KPBS AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 16, 1998
Two richly dark and beautiful productions — worlds, continents and centuries apart — but each remarkably true to its source. It’s times like these that remind us why the Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse are Tony Award-winning theaters — when they use their foresight and funds to bring in outstanding guest artists to illuminate classics like “Romeo and Juliet,” and commission new works like the unforgettable “Dogeaters.” The bodies pile up on both stages, but this is Thinking Man’s Theater, and if you invest your mind and heart, the emotional and intellectual dividends will be enormous.
Outdoors at the Globe, Daniel Sullivan’s “Romeo and Juliet” is chilling, set backward in time to a Medieval Verona, rotting, like its inhabitants, at the core. On the dim, foggy and spare set, odd-size wood poles jut upward or tilt precariously, apparently decaying, as is a society rent by feuds and factions. The roving Montague and Capulet bands are like bloodthirsty gangs in some post-Apocalyptic world, where no one probably remembers why or when the rift began. Instead of a foreboding Prologue about “star-cross’d lovers,” we get a dismal opening scene of homeless, cripples and a quick, brutal (and for me, unnecessary) rape. With steam rising from the ruins, and a dusky palette of browns and grays, the production remains grim and somber throughout, though brilliantly lit and thrilling in look and conception. Against this bleak backdrop, the language is dazzling, and magnificently handled by all the cast. At the end, the tragedy is palpable; you cannot remain unmoved by the final tableau of despair.
Neil Patrick Harris is an exceptional Romeo, spirited and spry, physically and linguistically nimble. His smoldering connection with Emily Bergl’s deliciously ingenuous Juliet, is both adolescent and adult, both sensual and intellectual. Romeo engages in impeccable boys-will-be-boys physical and verbal repartee with his peers, especially the witty and mercurial Mercutio, unconventionally but splendidly portrayed by Scott Parkinson. All the secondary characters are excellent, and the emotions run high, underscored by David Van Tieghem’s aptly eerie and ominous original music. This is a romantic classic to remember, a cautionary tale as well as an homage to the brilliance of the Bard.
Homage of a different sort is paid in “Dogeaters.” Commissioned by the La Jolla Playhouse, Jessica Hagedorn remains strikingly true to her best-selling 1990 novel of the same brutal name. A big, brash, surreal and sprawling epic, the beautifully written book leapt back and forth in time, from the fifties to the eighties, in the Philippines. It would be a mammoth task to bring this fantastical tale to the stage. But Hagedorn, working closely with Michael Greif, the Playhouse’s endlessly imaginative artistic director, has fashioned a miraculous theatrical invention.
At the end of a breathless three hours, we feel as if we’ve visited her native land, and gotten a gritty taste of the poverty, the suffocating heat, the corruption, decadence, ingenuity, humor and pathos of the Philippines. Rio, the author’s alter-ego, at first a 13-year old budding writer, introduces us to a cast of real and fictional characters, in a place where almost everyone is related and no one is exactly what they seem. Like so many other awful borrowings, Hagedorn tells us, her title, a slanderous epithet for Filipinos, comes from America.
Greif’s direction is luminous, and his ensemble is outstanding, with most of the cast skillfully transforming themselves in multiple roles. Most striking are Sandra Oh as the precocious Rio; Alec Mapa, as an agile bar owner/drag queen; Ching Valdes-Aran, excellent as Rio’s grandmother, the General’s wife and, best of all, Imelda Marcos, whose youthful incarnation she frighteningly resembles; and Seth Gilliam, appealing and seductive as the hustler/DJ Joey, though he could play up his sexuality even more. At times they’re understandably a bit out-classed, but the UCSD MFA students hold their own in this glorious production. Yes, the piece is dark and brooding, angry and cynical, but Greif and Hagedorn have mined all the humor, and created a searing, risk-taking, engaging, even educational, and ultimately mesmerizing theater experience.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.