KPBS AIRDATE: June 5, 1996
The theater news of the week is bicoastal, with a pronounced San Diego accent. The big winner at the Tony Award ceremony was the new musical, “Rent,” directed by La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Michael Greif.
I watched the rushed but theatrically ho-hum awards ceremony with an intimate and animated group of 200 at the La Jolla Playhouse Sunday night, three hours earlier than everyone else, thanks to a large-screen simulcast.
Never mind that the too-frequent commercials from the Raleigh-Durham feeder station advertised field and brush mowers.
Never mind that the strict CBS two-hour time-slot cut off most recipients’ 30 seconds in the spotlight.
Try not to mind that people who make their living learning lines cannot memorize the dippy dialogue and four nominee names they have to say in front of the camera (the same goes for the Oscar Awards ceremony, by the way).
And even despite the fact that Michael Greif didn’t win for best director, and young writer-composer Jonathan Larson didn’t live to see his triumph, the mood was buoyant and the evening was great fun, mostly because “Rent” pulled in four Tonys, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score.
Greif’s direction of the exciting and inventive Pulitzer Prize-winner will certainly help to keep San Diego’s profile high on the national theater landscape. Actually, our Broadway connection was the norm, reflecting an ongoing trend in American theater. Every one of the eight Tony nominees for best musical and best drama originated in non-profit theaters. San Diego beginnings often have happy Broadway endings. Now, if we could just get to be a first-string road-stop, and get national tours earlier than two years after L.A……
For a smorgasbord of homegrown theatrics, you can’t do better than to sample the fare at the Fritz Blitz of New Plays. This third edition of the Blitz is as varied as ever, featuring a bevy of local talent, both onstage and off. Writers try out their stuff, actors try directing, new and familiar faces take center-stage. Both the quality of the writing and the productions continues to improve. Each of the six weekends has a different program, ranging from one to five pieces in an evening.
Last week, there were three quirky quickies by Fritz and Blitz regulars, two of them performed by San Diego’s most natural and unaffected actor, Walter Murray. In Michael Hemmingson’s “No Vampires or Cannibals, Please,” Murray’s video dating monologue goes rapidly from the mundane to the bizarre. Stuart Ostfeld’s tightly written memory piece, “The Third Eye,” has Murray recalling a disturbingly unforgettable event from his childhood. “Quiz” by Karin Williams, is more on-the-nose than is typical of her writing, but this little abortion-clinic commentary was well done by Suzy Starling.
Michael P. Conley’s “Five Endings” is cute but derivative, a knockoff of David Ives’ clever “Sure Thing,” but this is five scenarios on how to terminate a relationship, rather than Ives’ multiple ways to begin one. The other two plays need a lot more work, but Justin Brinsfield stood out in “Marmalade Masturbation,” because of his flexible face, and the fact that, when he’s onstage, it’s kinda hard to watch anyone else.
More recent works to be seen at the Eighth Annual Streisand Festival of New Jewish Plays, this year being held at the La Jolla Playhouse. The Monday night staged readings are enormously popular, and selling out fast. The Festival got off to a terrific start with this week’s reading of Tony Kushner’s “A Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds.” A large, stellar cast and a very powerful play, adapted from S. Ansky’s 1920 tale of supernatural events and demonic possession in a 19th century Polish village. This will be a very hard act to follow.
Meanwhile, in Golden Hill, there’s a small company doing a bangup job on a small play. The five year-old San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre continues to present provocative and professional work with a social conscience. The current venture is “Home,” an acclaimed 1979 piece by Samm-Art Williams which is nostalgic, uplifting and simply, beautifully written. In his directing debut, actor Rhys Green is respectful of his cast and of the lyrical text; his production is haunting and touching.
As Cephus Miles, Stefan Denae Umstead is a miracle of expression, masterfully depicting the pain, joy, sorrow, depravity, degradation and redemption of one good-hearted Southern farmer who gets seduced by the big city up north, learning the hard way that he’s only grounded when he’s home on his land. The versatile Janet Mescus and Anaiis Salles play a host of other characters, and bring music to the rhythmic proceedings. On the night I was there, the Baraka Drummers opened the show, perfectly setting the tempo and tone.
“Home” is one of those well-mounted, small-theater San Diego gems that you definitely should add to your collection.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.