Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, November 5, 2009
READ MINI-REVIEWS of “Dreams in the Witch House,” “The Movement”
Love in the worst of times
THE SHOW: “ Bent,” an intense drama, at Diversionary Theatre (a co-production with ion theatre)
One night in 1985, I went to the Bowery Theatre, a small, underground company (in both senses of the term), to see a show that would change my life. That show was “ Ben t,” and I was so blown away, so moved, that I just had to share my opinion, and tell everyone about this heart-stopping drama. And so I did, and that was the start, the inspiration, for my becoming a theater critic.
Now, on the 30th anniversary of its premiere, the piece still packs a whallop . The play is potent; this new production is forceful and gripping.
When “ Ben t” premiered in 1979, it revealed to the world a little-known corner of the horrific world of the Holocaust. More than half a million homosexuals were slaughtered in the concentration camps. They were forced to wear a pink triangle, which was an even lower stratum than the yellow star of the Jews.
In the lobby of Diversionary Theatre, there’s a display of archival photos mounted by the Lambda Historical Society. One, courtesy of the U.S. Army, shows a group of American journalists, representing the major newspapers in the country: The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle and others. They were being shown around Dachau , where most of the gays were incarcerated. But none of them went back and reported on the killing of the homosexuals in the camp.
It took playwright Martin Sherman, a gay, Jewish American living in London , to bust the story wide open. His title refers to a slang term used in some European countries to refer to homosexuals. When the play first opened on the West End (starring Ian McKellen ), it was fiercely controversial, because of the seminal scene in which two gay concentration camp inmates achieve climax by having sex in their minds, merely uttering seductive words and imagining, as they stand at attention under the watchful eye of an SS guard. Richard Gere starred in the Broadway premiere, which garnered a Tony Award nomination for Best Play in 1980.
Co-directors of this co-production (ion theatre and Diversionary Theatre) are Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza, ion’s co-founders, who have teased precise, heartfelt and beautifully etched performances from a marvelous cast. At the center is Michael Zlotnik , electrifying as the narcissistic Max, a promiscuous Berliner who frequents transvestite clubs and has a live-in boyfriend, Rudy (Chris Buess , wonderfully weak and compassionate).
One decadent night, in his typically drunken, coked-up state, Max brings home a pretty-boy who turns out to be part of the Sturmabteilung corps, infamous for same-sex inclinations within its ranks. That also turns out to be the night Hitler decides to destroy the corps. When SS troops storm into the apartment and kill the young Aryan (Bobby Schiefer ), Max’s life spins out of control. His closeted, gay Uncle Freddie (sad-eyed Walter Ritter , excellent), tries to arrange papers to get Max out of the country. But Max refuses to leave without Rudy. He fruitlessly seeks help from the tough-as-nails club-owner Greta, a female impersonator and ruthless businessman (Steven Lone, highly convincing). Soon, Max and Rudy find themselves on a transport train headed for Dachau . That’s where Max meets fellow inmate, Horst ( Charlie Reuter , compelling). And that’s when Max’s survival instinct really kicks in. He’ll do absolutely anything, no matter how depraved, disturbing or dishonest, to save his own skin. He finagles a yellow star instead of a pink triangle, he ‘buys’ food favors, he gets Horst on the same work detail, which he thinks is the best in the camp: the Sisyphusean task of carting heavy stones from one end of a field to the other, and then back again. Pointless, senseless, mind-numbingly boring work, intended to drive prisoners crazy.
Together, the two men try to endure. And in this hideous, ghastly place, Max learns to love. He achieves dignity and self-respect. And he develops a capacity for hope in the most hopeless of situations.
The first act gets off to a sluggish start, with unnecessarily fussy scene changes. But the performances are so muscular, so riveting, that we hang on every word and gesture ( Zlotnik’s face is an especially colorful palette of emotions). Eric Dowdy and Philip John are formidable as various guards and officers. In the second act, it’s just Max and Horst, hauling those rocks across the stage. The rhythm, the repetition: we are mesmerized, and after awhile we, too, nearly crack.
The set (Raygoza and Bret Young ) is aptly stark: a bench, a ramp that flattens out to a train platform, and ultimately, posts holding up strings of barbed wire, with nothingness beyond. The striking lighting (Chris Renda , called in only a week before the opening) reflects the wildly varied moods of the piece, ranging from dappled to dark to dim to glaring sunlight and searchlight. The sound design (Omar Ramos, a UCSD MFA student) is also notable and evocative: birdsong and train whistles, bloodcurdling screams and the interminable clack of stacking rocks.
These aren’t sounds and images you’ll forget any time soon. This is a story you’ll recall and revisit. At bottom, it’s about love, finding your identity and humanity. It may be deep and intense and disquieting, but it’s also must-see theater.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd , University Heights . ( 619) 220-0097 www.diversionarytheatre.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $29-33. Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday & Saturday at 8 p.m.,
Sunday at 2 & 7 p.m., and Monday, November 9 at 7:30 p.m., through November 22
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
THE SHOW: “Dreams in the Witch House, adapted by Welton Jones III from a 1932 story by HP Lovecraft, master of the gothic and the macabre. It’s a very spooky tale, about a young student of “non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics,” which he links to “the fantastic legends of elder magic.” Stressed-out from studying too much, and obsessed with the legend of a 17th century witch who disappeared mysteriously from Salem Gaol , Walter moves into the room the witch had inhabited. He begins having disconcerting dreams of the witch and her horrible familiar, a man-faced rat; soon, he can’t distinguish between his sleeping and waking states, between bizarre fantasy and hard-edged reality. Murder, mayhem and cosmic mystery ensue. Just in time for Halloween, DangerHouse Productions did an excellent job of making the piece truly terrifying, underscoring Lovecraft’s distressingly, depressingly cynical views on life, death and humankind.
Under the direction of Mark Stephan (whose fine work has been seen at New Village Arts ), Michael Nieto was excellent as the increasingly crazed Walter, and James P. Darvas was solid as his no-nonsense, hyper-rational friend Frank (though leaving Walter alone in the middle of the baby-killing havoc seriously strained credulity). In the warped Lovecraft worldview, reason is no match for cosmic forces or the horror of ultimate reality.
Kelly Renee Potts was appropriately big-nosed, warty and witchy as the evil Keziah ; and Harrison Myers made that rat puppet downright scary. Matthew Ryan and Mark Zweifach were convincing, though the heavy Russian accents were sometimes hard to decode. The lighting (Tristan Gates) featured demonic shapes, green-tinged smoke, spiraling lasers and other special effects (Lindsay Lawlor ). But it was the sound design (Danger Dagda , AKA Charles Wallace IV) that really got under the skin. It started out with strains of a mournful, somewhat ominous cello, and moved on to a full-force thunderstorm, eerily banging shutters, creaking doors, animal grunts, and then, frighteningly unidentifiable, otherworldly noises that made my hair stand on end. Terrific work. DangerHouse is a company to watch; they’re obviously fearless. Can’t say the same for myself.
On the Move
THE SHOW: “The Movement,” one of many regular programs coordinated and produced by the ubiquitous San Diego danceman , Peter Kalivas . In addition to his own company, the 16 year-old PGK Dance Collective, the indefatigable choreographer organizes “The Movement” on the first Tuesday of every month, as well as the “4x4xFloor” event every second Tuesday, both showcasing a mélange of established and emerging artists. Most of the brief performances feature dance, but there may also be other “expressive forms,” including spoken word, comedy and musical theater.
This week’s “Movement” was a mixed bag, ranging from amateur to the highest level of professionalism (there is no audition or pre-selection; Kalivas wants to provide “a safe place to express yourself”). A raffle offered free tickets to local dance performances, and 50% of all proceeds went to the artists. At Queen Bee’s in North Park (formerly the 8-Teen Center) all concession proceeds go to support homeless youth.
On the evening I was there, the bar was set very high by the kickoff performance, “Tethered,” choreographed by Malashock Dance’s associate artistic director, Michael Mizerany. This was a stunning excerpt from “Wayward Glances,” a five-segment piece that premiered last month. A gorgeously matched pair of dancers, Blythe Barton, a Malashock apprentice, and Matt Carney, a company member, performed a muscular, athletic, sexual approach/avoidance game. She enticed and then repelled him; she literally walked all over him, draping herself on his back, standing on his chest, jackknifing across his body, balancing precariously on his feet or knees. At times, she whispered in his ear; at other times, she slammed him around. At the end of this dangerously dramatic pas de deux , she turns his head as he covers her mouth. Dazzling moves, jaw-dropping physicality and dramatic images, all performed to the haunting vocalization of the late, oddball German countertenor Klaus Nomi. Nothing else in the evening came close choreographically, though there were some very promising dancers to watch, notably the agile and charismatic Natasha Ridley, the compelling Mystic Stepper and two vigorous, dynamic dancers from Opus Mixtus Post Jazz.
Next up for Kalivas is “San Diego Dances,” a biannual event featuring some of the county’s finest, defying expectations by performing in non-dance venues. On November 6 and 7, performers from Mojalet Dance Collective, LaDiego Dance Theatre, DK Dance, the PGK Project and others will work their magic at a hair salon: DK Hair in Hillcrest. 7:30 p.m. Information at www.thepgkproject.com
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Take a Stand; Save a Program ! : The financial situation on local campuses is dire. Now we’re at peril of losing something that’s unique in the country: the oldest MFA program in musical theater. The 27 year-old Musical Theatre MFA Program at San Diego State University is in jeopardy of being shut down next May, due to state budget cuts. Twenty years ago, there were 10-15 such MFA programs in the U.S. At present, there are only two others: one that trains musical theater writers (NYU) and another focused on musical theater directors ( Penn State ). That means that SDSU graduates are the sole potential teaching force for the 30-40 BFA programs in musical theater nationwide. It’s not too late to save this invaluable performing arts program. You can join their Facebook page and let your voice be heard, or your number counted. With nearly 1000 members signed on already, the Facebook page has attracted the attention of upper administration at SDSU. Additional Facebook fans and testimonials could make a difference. Sign up at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=185287417572
… Good News for the Arts, for a change: This past week, Congress passed a $12.5 million funding increase as part of the next year’s appropriations for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The nation’s two federal grantmaking cultural agencies will each have a budget of $167.5 million, their highest funding levels in 16 years. As so many state and local governments have had to cut arts budgets, this federal increase for the arts is an encouraging sign.
… Welcome to Titipu : The SDSU Opera Theater presents Gilbert and Sullivan’s beloved operetta, “The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu .” The 16-piece SDSU Opera Orchestra will play, under the baton of musical director Matthew Rowe. The production/stage director is Michiko Lohorn . November 20-22 in Smith Recital Hall on the SDSU campus. http://music.sdsu.edu
… Eyebrow- and Curtain-Raiser: Mat Smart, alumnus of the UC San Diego MFA program in playwriting, is at it again. A 2004 co-founder of Slant Theatre Project, a group of artists dedicated to presenting “visceral work,” Smart has written six plays for the company thus far. This past summer, he sent director Adam Knight a text message that read: “I just finished a one-act play that’s the dirtiest thing I’ve ever written. You might be the only other living person to read it before we burn it. It’s called ‘The Folly of Crowds.’” Instead of burning it, Knight decided to produce it. November 13-21 at the Sanford Meisner Theatre in New York (in case you happen to be in the neighborhood), 164 11th Avenue . www.slanttheatreproject.org
… A Taste of Patté: Tickets are now on sale for The 13th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence, honoring the Best of the Best of local stage talent. The high-octane evening includes a sit-down dinner and musical numbers from local theater productions; the event will be televised on Channel 4. If you’re a theatergoer or a theaterlover, you won’t want to miss it. Monday, January 18, 2010. Tickets are at www.thepattefoundation.org.
Back to the Bard – for FREE ! :
… Intrepid Theatre, the brand new company dedicated to making Shakespeare “ accessible and affordable,” is presenting a series of FREE staged readings on Monday nights in November and December. They’re calling the series “Free Will.” First up is “Much Ado About Nothing” on 11/16, with a stellar cast including Lamb’s Players Theatre’s Robert and Deborah Smyth as the clever feuders , Beatrice and Ben edick , with support from Tom Hall, Brian Mackey, Jim Chovick , Linda Libby , Douglas Lay, Melissa Fernandes, myself, Intrepid co-founder Sean Cox , and others. On 11/30, Jonathan McMurtry directs “King John,” with Eric Poppick , Glynn Bedington , Jo Ann Glover, Eddie Yaroch , Jonathan himself and Intrepid co-founder Christy Yael. On December 14, Douglas Lay directs “Richard II,” starring Sean Cox . These free events take place at The Theatre Inc., 899 C Street , downtown. www.intrepidshakespeare.com
… San Diego favorite and Old Globe veteran Jonathan McMurtry presents an evening of recitations from his favorite playwright, “ Jonathan McMurtry ’s Shakespeare,” as part of Moonlight Cultural Foundation’s WordsWork Free Play Reading Series, now concluding its fourth season. A graduate of London ’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), McMurtry has appeared in more than 200 productions at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park , as well as many regional theaters, in films and TV. But he always comes back to the Bard. Monday, November 16 at 7:30 p.m. in the Avo Playhouse, Vista . 760-630-7650.
… Giving the Bird (his due): The UCSD Library is about to present its annual Turkey Calling Show. Go to the exhibit case area of the Arts Library (Lower Level, West Wing, Geisel Library) to hear undergraduate performance artist Lazaro Rabago recite an Aztec poem about our native turkey. Perform a slapstick tone poem with old-time radio sound effects artist Scott Paulson (winner of a Patté Award for his magnificent live soundmaking in Cygnet Theatre’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”). Story-lady Melanie Treco will read a new, family-friendly turkey story, and Paulson’s Teeny-Tiny Pit Orchestra will perform. And of course, you’ll learn some Turkey Calls. The show, at 12:30 p.m. on November 25, is free. (858) 822-5758; http://artslib.ucsd.edu
… Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theatre presents its Fall Showcase, its next Studio Series, at Dance Place , NTC. These informal performances and gatherings provide an opportunity for the public to get to know the San Diego Dance Theater community. Students in current classes will perform. November 8 at 7 p.m.
… The Patricia Rincon Dance Collective is gearing up for its Myth Project V, “Cowboys: The American Heroes.” Inspired by old folk tales and cowboy stories, the new piece looks back at the mythology and history of the cowboy, from 19th century mythical characters to the stereotyped images that prevail in fashion, film, politics and music. The cowboy icon is explored using dance theater , storytelling, music and vintage film. Guest artists are Deven P. Brawley, Aaron Guerrero, Li Kar -Wing and actor Janet Hayatshahi . November 13-15 at Sushi Performance Space ( 390 11th Ave , downtown). (760) 632-5340; www.rincondance.org
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“ Ben t” – an intense, gut-wrenching story, superbly told
Diversionary Theatre, through 11/22
“The Lion King” – the king of beasts is back; a true spectacle, marvelously imaginative
Civic Theatre, through 11/8
Read Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-10-21/things-to-do/pat-launer-on-san-diego-theater-lion-king-joyful-folly
“Dog Act” – inventive, amusing, linguistically brilliant and magnificently performed
Moxie Theatre, through 11/22
“Joyful Noise” – joyful, indeed! outstanding presentation of a historical drama
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through 11/22
“Talley’s Folly” – lovely performances of a sweet, gentle, touching late-life romance
North Coast Repertory Theatre, EXTENDED through 11/14
“Sammy” – a promising world premiere musical, in its earliest incarnation
Old Globe Theatre, through 11/8
“ Godspell ” – energetic, inspiring
Lamb’s Players Theatre at the Horton Grand Theatre, through 11/22
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.