Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 6, 2009
Loss, identity and a touch of magic waft through two very different productions: a fact-based drama and a whimsical musical. In both, there’s the feeling of being a ‘stranger in a strange land’ – and there’s also the sense that ‘You can’t go home again.’ Because in some way, though they’re inventively presented, both productions were better in an earlier incarnation.
“Since Africa ,” by Chicagoan Mia McCullough, was first produced by Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company in 2006, at Diversionary Theatre, an intimate space that made the story of one of the so-called ‘Lost Boys of Sudan” more intense and dramatic. The centerpiece is the plight of the fictional Ater Dhal, one of the 20,000 young boys who escaped his country’s brutal civil war by walking, barefoot, a thousand miles, evading bullets, disease, starvation, wild animals and death, to arrive at a refugee camp in Kenya, and later, America. He’s newly arrived in Chicago and we chuckle at some of his mistakes and mis -perceptions. In the original Mo’olelo production, the role was played by a real Sudanese ‘Lost Boy,’ and his performance was gut-wrenching. But when Ater’s story, and that of the conflicting do-gooders trying to help him, is opened up onto the Old Globe’s stage, it loses something in the translation, even though the director, Seema Sueko , is the same. We feel distanced from the deep, dark emotions that underlie the tale of inter-cultural communication and mis -communication. The performances seemed to skate along the surface, without sufficient subtext. But there’s magic in the native spirit called The Nameless One, who dances around the proceedings, a reminder of the ritual and ceremony left behind in Africa and all but lost in modern American society.
There’s plenty of magic in “Pippin,” too – an early effort by composer Stephen Schwartz, who had far greater success with “ Godspell ” and “Wicked.” Pippin, the son of the 8th century King Charlemagne, is trying to find his place in the world. After rejecting regal power, military might, sexual conquest and derring-do, he finally finds contentment in mundane domestic life. The presentation is very theatrical, masterminded by a dramatic sorcerer who controls the lights and action. At the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. , it’s a co-production with Deaf West Theatre, which means the entire show is bilingual, in English and American Sign Language. It’s a stunning conception — a deaf musical — which made for a thrilling “ Big River ,” that went on to Broadway in 2003. The conceit fits less comfortably in “Pippin,” though there’s plenty of imagination, talent and energy on display.
Despite their imperfections, both these productions are worth seeing – for their educational as well as entertainment value. Each opens the door to a world you may never have entered before.
“Since Africa” runs through March 8, in the Old Globe’s temporary space at the Museum of Art in Balboa Park .
“Pippin” continues through March 15, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles .
©2009 PAT LAUNER