Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
March 4, 2010
THE SHOW: “ The Tempest , ” a co-production of North Coast Repertory Theatre and Mira Costa College
A magical, theatrical mashup . North Coast Repertory Theatre has teamed up with Mira Costa College to present what most consider to be Shakespeare’s final play, the enchanting and enchanted “The Tempest.” Though next to nothing is known of Shakespeare’s life, it’s been inserted into this play. When the wizard Prospero gives up his magic, scholars assert that Shakespeare was expressing the end of his own (literary) sorcery. That has always added a soupçon of melancholy to what is basically a romance touched by the miraculous and supernatural.
The story, very much like a fairy tale, goes like this. Years ago, Prospero was deposed, by his vicious brother, from his rightful place as Duke of Milan. Gloating with power, the evil Antonio set Prospero and his infant daughter afloat during a storm, assuming they’d drown. Instead, they washed up on a distant island, where Prospero, who’d saved his sorcerer’s books, took control of the local sprites (including the wraithlike Ariel) and monsters (specifically, the gruesome Caliban ) and made a life for himself and young Miranda. He was biding his time, hungry for revenge. Now, twelve years have gone by, and a ship carrying Antonio and his nefarious accomplice, Alonso, the King of Naples, has veered near the island. Prospero whips up a deadly storm to capsize the boat, but makes sure that no passenger is harmed. They disperse, come ashore, and are magically forced by Prospero to learn lessons, confront their misdeeds, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation. In the meantime, Alonso’s son, Ferdinand, falls in love with Miranda, and there are several murderous plots afoot. Just before things really go awry, Prospero brings everyone together, resolves all the issues, renounces his magic, discards his books and prepares to return to Italy . As his final act, he releases both Ariel and Caliban from their servitude.
Some modern interpretations have focused on Prospero’s colonialist enslavement, but NCRT artistic director David Ellenstein presents a clear, apolitical, forthright reading of the piece, with a strong cast that blends pros with student actors. At the center is Jonathan McMurtry, a local favorite and Shakespeare specialist, having appeared at the Old Globe in just about every play in the canon. During the preview I attended, his lines weren’t set, and though he can ‘cover’ a Shakespeare flub or gaffe better than just about anyone, the hesitations sapped power from the portrayal. When he had a well-known set-piece to perform (e.g., “Our revels now are ended…” which ends with the magnificent “We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on”), McMurtry’s presentation was flawless, and filled with all the emotional variation the role requires. Presumably, by this time in the run, these bumps will have smoothed out, and he will gain the full mastery of the stage that is his stock-in-trade.
Outstanding performances are contributed by Christopher M. Williams as Ariel and Richard Baird as Caliban . Williams, wonderfully dressed in a sea-colored unitard , seems part bird, part android in his hyper-alert, staccato head-turns. His Ariel is captivating, numinous. Baird’s Caliban is something of a dullard, with sluggish, clumsy movements and speech, though he intones the play’s most lyrical lines, describing the island in beautiful, evocative language. He’s something of a scurvy beast, but a wondrous one, in his own ungainly way. When he joins up with the clownish jester, Trinculo (excellent Jason Maddy ) and his drunken sidekick, Stephano (amusingly bloviating John Herzog), the trio’s comedy is irresistible. As the ingénues, Miranda and Ferdinand, Aimee Burdette and Ryan Kidd are wide-eyed innocence and young love personified.
The design work is superb, very textural, from the earth-tone caves, vines and tree-trunks of the set (Dixon Fish) to the ethereal sounds that circle the theater ( windchimes , Tibetan singing bowls and more by Chris Luessmann , with original compositions by Adam Oliveros ), to the bewitching costumes (Michelle Hunt Souza) and idyllic lighting (Paul Canaletti , Jr.). The props (Bonnie Durben ) and striking makeup (Larry Jorgensen) bear mention, too. And the space is a wonder; the open, airy, state-of-the-art theater on the campus is put to magnificent use.
There are so many delights, you’ll be glad to get caught in this “Tempest.”
THE LOCATION: Mira Costa College Theatre, 1 Bernardo Drive , Oceanside . (760) 795-6815; www.northcoastrep.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $15-25. Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., plus Saturday, 3/13 at 2 p.m., through March 14.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
Sweet (comic) Vengeance
THE SHOW: “Orestes” – a local translation of Euripides’ classic
Revenger’s Tragedy, Revisited. Last week, I reported on the Thomas Middleton play of that name, written in 1606. Now, we go even further back in history, where blood flows, bodies pile up and there’s plenty of “murder most foul” (to borrow from the Bard). “Orestes” was created by Euripides in 408 B.C. The title character, part of that doomed House of Atreus , has just, along with his (possibly incestuous) sister, murdered his mother, who had murdered their father. Violence begat violence, even 2500 years ago. The people want the sibs stoned to death. Orestes has gone mad. He insists that it was all Apollo’s fault; the god made him do it. Their hope is Uncle Menelaus, husband of Helen (the one whose face “launched 1000 ships” – and whose kidnapping launched the Trojan War). When Uncle M turns them down, and refuses to go to bat for them, they decide to kill Helen and her daughter. But when they try, Helen mysteriously disappears. At last, Apollo shows up, deus ex machina , as they say, to put things right. He explains that, as a daughter of Zeus, Helen has ascended to the stars. He directs Orestes to marry her daughter, Hermione.
Like opera plots (see Nabucco , below), there isn’t always a great deal of narrative sense in the ancient stories. But if the actions and characters weren’t relevant, we wouldn’t still be watching. Speaking of watching, given the wackiness of the plot machinations, in The Theatre Inc.’s production, Apollo’s appearance at the end is staged as a game show (you might recall that “The Revenger’s Tragedy” was presented as reality TV). And the Chorus, instead of a bevy of dour, somber, black-clad women, is a bunch of hot little twinkies – very young girls (age 9-17), in short dresses, with the same shiny blonde wigs, heavy black eye makeup and ruby red lips. The youngest of them (adorable, talented Felicity Bryant) looks a little like Jon- Ben et Ramsey, the slain beauty-pageant phenom . Creepy. Same goes for the Phrygian slave, who’s played (by director Doug Lay , one of three characters he portrays) as a bowing, scraping Chinese with all the L/R speech confusions anyone could muster. Un-P.C. and tasteless, but it’s all in good fun, supposedly. Not so funny from my perspective. But the kids’ singing a capella songs (directed and assembled or composed by Leigh Scarritt) is amusing, melding songs like “Son of a Preacher-Man,” “Rollin’ on a River,” “Sunrise, Sunset” and, most aptly, “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Killing Me Softly.”
Although there’s entirely too much yelling and screaming, especially in such a small space, John Polak soars as Orestes, and Melissa Hamilton is fine as his overly doting sister. Diana Sparta is a hoot as the ditsy, hair-twisting Hermione; Chris Fonseca and Fred Harlow add considerably to the mix. Helen is portrayed as a blonde, shades-wearing manikin, who rises up on a pulley at the end, as she rises heavenward. Plenty of humor here, in the production and the contemporary, accessible translation by Dr. Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton. If you like your bloody tragedy laced with over-the-top comedy, this one’s for you.
THE LOCATION: The Theatre, Inc., 899 C Street, downtown. (619) 216-3016; www.thetheatreinc.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $22-25. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., through March 21.
Gone but not forgotten…
… Plays by Young Writers” – the Playwrights Project presentations of the winning plays in their 25th statewide contest
Caught the rest of the presentations of Plays by Young Writers (Last week, I reported on the marvelous, provocative girls’ school exposé, “Re-Drowning Ophelia” and the inventive “In the Stars”). Now I can safely say that this is one of the stronger years of the festival. All the plays effectively mixed humor with serious themes.
The short readings were “The Tale of Jack,” by 13 year-old Enrique Hernandez of Escondido , and “The Funny Bone,” by 12 year olds Chris Toth and Mikie Kantya Layavong of San Diego . Both were excellently executed, and surprisingly wise. “Jack” had to do with facing death with dignity. “Funny Bone” concerned realizing what you’ve got, before you go for surgery to make yourself ‘better.’
The full productions included “What All School Children Learn,” by 16 year-old Ben jamin Sprung-Keyser of L.A. The focus here was on bullying, and how one young, creative child took matters into his own hands. He didn’t quite fight fire with fire, taking a violent approach, though he did do some taunting of his own – of the intellectual kind. And this alarmed the school’s parents more than any eye-for-an-eye revenge could have. Sensitively directed by Anne Tran, the play featured several superb young performers, including 5th grader Andrew Poole, who shone in last year’s Plays by Young Writers, as the newly-empowered victim. Moral: Beware the bullying of clever kids; they might just outsmart you.
“Funny Little Thing,” by 17 year-old Quinn Sosna -Spear of Santa Barbara , juxtaposed dating and new romance with a long-term, stable relationship. On the lower level, goofy, inept, 30 year-old Mama’s boy Sam suffers through or ruins a series of awkward, awful blind dates. Before and after each one, he’s encouraged and soothed by the compassionate waitress at the café where he meets all these inappropriate prospects. Meanwhile, on the porch up above, rocking on the outside (“we also rock inside!”), is a dotty older couple who can’t always remember the details, but they celebrate their enduring togetherness. The young audience when I was there was tickled to death by the thought of sex in seniors, and they audibly adored the fact that the younger couple finally got together. Under the direction of George Yé , the performances were delectable, and the sweet, adult sentimentality of the piece was extraordinary.
Watching these plays, and seeing them in the company of young people, restores your faith in the future – and the future of theater.
… The Marriage Bed , at Diversionary Theatre. Marriage is a daunting prospect for any couple. But when you’re a radical lesbian feminist who considers the institution suffocating, patriarchal and antiquated, you may have a few hesitations. And maybe you’re not even over your ex. Plus , your partner isn’t even out to her family. Set in London in 2006, just after the UK passed its Civil Partners Act giving same-sex couples legal status (“marriage in all but name”), Nona Shepphard’s smart, witty play is part of the next phase of gay theater. We’ve passed the era of Coming Out stories, and the in-your-face we’re here/we’re queer assaults, comical or dramatic. Now we’re in the period of ‘we’re all in this together.’ And it’s refreshing, because these plays add a bracing new slant to universal problems. Director Rosina Reynolds brought out all the humor and poignancy in the piece. As funny/wild/volatile/radical Val, Dana Hooley was excellent, perfectly balanced by Dré Slaman as the more controlled, centered but closeted Jeni . A delightful duo. And thanks to the puppetry wizardry of Lynne Jennings , Slaman added a provocative third character to the mix: her disapproving mother, wheedling, needling and admonishing in a lilting Indian accent. Lovely work. Hooley used shadow puppets to re-enact her wedding-terror dream. A fresh, congenial twist on a familiar theme, especially welcome in these fraught, post-Prop 8 times.
… Nabucco . This was the San Diego Opera’s first production of the early Verdi opera in nearly 30 years. Both vocally and dramatically, it’s easy to see why. The role of Abigaille requires vocal pyrotechnics and acrobatics. The young Verdi required tremendous leaps, from coloratura highs to rock-bottom lows, often in adjacent notes. French soprano Sylvie Valayre, who’s assayed the role many times, across Europe , handled the challenge with aplomb, and brought dramatic heft to the woman who’s equal parts warrior, spurned lover, jealous sister, power-hungry leader and at last, suicidal repenter . Stunning work, matched in dramatic force and vocal prowess by American baritone Richard Paul Fink who, due to the illness of the original Nabucco , had only a few weeks to learn the role. He did a masterful job, commanding the stage with his powerhouse voice and presence. Basso profundo Raymond Aceto was outstanding as the Hebrew High Priest Zaccaria , his lowest lows impressively full and rich and sustained.
The story, which borrows from the Bible, also subverts it. In the 6th century B.C. E., the Babylonian king Nabucco (aka Nabuchadnezzar ) did indeed destroy the Hebrews’ Temple . But he didn’t have a lightning bolt epiphany, release the Jews and embrace their God and their religion. Hardly. Nor did both his daughters seek conversion. Nor did he tell his subjects to accept Judaism and watch as, like lambs, they all do. Sure. That’s gonna happen… then or now! One more little gripe, and this one’s with the production, rather than the text. Jews don’t kneel to pray; it’s a major tenet of the religion. And they don’t put their hands in prayerful poses. Okay, it’s creative license on the part of director Lotfi Mansouri . But it didn’t work for me. Everything else in the extravagant production did, though, from the robust Symphony Orchestra (under the direction of Edoardo Müller ) to the magnificent San Diego Opera chorus (led by chorus master Timothy Todd Simmons). The signature choral piece, “ Va pensiero ,” was a gorgeous display of nuance, from the whispered, pianissimo beginning, to its bold conclusion. The production, owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, was elaborate and beautiful, highlighted by exquisite projections (lighting by Michael Whitfield), although there were many times characters were in lost in shadow. Overall, a formidable and memorable production of a seriously challenging opera.
… Arelia’s Oratorio, a well-traveled production that made a brief stop at the La Jolla Playhouse, played havoc with time, expectation and the travails of daily life. Aurélia Thierrée Chaplin has clowning and circus performance in her blood. Her parents are Victoria Thierrée Chaplin (daughter of Charlie Chaplin) and Jean- Baptiste Thierrée , who brought their “Invisible Circus” to the Playhouse in 1995. Like her mother, this Chaplin (also the granddaughter of not-so-comical playwright Eugene O’Neill) is a dancer, a trapeze artist and in her unique way, an illusionist. Victoria directed this piece that’s been seen around the world. Harking back to the Invisible Circus, and the brilliant work of Bill Irwin (1986, 1991) at the Playhouse, it’s sheer, imaginative, gravity- and reality-defying fun. Best of all is how Chaplin turns everyday activities on their ear, so she waters her laundry, has considerable trouble with clocks, plants herself inside her dresser drawers and has clothing misfires and malfunctions of all kinds. Everyone can relate. Her agile, dancing sidekick, Jaime Martinez, is talented but a far less compelling performer. This is circus fare for the unconventional, filled with music, mime, magic and humor.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… New Resident in Town : The La Jolla Playhouse has chosen its third resident theater company, the San Diego Asian American Repertory Theatre (SDAART). As part of a landmark local program spearheaded by LJP artistic director Christopher Ashley , the small, peripatetic company will be in residence in the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre (formerly the Mandell Weiss Forum Studio) in late summer/fall, when they’ll present Julia Cho’s drama, “BFE.” In late spring 2011, AART will host their second annual “Short Play Festival: Innerviews .”
… Footloose and Fancy-Free: Anyone can snag a role in the Welk Resorts production of “Footloose.” All you have to do is win a singing competition. If you’re talented and over age 18, show up at the Welk Theatre in Escondido on Friday, March 19, sing a pop, rock, R&B, or musical theater song (bring sheet music and bio plus photo or headshot) and hope for the best. The 1998 stage adaptation of the 1984 film will have an 8-week run at the Welk, beginning in May. If you don’t get a role, there are other competition prizes, including an audition coaching session with the director (Ray Limon) and a vocal technique session with the producer (Joshua Carr). Sign-in begins at 9:30 a.m. on the 19th; the competition starts promptly at 10. Reservations strongly suggested. www.welktheatresandiego.com
… Saving Student Opera: The SDSU Opera Theater is in peril. A goodly amount of money was needed to save the program. The effort has been impressive; now there’s just $20,000 more to be raised by April 1, so the program can be restored for Fall 2010. Donations can be sent to:
SDSU Opera Theater, School of Music & Dance, 5500 Campanile Drive, San Diego, CA 92182. Attn: Kellie Evans-O’Connor.
… Sneak Peek: The Carlsbad Library is partnering with New Village Arts for an advance, behind-the-curtain view of NVA’s upcoming production of the Pulitzer prize-winning play, “The Heidi Chronicles.” Jan Balakian , author of “Reading the Plays of Wendy Wasserstein,” will discuss and sign her book, and actors from NVA will perform a scene from the show, which opens 4/1. At the Carlsbad City Library, Thursday, March 18, 7 p.m. Admission is free. For info: (760) 602-2012; www.carlsbadlibrary.org
… Timeless Tales: The Old Globe/USD MFA program is presenting a series of staged readings by masters of the short story form: Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. “The Chekhov/Carver Project” will be helmed by guest director Brendon Fox, former Old Globe associate artistic director. March 30 and 31 at 8 p.m. in the Studio Theatre at USD. Admission is free; no late seating.
… Dishin ’ with the Divas: Luke Yankee, the son of Oscar, Emmy and Tony winning actress, Eileen Heckart , will be in town for one night only, to tell his wild stories of growing up in a house where Ethel Merman taught him to make a martini — at age ten; he got acting tips from Paul Newman, and Marilyn Monroe babysat his brothers. Long-time critic and columnist Rex Reed called “ Diva Dish ” “touching, hilarious and completely enthralling.” Monday, March 15 at 7:30 p.m. at North Coast Repertory Theatre. (858) 481-1055; www.northcoast rep.org
… Best of San Diego Theatre ‘09: The TV broadcast of the 13th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence can now be viewed online at www.thepattefoundation.org . Catch it now if you missed it before.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v The Tempest – beautiful and enchanting
North Coast Repertory Theatre and Mira Costa College , through 3/14
v “Little Women” –engaging, amusing and touching new adaptation
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 3/14
v “Culture Clash in AmeriCCa ” – takes a big, cross-cultural, humorous and incisive bite out of the American pie
San Diego Repertory Theatre, through 3/7
v “An Inspector Calls” – razor-sharp production of a mystery/thriller classic
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through 3/21
v “The Wild Party” – wild, indeed! Cheeky, wicked and wonderfully sung/danced/acted
Coronado Playhouse, through 3/6
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, in the SDNN Search box.