Pat Launer : Spotlight on Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, April 9, 2009
REVIEWS: “Rabbit Hole,” “The Cradle Will Rock,” “A Waltz Dream”
Achy, Breaky Heart
THE SHOW: “Rabbit Hole,” San Diego premiere of the 2007 winner of the Pulitzer Prize, at North Coast Repertory Theatre
There’s text, the written script. And there’s subtext, what’s going on beneath the surface, what the characters are really thinking. In “Rabbit Hole,” subtext trumps text. The fraught silences, the squirmily awkward and uncomfortable scenes, speak volumes. The dialogue’s not bad either. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire knows his way around lost souls, as some of his prior plays (“Kimberly Akimbo,” “Fuddy Meers”) clearly demonstrate. But this time, he’s turned his attention not on the disabled dispossessed, but on a garden variety, well-heeled family that comes unglued when tragedy strikes.
It was while he was a student at Juilliard, under the tutelage of playwright Marsha Norman, that he was told, “If you want to write a good play, write about the thing that frightens you most.” It took a few years for the idea to percolate, but when his son was 3 years old, Lindsay-Abaire realized that the most terrifying thing he could imagine was losing a child. Although he claims not to have any direct experience in family loss, he must have done his homework, because he so thoroughly, deeply and poignantly captures the many nuances, stages and responses to the death of a loved one.
It’s been eight months since 4 year-old Danny ran into the street and was hit by a car. Becca can’t move on, but she wants to put away all memory of her son, hiding photos, getting rid of the dog, even pushing to move out of her beloved home in the tony Larchmont neighborhood outside New York City . Her husband Howie just wants his life and wife back. He’s ready for conjugal connection, and he’s ready to advance to the next stage in the healing process, though he continues to compulsively watch the old videos of Danny every night. Then there’s Becca’s wild, washout sister, Izzy, whose every action (including an unexpected pregnancy) is an affront to Becca. Their mother seems similarly insensitive, in Becca’s view. She discourses (quite amusingly) on “the curse” of the Kennedys, among other non sequiturs that fill the empty space, and she repeatedly recalls her own loss of a son, though Becca thinks the drug-addled suicide of a 30 year-old is hardly comparable to her bottomless bereavement.
Everyone’s at an impasse; communication has all but broken down. Each character’s isolation is intense. And then, Becca gets a letter from the teenager who was driving the car that fatal day. Jason has written a sci-fi story about rabbit holes and parallel universes, and he wants to dedicate it to Danny. When the aggrieved mother and the guilty, damaged high schooler meet, it’s a breath-taking moment.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, director Stephen Elton has cast wonderfully, delicately balancing the tonal shifts and mining the tension-releasing humor with sensitivity and skill. Jo Anne Glover is excellent as the beaten-down Becca, crippled by despair, robotically going through the motions of cleaning up, folding clothes, cooking gourmet food. We don’t see the anger that’s seething within her, but we hear about it when it explodes unpredictably in a supermarket. L.A. actor Brendan Ford, who doesn’t perform locally nearly often enough, is marvelous as Howie, a husband who could be a lot less sympathetic in less capable hands. Ford’s Howie isn’t insistent and demanding so much as helpless in the face of his wife’s profound sorrow and misery. Jessa Watson is a hoot as Izzy, a role she played recently at San Jose Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Kirsten Brandt , former artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre. Izzy is uncultivated, uneducated, untamed, but she tells it like it is, randomly spewing thoughts everyone else has but no one would dare say. That outspoken tactlessness seems to come directly from her mother, Nat, whom Sandy Ellis-Troy makes a well-meaning, inept human, not a monstrous, overbearing caricature. Her Nat is trying the best she knows how (which is none too good) to reach and comfort her suffering daughter. And then there’s Mira Costa College student Ryan Kidd, who brings a disarming authenticity to the gawky, guilt-ridden Jason, another lost soul looking for closure.
The dynamics of family and mourning play out in Marty Burnett ’s beautifully sleek kitchen, with that kid’s room off to the left, untouched, whimsically decorated with the silly stuff that attracts and defines a young boy. There’s a moment when, putting it all away in boxes, Nat picks up a small pair of sneakers, and in that second of silence, you can hear the hearts breaking around you. The costumes (Michelle Hunt Souza) aren’t always flattering, but the lighting (Matt Novotny) captures the subtlety of the story, an anatomy of grief with the hope of healing, charged with solemnity, wit and grace.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 1987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Solana Beach; (858) 481-1055; North Coast Repertory Theatre
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $30-39. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., select Wednesdays at 7pm and select Saturdays at 2 p.m., through April 26.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
History Repeats Itself
THE SHOW: “The Cradle Will Rock,” a 1937musical that looks all too relevant to Stone Soup Theatre
Corporate America has gotten out of control. Corruption, greed and deception rule. Not today’s headlines, but those of Depression Era America. The provocative “play in music” has an impressive pedigree – and history. Written/composed by activist Marc Blitzstein, directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman, its rocky opening was chronicled by actor/writer/director Tim Robbins in a semi-fictional 1999 film, “Cradle Will Rock.”
Basically, the unforgettable story of the thwarted opening goes like this: Welles tried to stage the pro-union musical under the Federal Theater Program that provided government support of unemployed artists, despite pressure from an establishment fearful of industrial unrest and Communist activity. Set to premiere in June 1937, with elaborate sets and a full orchestra, the production was summarily shut down on opening night, ostensibly due to budget cuts, but more likely because the show was thought to be pro-Communism. The theater was padlocked and surrounded by armed servicemen. On the spur of the moment, Welles, Houseman and Blitzstein rented another theater and a piano, and invited the entire audience to attend for free, walking with them the 20 blocks to the new space. Blitzstein sat down at the piano and started playing. The actors, who were barred from performing onstage by their own union, Actors’ Equity, stayed in the audience and sang the score from there. The impromptu performance was a huge hit. Many in attendance considered it to be one of the most moving theatrical experiences of their lives; in homage to that historically significant event, performances up to the present have generally eschewed elaborate production values, opting instead to employ simple sets and one sole piano.
And that’s the setup for the Stone Soup Theatre production, which is earnest and well-intentioned. The dramaturgy was extensive; the cast is obviously aware of the parallels of tough times then and now (they’re even offering Pay What You Can tickets for every performance). And they also know that the piece is less about corruption than about the power of the Little Guy, the workingman or Everyman, the blue-collar employee or the middle class, to stand up and take a stand, in an effort to change society.
The characters are prototypes with names like Larry Foreman, Editor Daily, and Dr. Specialist; the big boss-man, who owns everyone and everything, is Mr. Mister. Under the direction of Lindsey Duoos Gearhart, 12 actors play some two dozen roles. But the characters aren’t sufficiently delineated, the voices aren’t always up to the task, and the driving lyrics aren’t always clearly articulated. Musical director Billy Thompson is potent as accompanist as well as narrator, Clerk and others. Christopher T. Miller cuts an imposing and charismatic figure as rabble rouser and union organizer Larry Foreman. Brett Daniels is convincing as the megalomaniacal Mr. Mister, and Sarah Michelle Cuc is convincing as his supercilious wife, Mrs. Mister. As Reverend Salvation, Bryan Curtiss White brings the house down with his rousing sermon and physical agility. But though the show’s messages are timely, they’re also heavy-handed agitprop of a type that’s grown musty over time. And the cast, with all its sincerity and intensity, falls short of inspiring us to take action, which is what the piece is ultimately all about.
THE LOCATION: The 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Avenue , San Diego 92101 . ( 619) 287-3065; Stone Soup Theatre
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $25 in advance (online only). On site: Pay What You Can. Performances: Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m., through April 26.
NOTE : Marc Blitzstein’s biographer, Eric Gordon, will be in town to see the show on Friday, April 10, and will be participating in a post-show Q & A.
“A Waltz Dream,” the local premiere of a 1907 operetta, at Lyric Opera San Diego
He wrote waltzes, and “A Waltz Dream,” but Oscar Straus wasn’t part of the legendary dynasty of the “Waltz King,” Johann Strauss. Still, Straus was influenced by the famous family, and in this operetta, he was clearly trying to recapture the charm and deceptive simplicity of those 19th century musical confections. His source material was a 1905 novella, “Nur der Prinzgemahl” (Only the Prince Consort), by Hans Müller-Einingen. His German libretto was written by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dörmann and adapted for the London stage by Basil Hood and Adrian Ross. Now, along comes Lyric Opera San Diego, with a further adaptation of a rather colloquial English version. Conductor Leon Natker ’s translation from the original German was used by director Jack Montgomery to revise some of the spoken dialogue and song lyrics.
A smashing success in 1907, the operetta feels a bit dated today. It lacks the charm of “The Merry Widow” (Franz Lehár’s perennial favorite) or Straus’ own ‘Waltz Dream” followup, “The Chocolate Soldier.” The story is set in the fictional state of Flausenthurn, whose princess has just married Niki, a lieutenant from the Austrian Army. On their wedding night, Niki wants out. He refuses to consummate the marriage, and instead runs off to a beer garden, where he meets Franzi, the free-spirited leader of an all-female Viennese orchestra. Through a series of disguises and machinations, the Princess learns how to become a flirtatious, insouciant Viennese wife. At last, Niki is smitten by his bride, and all ends well for everyone.
The Lyric Opera production is a prodigious effort, but not a wholly successful one. Every element is inconsistent. The set (uncredited) is attractive in the Garden scene, but the painted backdrops look tacky. The costumes (Pam Stompoly-Ericson) are attractive for some actors/characters, but unflattering to others. The string-heavy, 31-instrument orchestra, under the baton of Leon Natker , sounds vigorous and confident at times, sluggish at others, especially during the first act. Similarly, the direction (J. Sherwood Montgomery) gets off to a slow start, and not all the performers appear to be on the same theatrical page. Some are doing comic shtick; others are playing the piece like a serious drama. It isn’t till the second of three acts that the light comic opera kicks in.
There’s variability in the musical performances as well. As the central couple, Niki and Princess Helene, bel canto tenor Chad Hilligus and North County native Laura Parker, soprano, exhibit stiff physicality and competent but not aurally appealing voices, in spite of the high notes repeatedly reached. The comic kudos go to musical theater veteran Geno Carr as thwarted, scheming Count Lothar, and as the King, syrup-voiced bass Walter DuMelle, who was hilarious in Lyric Opera’s recent “Trial by Jury.” Almost all the vocal and dramatic attention is captured by Kansas City-based soprano Stacey Stofferahn, making a welcome return to LOSD after her triumph in “The Merry Widow,” and her eventual beau, the dashing, mustachioed baritone Christopher Johnstone. Pamela Laurent is also notable as lady-in-waiting Frederica. Perhaps things are coming together over the course of the run, but this isn’t likely to be one of the most requested in the Lyric Opera repertoire.
THE LOCATION: Lyric Opera San Diego at the Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave.
San Diego 92104; (619) 269-1348 ; www.lyricoperasandiego.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $30-50 ($15 for youth age 3-17). Remaining performances: Thursday 4/9 and Saturday 4/11 at 7:30 p.m., Sunday 4/12 at 2:30 pm
NEWS AND VIEWS
… A Thrill for Thespians: Broadway and Hollywood casting comes to San Diego , for the second annual Stage, Screen and Television Actors’ Conference at SDSU, which features presentations, master classes and private audition consultations. High-profile presenters include casting directors from New York , L.A. and San Diego . Ample opportunities for beginning to professional actors. April 25-26 at the SDSU Extension Conference Center , 5250 Campanile Dr. www.actorsconferences.com .
…Moxie Makes the Big Time… The plucky, adventurous little Moxie Theatre has been named the newest Resident Theatre Company of the La Jolla Playhouse. The brainchild of LJP artistic director Christopher Ashley , the Resident Theatre Program was designed to encourage the artistic development of up-and-coming theater groups who have no homebase, while enhancing the local theater scene overall. Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company initiated the program, and Moxie makes an excellent addition. It’s a spunky, professional non-profit theatre company founded five years ago by a talented and critically acclaimed foursome: Jo Anne Glover , Liv Kellgren, Jennifer Eve Thorn and artistic director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg . The Moxie moniker means “courage, gumption, perseverance, guts.” Their mission is to “use the intimate art of theater to create more honest and diverse female images for our culture.” And they’ve been true to both objectives, with award-winning productions such as “Dog Act,” “Kimberly Akimbo” and “The Listener.” During their time at the Playhouse (July-September 2009), they’ll receive publicity, rent-free performance space, and administrative advice and support. Look for further news here about their first La Jolla production.
… On the heels of legendary singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen’s sold out appearance in San Diego, as part of his knockout world tour, Malashock Dance is paying tribute to the troubadour’s most moving songs, in a world premiere dance performance called “Shadow of Mercy.” April 17-19 only, at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . www.malashockdance.org.
… Bill’s Birthday Bash: What better way to celebrate the 444th birthday of William Shakespeare (April 23) than by having kids of all ages celebrate the Bard? The 4th annual Student Shakespeare Festival, sponsored by the San Diego Shakespeare Society, will be held once again in Balboa Park . More than 350 students, from elementary through high schools around the County, will bring the Bard alive by performing short, 15-minute scenes or segments from the plays. The Festival begins at 12:30 with a procession from the Organ Pavilion to the multiple stages along the Prado. At the end of the day, awards are presented for best dramatic scenes, best comedy scenes and best collage scenes at each educational level. Saturday, April 25. www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org .
… Trying something new: The Platt Brothers, those wacky, multi-talented, Flying Wallenda-like local sibs, are varying their shows every night for the rest of their run. The self-titled mélange of songs, antics and acrobatics will include new music, dances, home movies, skits and scenes at each performance. Friday and Saturday nights through April 25 at the Sunset Temple in North Park . www.sunsettemple.com
… Was it or wasn’t it? Part of the performance, that is. Last Saturday night, during the Broadway production of Neil LaBute’s “reasons to be pretty,” a man in the audience stood up and started ranting at the lead actor (Marin Ireland), berating her with a stream of invective and unprintable epithets. Then he stormed out of the theater. Though the New York Times reported that the incident was not part of the show, someone who was there saw more than a passing resemblance between the irate observer and the male understudy. So, perhaps it was a press stunt, which bore a bit of irony. It’s almost the same kind of prank legendary impresario David Merrick famously arranged at a performance of “Look Back in Anger” almost 50 years ago – at the same theater! (The Lyceum). Ink is ink, as they say in the biz.
… Congress gets into the act: At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual “Will on the Hill” performance, members of Congress, media personalities and Washington insiders add a little more drama to their already stage-worthy lives. They’re set to perform in scenes from The Bard that are infused with comedic references to contemporary politics. Seventeen Senators and Representatives and eight notable Washington VIPs will perform “A Midsession Night’s Dream,” which follows the path of a young Senate page who falls asleep during a filibuster and is visited by the spirit of William Shakespeare. Together, they travel around, resolving conflicts, exposing hypocrisy and magically transforming the Capitol into a Shakespearean utopia. Ah, if only life would imitate art sometimes. May 4, Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington , D.C. ; email@example.com .
… Meet the Dancing Star: Emmy and Academy-award-winning actress Cloris Leachman is coming to town, to Encinitas, that is. Attendance to the 6:30 p.m. VIP reception is very limited. At 7:15, the 82 year-old Leachman will be interviewed on “The Art of Acting for the Screen,” and then she’ll sign copies of her new autobiography, “Cloris.” The free monthly SoCal MovieMakers is part of the evening. April 23 at the Encinitas Library. Pre-registration required. www.socalmoviemakers.com .
… Did you know that April is National Poetry Month? So feel free to read, write or appreciate something lyrical.
THE READING ROOM
Upcoming Readings :
… The debut of the new San Diego Playwrights’ Collective, at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach : Monday, April 13 premieres “Who’s Afraid of Me, Myself & Edward Albee?” by Matt Thompson and “The Perfect Daisy,” by Carmen Beaubeaux. On Tuesday, April 14, the readings will be of Jason Connors’ “There’s Someone Living in the House that Jack Built,” and Tim West’s “ Cooperstown .” Information about the series at: (858) 481-2155.
… Carlsbad Playreaders also presents Tim West’s “ Cooperstown ,” Monday, April 13 at 7:30 p.m., at the Carlsbad City Library, 1775 Dove Lane . Information at www. carlsbadplayreaders .org
…”The Corpse Bride,” a play with music by local actor/writer Mike Sears, will get its first staged reading this month. Adapted from a Russian folk tale of the same name, it’s all about a nervous groom-to-be who, while practicing his vows, inadvertently marries the corpse of a long-dead, betrayed bride. In 2005, Tim Burton made an animated film loosely based on the story. This new version includes original music composed by multi-instrumentalist Scott Paulsen. Directed by Lisa Berger , the reading features Rebecca Johannsen, Jeannine Marquie , Annie Hinton and Eric Vest . April 20 at 8 p.m. at the 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Avenue , downtown San Diego . www.stonesouptheatre.net.
…Moxie Theatre ’s excellent staged reading of “Eleemosynary,” will be reprised at the Avo Theatre, as part of Moonlight Stage Productions’ WordsWorks program. Monday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m., 303 Main Street , Vista 92084 . Open seating; forum to follow. (760) 630-7650.
…PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
• “Rabbit Hole”– touching, searing drama, excellently executed
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 4/26; www.northcoastrep.org
• “The Hit” – fast-paced, funny mix of murder, mystery and romance
Lamb’s Players at the Horton Grand Theatre, open-ended; www.lambsplayers.org
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-04-02/things-to-do/pat-launer-spotlight-on-theater-2
• “Opus” – exhilarating behind-the-scenes glimpse of artists at work
The Old Globe at the San Diego Museum of Art, through 4/26; www.theoldglobe.org
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-04-02/things-to-do/pat-launer-spotlight-on-theater-2
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-03-19/things-to-do/pat-launers-spotlight-on-theater
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-03-26/things-to-do/pat-launer-spotlight-on-theater
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.