KPBS AIRDATE: November 2, 2001
The forces of good and evil are duking it out on the fields of Afghanistan and the stages of San Diego. Three current plays focus on malignant men who, lusting beyond all reason, meet a calamitous end. In all three, the star is somewhat less than stellar and the production values outshine the production.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, we get the villainous “Richard III,” the physically and mentally deformed monster who kills and seduces, betrays and deceives relatives and friends, widows and wives, to seize the English throne. In setting Shakespeare’s 16th century history as a modern political drama, director Kirsten Brandt has mounted an edgy, Sledgy production, wondrously designed and often magnificent to behold. But her uneven company isn’t up to the task, and the multiple casting makes it difficult to tell who’s who. Lou Seitchik has the physicality and salacious appetites of the hunchbacked king, but he falls short of a terrifying malevolence as he races through his lines. The speedy rhythms obliterate the poetry and cloud the meaning. The only actors who deftly handle the lush and brutal language are Jessa Watson, Ruff Yeager and the imposing Priscilla Allen, who makes of Queen Margaret a dark, prescient Cassandra, foreshadowing the awful events to come. There are long stretches in the 3-hour evening, but some extremely inventive moments wake you up and make you take notice.
A purported contemporary of Richard was John Faustus, the knowledge-and power-hungry German alchemist who sold his soul to the Devil. Director Robert Smyth has adapted Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus” to fine effect, and the Lamb’s Players design team is working overtime in overdrive. Jeanne Reith’s costumes are miraculous, and Deborah Gilmore Smyth’s original score is haunting and beautiful. As Mephistopheles, Paul Eggington grounds the piece and gives it gravitas. Tom Stephenson’s Faustus is less solid, strongest at the end when he confronts his terror and faces his fate. A bit of magical techno-wizardry adds a tantalizing touch of the otherworldly.
But when it comes to technology, the Miz-Phantom-Saigon grand prize goes to the world premiere of “Dracula: The Musical” at La Jolla Playhouse. It harks back to those overblown European musicals of yore, where the set overpowers the cast, costumes, characters and score. With Des McAnuff’s dynamic direction and John Arnone’s kinetic scenery, there is not a moment of rest or respite. The wildly imaginative, filmic design is in constant, dizzying, hyperactive motion. All this, plus the neck-snapping light changes, actually diminishes rather than heightens the suspense. Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s fairly faithful adaptation of the 1897 Bram Stoker classic gives no depth or complexity to the characters, about whom we couldn’t care less. And spare us those airborne, screaming-meemie vampirettes.
The singing and orchestrations are wonderful, but Frank Wildhorn’s score sounds like a composite of his two big populist successes: “Jekyll and Hyde” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” And oh, what a gooey, goppy message lurks within: Love conquers all; it can even kill the un-dead. As the blood-sucking Count, Tom Hewitt is impressive but alas, not irresistible. It seems audiences never tire of carnage, lust and creatures of the night, not to mention excessive, extravagant stage gimmickry. If that sounds like your theatrical lifeblood, head to La Jolla for a tuneful transfusion.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.