PAT LAUNER’S SPOTLIGHT ON THEATER
By Pat Launer
Posting Date: 03/26/09
REVIEWS : “Facing East,” “The Platt Brothers,” “Continuous City”
Quickie Reviews : “The Coffee Shop,” “Assassins,” “Miss Electricity,” Stephen Schwartz & Friends, Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre
An errant Mormon son and flipped-out California brothers.
Faith vs. Family
THE SHOW: “Facing East ,” a 2006 drama by Carol Lynn Pearson at Diversionary Theatre
In the tradition of the Mormon Church, every grave must face east, to be ready for the sunrise on Resurrection Morning. That’s one of many things we learn in “Facing East,” the family tragedy by Mormon writer Carol Lynn Pearson.
In her bracing and affecting story, a young man commits suicide in the garden of the Salt Lake Mormon Temple . Andrew was a devoted disciple, carrying on generations of family tradition. But he was excommunicated because he was gay. He reluctantly left the fold, and found love with a man his parents refused to meet. Now the three come together over his grave.
The play explores the schizophrenic duality of a warm-hearted, loving religion that preaches harmony and family but harshly rejects difference and divergence from the sharply defined ‘norm.’ The mother says she’ll lose her reason for living if she has to doubt the rightness of her church and her beliefs. The father is torn to shreds, questioning everything he’s said and done in his life. The grieving boyfriend seems to be the only one who really knew Andrew, a bright and gifted young man, a Juilliard graduate and accomplished cellist.
Pearson has written extensively on gay and Mormon themes, a good deal of it from personal experience. A fourth generation member of the Church of Latter Day Saints , she was married to a Mormon man who turned out to be gay. They had four children, lived separately for awhile, and then divorced in 1978. After he was diagnosed with AIDS, she took care of him in the months before he died in 1984. Two years later, she published a book about the experience, “Goodbye, I Love You.” History repeated itself in the next generation. Pearson’s oldest daughter married a gay Mormon, Steven Fales , and after they divorced, he wrote and performed a well-traveled solo theater piece, “Confessions of a Mormon Boy,” which played to excellent response at Diversionary Theatre in 2005. Pearson’s more recent book is “ No More Goodbyes: Circling The Wagons Around Our Gay Loved Ones ” (2007). She has noted that the suicide rates in Mormon-dominated Utah are the highest in the country for males age 15-24.
Her well-intentioned one-act drama, which premiered to acclaim in Salt Lake City, is taut, gripping and compelling, though some of the structural elements (the flashbacks, the exposition) feel a little strained. On opening night, the Diversionary Theatre production nearly nailed it. But there was a stiffness between the characters, which should smooth out over the course of the run. Marybeth Bielawski-DeLeo’s direction is sharp and focused. As the truth-seeking, guilt-ridden father, John Polak is forceful, if heartbreaking, in his anguish, despair and willingness to change. Scott Striegel is persuasive as Andy’s boyfriend, and he gets to show some dramatic range when he replays their happier times together. Dana Hooley has the trickiest role; we learn the least of Ruth’s backstory, and what brought her to the hidebound conviction that her ‘sinning’ son is probably better off where he is, or else her “whole life is a waste.” She’s almost there, but I wasn’t quite convinced by her feelings for her husband or her son.
The set design (Amy Gilbert Reams) is wonderful: a huge, overhanging tree that spreads shadows on the black walls (lighting by Jason Bieber); leaf-strewn grass, a few memorial stones and a shovel-pierced pile of dirt, waiting to fill the fresh grave. The affecting sound design (Bonnie Breckenridge) features birds, crickets and frogs, interspersed with the mournful moan of Bach’s cello solos.
On a small scale, “Facing East” confronts a huge crisis. These days, both East and West need to be facing the facts of religious intolerance.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. , San Diego CA 921166; 619-220-0097 ; www.diversionary.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $ 29-33 . Performances: Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m., through April 5
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
Tripping the Light Fantastic
THE SHOW: “The Platt Brothers,” wacky performance artists, at the Sunset Temple in North Park
The Three Stooges meet the Flying Wallendas . The Platt Brothers will flip over backwards and stand on their heads to entertain you. The trio of Northern California natives, now San Diego residents, grew up in a family of seven offspring and no television. So they learned early to amuse themselves, and each other. In some ways, their engaging, high-energy show still seems to be doing just that. And you’re invited along for the madcap ride.
The Brothers have been performing since they were tykes, and have received training in dance, acrobatics, acting, mime, storytelling, singing, music, stunts, gymnastics, stage combat, comedy and improv. All of the above are on display in the opening and closing segments of their newest full-length show. The bookends are “Opening” and the punnily titled “Platt Opus” (“Say it 5 times fast,” they suggest. “Now do you get it?”). Sandwiched in between is a family-friendly array of songs, skits and stories, mostly about your antic, puppydog -enthusiastic host/performers. There’s the winning “Raccoon Story” about hunting the “ raccoonicus gargangicanormicus ” in the woods behind the house, in the dead of night, by which experience they learned what ‘nocturnal animal’ meant. And there’s “The Fire Story,” about treasure hunt plans gone awry. The funniest bit is “ North Park ’s Braveheart ,” about a local hero hellbent on defending the neighborhood against “demolishing nightclubs to make way for some fairly-priced parking.” Scantily attired in ‘ Braveheart ’ kilts and Scots accents, they brandish their weapons and yell, “You will never take our artistic integrity!” This is one of the pieces that could have used more contentive development; it had promise for even greater humor and political/topical references. Many of the pieces go on a bit too long, and can be a little repetitive. It’s not clear why the Brothers feel the need to tell each story, and then present it in song. Trust the audience; we can follow the tale musically without the full-on intro.
Each brother gets to do a number about his name: “Cheetah’s Song,” “Cy’s Song,” “Boone’s Song” (Cheetah apparently made some of the costumes, too, though the major getup is matching jogging suits); not all are equally compelling. But these guys are so irresistible in their exuberance, vivacity, talent and good will. Their show isn’t trying to make any points. It’s self-referential, like so much of performance art, but unlike the more raunchy or sex-obsessed navel-gazing of that particular form, this is pure fun family entertainment. A few songs, a few good stories (and a few nips and tucks by a judicious editor/director wouldn’t hurt); just grab the kids and go.
Note: The night I was there, the show was opened by pro storyteller Mark Lewis, a delightful raconteur, who brings classic poetic pieces like Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” to vibrant life, with outstanding mouth-made sound effects. This may have been a one-time appearance, though Lewis is a pal of the Platts and he frequently makes appearances at La Jolla Country Day School .
THE LOCATION: The Platt Brothers at Sunset Temple (near the North Park Theatre), 3911 Kansas St., San Diego, CA 92104; 619-795-3630; www.sunsettemple.com; www.theplattbrothers.com
THE DETAILS :Tickets : $10-15. Performances: March 27, April 10 and 24 at 9 p.m.; April 3, 4, 11, 17, 18 and 25 at 8 p.m., through April 24
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
”Continuous City” appeared for only four performances this month, as part of the EDGE program at the La Jolla Playhouse, which features short runs of adventurous work. This piece, currently on tour around the country and abroad, was created and presented by The Builders Association, a New York-based performance and media company that tells contemporary stories through technology. Conceived by Marianne Weems (director), James Gibbs (dramaturge) and Harry Sinclair (writer and actor, who plays Mike), the show confronts the benefits and liabilities of being eternally plugged in, focusing on the connection and dislocation technology creates.
The story centers on a globetrotting dad, a network nomad trying to maintain contact with his 10 year-old daughter, left at home with a nanny, with whom she will only interact electronically. Samantha communicates with her dad via video-phone, as he’s racing around the planet, becoming increasingly exhausted and disoriented, trying to promote a new social website called xubu.com. He’s constantly being hounded by his Indian boss, J.V., who’s carrying on videocam relationships with women around the world. Most of the show’s conversations happen on 30 mind-boggling, folding tele -screens that perfectly demonstrate the unity and fragmentation of our lives and relationships.
One exciting part of the production is how many levels of fantasy/reality it exists on simultaneously. Mike never appears onstage (until his curtain call). J.V. ( Rizwan Mirza ) is, in reality, in real-time, talking live to his family members in Mumbai. Deb (Moe Angelos ), the vlogging nanny (her video blog-in-progress, “Deb in the City,” can be viewed any time online) personalizes the story for each location the production visits. Angelos shows up several days before the opening, and finds out about the locale, shooting video in local hotspots. For San Diego , there were references to Kobey Swap Meet, the Welk resort and 99 Ranch Market, where Deb meets a friendly transvestite. There really is a xubu website (linked to continuouscity.org), on which potential audience members can post webcam videos that might make it into the show. Throughout, we get the multi-layered sense of a fluid city. Mike’s locations are head-spinning; is he really in all those places? We see Chinese tai chi practitioners on the street around him, but then, there’s the Eiffel Tower (a replica of which is actually in Shanghai ). A huge roller coaster wings past the skyscrapers of ‘ Manhattan ,’ which looks more Vegas than New York .
The dislocation that accompanies constant connection is the whole point, and while it works fabulously in terms of the technology, it’s somewhat less satisfying dramatically. There’s little narrative arc in the piece, and minimal emotional evolution in the characters. The climactic moment comes when Mike says he’s on his way home and he’s looking forward to seeing his adorable, precocious daughter (Caroline O’Neill); she’s unimpressed and says (to audible audience gasps), “But you’re seeing me now!” Face-to-face contact means nothing to her. Similarly, J.V. has some half-dozen or more women worldwide thinking they’re actually in a relationship with him, and he panics when one says she wants to come to where he is to meet him. I wish the show had broken new ground in the familiar, widespread argument for and against technology. But the company sure found a provocative way to tell the story.
…”The Coffee Shop”, or “La Bottega del Caffé ,” is a 1750 comedy by celebrated Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni, newly translated, in colloquial American, by the Chronos Theatre Group’s co-founder and artistic director, Celeste Innocenti. Quite an impressive accomplishment. Like many of Goldoni’s plays, this one pokes fun at the slippery moral values among the classes, while insidiously promoting rationality, civility and humanism. Most of the characters are rather unsavory, from Eugenio (Tony Bveille ), the compulsive gambler and philanderer, to Don Marzio (George Weinberg-Harter), a mean-spirited gossip, to the unfaithful Count Leandro (Kevin Six) and the nasty Pandolfo (Eric George), who makes his living ruining the lives of others. Directed by Innocenti in a broad commedia dell’arte style, with colorful costumes by Gail West and magnificent Carnevale masks provided by visiting Slovenian theater artist Ivan Rupnik (a charming and voluble gentleman who was in attendance when I was), the performances were variable, ranging from mugging to bellowing to outrageously over-the-top. Innocenti was effective as Vittoria , the put-upon wife; Harrison Myers was delightful as Trappola , the funny/goofy waiter/errand-boy, and Timothy Paul Evans was credible as the good-hearted coffee shop owner. Weinberg-Harter seemed to be having a ball as the grandiose rumor-monger. The opening, mimed Commedia “dumb show” was better intentioned than executed. Nothing deep or thought-provoking, but all in good fun.
… ”Miss Electricity,” made a brief appearance at the La Jolla Playhouse, as this year’s POP Tour (Performance Outreach Program ), written by Kathryn Walat (whose provocative historical drama, “Bleeding Kansas,” was presented by Moxie Theatre last year). Since 1987, the Playhouse has brought its POP Tours into San Diego elementary schools, and every spring, they have a public showing of the latest commission, which always includes an educational moral or message. The set, costumes and props for the 40-minute shows are designed to fit into a van and be unloaded and ready to go, in any type of space, in just 20 minutes. In “Miss Electricity,” young Violet is an outsider, picked on by bullies in her class, as is her buddy, the geeky bookworm, Freddy. With Freddy as her tireless assistant, she tries to break a Guinness world record, so she can prove that she’s extraordinary. When she gets struck by lightning – twice! – she becomes ‘electrified’ and wows her classmates. But only temporarily. And in the process, she learns a thing or two about loyalty and friendship. She also learns a new word for ‘cool, “ paz ,” but why it wasn’t additionally employed for its peaceful Spanish meaning was a mystery to me. Like all the recent POP shows, this one was colorful and fast-paced, with hip hop moves, songs and lots of action (inventive direction by Melissa Kievman , set by Kristin Ellert , choreography by grace jun and composition/sound design by Toby Jaguar Algya). The audience — young and old — ate it up, and after the performance, the kids in attendance got to ask questions of the cast (like, ‘Were you hot in your costume?’ and ‘How old are you?’). The talented four-member cast ranged in age from 20 to 29, the youngest being adorable Daniel Kim (Freddy), a senior at UCSD. Ashley Kane was cute in the lead role (though a trifle too screamy ); Ryan Castellino and Sunny Smith were endearing in multiple roles. The owl costume (Michelle Hunt Souza) was especially noteworthy, beautiful and imaginative. These are such fun productions; you should catch the next one if you can.
…”Assassins,” the 1990 Stephen Sondheim musical (with book by John Wideman ) about real and wannabe presidential killers, was presented by Cygnet Theatre as a one-night-only staged reading. Originally intended as a full production, the show was canceled after the inauguration, given its potentially objectionable and incendiary effects at this political moment in our history. But, having assembled an outstanding cast, artistic director Sean Murray wanted to see the effort through, at least in part. Kim Strassburger took up the directing reins and did a magnificent job. The cast was wonderful, indeed, headed by Lance Arthur Smith as a slimily seductive John Wilkes Booth, with very strong performances by the other nutcase members of this rogues’ gallery: Manny Fernandes as Samuel Byck (who had Nixon in his sights); Trevor Hollingsworth as Leon Czolgosz (shot McKinley);James Vasquez as Giuseppe Zangara (went after FDR); Geno Carr as Charles Guiteau (Garfield); Kürt Norby as John Hinckley (Reagan), and as a crazily comic, if deadly, duo, Jeannine Marquie as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and the marvelous Melinda Gilb as Sara Jane Moore (both aiming at Gerald Ford, same month, different day). Amy Dalton provided excellent musical direction and piano accompaniment. The songs were effectively sung; the props (Bonnie Durben ) were elaborate; it all seemed just a baby-step from a full production. It certainly was an exciting evening, especially when those guns were aimed at the audience.
…”Stephen Schwartz and Friends,” a charming, informal musical event that’s been on tour for years, introducing audiences to the esteemed composer/lyricist (“Wicked,” “ Godspell ,” “Pippin”). The presentation was timed to Schwartz’s brief San Diego sojourn, when he was working on the update of his 1978 musical revue, “Working” (at the Old Globe through 4/12). Schwartz is a thoroughly engaging performer, one of only a handful of composers who can sing his own work. He sat at the piano in a black suit, t-shirt and sneakers, demonstrating his accomplished playing, catchy melodies, clever lyrics and his rich baritone, before he was joined by his friends, the comic and energetic Debbie Gravitte (Tony Award for “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway”), beautiful-voiced Liz Callaway (Broadway credits and film animation voiceovers) and widely acclaimed high-tenor cabaret singer Scott Coulter. They sang solos, duets, trios and quartets, each better, more touching or funny than the one before. This was the third in a series of such memorable appearances at the Old Globe; Schwartz was preceded by composer Jerry Herman (“ Mame ,” “Hello, Dolly!”) and playwright John Guare (during the run of his “Six Degrees of Separation”). These one-night-only events should NOT be missed; they’re a chance to visit, up close and personal, with ‘theater royalty.’
… In 2008, The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater” celebrated its 50th year of performing, and the internationally renowned American ambassadors are still presenting their anniversary tour. The two-day appearance at the 1500-seat California Center for the Arts seemed to be a sellout. And deservedly so. The Sunday matinee performance featured a marvelous film on the evolution of the company and the profound influence of Mr. Ailey, who died at age 58 in 1989. One of his early creations, “Blues Suite,” opened the performance, showcasing those marvelously muscular men and lithe women. But it didn’t have the gut-wrenching power of the finale. The second segment was “Suite Otis” (1971), a tribute to Otis Redding choreographed and costumed by George Faison, who danced with Ailey’s company from 1967-1970. Though the music and moves were evocative, they didn’t always match up emotionally. This was especially true in the Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and the song Otis made famous, Campbell , Connelly and Woods’ “Try a Little Tenderness,” where there was virtually no interaction (i.e., attempted satisfaction or tenderness) between the dancers. But there were no complaints for the pièce de résistance, the signature “Revelations,” a heart- stoppingly beautiful series of dances to traditional African American/gospel music. It’s clear that the magnificent, towering Judith Jamison, for whom the piece was created, will never be replaced as its center (she’s been artistic director of the company since her mentor’s death). The several times I saw her perform that glorious tribute to faith and fortitude, she took my breath away. There is no female in the company who commands the stage like that, though the “Fix Me, Jesus” segment, featuring Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims, was stunning. And the rousing final number, “ Rocka my Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” brought the audience screaming to its feet. You can never get enough of Ailey dance and dancers. Or “Revelations.” It still takes my breath away.
NEWS AND VIEWS
…Always wanted to perform a little Shakespeare ?… Try the San Diego Shakespeare Society’s ‘Shakespeare Open Readings at Seaport Village .’ The first Tuesday of each month, from 6:45-8:45pm, just bring your own copy of the play – or buy one at Upstart Crow Bookstore and Coffeehouse. Parts are assigned at the beginning of each scene. The director is Rupert Essinger , an Oxford-educated Bardophile from Leicester , England (the mythical burial place of King Lear). Next up: April 7, “Love’s Labour’s Lost .” May 5 it’s “Coriolanus” and June 2,”Twelfth Night.” Free admission and parking validation.
… Good News in the Arts, for a change: Despite the crummy economy, Capital Stage of Sacramento reports that subscription sales are up 10% over last year. Plus, their seven-month fundraising effort to bring in small donations from lots of supporters started in late January and has so far garnered 640 donations of $25 each. You do the math ( it’s $16K).
… Another theater strategy: In an effort to get young folks in the door (something devoutly to be wished by every arts organization) , The Old Globe is continuing its “ $20 UNDER 30” ticket program, which makes low-priced tix for most performances available to the under-30 crowd. Two tickets per person with valid I.D.
… The J*Company, based at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla, proudly proclaims that it was the first youth theater in southern California to be given the rights to produce “Disney’s High School Musical 2.” And as an extra bonus, the young performers got to meet Thomas Schumacher, President of Disney Theatricals, who was in town to work with the La Jolla Playhouse production of “Peter and the Starcatchers .” He spent time talking to and inspiring the young performers, and gave out autographed copies of his book, “How Does the Show Go On?” As additional gifts, he gave them Sharpay’s original “Sparkle” jacket and Troy ’s team basketball jersey, from the first “High School Musical” production. He was impressed with the J*Company’s commitment to ‘going green,’ recycling the set from their production of “HSM” (that’s “High School Musical,” for the uninitiated). After spending an hour with the kids, he gave each and every one an autograph…. And in other news from the J*Company, Arianna Afsar , who played Gabriella in “HSM,” recently appeared on “American Idol.”
… Lotsa stories around the country these days about 91 year-old Arthur Laurents , book-writer of the musical classic, “West Side Story,” who directed the just-opened, bilingual Broadway revival. A recent New York Magazine article included the following scathing quote about the notoriously irascible Laurents : “Even the theater composer Mary Rodgers Guettel , no slouch in the candor department, went silent for a moment when asked about the long friendship she and her husband, Hank, shared with Laurents . Eventually, she dictated this statement for the record: ‘Call me back when he’s dead.’” Audiences don’t have to deal with the director, and the show is doing very good business on Broadway.
On the Campuses
… San Diego State University is gearing up for its annual Design Performance Jury, under the aegis of Ralph Funicello, Powell chair in set design at SDSU. The exciting event was created 25 years ago by professor emeritus Beeb Salzer, now retired. This year, the selected work is “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Each of three student teams will present the work in a different style, based on the play, musical and film version of the story. A jury of high-profile professionals will comment on the presentations and the public is invited to watch. It’s a terrific learning experience for any theaterlover . Friday, April 10, 9am-3pm in the Experimental Theatre. Admission is free.
… With the onset of April comes the annual Baldwin New Play Festival at the University of California , San Diego . The talented MFA students in playwriting get to strut their stuff, as do the accomplished MFA acting students. Four full-length plays and one staged reading will be presented, as will a reading of the third annual Dr. Floyd Gaffney National Playwriting Competition on the African American Experience. It appears that each of the disparate plays is set in a dangerous land, past or present. It’s always fascinating to see how our world affects the minds and hearts of the next generation. Check out the Tony Award winners of tomorrow. April 15-25, in various locations on the UCSD campus in La Jolla . Tickets $10-20 at http://theatre.ucsd.edu
…The PGK Project is currently producing several intriguing dance events. “Dance N’ Dine” includes a three-course dinner (with wine/beer) and a professional dance performance by a different company or artist, one Saturday a month, at Café La Maze in National City . March 28 showcases La Diego Dance Theatre and April 18, it’s Alma Latina Dance Company. Reservations at 619-474-3222… The “4 x 4 x Floor” project takes place the second Tuesday of every month, at Bluefoot Bar and Lounge in North Park . Brief presentations of new work by various dance groups and other performers. April 14 spotlights Malashock Dance, d’shire dance collective and others.
… Speaking of Malashock Dance, the company continues its Studio Series, previewing new works-in-progress. On March 28 and 29 in their homebase at Dance Place among the beautifully refurbished buildings at NTC in Point Loma, they’ll give a sneak peek at the world premiere of “Shadow of Mercy,” set to the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen. The full production will take place April 17-19 in the Garfield Theatre at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . Tickets and information at www.malashockdance.org.
… PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
… ”The Platt Brothers” – escapist, entertaining family fare, antics, acrobatics and all, performed by three multi-talented local sibs
Sunset Temple , www.sunsettemple.com , through 4/24
… ”Facing East ” – moving drama, affectingly presented
Diversionary Theatre; www.diversionary.org , through 4/5
… ”The Threepenny Opera,” – masterful re-creation of a musical masterwork
www.sdrep.org , San Diego Repertory Theatre , through 3/29
… ”Killer Joe, ” – dark, dirty, down-and-out and downright excellent
Compass Theatre; www.compasstheatre.com , through 4/5
… ”Working ” – charming and timely update of a musical on a timeless theme
The Old Globe Theatre; www.theoldglobe.org , through 4/12
… ”The History Boys ” – intellectually and physically exhilarating production
Cygnet Theatre at the Old Town Theatre ; www.cygnettheatre.com , through 3/29
… ”Room Service ” – fast-paced, side-splitting, screwball comedy
Lamb’s Players Theatre; www.lambsplayers.org , EXTENDED through 3/29
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.