Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, October 1, 2009
THE SHOW: “Side Man,” the acclaimed Warren Leight drama, presented by Bang! Productions
It’s all that jazz . And more. A wry, semi-autobiographical memoir, and a tribute to the Big Band journeyman musicians called side men. Playwright Warren Leight grew up in that milieu; his father, Donald Leight , was a trumpet player who worked with Woody Herman, Claude Thornhill and others, through the 1950s. These guys lived and breathed the music, gigging all the time, sitting in as soloists or playing backup , highlighting a song, a star or a big-name bandleader. But in Leight’s conception, that’s pretty much all they thought about.
So here we have a family story, actually the dissolution of a family, set against the collapse of the Big Band era, as Elvis heralded the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. By the ‘60s, all these side men, serious devotees who stayed happily in the background, were history.
The rich, deep and disturbing drama, which won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, jumps backward and forward in time, from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Our guide through the minefield of his childhood is Clifford (Brian Mackey), who early on had to become the parent of his parents – an unstable, alcoholic mother and a head-in-the-clouds, music-obsessed father. The crumbling family is juxtaposed with scenes of Gene, Clifford’s dad, and his cronies, a trio of colorful trumpeters (the clown, the junkie and the womanizer). Gene is alive, connected, animated when he’s with them. At home, he’s a cipher, distracted and distant. He makes his wife a million promises he can’t possibly keep; he lives on unemployment insurance and borrows money from his 10 year-old kid. He fails to notice that his disaffected mate has buried herself in booze.
Ever the caretaker and enabler, Clifford (named for Clifford Brown, one of jazz’s all-time great trumpeters) foregoes an art school scholarship so he can work to support his family. He’s numbed by all those years of covering for his dad and bailing out his mom, when she’s held captive in various facilities – hospitals, police stations or psych wards.
In spite of this horrendous upbringing, Leight’s portrait, and Mackey’s performance, are filled with wry humor and affection. After being tethered to the dysfunction for nearly three decades, Clifford is finally starting his own life, getting away, moving to California , pursuing his art.
We meet him on the eve of his departure, just before his final meetings with his parents; he hasn’t seen his father in five years. Contemplating that fraught reunion, he revisits some of the sad, ugly, despairing, demented chapters of his life. Even a few of the good days – though those were mostly before his time. It’s heartbreaking when he muses, “Everyone was happier before I was born.” Another aching moment: when he celebrates the one time his father actually looked at him.
The Bang! Production presentation was originally mounted under the banner of Inukshuk Productions. But there were some internal conflicts and the original director departed, taking her company name with her. Cast member Scott Striegel stepped in to assume the reins, and he’s done a fine job. Though this is a solid ensemble, it’s hard not to think that, with directorial consistency and without discord and distractions during the rehearsal period, the production would be even stronger. There isn’t quite enough nuance in the characterizations, nor enough humor to balance the heaviness. And oh, those New York accents; there isn’t one flawless dialect in the bunch (Tom Hall comes closest).
Still, this is an extremely potent piece of theater. Mackey anchors the play, and his one angry scene, where he finally explodes at his ineffectual, disengaged dad, is outstanding. As Gene, that inattentive father, Eddie Yaroch goes for likability; he doesn’t come into his own as the distracted dreamer until the second act. Amanda Cooley Davis plays “Crazy Terry,” the foul-mouthed, disregarded wife, shrilly; she’s not as nutty or as tender-hearted as she’s written (the role marked the highly praised stage debut of Edie Falco ), but she has some truly tragic moments . Jacque Wilke plays the smart, sassy waitress, Patsy, with a wise world-weariness (she’s bedded – and married – more than her share of musicians, including all of Gene’s buddies).
With their easy rapport, the guys should provide comic relief, kind of a vaudeville routine of Runyonesque characters. They’re played pretty straight here, by a trio of fine local actors: Don Pugh, Scott Striegel and Tom Hall. Hall spews the most humor and wisdom (continuing a long literary tradition of perceptive, philosophical addicts), and his downfall, when he’s beaten up and put away for awhile, is truly affecting. One of the high points of the piece is when these players get hold of a recording of Brownie (Clifford Brown) blowing his horn for the last time, on the night he was killed in a car crash, at age 25. They should be absolutely transfixed, ecstatic. Here, they merely seem to be casually enjoying the music.
There may be a few missteps in the production, but overall, this is such a powerful drama, such a moving portrait and remembrance, that it should be seen and savored.
THE LOCATION: Bang! Productions at Diversionary Theatre . 619-220-0097; www.diversionary.org ; www.sidemansandiego.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $28-33. Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through October 11.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
‘Everyone Needs Milk’ (that was Harvey ’s first campaign slogan)
THE SHOW: “Dear Harvey,” the Harvey Milk remembrance with a local angle, produced by San Diego State University
Earlier this year, Diversionary Theatre presented the world premiere of a play written by local playwright and SDSU alum Patricia Loughrey. The piece, about Harvey Milk, was commissioned by Diversionary as its own tribute to the civil rights activist, and it was conceived long before the film, “Milk,” was released. The small-cast production made for compelling theater, and the piece is now making the rounds in various locales. There’s even talk of touring the SDSU production to local high schools. That would be an excellent idea, especially this year, the 30th anniversary of Harvey ’s assassination. Just ten months after he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk, age 48, the first openly gay public official, were gunned down by conservative city supervisor Dan White, who also murdered Mayor George Moscone , age 49. White got off lightly on the infamous “Twinkie Defense.” He only served five years in prison, and killed himself shortly after his release.
The play is a remembrance and a touching tribute, based on Loughrey’s interviews with people who knew Harvey , from activists to politicians (including local ones — Toni Atkins and Christine Kehoe), accompanied by archival photos. Many of the iconic shots were captured by San Francisco LGBT photographer Daniel Nicoletta , who was gracious to the SDSU performers who traveled up to the Bay Area and to meet him, and to walk the streets Harvey walked.
The Diversionary production was a small-cast affair, just seven performers playing multiple roles. At SDSU, under the direction of faculty member Peter Cirino , there are twice as many actors, which serves to simplify and clarify. One person consistently plays one character, and with all those bodies onstage, the crowd scenes can actually look crowded. Both productions featured the piano stylings of Thomas Hodges, a multi-talented SDSU student who’s also an accomplished playwright and actor. He composed the entire score, and he even enters the action at the end, offering his own homage, a “Dear Harvey” letter that expresses anger and regret (“I’m really mad that they don’t teach about you in schools”), wistfulness (“I think there’s a lot you’d like” about what’s going on now) and appreciation (“Thank you for making me believe that society owes me my equal rights”). Stirring, poignant and very personal.
But the centerpiece of the evening is when activist Cleve Jones talks about the candlelight march after Harvey ’s death. At the time, a thousand San Franciscans had already died of AIDS. “I had Harvey ’s old bullhorn,” he says. “I asked people to write the name of one person they knew who’d died… We climbed three stories and taped the placards [to the Federal Building ]. When I saw it, I thought it looked like some kind of quilt.” Within a year, the first AIDS quilt had been constructed. That was the inception and conception of what became the largest community arts project in the world. Photos of the quilt on the National Mall underscored this stirring recollection, beautifully presented by undergraduate Derek Smith, a former employee of Jon Moscone , the late Mayor’s son. Smith actually was a featured extra in the film, “Milk.”
Other standouts in the all-undergrad cast include: Emily Davenport as Anne Kronenberg, who was 22 when Harvey hired her to run his campaign; Diahann McCrary as Dottie Wine, Treasurer of the Democratic Party’s Gay Caucus; Ken Hodges as State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano ; and the aptly over-the-top Anthony Simone as activist/drag queen Nicole Murray-Ramirez.
The production values, though basic, underscored the archival material (excellent projection design by Dominic Abbenante ). Cirino keeps things moving and makes admirable use of props, slides and music. The actors seem genuinely invested in the piece (a number are gay/lesbian activists on campus).
The play, which jumps back and forth in time, could use a little judicious editing. With inspiring quotes, and segments of Harvey ’s own speeches, it makes a cogent case for Harvey Milk as visionary, martyr and influential groundbreaker, a proponent of all human rights, a person who acted from a place of love.
“I’m sorry he missed the AIDS crisis,” one character says. “His dynamic brand of activism would’ve taken it by the horns.” “There is no limit to what I can do and where I can go now,” says another. As proof of how far we’ve come, even in conservative San Diego , there were photographic acknowledgments of local gay/lesbian political figures, including Atkins, Kehoe, Bonnie Dumanis , Carl DeMaio and Todd Gloria. Still, the country could use a good, loving, hopeful dose of Harvey right about now.
THE LOCATION: SDSU School of theatre, Television and Film, in the Experimental Theatre on the campus of SDSU . ( 619) 594-6884 ; theatre.sdsu.edu
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $13-15. Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m., through October 2.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
THE SHOW: Trolley Dances, the 11th annual event organized by Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater
It’s the most mobile, fun, dance-happy production of the year: the 11th annual Trolley Dances, produced by Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater in association with the Metropolitan Transit System. Every fall, Isaacs chooses one trolley line, puts together a team of choreographers, and invites each to select a stop or location along the route. They happily create a short, site-specific dance tailored to the space they’ve chosen. This year’s theme was just right for the Chula Vista blue line that ends in San Ysidro : ‘Demystifying the Border.” Isaacs amassed an international slate of dancers and dance creators: Peter Chu from Santa Monica, Miroslava Wilson from Tijuana, Elfi Schafer- Schäfroth from Zurich, and San Franciscan Kim Epifano , a favorite each time she visits (she also helms SF’s adapted version of Trolley Dances).
The 2½ hour trip beginsat the station, with Schafer- Schäfroth’s “Tastes of Heimat .” The German word heimat defies English translation, but it roughly equates to a sense of home and homeland, attachment and identity. The props are, appropriately, a little piece of earth (small squares of artificial grass). The athletic dancers fight over it, covet it, compete for it, steal it, build houses on it, find love and happiness with it. This is a sometimes dark, sometimes joyful paean to how we all crave a sense of belonging.
Next up is the most whimsical of the pieces, “The Recessionist Feminist Car Wash,” Isaacs’ clever statement on work, camaraderie and our inimitable car culture. A bevy of dancing beauties makes light of their drudgery/job, and have fun with the audience to boot. Another amusing, auto-oriented piece is Epifano’s “Chula,” set in a parking lot. An old VW van is driven around, and a bunch of muscular men – and one woman – clamber and climb in, on, and over it as it moves, even skating and skateboarding with amazing grace and hip hop glee. Each dancer does a little solo and shows off unique skills. Chu ’s “Grounded Steps,” staged in a bicycle parking area, has dancers throwing themselves against chainlink fencing and balancing precariously atop the metal, hoop-like bike stands. Somewhat less successful is Wilson ’s aggressive “Breath/El Principio/El Fin,” which features breathless running along the trolley tracks, urgent rushing, Post-It reminders stuck on the dancers’ clothes, and audience participation. Its intentions are less pointed than the other dances.
The afternoon ends in San Ysidro , at the Mexican border, with Isaacs’ “My/Your Border.” Backed by Steve Baker’s ethereal musical creations, the all-female troupe starts out up against the wall. They effectively use rain sticks to heighten the contemplative tone, and form gorgeous stage pictures, with long-held leg extensions suggesting a sense of balance, even in a perilous place. An elegiac end to one of the most muscular and forceful of recent Trolley Dances.
This is a unique experience that’s inventive, exciting and wildly different every year. If you like travel, dance, music, the outdoors, athleticism… you should make this an annual habit. Trolley Dances is moving in all senses of the word, and it’s fun for the whole family.
THE LOCATION: The Bayfront /E Street Trolley Stop in Chula Vista . ( 619) 225-1803 ; www.sandiegodancetheater.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $15-30. Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m., 12 noon, 12:45 p.m., 1:30 p.m. and 2:15 p.m., through October 4.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
… Whoever said Dance wasn’t dramatic? At the third installation of “Malashock Thinks You Can Dance,” a fundraising riff on “Dancing with the Stars,” the theater community triumphed again! I was the winner the first year and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, founder/artistic director of Moxie Theatre, stole the show– and the top prize – this time, with an incredible quickstep. She exhibited the most fancy-footwork of all the contestants, and definitely deserved to win. She looked fabulous too, with a bling -y costume created for her by that wizardess of glam and glitz, costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings . Each of the ten local contestants was paired with a professional dance partner. The prep is rigorous; but a true performer will shine. Theater triumphs again!
… Exquisite!: The University of San Diego’s Bearing Exquisite Witness Arts Festival, held in conjunction with the 7th annual Women PeaceMakers Program at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice, was an eye-opener that featured a disturbing and exciting series of events. In addition to the lectures and forums, the three-day event focused on playwrights, actors, musicians, filmmakers and artists who have been creating works that confront human rights abuses and state-sanctioned repression. Peacebuilding performances, according to the Festival organizers, reflect what John Paul Lederach calls “the moral imagination” – the ability to stay grounded in the real world, with all its violence and injustice, while still imagining, and working toward, a more life-affirming, peace-filled planet. This year’s Women PeaceMakers came from Uganda , Serbia , El Salvador , Pakistan , Sudan and the Philippines .
The three searing, heart-stopping readings I attended included “Dog and Wolf,” by Catherine Filloux (whose other political-minded plays, “ Lemkin’s House” and “Mary and Myra ,” have been produced locally). This was a terrific performance by Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company; founder/artistic director Seema Sueko was outstanding in the role of Jasmina , a Bosnian human rights worker and refugee who has highly emotional interactions with Joseph (excellent Robert Barry Fleming), an American asylum lawyer. He’s confounded by her sabotage of her hearing, and drawn by her enigmatic personality to cross professional, emotional and geographic borders. Ultimately, it’s he who discovers a new definition of asylum. Sandra Ellis-Troy effectively played several other characters.
Moxie Theatre assayed one of Erik Ehn’s latest, challenging works (several were produced by Sledgehammer Theatre in the 1990s). “Maria Kizito ” is based on a horrifying true story of a Rwandan nun who, in 1994, opened the doors of her convent to offer sanctuary to the Tutsis being purged and persecuted by their neighboring Hutus. Thousands came, taking cover from a war-torn, devastated nation. Kizito welcomed them in, and then arranged for their slaughter. Ehn’s play, very dense and often confounding, makes an unfathomable story even more incomprehensible. Under the direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg (the performance was the same day as her dance début!), the superb cast — Monique Gaffney , impenetrable in the title role; M’Lafi Thompson, forceful as her also-culpable fellow nun,; Robert Barry Fleming as the ruthless but seductive narrator/destroyer, Rekeraho ; Maggie Carney as a distressed Mother Theresa; with support by five USD students as Greek chorus-type Ensemble — did the best they could with the abstract, abstruse work.
The special international guest performers at the Festival came from the Belarus Free Theater, the only independent, unregistered – and therefore illegal – theater company in the former Soviet nation of 10 million. Their haunting production, “Discover Love,” by Nikolai Khalezin , who also directed, is one of the theater works the four year-old troupe considers to be “relevant theater,” not political theater. The kind of work they make “deals with issues that people are used to keeping silent about,” especially in their country which, they say, is the only dictatorship in Europe. Their exciting, imaginative, highly physical performance style, laced with comedy and music, is employed to excellent effect in telling the horrific true story of a Belarus woman whose husband was ‘disappeared,’ that is to say, kidnapped and murdered. She’s forced to confront her former and present life and the meaning of love. Needless to say, this story is not unique to Belarus ; in the final moments, there are projections of the staggering numbers of disappeared from other areas, from Chechnya to Argentina to Iraq . As searing and intense as the presentation was, the talk-back after the performance was even more chilling. This group’s subversive, dangerous acts of theatermaking put our mundane daily lives and arts productions in a whole new light. For them, every production is a revolutionary act (they and their audiences have been arrested on more than one occasion). The company only made three stops in the U.S. during their trip abroad, and we were fortunate to have been treated to this forceful and impassioned experience.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Brush Up Your Shakespeare: The 8th annual Celebrity Sonnet Presentations are nearly upon us. But these aren’t your Elizabethan great-great-great-grandma’s recitations. Prepare yourself for some surprises; the timeless verse will be presented as blues songs, balletic flights of fancy, Argentine tango, kids’ stuff, flutey fun and more. Pianist Gustavo Romero will pair the Bard with Bach. Even Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots will be there; shouldn’t you? October 12, 7:30 p.m. in the Old Globe Theatre. www.sandigoshakespearesociety.org
… Spreading the Word: “See Me! Hear Me!” premiered in Europe in August 2009, and is touring the U.S. for two months, in support of nationwide campaigns against global slavery and human trafficking. Belleherst Production presents its artistic director, solo performer Kathleen Ann Thompson, in an original, multi-media movement piece that depicts the devastating consequences of these inhumane acts of brutality. Using projections and physical theater techniques, Thompson journeys through the souls of victims, rescuers and defenders, spanning the globe from Berlin to Bangkok to Ithaca , New York . At North Coast Repertory Theatre, for one night only. 7:30 p.m. on October 20. Further info at www.belleherst.com . Tickets: at (858) 481-1055; www.northcoastrep.org
… And now, for something completely different: The National Comedy Theatre is passing a major milestone this month: ten years of improv in San Diego . The group has performed over 2500 times in our fair city. The original show expanded in 2005 to include a theater Off Broadway and one in Phoenix . Overseas tours to entertain American troops have visited far-flung locales such as Iraq , Turkey , Italy , Spain , Djibouti and Saudi Arabia . Locally, the group hasn’t missed a Friday or Saturday performance in a decade. “I think the secret to our ongoing success,” says artistic director Gary Kramer, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, “is the fact that nobody told us we don’t know what we’re doing.” In commemoration of the local anniversary, there will be a series of special performances throughout October, commencing with an Old-Timer’s Weekend, featuring some of the original NCT players (10/9-10). Shows are Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. (619) 295-4999; www.nationalcomedy.com
… The Ruskies are Coming!: Write Out Loud, the group dedicated to reading great literature aloud, presents “From Russia With Love,” classic and contemporary stories about Russia, including pieces by Chekhov, Tolstoy and Nabokov. 7 p.m. on October 5 at the Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. (619) 297-8953; www.writeoutloudsd.com
… Tense and Intense: Malashock Dance is about to present its fall performance. “ Surface Tension ,” which consists of three pieces: “After Dust ,” a world premiere choreographed by John Malashock ; a reprise of his popular “ Apologies from the Lower Deck,” featuring actor Ron Choularton; and “ Wayward Glances ,” a world premiere created by Malashock’s associate artistic director, Michael Mizerany . 10/10-11, at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza . Tickets at: (619) 544-1000; www.sdrep.org . A “two-for-one” ticket offer is available to those who attended the recent “Malashock Thinks You Can Dance” event. www.MalashockDance.org
… To the border and back: After the finale of this year’s “Trolley Dances” at the border crossing, choreographer Jean Isaacs and her San Diego Dance Theater present their “ Fall Studio Show, A Mexico City Preview .” Get a sneak peek of an upcoming Mexico City performance (10/15), which will be part of the Perfiles Internacionales Festival created and supported by Mexico ’s Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes . 8 p.m. on 10/12 at Dance Place San Diego , on the NTC Promenade in Point Loma. (619) 225-1803; www.sandiegodancetheater.org .
… “ Emerge Dance Festival (VI) ” is the sixth annual showcase of “the best of San Diego ’s emerging contemporary dance artists.” This year, 11 local choreographers will be spotlighted, including Eveoke-trained Anthony Rodriguez and UCSD graduate student in dance-theater Rebecca Salzer . Produced by The Patricia Rincon Dance Collective , the Festival is one night only, October 3 at 8 p.m., at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . (858) 362-1348; http://tickets.lfjcc.org
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“Side Man” – wonderful, poignant play; fine ensemble work
Bang! Productions at Diversionary, through 10/11
“Dear Harvey ” – excellent presentation of a touching, amusing and heartfelt tribute to civil rights activist Harvey Milk
SDSU’s Experimental Theatre, through 10/2
“Things We Want” – snarky black comedy about damaged 20-somethings in deep distress; wonderful direction and performances
New Village Arts , through 10/11
“August: Osage County” – big, sprawling, spectacular family epic; the outstanding Steppenwolf Theatre touring production stars Academy Award-winner Estelle Parsons, who played the lead role on Broadway
Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles , through 10/18
“I’m Not Rappaport ” – outstanding production of a funny, touching, thought-provoking play
Scripps Ranch Theatre, through 10/10
“I Love You Because” – charming romantic musical (with a comic edge), delightfully presented
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 9/27
“Drink Me, or The Strange Case of Alice Times Three ” – excellent production of a quirky, amusing and discomfiting mystery
Moxie Theatre at the La Jolla Playhouse, through 9/27
“ Godspell ” – inventive, energetic and inspiring
Lamb’s Players Theatre at the Horton Grand Theatre, open-ended
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.