By Pat Launer
An “Earthquake’ exploded at SD Rep
And the Mark Morris Dancers kept in step
While up in La Jolla, a new play surprised
And next door, Billy Crystal-ized.
What exactly, you may ask, is an “Earthquake Sun?“ According to the Old One (Linda Castro) in Luis Valdez’s latest world premiere of the same name, it’s part of the prophecy of the Mayan Solar Lords. The Great Cycle of the Fifth Sun, known as the Earthquake Sun, was predicted to end on Baktun 13, which is to say, after 13 cycles of 400 years each. In the Mayan ‘Great Cycle’ of 5,125 years, the “end time” should occur early in the 21st century (that’s us, folks!). To be precise (which the Mayans always were) the 21st of December, 2012 should be the end of an epoch, a time of extreme change. So hold onto your hats!
“Earthquake Sun” is a time-traveling love story. An education in the ways of the ancient Maya. A multi-media, multi-millennial look at the Latino past, present and future. A combination of magical realism and science fiction. An admonition to Follow your heart, not your head. A contemplation of virility and mortality. A meditation on fathers and sons, death and legacies. Luis Valdez has a lot on his mind. Maybe too much for one play.
But this new production features some potent and lyrical language and some gorgeous stage pictures, thanks to the design genius of Giulio Cesare Perrone (sets and costumes) and the techno-wizardry of Jennifer Setlow (lighting) and Paul Peterson (sound). There’s a neon double-helix, a solar space-launch, a shootout of the sun. There’s a self-circumcision, and thorny string threaded through a penis, and later a tongue. There are holograms and a sexy game of pitz ball. Whew! There’s a lot going on here.
The play is set in three millennia: 732, 2012 and 3312 A.D. Within these timeframes, we get a glimpse of the height of the Mayan civilization, the continuing saga of illegal immigrants jeopardizing their lives to cross the border; and a clone-populated neo-Mayan future where sex is banned but pitz ball (the ancient game) is still played (holographically).
It’s head-spinning, and it all requires a great deal of narrative exposition, backstory and didactic explanation, which doesn’t always make for high drama. But there are peak moments of conflict and attraction, just enough to keep us engaged and attentive, through the many evolutions of character and twists of plot. Clearly, more shaping, editing and paring down are needed. But Valdez is sowing seeds here, adding to his legacy, a theme which recurs repeatedly in the play.
The piece requires a chameleon cast, and they mostly rise to the occasion. Linda Castro is marvelously mercurial as the Old One, Astro Priest or Genetic Databank (depending on the century), sucking on a cigar, dispensing wisdom and humor, helping our hero out of one fix or another, and giving us most of the background information that we need to understand what’s going on. We learn along with Jaguar Kan (Daniel Rangel, who’s less convincing as a Mayan Solar Lord than as a border-crossing coyote or a buff, futuristic ballplayer). His long-lost love, whom he re-encounters in different incarnations with each successive journey through time, is wonderfully portrayed by Sandra Ruiz. She moved up into the role (from the Ensemble) just two days before the first preview, and she’s definitely made the part her own, especially charismatic as the pitz-playing Maya Kinetic of the 34th century. As the mother and father figures, Monica Sanchez has a regal bearing and Kinan Valdez (Luis’ son) has force and energy to burn. The Ensemble (Janel DeGuzman, Jeremiah Maestas, Arturo Medina and Melanie Anne Marsh) become assistants, extras, supernumeraries, bearers of props, as needed. The movement coach was choreographer John Malashock, but his imprint isn’t strongly felt here.
What you come away remembering most is the truth within the heart, the thorned-thread circumcision and the gorgeous design. That probably wasn’t exactly what Valdez intended. But we’ve learned something about the Mayans, too. And about the playwright’s current concerns.
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through May 16 (baktun 13, katun 19).
THAT’S ‘MR. DICK’ TO YOU…
Ken Weitzman graduat ed from the UCSD MFA program in playwriting, but he stayed on to teach. Now, as part of the Baldwin New Play Festival, with all the BigWigs from out of town in attendance, he gets the opportunity to have his latest work seen as a staged reading. “Richard Aiken” is “freely adapted” from Molière’s “Tartuffe,” the 1664 comedy about a religious hypocrite. This updated, up-to-the-minute version is funny, sardonic and a little sleazy in a way that the master probably would’ve appreciated, since it’s very much of its time and definitely skewers its own society.
This zealous charlatan, Richard Aiken (he prefers to be called Dick; you figure it out) suffers from sexual compulsiveness; he’s even been in Group Therapy for it, which is where he met Dorine, the buttoned-up chief executive of the household, who has her own problems. It was she who introduced him into Charles Orgon’s house, where he’s insinuated himself into the very fabric of family life, to wheedle the estate out from under Charles’ adoring daughter, the buff, materialistic macha, Mariane. There is, of course, Charles’ air-headed second wife (the first one “ran away to be a lesbian”); in the end, it’s the ditz-brain Elmire who comes up with the plan that saves the day. It all has to do with masturbation (don’t ask). The sexual humor climaxes a few too many times, perhaps, and occasionally shoots too wide (or low) of the mark. But this is really a very funny piece, commenting on our sexual obsession (while professing Puritanism), our warped gender biases and expectations, our workaholic business-folk and loopy environmentalists, trophy wives (here, she’s called a “hood ornament”) and of course, our overly-influential religious fundamentalists, with their over-use of the now-clichéd “What Would Jesus….. ? (fill in the blank).
As in his prior Festival plays, “Arrangements” and “Spin Moves,” Weitzman shows his political astuteness, flair for dialogue and character, and his quirky sense of humor.
Though it was only a staged reading, the piece was outstandingly acted by the graduating MFA class of 2004: Alex Cranmer, adorably clueless as Charles and comical as his mother; Makela Spielman, smart, cunning and buttoned-up (and then unleashed) as Dorine; Christine Albright amusingly aggressive and petulant as Mariane; Corey Brill, hilariously oversexed as Richard Aiken; and Amy Stewart, absolutely uproarious as the dim but perceptive Elmire. Each made of the character a fully-fleshed, believable and delightfully flawed individual (thanks here to the writing, too, of course).
Director Amy Cook got the tone and pace just right, and the moves and stage business she inserted were perfect. This was a one-time-only deal (Sat. at 10:30am — gasp!!) But with all those visiting dignitaries, someone should pick it up for a full production; same goes for several of the other Festival plays, especially Mat Smart’s “The Hopper Collection.” Weitzman’s previous play, “Arrangements,” recently won the L. Arnold Weissberger Award and has had readings in several cities, including New York, L.A. and Washington, D.C. and you may get to see full mountings of his work at a major theater soon. He’s been commissioned by South Coast Rep (a grant for an Outstanding Emerging Playwright).
……Speaking of political theater, UCSD held a forum on Friday afternoon, featuring dramaturges, literary managers and other visitors from around the country. The highlight of the event was panelist Arthur Kopit, the acclaimed playwright who penned “The Road to Nirvana,” “Oh Dad, Poor Dad..,” “Indians,” “Wings,” “Nine” (book) and the much-better-than-the-other-one-but-unfortunately-less-well-known musical, “Phantom.” If not for Kopit, the discussion would have been mired in dry, academic debate. But he brought the passion into the conversation (where it belonged), emphasizing the fact that good political theater should transcend politics and tell a good story, with good characters. “You should sense the absolute passion of the writer,” he said, “not to tell us but to show us — without cliché. Conscious political theater with an agenda is dishonest — unless the agenda is to make you see or experience, not to make you learn. At the heart is passion and conviction,” he concluded. “Without it, theater is obscene.”
BILLY THE KID
Sometimes it’s just as well when we critics can’t review a particular production or a work-in-progress. But that wasn’t the case with the inaugural La Jolla Playhouse Page to Stage production, “I Am My Own Wife,” which just won the Pulitzer Prize, and featured perhaps the finest, most subtle and nuanced piece of acting I’ve ever seen — by Jefferson Mays. Now along comes “700 Sundays; Billy Crystal: A Life in Progress,” and once again, we’re under a gag rule. Suffice it to say that, in this 2-act, 2+hour memoir (‘700 Sundays’ refers to the 15 years of his life his father was alive), you’ll laugh and you’ll cry. Guaranteed.
His performance was “dazzling,” to quote myself. David McBean was spectacular in the local premiere of “Fully Committed,” playing a huge range of characters who call in for reservations at a tony New York restaurant. This is the actor’s actor performance-to-die-for. Under Sean Murray’s direction, McBean was astonishing — effortlessly, seamlessly moving between genders, orientations, accents, dialects and speaking styles. If you didn’t catch it last time, this is your big chance… back by VERY popular demand.. for two weeks only. At Cygnet Theatre.
MUSIC AND MORRIS
The Mark Morris Dance Company made a rare and much-anticipated visit to San Diego last weekend, at Copley Symphony Hall (not the best place to see dance; the rake is too gentle, so the sightlines are less than optimal). Jenni Prisk and I trundled downtown, all a-twitter and aglow to see the famous 24 year-old company.
In terms of matching the music to the dance — Morris is perhaps unequaled. He’s been described as “undeviating in his devotion to music,” and in this, the choreographer did not disappoint. His flamboyant, fanciful creations aren’t translations, interpretations or complements to a score; they are extensions of it, transcending both mediums to create something new and naturally intertwined. Since the music is as important to him as the dance, it’s not surprising (though it is unique) that he features live musicians and singers. The violin, viola, cello and piano players were a wonderful addition, and the soprano (who sang for “A Spell”) was terrific.
The first 3/4 of his program this weekend was less than hoped for: “My Party” (danced to the Trio in C for violin, viola and cello by Jean Françaix) had all the earmarks of folk dance, many of the group moves in lines and circles, danced under strung lanterns. The sherbet-colored costumes were luscious, but the piece was emotionally distant. “All Fours” had all the angularity of Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 — with wildly swinging arms, dark undertones and alternating (black and white-clad) couplings. The music for “A Spell” was composed by John Wilson, but never were the lyricists credited — and that would be Shakespeare and his contemporaries (i.e., Beaumont and Fletcher). Odd omission, that. Here, the choreography quickly crossed the line from whimsical to silly.
It was only in the much-acclaimed “V” that Morris really showed the heights he’s capable of reaching. This was a pitch-perfect match to Robert Schumann’s ‘Quintet in E flat for Piano and Strings, op. 44. One suggestion has been that the piece represents the Roman numeral 5, in reference to the Quintet. But since it premiered in October 2001, it’s possible there are other (post-9/11) implications. Here, two groups of dancers, one in celadon, the other in peacock blue — earth and sky? — come together and meld into one primordial conglomerate. Crawling crablike along the ground, they gradually rise, one by one, moving forward in Darwinian progression, to an upright position ultimately leaping, soaring in exultation. This provocative segment (rising from the destruction? Evolving, perhaps?) vitiated all the unemotional, disengaging dance that had preceded it. “V” was exciting, inventive, unpredictable. Just what we’d come for.
FOCUS ON LUIS…
PLEASE NOTE : There was a change in date for the Arts Full Focus show on KPBS this week. I’ll be guest-hosting, and interviewing Luis Valdez on Wednesday, April 28, at 6:30 and 11pm (KPBS-TV, channel 15/cable 11). Join me behind the scenes of “Earthquake Sun”… Hasta la vista, Baby.
THESE DAYS IN THEATER…
It’s a Theater kinda day on KPBS on Wed. April 28. I’ll be a guest on ‘These Days’ on KPBS Radio (89.5FM) from 10-11am, talking about upcoming theater. So call in! Talk to you then!!
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Fully Committed” — return, command performance of David McBean’s hilarious tour de force. Don’t miss it this time! Cygnet Theatre, April 30-May 16 only.
“700 Sundays; Billy Crystal: A Life in Progress” — can’t review it, and it’s all sold out. But there are some last-minute standing-room tix. At the La Jolla Playhouse, through May 2 only.
“M. Butterfly” — the most amazing (true) story ever told! Excellently co-produced by Diversionary and Asian American Rep; at Diversionary Theatre, through May 8
Usher in the Merry Month of May — at the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.