Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, June 4, 2009
READ REVIEWS OF: “Good Boys,” “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”
Mini Review of : “Voices: Mapping the Hood”
Boys Will Be Boys
THE SHOW: “Good Boys,” Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, in residence at the La Jolla Playhouse
No one knows who Jane Martin is. But the elusive playwright certainly knows the state of the American high school, and the anguish of parents whose children are perpetrators or victims of violence.
In her 2002 drama, we first meet Ethan, a hyperactive, hyperverbal smartass, interacting defiantly with his father, who’s caught him doing some not so savory things — like creating a pipe-bomb from instructions on the internet. Dad reprimands and punishes him, says he should turn him into the police, but then hugs him in confusion and takes no further action. “You were out of town,” Ethan snaps back in his defense. “There was no one around to stop me.”
When we see Ethan with his peer, Marcus, racist and homophobic epithets are exchanged with playful hostility. Gradually, we learn that Ethan, angry, ignored, frustrated, bullied and none too happy, came into his school fairly heavily armed and shot eight students to death, then turned the pistol on himself, thinking that his father “would have thought it was the right thing” to do.
Marcus also accuses his father of being absent and unavailable. And that’s just one of the many themes coursing through this deep, intense contemplation of grief, parenting, responsibility, retribution and redemption.
The primary focus is on the fathers. It’s been eight years since the tragedy. Ethan’s dad, James, is a broken man. He’s lost his high-power, high-paying job, which had been his obsession, as well as his wife, his son and seemingly, his soul. He’s taken to drinking his lunches, consumed by grief and guilt, but trying hard not to look back. Marcus’ father, Thomas, can’t help but look back. He’s a pastor who can no longer preach. He’s spent a long time tracking down James, to seek information, answers and even salvation (“A pastor has to make meaning; that’s a pastor’s work”). James wants no part of it. But he’s visited by flashbacks, and by the ghost of his son, and finally, by Thomas’ surviving son, left in the wake of the disaster, angrily, helplessly, trying to make sense of his life and his brother’s death. It’s he who finally gets James to come clean, and to agree to visit Thomas’ church, to ask forgiveness.
It’s a rough ride, a dark tunnel we’re dragged through in tough talk and too-real situations. The situation is painful, the violent act incomprehensible, and there’s only the very faintest glimmer of healing or hope at the end.
Seema Sueko , founding artistic director of Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, loves to explore and lay bare complex social issues, engaging the community in dialogue and debate, raising awareness and consciousness. She’s scored again. Bull’s eye. Partnering with the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, dedicated to preventing bullying and violence in schools, and the Jenna Druck Foundation, which provides support to bereaved families who’ve lost a child, Mo’olelo is reaching out to school kids, both as audience (for special matinee performances) and as participants (collages, hanging outside the theater, were created by Hoover High School students in response to the play). This is what theater was meant to do: inform, inspire, question values, alter perspectives and hopefully, change minds. The talk-back after the performance I attended was exceptional; the comments were incisive, the contributors ranging from a parent who’d lost a child, to folks who’d grown up around guns and can’t understand their gross misuse by young people today. The origins of violence were discussed; of course, no resolutions were reached, but it was deeply moving to hear the thoughtful, heartfelt comments.
Both the issues and the performances ignited and intrigued the attendees. And what performances they were! Sueko cast exceptionally, and guided a gifted ensemble through the seesawing emotions and shifting sympathies of this well-crafted play, which managed not to be overly melodramatic or neatly concluded like a movie-of-the-week. “Closure does not exist,” we’re rightly told.
Jeremy Lelliott is breathtaking as Ethan, so damaged, reckless and authentic he could’ve walked in right off the street. In the smaller role of Marcus, Sacha Allen conveys all the swagger of a popular football player who has the world by the scruff of the neck, and no time for creeps or weirdos . As his younger brother, Corin , Johnny Ray Gill, a second year acting student in the UCSD MFA program, brings the perfect amount of impatience, impertinence, resentment and rage to the boy left behind.
And at the center, in two sharply etched and laser-focused performances, are the fathers. Mike Sears as James, nearly broken from the weight of his guilt, grief and untold secrets, takes a terrific emotional journey, nudged on by the quiet, relentless insistence of Robert Barry Fleming as Thomas. They play off each other superbly, doing a precisely choreographed psychological dance of persistence and avoidance, as they tango (and tangle) over topics like permissiveness, parenting and faith. It’s wonderful to watch, gut-wrenching though it may be.
The set (David F. Weiner) is simple but effective, all panels and screens and scrims, with trees subtly suggested by nimble lighting (Jason Bieber). There’s a stone wall (symbolic?) and two benches. And that’s it. Minimal distractions from the searing interactions.
THE LOCATION: Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company in residence at the La Jolla Playhouse. (619) 342-7395 ; http://www.electrictemple.net/
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $22-27. Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m. , through June 14.
NOTE : Talk-back with the artists following the 2:30 performance on June 7.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
Existential Angst in Iraq
THE SHOW: “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City
Shocking. Stirring. Thrilling. Disturbing. The adjectives pile up; it’s easier to react to than describe “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” Inflammatory. Provocative. Galvanic. Appalling. Troubling. Agitating. Overwhelming. It took me more than a day to come down from this production, to get the scenes, the ideas, the performances, the implications out of my head. They’re still not fully gone.
A prolific young playwright, Rajiv Joseph, has turned the world inside out, questioning everything we think about war, animals, Marines, terrorists, topiary and the universal questions of who we are and why we’re here. The drama is deep and rich, lyrical and theatrical. It’s political and topical, but it’s so much more.
Joseph was inspired by a little newspaper piece he read in 2003, shortly after the fall of Baghdad . The city zoo had been bombed and looted. So American soldiers were put in place to guard it from further destruction. One serviceman stuck his hand in the tiger’s cage to offer food to the starving animal. The tiger chewed off his hand; immediately and instinctively, his buddy shoots the tiger dead. That became the opening scene of Joseph’s play. But the smart, funny, philosophical Tiger doesn’t go away. He comes back repeatedly to haunt the Marine who killed him and to ruminate on his condition. “I’m Dante in Hades,” he says, smugly showing how smart he’s become in the afterlife. “A dead cat consigned to a burning city… Why am I here?” There are far more questions posed than answers in Joseph’s electrifying world premiere, now wrapping up its run at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. And that, of course, is how it should be. No one has any answers – to this war or to the existential conundrums it engenders.
The Tiger (marvelous Kevin Tighe ) is not, by far, the only ghost hanging around and getting smarter. In fact, only one character is left alive at the end of the play. Along the way, we meet Uday Hussein (chillingly reptilian Hrach Titizian ), Saddam’s brutal, ruthless son, who carries around the bloodied head of his brother, Kusay . One of the Marines in the zoo actually fired the bullet that killed Uday , and made off with some coveted booty from Uday’s mansion: a gold-plated gun and gold toilet seat ( Uday was very big on gold; he gilded nearly everything in his palace). Uday won’t get out of the head and life of Musa (spectacularly nuanced and sympathetic Arian Moayed ), the gardener turned interpreter, a would-be artist who created an oversized animal topiary in Uday’s compound. When he brought his curious and insistent young sister to see his work, Uday promptly raped and killed her. Through some unsavory acts, Musa is in possession of the gilded gun.
Every character has some arcane 0connection to the others; mostly they’re united by violence and its repercussions. In this living hell, all the societal rules have been annulled. Humans and animals are running amok, as is language. Profanity is the lingua franca; derogatory terms are tossed off with impunity. The Americans insist on calling Musa the belittling “ Habib ,” while he calls them all Johnny. Just like the Tiger calls all the self-important lions Leo (“They’re all named Leo!”). The Tiger, like the Americans, is displaced, “ten thousand miles from where you’re supposed to be.”
Meanwhile, Kev (scary/intense Brad Fleischer), the younger, dumber Marine, is tired of the zoo. He just wants to see some “action.” He gets more than he asks for after his buddy, Tom (Glenn Davis, aptly angry and aggressive) loses his hand. Kev shoots the Tiger, with the golden gun. And his life is no longer his own. When he finally ends it, and comes back to haunt Tom, Kev is a whole lot smarter. Suddenly, he knows how to speak Iraqi Arabic, and think deep thoughts. This purgatory definitely has its up side. Women play a secondary role here, and there’s an unnecessarily long disquisition about the American use of female-debasing terms. The various females, young, old, sexy and leprous, are effectively played by Necar Zadegan and Sheila Vand .
It’s a wild, mad, depraved, surreal world, one of our own nightmarish creation . But Joseph’s play isn’t an indictment or polemic or political treatise. It’s a compelling, multi-layered portrait of atrocity, heartbreak, survival and universal truths. Imaginatively directed by Moisés Kaufman and inventively designed by Derek McLane (the two were in San Diego last year for their marvelous collaboration on “33 Variations,” currently nominated for five Tony Awards), it’s beautifully lit (David Lander), with spectacularly realistic fights (directed by Bobby C. King) and tons of believable blood. The soundscape (Cricket S. Myers), from bombs to muezzins, is augmented by evocative music (Kathryn Bostic ).
The play has already been selected as an NEA Outstanding New American Play. And it’s a recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award. “Bengal Tiger,” like its creator, is destined for greatness. Catch them by the tail now, before they get away.
THE LOCATION: Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre , 9820 Washington Blvd.
Culver City 90232 . ( 213) 628-2772 ; www.centertheatregroup.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $20-45. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m., Sunday at 1:00 and 6:30 p.m. , through June 7.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
… Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: Eveoke Dance Theatre, always concerned with community, created “ Voices: Mapping the Hood,” as part of the Art @ the Core: Building Community project, a collaboration with Stone Paper Scissors, transcenDANCE Youth Arts Project, North Park Main Street and The Cultural Worker. The intent was “to use art as a catalyzing force for positive change,” specifically focused on North Park and City Heights . The result was “a visual, verbal and movement-based dialogue about community, and our role and responsibilities in it.” The multi-leveled presentation included poetry, oral histories, photos/video, visual art and of course, dance. The lobby installation featured drawings, maps, renderings and collages created by Leslie Ryan’s “Introduction to Landscape Architecture” class the NewSchool of Architecture & Design. There were some moving and some painful images. And so it was with the dance. It started out with an increasing ball of (projected) light. It ended with a film, “Home Away from Home” (directed by Maureen Blackwood), which focused on racism, telling a silent story of an African American woman who wants to bring a little bit of her roots into her suburban backyard, lovingly creating an African mud hut, which is disparaged and destroyed by her pinched-face, white neighbors. There were many dark moments, like the dance with props – an Eveoke trademark – this time, piles of little flat, shiny pebbles, which were horded, stolen and fought over. Again and again, the images, from Eveoke, transcenDANCE and poet Kendrick Dial were less than neighborly and communal, though there were some vague, scattered impressions of coming together. Perhaps this is an effort at bleak, brutal honesty, instead of a rosy-glow Pollyanna approach. The collaborative nature of the effort was impressive; the message one took away was somewhat less than optimistic.
The dance segment is over, but the “Voices” program continues with an installation at Art Produce Gallery ( 3139 University Avenue in North Park ), the ongoing lobby installation at the Tenth Avenue Theatre, and the “ OurSpace /Creative Exchange,” derived from the idea of Potlatch, a public ritual/festival/feast among some indigenous cultures that reflects a sharing and redistribution of wealth. In an effort to provide “an antidote to the internet-based virtual exchanges and market-driven connections so abundant today,” and to “initiate real connections between people and communities” by means of “real objects exchanged in a real space,” the artists invite the public to bring a gift, “something small, something you created, something found, something meaningful,” something little enough to fit in a baggie, to trade at Art Produce Gallery. For further information on Art @ the Core, go to www.artcoresd.org.
NEWS AND VIEWS
Big week for the Arts in San Diego :
…On June 1, there was an energetic, impassioned rally at the City Education Center , to object to the proposal to eliminate the Visual and Performing Arts department (VAPA) in the San Diego Unified School District . Several hundred people showed up, carrying signs, standing in the street, watching wonderfully talented students, holding banners they designed, wearing costumes, playing music, to demonstrate the importance of the arts to the lives and education of young people. The San Diego Guild of Puppetry brought a huge skeleton puppet, which wandered around the lawn sporting a sign that read: “Don’t Kill Arts in Our Schools.” All the arts in elementary schools were at peril, including music, band, chorus, drama, visual art, and the outreach programs from arts organizations that go into the schools. It’s all coordinated through the $3.2 million VAPA program. The day after the forceful, spirited rally, hundreds showed up at the hearing, to speak out against the proposed cuts. And it was all worthwhile. The final vote was 4-1, in support of VAPA, with Board of Education President Shelia Jackson casting the only dissenting vote. Ironic, too, since she was the only member of the Board who showed up at the rally, though she refused to say how she was going to vote when pressed. At the Tuesday meeting, also taken off the table for this year was a proposed cut to OCILE, the Off-Campus Integrated Learning Experiences programs. These programs, that take place at Balboa Park , among other locations, offer integrated arts/learning opportunities for fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students. Many local arts and cultural organization participate in the $11 million program. Saved! Whew.
… Also on June 2, there was a press conference hosted by Mayor Jerry Sanders and the Old Globe Theatre, to announce the release of the 2008 Economic and Community Impact Report that details the Impact of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations in San Diego. The report was issued by the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and the San Diego regional Arts and Culture Coalition. The Mayor noted that, over the past year, the City distributed $6.4 million in Transient Occupancy Tax funds among 72 arts and culture organizations. In addition to providing these groups with critical assistance, those funds also helped support more than 6300 jobs and the work of more than 11,000 volunteers that comprise the local arts/culture industry. In 2008, our arts and culture institutions contributed more than $180 million in direct spending to the local economy. They also attracted an estimated 1.6 million cultural tourists, who spent nearly $394 million here last year. The report underscores the importance of arts and culture to the San Diego economy. As the Mayor put it, “our vibrant and creative arts and culture environment encourages innovation in our city and helps us attract and retain the kind of workers who stimulate economic growth.” It’s easier to support the arts, he said, when we know the economic impact they have.
Victoria Hamilton, 20-year Executive Director of the Commission for Arts and Culture (which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2008), reported how significant San Diego has become as a cultural tourism destination. It’s been listed by Condé Nast among the Ten Must-Visit Worldwide Destinations for 2008, and a Pugh Research Center report called it one of America’s most desirable places to live. Hamilton emphasized that we send more theater productions to Broadway than any other city in the U.S. And our beloved Balboa Park , the largest urban cultural park in North America , hasn’t been dubbed “The Smithsonian of the West” for nothing; it’s second only to that institution in its concentration of museums.
Old Globe CEO/Executive producer Lou Spisto talked about why the well-attended meeting took place at the Globe’s new Technical Center in southeastern San Diego . The massive warehouse is home to the Theatre’s scene shop, costumes and props, but it also represents the efforts of arts organizations to get out into the community. Part of the Globe’s mission is to provide internships for local students, and with “a sizable grant from the City,” the Theatre has partnered with Lincoln High School in a play development process that is designed to create new works, primarily musicals, with and for the students. These new shows will be produced first at the high school and then at the Theatre. The inaugural production, the hip hop musical “Kingdom,” was a huge success. Spisto asserted that the bonds arts organizations form “make us indispensable.”
The Mayor acknowledged that arts and culture organizations have been affected by the national economic crisis but, he said, “ San Diego carries on, ensuring, in the finest tradition of theater, that the show must – and will – go on.”
… Fading Starlight ? : At Starlight Theatre, the show almost didn’t go on. Set to open “High School Musical” on June 4, the 63 year-old institution nearly shut its doors only a week before opening. With a boatload of kids poised to perform, the board held an emergency meeting to decide if it should cancel the season’s first production (in a pared-down schedule, Starlight is only presenting two full-size shows this summer — “HSM” and “Annie” — and one smaller, short-run musical revue, “Mambo Kings”). At the meeting, Board members opted to appeal immediately to supporters, requesting help in making up the nearly $100,000 shortfall the theater faces. One long-time benefactor stepped up with $15,000 and other funds are on the way. But things remain touch-and-go. “If there is a will, there is a way,” says guest artistic director Carlos Mendoza with characteristic optimism. “Even in our time of need, we are reaching out to the community to help others: the Seany Foundation (dedicated to helping to find a cure for cancer), CADFY (Californians for Drug-Free Youth) and the Helen Woodward Animal Shelter.” The Woodward Center is training Barney, an orphan dog who will play Sandy in “Annie.” When the curtain comes down on the production, someone in the audience will be able to give Barney a home, just like Daddy Warbucks does with Annie. “ We just have to remember,” says Mendoza , “that theater is our escape from our own realities and we are here to make a difference. As the song in ‘High School Musical’ puts it: ‘We’re all in this together.’ If we unite as a community, I honestly think there is nothing we cannot achieve.”
… Bee Season: Nearly 5000 students from San Diego area schools participated in Orchestra Nova’s Frances Hunter Music Memory Program during the 2008-2009 academic year. Representing 17 schools, more than 150 students, comprising 35 teams of third, fourth, fifth and sixth graders, competed for awards in San Diego’s first-ever “Music Bee” competition, held on May 20 at Point Loma Nazarene University. Artistic director Jung-Ho Pak has long been dedicated to ensuring quality music education in schools, so his Orchestra Nova (formerly the San Diego Chamber Orchestra) initiated one of the most extensive music education programs ever provided by an arts organization in the San Diego area. During the Bee, the orchestra played a few measures from some of the 16 pieces of classical music that each class had been exposed to throughout the school year, and the students had to ‘name that tune” – and its composer. There was a five-way first-place tie at the 3rd-4th grade level, and a two-way tie for the 5th-6th grades. Del Mar Heights Elementary School and Jerebek Elementary School showed up on both first-place lists. Mollie Tower , founder of the current national Music Memory Program (originally begun in the 1920s), said, “These students were so well prepared that they produced the highest overall scores of any group that I work with across the country. The students in New York City , Dallas and Austin performed well, but the San Diego County students were amazing; seven teams had perfect scores of 100%.” We rock!
… Bracing for the Bard: The SDSU College of Extended Studies, together with the Old Globe, is offering “Spotlight on Shakespeare,” two classes taught by Diane Sinor , former education director at the Globe, focusing on this summer’s Shakespeare Festival offerings: “Twelfth Night” and “Coriolanus.” The mini-courses, which run for four sessions, culminate in attendance at a performance at the Old Globe Festival Theatre. The “Twelfth Night” class is June 16-22, with the performance on June 30. “Coriolanus” is June 23-29, with performance on July 3. The fee is $95, show ticket and text included. To register, call (619) 594-5152 or go to http//www.ces.sdsu.edu/theatre.html
… Edith and Asher: North Coast Repertory Theatre continues its Off Nights offerings with “A Conversation with Edith Head,” an up-close visit with Susan Claassen, portraying the “diva of design” who helped define glamour in Glam City , Hollywood . June 23 and 24. The next week is the West coast premiere of Aaron Posner’s new adaption of the beloved Chaim Potok novel, “My Name is Asher Lev,” about a young Hassidic artist whose creative genius threatens his relationship with his parents and his community. June 29 and 30. www.northcoastrep.org.
… Tony Time: San Diego has a whole bunch of connections to the Tony Awards. Tune in and root for the home-team theater artists. The American Theatre Wing’s 63rd annual Tony Awards ceremony airs on Sunday, June 7 at 8 p.m. on CBS. Two special additions to the awards this year are $40 Rush tickets for students and an official Tweeter. “Ugly Betty” star Mark Indelicato will be the official TonyAwards.com Celebrity Tweeter for Tony Awards weekend. The young actor, according to press notes, “will be working with TonyAwards.com to cover all the Tony events . . . with backstage and behind-the-scenes access to rehearsals and live coverage from the telecast,” including messages and photos about his encounters with Tony winners as they first step offstage, what performers are doing right before they take the stage, and sneak-peek at what happens in the Wings of Radio City Music Hall. TonyAwards.com’s Twitter feed is http://twitter.com/TheTonyAwards . To follow Indelicato , go to http://twitter.com/markindelicato.
… Red Letter Month: This week, in yet another historic move, President Obama declared June 2009 Gay Pride Month. The designation commemorates the events of 40 years ago, when patrons and supporters of the Stonewall Inn in New York City resisted the police harassment that had become too common for members of the LGBT community. “Out of this resistance,” said the President, “the LGBT rights movement in America was born. During LGBT Pride Month, we commemorate the events of June 1969 and commit to achieving equal justice under law for LGBT Americans… I call upon the people of the United States to turn back discrimination and prejudice everywhere it exists.” Just one more giant step for man- and womankind. The dominoes are falling fast. Watch out, Prop 8; we’ve all got our eyes on you, and you’re not long for this world.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“Good Boys” – intense, thought-provoking play, excellent production
Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company at the La Jolla Playhouse, through 6/14. http://www.electrictemple.net/
“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” – epic, stunning, mind-blowing world premiere about Iraq, ghosts, war, life, love, loss and much much more
The Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City , through 6/7 . www.centertheatregroup.org
“Cornelia” – world premiere drama by the creator of “Big Love”; remarkable story, wonderfully enacted
The Old Globe, through 6/21; www.oldglobe.org
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-05-27/things-to-do/pat-launer-on-san-diego-theater-cornelia-and-seussical
“The Price” – Arthur Miller’s poignant family classic, in a sometimes thrilling production
The Old Globe, through 6/14; www.oldglobe.org
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-05-20/things-to-do/pat-launer-on-san-diego-theater-price-phoenician
“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
Read review here: http://www.sdnn.com/sandiego/2009-04-02/things-to-do/pat-launer-spotlight-on-theater-2
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.