask the gentle, passive woman who was complicit in decades of secrecy.
This is an extremely provocative tale, juicy enough for its own play. But presumably since the commission involved Marshall and the Supreme Court decision, there are a lot of distractions in the work, which comes off feeling exactly like a high school social studies class. Because the play and playwright assume little background knowledge on the part of the audience (perhaps rightly so), there is a great deal of didactic exposition. Oddly, the teacher (Thomson) says schoolkids don’t know much about Jim Crow any more, but no explanation or origin of the term is provided (though there’s LOTS offered on other subjects). The piece is fairly static, and despite a competent cast and a fine director (Delicia Turner Sonnenberg) it seemed like a staged reading more than a full production. I saw it on a Friday morning, with students from the Bishops School . They were quite attentive, and it appeared to have piqued their interest. If that was the intent, it was a wholly successful venture. If the play is to have legs, however, it needs some rethinking and retooling.
It wasn’t a beautiful morning at all. John Raitt , he of the bountiful baritone, “ Oklahoma ’s” most memorable Curly, bit the dust the other day at age 88. Right up through his 80s, he continued to sing with equally famous daughter, Bonnie Raitt , and they seemed really proud of each other. As Bonnie put it, “His life and monumental contribution to the history of Broadway musical theater will be an inspiration always.” Amen to that. She called him “the greatest singer I’ve ever heard.” It was 1944 when he first played Curly in the national touring company. After they’d heard his voice, Rodgers and Hammerstein chose Raitt for the role of the doomed antihero, Billy Bigelow, in “Carousel.” The record-breaking, seven-minute-long “Soliloquy” was written specifically for Raitt . Over the years, he toured in “Annie Get Your Gun” with Mary Martin, and took the lead in “Man of La Mancha ,” “Kismet,” “ Destry Rides Again” and “ Zorba .” “Having played Zorba ,” he said, “I believe in grabbing at life.” And so he did.
In 1957, he made his crossover into film, co-starring with Doris Day in “The Pajama Game.” He continued singing those unforgettable songs, including father-daughter duets of “Hey, There.” According to Bonnie, “he treated every show with equal thrill and passion. He put the same into it no matter whether it was a charity breakfast for 50 people or opening night of a Broadway show.” A pro to the end. Now THAT’s entertainment.
He was the Bad Boy of journalism, a counterculture rebel with a clause, flouting every rule in the book, especially Be Objective. He inserted himself wildly, flagrantly, inebriatedly into every piece. And he changed the face of journalism forever, even gave his wigged-out, drugged-out, first-person style a name: ‘gonzo journalism.’ Hunter S. Thompson was probably best known for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ,” a book I don’t think I’ll ever forget – whether I’m in Sin City or not. Certain images just stick — like the catatonics in the psychiatric ward who spend their mindless days doing nothing but raising and lowering their right arm repeatedly, as if in an eternal dance with the One-Armed Bandit. When he made a (rare) appearance here at the Belly Up about a dozen years ago, he seemed dissipated and disdainful, like he’d rather be anywhere but there. He was crusty and curmudgeonly—or was that just his persona? Hard to tell. Over the years, he’d become a caricature of himself. He was known for his facility with weaponry as much as with words and illegal substances — though he once accidentally shot an assistant while trying to rout a bear from his ‘compound’ outside Aspen . And he once fired a few shots into a copy of one of his books and handed it to a friend, saying, “This is your autographed copy.” It was with a gun that he took his own life this week. “I hate to advocate weird chemicals, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone,” he once said. “But they’ve always worked for me.” He was the last of a breed, that post-Beat, anti-groupthink, ‘60s mentality that said Question Everything and Everyone. Why’d he go and leave us? We need him now more than ever.
…LOCAL PLAYWRIGHTS MAKE GOOD
Seems it’s easier to be a winner outside your hometown than in.
Jamul resident JACK SHEA won the 2004 Palm Springs International Playwriting Festival for his darkly funny comedy, “La Table,” which focuses on the two bumbling French carpenters charged with constructing and reconstructing a table for some reason unknown o them (turns out, it was the 1968 Vietnam Peace Talks in Paris). Now, the play is getting its official world premiere in Palm Springs at the Black Box Theatre, March 3-13. Jack just finished the libretto for a new bilingual border musical, “ Destino .” Take a trip to Palm Springs and see what local talent can do!
Meanwhile, a creation of local playwright JIM CAPUTO was selected for the 2005 Play Slam in Ashland , Oregon , a new adjunct to their acclaimed New Play Festival. “The Secret Royal Order of the Feminine Gender” is the story of two pre-teens who go wild in their self-initiation into the mysteries of womanhood. One of Jim’s earlier plays, the funny “Maternal Spirits,” recently produced at Scripps Ranch Theatre, was a winner at the Palm Springs International Playwriting Festival and was selected for the Ashland New Play Festival in 2003. Jim’s work was well represented last year at the Fritz Blitz and the Actors Festival.
You go, guys! Keep on rockin ,’!
…BLACK TO GLORY… That’s the theme of the 13th annual KUUMBA FEST at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, which runs this weekend (2/25-2/27) at the Lyceum Theatre. The paean to “Mind, Body and Soul,” intended to honor positive community role models and resources, features music, dance, theater, fashion, food and fun. The dramatic offerings include four original plays: “Black Like That” by event artistic director Daj-Ahn Blevins (directed by Charles W. Patmon , Jr., who wowed audiences as all the men in “Crowns”); “Which Way to Go” by Ameerah Stanislas and Blevins; “He Was There All the Time,” written/directed by Darrell Allbritton ; and “To Everything There is a Season,” by Lonette Morris, directed by Diannah Smith. For the schedule and all the details, check out sandiegorep.com.
…SPEAK THE SPEECH, I PRAY YOU…
Wanna get a jump on the talents of tomorrow? The budding thespians and Shakespearean specialists of the not-too-distant future? Then check out the English-Speaking Union Shakespeare Competition, being held this weekend at the La Jolla Playhouse, on Sunday, March 6 (semi-finals 1-4:00; finals begin at 5:30). The national event began in 1983 in New York , with 500 students participating. The San Diego competition was initiated in 1986, and in 2002, an art contest was added, in order to expand the youthful exposure to the Bard. Young artists were asked to design a program cover and t-shirt. For the performance segment, students must first win a competition at their high school, which qualifies them for the semi-finals. They memorize a sonnet and a brief monologue (20 lines or fewer). Since the Globe and Playhouse alternate hosting the event, a workshop is provided each year by the MFA students at the affiliated graduate program — USD or UCSD. Over the two decades of the San Diego competition, the judges have included such local luminaries as Craig Noel, Des McAnuff, Arthur Wagner, Jonathan McMurtry, Jonathan Saville , Richard Easton, Rick Seer, George Flint and Rosina Reynolds. I’ll be among those doing the honors this year. The winner receives a trip to New York for the national competition. The New York champ gets a trip to London for a summer course at Oxford University . The stated goal of the English-Speaking Union is “to create global understanding through English.” There are scores of chapters in the U.S. and other countries. So, come on down, to support the beauty of the English language, and help celebrate the 20th anniversary of this inspiring local event. To paraphrase “Henry V,” these contestants are “in the very May-morn of [their] youth, Ripe for exploits and mighty enterprises.” For further information, contact Rita Bronowski at 858-453-4994, firstname.lastname@example.org.
…And on another Bard-note note… North Coast Repertory Theatre artistic director David Ellenstein will be conducting two free Shakespeare workshops, to help him scout for potential cast members for NCRT’s fall production of “Romeo and Juliet.” The working sessions will focus on text analysis, rhetorical speaking, imagery and bringing verse to life. Space is limited to 15;admission is by interview. Call 858-481-2155 X 26 for an appointment.
NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED‘ LIST:
“ Cosi fan Tutte ” – sumptuously designed, acted and sung. Great fun, glorious music!
At the Civic Theatre, through March 2.
“The Waiting Room” – this dark comic look at the high price of beauty – across the centuries – gets an excellent airing at SDSU.
In the Experimental Theatre, through February 27.
“Thunder at Dawn” – a timely/timeless tale of soldiers on desert duty. Taut, intense and provocative.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through March 20.
“Golda’s Balcony” – a brilliant, bravura performance; the story of a powerhouse woman who helped birth a nation.
At the Wadsworth Theatre in L.A., extended through February 26.
“When the World Was Green” – Kirsten Brandt’s beautifully spare, precise farewell to Sledge and San Diego. Understated, evocative design and performances.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through March 13.
“I Just Stopped By to See the Man” – Blues in the Night. Director Seret Scott has marshaled an outstanding cast – and they all beautifully sing the blues. Lovely production.
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through March 13. EXTENDED THROUGH 3/20/05
“The Gin Game” – alternating casts in this touching, funny, often brutal and unblinking look at old age. Cast B is wonderful; I haven’t seen Cast A. But this is a show (perhaps even a cautionary tale) for everyone, of any age.
At the Broadway Theatre in Vista, through February 27.
“Take Me Out” – funny, thought-provoking play about the coming-out of a sports superstar… Baseball, comedy, drama — and a big Bonus! — all those naked men!
At the Old Globe Theatre, EXTENDED through February 27.
February’s been a bear; hope March is a lamb. Stay dry.. in a theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.