Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, August 13, 2009
MINI REVIEWS: “Musical Theater Divas”
THE SHOW: “Herringbone,” a one-man musical by Tom Cone, with music by Skip Kennon and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, at the La Jolla Playhouse
It became an obsession. Tony Award-winning actor B.D. Wong first saw “Herringbone” in the early ‘80s, when he was just out of high school. He was amazed by the skill required of an actor to play 11 characters in a solo musical. The piece never left his mind. He first performed it in the early 1990s, and twice since. He delved ever deeper, under the guidance of acclaimed director Roger Rees, who did such magical work earlier this year at the Playhouse with “Peter and the Starcatchers .” The two wanted to take another crack at the punishingly difficult play.
And it’s not just difficult for the actor. This is one dark, quirky, complex, even creepy piece of theater. It’s definitely not to everyone’s taste.
First, the story edges toward the bizarre.
George Herringbone (he took on the name after his parents bought him a suit of said fabric) was 8 years old during the Depression. After winning a speech contest, he’s told he has some talent. His parents, disappointed that they didn’t receive the cash landslide they’d expected from a recently deceased relative, decide to use their little boy as a potential money-maker. So they take him for lessons from a former vaudevillian (the very man who’d first recognized George’s talent), and during their interactions, the dead partner of the ‘instructor,’ a wisecracking 37 year-old midget hoofer who was killed in the line of duty (flying through the air as part of the act), inhabits his body.
So this 8 year-old becomes a fabulous – and famous — tap-dancer. Trouble is , he can’t stop dancing. And he’s got this raunchy, foul-mouthed midget inside him, controlling his life. Mercenary Dad is all about the money they’re making, so it’s okay by him, despite the fact that George’s sanity is starting to unravel. Genteel-Southern Mom has some reservations, but she goes along with the reprehensible plan. Then there’s the scheming ‘mentor,’ the skeptical grandma, a lawyer, a salesclerk and Dot.
The whole story comes to a dramatic head when Lou decides to bed Dot; this is where the creepy part comes in. Dot, who knew Lou years before, is dubious but still willing to hit the hay with Lou in the body of a young boy, a boy who’s struggling to survive the lurid scene. This is Wong at his most brilliant, having a three-way battle of the will, all by himself. It’s a stunning theatrical moment, but the situation is deeply disturbing.
There’s also the issue of the music, an array of often mostly minor-key songs that make it sound like they’re either disconcertingly atonal or Wong is consistently singing flat. The songs drive the action, more or less, with Wong telling us George’s story from the perspective of adulthood. The piece is bookended by the memory number, “One of Those Years,” as in, “Did you ever have one of those years?” Well, no actually. Not one like this.
So you have to suspend disbelief, as Wong jumps in and out of the action, crossing the fourth wall at times to re-take a line or make an entrance again, commenting on what he’s doing as well as what was happening in his life. Sometimes this is effective; sometimes not.
As someone who sees an awful lot of theater (some of it awful, to be honest), it’s refreshing to see something so completely different, performed so very well. Of course, Wong, who was unforgettable in his award-winning turn as a Chinese beauty in “M. Butterfly,” is onstage the whole time – singing, dancing, cavorting, and switching characters in a nanosecond, sometimes mid-phrase. He does sweat, though — and he’s not even wearing the titular herringbone; he’s in pinstripes instead (created by the Broadway master of costuming, William Ivey Long). Still, this makes it appear a little more effortful than it should.
Behind the structural conceit, the play is about the many faces and facets each of us possesses. The good and bad in everyone. And the need, at some point, to take control of your life.
The straw- hatted pianist, music director Dan Lipton, assisted by bassist Benjamin Campbell and Brad Briscoe, does fine work. So do the lighting (Christopher Akerlind ) and sound (Leon Rothenberg) guys.
All told, it’s a thrilling performance. An oddball of a play. An offbeat musical. Which may or may not add up to a satisfying evening of theater for you.
THE LOCATION: The Potiker Theatre of the La Jolla Playhouse, on the campus of UCSD. (858) 550-1010 ; www.lajollaplayhouse.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $30-65. Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m., through August 30.
Vamping with Vampires
THE SHOW: “The Mystery of Irma Vep ,” the 1984 Charles Ludlam at the Old Globe
Charles Ludlam was a little ridiculous. Well, that was the name of his group, anyway – the Ridiculous Theatre Company. The title often applied to his plays, which combined elements of gothic novels, Shakespeare , Wagner , popular culture, old movies, and anything else that he could milk for a laugh. Ludlam typically appeared in his own creations, usually in the women’s roles.
His most enduring legacy (he died of AIDS in 1987, at age 44) is “The Mystery of Irma Vep ,” in which Ludlam performed with his long-time partner, Everett Quinton. It was a tour de force that won an Off Broadway Obie Award and was hailed (by the New York Times and Time Magazine), as one of the best plays of 1984. During the early 1990s, “Irma Vep ” became one of the most produced plays in America . In order to ensure that the piece retains its original… um, luster, the rental rights stipulate that the performers must be of the same sex. This guarantees a flurry of cross-dressing; the work itself, eight characters written for two actors, is a freewheeling invitation to mayhem.
The gothic spoof begins, aptly enough, on a dark and stormy night, and it’s rife with melodrama, farce, vaudeville and satire. Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist, is the owner of the foreboding Mandecrest Manor, isolated on the English moors. Edgar can’t seem to get over his dead wife, whose portrait retains a place of prominence in his home. But he blithely brings in his new spouse, the skittish Lady Enid, who is resented by the suspicious housekeeper, Jane, though the swinish swineherd, Nicodemus, comes to feel for her. Somewhere, beneath the madness of werewolves and vampires and mummies, there’s a message about liberating oneself from one’s past. The political undertones about Western imperialism are buried in this production, as are some of the wink-nudge references to Conrad, DuMaurier , Jane Eyre and Baby Jane (though there is one definite nod to “ Nosferatu ”).
Silliness and slapstick abound, which brings us to the central problem. There’s just too much gravitas at the Globe and too much inanity in the play for this to be a gratifying match. On top of that, the piece is being done in the (temporary) arena theater, which seems to be a case of dramatic masochism. The plot, such as it is, is just too preposterous for words. The greatest dollop of humor comes from the lightning-fast costume changes, as well as some of the barely-offstage business, such as monstrous claws and rabid dogs at the window. When you’re in the round, there are no windows.
Director Henry Wishcamper and his two competent actors do the best they can under the constraining circumstances, but some of the sharpest humor is lost. They’re forced to add another player (the silent Third Man) and repeatedly break the fourth wall, commenting to the audience about the difficulty of getting from one side of the stage to another. Both these tactics are funny the first time.
The costumes (Jenny Mannis) are comical. The set (Robin Vest) is stuffed to the gills with… stuff: candelabra, red velvet curtains, a zebra rug, animal heads, wood banisters, candles, a knight’s armor, and of course, portraits of the ‘family,’ including the one of Irma that magically drips blood in the murderous second act. The sound (Paul Peterson) is outstanding, what with its gales and screams and wolf howls. The lighting ( Jason Bieber ) is suitably eerie, stormy and ghostly.
Broadway veterans Jeffrey Bender and John Cariani are quite entertaining, but they’re never drop-dead hilarious, which could certainly be said of local actor David McBean , when he starred in the Diversionary Theatre production of 2002. The big, hulking Bender is especially apt as the hunchbacked Nicodemus, dragging his leg up the stage steps. He’s sexy – in a sexist way – as the topless, dancing mummy, though his Lady Enid is quite ungainly; ‘her’ best moment is when she dons a froufrou strapless dress that reveals Bender’s hairy chest. But what’s with the dulcimer-playing – twice? I’d say it was a stall-technique, except the second time, it was a duet!
Trim, lanky Cariani is excellent as the twisted Jane Twisden and Lord Edgar, whose self-strangulation scene is the funniest of the evening.
It feels long; 90 minutes of this kind of craziness would be quite enough. The on-and-offstage dash certainly adds to the pandemonium, as well as the running time, though the aisle stairways are used to comic effect. And audience interaction is always good for a laugh. But this production is not quite crazy/funny enough, not campy or vampy or even farcically dead-serious enough, which leaves us with the impression that the effort is, well, beneath the Globe.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe’s temporary space at the San Diego Museum of Art’s James S. Copley Auditorium, in Balboa Park . (619) 23-GLOBE ; www.theoldglobe.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $29-59. Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., through September 6.
May( fly)-December Relationship
THE SHOW: “Time Flies,” the final part of the first Summer Comedy Festival at New Village Arts
New York Magazine once called David Ives one of the “100 Smartest New Yorkers.” The witty playwright has made his reputation on short, sassy, language-drunk playlets that comment satirically on life, history and everyday annoyances or occurrences, seen from a comically twisted perspective. His masterwork is “All in the Timing.” “Time Flies” is a pale copy. But a wonderful ensemble of eight at New Village Arts , under the astute direction of Joshua Everett Johnson , brings six short plays to energetic life.
The highlight is the title piece, about the first date of a pair of mayflies (highly entertaining and amusing Tim Parker and Rachel Robinson). Thanks to a TV nature-special with David Attenborough (droll, pith-helmeted Wendy Waddell), they learn that they only have one day to live, so they’ve got to make the day, the date – and the passion — last. ‘Tempus Fugit’ enters their clever dialogue, though neither of them knows what it means. The buzzing attraction between the two is palpable (and audible!), as they bump wings and orgasmically massage each other’s antennae.
Most of the other pieces overdo the puns and overstay their welcome. There’s “Soap Opera,” about a lonely, Maytag-like Maypole washing machine Repairman (Adam Brick) who falls in love with his washer. And why not? Rachael VanWormer looks pure, fluffy-white, soap-bubble beautiful emerging from the machine. Johnson, Waddell, Parker and Sam Floto give comic support as a variety of wackos who try to talk the Repairman out of his infatuation; Johnson is especially good as a French waiter.
“Mystery at Twicknam Vicarage” is, ironically, a kind of sendup of Charles Ludlam’s sendups (see “The Mystery of Irma Vep ,” above), where there’s a murder, a bumbling Scotland Yard inspector, a room-full of suspects, and you can barely keep track of who’s been sleeping with whom.
“Captive Audience,” about the control TV exerts over our lives, feels banal. “Enigma Variations,” a goofy take on psychiatry and identity crises, becomes tiresome in its repetitiveness, though it’s very well directed and performed (Johnson, Parker, Brick, Van Wormer and Waddell).
Everyone gets into the act in “Degas, C’est Moi ,” in which an unprepossessing man (Johnson) wakes up one morning and decides to be the French Impressionist painter for a day. The fact that he doesn’t know a thing about Degas doesn’t deter him; he meets all kinds of New York oddballs and suddenly sees color and light everywhere.
The meaning of life, appreciating what you’ve got, and a contemplation of death are themes that waft through all the pieces. The set (Tim Wallace) and costumes ( Mary Larson ) are fun, the performances are a hoot and Johnson keeps the action light and lively.
THE LOCATION: New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State Street in Carlsbad Village . (760) 433-3245 ; www.newvillagearts.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $10-20. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m., through August 16
BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
…“Musical Theater Divas,” a one-night only event at North Coast Repertory Theatre, was a sellout and a knockout. Four former SDSU students, all under the direction of Dr. Rick Simas , musical theater maven and their former professor, sang their hearts and lungs out for 90 fabulous minutes. Each is a bona fide star. Merideth Kaye Clark (SDSU MFA, 1992) is currently the Elphaba Standby, performing 2-3 times weekly in the national tour of “Wicked,” now at the Civic Theatre. Courtney Corey, who graduated from SDSU in 1998, is an original member of the L.A. and Chicago productions of “Wicked” (she also played Elphaba ). Kristen Mengelkoch (SDSU MFA, 2004) appeared in the uproarious musical sendup , “Forbidden Broadway,” in San Diego , in New York and on tour. And Kelsey Venter, the most recent SDSU alum g (2006), went on to complete her MFA at the American Conservatory Theatre. Mengelkoch and Venter will appear in the next NCRT production, the musical “I Love You Because,” directed by Simas, who made a point of noting that SDSU’s MFA program in musical theater is now the only one in the country.
Highlights of the evening, which was filled with magical moments, were Mengelkoch’s hysterical take on Liza Minelli and hilarious spoof of “I Dreamed a Dream,” both from “Forbidden Broadway”; Corey’s down-and-dirty, hot/cool blues rendition of “My Mama Done Told Me”; Venter and Clark’s “The Wizard and I” from “Wicked,” and Clark and Corey’s “Wicked” duet, “Loathing”; Corey and Venter’s “Take Me or Leave Me” from “Rent”; and the tight, Lennon Sisters harmony of the encore, “Mr. Sandman.” The accomplished musical director/pianist was Steven Withers, with Tom Versen on drums. This was one heckuva great evening.
… Same could be said of “Broadway Today,” the special, two-night presentation by the San Diego Symphony’s Summer Pops. I was thrilled to have been asked to be announcer/introducer on August 8. The Symphony sounded superb under the baton of guest conductor Randall Craig Fleischer, and the three featured singers — Christiane Noll, Hugh Panaro and Debbie Gravitte — were sensational. Gravitte had the comic chops, and her version of “ Adelaide ’s Lament,” from “Guys and Dolls,” was one of the best I’ve heard in some time. Noll brought her stunning soprano to a “Mary Poppins ” medley. Panaro nearly stole the show with his magnificent, effortless, wide-ranging voice, which brought crystalline clarity and meaning to “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miz ”; he dedicated the song to the American armed forces serving abroad. He really showed his stuff in songs from “The Phantom of the Opera ” ( he played the title character on Broadway more than 1000 times). It was a great night, capped off by a spectacular fireworks display. Stars in the sky, stars on the stage; it just doesn’t get any better than that.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… FREE THEATER!! The Point Loma Actors Workshop is presenting its 2nd Annual “Theatre On The Point,” a production of Molière’s comedy, “The Forced Marriage.” Set in the 1960s and directed by Hannah Ryan , the show will be staged outdoors on Shelter Island and in Ocean Beach . Aug. 29-30 at the south end of Shelter Island , near the Japanese Friendship Bell; Sept. 5-6 at the Ocean Beach Rec. Center , corner Ebers St. & Saratoga Ave. Performances are 6-7:30 p.m., and are FREE to the public. www.pointlomaactors.com
… Mid-summer Madness: Mitch Feingold Presents is offering “Comedy Under Construction,” a monthly production of improv sketch comedy billed as “the show with the You-Will-Laugh Guarantee.” The presenters are Comedy on the Crest, an improv troupe founded in 1991 (originally called Static Cling). August 19 at 8 p.m. at Cafe Libertalia , 3834 5th Ave. (between University & Robinson). Tix are $5-8; (858) 550-8088; comedyunderconstruction.com
… Beam Me Up !: San Diego playwright Matt Thompson has co-authored a short play entitled “Who’s on Alpha?”, just published through Heuer Publishing. Set in the future, the piece centers around a starship captain, James T. Kirk, and his first officer, Mr. Spock, in a dialogue about baseball. The 15-minute comedy is a parody of the classic Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s on First?”
… Divas of Domesticity: “It’s the Housewives!,” the rock musical comedy that played to sellout houses for four months in L.A., is coming to San Diego for a limited, four-week run. Three young homemakers form a band for their PTA talent show, then go on to be “bigger than Brillo ,” with their own wacky brand of rock ‘n’ roll. The musical numbers, created by two-time Grammy Award-winning guitarist Laurence Juber (former lead guitarist for Paul McCartney’s ‘Wings’), include such domestic ditties as “Ironing Bored,” “In Sink and At Your Disposal” and “Reynolds Rap.” September 4-27, at the Tenth Avenue Theatre, downtown. (888) 663-3729; www.ticketderby.com
… Arts Programs Adieu: Theater departments nationwide are decreasing or disappearing, according to the New York Times. Considerable cuts have already been made here at home, at both SDSU and UCSD. At Washington State University , the department of theater arts and dance has been eliminated. At Florida State University , the undergraduate program in art education and two graduate theater programs are being phased out. The University of Arizona is cutting three-quarters of its funds, more than $500,000 for visiting classical music, dance and theater performers. Wesleyan University ’s Center for the Arts, which supports four departments – theater, dance, music and visual arts – is losing 14 percent of its budget over the next two years. Other private and state schools are warning of larger classes, diminished offerings, higher tuition and fewer services, as well as a decrease in faculty and visiting artists. As noted above, SDSU now has the country’s only MFA program in musical theater. Whenever there’s a budget crunch, the arts are always the first to go. But you know no one will ever lay a hand on athletics. Sigh.
SpiderMan Caught in his own web : The already fraught production of “Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark,” due to debut on Broadway, is suffering “an unexpected cash-flow problem,” and work on the new musical has been suspended. The show comes with a very high-profile pedigree: direction by Julie (“The Lion King”) Taymor ; music and lyrics by U2’s Bono and the Edge, and a cast that includes Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming. The budget is already through the roof; the current pricetag is rumored to be over $40 million, which would make it the most expensive musical in Broadway history. In June, it was announced that previews would be delayed from January to February. Now all bets are off, until further notice.
… Confirmation: This week, the U.S. Senate confirmed Broadway producer Rocco Landesman as the next chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. Landesman , 62, has a robust agenda, including expanding the NEA budget and reinstating grants to individual artists, which were eliminated in 1996, due to complaints from conservative legislators about financing controversial art. Both decisions ultimately rest with Congress. “Art,” said the straightforward, no-nonsense Landesman in a New York Times interview, “should be part of the plans to come out of this recession. If we’re going to have any traction at all, there has to be a place for us in domestic policy.” Bravo. But he acknowledged that, in American politics, “the arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left-wing, maybe even a little gay.” His new slogan is “Art Works,” which he considers a muscular confirmation that “We matter.” The motto is meant to underscore both art’s role as an economic driver and the fact that people who work in the arts are themselves a critical part of the economy.
… Good theater news across the Pond: Despite the recession, Londoners are flocking to the theater. More than 7.5 million theater visits were made from January to July, a 2.5% increase over the same period in 2008. Most of the ticket sales were for musicals, but almost two million were for straight plays, an increase of 19%. Box-office names have helped: Jude Law’s “Hamlet,” for one, not to mention heavy-hitters Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in “Waiting for Godot .” San Diegans should take a tip from the Brits; when finances look bleak, go to the theater.
… From stage to big screen… and small: Michael Phillips, former theater critic at the San Diego Union-Tribune, who went on to the Los Angeles Times and then the Chicago Tribune, switched over to the screen side several years back, switching gears to reviews only movies. The move paid off, big time. Phillips has just been named to take over the thumbs up/thumbs down role made famous by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on the Chicago-based syndicated TV program ,“ At the Movies.” He’s been paired up with A.O. Scott, co-chief film critic of The New York Times. Broadcasts begin September 7. These well-respected critics should bring gravitas to the recently decidedly lightweight proceedings.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“Time Flies” – six witty playlets , well directed and performed
New Village Arts , through 8/16
“Wicked” – excellent touring production, in all its glorious greenness
Broadway San Diego at the Civic Theatre, through 8/30
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-08-05/things-to-do/pat-launer-on-san-diego-theater-wives-wicked
“The Glory of Living” – dark, intense, and very well done
Inner Mission Productions at 8Teen Center , through 8/14
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-07-29/things-to-do/pat-launer-on-san-diego-theater-glory-dickinson
“Measure for Measure” – crisp, clear, hip, relevant Shakespeare; Poor Players does it best
At the Off Broadway Theatre in Vista , through 8/16
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-07-29/things-to-do/pat-launer-on-san-diego-theater-glory-dickinson
“ Godspell ” – inventive, energetic and inspiring
Lamb’s Players Theatre at the Horton Grand Theatre, open-ended
“Twelfth Night” – not perfect, but perfectly good fun
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory through 9/27
“Coriolanus” – political and provocative
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory through 9/27
“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ” – funny, colorful, well sung and danced
The Welk Resort Theatre, through 8/30
“Cyrano de Bergerac” – stunning, magnificent production of a timeless, heart-rending classic
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory through 9/27
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.