Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
TEASER: Reviews of “The Wild Party,” “The Man Who,” “The Fever,” PLUS lots of local theater news
By Pat Launer , SDNN
February 11, 2010
THE SHOW: “Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party ,” a provocative musical, at the Coronado Playhouse
It’s been dark and rainy and cold (relatively speaking). You shouldn’t be home bemoaning the winter weather. You need to be at a “Wild Party.” There’s something wild and wonderful going on at the Coronado Playhouse, and you should be there!
Travel back to 1928. The Jazz Age and Prohibition are in full swing. Queenie , a showgirl, is fed up with her abusive boyfriend, Burrs, the vaudeville clown. Their relationship has lost its zip, and both of them are too desultory to leave. After he rapes her, she decides to humiliate him at a huge, raucous party, to which she invites a motley assortment from the fringes of society: a hooker, a strongman, a mute dancer, a lesbian on the make, a pair of incestuous brothers and others.
The hooch is flowing and people gradually shed their clothes (no nudity, just a lot of sexy underwear). In walks Queenie’s supposed best friend and chief rival, the sleazy former prostitute Kate, who’s picked up a guy and brought him along. That would be Mr. Black, a mysterious stranger who’s immediately smitten by Queenie . At first, Queenie hooks up with him just to make Burrs jealous, but she finds herself falling for him. Burrs is falling, too, into a deep depression, though conniving Kate is happy to step in to soothe his anger. Burrs wants no part of her, but he picks a fight with the strongman Eddie. There’s a brawl, an orgy, a whole lot of drinking (the drugs have been omitted from this production). Not surprisingly, someone winds up dead. But while the party is roaring (the ‘20s would also soon come to an ill-fated end), it’s one helluva time.
“The Wild Party” started out as a narrative poem, written in 1926, though it wasn’t published till 1928 (no editor would touch it). When it was finally in print, it was banned in Boston , which probably helped it become an instant classic. The writer was Joseph Moncure March, a former managing editor at the New Yorker magazine, who decided he wanted to be a poet. His first epic poem, this cynical morality tale about hedonism, decadence and living on the edge, was a perfect fit for his era. Reportedly, William Burroughs said it was “the book that made me want to be a writer.”
Nearly three-quarters of a century later, something really wild happened. In 2000, two musicals based on March’s poem opened in New York . Both were called “The Wild Party.” The one by Michael John LaChiusa premiered on Broadway. This is the ‘other’ one, by Andrew Lippa , that got its start Off Broadway (Manhattan Theatre Club), and garnered the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off Broadway Musical.
Neither show has been mounted by a professional San Diego theater. Amazingly, the first local production was at Torrey Pines High School in 2004, and the students did an impressive job. Now along comes an equally unlikely venue: the Coronado Playhouse, a community theater in a conservative neighborhood. But they’ve risen to the challenge spectacularly.
The seating is cabaret style, and drinks are available so you can really get into the spirit of things. Under the expert direction of David Kelso, the cast is superb. And the terrific choreography, by Jennifer Rubio (a native San Diegan; where’s she been hiding??) is the best I’ve seen on a small stage anywhere. Like the music, the dances feature fond but not slavish references to “ Chicago ” and “Cabaret.” But there’s plenty that’s uniquely gritty and sexy and fun.
The 7-piece band, under the musical direction of Korrie Paliotto , is outstanding, raising the roof with jazz, blues and gospel-inflected songs. The costumes (Keith Bonar and Brett Daniels, who also appears onstage) evoke the era perfectly, with spats, spangles, bright colors, fringe, garters and satiny undergarments. The set (Rosemary King and director Kelso) is simple and serviceable. The lighting (Kevin Fipps ) highlights the action nicely, and the sound (Kelly Prow) is fine and clear, except for a bit of microphone chafing noise.
The dancing is excellent, and the leads are great. Chrissy Burns, who plays Queenie like a cunning cross between Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe (she actually works as a Marilyn Lookalike Entertainer) is a genuine vaudeville-type dancer; she’s host and director of the Caburlesque Kittens, a live cabaret show. So she knows her way around sensuous and seductive, and the fragile, damaged soul underneath. Plus, she can really sing. Eric Vest is fabulous as Burrs; the alum of the SDSU MFA program in musical theater usually displays his considerable comic chops. But this role takes him deep and dark and violent, and he’s wonderful at it. He’s also in excellent vocal form.
Kerianne Rice is bawdy and lusty (and Liza-like) as the wicked temptress, Kate, and she knocks her big number, “Look at Me Now ,” out of the park. Anthony Simone is charming as Black, and he sings well and convincingly. But the stakes would’ve been much higher if there had been more mystery and danger about him (this was, presumably a directorial choice). This Black seems so perfect, dapper, caring and sensitive, rather than a little slick and sleazy. This makes Queenie’s choice between him and Burrs rather easy. If he had an air of danger, and a whiff of something seething beneath the surface calm, the juxtaposition of the two men would’ve been much more interesting.
Quibbles aside, this really is a tremendously entertaining production. It’s great fun and extremely well done. Don’t miss it.
THE LOCATION: Coronado Playhouse, 1835 Strand Way . ( 619) 435-4856 ; www.coronadoplayhouse.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $20-25 ($99 for Boathouse dinner-for-two package). Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through March 6.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: “The Man Who” – the regional premiere of a 1991 play inspired by the case studies of neurologist Oliver Sacks, at New Village Arts
There’s only one real, earthbound Final Frontier: the human brain. In large part, how it works and how it goes awry remain an enormous mystery.
New York-based British neurologist Oliver Sacks has been telling his stories for decades, hair-raising anecdotes about patients who sustain a brain injury, and the wild, mind-boggling, often unpredictable things the damage causes them to say or do. Sacks’ approach, which has been criticized by some fellow scientists (one called him “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career”), is to bring together brain and mind, to consider the human behind the overt behaviors that neurological disease engenders.
Sacks’ work has been inspirational. The title essay of his 1985 book of 24 case studies, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” was reconceived by Michael Nyman as an opera of the same name, which premiered in 1986. “Awakenings,” about Sacks’ treatment of post-encephalitic patients (“sleeping sickness”) was famously turned into a 1990 Robert DeNiro /Robin Williams film.
In 1993, after years of collaborative work, renowned British stage director Peter Brook and his ensemble of actors turned “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” into a theatrical production, ” L’Homme Qui…” (“The Man Who”), which premiered in Paris . It’s never been seen before in San Diego . The gutsy New Village Arts theater company loves to unearth offbeat dramatic gems.
This is definitely an atypical theater piece, equal parts medical demonstration, actor’s showcase and probably for some, freak-show. It’s not for everyone. Some people get queasy viewing pathology and abnormality. Some just don’t want to know the details of medical ills that could befall them.
I have a particular interest in the subject, having spent years working with these same types of patients in my prior profession of speech-language pathology. So I have an understanding of the disorders, and a strong feel for what those experiencing them actually look and sound like. And I can say unequivocally that this cast does a superb job of re-creating the often disturbing and disorienting array of neurological abnormalities.
Four actors perform the entire presentation, alternating as patient and physician, sitting off to the side of the stage when they’re not on. There’s a camera and projection screen, so we can sometimes see closeups of the patients, and they can also see themselves — which creates one of the most dramatic moments of the evening; Ron Choularton , outstanding as a man with Tourette’s syndrome, is infuriated by being forced to watch the video of himself, and curses at the doctor. “I wanted to be sure that curse didn’t seem to be part of the disorder,” Choularton told me later. It didn’t. It formed the evening’s most powerful moment. “No one wants to know us,” the patient laments, “but we’re in fashion…. There’s no neat and tidy place for me on this earth.”
Although the impact of these incapacities is enormous, this is fairly emotionless stuff. The patients do what they’re asked, show what we’re meant to see. Most of them forge on indomitably, performing the same acts over and over, even if they have no memory of what they’ve done, and are forced to re-learn everything – how to walk, speak, which are their own limbs – day after day.
There’s no narrative arc, no neat treatment, cure or resolution of the various problems. You’re left to form your own conclusions about what these cases say about the brain, the human spirit, the mind or the soul, as well as the doctor-patient relationship (not very sympathetic here). Surprisingly little compassion is shown. The doctors are fairly detached, impassive, just asking that their charges demonstrate their retained abilities and sometimes shocking disabilities, in the dispassionate manner of a medical conference demonstration. They rarely seem sensitive to the patient’s discomfort, or even despair.
Take the title subject, who has visual agnosia (fortunately, not much jargon is included throughout), which disrupts the ability to identify objects or people by vision alone. By smell, taste or touch, he’s perfectly capable of naming anything. Otherwise, he can only describe a series of lines or shapes and their juxtapositions, but not make sense of them. Imagine the horror of not recognizing your own wife. Or the man with jargon aphasia ( Manny Fernandes ), who has excessive verbal output, but most of it is inchoate strings of words. There’s a poetic lyricism to some of what he says, but at times, even he knows it’s empty, pointless or neologistic .
Sandra Ellis-Troy is heartbreaking as a cheerful woman who has no ability to recall what she’s just done or said a moment ago. Walter Murray excels as the man who has lost all body muscular sensation ( proprioception ), and has to will – and teach – himself to walk every day, placing one foot solidly in front of the other, and knowing that it’s futile; he’ll have to do the same thing, from scratch, again tomorrow. “Every day is a mental marathon,” he says. “No records. No habits.”
The set (Tim Wallace) is basic clinical, mostly white: a table and chairs, a hospital bed, hooks for lab coats (costumes by Amanda Sitton , props by Bonnie Durben ). There are a few projections, of brain scans, or subject/section titles (“Ticker” for the Tourette’s patient? Seems in questionable taste).
The original soundscape is provided live by Foley master Scott Paulson , using everything from a harp to a horn to a Theramin . Sometimes it’s beautiful or topical (“La Vie en Rose” when a patient recalls Paris ). But at times it’s a bone-chilling, eerie and unnerving. Maybe that’s right for the subject matter, but it does get under your skin sometimes, and not always in the right way.
This is painful, tragic material at times. And sadly accurate. These people realize that they have to live with what they’ve been dealt, and soldier on, trying hard to please the doctor, to make whatever progress they can, to make a life for themselves, whatever that has come to mean. And that’s a dramatic lesson for us all.
THE LOCATION: New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St. , Carlsbad . ( 760) 433-3245 ; www.newvillagearts.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $22-30. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through February 28.
THE BOTTOM LINE : Good Bet
NOTE: In related news, New Village Arts will present a staged reading of Don DeLillo’s “Love-Lies-Bleeding,” which focuses on the family of a free-spirited artist who’s been left an invalid after a second stroke. The cast, directed by Dana Case , includes Sandra Ellis-Toy, Manny Fernandes , Kristianne Kurner and Jack Missett . Monday, Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m.
We’re all in this together
THE SHOW: “The Fever”
Bryan Bevell used to be the artistic director of the Fritz Theater , and he brought some wonderfully edgy new voices to San Diego , like Nicky Silver and Suzan-Lori Parks . He was a groundbreaker, an iconoclast, presenting real fringe theater to hungry, open-minded local audiences. He was also a compelling actor. But some years ago, he moved with his family to Minnesota , and the space he lfet vacatn in the theater community has never been filled.
This week, he came back, just for a few days, to perform a work that became a sort of signature piece for him; he first presented Wallace Shawn’s devastating fever-dream, a bone-chilling 90-minute monologue called “The Fever,” in 1999, with three khaki-clad dancers (choreographed by Carol Abney) providing provocative moves in and around him. He reprised his stellar turn in 2000. During the Republican National Convention in 2008, Bevell performed the piece again, at (appropriately enough) the Bedlam Theatre in Minneapolis .
When Shawn wrote the piece, he intended it as a very intimate presentation, perfect for parlors and living rooms. And that’s how he himself performed it at first, in 1991. And that’s how Bevell always imagined doing it. So, in addition to six performances as the final offering of Compass Theatre (before it’s happily taken over by ion theatre), Bevell presented the piece just the way he’d always dreamed, in a cozy living room, for a dozen friends, in the warm, welcoming home of actor/writer/director Todd Blakesley . It was a chilling experience.
Seated in half-light, in a comfortable chair, an anguished American, describing a hotel room in an unnamed third-world country, has a crisis of identity, belief, conscience and soul. With the power of his words, he drags us into his nightmare of collective guilt, making us painfully aware of all the killings and beatings and tortures of the poor that underlie every privilege we take for granted every day. The hallucinatory narrative, crafted in brilliant, crystalline imagery, toggles back and forth from present to past, a time he was crawling on the floor of a bug-infested bathroom, vomiting repeatedly as the sounds of murder and torture echoed outside the window in the war-torn land.
In a barely inflected, conspiratorial tone, he pours his guts out in front of us, and we cannot escape the truth of what he says, and the disturbing reality that it probably won’t change how we go about our lives after he’s done. To underscore the point, after the show, we all sat down to a sumptuous, home-made meal Blakesley skillfully whipped up.
And yet, we of the liberal, urban bourgeoisie can’t help but be wracked by the recognition of our own casual obliviousness to the real World Order, the hierarchical facts of the privileged who work hard and do well, contrasted with the eternally poor, who work hard and stay right where they are. We are forced to confront our own self-righteousness and self-delusions. And then, we sit down to our lavish repast. Even “ artists who create works of art that inspire sympathy and good values don’t change the life of the poor,” Shawn concedes. And yet, being made to think, to look at things a little differently, is what really good theater does well. And this was really good, unsettling, thought-provoking theater, done intimately and very, very well.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Program gets a reprieve: The MFA program in musical theater, at SDSU’s School of Theatre , Television and Film, now the only one of its kind in the nation, was teetering on the brink. But thanks to local donations, large and small, the program has raised over $100,000 since October. Though they haven’t met their goal, they will be able to accept a new class in the Fall of 2010. Whew. That was close. The unique program, training the musical theater performers and instructors of tomorrow, is a local treasure. Thank goodness they can continue. To make a donation to support the program, go to http://newscenter.sdsu.edu/giving/Default.aspx?aogid=22
… Close call in L.A . : The Los Angeles City Council unanimously shot down a proposal that would have eliminated guaranteed city funding for the arts, after hearing impassioned pleas during a public hearing. The council also rejected a recommendation that would have erased the $4 million arts grants program. The council is still considering a plan to shift operations at nine or ten community arts centers from the city to private nonprofit groups (though the city would still own the buildings and pay for utilities and maintenance). Since 1989, L.A. has given $1 in taxes for every $100 of hotel room charges to the Department of Cultural Affairs; that TOT (transient occupancy tax) provides virtually the entire $9.6 million budget of the Department. According to the L.A. Times, fervent supporters at the hearing argued that “any city that claims to be a world capital of entertainment and culture would court widespread ridicule if it eliminated arts grants, and would risk losing part of its civic soul.” San Diego , take note.
… Winning new musical: Six new musical works have been selected from among 160 applications to be presented at the annual ASCAP Foundation/Disney Musical Theatre Workshop/showcase in Los Angeles . One of those chosen premiered here in San Diego . “The Venus Hottentot’s Extreme Makeover” was created by the multi-talented Karole Foreman (book, lyrics) and Ruff Yeager (music) and was workshopped locally in 2008. The intriguing musical piece mixes past and present — a modern-day African American actress and the true historical story of Saartjie Baartman (aka the Venus Hottentot ) — to consider issues of body image, assertiveness/submission in relationships and societal pressure to achieve ‘perfection.’ The ASCAP/Disney production will take place on February 16 in Burbank . The show was also recently presented as part of the Dramatists’ Guild’s Friday Night Footlights reading series via the Academy for New Musical Theatre.
… RSC in NYC: Make your vacation plans accordingly. Britain ’s acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company will be in residence in New York for six weeks in the summer of 2011. They’ll perform five plays in repertory in a specially constructed theater within the Park Avenue Armory. Though the company has been coming to the States for 15 years, this is the first time they’ll perform such an extensive repertory here. Between now and then, a 930-seat, full-scale replica of their thrust-stage Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon will be constructed for the annual Lincoln Center Festival. It will be built in Stratford and shipped in pieces to the Big Apple. Major financial support has come from Ohio State University , which will be collaborating with the RSC on a training program to enhance the teaching of Shakespeare. Interestingly, 40 percent of the RSC’s annual fund-raising revenue comes from the U.S. Who says we don’t beatify the Bard?
… In the Mood for V-Day: The California Center for the Arts is definitely in the mood. On Valentine’s Day, they’re presenting a 1940’s musical entitled “In the Mood,” February 14 at 3 p.m. The retro musical features a lively cast and the 20-member String of Pearls Big Band Orchestra. The up-tempo rousers and romantic ballads are filled with the promise of prosperity and better times. Can we relate? www.artcenter.org ; (800) 988-4253. And on the same day, at about the same time, The Oceanside Museum of Art will be presenting “More That’s Amore!,” featuring 17 performers singing classic love songs, from operatic arias to Broadway show tunes, accompanied by a bit of the bubbly and chocolate confections. Seating is limited. Sunday Feb. 13 at 4 p.m. (760) 435-3720.
… V-Day in February – and March — this year. This weekend is Valentine’s Day… but then comes that ‘other’ V-Day, the one that, every year, thanks to playwright Eve Ensler , aims to stop the violence against women with worldwide performances of “The Vagina Monologues.” Once again, InnerMission Productions and Triad Productions are teaming up for a series of V-Month activities, the proceeds of which will go to a local charity — The Center for Community Solutions, dedicated to ending sexual violence — and to Ensler’s international v-day.org. A number of activities will lead up to performances of “The Vagina Monologues” (March 3 ,5 , and 6 at Diversionary Theatre) and its male counterpart, “The MENding Monologues” (March 4, 6 and 7 at Diversionary). Details are at www.innermissionproductions.org
… Black History Month: T he San Diego Black Theatre Collective, which includes Common Ground Theatre, the Ira Aldridge Repertory Players, the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre and the Vagabond Theatre Project, are continuing their month-long series of staged-readings: “On the Horizon,” featuring new works by local African American writers. The presentations include “ Ain’t You Heard ,” by Charmen Jackson, based on the writings of Langston Hughes ; and “ The Strangest Fruit ,” by recent Patté Award winner Ronald McCants. Performances will run on Monday nights at the Lyceum Underground Theatre in Horton Plaza , with encore presentations on Tuesdays at Cygnet’s Old Town Theatre . All proceeds go to the San Diego Black Theatre Collective. Information: 619-263-7911 . Cygnet reservations: 619-337-1525.
… Classic !: Classics 4 Kids and the Classics Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Dana Mambourg Zimbric , will bring music to life with “Rhythm, Rhyme and Ragtime,” a look at the engaging stories behind favorite musical masterworks. Friday, February 26 at 11 a.m., in the California Center for the Arts, Escondido Concert Hall. www.artcenter.org ; (800) 988-4253.
… Patté-Watching Season : Don’t miss the TV broadcast of The 13th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence: Friday, 2/12 at 8 p.m., repeating Saturday, 2/13 at 7 p.m. on Channel 4 San Diego. It’s the next-best thing to being there.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v “The Wild Party” – wild, indeed! Cheeky, wicked and wonderfully sung/danced/acted
Coronado Playhouse, through 3/6
v “The Man Who” – an actors’ showcase, a hard look at the brain; something different and provocative (the subject matter may not be for everyone, but the performances are!)
New Village Arts , through 2/28
v “The Piano Lesson” –flawless production of August Wilson ’s provocative, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama
Cygnet Theatre, through 2/28
v “Whisper House” – a quirky ghost story, with music; world premiere, excellently executed
The Old Globe, through 2/21
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, into the SDNN Search box.