Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, May 14, 2009
READ REVIEWS OF: “The Little Dog Laughed,” “Old Wicked Songs”
Mini Reviews of : “Tuna Does Vegas,” “Claire Voyant,” “Fireflies/Brundibar”
Laugh Your Doggone Head Off
THE SHOW: “The Little Dog Laughed,” a 2006 comedy, nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play, at Diversionary Theatre
Remember the Faye Dunaway character in the movie, “Network?” She was a heartless, soulless workaholic who had nothing in her life but getting the job done – perfectly, if ruthlessly. Well, meet her Hollywood doppelganger, the cold-blooded, uncompromising talent agent, Diane. She’ll do absolutely anything to make her prime product, Mitchell, into a star. He’s well on his way, except that he has a “slight recurring case of homosexuality.” And he seems to have fallen in love with the rent-boy he called up to amuse him while on a junket in New York . That cute little male prostitute, Al ex, a boarding school alum, is enigmatically tied to a flip party-girl, Ellen. Diane is apoplectic; in her mind, if Mitchell comes out, he’s finished. If he takes on a gay role in an enticing new movie, it’s not an acting stretch; it’s “bragging.” How these relationships play out, how Diane maneuvers and manipulates everyone’s lives to her own best advantage, is a stunningly comic, whiplash-inducing ride. The writing is terrific; Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote the libretto for “Xanadu,” among many other creations, is smart and sassy and endlessly, intelligently amusing. The dialogue is exceedingly fast and funny; under the astute direction of Robert Barry Fleming, skilled actor/singer/dialect coach and assistant professor at USD, the cast crackles.
Brian Mackey, looking excellent in reddish-brown hair (he’s normally a blond), is aptly cool and genuinely unpretentious as Mitchell, and Kelly Iversen is delightfully insouciant but cynical as Ellen. Handsome Bryan Bertone, who was recently the sex-object in Cygnet Theatre’s production of “The History Boys,” plays this sex-object a tad flat, and he doesn’t quite seem like a refugee from a privileged life. Nonetheless, his Bad Boy demeanor is just right, he gets more spirited as he gets further involved, and his connection with Mackey works very well. Despite an excellent ensemble effort, this play always belongs to Diane. And Karson St. John, a recent transplant from New York , delivers 1000%, in an absolutely spellbinding performance. She’s gorgeous, for starters, and wears Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ classy costumes with aplomb. Her red lipstick alone is riveting. Every moment she’s on the stage, she sparkles and scintillates. Which is not to say that her character is in any way likable. But she nails every merciless moment. Her lunch with the (unseen) playwright, where she and Mackey try to wrest his play from him, in order to turn into a movie, while at the same time reporting the event to us, referring to the writer as “he meaning him,” is absolutely sidesplitting. It goes by so fast, it makes you want an instant replay. Ditto the moment when the writer says he wants Diane to give her word about the deal, and at that bizarre request, her face contorts into an explosion of twitches. She finally deadpans the scene-ender: “You have my word as an entertainment industry professional.” There are too many lines and too many laughs to re-create. You’ll want to see it more than once to get every line and word. The set (Jungah Han), mostly a big bed center stage, is serviceable, and the lighting (Chris Renda) is fine. George Yé’s sound design is especially tasty.
Having toiled in the barren fields of Hollywood (he wrote “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar”), Beane knows exactly what he’s talking about. It rings, it zings, it kills.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. (619) 220-0097; www.diversionary.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $25-33; $10 Student Rush. Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m ., through May 31. Special Pay What You Can performance on Monday 5/18 at 7:30 p.m.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
Schumann Shows the Way
THE SHOW: “Old Wicked Songs,” a 1996 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, at North Coast Repertory Theatre
It’s 1986, and Kurt Waldheim, awash in accusations of Nazi activity during the War, is running for President of Austria. Stephen Hoffman, a piano prodigy, arrives in Vienna to study under a master and try to recapture his muse. Instead, he’s diverted into a voice class with the crusty and cantankerous Professor Mashkan, who is demanding and degrading. Stephen chafes under his tutelage, but through music, they come to a meeting of the minds. Mashkan forces him to see that in music, as in life, passion only comes from intense experience, an accretion of pain, sadness and joy. In being compelling to sing, and ultimately play, Schumann’s song-cycle, “Dichterliebe” – The Poet’s Love – Stephen encounters and expresses a full sweep of emotions. His temper is further inflamed by a visit to the site of the Dachau concentration camp, and by his direct challenge to Mashkan’s casually anti-Semitic remarks. Each benefits from the confrontation; Mashkan can reveal long-held secrets and Stephen can grow as an artist and a more fully-realized man.
It’s a wonderful play, filled with musical, political and philosophical ruminations, thought-provoking and truly moving. I never forgot the glorious production the Old Globe mounted in 2000, with TV’s Daniel J. Travanti in the lead. This is the third time David Ellenstein, artistic director of NCRT, has directed L.A. actor Robert Grossman in the role of Mashkan. Perhaps both have allowed his portrayal to soften over time. While Mashkan says that he’s “like coffee, growing stronger and more bitter,” in this incarnation, he seems more like Ovaltine, or Postum. He’s a charming and amusing character from the get-go, a little crusty and exacting, but not half the bastard that he should be. When he softens toward the end, and makes his big reveal, it should be a shocking and a theatrically thrilling moment, engendering a collective audience gasp. The big disclosure comes so subtly here, we nearly miss it. And Grossman begins so benign, the arc of his character is significantly diminished. Instead of being the kind of instructor we’d loathe, even though we’d learn a lot, he’s more like a sterner version of the formidable but captivating title character in “Tuesdays with Morrie,” which Grossman played at North Coast Rep in 2006. Still, Jon Marans’ play is so well written, and the contrast between the characters so well drawn, you’ve got to be ensnared by its action and emotion.
Tom Zohar is superb as Stephen. He’s smart and arrogant, angry and resistant. His second-act softening is significant, too. His understanding and perception deepen, and ours along with it. Zohar does an impressive job, against the character’s will, singing those heartfelt, heartrending songs. It’s a beautifully nuanced performance.
The elegant, cherrywood grand piano (a Yamaha player-piano) fits perfectly on Marty Burnett ’s rich, wood-trimmed set, an Old World room with wainscoted walls, bookcases, antique clock, wood music stand and sunlight streaming through the windows (evocative lighting by Matt Novotny; detailed set dressing by Bonnie Durben). The storm is admirably done, and the music soars, thanks to an exquisite sound design by Jeff Mockus, who used to do such magical work for Sledgehammer Theatre.
This is the type of memorable dramatic experience that lingers, encouraging you to replay the scenes, re-think the interactions. And it inspires you to listen to the complete cycle of Schumann’s emotional outpouring.
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr. , Solana Beach . (858) 481-1055; www.northcoastrep.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $32-393; $10 Student Rush. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m ., through May 31. Select Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and select Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
The Art of Surviva l
THE SHOW : “Fireflies: The Story of the Artists of Terezin, Featuring the Original Children’s Opera Brundibar,” J*Company Youth Theatre at the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture, Lawrence Family JCC
Hitler called it his “gift to the Jews.” The Czech concentration camp, Terezin (Theresienstadt in German) was the Führer’s showplace, where the arts were tolerated and he could prove his “humanity” to his prisoners. Bauhaus artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis taught art to the children in the camp, and used it to stave off hunger, fear and the terror of transport to Auschwitz . She encouraged her charges to draw what they saw, and she squirreled away the gut-wrenching results. Ultimately, 5000 pieces of art — drawings, paintings and collages — were recovered, and are now housed in the Prague Jewish Museum. When, in 1944, the International Red Cross asked to inspect the camps, Hitler sent them to Terezin, but not before he spruced up the place, commissioning parks and gardens and a children’s opera, “Brundibar” (the name comes from a Czech colloquialism for bumblebee ). Created by Czech composer Hans Krása, with libretto by artist/writer Adolf Hoffmeister, the opera was performed 55 times in the camp; the final presentation was part of the propaganda film, “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews.” Of the 100 children who appeared in the slyly subversive, anti-Nazi opera, only two survived. Copies of the artwork of one of them, Eva Weissberger, are on display at the JCC’s Gotthelf Gallery.
Two years ago, as part of its Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival , 6th @ Penn Theatre presented the world premiere of “Fireflies,” by Chicago playwright Charmaine Spencer. The play tells the story of the endlessly loving, patient Friedl, a couple of the young girls she shepherded, her devoted husband Pavel, and Leo, a firebrand who refuses to be a “sheep” like the others, but acquiesces, to some degree, under Friedl’s loving care. It was J* Company artistic director Joey Landwehr who first had the idea of combining “Fireflies” with “Brundibar.”
The opera had been re-imagined as a picture book in 2003, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner , with illustrations by acclaimed children’s author/illustrator Maurice Sendak . That same year, the one-act opera was performed at the Chicago Opera Theater, directed and designed by Sendak, with Kushner’s adaptation of Hoffmeister’s original libretto.
Spencer was enthralled with Landwehr’s idea to incorporate the opera into the play, since many of Friedl’s young students actually did perform in the opera. (The survivor Weissberger played the Cat). Spencer re-worked her play for this world premiere.
The production is charming; the kids are obviously deeply committed, and proud to be part of the project. They learned a great deal about the history, and met with survivors of Terezin. The eight young people in “Fireflies” do a fine job of conveying the attempt to make everyday and normal what was in actuality a horrific and terrifying situation. Mady Maio and Rachel Friedman are engaging as the kids, and Abbi Hirschfeld has a lovely, serene demeanor as Friedl. Robbie Friedman is moving as her adoring and then bereaved husband, Pavel, who ends the play talking to himself and an imagined Friedl (she died in Auschwitz , as did composer Krása). Darien Sepulveda is chilling as the ruthless SS Officer. Daniel Myers is marvelous as the belligerent but sensitive Leo.
The “Brundibar” segment, set between scenes 4 and 5 of “Fireflies,” features 55 children, ranging in age from 7 to 18. Standouts in the cast are Nathaniel Pick and Halle Hoffman, as the sweet-voiced, frightened, fatherless children, Pepicek and Aninku, who sing in the marketplace to raise money to buy milk for their poor, sick mother. They are chased away by the evil organ-grinder, Brundibar (Mara Jacobs), who represents Hitler, but a Dog, a Cat, a Sparrow (Daniel Myers, Danielle Levin, E lisa Greenberg, all fine) and the children of the town help to chase away the monstrous man and his Monkey (Katherine Houk). In this short fairytale, the helpless and oppressed triumph over the evil and tyrannical.
The 11-piece orchestra, which includes a number of adults, is outstanding. The music is delightful to hear, difficult to sing. The score is complex and intricate, but the kids earnestly try to meet the challenge. The interweaving of the two productions is inspired, and the concept deserves much wider exposure. In addition to adult audiences, students, who are taught far too little about the Holocaust in school, would benefit from the history and the drama, especially since the stories concerns children just like them.
At the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla , through 5/17. Tickets, $13-17. (858) 362-1121; www.lfjcc.org.
… Red Necks in Sin City : I guess you can go home again. Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, the creators of “Greater Tuna,” haven’t been back to the “third smallest town in Texas ” for over a decade. Well, that’s not quite true. The multi-talented actor/writers, collaborating with their long-time co-writer/director, Ed Howard, dreamed up the imaginary town in the early 1980s. “Tuna” was so popular, they wrote two sequels, “Tuna Christmas” and ”Red, White and Tuna.” And they’ve toured in the shows for 20 years. But now, the scripts are available for rental (Compass Theatre mounted a fun production of “A Tuna Christmas” last winter, which they’ll reprise this year), and the original duo hasn’t created a new show in ten years. Now, along comes “ Tuna Does Vegas, ” which breezed into the Balboa Theatre for a brief run as part of a 21-city national tour. I’ve seen all the “Tuna” shows (which, the guys boast, have “ Tex appeal”); most of them are pretty funny. The first is the best, I think; in 1985, it was the most produced play in the U.S. But it’s an extra special treat to see the creators themselves become the two dozen characters they know so well, with all the super-fast costume-changes, Spam-thick accents and soap opera crises. They’re wonderful actors, mimes, dragsters, comics. They make a laughable physical pair, too: Williams is small and scrawny; Sears is big and, well, buxom, in the women’s roles. They both have good legs (the better to wear heels with). This fourth installment of the Tuna franchise makes it a year-round bonanza; they’ve got just about every season covered, so it’s always Tuna-time all over America .
The storyline for “Vegas” follows Arles Struvie (Williams), a phrase-repeating conservative DJ at radio station OKKK (he is, he is), and his devoted homemaker wife, Bertha Bumiller (Sears), a member (in semi-good standing) of the Smut Snatchers of the New Order. They decide to have a little romantic getaway to Las Vegas , to renew their wedding vows on Valentine’s Day. Trouble is, Arles mentions this on the air, and before you can say ‘Holy Redneck!,’ the whole town is following them to Sin City . We revisit Tuna favorites like the ever-pregnant Charlene Bumiller, with kids hanging off her leg and strapped to her back; snobby, pink-clad Vera Carp; gun totin’, chain-smokin’ Didi Snavely (all played by Williams); and the beloved Aunt Pearl (Sears) as well as that dynamic and hilarious waitressing duo, Helen Bedd (Williams) and Inita Goodwin (Sears), who close down the Tasty Kreme to drive out to the desert. When they all arrive, they run into each other, as well as a passel of irresistible Vegas denizens, including the turbaned hotelier Anna Conda (Williams) and TWO head-to-head Elvis impersonators, which is pretty amusing since by their physiques, Sears and Williams look like the lithe, young King and the old, bloated one.
There isn’t much depth here, just an affectionate portrait of small-town life, conservatism/hypocrisy, and the nature of home. The Struves-Bumiller marriage is a touching one; no matter how concerned Bertha is about her weight, Arles still wants to romp with her, in the sack or when she’s in her swimsuit. What’s most endearing about Williams and Sears, besides their superb, multi-faceted, quick-change performances, is how warmly they embrace each character, satirizing a segment of society without undermining it. This is a community of right-wingers you can’t help but love.
… Super Chick: “Claire Voyant” is a world premiere superhero comedy written by Steven Oberman , marketing coordinator for Moonlight Stage Productions. This is an independent production, under the aegis of his non-profit TAFFE organization (Theatre Arts for Fun Education), which offers curriculum-based, interactive educational programs using theater as a teaching tool.
The play is a comic-book spoof about psychic superheroes. Set in San Francisco , 1975, “the height of the sexual revolution” (so is that why it’s okay for guys to run around in tights?), the comedy spotlights the fearless heroine, Claire, who struggles with her psychic abilities. A fresh-faced graduate student, she’s soon caught between a pair of identical twins – psychics, of course. Separated at birth, they’re yin and yang: one uses his power for good, and the other, who wants to become the mayor and take over the City, is pure evil. Claire is attracted to the good guy, who’s kidnapped by his brother and held hostage.
Claire has to think quickly; she slips into a costume shop run by the Indian uncle of the twins, and shazzam! She emerges as Claire Voyant, super woman. There’s mistaken identity, a little bondage, a big revelation, a psychic ‘group reading’ of the audience, and even scenes from future episodes. It’s all fluffy fun, though it didn’t feel like it was fully realized on opening night. Under the direction of Jim Strait , former managing director of Moonlight, the pace, which should be lightning-fast, was sluggish. The play took a while to get going. As Claire, déja bleu ginsberg also took a while to engage with the audience. Paul Ross i’s good guy was rather flat, but he had just the right comic-book facial expressions. Julie Clemmons was a riot as a gum-chewing blond moll, sidekick to the bad guy, who was deliciously played by Jacob Caltrider. He alone completely captured the oversized poses, actions and emotions the play demanded. Grace Delaney was funny in several roles, especially the squinty-eyed New Yorker, Fran. Cuz Todd was a hoot as Henry, the know-all Indian uncle (excellent accent!). The costumes (Renetta Lloyd and Roslyn Lehman) were cute, and the Pow! Bang! Zap! signs worked well during the fight scenes, though the production values were minimal overall. Higher octane energy and a more eye-popping production might give this kid-friendly play (except for some ‘language’) its due. Through 5/17 at the Avo Theatre in Vista . Tickets $15-20. (760) 724-2110; www.taffe.org.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… What’s in a Name? The San Diego Chamber Orchestra is re-branding. From now on, it’ll be known as Orchestra Nova San Diego, reflective of its “fresh and open approach to making classical music meaningful to everyone.” That’s been a primary goal of Jung-Ho Pak in his three years with the company. The other big news is that, beginning with the 2009-2010 season, the 25 year-old orchestra will perform its Classics Series in the state-of-the-art Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall in Sorrento Valley . “Because of these improvements,” says artistic director and conductor Pak, “we are now poised to become one of the pre-eminent orchestras of its kind in the United States . We are performing in one of the finest halls ever designed and we have a name and an image that will speak to a broader public and especially to the next generation.”
Reflecting one of Pak’s most consistent commitments – promoting and providing quality music education in schools – last fall, the orchestra kicked off the Frances Hunter Music Memory Program, named for a long-time supporter of the company’s music education programs. During the school year, more than 4,000 students in 17 schools have been learning about classical music through listening and related activities. On May 20, 35 teams of 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th graders from those 17 schools in the San Diego , Del Mar and Encinitas districts will participate. The nation-wide Music Memory Program, an innovative, multifaceted initiative, teaches children to recognize 64 pieces of classical music over a four-year training period. During the contest, the orchestra will play portions of a piece of music and the teams will “name that tune.” Prizes will be awarded; admission is free. May 20, 10:30 a.m.–12 noon, at Brown Chapel, Point Loma Nazarene University . For further information, call (858) 350-0290, ext. 201.
… News from New Village : In addition to unveiling its intriguing 9th season, which features two regional premieres, two American classics and a Summer Comedy Festival, New Village Arts announced an expansion, a heady act of confidence in these tough times. As a show of support for the plucky local theater, the City Council of Carlsbad has voted to allow NVA to take over the lease for the rest of the building they currently call home. That expansion will add more than 3100 square feet of space, which will allow room for rehearsals, education programs and additional gallery space for showcasing local visual artists.
NVA’s 9th season features some of San Diego ’s finest theatermakers, including resident actors and guest artists such as Ron Choularton , Jo Anne Glover , Ruff Yeager , Karson St. John, Lisa Berger and Walter Murray . The season kicks off with a Summer Comedy Festival (July 30-August 16) that includes David Ives’ nutty “Time Flies,” alternating with a duet of short comedies: Ives’ “Sure Thing” and “Prom Night,” written by 17 year-old Coronado resident Emily Reit, a hilarious fantasy that premiered earlier this year as a winner of the Playwrights Project’s annual statewide contest. Following that are the regional premiere of Jonathan Marc Sherman’s “Things We Want” (9/17-10/11); Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” (11/12-12/6); and capping off the calendar year, David Sedaris’ outrageously funny “Santaland Diaries” (12/10-23). In the new year, NVA presents two classics: “The Heidi Chronicles” and “Summer and Smoke,” and one ambitious premiere, Peter Brook and Marie Helene Estienne’s “The Man Who,” loosely based on Oliver Sacks’ bestseller, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” Big doings in North County , indeed. www.newvillagearts.org.
… The Circus is Back in Town!: You don’t have to travel to Vegas to see the circus; we’ve got our own homegrown big top. The Fern Street Circus presents its 19th annual production, “Famiglia del Circo, The Circus Family.” On the edge of Balboa Park (Park Blvd. & Presidents Way), in an intimate, open-air setting, the single-ring, theatrical show tells the story of an everyday family that gets whisked away behind the backdrop, as they try to make their daughter’s dream of joining the circus come true. The daughter is enacted by Dakota Ronco, a hearing impaired student from the Fern Street after-school program. The show features jugglers, aerialists, tumblers, clowns, unicyclist, contortionist, a trapeze act, a chair balancer and spirited production numbers. Writer/director Cornelius Lindsey (aka Corky), an alumnus of Fern Street Circus’ after-school program, has performed in an acrobatic troupe with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. May 15-24. Tickets are $7-14, at (619) 235-9756 or www.fernstreetcircus.org.
… Life with Moira: Moira Keefe has been chronicling her life, onstage, for at least five years. So far, the hyperverbal, hyper-confessional performance artist has brought us “Life Before Sex: A Comedy about Growing up in the 70s,” “Life With a Teenager… I’m Having a Hot Flashback” and “Life Before the Crisis… Something is Lurking.” Now she’s ready with her latest life installment, “My Year of Living Anxiously,” which begins at her birth and proceeds to her menopausal ‘sandwich’ years, torn between her hormonal teen and ailing parents. Directed by Kim Rubenstein, head of the undergraduate acting program at UC San Diego, the piece promises to be another wacky, insightful and incisive romp. One night only, Tuesday, May 19 at 7 p.m., at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach . Tickets are $20; for reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
… A new festival of plays, Americas Off Broadway, will premiere in New York next month, and a San Diego playwright will be part of it. Karl Gajdusek emerged on the local scene when he was an MFA student at UC San Diego (His “Mr. F’s in the Terminal Ward,” was produced at UCSD in 1991, and at the Fritz Theatre in 1994). Now his meditative drama, “Fubar,” will be one of five plays showcased at the Festival, to be staged at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan . The intent is to feature up-and-coming writers creating noteworthy work that probes the American experience. A trailer for “Fubar,” from the current Hollywood production by Theatre of Note (running through 5/30) can be found at: http://www.theatreofnote.com/fubar.htm
… Not-So-Plain Jane: Satirizing satire, L.A. ’s Impro Theatre comes to North County to out-Jane Jane. Their improvisational riffs in “Jane Austen Unscripted” include passionate young women, brooding young men, and a whole heap of long-hidden secrets, tragically broken hearts and surprising turnarounds. One night only. “Dashing, handsome young men not guaranteed.” Monday, May 18 at 7:30 p.m. at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach . www.northcoastrep.org .
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“The Little Dog Laughed” – lightweight but smart, hilarious play; wonderfully performed and directed
Diversionary Theatre, through 5/31; www.diversionary.org
“Old Wicked Songs” – richly satisfying 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 Glass Menagerie” – moving production of a great American classic
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through 5/24; www.lambsplayers.org
“The Hit” – fast-paced, funny mix of murder, mystery and romance
Lamb’s Players at the Horton Grand Theatre, through 5/31; 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.