Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
April 22, 2010
The 10th installment of The Baldwin New Play Festival, an always intriguing showcase of the MFA playwriting students at UC San Diego, only has one more weekend to go. You’d be foolish to miss out. My advice? See as many productions as you can. Your options: three plays, two one-acts and a reading of the winner of the Dr. Floyd Gaffney National Playwriting Competition, named for the father of African American theater in San Diego . You’ll be in good company: ten high-profile invited theater guests from around the country will also be in attendance this weekend.
The strongest of the full-length plays is “Everything Nice,” by third-year MFA playwright Stephanie Timm , who will graduate next month and take the position of Theodore and Adele Shank Playwright-in-Residence at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco . The Shanks were just honored here at home, with a theater space in their name; what was formerly the Weiss Forum Theatre Space is now the Shank Theatre. Back to Timm’s latest work which, though it sports an innocuous title, is anything but nice. It’s timely and topical, haunting and unnerving. And it won’t get out of your head easily. The setting is a 20-year high school reunion. Two old BFFs meet up, not having seen each other since school. Ultra-thin, black-clad Annalise ( Cate Campbell) is agitated, unable to forget what they did when they were last together. The victim was a girl who was bullying Annalise and spreading vicious rumors about her. The girls took revenge, brutally. The event haunts her every waking moment (she doesn’t sleep), makes her travel the world, aimlessly and obsessively, trying to escape from her past and her demons. Now, she wants to come clean, to confess all, to make amends. But Myra (Jennifer Putney) is having none of it. As the champagne flows, Annalise crumbles, falling prey to her terrors, her ghosts driving her to re-enact the original horrific event. This psychological thriller starts out pleasantly enough, and then grabs you by the throat and throttles you. The drama is brief, intense and unforgettable. Superbly performed (the other skilled actors are Taylor Shurte , Hannah Larson and Hugo Medina), and tautly directed by Jeffrey Wienckowski . Enter at your own risk: this one won’t leave you alone. And what exactly happens in the final moments may leave you guessing, wondering and may even keep you awake at night.
The two one-acts, written by first-year MFA writers, also lodged in my mind.
“ Muzungu ” (the Kinyarwanda word for ‘white person’) is the disturbing and disarming creation of David Myers. A white American, (Zachary Martens) comes to Rwanda to help, to offer his technological expertise. Shortly after arrival, he leaves his wife for a bit to get a massage, from determined but damaged Mattie (Anne Stella), who gives him a lot more than he bargained for. Their relationship evolves haltingly, and both are seriously changed by the interaction. Doing good – and doing well – in a third-world country isn’t what one might think, hope or expect. Excellent, convincing performances. First-year director Anthony Luciano keeps it sexy and intriguing all the way through.
“In a Word” was written by first-year MFA playwright Lauren Yee, but this isn’t the San Franciscan’s first San Diego production. In 2004, when she was 18, her play won the statewide Plays by Young Writers contest, organized by the Playwrights Project. “Over the Asian Airwaves” was an all-out farce, a form that’s very difficult to create and present. Her delightfully loopy piece was a paean to female independence and ingenuity. Her latest work is deeper, more disturbing, more mature, though her sly humor still peeks through. Fiona (Megan Robinson) is distraught, agitated, nearly hysterical. She’s been put on leave from her teaching job. She’s at a loss, and perhaps a crossroads. For two years, she’s been searching her memory, her house, her marriage and her life for clues to what happened on that day when her 8 year-old son disappeared. It’s all about words – their use and misuse, how they inform and distort. Ultimately, with the help of her patient husband (Kyle Anderson), she is forced to relive, re-examine and deconstruct the fateful moment. The performances are splendid (Paul Scudder is outstanding as the troubled, difficult son and several other characters). The writing is first-rate. Patté Award-winning director Adam Arian, who’s about to graduate, directs with imagination and ingenuity. The lighting ( Sherrice Kelly) and sound (Joe Huppert) are notable, too.
Two of the three full-length works are played without an intermission: “Everything Nice” and “Phantom Band.” The latter is the most amusing and fanciful of this year’s offerings, though all of the preceding works have otherworldly elements. “Phantom Band,” written by second-year MFA playwright Krista Knight, is set in a high school, where Raylene (Zoë Chao) is trying to organize a marching band. The only comers are losers and geeks: a nerd (Lee Montgomery), the school slut (Natalie Birriel ), the pseudo-cool rebel (Daniel Rubiano ) and one eccentric foreign girl (Carissa Cash), who casts spells on the others, entrancing them so they no longer hear the awful things people say to/about them. Straddling some mythical otherworld, she’s pursued by two hunky guys named Romulus and Remus , dressed as footballers, trying to track her down and bring her down. There’s also a mother-son conflict (Sara Garcia plays the mother and aunt) and a very weird, off-the-wall, wannabe rockstar teacher (Zachary Harrison, funny, but his character seems so pointless). There’s just too much going on here, and it becomes cacophonous and confusing; the idea of losers forming a community, doing their own thing no matter what, becoming impervious to the taunts of others, gaining a modicum of self-respect, gets lost in the melee. But it sure does look beautiful, featuring a gorgeous set ( Gaeun Kim) featuring a long, horizontally-extended tree branch reaching out behind a window frame (which collapses later on, to excellent visual effect, though for unclear reasons) and stunning lighting (Omar Ramos). Nicholas Drashner composed the music, and Tom Dugdale directed. Interesting, potentially fascinating, but the play needs more shaping and refining.
The same can be said of “Oyster,” by Patté-winning playwright Ronald McCants. It’s a tough, father-son tale, about a truck-driving dad (Bowman Wright) who abandoned his family early on, and only shows up periodically and usually unsatisfyingly ; and his hard-driving, high-achieving son (Gabriel Lawrence), who makes it into Dartmouth, disdains his father and winds up emptier than he began. They clash, they battle, they come to fisticuffs (excellent fight choreography by Charlie Oates). And at the end, predictably, they come together. But on the way there, the son has distracting interactions with a variety of unsavory white guys (all wonderfully played by Mark Christine) who are completely ancillary to the story. If all those unnecessary digressions were eliminated, the play might be the tight, 90-minute relationship drama it begs to be, not a bloated 2¾ hour trek. The often intriguing eliminated scenes might make other plays: the confrontation between the condescending, racist Ivy League frat-boy and the desperate black kid who will do anything to fit in, deserves a one-act of its own. The long-haired white slacker may have interest value in a future play, too. But not here. Oh, and the Oyster of the title, in case you were wondering (the audience wonders through most of the play), refers to a rugged Rolex watch that played a role in World War II. In this case, the grandfather’s watch, with his name inscribed, is passed down through the generations. The enigmatic design (Kathryn Lieber ) comprising stacked boxes behind scrims) is fussily moved about (direction by Larissa Lury ). The dialogue is often crisp and searing. The performances are stellar, but a good deal of re-thinking is required before the play is really ready for primetime.
One more production from the Festival I haven’t yet seen; it only plays this Saturday: a reading of “ Obamanation ,” by Lou-Lou Igbokwe , winner of the 2010 Gaffney Playwriting competition. The New Jersey native, a child of Nigerian immigrants, is currently a senior at Dartmouth . She’s being flown to San Diego for the reading of her work about a black woman and a white man on the eve of President Obama’s inauguration. “I set out to critique the idea that we were suddenly in a post-racial American,” the young playwright said in a recent interview. “I invoked age-old stereotypes and conversations about interracial dating… The fact that we still laugh, scoff or cringe at some of the dialogue means we haven’t really transcended this thing called race.” Igbokwe’s first play was part of a Senior Fellowship which encouraged her to write and produce a play about “the constructions of black womanhood.” Her new piece will be read on Saturday, 4/24 at 10:30 a.m., in the Arthur Wagner Studio on the campus of UCSD.
Here’s a one-day itinerary for you: See the reading at 10:30, the one-acts at 2 p.m , and one of the full-lengths (“Oyster” or “Phantom Band”) at 8 p.m. this Saturday. Now that’s a dramatic day.
THE LOCATION: UCSD campus, various locations. Gilman Dr. , La Jolla .. (858) 534-4574; theatre.ucsd.edu
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $10-$30. Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., through April 24
Bottom Line: Best Bet
Curiouser and Curiouser
Art of Élan , a fledgling chamber music ensemble, in collaboration with the Colette Harding Contemporary Dance Company, created a world premiere, ” ALICE : Re-imagining Wonderland through Music, Dance, and Spoken Word.” The work featured new music by Philadelphia-based composer Joe Hallman. The concept was intriguing, the execution a little less so. Under the baton of John Stubbs, the seven musicians, including Art of Élan co-founders Kate Hatmaker (violin) and Demarre McGill (flute) were excellent. The music was a mix of angular, captivating and repetitive. The use of percussion (played by Greg Cohen) was especially exciting, involving a wide range of evocative sounds, punctuated at times by the hand clapping and tapping of the other musicians.
The narration, by singer/actor Diane Alexander, came from the original 1865 text by Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson). Alexander briefly displayed her impressive, stratospheric soprano, but her narrative delivery was less varied and enchanting. Likewise the choreography. A rather minimal dance vocabulary was exhibited (heavy on leg extensions, twirls and cartwheels), which rendered the story less interesting than it could/should have been. The dancers were skillful, but not particularly charismatic, and this is a liability when each had only a few moments to establish a quirky character (16 characters portrayed by nine dancers). The exception was local dancer /choreographer Deven P. Brawley, whose feathered, strutting Gryphon was the highlight of the 50-minute show. The scenes and situations flew by; though there were too many of them, the transitions were often inventive.
The costumes (Brawley, who also designed the imaginatively mobile set) were colorful, whimsical and attractive, but the whole Asian theme made no sense, either in terms of the coming-of-age story or the attempt to include a “Lewis Carroll figure,” who at the end, according to the program notes about the choreography, “marks each step of [Alice’s] journey to maturity with a white stone, just as Lewis Carroll marked special moments in his diary with a white stone.” Interesting factoid, and visually arresting, but all of that clothed in bright kimonos? It just didn’t compute. The notion of this kind of collaboration and cross-arts storytelling, geared to audiences of all ages is thrilling. I hope it continues. Art of Élan is definitely on the right track, using considerable ingenuity to attract and entice younger music-lovers. For information on their upcoming events: www.artofelan.org
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Craig, Remembered: The tributes to the Old Globe’s beloved founding artistic director, Craig Noel, are coming fast and furious. There was an extensive obituary in the New York Times, citing Craig’s influence on regional theater nationwide. And the first local event was held this week; it was a lovely, intimate gathering of the faithful at the Park Manor Suites, hosted by Craig’s devoted partner of 37 years, Hamza Houidi , a warm, charming and very gracious native of Tunisia who talked lovingly of their time together. Everyone did. The evening’s often choked-up hosts were David Hay and Bill Virchis . Virchis read a list of questions created by the redoubtable actress Kandis Chappell: How many here have known Craig for more than 50 years? ( a few hands, including local philanthropist Deborah Szekely , who met Craig in 1947). How many have been IN a play with Craig? ( one or two). How many in a play directed by Craig? ( lots ). How many have walked Craig’s dogs? ( laughter and many hands). How many have smoked outside with Craig? ( lots here, too). It was all very heartfelt and bittersweet. Virchis brought a few musicians to play and sing the Mexican goodbye song, “Las Golondrinas ” (the swallows). Chappell read poetry. Deborah May sang. Jonathan McMurtry did a divine rendition of Prospero’s (and presumably, Shakespeare’s) farewell speech from “The Tempest,” one of Craig’s favorites. At the end, everyone joined, weeping and smiling, in singing “I’ll be Seeing You.” The food, true to Craig’s simple tastes, was picnic fare: ‘dogs and burgers. The sentiments were equally down-to-earth and unpretentious. Artists, doing what they do best, to pay tribute to a man who had such a profound effect on so many. He would’ve loved this evening. The community at large gets an opportunity to honor Craig, at the Globe’s event, “Celebrating the Theatrical Legacy of Craig Noel ,” Monday, May 24 in the Old Globe Theatre. That same day, the Globe’s lower courtyard will be named the Craig Noel Garden . Reservations required. https://www.theoldglobe.org/noel_rsvp/
… Out, Damned Spots ! : The “101 Dalmatians” won’t be barking up this tree after all. The remainder of the national tour of the new musical has been canceled, so Broadway San Diego is bringing back “Avenue Q” instead. That’s very good news. I’m sure it’s a MUCH better show than the spotted one. If you’ve never seen the delightful, delectable “Avenue Q,” you really shouldn’t miss it; hey, where else can you get “full puppet nudity?” This is an X-rated spinoff of ‘Sesame Street,’ about college grads who can’t get jobs and wind up in a yukky neighborhood where they bond and help each other and sometimes have sex or come out or obsess about internet porn. Very very clever and very well done. Catchy music, witty lyrics, strong voices, excellent puppetry; who could ask for anything more? Best for the young (though not too young) and open-minded. July 6-11 at the Civic Theatre. www.broadwaySD.com
…The Drama of Dance: Diversionary Theatre reprises its successful experiment, premiered last year, of inviting choreographers to create dance pieces inspired by Diversionary’s past theatrical work. Dance/Theatre is an exciting genre-crossing event, that runs this weekend only. New works will be choreographed by: Michael Mizerany of Malashock Dance, riffing on “Never the Sinner”; Ericka Aisha Moore of Eveoke Dance Theater (“ Lot ’s Daughters”), Peter G. Kalivas of The PGK Project (“M. Butterfly” and “Dear Harvey”) and more. Thursday-Sunday at Diversionary Theatre, (619) 220-0097; www.diversionary.org
… Youth and Drama: The California Youth Conservatory (CYC) Theatre is presenting the San Diego premiere and first-ever youth theater production of Aaron Sorkin ’s courtroom drama, “A Few Good Men.” The 1989 play about a court-martial trial, was adapted by Sorkin into the 1992 film, directed by Rob Reiner, which starred Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore. The local youth theater production features experienced adult actors, with a few young performers in the mix. Sean Evans directs the hard-hitting drama, based on a true story about two Marines who came close to killing one of their comrades at Guantánamo Bay , in a hazing ordered by a superior officer. The murder trial runs for only five performances, April 23-25 at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza . (619) 944-7574; www.cyctheatre.com
… Youth and Shakespeare: This weekend is the San Diego Shakespeare Society’s 5th annual Student Shakespeare Festival. Free to the public, the one-day outdoor fest showcases the talents of local students, from elementary through high school, performing 10-minute scenes from the Bard’s best. More than 500 students will be participating… and it’s great to see them walking around, in full Elizabethan regalia, all over Balboa Park . On Saturday, April 24th, the festivities begin at 12:30 p.m. at the Organ Pavilion, with a parade to the Prado, where the various stages will (simultaneously) display the fine feathers of the Swan of Avon.
… Moving on from Youth: Jay Heiserman , a two-time Emmy winner (for art direction/set design/set decoration of “The Ellen Degeneres Show”) is an alum of San Diego Junior Theatre. Now, he’s returning to the site of his early training, during its 62nd anniversary season, to design the set for JT’s upcoming production of “ Seussical .” Heiserman’s career was actually triggered and inspired by Junior Theatre. After watching a JT production of “The Music Man” when he was 5 years old, the young Heiserman came home and precisely re-created the set, with cardboard and wooden building blocks. “ Seussical ” runs 4/30-5/16 in the Casa del Prado Theatre in Balboa Park . (619) 619-239-8355; juniortheatre.tix.com
Other Alums : Daniel [Kim] Isaac (UCSD BA, ’09) recently performed Off Broadway at the Spanish Repertory Theatre in the comedy “Kiss Bessemer Goodbye” (“El Beso del Adios”), which was directed by Jerry Ruiz (UCSD MFA ’07)… Ryan Shams (UCSD MFA ’07) recently appeared with Vincent D’Onofrio in an episode of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent.” As he reported it: “I speak two languages! One of them is English!” He also was featured in “The Last Airbender ,” directed by M. Night Shyamalan , and has been teaching fencing, improv and movement in New York and New Jersey . … Two other UCSD alums, the married couple Karl Gajdusek (MFA in playwriting) and Larissa Kokernot (MFA in directing, ‘05), were in town for the Baldwin New Play Festival. They’re both active in the L.A. theater scene; Karl also writes for film and television.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v The Baldwin New Play Festival – excellent array of new works. Be the first kid on your block to see ‘ em !
UC San Diego , through 4/24
v “Ghosts” – crisp new translation of a searing classic
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 5/2
Read Review here: h ttp://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2010-04-14/things-to-do/theater-t hings-to-do/ghosts-weekend-with-pablo-picasso-plus-theater-reviews-news
v “The Language Archive” – clever new work, delightfully presented
South Coast Rep, through 4/25
v “Sweeney Todd” – a glorious production of Sondheim’s goriest (and most lyrical) musical
Cygnet Theatre, through 5/9
v “The Pirates of Penzance ” – overblown and over-the-top, with over-the-moon singing
The Welk Resorts Theatre, through 5/2
Read the Review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2010-03-17/things-to-do/theater-things-to-do/romeo-and-juliet-pirates-of-penzance-theater-reviews-news
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic. She can be reached at email@example.com
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, in the SDNN Search box. Or, access her present and past reviews from the Arts & Entertainment pull-down on the SDNN homepage.