Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, May 28, 2009
READ REVIEW OF: “Cornelia”
Mini Reviews of : “ Seussical ,” “Wendell and Tarquin ”
Seven Years of the South Rise Again
THE SHOW: “Cornelia,” a world premiere drama based in fact, at the Old Globe
Southern fried sex, power and politics. A shocking saga of ambition, told through the eyes of Cornelia Ellis Snively , a former beauty queen, professional water skier, country singer, pace-car driver, synchronized swimmer, date of an Everly Brother and niece of progressive, two-term Governor Big Jim Folsom, who was bumped out of office by his protégé, the subsequent Al abama Governor, George Wallace.
Known as C’nelia , the attractive striver would stop at nothing to become Wallace’s wife and get back into the Governor’s mansion she loved so dearly in her youth. The three-dimensional, twinkly-light projection of that House on the Hill (attractive, gliding set by Tony Award-winner John Lee Beatty, bathed in the beautiful lighting of Christopher Akerlind ) becomes the locus of passion, success, moral bankruptcy and marital ruin.
Wallace was coarse and racist, abusive, perhaps unfaithful, and 20 years her senior, but in terms of ego, drive and opportunism, they were a perfectly matched set. Of course, when their political power-mongering began to clash, the whole arrangement came tumbling down. Cornelia was ultimately booted out of her “magical kingdom,” and at the end of the play, in 1977, she seems to be in pretty dire straits. But she went on to live a good long time, and died at age 69, earlier this year.
Mark V. Olsen, co-creator of HBO’s big hit, “Big Love,” lets the audience make up its own mind, about whether Cornelia’s mental breakdown was genetic, imagined, or orchestrated by the Wallace machine. He paints them both as sexual beings (their seduction scene sizzles), but everything changed after the bullets of a would-be assassin put Wallace in a wheelchair for life, and by this account, made him even nastier and more cold-blooded. It seems like he had a good head start. And Cornelia had her mother, Big Ruby Folsom, as a model, here portrayed as a tell-all, foul-mouthed alcoholic who couldn’t be trusted with her daughter’s — or anyone else’s — secrets.
In the play, which could use some judicious editing, this dominant triangle is offset by Wallace’s scheming, unscrupulous brother and his diffident wife. Both worked tirelessly for Wallace’s endless campaigns; even after the shooting in 1972, which ended that Presidential bid, Wallace went on to run again in 1976. The character of Marie (Hollis McCarthy) seems extraneous, though she’s the only one who ultimately takes Cornelia’s side. T. Ryder Smith, who’s displayed consummate skills at the Globe before, in “ Lincolnesque ” (2006) and “In This Corner” (2008), has less to work with here, but he’s thoroughly convincing in his casual callousness. As Ruby, who serves as comic relief, Beth Grant is a scene-stealer whenever she’s onstage, and she’s tipsy or drunk most of the time.
But it’s George and Cornelia who rivet our attention. Robert Roxworth , a recent transplant to Encinitas, has been to the Globe multiple times, in plays modern, ancient and classic (from Brutus to a tic-ridden neurotic to Noël Coward’s elegant/bombastic Elyot in “Private Lives”). He’s also logged in a considerable amount of time on Broadway and on TV. He flawlessly captures Wallace, in all his crass, unprincipled ruthlessness. San Diegans may remember Melinda Page Hamilton in “ Bell , Book and Candle” at the Globe (2007), in which she portrayed another seductive, charismatic character. Her Cornelia has a spine of steel and a single-minded, relentless pursuit of power and fame. And she has more than a touch of paranoia, which is what persuaded her to tap her husband’s phone. A explosive duo like that can only survive so long; the marriage lasted seven years, and it left her broke and bereft. In many ways, Cornelia’s story paralleled that of her favorite fictional character, Scarlett O’Hara. Her combustible relationship lives on in Olsen’s intriguing creation.
Ethan McSweeny directs with a deft touch, and the look of the piece (including the excellent costume design of Tracy Christensen) is striking. The sound (Paul Peterson, with evocative original music by Steven Cahill) was variable on opening night, but I’m sure that’s been ironed out by now. There are many power couples in history who are decidedly unsavory but larger than life: Antony and Cleo and the Macbeths spring to mind. Well, meet another pair whose ethics, morals, principles and politics may be questionable at best, but you’ll be fascinated and captivated nonetheless.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park . (619) 23-GLOBE; www.theoldglobe.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $29-76. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m. , Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., through June 21.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
… Horton hears 200 Whos : One of the most performed musicals in the country at the moment, “ Seussical ,” created by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, premiered on Broadway in 2000. It’s been making the youth theater rounds, and I caught the production presented by MET2 (the Metropolitan Theatre Network), the company that’s been in the news – and on SDNN – for having trained American Idol’s Adam Lambert, from age 8-17.
What intrigued me most about the production was the fact that director/choreographer Al ison Bretches , a graduate of the SDSU MFA program in musical theater, whose late stepfather, Al ex Urban, founded the multi-city company 23 years ago, was actually putting 200 kids onstage. The result was amazingly orderly. The performers, ranging from age 4 (the eye-catching cutest of the bunch) to a few parents in their 40s, were obviously earnest and committed. They efficiently made their entrances and exits (and, incredibly, several costume changes). They hit their marks, they swayed and moved and flapped their arms in unison. They sang impressively.
The standout, by far, was 14 year-old Mady Rasey , for whom this was a first leading role. She was Gertrude, the love-besotted, meager-tailed bird who pines for Horton the Elephant (nicely inhabited by Max Sheldon). Rasey had the best comic timing, facial expressions and vocal chops on the stage. She was delightful, and should get more large roles and characters to play. The musical is something of a mishmash, cramming together a bevy of Dr. Seuss’ wildly imaginative settings and animals, with some humans thrown in, too: the fantasist, Jojo (big-voiced Bella Briscoe) and the innumerable Whos . Sammy Lopez was engaging as The Cat in the Hat; his dancing was especially strong. The Sour Kangaroo ( Brianca Renfro) with her baby roo in tow (Chloe Stewart) had plenty of ‘ tude and huge vocal power. But for her and many others, increased work on diction is in order.
The musical directors (Laura Dorko and Graham Jackson) did a fine job, as did the costume designers ( Andrae Gonzalo and MET2 executive producer Kathie Urban), who really had a herculean task. Very inventive work! Bretches , the four-city troupe’s artistic director, also designed the Crayola -colored set. What’s most inspiring, in addition to the sheer number of participants, is how these early experiences can change a child’s life, hopefully making them long-term performers, or theatergoers for life. We certainly need to cultivate both. Bravo to all the youth theaters for helping to make that happen.
… Gay Penguins??: The recently formed San Diego Playwrights’ Collective continued its Spring PlayFest with a staged reading that benefited Diversionary Theatre. The Collective’s co-founder, Tim West , directed and performed in “Wendell and Tarquin ,” a new work by local writer Jason Montgomery. The satirical comedy is set in the fictional San Diego tourist attraction, OceanWorld , where there seems to be same-sex coupling among the penguins – and a devoted, long-term relationship between the title characters. The keepers are about to go public with this revelation, and more, when the janitor pops up with a gun. It’s the scientists vs. the marketers and the media, with everyone held hostage by the angry, gun-toting, Bible-spouting janitor, who sees the anomalous birds as an “abomination of nature.”
Montgomery displays a great comic sense and created some intriguing characters. This was the first reading of his play, an opportunity for him to hear his words spoken, which proved to be an excellent learning experience. West amassed an outstanding cast: Amanda Cooley Davis, Harrison Meyers, Dana Hooley, Anthony Hamm, Chris Wylie and Danny Campbell. Wonderful work from all, including West’s killer turn as the janitor. He aptly described the piece as both “an over-the-top romp and a below-the-radar satire,” and it seemed perfectly timed for this disappointing week in the evolution of gay marriage. Though sadly under-attended (perhaps everyone was at Prop 8 rallies), this was another inspiring evening from the Collective, with its mission of getting the works of playwrights heard, and giving voice to “ unempowered writers.” The Playwrights’ Collective’s Spring PlayFest concludes with a staged reading of “The Perfect Daisy,” a romantic comedy about the end of the world, written by Collective co-founder Carmen Beaubeaux, featuring a large cast directed by Kerry Meads. Monday, June 8 at 7 p.m. in the Lyceum Theatre.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… More New Voices: The La Jolla Playhouse will host the Native American Festival of New Plays, brought from L.A. by Native Voices at the Autry, in collaboration with the Playhouse and with SDSU’s School of Theatre , Television and Film. The Festival is preceded by an eight-day Playwrights Retreat that pairs Native playwrights with professional directors, dramaturges, actors and designers. The plays are presented as staged readings before live audiences, whose comments and feedback are solicited during post-performance discussions with the creators.
Randy Reinholz (Choctaw), producing artistic director of Native Voices, is also Director of SDSU’s Theatre/TV/Film School. He’ll direct two of the plays: a special performance of the raucous, one-woman comedy, “The Red Road,” written and performed by Arigon Starr (Kickapoo, Creek), at 7 p.m. on June 16, at SDSU’s Experimental Theatre. And “Carbon Black” by Terry Gomez (Comanche), focused on 13 year-old Carbon “Inky” Black and his agoraphobic mother (June 19, in the Mandell Weiss Forum Studio). The other three plays will be staged in the Mandell Weiss Forum Studio on the campus of UCSD.
“The Frybread Queen,” by Carolyn Dunn (Muskogee Creek, Seminole, Cherokee), centering on three generations of Indian women, is “a Chekhovian tragicomedy – Navajo style,” directed by Scott Horstein (June 20, 1 p.m.). “Fancy Dancer” by Dawn Dumont (Cree, Métis) is about aboriginal women disappearing by the hundreds in Saskatchewan , Canada (June 20, 4 p.m.). Admission to the Festival is free. Reservations are required for the presentation at SDSU: firstname.lastname@example.org . Reservations requested for the other three plays, by phone (323) 667-2000 ext. 354, or email: NativeVoices@AuthryNationalCenter.org .
… Local Playwright Kudos: La Jolla-based playwrights Anita Simons and Lauren Simon premiered “Heartland” last year, in a wonderful production at Mira Costa College . The piece just took second place in the National Playwriting Awards for the American Theatre Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Based on true stories from World War II, about German Americans and German prisoners of war, the gripping drama also captured top honors at the Dayton Playhouse’s 18th annual Futurefest in Ohio. Award-winning Broadway director Marshall Mason called the play “a compelling story … well-structured, with a large cast of diverse, complex characters and excellent dialogue.” Well said.
… From Nellie to Nervous Breakdowns: Acclaimed director Bartlett Sher, who cut his theatrical teeth in San Diego in the ‘80s, won a Tony Award last year for his stellar revival of “South Pacific.” He’s been nominated for another Tony this year, for directing the August Wilson drama, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” The day after the awards ceremony, he embarks on his next project, a musical version of the movie, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Al modóvar . The music and lyrics are by David Yazbek , with a book by Jeffrey Lane, the collaborative duo that was here in San Diego for the creation of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” which went on to Broadway and won the Best Musical Tony of 2005. Sher, who’s been the artistic director of the Intiman Theater in Seattle for the past nine years, is about to announce a plan for shared leadership of the theater through 2010, when a successor will be named. In the meantime, he’ll be focusing on his high-profile position as resident director of the Lincoln Center Theater. But he denies any rumors that he’s being groomed to take over as the next artistic director at Lincoln Center . Andre Bishop, who currently holds that job, has no plans to depart any time soon. Watch for Sher and the other San Diego connections on the Tony Awards broadcast Sunday, June 7.
.. Tonys everywhere: San Diego Junior Theatre reports a few Tony connections, too. Former SDJT music director and accompanist Jason DeBord is the associate conductor for Tony-nominated “Shrek, the Musical.” And JT alumnus Jamie Torcellini is in the ensemble of “Billy Elliott,” which has been nominated for 15 Tonys . One of those noms is for Best Actor in a Musical, shared by the three boys who play Billy, including San Diegan Kiril Kulish .
.. Yanked Forward: The musical YANK!, which had its West coast premiere at Diversionary Theatre last year, has just announced its Off Broadway premiere next February at the York Theatre. This is a re-conceived and slightly expanded version of the captivating creation of brothers David Zellnik (book and lyrics) and Joe Zellnik (music), about gay soldiers in the Army during World War II.
… Actors’ Al ert: The San Diego Actors Theatre is starting up another six-week workshop, focused on the works of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights, David Mamet & John Patrick Shanley . The classes, taught by artistic director Patricia Elmore Costa , concentrate on audition monologues and techniques as well as cold readings. There are always surprise guest directors, local and national. The next two sessions begin June 1 and July 13. Info at www.sdactorstheatre.net
… Watch your back: San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre is back, after a hiatus, and is producing “ Gangsters ,” in conjunction with the Theatre Inc. and the Blue Trunk Theatre Company. The 1980s drama, by South African Maishe Maponya , is an exposé of authority gone wrong and personal freedoms abused. SDBET co-founder and artistic director Rhys Green directs Monique Gaffney , Mark Christopher Lawrence and Joe Powers . June 6-28 at The Theatre Inc, 899 C Street , downtown San Diego . Reservations at: 619-280-5650 ext. 3.
Al so returning to the local theater scene is the dinner theater presenter, the Ira Al dridge Repertory Players , which will be producing the West coast premiere of “Looking for an Echo: We Still Ain’t Got a Band.” This doo-wop, street corner musical revue is created and directed by IARP founder Calvin Manson, with musical direction by two local gospel/R&B/soul artists, Aaron Holland and Roosevelt Carter. Re-creating the songs of The Drifters, the Harptones , the Platters, the Temptations, and many more, the eight singers create a ‘band without instruments.’ In the same North Park location where Al dridge had created a small theater and then was forced to move, now renamed The Sunset Temple, 3911 Kansas St. July 10-Augst 8. Information and reservations at 619-283-4574.
…Night before 12th Night: Prepare yourself for the Old Globe’s summer Shakespeare Festival by taking part in an Open Reading of “Twelfth Night” at Seaport Village . The San Diego Shakespeare Society invites you to participate or just listen, to a different play the first Tuesday of each month, at Upstart Crow Bookstore and Coffeehouse in Seaport Village . 6:45-8:45 p.m. Admission is free, and parking validation is provided.
… Special Guest: Write Out Loud , the group that reads stories aloud to rapt audiences, is presenting a program called “What in the World,” that will feature Lisa Fugard , South African author and actress, daughter of internationally renowned playwright Athol Fugard , will read her story “Night Calls.” Signed copies of her first novel, “Skinner’s Drift,” will be available for purchase at the performance. Other readers that evening include Sean Sullivan reading “The Little Heidelberg” by Isabelle Al lende and “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” by Noël Coward ; Walter Ritter reading “Brother Beetle” by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Veronica Murphy reading “ Lydia ‘s Grove” by Lara Vapnyar . June 6, at 2 p.m. on Cygnet Theatre’s Rolando Stage, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. Further information at: writeoutloudsd@gmail .com
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“Cornelia” – world premiere drama by the creator of “Big Love”; remarkable story, wonderfully enacted
The Old Globe, through 6/21; www.oldglobe.org
“The Price” – Arthur Miller’s poignant family classic, in a sometimes thrilling production
The Old Globe, through 6/14; www.oldglobe.org
“The Little Dog Laughed” – terrific production of a lightweight but smart and hilarious play; wonderfully performed and directed
Diversionary Theatre, through 5/31; www.diversionary.org
“Old Wicked Songs” – deep, rich, fulfilling play, compelling duet of performances
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 5/31; www.northcoastrep.org
“Bed and Sofa” – unique, offbeat, silent-movie musical, gorgeously designed and performed
Cygnet Theatre at the Old Town Theatre, through 5/31; www.cygnettheatre.com
“The Hit” – fast-paced, funny mix of murder, mystery and romance
Lamb’s Players at the Horton Grand Theatre, extended through 6/14; www.lambsplayers.org
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘ Pat Launer ’ into the SDNN Search box.