KPBS AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 14, 1994
It’s been a savage week of theater. Only for the strong of stomach. First, there was Mump and Smoot at the La Jolla Playhouse, those “clowns of horror” who take a journey to Hell and wind up sucking from each other’s dismembered limbs. Then there was Spalding Gray, also at the Playhouse, describing in detail his impending surgery, a gory, eye-scraping affair. Next came “Carthage,” Theatre E’s eye-popping production that features violence, sex, self-immolation, murder and spurting blood. All in the name of Virgil. And the capoff was “Sweeney Todd,” Moonlight Amphitheatre’s glorious musical telling of the timeless tale of “the demon barber of Fleet Street,” a wronged and vengeful man who slits the throats of his customers, after which his downstairs neighbor grinds them into tasty little meat pies. All of these productions, each a bellyful in its own right, should be watched on an empty stomach.
Let’s just focus on the two most filling and fulfilling offerings. First, “Carthage,” a part of which we saw last year as a work-in-progress. Written by local playwright Naomi Iizuka, the piece is getting its first full production via the experimental Theatre E, though it has had readings at impressive New York theaters.
Last year, the first 17 scenes were staged at the New School for Architecture downtown. It was a drop-dead venue for a drop-dead production. Though much is gained in the new version, a lot is also lost. The writing is denser, more fragmented; the production is denser, more fragmented. Last year’s spectacularly deep, cavernous warehouse is not quite equaled by this year’s former pool-hall, Hard Times Billiards — though director Lisa Portes once again makes wonderful use of the space she’s chosen.
If you like your theater linear, this will be tough going. But if you can sink your teeth into incredible linguistic imagery paralleled line for line by incredible stage imagery, then you may be in for a treat. This playwright and director are a matchless match. Their stable of actors is superb. Sarah Gunnell is chilling again as Dido, the queen of ancient Carthage. This time, the talented and versatile Bruce McKenzie played only four characters to last year’s five, but he took on the new role of sound designer, composer and musical performer, along with members of the local band, Chinchilla. Something lost, something gained. That’s how it went throughout the evening.
But this is an evening of provocative theater, unnerving theater, embarking as it does from the story of Aeneas and Dido (from Virgil’s “Aenead”) and linking present with past; Africa with Los Angeles; the dead with the living; macho men with whores, transsexuals and Karen Carpenter; and women, ancient and modern, being sweet-talked, screwed and abandoned. This is heady stuff, set in a production that encases you in sound, image, light, video monitors and electrifying erotic/poetic language. Add to that spurting blood, and a far-flung rubber chicken, and there’s quite a lot coming at you. In its finest moments, of which there are many, this is theater that hits you right between the ears. Enter at your own risk.
Ditto for “Sweeney Todd.” Not for the faint of heart, this operatic 1979 Stephen Sondheim musical is a grisly, shocking and brilliant creation. A jarring combination of folktale, “penny dreadful,” Grand Guignol, and Brechtian radical-political commentary, the piece is also amazingly witty, grotesquely comic and laced with irony. It was a big stretch for Moonlight Amphitheatre. And they extended themselves magnificently.
They impress with nearly two dozen musicians in the pit, and an impeccable choral sound from a cracker-jack cast of 36. At the helm, holding a steady though monstrous course, is Joshua Fischel, a powerful and pretty frightening Sweeney Todd. As his cheerfully gruesome partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett, Cathy Gene Greenwood is less vocally strong, but she excels with the humor and luscious stage business director/choreographer Ray Limon has given her.
If you can get past the gory plotline and accept Sondheim’s atonalities enough to appreciate some of his most wonderful work, this thrilling production is a not-to-be-missed summer sendoff.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.