Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
April 16, 2010
THE SHOW: “Ghosts,” the 1882 Ibsen classic, at North Coast Repertory Theatre
The word ‘syphilis’ is never mentioned. But it’s one of the unnamed ghosts that haunts the Alving family. The one that ultimately destroys it.
The late Captain Alving , who died ten years ago, was a well-respected member of the community. But he was a profligate, hard-drinking philanderer, and his oppressed, unhappy wife spent her life protecting and defending him. She even sent her young son away, so the man’s vile influence wouldn’t spread to the next generation. But she couldn’t keep the bacteria at bay. When young Osvald , an artist of 27, returns home for the dedication of an orphanage in his father’s name (his mother’s final act to rid herself of the debauched man and his memory), he reveals that he’s deathly ill. And as the onion layers peel away, without stating his diagnosis, we discover that he has late-stage congenital syphilis which, among other horrors, attacks and “softens” the brain.
Some audience members were a little confused on opening night. There was too much for them to figure out on their own. But that’s part of an uptight Victorian society that says little and buries most of its missteps behind a stiff-upper-lip/life-is-suffering philosophy.
There are more secrets and ghosts in the Alving household. The paternity of young Regina Engstrand , for one. She’s supposedly the daughter of the scurvy Carpenter Engstrand , but we soon learn otherwise. And then there’s the Pastor, a sanctimonious, supercilious dispenser of hidebound religious convictions that have held back the forward-thinking Mrs. Alving for decades. When she tried to escape her awful marriage years ago, she ran to the arms of the (not so) good Pastor. But he resisted his own temptations and sent her back to where duty forced her to be. She’s suffered ever since. Now, she’s finally ready to come clean, to walk away from a lifetime of lies and hypocrisy. But it’s too late. And tragic at the end.
Like Henrik Ibsen’s better-known works (e.g., “The Doll’s House”), “Ghosts” was a scathing social commentary on 19th century morality. Though Ibsen is Norwegian, the play was originally written in Danish, under the title “ Gengangere ,” which means “The Ones who Return.” In Norwegian, the term refers to people who frequently show up in the same place again and again. Ibsen reportedly disliked the original English translation (by William Archer) that used the word “Ghosts.” But it stuck. It was in America that the play first premiered, in 1882 in Chicago . There was s single private London performance in 1891. But mostly, Europe went wild, heaping scorn on the play.
Even the intimation of venereal disease was scandalous, and it was even more appalling to suggest that even an upright, moral person ( Osvald , in this case) had no protection against the disease. The play didn’t stop at syphilis. It also concerned mercy killing, marital infidelity, the role of women in the family and false piety in the clergy. No wonder the press called it “positively abominable,” “a loathsome sore unbandaged ,” “gross, almost putrid indecorum,” “a dirty act done publicly” by “prigs, pedants and profligates” (they got that part right, anyway). Maybe syphilis has been replaced by STDs, but none of these issues has gone away, not by a long shot.
North Coast Repertory Theatre commissioned a new translation, and SDSU professor emeritus Anne-Charlotte Harvey, a native of Sweden who specializes in Ibsen and Strindberg, has provided a crisp, clear, modern telling of the story. The setting ( Marty Burnett ) is a stark, tasteful living room, backed by a huge bay window, through which the shifting moods of the piece are reflected (lighting by Matt Novotny): colorless gray, fiery red, the icy-fingered dawn of a new day. The evocative sound ( Chris Luessmann ) features the false gaiety of chirping birds and the mournful melodies of the Swedish band Väsen . The mostly dark-hued clothing (costume design by Jennifer Brawn Gittings) is consummately character-defining.
A marvelous cast, under the sure hand of NCRT artistic director David Ellenstein, brings it all to vibrant life. With his oversized white mutton-chops and obsequious demeanor, Jonathan McMurtry perfectly captures the oily unctuousness of the crusty and conniving Engstrand . Aimee Burdette, recently so delightful as Miranda in the North Coast/Mira Costa co-production of “The Tempest,” is charming as sparkling young Regina, for whom all the men have plans; Osvald , Engstrand and the Pastor think she’ll be a savior. But she has a determined, unswerving, upwardly-mobile mind of her own. As the supercilious, pontificating Pastor, John Herzog is sturdy and solemn, though he’d be more deliciously scurrilous if he revealed just a little of his long-suppressed attraction for Mrs. Alving . In some productions, the Pastor nearly steals the show. Here, surprisingly, his pomposity and misogyny were at times laughable to the opening night audience.
The drama ultimately belongs to Rosina Reynolds and Richard Baird , who give magnificent, fine-grained, deftly nuanced performances. As Mrs. Alving , Reynolds explores an expansive emotional range: from kittenish to commanding, tentative to tormented. The ever-robust Baird lost 35 pounds for the role of Osvald , so he could look more asthenic and anemic. Over the course of several scenes, watch him weaken and crumble. Their final tragic moments, mother and son, together on the precipice of hell, are heartbreaking.
If you care about theater, you won’t miss this splendid production.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr. , Solana Beach . (858) 481-10555; www.northcoastrep.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $30-$47. Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m., select Saturday matinees at 2 p.m., through May 2
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
NOTE : As a Scandinavian companion piece to “Ghosts,” Stone Soup Theatre will present another A.C. Harvey translation, this time from the Swedish: August Strindberg’s steamy classic, “Miss Julie.” Lisa Berger and Carrie Klewin direct Rebecca Johannsen , Jason Maddy and Erika Beth Phillips. Five performances only: April 26-May 5 . ( 858) 481-1055. www.northcoastrep.org
Palaver with Pablo
THE SHOW: “ A Weekend with Pablo Picasso ,” a world premiere solo show, commissioned by San Diego Repertory Theatre
An iconoclastic artist portrays a revolutionary artist. Herbert Siguenza , one of the three multi-talented co-founders of the killer Chicano comedy troupe, Culture Clash, has turned into Pablo Picasso (at least until April 18), for the world premiere of his latest solo show (he previously created a one-man homage to the Mexican comedian and stage/film actor, Cantínflas ) ). Now he’s set his sights on the 20th century’s most explosive, experimental, influential artist.
The actor/writer has been fascinated by Picasso since he received a book of his work at age 7. Siguenza went on to obtain a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Printmaking, so he adds artistic acumen to his prodigious skills as a mime, mimic, clown, dancer and peerless inhabitor of characters.
The conceit is that we’re uninvited guests in the master’s studio (“I never permit anyone to see me wor !”), ostensibly sent by his dealer to check up on the 76 year-old as he embarks on a head-spinning, last-minute commission: six paintings and three vases in two days. Over the course of 80 minutes, Siguenza actually creates those things (more or less), right before our eyes. He jumps, he dances, he cavorts, he paints, he eats, he plays matador and red-nosed clown, he espouses his views on everything from art to Communism, women to war (a good deal of the play, which Siguenza created, is taken from Picasso’s writings and interviews).
A few juicy quotes: “ Inspiration does not exist; if it does, it must find you working… Painting is the nearest we can get to the truth… The world today does not make sense; why should I paint pictures that do?.. I create art so I can wash the dust of daily life off my soul.”
Siguenza /Picasso is spectacular company. He’s warm, funny, arrogant, petulant, joyful. Under Todd Salovey ’s light-hearted direction, he projects kinetic energy, flaunts an unmistakable joie de vive. He’s comical, philosophical, quick to laugh. The impulse and obsession to create are palpable, infectious. We learn a lot about the man, and we see some of his magnificent images (projection design by Victoria Petrovich ), with special emphasis — visually and textually — on the wild and wildly famous “Guernica,” Picasso’s violent, anti-war reaction to the 1937 German and Italian bombing of the Basque town of that name.
Guilio Perrone’s set, like the play and its subject, is both serious and whimsical. There are canvases of all sizes leaning about. A table filled with paints and brushes and bric-a-brac. ‘Picasso’ repeatedly shows us how, as the “king of trash,” he can make art out of anything, including bicycle handlebars, fish bones, a piece of moldy cheese. Case in point: the life-sized goat downstage center, fashioned from a wine barrel and other found objects. Bruno Louchouarn composed the ebullient music, and Ross Glanc’s lighting is equally cheery.
As Picasso says, “Time is a bandit.” Don’t let it rob you of this unique opportunity.
THE LOCATION: San Diego Repertory Theatre, Horton Plaza . ( 619) 544-1000 ; www.sdrep.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $18-$40; Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m., extended through April 18
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
Read Pat’s preview/interview with Herbert Siguenza here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2010-03-16/things-to-do/weekend-with-pablo-picasso-premieres-at-san-diego-rep
THE SHOW: “ The Rivalry , ” a drama of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, at Lamb’s Players Theatre
An unknown upstart rises from the ranks of Illinois politics and goes on to greater glory. We’ve heard this story before. Not just in today’s news, but in the historical record. “The Rivalry” considers the Senatorial race of 1858. The political star of the day was Stephen Douglas, the Democratic incumbent. His opponent was a relative unknown: former House Representative Abraham Lincoln, part of the newly formed Republican Party.
Norman Corwin’s 1959 drama, created during the heated era of the civil rights movement, charts the course of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, performed to huge crowds, sometimes 10-20 thousand strong, in districts around Illinois . The fiery, often contentious confrontations, primarily about slavery, revealed the spirit and character of each man. Both were intent on holding the country together at a divisive time. But Douglas insisted that slavery should not be considered a moral or a national issue; he believed in states rights: that individual states should decide their own policies.
In his famous “House Divided” speech, Lincoln claimed that Douglas was part of a conspiracy to nationalize slavery. Douglas, in turn, called Lincoln a rampant abolitionist for saying that the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” applied to blacks as well as whites. In the parlance of today, many of the comments sound distinctly racist.
The issue of race is still present in our current rhetoric (witness the latest flap over Virginia ’s Confederate History Month). The campaign name-calling and mud-slinging feel familiar. But there was something very very different in the way these two gentlemen, and consummate politicians, handled themselves offstage and in the aftermath of their public arguments.
Douglas won the Senatorial election. But the widespread media coverage of the debates greatly raised Lincoln ’s national profile ( Lincoln edited the texts of all the debates and had them published in book form), making him a high-profile candidate for nomination in the 1860 Presidential election. He ran against Douglas again. The amazing thing is, the men respected each other so much that they remained friends. At Lincoln ’s inauguration, Douglas was right behind him, holding the taller man’s tall hat. He honestly pledged to give any support the new President might need. Unfortunately, Douglas couldn’t make good on his promise; he died of typhoid shortly after the inauguration.
We learn all this in the course of the play, which frames the debates with narration and commentary from Douglas ’ second wife, the lovely and intelligent Adele. She guides us through the grueling debate schedule, providing a female perspective, some excellent insights, and a respite from the stump speechifying. The strongest scenes in the play are the quietest ones, between Mrs. Douglas and Mr. Lincoln, as she gradually comes around in her thinking, and the private moments between Adele and her husband.
The Lamb’s Players production, directed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth , is forceful, but it underscores some of the weaknesses of the piece. Since most of the text is in debate form, it features long, long passages of monologue in stilted, pontificating language. The cast takes the notion of speaking to a crowd a little too literally. As Douglas, who was called “the little giant” and “the steam engine in britches,” Robert Smyth is bellowing most of the time. It becomes tiresome, and doesn’t give him enough levels to play – except when he interacts with his wife. David Cochran Heath starts out in lecture/shout mode, too, but he eases off, becoming the folksy storyteller we’ve heard so much about. It’s a more finely shaded performance, and it anchors the production. Colleen Kollar Smith is thoroughly beguiling as Adele — playful and smart, flexible and informative. Lovely performance.
The set ( Michael McKeon ) is various levels of weathered wood, backed by a wood-slat wall of faded, stylized, red-white-and-blue star and stripes that serve as a backdrop for projections of the faces and profiles of the real-life characters (lighting by Nathan Peirson ). Gilmour Smyth created the original music, often a nostalgic amalgam of period favorites, and Jeanne Reith designed spiffy walking coats for the men and several gorgeous gowns for Adele.
Though the piece has dry, talky spells, it’s fascinating to see both how fervent and how civil politicians could be. Would that it were that way now.
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave. , Coronado . ( 619) 437-6000 ; www.lambsplayers.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $26-$58. Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through May 23
Bottom Line: Good Bet
NOTE: Playwright Norman Corwin, who is still a guest lecturer at USC, made an appearance this week for a special reception at Lamb’s Players Theatre. He turns 100 next month.
THE SHOW: “Passion ,” a staged conce rt version, at Cygnet Theatre, of the rarely seen, 1994 Stephen Sondheim chamber opera (book by James Lapine ), based on the satiric film “ Passione d’Amore ,” which was in turn based on Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s novel, “ Fosca .” The piece, with its deeply complex score, concerns love in its many forms, and touches on issues of beauty, power, illness, obsession and manipulation.
Set in Italy in 1863, the musical revolves around a handsome soldier, Giorgio, who’s madly in love with Clara, with whom he shares a “perfect love” – except for one little complication: she’s married. When he’s sent off to an army outpost, they promise to writer each other regularly, to “make love with our words.” But Giorgio is relentlessly, obsessively pursued by Fosca , the Colonel’s homely, sickly cousin. He’s ultimately shattered and consumed by Fosca’s unconditional “love without reason.”
Sondheim once said that “’Passion is about how the force of somebody’s feelings for you can crack you open and how it is the life force in a deadened world.” It’s one of only two shows that the composer himself conceived. The other is “Sweeney Todd.” Ironic, since “Passion” was presented this week, for two nights only, on off-nights from Cygnet’s stunning production of “Sweeney.” This presentation inaugurated an exciting new program, Playwright Companion, which will offer ‘partner pieces’ for each of the mainstage productions. Next up is Noël Coward’s “Private Lives,” which will be paired with Coward’s only drama, “The Vortex.”
Kim Strassburger directed this impressive and gloriously sung production, which was costumed and staged – a remarkable bit of work for a two-night stand. Music director Mark Danisovszky made wonderful use of the keyboards, simulating bugles and other instruments. The ensemble was outstanding. At the center was the superb love triangle: Jason Heil , stalwart, confused, crazed and impassioned as Giorgio; Amy Biedel , beautiful and ardent as Clara; and Sandy Campbell , pale, drawn and plain-looking (quite a feat for this striking actress) as the fanatically infatuated Fosca . They were all in excellent voice, their acting was dazzling and their romantic ardor was red-hot. An exquisite effort all around. Can’t wait for the next one. Meanwhile, “Sweeney Todd” has been extended at Cygnet Theatre, through May 9. www.cygnettheatre.com
NEWS AND VIEWS
… The Pullet Surprise: The 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to “Next to Normal,” the edgy, small-cast rock musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey about bipolar disease, and how if affects, and nearly destroys, an already dysfunctional family. The show has San Diego connections: it was directed by Michael Grief, former artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse; and the lead actor, former San Diegan Alice Ripley, won a Tony for her performance. In all, the musical was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, and won three, but still, it was a surprise selection for the prestigious Pulitzer. As L.A. Times theater critic Charles McNulty, chairman of the Pulitzer’s drama jury, describes it, this was a total upset. The jury of drama specialists put forth three plays that had th eir start far from the bright lights of Broadway: Rajiv Joseph’s gut-wrenching “ Ben gal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” and Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play).” But the overseers at Columbia University ’s journalism school overrode the experts’ recommendations and made their own selection. This isn’t the first time that sort of thing has happened, though it occurs more often in Drama than in any other prize category. In 1963, the wisemen at Columbia (presumably, the committee was all men at the time), famously eschewed the jury’s choice of Edward Albee’s masterwork, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and gave no drama Prize that year. Soon, you’ll have a chance to judge for yourself: “Next to Normal ” comes to town (courtesy of Broadway San Diego) in January; “The Vibrator Play” will be at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in March 2011. And “ Ben gal Tiger” is being re-mounted by Center Theatre Group and is currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum (through 5/30).
Read the full text of McNulty’s (justifiable) rant here: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-pulitzer-mcnulty-20100413,0,4460077.story
… Brave New Work: The Baldwin New Play Festival, the always intriguing showcase of the MFA playwriting students at UC San Diego, is in full swing. Three plays, two one-acts and a reading of the winner of the Dr. Floyd Gaffney National Playwriting Competition comprise this year’s Festival, which runs through 4/24. More on the works themselves next week. Info and tickets at (858) 534-4574; theatre.ucsd.edu
… Shakespeare for the Young: Don’t miss the San Diego Shakespeare Society’s 5th annual Student Shakespeare Festival. Free to the public, this one-day outdoor fest showcases the talents of local students, from elementary through high school, performing 10-minutes scenes from the Bard’s famous plays. The event has grown from 120 student participants to more than 500. Saturday, April 24 in Balboa Park . The festivities begin at 12:30 p.m., with a parade of costumed performers, starting at the Organ Pavilion. Serving as the emcee of the Shakespeare Society’s annual Birthday Bash for the Bard (this year, framed as a “This is Your Life” show), I was thrilled to get a sneak-peek at some of the Student Shakespeare Festival performances. You’re guaranteed to be surprised and delighted.
…Down the Rabbit Hole: Art of Élan, a young chamber music duo, and the Colette Harding Contemporary Dance Company, are collaborating on a world premiere, ” ALICE : Re-imagining Wonderland through Music, Dance, and Spoken Word.” The work features new music by Philadelphia-based composer Joe Hallman. Local dancer/choreographer Deven P. Brawley, who’s performing as the Mad Hatter and the Gryphon, as well as serving as costume and stage designer, says “It’s mad fun!” This weekend only: Friday, April 16 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 18 at 2 p.m. at Sherwood Auditorium in the Museum of Contemporary Art , La Jolla . Tickets are at (619) 692-2081l www.artofelan.org
… Dustbowl, Revisited: Carlsbad Playreaders presents a stage adaptation (brilliantly conceived by Steppenwolf Theatre’s Frank Galati) of John Steinbeck’s great American classic, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Winner of the 1990 Tony Award, this intense and effective adaptation underscores the persistence of the human spirit against all odds. The novel, written in 1939 and set during the Dust Bowl migration of the Great Depression, is an epic story of Oklahoma sharecroppers driven from their homes by drought and destitution, setting out for California in search of land, jobs and dignity. The cast of ten, playing multiple roles, features many of the same performers, in the same roles, as in the outstanding ion theatre production of 2006: Dana Hooley, William Tanner, Trina Kaplan, Walter Ritter , Sarah Beth Morgan and D’Ann Paton. Joining them are Tim Parker as Tom Joad and John Carroll Tessmer as Jim Casey. Monday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m. at the Carlsbad City Library, 1775 Dove Lane . No reservation needed.
… Presidential Punchlines : PowPAC , Poway ’s Community Theatre, is taking you inside the Oval Office, into David Mamet’s new White House satire, “November,” which presents a day in the life of a beleaguered American commander-in-chief, who’ll go to any length to maintain his political position. Sunday, May 9 at 7 p.m., in the PowPAC Theatre, 13250 Poway Rd. (858) 679-8085; email@example.com .
… Pasadena Lives On: “Unchain My Heart, the Ray Charles Musical,” is scheduled to open on Broadway November 7. The jukebox musical, which chronicles the main events in the pioneering singer/musician’s life, was originally staged at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2007, under the title, “Ray Charles Live! A New Musical.” The book was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. The show will once again be directed by Sheldon Epps, former Old Globe associate artistic director, who had served as artistic director of the historic Pasadena Playhouse until it was recently forced to close, for financial reasons.
… Remembering Craig: The Old Globe is holding a memorial to honor the late, great Craig Noel, who spent 70 years at the theater, bringing it from a community playhouse to a world-renowned, multi-stage regional powerhouse. The event, “Celebrating the Theatrical Legacy of Craig Noel ,” will be held on Monday, May 24 in the Old Globe Theatre. That same day, the Globe’s lower courtyard, nestled in the shadow of the California Tower that first drew him to the site, will be named the Craig Noel Garden . Reservations are required. https://www.theoldglobe.org/noel_rsvp/
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v “Ghosts” – crisp new translation of a searing classic
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 5/2
v “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso” – a delightful, fanciful visit with an ebullient genius
San Diego Repertory Theatre, through 4/18
v “The Language Archive” – clever new work, delightfully presented
South Coast Rep, through 4/25
Read Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2010-04-07/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/craig-noel-tribute-heidi-chronicles-plus-more-theater-reviews-news
v “Sweeney Todd” – a glorious production of Sondheim’s goriest (and most lyrical) musical
Cygnet Theatre, through 5/9
Read Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2010-03-31/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/sweeney-todd-plus-more-theater-reviews-news
v “An American Duet” – two provocative plays in repertory, both excellently executed
ion theatre, through 4/17
Read the Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2010-03-24/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/american-duet-boeing-boeing-plus-more-theater-reviews-news
v “The Pirates of Penzance ” – overblown and over-the-top, with over-the-moon singing
The Welk Resorts Theatre, through 5/2
Read the Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2010-03-17/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/romeo-and-juliet-pirates-of-penzance-theater-reviews-news
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, in the SDNN Search box.