SDNN – SAN DIEGO NEWS NETWORK
PAT LAUNER’S SPOTLIGHT ON THEATER
By Pat Launer
Posting Date: 04/02/09
Prepare to be transported by a quartet, a hunchback and a hit
REVIEWS : “ Rigoletto ,” “Opus,” “The Hit”
Quickie Reviews : “Eleemosynary,” Ian McKellen’s “King Lear” on PBS
The Hunchback of Mantua
THE SHOW: “ Rigoletto ,” the 1851 Giuseppe Verdi masterwork (with libretto by Francesco Maria Piave ) , at San Diego Opera
In 2002, the San Diego Opera went way out on a limb, presenting a high-concept “ Rigoletto ,” re-setting it from 16th century Mantua to 21st century Hollywood – a place fueled by greed, double-dealing and profligacy. It was an exciting creation (even if the conceit didn’t work 100% of the time), but it made purists head for the hills.
Now, the company is back to basics, mounting a highly traditional production of the Verdi favorite which has been presented by SDO five times before. Judging by the fact that they’ve just purchased the sumptuous sets, props and costumes (from the 1988 New York City Opera production, designed by Carl Toms), that’s how future “ Rigolettos ” will remain.
It’s a beautiful and satisfying production, but a tame one. Verdi , basing his work on Victor Hugo’s play, “Le roi s’amuse ,” wrote the piece as social criticism of royal depravity (though he was forced to re-work it several times to appease the censors), so there should be some sense of danger and debauchery in the Duke’s decadent court. The opening scene is often a full-fledged orgy. But under Lotfi Mansouri’s direction, it’s a staid and stately affair, all gilt and crystal chandeliers, centered by an enormous statue of the Duke (not the set’s most attractive feature). There’s no bacchanalian edge, and the masked revelers participate in courtly, dignified dances (choreography by Keturah Stickann ).
But the other settings are loaded with atmosphere, thanks to the excellent lighting design of Michael Whitfield, who has a color-changing sky for every scene. The Act III storm is especially compelling, replete with thunder, lightning, darkness and dread.
Hobbling through it all is the hunchbacked court jester, clad in red and yellow stripes and a fool’s cap. Georgian baritone Lado Antonelli , who was the marvelous centerpiece of “Simon Boccanegra ” at San Diego Opera in 2005, is a formidable presence, vocally deep, rich and robust, and filled with dramatic emotion. His resonant voice has weight, color and elasticity, and his diction is superb. But he doesn’t quite capture the concentrated rage, malice and self-loathing of the much-maligned man.
Slovakian soprano L’ubica Vargicová , making her local debut, has played Gilda, the love-besotted and ill-fated daughter of the Fool, at Vienna Staatsoper and the Slovak National Theatre. Her flutey voice has clear tone and easy fluency (though she struggled with breath control a couple of times). Her coloratura leaps and trills were often stunning, and she among the cast was most able to soar above the orchestra. Her “Caro Nome” aria, a young girl’s rapture in the first flush of love, is a delightful display of ingénue innocence. She also moves with notable liquidity and grace. Vargicová holds her own in the powerful quartet, and her intensely emotional duets with Antonelli , a distraught daughter torn between the two men in her life, after she falls in love with the faithless, disguised Duke, tear at the heart.
As the rapacious Duke, whose condescension and derision belie his addiction to women, Albanian tenor Giuseppe Gipali , also new to SDO, seemed to be vocally overpowered in the first act on opening night. He came into his own in time for the classic “La donna è mobile” (“Woman is Fickle”), but his was the weakest of the voices and characterizations. His Duke is more stiff than ominous, and that diminishes the story’s stark contrasts between lechery and innocence, romance and revenge.
The mercenary murderer, Sparafucile , is well inhabited by Armenian bass Arutjun Kotchinian , whose sinister low notes are blood-curdling. As his bawdy sister/accomplice, Maddelena , American mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez is memorably sensual.
Under the baton of Edoardo Müller , the 54-instrument Symphony Orchestra mines the boldness and nuance of the lush and beautiful score, though the music at times overwhelms the singers. The all-male, 30-member chorus (under the direction of Timothy Todd Simmons) is impressive in its tonal shadings, from conspiratorial whispers to harmonic blasts of scorn aimed at the jester they mock, despise and exploit.
Despite some unevenness, this is a lavish, attractive production of a beloved classic.
THE LOCATION : San Diego Opera at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Avenue, at B St., SD 92101; 619-533-7000; www.sdopera.com
THE DETAILS : Tickets: $ 35 to $200. Subject to availability, $20 cash-only rush tickets are offered two hours before curtain-time . Remaining performances: Friday 4/3 at 8 p.m., Sunday 4/5 at 2 p.m. and Wednesday 4/8 at 7 p.m.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
Hanging by a String
THE SHOW : “Opus,” a smart, savvy backstory of a string quartet, at the Old Globe
Some folks just don’t want to play second fiddle. That’s one theme, among others, that runs through the intelligent, often-thrilling “Opus,” written in 2006 by former violist Michael Hollinger.
The fictional, world-renowned Lazara Quartet has just fired its brilliant, visionary but mentally unstable violist, who was the secret lover of the first violinist. Now the violist is missing, and the group has six days before they appear at the White House, on television, to be seen by 15 million viewers. So while their newest audition, the gifted Grace, would like a few days to think it over, there’s just no time. She’s forced to join this testosterone-driven company on the spot. And she has to master the very challenging Beethoven quartet, Opus 131 (Quartet No. 14 in C# minor). What she learns — as we do – is what it’s like to be “one of four equal voices.” At its best, a string quartet, we’re told, “is like a marriage, only with more fidelity,” “like a living organism, copulating with itself .” At its worst, “it’s like swallowing Drano.” We see the best and worst, the conflict and consonance, in this sharp, witty, riveting look at how music is made and how harmony is maintained. There are matters of friendship, loyalty, sexual attraction, outstanding instruments, dazzling vs. workmanlike talent, artistic creativity vs. fidelity to the composer, but above all, there is the music, the striving for excellence, or perhaps even perfection.
Under the assured and outstanding direction of Kyle Donnelly, head of the acting program at UC San Diego, there are fine-tuned nuances of situation and character. The cast is magnificent, each a virtuoso performance, together a wonderfully tight ensemble. And in this marvelous invention, every person mirrors the role of the instrument s/he plays. Elliot (Jim Abele) is the first violinist: dominant, aggressive, in control, setting the pace. He’s followed by Alan (Jeffrey M. Bender), the second violinist, committed to harmony. The more mournful, thoughtful violists are Dorian (Mark H. Dold ) and Grace (Katie Sigismund). The cellist, Carl (Corey Brill) is more mellow (or so he seems) grounding the others in “terra firma.” But as the situation heats up, the balance changes dramatically.
Abele is wonderful as the acerbic control-freak, who tries to call all the shots and thinks he’s a better musician than he is. Bender is endearing as a nice-guy who takes a special shine to Grace. Sigismund plays her a bit like a wide-eyed fawn, buffeted by the stronger winds (strings, actually) around her. And Brill starts out cool, slightly distant, a little taciturn, but it’s he who winds up playing the shocking final note. An extra bonus for local audiences is that both Sigismund and Brill are UCSD alumni who did exceptional work while they were students here a few years back.
Now they have a quartet advisor (Sarah Nematallah ), and the magnificent music of Bach, Beethoven and Bartok to sustain them (pre-recorded by The Vertigo Quartet for the world premiere at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia ). The way the cast mimes the playing of the instruments (sans fingering) is transporting and convincing. The technical aspects of the production (set by Kate Edmunds, lighting by York Kennedy, sound by Lindsay Jones, costumes by Denitsa Bliznakova ) are all first-rate.
This is one performance that merits an encore and a standing ovation.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe’s temporary arena stage, in the auditorium of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park ; 619-23-GLOBE; www.theoldglobe.org
THE DETAILS : Tickets: $29-59. Performances: Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., through April 26
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
A Palpable Hit
THE SHOW : ” The Hit ,” a reprise production, by Lamb’s Players Theatre, of the well received world premiere by local writer/designer/actor Mike Buckley.
I loved “The Hit” when it premiered at Lamb’s last summer. It’s a light, fun romance about antiques and assassination. Now that the Lamb’s Players have acquired the Horton Grand Theatre, this seems the perfect place and time for the show to settle in for a long run. And that’s just what it deserves.
It’s the brainchild of the multi-talented Buckley, who wrote the comic thriller, and designed the terrifically detailed set and its jumble of props. The antique shop looks even more cluttered in its new home, since the two coral-painted side walls make the space seem more cramped and claustrophobic. Buckley has created a splendid, two-level repository for all manner of knickknacks and bric-a-brac, many pieces put to clever use as part of the fast-paced dialogue.
Almost all of the original cast is back, but on the night I was there, the expert director, Robert Smyth, had to step in as the murderous gun-for-hire, Slavo , who speaks a language of indeterminate origin (which means the stand-in didn’t have to actually learn any lines). He was fine, but not as side-splitting as the uproarious David Cochran Heath, who nails nonce languages like nobody else. Cynthia Gerber is funny and frazzled as the shop owner who, after receiving negative medical news, decides to hire a hit-man. Chris Bresky , a skilled USD/Old Globe MFA alumnus who’s now living in New York , is delightfully genuine as the quippy brother who longs to accept a scholarship offer from Stanford, but doesn’t want to leave his sister in the lurch. He’s both lured back and encouraged onward by his instant connection with the surrogate assassin, played to the ditsy hilt by Season Duffy. Buckley is charmingly unaffected as the guy who wanders in to browse and is smitten by the owner, though a series of miscommunications and mistaken identities nearly sabotages the budding relationship. As a bevy of other quirky shoppers, Paul Maley and Kerry Meads make a comical and malleable pair.
With amusing costumes (Jeanne Reith) and sound (Jon Lorenz), the sum total is a fluffy, fun night on the (down )town . We could all use a little diversion these days. So don’t miss the hit that’s “The Hit.”
THE LOCATION : Lamb’s Players at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave. , in the Gaslamp Quarter; 619-437-0600; <a href =”www.lambsplayers.org”>Lamb’s Players Theatre</a>
THE DETAILS :Tickets : $26-48 (there’s also an Under 30 Club). Performances: Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., open-ended
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
…”Eleemosynary” means charity and forgiveness. It’s the title and central theme of Lee Blessing’s heartbreaking 1989 feminist drama about three generations of strong-willed, unconventional women. Six years ago, at age 18, Rachael Van Wormer made her professional acting debut in the La Jolla Stage Company production of the thought-provoking play. She’s gone on to become one of our most prolific and talented young performers. And she happily revisited the role of the precocious and troubled spelling champ in Moxie Theatre’s staged reading. Van Wormer brought new depth to this intuitive, competitive adolescent who, craving attention and affection, desperately tries to reunite her estranged – and strange – family. The grandma/matriarch, Dorothea, a New Age spiritualist who learned early on that eccentricity equals autonomy, was played by Rhona Gold with twinkle-eyed, mischievous glee. Between the two, though barely communicating with either, is Artie, the icy mom who fled the stifling domination of her own self-centered mother. Wendy Waddell forcefully portrayed her as a brittle, wounded bird, a seething but vulnerable malcontent. Under the assured direction of Moxie co-founder/artistic director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, it was a spare, thoroughly engaging production, presented in the beautiful new Encinitas Library. Now for the good news: the reading is going to be reprised at the Avo Playhouse in Vista , as part of Moonlight Stage Productions’ WordsWorks . The marvelous thing about a reading is that it strips down theater to its bare essence: text, character and relationship. An electrifying experience. Monday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m., 303 Main Street, Vista 92084 . Open seating; forum to follow. 760-630-7650.
…”King Lear,” the 2007 Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Sir Ian McKellen , recently aired on the PBS network. It was something of a sanitized version of the original, wherein the esteemed actor did the Full Monty during the mad scene, both onstage in England and on international tour. On TV, the scene was merely suggestive. Under the direction of former RSC artistic director Trevor Nunn (of “Cats,” “Les Miz ” and “Starlight Express” fame), it was often an overwrought production, with a good deal of yelling, gnashing and declaiming, and less articulatory precision than one might expect of this company. The sets were surprisingly cheesy (shot in England’s Pinewood Studios), and some of the offstage action — the hanging of the Fool, for example — was unnecessarily brought onstage and shown in gory detail.
But some of the performances were outstanding. McKellen’s , of course, among them. His portrayal of the aging, delusional despot was often radiant, if a bit showy at times, but he demonstrated an impressive array of emotions that culminated in a heart-stopping display of anguish, remorse, self-awareness and finally, grace. Strong support was provided by Romola Garai as the gentle, tender Cordelia ; Sylvester McCoy as a delightfully sane, spoon-playing Fool; Frances Barber and Monica Dolan, chilling as the monstrously evil sisters, reveling in the bloodthirsty blinding and killing; William Gaunt as the haunted Gloucester; Jonathan Hyde, clear and unadorned as the faithful Earl of Kent; Philip Winchester as a slickly nefarious Edmund; and Ben Meyjes as his bookish, big-hearted brother, Edgar.
The costumes were an odd array of 19th century Slavic, 18th century regal and 21st century terrorist. The big storm drowned the poetry in racket. Still, it was a clear and comprehensible presentation of a heart-stopping tragedy, an unsettling story of fathers betrayed by thankless children, old men cast out into the elements, harrowing tale tempered by loyalty, love and tenderness in the maelstrom of calamity. Since PBS often repeats its offerings, look for it on air again, to catch one of the great thespians of our time in one of the greatest of dramas.
NEWS AND VIEWS
…There must be money out there somewhere. Recent fundraising events for North Coast Repertory Theatre, the San Diego Chamber Orchestra and Jewish Family Service did extremely well, and that’s most encouraging.
In a related story, <b>“The Threepenny Opera,”</b> which closed last weekend, sold at 90+% capacity, and proved to be the most popular regular-run show in the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 23 years of producing in the Lyceum Space. Each night, there was a pre-performance segment, with the cast roaming through the audience to establish the seedy ambiance. Gale McNeely, who played the corrupt police chief Tiger Brown, had the idea of panhandling in the house before the show. Inspired by the lobby exhibit for the San Diego Food Bank, McNeely began asking for donations for the local Food Bank and the Second Harvest Food Bank. By the end of the run, he’d collected more than $3400 from theatergoers. Which only goes to show that, despite our difficulties, we ARE a giving and generous city/nation/audience, after all.
… On the not-so-encouraging side, the Museum of Contemporary Art , San Diego just announced a second round of staff layoffs and program cuts. The TNT (Thursday Night Thing) events in its galleries have been suspended, as has the film program (with a few exceptions). The omnipresent question is: When will we hit bottom and start climbing back up??
… Do your part: March 31 was National Arts Advocacy Day, a united effort to tell Congress how important culture is to our communities, how much arts education means to our children, and how much the arts improve our daily lives. Eighty-three national co-sponsors included Actors Equity Association, Theatre Communications Group, Dance/USA, The Authors Guild, Americans for the Arts, the American Federation of Musicians, the American Association of Museums, and many more. You can participate too, by sending a message directly to your Senators and Representative, urging them to support the arts. The E-Advocacy Center is at
… V-Day returns: “The Vagina Monologues,” the rights to which are made available for February fundraising events in support of organizations that battle violence against women, is making a spring comeback. On April 17-19 at the Pico Playhouse in West Los Angeles, the VM performance will benefit Peace Over Violence, a Santa Monica rape crisis center. As part of the presentation, there will be an encore performance of the InnerMission San Diego production of “The MENding Monologues,” the touching, thought-provoking male counterpart of the internationally acclaimed Eve Ensler original, with contributions and performances by anti-violence San Diego males. The men take the stage at 3pm on April 19, at the Pico Playhouse. If you missed the moving, funny, inspiring production here, catch it there. Tickets and info at www.cruthaighproductions.com
… North Coast Repertory Theatre is presenting Off Nights productions featuring improvisational comedy from L.A. ’s Impro Theatre. The comic skits, scenes and playlets are created on the spot, in a particular literary style. 4/6 brings “Tennessee Williams Unscripted,” an evening filled with drifters, Southern aristocrats, rebels, harpies and wounded youth. 5/18 is “Jane Austen Unscripted,” features passionate women flirting with brooding young noblemen. Hearts are broken, secrets are revealed and true love wins out in the end. Or does it? Curtain is at 7:30 p.m., at NCRT in Solana Beach . 858-481-1055; www.northcoastrep.org
… Schroeder’s Cabaret is back, newly based at Tango Del Rey in Pacific Beach . The venue’s mega-talented namesake, singer/songwriter/pianist extraordinaire Todd Schroeder, will perform on Saturday, April 18 at 8 p.m. Earlier that day, he’ll be teaching a 3-hour, hands-on Cabaret Workshop. Call 619-794-9044 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a space. Show reservations at
… Young Shakespeareans: Olivia O’Connor and Michael Silberblatt , two students from the Coronado School of the Arts, snagged first place and first runner-up titles in the San Diego finals of the 24th annual English-Speaking Union Shakespeare Competition. Under the tutelage of teacher/actor/dramaturge Kim Strassburger, these young thespians presented a monologue and sonnet, following extensive school-based study and interpretation. Later this month, Olivia, a sophomore, will proceed to New York City , where she’ll be the youngest of 60 competitors in the national finals at Lincoln Center . The ultimate winner gets a four-week trip to Oxford , to study at the British American Drama Academy ’s Midsummer Conservatory Program. We hope Olivia does herself, her school and San Diego proud.
THE READING ROOM
… As noted above, the Moxie Theatre staged reading of “Eleemosynary,” a heartrending story of three generations of women, will be presented at the Avo Theatre, as part of Moonlight Stage Productions’ WordsWorks program. Monday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m., 303 Main Street, Vista 92084 . Open seating; forum to follow. 760-630-7650.
… The new San Diego Playwrights’ Collective debuts with four staged readings over two nights at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Formed by writers Carmen Beaubeaux , Jason Connors and Tim West, the group is designed to provide workshops and public readings of plays-in-progress by local writers. Two of the Collective’s founding writers will also appear as actors.
Monday, April 13 premieres “Who’s Afraid of Me, Myself & Edward Albee ? , ” a new work by NCRT resident playwright Matt Thompson, developed through ongoing communication with Mr. Albee himself. Thompson credits Albee’s “guidance and creative energy” – and his influential plays – for inspiration. The new piece, about two men tangling philosophically at a bus stop, touches on familiar Albee themes of identity, adoption and abandonment, as well as sexual orientation (about which Albee has always been a lot more circumspect). Thompson borrowed the writing style of Albee’s first play, “The Zoo Story.” The reading is directed by Rosina Reynolds and performed by Tim Parker and Joshua Everett Johnson.
On the same night (4/13), “The Perfect Daisy,” by Carmen Beaubeaux , will be directed by Kerry Meads, associate artistic director at Lamb’s Players Theatre. The cast includes SDSU professor Martin Katz, San Diego Repertory Theatre co-founder D.W. Jacobs, Susan Thompson, star of the new NBC series, “Kings,” and San Diego favorites Jeffrey Jones, Linda Libby, Jason Connors and Don Loper, among many others. The fast-paced comedy confronts the end of the world, Jerusalem Syndrome and the Armageddon Index. Funny stuff, huh?
The Tuesday, April 14 presentations will kick off with Jason Connors’ “There’s Someone Living in the House that Jack Built,” a short play directed by Delicia Turner-Sonnenberg, featuring Chris Buess and Tim West. A lonely man is communing with a macabre household of mannequins , until a proselytizing young preacher offers each an encounter more real than they ever imagined.
On the same night (4/14), there’s Tim West’s “ Cooperstown ,” a full-length drama about a father and son on a difficult but rewarding journey to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The reading will be directed by noted playwright/screenwriter Stephen Metcalfe (“Pretty Woman,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Strange Snow”), associate artist at the Old Globe and current professor of theater at USD. The cast features Dave Florek (TV’s “Grace Under Fire”), Tristan Poje , Jessa Watson and young Max Oilman-Williams.
Information about the series at: 858-481-2155.
… “ Cooperstown ” gets a double-header. The new Tim West play will also be presented as a staged reading at <b> Carlsbad Playreaders</b>, as part of their 15th season. The cast is different, though the director, Stephen Metcalfe, remains the same. Tom Andrew, Amanda Cooley Davis, Dave Kurner and Max Oilman-Williams star. Monday, April 13 at 7:30 p.m., at the Carlsbad City Library, 1775 Dove Lane . Information at www.carlsbadplayreaders.org
HIGH DRAMA FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
… Lamb’s Players Theatre is offering summer performing arts workshops for elementary school students and teens. The Introductory Workshop for 3rd-5th graders is June 22-27. The Advance Musical Theatre Workshop, July 6-18, is a two-week intensive program tailored to 12-18 year olds, with a focus on professional and college audition preparation. For further info, registration or to make an audition appointment, email Lead Instructor Colleen Kollar Smith at email@example.com.
… The Old Globe has announced a new awards program, Globe Honors, to celebrate excellence in high school musical theater performance. Among other prizes, winners of the competition may be eligible to compete in the National High School Musical Theatre Awards in New York City this June. To qualify, students must be in grade 9-12, with a grade point average of 3.0 or better, and must have performed the lead role in their high school’s 2008-2009 musical production. The Open Call is April 4, with semi-finals April 11. The Semi-Finals and Final competitions will be presented onstage at the Globe on April 25. For audition and application information, email firstname.lastname@example.org .
… NTC Promenade in Point Loma, the new arts and culture district evolving in the restored historic buildings of the former Naval Training Center, is initiating a Summer Arts Academy this August, for students grade 3-8. Half- and full-day classes will be offered by San Diego Ballet, the Malashock Dance School , Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater, the U.S. Karate Academy and Capoeira Brasil , alongside classes in musical theater, fabric art, instrumental music, painting arts and photography arts. Information and registration at 619-573-9303; email@example.com .
… PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
” Rigoletto ” – gorgeous to look at, beautifully sung
San Diego Opera at the Civic Theatre, through 4/8
”The Hit” – fast-paced, funny mix of murder, mystery and romance
Lamb’s Players at the Horton Grand Theatre, open-ended run
”Opus” – exhilarating behind-the-scenes glimpse of artists at work
The Old Globe at the San Diego Museum of Art, through 4/26
”Facing East” – moving drama, affectingly presented
Diversionary Theatre, through 4/5
<b>”Killer Joe,”</b> – dark, dirty, down-and-out and downright excellent
Compass Theatre , through 4/5
”Working” – charming and timely update of a musical on a timeless theme
The Old Globe Theatre , through 4/12
”The Platt Brothers” –entertaining family fare, antics, acrobatics and all
Sunset Temple in North Park , through 4/24
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.