Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, November 19, 2009
MINI-REVIEW OF: “Topdog/Underdog”
Pulling a Nimble Rabbit out of a Hat
THE SHOW: “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” a 1993 comedy by Steve Martin, at New Village Arts
Two geniuses go head-to-head in the Lapin Agile, a bohemian bistro on the Left Bank of Paris . In 1904, Picasso and Einstein met to discuss the ground-breaking ideas that were about to shake the world (Einstein published his special theory of relativity in 1905, and Picasso completed “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907). They traded worldviews and contemplated the nature of Science and Art, arguing over which discipline would be more influential in the 20th century and beyond.
Only they didn’t. It was all in the mind of funnyman/playwright Steve Martin, who conceived of the fantasy meeting and made it sing. Well, there isn’t much music to speak of, but there’s plenty of comedy, and more than a few philosophical musings. Besides being a comedian, Martin is also a novelist, an avid art collector, a master juggler, a skilled banjo player – plus, he majored in Philosophy in college. He brings many of those mega-talents to the mix (minus the banjo and juggling). He also confounds the Art vs. Science argument with two more contenders for most enduring pursuit: Commercialism, in the person of the schmendrick Schmendiman, a self-aggrandizing inventor; and Celebrity, embodied in a time-traveling visitor from the future (rock ‘n’ roll royalty is all I’ll say, preserving the conceit of not revealing his identity). Could it be that ‘genius’ is not just a matter of brains? Every character weighs in with his or her opinion on life, sex, liquor and love.
The 1993 comedy is very, very funny, and this spectacular cast nails every inch of the humor (more than the 1999 San Diego Rep production, which tended too much toward pratfalling slapstick), under the wonderful, whimsical direction of Dana Case.
At the center of a superlative ensemble are energetic Tim Parker as the insouciant, arrogant, womanizing Picasso and Tom Zohar, very droll as the brilliant, socially awkward Einstein. Brian Abraham, mostly seen in Greek tragedies at The Theatre, Inc., shows his comic chops as Freddy, the bartender, and Kristianne Kurner is sexy and knowing as his worldly-wise paramour. Sandra Ellis-Troy crosses gender boundaries and has a field day playing Sagot, the art dealer (would there ever be a woman in that position at that time, even in Paris ? But a woman in cravat and morning-coat; now you’re talkin’!). Kyle Lucy is funny as Schmendiman, Greg Wittman is surprisingly understated but effective as The Visitor (a silly concept that actually works well in this production), Eddie Yaroch is excellent as the prostate-plagued Gaston, and Amanda Morrow is marvelous in three roles: a stunning, seductive Picasso groupie, a nerdy Einstein admirer and a supercilious Countess. Each one is a delight. This is a dream cast that brings out all the very best in the script.
Even the design has a comical edge. The rose-colored bar (set design by Tim Wallace) features drawings and sketches by an array of amateurs and professionals, among which are the works of some of the art world’s most brilliant stars. The costumes (Mary Larson) are delicious, and the lighting (Ashley Jenks) and sound (Adam Brick) complement the proceedings.
This is a magical evening of comedy and ideas. You might learn something, or you can just sit back and let the humor wash over you. Either way, you’re guaranteed to have one helluva time – whether it all happened or not.
SIDE-NOTE: Earlier this year, the school board in La Grande, Oregon refused to allow the play to be performed at the local high school, after 137 parents signed a petition complaining about the content (will we ever be done with this sort of nonsense?). Steve Martin offered to pay to ensure that the students could put on the production at an off-site venue. Whatta guy. In his letter to the La Grande Observer , he compared portraying his work as a play about “people drinking in bars and treating women as sex objects” to describing Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as “about a castle.” Martin threw his support behind mounting the production at an alternate location because he didn’t want his play to acquire “a reputation it does not deserve.” The play did go on, last May, at Eastern Oregon University . A Student Democrats group helped to raise the necessary funds, which was augmented by Martin’s contribution. Excess moneys went to acting scholarships.
THE LOCATION: New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St. , Carlsbad . ( 760) 433-3245; www.newvillagearts.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $25-30. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through December 6
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
No One is Alone
THE SHOW: “Into the Woods,” a musical by Stephen Sondheim, with book by James Lapine, at San Diego State University
We do like our fairy tales, and our Happily Ever Afters. Leave it to cynical Sondheim to destroy any illusion of that. Act One of “Into the Woods” leads us down a garden path, pretty much recreating the beloved stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and The Baker and His Wife. Everyone gets what s/he wished for. And then comes Act Two. The Princes turn out to be narcissistic serial screwers; the Princesses are miserable (Rapunzel even goes mad from being cooped up in a castle her whole life); the witch, turned back into a beauty, wants her old, nasty powers restored; Jack wants his milky-white cow back, and the widow of the giant Jack killed, wants her hen and harp and her revenge; she’s stomping around, destroying everything in her path. The surviving folk have to band together to defeat the Giantess. So, no one is alone (as the song goes). But no one is happy, either. Be Careful What You Wish For, goes the underlying theme.
It being a Sondheim musical, it’s of course extremely clever. But rarely has the humor been as well revealed and developed as in this delectable production at SDSU. The cast is sublime, both musically and dramatically. The women are especially strong: Katie Alexander as the Witch; Nancy Snow as Cinderella; Amy Fritsche as the Baker’s Wife and Kyrsten Hafso as Little Red. The Princes (Justin Deater and Joshua McKinny) and the Wolf (Billy Thompson) are hilarious, their excellent moves choreographed by directing advisor Paula Kalustian. An MFA candidate, Ira Spector, directs with panache and a giant dollop of wit. Undergraduate Kevin Koppman-Gue is adorable as Jack, more amusing than most I’ve seen. Brandon Joel Maier is endearing as the Baker and Joe Joyce makes a fun transition from Narrator to Mysterious Man. The rest of the cast fills in nicely.
The costumes (Megan Schmidt, an MFA candidate in design) are terrific, particularly whimsical for Cinderella’s Stepsisters, the Princes and the Wolf. The scenic design (MFA candidate Andrew Hull) is also quite imaginative; not the usual fairy tale fantasyland, it’s abstracted and spare, with exposed pipes, multiple levels, graffitied columns, and considerable dimension and depth. The various playing spaces are effectively used by director Spector, who has devised funny stage business for his cast. Whoever designed/created the cow, Milky White, with its ratty look and oversized udders, mounted on a skateboard, gets extra credit. The lighting (Kelli Jean Groskopf) and sound (Alicia-Marie Hutchinson) contribute mightily to the whole, which is a thoroughly engaging, involving, enjoyable endeavor, from start to finish.
SDSU’s MFA Program in Musical Theatre is now the only such program in the country, and it’s in peril of closure. The performer/scholars trained here go on to greater stage glory, and are also the next generation of teachers of musical theater. They really need the community’s support now. So do the county and the country a favor: See this show, and support a local treasure, which is offering a stellar example of the skill and creativity it has to offer.
THE LOCATION: The Don Powell Theatre on the campus of SDSU . ( 619) 594-6884; theatre.sdsu.edu
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $13-15. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through November 22.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
The Inconstancy of Love
THE SHOW: “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” an early Shakespeare comedy, presented by the USD/Old Globe MFA students
“Two Gents” is one of Shakespeare’s earliest efforts, a romantic comedy about love, loyalty and morality. The plotline gets a little far-fetched and hard to swallow at the end (well, it’s a Shakespeare comedy!), but it’s a fun ride nonetheless, especially as executed by the hugely talented grad students in the USD/Old Globe MFA Theatre program.
The story goes like this: the two so-called gentlemen of the title, Proteus and Valentine, are the very best of friends. Valentine goes off to Milan to gain some life experience (and oh boy, does he!). But Proteus (whose name aptly derives from the shape-shifting god of mythology) stays behind, lovesick over Julia. Soon, however, his father sends him off to Milan , too. And the second he lays eyes on Sylvia, the daughter of the Duke and Valentine’s new beloved, he loses his head, forgets about Julia and sets about stealing the young woman away from his friend, in the most underhanded of ways.
Meanwhile, Julia, dressed as a boy, goes after Proteus, while Sylvia rejects Proteus’ aggressive advances (the women are always smarter!). When desperate Proteus goes to the Duke to expose his friend, who’s about to elope with Sylvia, Valentine is banished, and he takes up with some bandits (here, sexy gypsies!) in the woods. At the end, in perhaps the most insane stretch of credibility in the Shakespeare’s canon, Valentine forgives Proteus (though the less-than-gentle/genteel Proteus just tried to force himself physically/sexually on Sylvia), Julia forgives Proteus and takes him back, the friends are reunited (in some interpretations of the play, Valentine actually offers to ‘give’ Sylvia to Proteus as proof of his friendship), and everyone is united in (un)holy matrimony.
One of the highlights of the play is the dog, the “sourest-natured” cur named Crab. Here, he’s an adorable little fluffball who is flopped into arms or onto the floor and doesn’t budge (I was later told that the poor creature is blind and deaf, which makes him an ideal stage animal, unable to be distracted).
For this delightful production, directed by the astute and highly accomplished MFA Program Director Richard Seer, the setting is moved to the early 20th century, underscored by Ragtime music (musical direction by Robert Barry Fleming, with original music by John Kander, co-creator of such shows as “Cabaret” and “ Chicago .” His music provided a best-ever version of “Who is Sylvia?”).
The time-shift works fine, especially for the lovely costumes (designed by Michelle Hunt Souza). The only quibble with the entire effort is that there isn’t much of a distinction made between Verona , where the play starts, and Milan , where it migrates, before ending in the forest. Typically, big-city Milan is portrayed as some sort of den of iniquity, but here, there seems to be little difference from its sister locale.
Otherwise, everything clicks with alacrity and precision. The language is handled beautifully, with clarity and ease. The lighting (Jason Bieber) and sound (Paul Peterson) are excellent. The scenic design (Sean Fanning) is whimsical, a brightly colored, circus-y flower pattern painted on a raised circular platform. The aisles are used well, and the fight choreography (George Yé) is convincing. The 14-member cast is superb; there really isn’t a weak link in the bunch. It’s a very satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable production, which shouldn’t be missed.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe’s temporary Arena Stage at the San Diego Museum of Art, on the Prado in Balboa Park . ( 619) 234-5623; www.theoldglobe.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $19. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m., through November 22
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
THE SHOW: “Side Show,” a musical by Henry Krieger and Bill Russell, presented by Harts Performance Inc.
Identical twins Shauna Hart Ostrom and Shelly Hart Breneman, local performers and co-directors of the Actors Alliance of San Diego, were tailor-made for “Side Show,” the 1997 Tony-nominated musical story of real-life conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton (1908-1969). The sisters assayed the roles three years ago, at the Broadway Theatre in Vista , but apparently, they didn’t have their fill. So they formed their own production company, Harts Performance Inc., and made “Side Show” the inaugural production. They rented the Lyceum Space Theatre, and brought along large chunks of the earlier production: actors, musical director, choreographer and many of the excellent costumes. They hired Shaun Evans, artistic director of the California Youth Conservatory Theatre, to direct, play a major role and insert some young performers into the cast. The result is a mixed bag, an ensemble of varying skill that strains at the demands of this musically and thematically difficult show.
The dark undertone of the piece isn’t highlighted here. The cynical question the musical asks is who are the real ‘freaks’: The unfortunate aberrations of nature, the voyeurs who come to gawk at them, or the exploiters who ruthlessly take advantage of them? The opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks,” should set that tone, unnerving the audience. It’s a mild affair here, with few ‘freaks’ on display: just a slightly-bearded lady and guy with a reptilian mask.
The focus is on the two hapless British twins and their sad lives. One of them craved celebrity, the other, a ‘normal’ life. They were born connected at the hip, never separated for fear that the surgery might prove fatal. (As it was, in their later life, one of them died 2-4 days before the other, but that’s not in the show).
The musical starts after their early childhood abuse, when they’re already part of a side show, and follows their move to vaudeville and some measure of fame. The pair could sing and dance, and they even made it into the movies, though once again, their anomaly, not their talent, was the draw. In 1932, which is about when the show ends, they appeared as themselves in the cult film, “Freaks.” In 1951, they starred in “Chained for Life,” another manipulation of their misfortune, with a plot loosely based on their lives.
In the musical, they’re under the thumb of The Boss (Joseph Almohaya), protected by their devoted friend Jake (Evans), until they’re ‘discovered’ by hoofer Buddy (Jeremy Shull) and sleazy producer, Terry (Jason Maddy). The two men plan to marry the twins (more, apparently, for publicity than love). The amiable twosome sing several heart-rending numbers: “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You.”
Most of the dramatic portrayals are fine. But vocally, many of the performers seem to be singing out of their optimal range. Only Evans, the sole Equity performer in the ensemble, can truly manage the considerable vocal demands of the piece, though Maddy does a moving job in his “Private Conversation” with himself. The sound was frequently problematic, with improper balance and mics going in and out of function. The band, under the supervision of Michael Grant Hall, manages a bigger sound than its small size (four musicians) would suggest.
This is a heroic first production, a huge undertaking for a fledgling company on a limited budget; kudos to all for the effort.
THE LOCATION: Lyceum Space Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown. ( 858) 449-7645; www.hartsperformanceinc.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $18-35. Thursday-Saturday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., through November 29. No performance 11/26 (Thanksgiving)
TOPDOG/UNDERDOG: Suzan-Lori Parks is a challenging playwright. Her works, which have been produced locally at the erstwhile Fritz Theater (“The American Play,” “Venus”) and UCSD (“Fucking A”) demand a fair amount from the audience. They’re often rhythmic musical riffs, playing with language, taking angular, unpredictable turns, featuring non-linear storylines. Her most awarded drama, the one for which she won the Pulitzer Prize (2002), is also her most accessible. “Topdog/ Underdog” features two African American brothers, named Lincoln and Booth. The one called Lincoln actually has a job impersonating the Great Man, wearing whiteface, a frock-coat and a tall hat, sitting in a faux theater as people take potshots at him and he dies repeatedly for their amusement. He used to be a card-shark, a street-corner hustler of three-card Monte. He’s gone ‘respectable,’ but now his younger brother is trying to game the game, looking for pointers. Booth wants to make it big in the underworld, so he can marry his girlfriend; he simply steals whatever else he needs to impress her. This is a Cain and Abel story, and an uncompromising tear in the fabric of America , a destruction/deconstruction of the American Dream.
It’s about two men deserted by their parents at a young age, still jokingly and seriously competing, still rehashing the memories, still trying to make sense of the abandonment and their lives. When Lincoln loses his job, things devolve rapidly. Well, not so rapidly, since this play runs nearly three hours. But in the brilliant, all too brief UCSD production (just one week, six performances), the drama was searing, riveting, unblinking and unassailable. Directed by faculty member Nadine George-Graves, it was flawlessly acted by Johnny Gill and Bowman Wright. Gill soared in the more showy role. Wright put his emotional cards on the table more gradually, though he was quick and slick with the real cards. This was a stunning production in every way. With the extraordinary care, effort and talent that went into this show, it’s a tragedy that more people couldn’t have seen it.
… The Intrepid Shakespeare Company debut of its series of staged readings was a resounding success; interestingly, most of the audience came from the acting community. The premiere production was “Much Ado About Nothing,” and it was a highly entertaining endeavor, helmed by the new company’s associate artistic director, Jason D. Rennie. Lamb’s Players Theatre’s Robert Smyth and Deborah Gilmour Smyth (real-life mates) were wonderful as the playfully warring Benedick and Beatrice. These are roles they should assay in a fully staged production — soon. Douglas Lay was funny as the bumbling, malaprop-spouting Dogberry, and Tom Hall was amusingly dour as the villainous Don John. I was thrilled to play a small part in providing free Shakespeare to the community; this series is cleverly called Free Will. Next up, two rarely-seen works: “King John,” directed by Jonathan McMurtry, featuring Eric Poppick, Glynn Bedington, Christy Yael, Jo Anne Glover, Eddie Yaroch and others, on November 30; and “Richard II” on December 14, directed by Doug Lay, with Intrepid’s founding artistic director Sean Cox in the title role, sharing the stage with David Heath as Henry Bolingbroke, who later became Henry IV. Performances are at 8pm, at The Theatre Inc., 899 C St. (9th and C), downtown.
… David Zellnik flew in from New York to see the reading of his play, “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom,” at Diversionary Theatre. The comic drama was written in 2000, and has been produced several times since, in London and Portland , OR . Diversionary is considering a full production of the piece, but executive/artistic director Dan Kirsch wanted to see what the community response would be to a work that talks about AIDS in a comical way. Judging from the audience reactions, during and after the performance, the effect was extremely positive. The central character, magnificently portrayed by Tom Zohar, is a gay-porn writer in a wheelchair, who kicks off the evening by sharing some of his creations. So right off the bat, the text may be a little shocking to some viewers. Then, there are the friends and lovers, HIV-positive men who are still learning how to deal with the prolonged life they didn’t expect to experience. Under the assured direction of Igor Goldin, in town (from New York) to helm Diversionary’s upcoming production of “The New Century” (opening 12/5), the cast was terrific, and very funny: Ira Spector and Andy Collins as mates dealing with annoying new symptoms of the many drugs they take to keep their HIV in check; and in several amusing roles, Markuz Rodriguez. They were wonderful, separately and together. Besides being amusing, the play has a lot to say, though, being set in 1996-1997, Zellnik considers it “a period piece.” Now he’s turning his attention back to “Yank!,” which he co-wrote with his brother, Joe Zellnik. The musical, which was a big hit at Diversionary in 2008, opens Off Broadway in February. As for “A Hundred Flowers,” Diversionary should dig in.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… San Diego gets Short Shrift: When the $50 million in stimulus package money earmarked for the National Endowment for the Arts was doled out recently, San Diego came out almost dry. Cities much smaller than ours, such as Oakland , Monterey and Santa Clarita, got more money. Although by population we are the state’s second largest city, Los Angeles (15 grants totally $1.05 million) and San Francisco (37 grants, for a total of $1.4 million) snagged respectively 14 and 18 times more than our allotment. The Old Globe received $50,000 and AjA Project, a photography education program in City Heights , was given $25,000. That’s it, of the 19 applications filed by San Diego arts organizations. According to the NEA, 630 of 2400, or about 20% of grant applicants, received funding. That’s no consolation to an arts-rich community like ours. Nobody from San Diego served on any of the review panels, though both L.A. and San Francisco were well represented. Now the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture is doing all it can to reach out to the new NEA Chair, Rocco Landesman. They’ve invited him to come and visit us; hopefully, he’ll take them up on the offer, so we have the opportunity to strut our artistic stuff.
… Bald for a Cause: The J*Company youth theater is gearing up for “The King and I,” the second show of its Rodgers and Hammerstein season. They’re proud to have a 20-piece orchestra for accompaniment. They’re delighted that the musical director, Jason Chase, recently worked on the Broadway touring version of the show, which starred Stephanie Powers. But perhaps most of all, they’re pleased with their leading man, 16 year-old Daniel Myers. In tackling the role made famous by actor (and cancer victim) Yul Brynner, Myers is making a potent symbolic statement: he’s shaving his head to raise money and awareness for children with cancer. The J*Company will be accepting donations for Miracle Makers, a program at Rady Children’s Hospital of San Diego . Myers, wise beyond his years, said: “To properly take on the role of the King [of Siam], I was not required to shave my head, but when I learned of this opportunity to help children in our community that are literally fighting for their lives, I knew I had to do it. When I told my director, Joey [Landwehr] about the cause, he decided to join me in this gesture. I feel honored to be part of this venture.” Donate at: www.lfjcc.org/miracle .
… Honest Abe and the Bard: The San Diego Shakespeare Society and Write Out Loud are presenting “Lincoln’s Shakespeare,” adapted from a scholarly essay, “Steeped in Shakespeare,” by UC Riverside English professor John Briggs, which examines the political and psychological insights Lincoln gleaned from a lifelong study of Shakespeare, and how he effectively employed quotes and concepts from the plays in his addresses to the nation. Vanessa Dinning and Walter Ritter prepared the adaptation, which will be read aloud and enhanced by excerpts from the plays. The performers –Ritter, Dinning, Steve Lipinsky, Charlie Riendeau, Mike Auer, Victoria Mature and Steve Jensen – will be directed by Veronica Murphy. December 8 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town . Info at www.writeoutloudsd.com or www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org
.. Shakespeare Meets Darwin : UCSD director Kim Rubinstein and choreographer Yolande Snaith have collaborated on an original dance theater piece that melds Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and Darwin ’s “The Descent of Man” and “Selection in Relation to Sex.” “Sexual Selection: Shakespeare and Darwin Ponder Love” is a celebration of the mating rituals of the human species from the perspective of a brilliant playwright and a genius evolutionist. November 17-21 in the Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre, on the campus of UCSD. (858) 534-4574; theare.ucsd.edu/season
… Patté on a Plate : Tickets are now available for The 13th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence, a gala community celebration that honors the Best of the Best of local stage talent. The high-octane evening includes a sit-down dinner and exciting musical numbers from 2009 theater productions. If you’re a theatermaker, a theatergoer or a theaterlover, you won’t want to miss it. Monday, January 18, 2010. Tickets are at www.thepattefoundation.org.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” – marvelous production of a sprightly, funny, imaginative play
New Village Arts, through 12/6
v “Into the Woods” – delightful production of a beloved Stephen Sondheim musical
SDSU, through 11/22
v “The Two Gentlemen of Verona ” – Shakespeare’s comedy set in the Ragtime era; beautifully performed
USD/Old Globe production, through 11/22
v “Bent” – an intense, gut-wrenching story, superbly told
Diversionary Theatre, through 11/22
Read Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-11-04/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/pat-launer-theater-things-to-do-things-to-do/bent-still-packs-a-wallop
v “Dog Act” – inventive, amusing, linguistically brilliant and magnificently performed
Moxie Theatre, through 11/22
v “A Joyful Noise” – joyful, indeed! outstanding presentation of a historical drama
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through 11/22
v “Godspell” – energetic, inspiring Biblical musical
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.