Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
April 29, 2010
THE PLAY: “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”
You might say the play has come full circle. Though initially intended for Broadway, the drama premiered in a student production at Carleton College in Northfield , Minnesota . And now it’s getting an excellent airing at MiraCosta College in Oceanside .
Written in 1944, when the influential German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, was in exile in the U.S. , “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” was set in the fictional country of Grusinia , in the Caucasus region, at the end of WW II. It was, like all Brecht’s works, unapologetically political, commenting in slyly subversive, allegorical style, on the futility of war, the depravity of capitalistic greed, the inevitability of profiteering and corruption – and the potential for compassion, loyalty and love in a brutal, pitiless world. It’s all about a peasant girl who, after stealing a baby (left behind by its aristocratic, materialistic mom), becomes a better parent than its biological mother.
The source material was a 14th century Chinese play, “Circle of Chalk,” but the climactic scene is also reminiscent of the judgment of Solomon, with its one baby, two mothers, and a child at peril of being split in half. Here, it’s not the birth mother, but the adoptive mother who refuses to hurt the child and is awarded custody.
The piece was structured as a play within a play, but the Prologue, with its sometimes arcane dispute between two farming communes, is often omitted, as it is at MiraCosta . But many other imaginative elements are added, to make this a superb production, using the lucid, accessible translation of W.H. Auden and James & Tania Stern.
Eric Bishop, a skilled and inventive director (chair of the college’s Performing Arts Department) makes outstanding use of bunraku puppetry and giant-sized masks ( thanks to the wizardry of Iain Gunn of San Diego’s Zirk Ubu circus), as well as the movement techniques of Brazilian theatermaker Augusto Boal , who used bodies as sculpture. In one magical scene, the large cast forms a human bridge over which the young peasant girl, Grusha , can escape her pursuers, who are after the child.
Poor Grusha endures every manner of hardship, from fierce, forbidding weather and topography — excellently enacted – to heartless countrymen, to being forced to marry a dying man in order to ‘legitimize’ the child. This means she has to betray her true love, Simon (wonderfully mellow, teasing Sassan Saffari ), a soldier who does what he thinks is right by going off to war. He turns out to be loyal to Grusha , too. Summer Spiro, so compelling as the title character in MiraCosta’s “Elektra” in 2007 (for which Bishop won a Patté Award for directing), is marvelous here, fervent, fiercely determined, buffeted but undaunted by fate, an island of goodness in a sea of malice and dispassion.
Meanwhile, there’s the parallel story of Azbak (delightfully amusing Daniel Novoa ), a drunken, philosophizing clerk, who by a variety of bizarre happenstances, is named judge, and dispenses a comically idiosyncratic brand of Robin Hood justice. Tying the five acts and two stories together is the Singer (animated, talented Carly Delinger ), who leads the glorious a capella singing of the ‘songs’ Brecht includes in the text (vocal coach Deborah Dodaro; music composed by Lauren Bieber, Summer Spiro and Diane Schultz).
In the end, it’s Azbak who draws the chalk circle and passes judgment, in a magical scene that culminates in a stunning coup de théâtre . The design of the production is marvelous, from the ingeniously malleable set ( Jungah Han) to the oversized, often outrageous costumes (Caroline Mercier, Sydney Williams), the stylized makeup (Larry Jorgensen, Sharon Gully) to the ever-changing lighting (Paul Canaletti , Jr.) and crisp sound (Dane Schultz).
While not exactly ‘ Brechtian ’ in its execution, this production soars with whimsy, romance, humanity, hope and justice — even (encouragingly) in war-torn times.
THE LOCATION: MiraCosta College Theatre (Bldg. 2000), 1 Barnard Dr. , Oceanside . (760) 795-6815; www.miracosta.edu/events
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $8-12. Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sun day at 2 p.m., through May 2
Bottom Line: Best Bet
THE PLAY: “Miss Julie”
It’s Midsummer Eve, June 23, the night preceding one of the most festive holidays in Sweden . Outside, the servants on the count’s estate are celebrating with a high-spirited dance. In the kitchen, the help is discussing how Miss Julie is “crazy again,” hobnobbing with the underlings. And then, she swoops in, enjoining Jean, her father’s valet, to dance with her. She flirts, she cajoles, she’s coy and condescending, she entices and commands, charms and seduces. Push, as these things will, comes to shove. The boundary has been crossed; the relationship, such as it is, is consummated. And then what’s to be done? People will talk. And there’s the matter of Christine, the cook, Jean’s betrothed. The mistress and menial can no longer reside under the count’s roof. Can they run away? Should she escape alone? Or is there another option?
August Strindberg’s one-act 1888 tragedy is all about the unbridgeable divide between the classes and genders, its brief, intense action exploring the vagaries of lust, envy, power, domination and servility. Strindberg’s work often drew on his own experience; like his mixed-up title character, he was the product of a marriage of conflict: an aristocratic father and commoner mother. And like Miss Julie, he was also a little “crazy,” prone to psychotic attacks that ultimately hospitalized him.
His play is a little piece of Social Darwinism, a major tenet of 19th century the literary Naturalism he espoused. In this view, there is little free will; heredity and environment shape human behavior. People respond instinctually, in concert with, or in opposition to, their economic, social, cultural and familial background. Miss Julie is broken and weakened by her inheritance, while Jean is hardened by his. The complexity of personality and the balance of power shift by the moment in the play.
Miss Julie has an inborn female desire for male companionship, but she’s a product of her mother’s assiduous teaching to hate men. She’s constrained by her rule-bound, hidebound class, and dreams of falling, longing for the freedom of the masses, though she haughtily disparages them at every turn. Jean dreams of climbing higher, of buying a title, owning a hotel, having Miss Julie by his side. But he also disdains her social stratum, its purposelessness and useless trappings. Each is intensely attracted and repelled by the other. They play a dangerous, sexually-charged game of approach-avoidance, with dire, deadly consequences.
For three years, Stone Soup Theatre has been trying to mount a production of the Strindberg classic. They worked with scholar/translator Anne-Charlotte Harvey, SDSU professor emeritus, on a new version of the play. Now, finally, having reduced the original text (from 90 minutes to 70), they are having their day, but only for five performances, as part of what has turned out to be a Scandinavian Spring at North Coast Repertory Theatre. “Miss Julie” plays on off-nights, alternating with NCRT’s terrific production of the 1882 Norwegian classic, Henrik Isben’s “Ghosts.”
The cast has changed over time, though the lead actor has remained the same: Rebecca Johannsen , founding artistic director of Stone Soup. She’s splendid in the role, by turns playful and callous, enticing and ruthless. She’s matched, tone for tone, with the ever-expanding talent of Jason Maddy , who perfectly captures the well-mannered, French-speaking manservant who can equally easily be sensual, supercilious or sadistic, wielding his power of manhood with arrogance and aplomb. And between these high-toned two is complacent Christine (Erika-Beth Phillips, solid), a colorless, hyper-religious peasant who accepts her fate and has no desire to elevate her station. But the real power over all of them, trumping all the passions and desires, is the unseen count, the ultimate symbol of class and gender omnipotence.
The abbreviated translation leaves out a few details: the specifics of Miss Julie’s backstory (how her mother exacted financial vengeance on her father) and some of the lead-up to the final climax, which feels a tad rushed.
But this is a fine production, intense and impassioned, in the skillful hands of co-directors Lisa Berger and Carrie Klewin. It’s attractively costumed (Sonia Elizabeth) and lit (Valerie Breyne ), backed by evocative sound (Matt Warburton), though it would have been nice to be able to discern the ribald songs of the derisive rabble. Still, the festivities outdoors are contrasted with the hothouse interior, a dog-eat-dog, man-kill-bird world, where only the strong survive.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 985 Lomas Santa Fe Dr. , Solana Beach . (858) 481-1055; www.northcoastrep.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $20-25. Monday-Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., through May 5
Bottom Line: Best Bet
The second year of Diversionary’s form-melding “Dance/Theatre” featured some of the same highs and lows as the inaugural production. The intriguing concept is inviting several choreographers to create dance pieces inspired by theater works that have been produced at Diversionary Theatre. Great idea. Once again, those who riffed on the themes, and captured the energy of the original in an innovative way, fared best. But in every case where actual text from the play was employed, the words bogged down and/or competed with the movement.
This was true of “The Revolution of Milk,” Peter G. Kalivas ’ re-conception of “Dear Harvey,” which included a cacophony of voices, as a single dancer (Justin L. Viernes ) stripped off one t-shirt after another, each proclaiming some Harvey Milk-type slogan: Everyone Needs Milk, Give People Hope, We Are Who We Are, and the final, most timely one, “Repeal Prop 8.” It made a statement, but not primarily through dance.
The same was true of Katie Griffin’s solo piece, “I Don’t Know Any Other Way,” inspired by the Lee Jenkins play, “Dangerous Beauty.” In addition to using text and audio clips from old films like “Casablanca,” this piece had too many props; Griffin stacked cartons, opened boxes, inspected memorabilia, dragged around a palm tree; in short, did almost everything but dance. Ericka Aisha Moore’s piece, “Lot’s Daughters,” based on Rebecca Basham’s play about furtive lesbian love in the 1940s rural South, also used a good deal of text, and tended to be too narratively and emotionally on-the-nose.
“The Human Web,” Anjanette Maraya -Ramey’s interpretation of last year’s comedy by Paul Rudnick, re-presented each of the characters, repeatedly using the ASL signs for Truth, Accept, Adjust (though it looked more like ‘Change’) and Love. Although the sound was too loud, and there was a lot of standing around and aimless walking, there was one captivating, high-energy duet by Deven P. Brawley and Shannon Snyder.
In fact, it was the male duets that were most notable throughout the brief evening. Another was the opening sequence, “Almost Saved,” Peter G. Kalivas ’ re-imagining of “M. Butterfly.” The real-life characters in the story were a French diplomat and a Chinese ‘woman’ (who, after a 20-year affair, is revealed to be a man – and a spy). Their push-pull, aggression/submission interaction was exciting, and very well executed, by Justin L. Viernes and David Wornovitzky .
By far the most exhilarating interpretation was Michael Mizerany ’s take on “Never the Sinner,” John Logan’s searing drama about the warped, explosive relationship between Nathan Leopold and Robert Loeb, the privileged, jaded teens who in 1924 murdered a young boy, just for a lark. Instead of re-telling the story or using the play’s dialogue, Mizerany’s “Far From Eden” focused on the duo’s perverse interactions. Loeb was obsessed with crime, and Leopold was obsessed with Loeb. The dance, an erotic, aggressive, athletic, almost acrobatic intertwining, was a dangerous pas de deux of approach and rejection, affection countered with cruelty. Not only was the choreography exhilarating, its execution was thrilling, with San Diego Dance Theater’s hunky Matt Carney lifting and tossing and rebuffing Malashock Dance’s agile Nicholas Strasburg. There were rousing leaps and moments of nudity and heavy breathing, culminating in a violent sexual acquisition/acquiescence. Wow. This stunning piece of work made the evening – and the genre-crossing experiment – a success.
The idea is worth pursuing. But next year, there should be more guidelines, more oversight and considerably more quality control.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… New Site in Sight: The San Diego Regional Arts and Culture Coalition, a 100-member collaborative group founded in 1989, has launched a new advocacy website to provide info to arts advocates and supporters, and to enhance the profile of arts and culture organizations throughout the county. Among other offerings, the new site provides Advocacy 101 for individuals and advocacy checklists for organizations, as well as news and info for arts advocates. www.sdracc.org
… Makin’ Dance: Malashock Dance is presenting another installment of its Studio Series, inviting the public for a sneak-peek at choreographer John Malashock’s creative process. Watch as he creates and unveils new sections of his upcoming premiere, “The Floating World,” a multimedia collaboration with filmmaker/video artist Tara Knight. The completed piece premieres in spring 2011, in conjunction with the San Diego Museum of Art’s exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints. Visit the NTC Dance Place studio and magic happen. May 15 and 16. Tickets at (619) 260-1622; www.malashockdance.org
… Vive la France!: Sound man extraordinaire Scott Paulson (Patté Award winner for his wildly imaginative sound/noise/instrument design for Cygnet Theatre’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”) will be appearing, along with Afro-Caribbean percussionist Gene Perry and French colleagues, at the France Noir/Black France Film Festival in Paris on May 23. They’ll perform the live score Paulson composed to accompany Josephine Baker’s film debut, the 1927 silent feature, “Siren of the Tropics.” Professor Ben netta Jules-Rosette, an expert on Ms. Baker, will introduce the film. The music and sound score, which features harp and Theremin, also includes a little audience participation. Paulson’s Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra is known for its historically accurate approach to silent film accompaniment, and now their reach will be international.
… Globe Honors: In recognition of the excellence of local high school theater productions and performances, the Old Globe is getting ready for the 2010 Globe Honors competition. Auditions are on May 1; semifinalists and finalists will perform on the Old Globe stage on May 17, followed by announcement of the winners and an award ceremony. Winners of the annual competition receive scholarships, and the Leading Actor and Actress snag an all expenses paid trip to New York to compete in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, to be held June 28 at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. Last year, more than 30 San Diego high schools competed for the five awards. Further info is at www.theoldglobe.com
… Harvey Lives On: Writer Patricia Loughrey, creator of “Dear Harvey,” which premiered last year at Diversionary Theatre and SDSU, will head to Minneapolis to continue refining the new work. The playwright will get a three-day workshop at the Playwrights Center, followed by a year of further mentoring. Loughrey, currently a first-year master’s degree candidate at Cal State Long Beach, is offering her script, royalty-free, for one week in May, for readings and productions that coincide with what would have been Milk’s 80th birthday (May 22).
… AATF: The 5th annual Asian American Theater Festival, part of UC San Diego’s Arts in Action Festival will take place May 6-8. The Festival features two short original works, “The Museum,” written and directed by Edward Delos Reyes, and “Viral,” conceived and directed by Carol Cabrera. The final piece, Elizabeth Wong’s comedy, “Letters to a Student Revolutionary,” will be directed by former Asian American Repertory Theater artistic director Andy Lowe . In the Arthur Wagner Theatre on the UCSD campus, in Galbraith Hall. Admission is free. Info about Arts in Action can be found at www.artsinaction.us
.. More Arts in Action: Another part of UCSD’s Arts in Action Festival is a response to recent racial incidents and protests on the campus. Friday, May 7 will be a day of “Real Art for Real Change,” a forum for artistic responses, featuring work created specially for this event. There will be short one-act plays, music compositions, dance performances, visual art displays, digitally interactive performance pieces, spoken word performances, and staged historical protest performance marches. A Discussion Forum will include members of the university and community artists. Surprise performance works and Arts in Action dance flash mobs will take place throughout the week of May 3-7, leading up to the main event. Community art murals will be created by students at each college on the campus, with a new Arts in Action mural to be created live by Chicano muralist Mario Torero during the keynote forum (4-5:30 p.m.). Students will be able to interact live online, uploading tweets and videos at ucsdsmashtv.com. the complete Festival schedule is at www.artsinaction.us
… Literate Ladies: Write Out Loud, the group dedicated to reading good literature aloud, will be paying tribute to Moms (and other women) with “Celebrate Ladies & Literature,” 11 a.m. Sunday, May 2 at V.O.C.A.B.U.L.A.R.Y Boutique, 414 W. Cedar St. Admission is free (shopping is encouraged). Light refreshments and mimosas will be served. Reservations: email@example.com
… Summer in the Sixties: SDSU’s School of Theatre, Television and Film is presenting a production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” set in the colorful, flavorful 1960s. Peace, love, freedom and fairies. Who could ask for anything more? Original music composed by SDSU student Thomas Hodges , winner of a Patté Award for his score for the world premiere of “Dear Harvey.” Five performances only, 4/30-5/2. In the Don Powell Theatre on the campus of SDSU. (619) 594-6884; theatre.sdsu.edu
… Come to the Cabaret: Lamb’s Players Theatre has found a new venue for its popular Sunday Evening Cabaret: Anthology music and supper club, downtown. Dynamic sound, classy surroundings, plus food and drink. A dozen Lamb’s (and San Diego ’s) favorite performers will be featured, including Deborah Gilmour Smyth , Sandy Cambpell , Lance Arthur Smith, Kerry Meads, Leonard Patton, Jon Lorenz, Colleen Kollar Smith, Charlie Reuter , and more. May 16, 7 p.m. 1337 India St. (619) 437-6000; lambsplayers.org
… Talkin ’ Tony: The Tony Awards Administration Committee has announced this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winners: playwright Alan Ayckbourn and actor Marion Seldes . The prolific English writer has penned more than 70 plays, including “The Norman Conquests,” a trilogy that won a Tony last year for best revival, and will be coming to Cygnet Theater this summer. Ms. Seldes , a five-time Tony nominee won the award for her performance in Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” which was recently produced by OnStage Playhouse. Albee himself was in town two weeks ago for the Playwrights Project and SDSU’s Design Performance Jury. Mark your calendar, theaterlovers; the Tonys air on June 13.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” – imaginative, inventive production
MiraCosta College , through 5/2
v “Ghosts” – crisp new translation and production of a searing classic
North Coast Repertory Theatre, EXTENDED through 5/8
Read Review here: h ttp://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2010-04-14/things-to-do/theater-t hings-to-do/ghosts-weekend-with-pablo-picasso-plus-theater-reviews-news
v “Sweeney Todd” – a glorious production of Sondheim’s goriest (and most lyrical) musical
Cygnet Theatre, through 5/9
v “The Pirates of Penzance ” – overblown and over-the-top, with over-the-moon singing
The Welk Resorts Theatre, through 5/2
Read the Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2010-03-17/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/romeo-and-juliet-pirates-of-penzance-theater-reviews-news
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, in the SDNN Search box. Or, access her present and past reviews from the Arts & Entertainment pull-down on the SDNN homepage.