Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, August 27, 2009
READ MINI-REVIEW of “Julius Caesar”
THE SHOW: “Leaving Iowa ,” a 2004 nostalgic comedy, at Lamb’s Players Theatre
Raise hands if you’ve never sat in the backseat of a car during a family road-trip. That’s what I thought. No one escapes. The bickering, squabbling; the dissatisfactions with the driver, the route, the destination. And (if anyone bothered to notice), the mounting frustration in the front seat. Maybe now you’re the one in the front seat. But either way, those are memories that stick in the mind – or the craw.
Don Browning is thinking back to those old summer journeys to obscure Midwest locations. He’s scouting for a destination himself. Briefly back from Boston , in town (that is, his hometown of Winterset , Iowa ) for a family get-together, he’s taken on the responsibility of dispersing Dad’s ashes — which have been sitting around in an urn in the basement for three years. What his father wanted was to return to his old family homestead. But upon arrival, Don finds that it’s become a supermarket. He’s flummoxed, and starts mentally revisiting all those vacations of his youth, to find the perfect spot for Dad to find his final rest.
We come along for the ride, as Don climbs into the backseat with his annoying older sister (or is that redundant?), who pokes and provokes him, gets him into trouble, steals his arrowhead (and denies it – for decades!), and pretty much always gets what she wants, whining all the way. Mom is just trying to offer snacks and keep the peace. Dad wants to stop at all the most obscure and dreary places, refusing to go anywhere that sounds really interesting. He’s a first-class skin-flint, a history buff fascinated by minutia, a silent and serious kind of guy who’ll never acknowledge when he’s hopelessly lost – or driving iresponsibly .
Surprisingly, as our narrator and guide, with all his guilt for having missed his father’s retirement party and funeral, Don remains pretty much a cipher. Kürt Norby does the best he can with the uninspired role. Mom isn’t too well defined either, though Kerry Meads is energetic as the sometimes flustered Earth Mother and arbiter.
The juicy parts belong to that grating and irritating sister, whom Colleen Kollar Smith plays with great gusto and humor. David Cochran Heath, ever the stalwart Dad (I still remember him as Atticus Finch decades ago), is excellent as the earnest father, caring in his own taciturn way. The uncommunicative interactions between father and son are the most poignant moments in the play. But though it’s seen through the haze of melancholic reminiscence, “Leaving Iowa” is really a light comedy, a first-time play by two sitcom writers — Tim Clue and Spike Manton — which might explain why the plot and characters don’t run too deep.
Adept director Deborah Gilmour Smyth and her highly capable cast squeeze out all the play’s comic juice, and don’t veer too far over into sentimentality. Some of the funniest moments come from the array of eccentrics the family meets along the way, all terrifically outfitted ( Jeanne Reith ) and hilariously portrayed by Cynthia Gerber and Paul Maley .
The floor of the set (designed by Mike Buckley) is a slightly raised, detailed map of Iowa , towered over by a giant-sized foldout of travel brochures ( “ Hannibal Missouri , Home of Mark Twain!”), backed by a colorful, ever-changing sky (lighting by Nathan Peirson ).
The best part of the evening is what it invokes in the audience: reminiscence of family fun, conflict and excursions gone by.
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave. , Coronado . (619) 437-0600 ; www.lambsplayers.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $22-58. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m , through September 20.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
Hard Knock Life
THE SHOW: “Annie,” the 1977 musical, at Starlight Theatre
In “Annie,” there’s always another “Tomorrow.” The musical perennial, set during the Great Depression, with political conflicts and concerns similar to our own, is getting quite a nice airing as the final show of Starlight Theatre’s 63rd season. Some of the political references are a little arcane. How many in the audience will get those New Deal jokes? Or the Hoover song, amusing and topical though it may be. The book (Thomas Meehan) and lyrics (Martin Charnin ) borrow heavily from the conservative/libertarian politics of Harold Gray (1894-1968), who created the comic strip character of Little Orphan Annie in 1924. Hoover takes some heavy hits in the show. But fear not, the former President himself (or a facsimile) will be making his case at the La Jolla Playhouse in a couple of weeks, in a new musical that puts him center stage (see News & Views, below).
Back to Starlight, and the planes, and the orphans. The kids are adorable, ranging in age from 7-14. They’re not given too much to do, dancewise ; the show is limited in its choreography. But they sing very well, and execute the moves they’re given with aplomb. And they do convey the rowdiness, bonding and occasional bellicosity of a bunch of young orphan girls forced to live together under the thumb of a nasty, inebriated and nefarious matron.
Melinda Gilb , with her strong voice and stage savvy, is a hoot as the dastardly Miss Hannigan . And as her even-worse brother, Rooster, Ryan Fahey has just the right amount of slickness and sleaze. Fahey sings well and looks like he can really move; Rooster’s big number (“Easy Street”) usually features complex choreography. But throughout this production, the moves are as basic and banal as can be. Still, the ensemble is vocally strong, and they’re well outfitted ( Sparks Moeller & Tanya Bishop). Dan Mojica directs the action and interactions well; he just seems to have cast for singing more than dancing. Under the baton of musical director Parmer Fuller, the robust 11-piece orchestra sounds a lot bigger, with talented veterans in the pit like Rayme Sciaroni on piano and Jeff Dalrymple on drums (he’ll be playing next for the world premiere, “Sammy,” at the Old Globe).
At the center of the action, as the ever-optimistic and plucky little orphan, there’s Hannah Rose Kornfeld , a petite 15 year-old powerhouse who can sing (she doesn’t need to belt so much) and act like the dickens. And there’s Gregory North as Daddy Warbucks , the billionaire who decides to bring an orphan home for Christmas, and in the process, learns the power of love. And then there’s Sandy . Actually, his name is Barney, and he’s an orphan himself, a one year-old Wirehaired Vizsla mix from the Helen Woodward Animal Shelter. It was a stroke of genius to train a homeless dog for the show, in the hope that someone would adopt him at the end of the run. He looks perfectly shaggy and huggable, even if he didn’t come when called (repeatedly) on the night I was there. Still, I can’t imagine that someone won’t want to take him home. That’ll make it a happy ending for all.
THE LOCATION: Starlight Bowl, in Balboa Park . (619) 544-7827 ; www.starlight.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $10-75. Thursday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m., through August 30.
THE SHOW: “Shopping and F*** ing ,” a San Diego premiere, at Triad Productions in association with Compass Theatre
The title sounds so amusingly lighthearted. But though Mark Ravenhill wrote what he thought was a black comedy, there aren’t many laughs in this dark and deeply disturbing production.
First produced in 1996, when the English-born Ravenhill was 29, the play was part of the “in yer face” theater movement in British theater, the aim of which was to shock audiences with everything in the extreme: language, images, emotion, amorality . “S&F” is true to its ‘in yer face’ origins, especially in the 49-seat Compass Theatre, where all the ugly acts occur practically in your lap.
The Shopping mostly has to do with drug-dealing and other unsavory commerce. As for the second part of the title, well, there’s plenty of that, mostly homosexual, some of it vicious. So if you’re easily offended, or if the title stopped you in your tracks, this one’s not for you.
Actually, Triad Productions isn’t attempting to do theater for everyone. They want to stay pretty much out of the mainstream, producing works that are on the edge, sometimes off the wall, often decidedly off-color, and frequently violent. They’re trying to attract a young audience, to show them that theater isn’t fusty and musty; it’s hip, sexy, relevant, even shocking. So consider yourself forewarned.
Plot? There isn’t really much. Should we skip to the most scandalous parts? We could start with the vomiting, fellatio and potential three-way sex. And climax (so to speak) at the moment when a 14 year-old boy begs to be sodomized with a knife. (Note to Self: What kind of year is it when there are TWO onstage scenes with knife-sodomy?? The other was in Paola Hornbuckle’s “Violets Bloom at Sunset.” But that was rape; this is a fervent request).
Comedy? Um, let’s see, there’s the fond retelling of the plot of “The Lion King” as a statement on society. But it’s told by a distinctly sinister mobster who cries at the violin-playing of his young son, in the same breath as he threatens unspeakable violence. And there’s a funny scene of frantic phonesex .
There are more stories (everyone invents one for him/herself, and they all love to have the tales retold) than story, in the sense of narrative arc.
In a nutshell, Mark, a narcissistic addict (Patrick Kelly, seeming more lost and confused than self-involved) shares a ramshackle place with Robbie (Julio Jacobo , compelling), another unnerving mix between sentimental and sadistic, and Lulu (Katie Harroff , shrill but interesting), the only one with a foot on the ground, sort of. Emerging from their drug-addled, microwave-dinner existence, she tries to land a job. And that’s where she meets the menacing Brian (John Whitley, creepy and scary), who sends her and Robbie out to deal Ecstasy while Mark checks himself into rehab. When Mark gets kicked out, he hooks up with the adolescent rentboy , Gary (Kevin Morrison, who has a wonderful energy, though his age, nowhere near 14, skews the whole nasty proceedings).
On her peregrinations, Lulu watches a stabbing, and can think of nothing to do except steal a chocolate bar. Robbie has a burst of generosity, and gives all the Ecstasy away, which doesn’t exactly work out well for him and Lulu, vis à vis Brian. Nobody ends up in any way satisfied, let alone happy. But you could say that, in their own warped way, they do wind up taking care of each other.
The problem is that Lulu loves Robbie, but Robbie loves Mark. And Mark comes to love Gary, who doesn’t want to be loved as much as owned. Like a slave.
It’s all a big old social commentary wrapped in foul language. About rampant consumerism, dehumanization, the death of real emotion, the lack of feeling and caring. Selfishness and self-absorption. Going about our vapid everyday lives ignoring those less fortunate than we. And the fact that everything on earth has been reduced to an economic transaction. Money is the root… etc. The F*** ing of the title could relate to how everyone’s being screwed, rather than loved.
The production begins with a slideshow that juxtaposes the well-heeled (in color) and the homeless (in black-and-white). Nice touch to have one photo pair that features the class-divergent uses for a Gucci shopping bag.
The white-on-white set (by director Adam Parker) features shards of mirror glass (a jagged, cracked reflection of our own broken lives, perhaps?). The sound (Matt Lescault -Wood) and lighting (Scott Andrew Amiotte ) add to the chilling environment. Parker’s direction keeps the focus and action intense, but even at 90 intermissionless minutes, we get battle fatigue; we feel battered. Kudos to Triad for going out to and over the edge. Their idiosyncratic choices deserve an equally unconventional audience.
THE LOCATION: Triad Productions at Compass Theatre, 3704 6th Avenue , on the edge of Hillcrest. www.triadprod.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $10-23. Wednesday-Saturday at 8p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m., through September 14.
Special Offers: “Hot Dog Thursdays” (a frank and soda come with your ticket) and Two-for-One Night on 8/30
Battering the Bard
THE SHOW: “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” an Elizabethan romp, produced by Lotus Theatre Collective and Talent to aMuse Theatre
There is no fourth wall when it comes to the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Their wacky, comic creations are directed to the audience, involve the audience, sometimes even annoy the audience. Their first (and greatest) creation – which they’re bringing to the San Diego Repertory Theatre next summer — is their outrageous homage to the Bard, with all 37 plays presented, more or less, in two acts and two frantic, frenetic hours. Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield made some comic history when they set the stage for the gory “Coriolanus” as a cooking show; all the histories presented as a football game (less funny when the narration is done, as here, in voiceover), and a one-minute “Hamlet,” forwards and backwards.
The Lotus Theatre Collective cast is skilled, but they seem so hellbent on making the mayhem relentlessly antic that they rush through (and, on the night I was there, frequently fumble) the lines. There’s an overabundance of yelling and screaming and cursing (which was never in the original; I’m not at all sure that was the kind of comic liberties the creators encourage casts to take). In the Swedenborg Hall, there’s absolutely no sound absorption, so those yells and screams ricochet off the walls and your beleaguered temples.
The original conceit is that the actors use their own names, cavorting as characters created by the RSC. Tyler Richards Hewes takes on the role of the know-it-all Shakespearean scholar, a pedant who’s not as smart as he thinks he is, playing fast and loose with malaprop -ridden information about the Bard. Kevin Six is the grounded, sensible, by-the-book enforcer (and the only one who doesn’t shout his way through the evening); he also displays the best physical comedy. Tom Hall is the doltish man-child who’s not as naïve as he seems. Hall overplays the brainlessness, but he’s fine in the female roles, which are funny when they’re not shrieked. When Hall gets serious, and actually performs a Shakespearean soliloquy, it’s quite powerful. I wish he’d bring a little more of himself, and less of the birdbrain, to the proceedings.
Under the direction of Sophie Anderson-Ziebell, there are some amusing scenes, but the sum isn’t as uproarious as it should be. The second-act progressively-more-abbreviated “Hamlet” scenes are fast and funny. The topical references that creep into the script include the Governor of Alaska and San Diego Shakespeare Society’s Alex Sandie , reportedly consulted on the accents for “Macbeth.”
There will always be theatergoers who are game to play; and what do they tell the audience member who steps up to help with their “Hamlet?” “In our version, all Ophelia has to do is scream.” The guys are obviously working hard and having a terrific time, but funnier is better than louder.
THE LOCATION: Lotus Theatre Collective, at Swedenborg Hall. (858) 245-4436 or (619) 282-8889 ; www.lotustheatrecollective.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $15. Wednesday-Sunday at 8p.m., through August 29.
I’m often a little wary of youth theater productions of Shakespeare. All that declaiming, not so trippingly on the tongue. But director Steve Lipinsky worked wonders with ” Julius Caesar” at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Every performer, ranging in age from 9 to 17, spoke the language conversationally, as if he or she genuinely understood what was said and intended. No declamations or orations. Several rushed or swallowed their lines, but that happens in some adult productions, too. A few youngsters didn’t project as well as others. But the 90-minute, streamlined version worked really well, and captured the essence of the story, even if it didn’t delve too deeply into character. As is customary in the Theatre School @ North Coast Rep, there are also adult performer/mentors onstage with the kids. In small and/or multiple roles, Matt Thompson and Sunny Smith showed how the language can be handled with ease and simplicity. An excellent tutorial for the young thesps . Standouts in the cast were Erik Larson as Cassius, Chris Taylor as Brutus, Amanda Cowles as Portia and Dakota Speas as Mark Antony. A lovely job all around, with an especially nice sound design (Aaron Rumley) and a set (John Finkbinder & Marty Barnett) that dripped with blood. Perhaps a scene from this production will make its way into next year’s Student Shakespeare Festival. Pacing and projection, everyone!
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Hooverville : The 31st President is back, and he wants his reputation back, too. Herbert Hoover takes the stage in the La Jolla Playhouse’s latest Page to Stage workshop production, “Hoover Comes Alive !, ” a musical by Sean Cunningham with songs by Michael Friedman. It’s only running for a week, and no reviews are allowed, since it’s a work in progress. The show is doing double duty; it’s also billed as an EDGE production, which means it’s experimental. Harry S. Truman will be onstage, too. The rock-infused musical was inspired by Elvis’ 1968 ‘Comeback Special.’ So if you like Elivs , rock, new work or edgy fare, and you want to watch an old President reclaim his legacy and save his country – in song! – check it out. September 8-13, in the Mandell Weiss Forum. Tix and info at www.lajollaplayhouse.org
… Multiple Personality: For a little end-of-summer fun, Cygnet Theatre has brought back “Fully Committed,” the hilarious 1999 solo comedy by Becky Mode. This is a reprise production; it was hugely popular in 2004 and 2006, and David McBean ’s brilliant performance won him abundant accolades, including a Patté Award for Outstanding Performance. Once again, he’s playing poor Sam, the under-employed actor, working the switchboard in the bowels of New York ’s toniest restaurant. The title refers to the snobby eatery’s euphemism for ‘booked up for the evening.’ With astonishing effortlessness, McBean took on 40 characters, representing a wide array of age, race, gender, dialect and nationality. This run, which will be the last for Cygnet in its Rolando space (Moxie Theatre takes over in the fall, for at least a year), has already been extended, through September 20. Tickets at: (619) 337-1525 or www.cygnettheatre.com
… Guys Getting Together: In unity, there’s strength. As of January 2010, the Gay Men’s Chorus of San Diego and the San Diego Men’s Chorus will merge to create a new, united men’s singing group. As the new artistic director, they’ve named Gary Holt, founding artistic director of the Gay Men’s Chorus, who returned in 2005 to serve in that role again. The choruses will present their first joint performance in December, a Holiday Concert in the historic Balboa Theatre featuring more than 100 male voices singing jazz and swing favorites, accompanied by a 10-piece band. This summer, the group held an online contest to come up with a name for the new chorus. Check back here for results. In the meantime, an “Info Night” will be held for potential new members on September 9 at University Christian Church on Cleveland Avenue . Further info is at www.gscsd.com or www.sdmc.org.
… Walt, Mickey and You: Orchestra Nova, under the direction of charismatic maestro Jung-Ho Pak , is bringing “Wish Upon a Star: Disney’s Greatest Hits” to the California Center for the Arts, Escondido . The featured soprano is Nicole Werner, an alumna of the SDSU MFA program in musical theater. Joining her are two tenors: Caleb Goh , another SDSU grad, and Joey Landwehr , artistic director of the J*Company youth theater. Disney fans of all ages will thrill to orchestral versions of selections from “Mary Poppins ” to “Pinocchio,” “Snow White” to “Beauty and the Beast.” As an incentive to bring the kids, The Center is offering “Family 4-Packs.” One performance only, 4 p.m. on Sunday, September 13. For tickets and info, call (800) 988-4253 or visit www.artcenter.org .
… Leapin ’ Lizards!: The Moonlight Cultural Foundation, fundraising arm of Moonlight Stage Productions, kicks off its fourth annual “ WordsWork ” free play-reading series with Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Seascape.” Equal parts satire, science fiction, domestic comedy-drama and philosophy debate, the play tells the story of a troubled American couple (played by Sandra Ellis-Tory and Charlie Riendeau , who last paired up at Moonlight for “On Golden Pond”) facing relationship tension and retirement. Sitting on an East coast beach, they’re suddenly visited by another duo ( New Village Arts ’ Joshua Everett Johnson and Amanda Morrow), who surprise them with their wide-ranging conversations about evolution, empathy and more. The younger couple, it must be told, are lizards. Jackie Cuccaro directs. At the Avo Playhouse in Vista , September 14. Admission is free. Forum to follow. (760) 630-7650.
… Pinter Politics: English PEN, the British division of the worldwide writers’ organization, has established a new literary award in honor of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter, who died last December. The new award, called the PEN/Pinter Prize, will be bestowed annually to a British writer or a writer living in Britain who best reflects what, in his Nobel acceptance speech, Pinter said was the role of an author: to show an “unflinching, unswerving determination to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.” The winner will receive a check equivalent to about $1600. Another award of the same amount will be given to an imprisoned writer. The inaugural prize will be presented in October. Judges will include Pinter’s widow, Lady Antonia Fraser, a former English PEN president; playwright Tom Stoppard; and Nicholas Hytner , artistic director of England ’s National Theatre. Pinter, who was as notorious for his politics as his plays, would be pleased.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“Leaving Iowa ” – funny, poignant, reminiscent
Lamb’s Players Theatre/Coronado, through 9/20
“Alfred Hitch cock’s The 39 Steps” – splendidly imaginative, superbly executed
La Jolla Playhouse, through 9/13
Read Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-08-19/things-to-do/pat-launer-on-san-diego-theater-39-steps
“Phantom” – compelling characters and performances, lush production, gorgeous singing
Moonlight Stage Productions, through 8/29
Read Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-08-19/things-to-do/pat-launer-on-san-diego-theater-39-steps
“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
“ 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, and very 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.