Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
February 11, 2011
In drama, genetics is destiny. In comic operetta, not so much.
The three aimless, foul-mouthed brothers in “Wonder Wounded Heroes” are treading the same dissolute path of their alcoholic father and drug-addled mother. But in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Gondoliers,” mindless mixups at birth have three lower-class Venetians scrambling to know which one is really king of a Caribbean island.
“The Gondoliers” was among the last collaborations by the brilliant 19th century duo. And while it may not be the silliest of Gilbert & Sullivan’s plotlines, it’s right up there. Lyric Opera San Diego promoted their production in sexy fashion, featuring photos of three hunky guys, one of them shirtless. False advertising, if you ask me. There isn’t a single steamy moment in this romp, which is oddly set post World War II, and filled with anachronistic references to IPOs, Facebook, email and American Idol. The costumes are also a hodgepodge, the outfits ranging from spats to harlequin pajamas to a red tango dress.
On the plus side, the voices of the leads are strong and compelling, and the 25-member orchestra is robust, under the baton of co-director Leon Natker . But the comedy is pallid, and the chorus can sound weak or shrill, obliterating the clever lyrics. Though Gilbert and Sullivan inserted social commentary into their creations, they didn’t delve deep. It’s just frothy fun — if you’re willing to suspend all demands for sense or logic.
But ion theatre’s world premiere requires full attention and analytical skills. “Wonder Wounded Heroes,” by first-time playwright Gordon MacDonald Wachsman , has less to do with ‘wonder’ or ‘heroes’ than the walking wounded. With its copious quotes from Shakespeare and American poet Hart Crane, the play intermingles lyrical language with obscenity, inebriation and violence. Think Sam Shepard on acid, duking it out with vengeful Hamlet, self-destructive Oedipus and suicidal Crane.
The filial dysfunction began years ago, when the debauched patriarch, a drunken Vietnam vet, forced his sons to recite “Hamlet” by rote, before they reached age nine. We even see gritty, grainy, black-and-white home movies attesting to the fact. Interesting, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, and the final family revelations are less than enlightening.
But the intense, 90-minute production is superb. Ruff Yeager anchors the piece as the menacing but decaying blind, diabetic artist, with terrific support from an ultra-violent Matt Scott and hopelessly misguided Tom Hall . The set, designed by Claudio Raygoza and Matt Scott , is a putrefying trailer, skin-crawling in its meticulous detail. Same precision in Glenn Paris ’ muscular direction and Raygoza’s evocative soundscape.
Ion goes out on a limb again, with a killer actor-showcase, downright dangerous in its verbal aggression and physical brutality.
So whether your idea of entertainment is engaging — or disengaging — your brain, there’s a San Diego theater seat waiting for you.
The Lyric Opera production of “The Gondoliers” runs through February 13 at the Birch North Park Theatre.
“Wonder Wounded Heroes” continues at the ion theatre’s BLCK BOX in Hillcrest, through February 19.
©2011 PAT LAUNER