Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, May 21, 2009
READ REVIEWS OF: “The Price,” “The Phoenician Women”
Mini Reviews of : “On the Divide,” “Jane Austen Unscripted,” “ Jean Isaacs 35th Anniversary Retrospective Concert”
THE SHOW: “The Price,” Arthur Miller’s 1968 classic, at the Old Globe
It was set to be an all-Prosky affair. As part of its “Classics Up Close” series, the Old Globe had invited the Prosky family to reprise the roles they’d already assayed in New Jersey , Pennsylvania and Washington , D.C. Before the Globe production this spring, they were set to perform the piece in Vienna in January. The paterfamilias, Robert Prosky, a Broadway veteran and well regarded character actor onstage and on the arge and small screen, was to play the wily, wisecracking furniture dealer, Solomon. John Prosky was to be one brother (Walter) and Andy Prosky the other (Victor). Then, last December, following cardiac surgery, Robert, age 77, died unexpectedly. And just before rehearsals were to begin at the Globe, John pulled out of the production. It would have been wonderful for San Diegans to see the acclaimed performances of the trio and their genuine family dynamic. But alas, it wasn’t to be.
Director Rick Seer brought in James Sutorius, who’d been outstanding in the Globe productions of “Lincolnesque” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Dominic Chianese, best known as Uncle Junior on “The Sopranos,” came on board as Solomon, the comic relief. On opening night, he wasn’t quite set with his lines, but he worked it into his bumbling, octogenarian character, so it came out just fine. And he was very funny, Eastern European/Jewish accent and all.
But the core of this play is sibling rivalry. Years ago, when their well-to-do father was completely wiped out by the stock market crash and the Great Depression, Victor put his plans on hold; he was fast-tracked to be a scientist, but he dropped out of college and stayed home to care for his near-catatonic dad (Mom had already died). No such fate for Walter. He held tenaciously to his intense desire for money and power, becoming a successful surgeon and businessman. He barely looked back, sending his father and brother, who were literally scrounging for food, a measly five dollars a month. The sibs haven’t seen each other in 16 years, but now, at long last, it’s time to sell off the family goods. Walter hadn’t answered his brother’s many phonecalls, so Victor went ahead and called in a dealer to assess the value of the possessions. The family’s aging Manhattan brownstone is slated for demolition, but it’s still chock-full of furniture, objets and the playthings of balmier days (fencing gear, an oversized oar, Mom’s priceless harp).
At the Globe, the drama gets off to a sluggish start, as Victor meanders around, handling various items, a technicolor movie of memories supposedly playing through his mind. He puts old records on the victrola, one designed to elicit contagious laughter. His wife comes in. They chat. But we don’t get a clear picture of their relationship. She’s disappointed. She used to be a poet. Now she drinks too much. She wanted more. She’s embarrassed of her husband’s choices, weakness and his policeman’s uniform. But Leisa Mather’s Esther looks too good to be so downtrodden, not to mention borderline alcoholic, and there’s no sense of a would-be poet. Her disappointment isn’t palpable. Neither a shrew nor a whiner, she’s something of a cipher, though that’s not how she’s written. When Prosky interacts with her, there’s a flatness that reveals little about his thoughts or past. Chianese’s entrance as the sometimes-wise Solomon, wheezing his way into the apartment, livens things up considerably. He’s comical. He has poignant life-lessons to impart. He also has wheeling and dealing to do, and he’s got his eye on that harp. In the final moments of the act, Walter strides in. And then things really get going.
Sutorius is terrific as Walter, with just the right combination of M.D. arrogance (make that M.Deity) and hat-in-hand honesty. We’re never quite certain how much we should trust his memories, revelations, remorse or attempts to make peace with his brother. But Miller said many times that he wanted audience sympathies to shift. And they do. What comes to light are family secrets, lies and delusions. Even in the face of painful facts, both brothers insist that their choices were the right ones. Though Victor takes the moral high ground, Seer makes us realize that Victor has to assume some of the responsibility for how his life turned out. At 50, he’s ready to retire from the force, but now, like his brother, he feels lost. Victor’s wife thinks it’s not too late for him to pick up his education where he left off. After the big blowup, we’re not at all sure what the next chapter for either of these Franz brothers will be. And that’s part of the intensity and ache of the play.
The production is quite attractive, with a marvelously cluttered set (Robin Roberts), illuminated with a golden glow, occasionally punctuated by sharp shafts of light (Chris Rynne). The sound (Paul Peterson) and costumes (Charlotte Devaux Shields) aptly evoke the era (late 1960s). But the issues never go out of style; every generation has to come to terms with family, death, the worth of material goods, the depth of spiritual emptiness and the price of choices made and paths taken. The mirror Miller repeatedly turned on us might not have reflected an attractive image, but it’s a painfully authentic one.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe’s temporary space in the James S. Copley Auditorium at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park . (619) 23-GLOBE; www.theoldglobe.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $29-59. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m. , Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., through June 14.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
Oedipus and Sons
THE SHOW: “The Phoenician Women,” the Euripides tragedy, at The Theatre, Inc.
Brothers in conflict. Parents in distress. A war-ravaged city. Women ravaged by the warriors. An uncompromising sense of rightness on both sides. War is timeless; nothing has changed since Euripides wrote “The Phoenician Women” ca. 409 B.C. To put an even finer point on it, Douglas Lay, founder/director of The Theatre, Inc., re-set the drama in the Middle East . Moldering fortress walls, barbed wire, the sounds of bombs and missiles shrieking through the sky. A woman randomly raped. Fratricide, sacrifice and self-destruction.
As at the beginning of most Greek tragedies, we have to be brought up to date on the backstory. Lay wisely makes this, too, immediate and relevant by showing Jocasta, wife/mother of Oedipus, telling the family story on a TV monitor, as the war swirls around her. The play’s background is drawn from Sophocles’ “Oedipus Tyrannus” and Aeschylus’ “Seven Against Thebes” (brilliantly turned into a hip hop musical, “The Seven,” which was presented last year at the La Jolla Playhouse).
At the outset, Jocasta explains that, after her husband , Oedipus, blinded himself upon discovering that he was actually her son, his offspring, Eteocles and Polynices , locked him away, hoping that the Thebans might forget the horrors that had befallen the family. Their father damned them, predicting that the future kings would wind up killing each other. To avert the curse, they agree to split the rule, and Polynices allows Eteocles to reign for the first year. Now his term has expired, but Eteocles, drunk on power, refuses to abdicate. Polynices has returned from exile in Argos , and is advancing with an army to attack his land and his brother, to regain control. Jocasta tries to mediate, but Fate has its way, and both boys lie dead at the end. Well, it’s not quite the end. Jocasta takes her life, the new king, Creon, refuses to allow Polynices to be buried in his homeland, and he banishes Oedipus from his own kingdom. Another grisly chapter in the family history of the doomed House of Atreus. The title refers to the women on their way to Delphi who got caught in the crossfire. They serve as chorus and commentators. But the main action is the family, and how they cope with confrontation, frustration and destiny.
The set (Vince Sneddon) is wonderful, with the magically crumbling mud walls and the burned-out, abandoned car. The sound (Eusevio Cordova) and lighting (Mitchell Simkovsky) perfectly convey the cacophony of war-time, though the noise also serves to drown out some of the less than well-projected voices. The costumes (Lawrence Taryn), all dusty earth-tones and chadors, are excellent. The stop-frame action freezes are like photojournalism shots, and would be as shocking as the Abu Ghraib picture, if the poses were more compelling. The cast is variable in effectiveness, and all could benefit from more precise diction and projection, except for the booming voices of Brian Abraham (Creon) and Fred Harlow (Tutor, Tiresias, Oedipus). Harlow makes a magnificent appearance as Oedipus at the end, the blinded, ill-fated former king, crumpled over his wife and sons, heart-wrenching in his grief and anguish. Definitely the emotional high-point of this production, which is earnest and provocative, thanks to the concept, design and Marianne McDonald’s crisp new translation.
THE LOCATION: The Theatre, Inc. 899 C St , downtown. (619) 216-3016; www.thetheatreinc.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $22-25. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. , through May 31.
… Prairie Dawgs: It all started with an invitation to give a reading at the Willa Cather home in Red Cloud, Nebraska . Cather was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and when Eva Marie Saint and her husband of 57 years, Jeffrey Hayden, did that first reading, they were smitten. They loved the evocative imagery, the strong, resolute women (Cather, who lived from 1873-1947, was an early feminist), and the indomitable spirit of the early settlers at the turn of the last century. That Cather intro took place a couple of decades ago, and ever since, the couple has been making periodic appearances to present “ On the Divide, ” a lovely, touching, sometimes amorous reading of two Cather tales that they crafted into a delightful evening of storytelling. Standing at music stands, flanked by greenery, they seemed to truly relish sharing the stark, atmospheric images of the early prairie landscape in “Erik Hermannson’s Soul” and “O Pioneers!,” and the tentative relationships that blossom like tiny, determined flowers pushing through the snow in early spring,
Erik Hermannson is a hard-working, taciturn young man, a churchgoer who felt compelled to give up dancing and fiddle-playing to lead a more sober and religious life. But when he meets a striking and fiery visitor from the East coast, Erik’s old passions are re-awakened. In the excerpts from “O Pioneers!,” we meet Al exandra, who inherited the management of the family farm when her brothers showed no interest. She turned the place around, and was successful enough to be able to send her youngest brother to college. When he returns, his attraction to his childhood sweetheart, Marie, is re-ignited. As they guiltily indulge their mutual desire, they’re spotted by Marie’s husband, with tragic results.
Each of the stories comprised an act. They were nicely paired, judiciously edited and smoothly performed. At 84, Saint remains an elegant beauty, and Hayden is her debonair knight, guiding her on and off the stage, flirting with her — in character, of course! – throughout the evening. Drama and romance, on and off the stage. The couple was quite gracious at a champagne reception following the performance. They’ve been to the Poway Center for the Performing Arts before, and they love the space, hoping to make a return visit soon, to perform another of their favorite joint theatrical efforts, A.R. Gurney’s epistolary play, “Love Letters.” Poway , take note.
… Jane-Mania: True improvisation is incredibly difficult. And often not as funny as it should be. Satirizing a satirist is especially tricky. But these concerns are obliterated by the mega-talented Impro Theatre. Accent on the ‘pro.’ This group is terrific. Last month, members of the L.A.-based comedy/improv troupe came to North Coast Repertory Theatre to present “Tennessee Williams UnScripted.” This week, they returned to target another literary icon, in “Jane Austen UnScripted,” a hilarious riff on the beloved English novelist’s weepy, love-besotted women and brooding or stuffily romantic me. Eight actors, in period dress (more or less) took us back to Regency England, and vowed that everything we were seeing was completely made up on the spot. There are no set characters, they averred, and they’d only seen the set (a mid-20th century Old World arrangement for “Old Wicked Songs”) several hours before, so they were just figuring out how to navigate it, which turned out to include, in delightful ways, both the settee and the grand piano. Before they launched into Austen, they requested an audience suggestion for “a trivial topic of conversation.” What came up was “fox hunting.” (where is that San Diegan having conversations?). So foxes popped up in the dialogue repeatedly, in the most amusing ways. Besides being attuned to the English accents, they were splendidly in tune with each other, riffing on a casual remark and spinning it into comic gold. Even the awkward silences or overstepped lines were made comical. There was a simply choreographed quadrille (obviously pre-planned, as were some other plot-points), and of course, everyone wound up with a mate. The sold-out crowd ate it all up – and why not? It was a delectably smart, tasty treat. I’m anxious to see the group again, when they return to NCRT on July 20 with “Shakespeare UnScripted.” But if you can’t wait till then, Impro Theatre is performing “Tennessee Williams UnScripted” right now, in Santa Monica (Friday-Sunday nights at Theatre Asylum, through 5/31). www.improtheatrecom
… Bodies Beutiful: Three decades, three companies, and 115 dance concert pieces. Choreographer Jean Isaacs has a lot to look back on, and this past week, she presented an exhilarating evening of agility, ingenuity and emotion, in “ Jean Isaacs 35th Anniversary Retrospective Concert,” at the Don Powell Theatre at SDSU. There were graceful expressions of sorrow (“Phantom Limbs,” “Motherless Child”) and joy (“Stomp for the Millennium”), dances that were whimsical (“Two Comic Love Duets”) and passionate (“Red Dress”). The oldest work was from 1986: “Tabula Rasa,” the moving close of the evening, first performed by six women, now a 3+3 mixed-gender work about being imprinted and affected by experience. The pieces weren’t presented chronologically, but in emotional alternation, which worked wonderfully. The smooth, lyrical moves, stunning physicality, gorgeous stage pictures (superb lighting was provided by the MFA design students at SDSU), beautiful body interactions, precise execution and effective/expressive sentiments made for a magnificent evening of dance. At the end, the 17 stellar performers (some former Isaacs students or dancers had come from as far away as San Francisco and New York ) were joined onstage by all the other Isaacs protégés who were in the audience, some 40 in all. With her big, generous heart, her warmth and her love of movement, Isaacs then did something surprising and spectacular: she asked them all to dance – to “do anything you remember from any dance, even if it’s been 30 years. Kick off your shoes if you need to.” And they did. And the stage exploded in wild, joyful, carefree physical abandon, uniting a disparate group across the decades, in timeless, universal expression. She could’ve asked the whole audience to join in; we were all that swept away.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… This is Your Life: The La Jolla Playhouse is launching a unique and creative new campaign, an internet-based effort called “Your Life, Our Stage,” presented in partnership with Brickfish, a social media marketing company. Here’s the deal. Participants, local or not, are invited to submit ideas for a play based on their own life story, uploading a title, brief description and original artwork, photos or videos that outline/highlight their bio-narrative. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) has been commissioned to write a short play based on the winning entry. The Grand Prize will be selected by the Playhouse from the top 200 highest-scoring entries. The winner and 10 friends will attend the direct-from-Broadway production of “ Al fred Hitch cock’s The 39 Steps,” followed by an exclusive performance of the newly created play, presented by professional actors on the Mandell Weiss Theatre stage. There’s also a prize for the Most Viral entry: a pair of opening night tickets to one LJP production, admission to the post-performance cast-party and a $100 gift certificate for dinner at Jai by Wolfgang Puck. So get crackin’. Complete contest rules are at http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org/your-story
… Writing their OWN Stories: More than 350 local students in the Escondido Union School District contributed to the “My Story: Literacy Through the Arts” program. Teaching artists from the California Center for the Arts, Escondido (CCA), have been presenting the program for the past three years, providing 12 class sessions that encouraged students to use props and photos to accompany stories they wrote about a special event or experience in their lives. The classes also included a field trip to the Center museum, all of which helped these young elementary school kids to express themselves through words and visual arts. This year’s outreach featured a new pilot program for 4th grade students, teaching about early California history through drama. The exhibition of student work has been on display at CCA, and now moves to the school District office at 2310 Al dergrove Avenue in Escondido , where it will remain through June. The public is welcome, from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
.. Supporting Local Artists: New Vision Theatre is pleased to offer their homebase, the Sunshine Brooks Theatre in Oceanside for a continuing series featuring local singer/songwriters and small musical groups. The theater boasts “marvelous acoustics” and provides an excellent showcase for up-and-comers. Different performers each month, 7 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday, which is May 27 this month. Tickets are just $5. 217 North Coast Hwy , Oceanside . (714) 401-0324; www.nvtheatre.com
… Art mirrors life: In several of his plays, Tom Dudzick included a mentally challenged character, based on personal experience with his brother, Michael, who was born with Down syndrome. North Coast Repertory Theatre presented “Greetings” in 1992, and the show was just about stolen by that cheerful but barely verbal character, as played by John Christopher Guth, who passed away unexpectedly in 2006. Now, North Coast Rep is producing Dudzick’s “Over the Tavern” (6/17-7/12), once again set in the Polish community of Buffalo where Tom and his brother Michael grew up. Michael died last week at age 60, but his memory lives on in his brother’s plays.
.. The Human Zoo: San Diego playwright David Wiener won Best Play in the 15th Annual New York City 15-Minute Play Festival for “Feeding Time at the Human House.” The play also won Best Actress for Al ix Elias and Honorable Mentions for Director Susan Einhorn and Actor Richard Marshall. Wiener won the Best Play award in the 2006 Festival for “An Honest Arrangement,” which was published by Smith & Kraus. Both of these one-acts premiered in San Diego . “Feeding Time at the Human House” was featured in Compass Theatre’s Challenge III Festival last year, and will be produced as part of the New Perspective Festival, a showcase for local theatermakers, which runs June 19-28 at Swedenborg Hall. http://www.perspectivefest.com/
… Jack’s back: Beloved local Old Globe artistic director emeritus Jack O’Brien has been talked about in connection with a new musical, “Houdini,” possibly starring Hugh Jackman. But the scheduled opening in 2010 would conflict with O’Brien’s current mega-project: the Andrew Lloyd Webber “ Phantom of the Opera” sequel, “Love Never Dies,” pushed back from a fall premiere, now scheduled to open in London next March and on Broadway in the same season. Even that magic-maker, Jack, can’t mount three huge productions at once. More news as the situation develops…
… Meanwhile, back at the Globe, the cast for the world premiere of the movie-based, Broadway-bound world premiere musical, “The First Wives Club,” has fueled anticipation. Adriane Lenox, who won a Tony in 2005 for her brief but memorable performance in the drama, “Doubt,” will play Elyse, and Karen Ziemba, a 2000 Tony-winner for “Contact,” will play Annie. Ziemba made a splash at the Globe this season, in “Six Degrees of Separation.” The score for the new musical is a reunion collaboration of long-time hit-makers Lamont Dozer, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland, the killer songwriting team behind tunes such as “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “You Can’t Hurry Love .” Tickets go on sale June 7; the show runs July 15-August 23.
… Crowning Glory: Lamb’s Players Theatre will host the first annual Crown Awards, honoring key volunteers of Coronado ’s leading non-profit organizations. Carol LeBeau, news anchor at KGTV who recently surprised the community by announcing her retirement, will emcee the inaugural event. As every non-profit knows, volunteers are the spine of the organization, and this is one night to stand tall for those invaluable supporters. Some of the dozen participants in the awards are: the Coronado School of the Arts Foundation, Friends of the Coronado Library, Coronado Historical Association and Lamb’s Players Theatre. The event takes place on June 14, from 6-9 p.m., at the Lamb’s resident theater on 1142 Orange Avenue . Tickets are at (619) 437-0600 or www.lambsplayers.org/CrownAwards/
… Sprouting Daisies: The newly formed San Diego Playwrights’ Collective will present a staged reading of a new play by co-founder Carmen Beaubeaux. She describes “The Perfect Daisy” as “a romantic comedy about the end of the world.” Directed by Lamb’s Players’ Kerry Meads, the large-cast reading will feature D.W. Jacobs, Jeffrey Jones , Linda Libby , Martin Katz, Don Loper , Morgan Trant, Ed Hofmeister and others. Monday, June 8 at 7pm at the Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza. Pay What You Wish.
… Cross-Breeding: The UC San Diego Theatre and Dance Department stands behind its commitment to cross-genre collaboration and cross-fertilization of ideas, practice and performance. The Department has inaugurated a new MFA program in Dance Theatre. The first two students in the program are Al icia Peterson Baskel and Rebecca Salzer, who has a strong arts pedigree: her parents are Deborah Salzer, founding executive director of the Playwrights Project, and Beeb Salzer , scenic designer and Professor Emeritus of Theatre Design at SDSU. The first look at original work choreographed by these multi-talented women will be on view during the New Directions: Choreographer’s Showcase, including a two actor/two dancer performance of Harold Pinter’s “Night.” June 4-6, in the Potiker Theatre on the UCSD campus. Tickets at http://theatre.ucsd.edu/season/springworks
… In Dramatic Hands: President Obama recently nominated theatrical producer Rocco Landesman, 61, to be the new head of the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s largest and most important arts organization. The colorful character who brought hits like “Angels in America,” “Big River” and “The Producers” to Broadway, is also a race-horse owner and lover of country music, so he just about covers all demographic bases. The smart, savvy Landesman, known for his energy, intellect and candor, is expected to be as aggressive in this post as he is as a producer, and will undoubtedly fight for additional funding. The current allocation stands at $145 million; Pres. Obama has requested $161 million for 2010, but this is still far short of the Endowment’s 1992 peak of $176 million. Landesman is president of Jujamcyn Theatres, which own five Broadway houses, but he also holds a doctorate in dramatic literature from the Yale School of Drama. The nomination, which was heralded in the arts community as the perfect way to re-energize the organization, must still be confirmed by Congress.
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“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 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, 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.