Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
March 25, 2010
THE SHOW: “ An American Duet , ” a double bill at ion theatre’s new Hillcrest space
War, fear, immigrants and breakdowns in communication. These themes run through two haunting productions, playing in repertory at ion theatre’s intimate new home, The BLKBOX @ 6th & Penn in Hillcrest (formerly Compass Theatre). The renovation, completed, astonishingly, in four weeks, brings a new level of professionalism to the 49-seat venue. The comfy seats, which came from the original North Park Theatre, are now arrayed around two sides of the playing space, which improves the sightlines, proximity and theatergoing experience. There’s more lighting equipment, the sound booth has been relocated, and the actors, at last, have direct access to the restroom, long a major (and justifiable) complaint from local performers.
These two one-acts, each no more than 90 minutes, are perfectly paired, and seeing them in one day is especially satisfying (there are two more Saturdays during the run when this is possible).
“Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue,” is a poetic, episodic musing on the experience of war, seen through the eyes of three generations of a Puerto Rican-American family from Philadelphia . Part memory, part reverie, part post-traumatic flashback, the play has a tricky, challenging structure. A lot more is told than shown. But with an excellent, highly committed cast, first-time director Sylvia Enrique (who’s served as assistant director for a number of projects at various theater companies around town, including ion) makes the piece sing, appropriate to a play that’s constructed contrapuntally, around a single theme, like the musical form in its title.
“Elliot” was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, written by Quiara Alegría Hudes when she was 28 years old. The Yale graduate of Jewish-Puerto Rican descent is a Philadelphia native who went on to write the book of the exuberant, Tony Award-winner “In the Heights” (Best Musical, 2008). For her work on that energetic show about New York ’s Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights , Hudes was nominated for a Tony and another Pulitzer. She’s currently adapting the musical for film, and reportedly working on a play about her own unusual culturally-mixed heritage.
In “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue,” sons go to war out of patriotic duty, and to follow in the footsteps of their fathers. The fathers don’t necessarily support that choice, but culture, personality and their hellish, harrowing experience of war limit their ability to talk to their sons.
They were all Marines. Grandpop (touching, poignant Goyo Flores) served in Korea , at a time when they kept Puerto Ricans separate from the other men. Even when he nearly lost his hand to frostbite, he kept playing his flute, Bach sonatas that calmed his platoon (A live flautist, David Macdonald, plays from backstage). Pops (John Padilla, who offers wonderful, elegiac energy) was in Vietnam , charged with picking up the body parts of his slain comrades. His only good memory came in the military hospital, where a caring nurse, Ginny (sad-eyed Miriam White) took care of him and mounted him and later became his wife.
Now Lance Corporal Elliot Ortiz (exceptional, haunted Steven Lone) is back from Iraq , with a leg wound and a Purple Heart, just like his father. He has nightmarish memories of killing his first enemy soldier, a man as young as he, whose blood ran night-goggle green. But now Elliot is contemplating another tour in Iraq . No one in his family wants him to go, but nobody will say so outright. Granpop has a touch of Alzheimer’s. Pop, suppressing his own hellish memories, won’t talk. But Elliot does get to read Pop’s letters home to his dad, while he was in ‘ Nam , and that helps him see the commonalities.
Much is told in monologue, letter or reverie. But there are two marvelously moving interactive scenes: when Ginny/Mom and George/Pop get together for the first time in the hospital. And when Ginny gingerly cares for Elliot’s wound, and he feels the heartbreaking intensity of “hands you love touching your worst place.”
The set ( Matt Scott ) and costumes ( Shulamit Nelson ) are simple but functional; the lighting and sound ( Claudio Raygoza ) are evocative. Both Flores and Padilla actually served in the military, and they bring considerable credibility and verisimilitude to the proceedings. It’s an affecting piece of theater, stirringly presented.
The companion play is “Back of the Throat,” a post- 9/11 immigrant nightmare whose title refers to the way you have to make an effort to pronounce the name of the shy, well-spoken Arab-American victim, er , protagonist, at the center of the drama. His name is Khaled . And on this day, two unidentified government agents, who’ve just dropped into his apartment, are having a hard time with it. (“It’s that back of the throat thing,” one explains).
The conversation starts off innocuously enough, but then the dark-suited duo start finding incriminating items around Khaled’s place: a Koran, a book on terrorism (“I’m a writer; it’s for research”) and porn mags , which they consider to be a further sign of depravity. Gradually, ominously, without explanation (except a few flashbacks of the women who casually incriminated him: a librarian, a stripper and a bitter ex-girlfriend – all played, amusingly, by DeNae Steele), they build a case against him, and become increasingly violent.
“At no time should you think this is an ethnic thing,” asserts Bartlett (low-key, falsely affable Walter Ritter ), the more ‘gentlemanly’ of the two. “Your ethnicity has nothing to do with it, other than the fact that your background happens to be the place where most of this crap is coming from… It’s not profiling; it’s deduction.”
We see where things are headed, and of course we, like Khaled , are powerless to stop the inexorable downslide, the removal of his rights as a citizen, and as a human being. It’s enough to make you squirm, re-consider, see things from the other side.
“Facts aren’t the only game in town,” Barlett says, as his partner, Carl ( Tom Hall , menacing and casually cruel) reads from the interrogation manual: “No screaming more than ten seconds. Some bruising is allowed.” Things quickly devolve from very bad to far worse.
And then, with a stroke of offhand brilliance, the playwright tosses in another character, an actual terrorist ( Rhys Green , bespectacled, soft-spoken, effective), who raises doubts at the very last moment. And suddenly, we’re left with unnerving, tormenting uncertainty.
Yussef El Guindi , the Egypt-born, Seattle-based playwright, has created an anxious, at times funny cautionary tale for our age of fear and paranoia, xenophobia and intolerance. His play won the L.A. Weekly’s Excellence in Playwriting Award and was nominated by the American Theatre Critics Association for its 2006 Steinberg New Play Award.
Director Sara Beth Morgan captures the itchy anxiety of the past decade, letting things build, with time out for chuckles, to a climactic, if ambiguous end. The set dressing (props by Raygoza) is terrific, a bachelor/writer’s room cluttered with books and other detritus, all fodder for implication in the ‘right’ hands. Makes you wonder what we’ve wrought, where we are, who we are. And isn’t that just what theater should do?
THE LOCATION: ion theatre’s new BLKBX at 6h & Penn, in Hillcrest. (619) 600-5020 ; www.iontheatre.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $10-$24. Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m., through April 17. You can see both plays on the same day, at 4 and 8 p.m., on Saturday, April 3 and 17. It’s an outstanding double bill.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: “ Boeing-Boeing , ” a 1960 comedy, at the Old Globe
French farce and Jerry Lewis. A perfect pair, right? Well, the goofball comic did appear in the American film version of Marc Camoletti’s 1960 comedy, “Boeing-Boeing” (you know how the French have always loved the guy). But the stage play was a bust when it premiered in New York in 1965 (translation by Beverley Cross), lasting only 19 days, despite the fact that it ran for 19 years in Paris and seven years in London!
Then, in 2008, along came British director Matthew Warchus , who re-thought the whole thing. The result was a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play and rapturous reviews in London as well. Now, the set and costumes from that very production, although sadly, not the Tony-winning cast, have landed at the Old Globe. The director’s different, too. Mark Schneider was the associate director to Warchus . Something must’ve been lost in translation.
There is just nothing funny about this farce. The setup may be mildly amusing: An American in Paris has three flight attendant fiancées, deftly keeping them apart by carefully monitoring their flight schedules. But the production is so overblown, overdone, over-exaggerated and over-the-top that for this viewer, there wasn’t one laugh. Not one. Okay, full disclosure: I sniggered once in the second act. That’s it. Honestly. There wasn’t anything to like. Except maybe some of the physical comedy — pratfalls, deadpans and double-takes— of the show’s one straight-man, Joseph Urla , who plays the hayseed Robert, an old schoolmate of playboy Bernard. (Note to actor: True Wisconsinites pronounce the name of their state with a ‘G,’ rather than a ‘K’ sound).
As Bernard, Rob Beckenridge doesn’t seem hunky, handsome, suave or irresistible enough to attract all these gorgeous women. He’s a tad more interesting when he starts panicking in the second act, as the flight schedule changes with the transition to newer jets, and his apartment’s rooms start filling up with women, who don’t know about each other’s existence (and must also be hard of hearing, since the decibel level throughout is near to ear-splitting). The first act is interminable; so much exposition and not enough comedy.
And those women! Whew. Airheads, ditzbrains , harridans and shrews. A hateful array, really. And directed into the stratosphere – to shriek, whine, pose like centerfold models and act moronic, clueless and controlling. The men at least have to think on their feet, in order to manage all the mayhem. These hyper-stereotypical females don’t seem capable of thinking at all. What New York audiences saw in this show I cannot begin to fathom. It isn’t even a great escape.
The women, admittedly, are stunning: Stephanie Fieger as the fiery Italian, Gabriella; Caralyn Kozlowski as Gretchen, the shrill, Teutonic dominatrix; and Liv Rooth as Gloria, a totally non-New-York-like New Yorker, she of the wide-leg stance and deeply probing tongue (even that scene wasn’t as funny as it should’ve been). Nancy Robinette, who was aggressively amusing in “The Savannah Disputation” last year at the Globe, is little more than annoying as the put-upon maid, Berthe , whose French accent comes and goes with the frequency of the short-skirted femmes fatales.
The design is actually the most satisfying part of the whole affair: the spacious, curve-walled, multi- doored apartment, with its Crayola -bright accessories that perfectly match the candy-colored getups on the gals (set and costumes by Rob Howell). The lighting (Chris Rynne ) and sound (Paul Peterson) are comparably bright. Same cannot be said of the writing or production.
THE LOCATION: Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park . ( 619) 23-GLOBE (234-5623) ; www.theoldglobe.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $29-77; Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m., through April 18
THE SHOW: “ Romeo and Juliet , ” Shakespeare’s dynamic duo, revisited by Poor Player s
It’s Spring . Love is in the air. And ill-fated love is crowding local stages. The San Diego Opera production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” just closed, and the Poor Players production of the Shakespearean source just opened.
Founded in 2001, Poor Players, an adventurous young company dedicated to the works of Shakespeare, bills itself as “no holds Bard.” They’ve staked their reputation on sharply etched, well-spoken productions, rife with pop culture and counter-culture appearance and references. They last visited “R&J” not long ago, in 2005, a year that they mounted five Shakespeare plays. Since artistic director Richard Baird left for points north and south, the work has slowed to a trickle, one or fewer a year. Baird is back in town (for North Coast Repertory Theatre’s recent “Tempest” and upcoming “Ghosts”), but his involvement in this effort was limited to fight choreography. His presence is sorely missed.
What this production lacks is a unity of vision. It’s all over the place, from the low-rent costumes to the hodgepodge of weaponry, which ranges from baseball bats to AK-47s to martial arts katanas to street -gang chains. The tone of the performances is equally varied, as is the skill level. Casting an abrasive woman (Brittany Bailey, backed by two black-clad, wild-haired, leather-and-chains gang-gals) as the pugnacious Tybalt was a misstep.
What has always distinguished Poor Players productions was that, whatever anarchic antics were going on, the language remained crystalline. That’s not the case here, though there are exceptions: Rhona Gold as a less-than-earthy Nurse, Neil McDonald as Capulet (best in his anger), Max Macke as an avuncular Friar, director Nick Kennedy as hot-headed Mercutio and most of the time, the title characters. Justin Lang and Katie Dupont aptly convey the youth and impetuosity of the young lovers, and even some of the passion. But overall, there just isn’t enough heart, or depth of character, in this production.
THE LOCATION: Swedenborg Hall, 1531 Tyler Ave. , University Heights . ( 858) 643-9349 ; www.poorplayers.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $16-$24. Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., through April 4
NEWS AND VIEWS
… HBSS: Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim! During a gala, celebrational performance of “Sondheim on Sondheim,” a new musical at New York ’s Roundabout Theatre Company, the 80 year-old birthday boy was surprised by the announcement that Henry Miller’s Theatre on West 43rd Street will henceforth be known as the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. The brilliant composer/lyricist joins an elite theater-naming club that includes luminaries such as Eugene O’Neill, Neil Simon, George Gershwin, August Wilson and New York Times theater caricaturist Al Hirschfeld . Another birthday party, a concert at Avery Fisher Hall that included Sondheim devotees such as Patti Lupone , Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch and Michael Cerveris , will air on PBS in the fall.
… Picasso Unveils Picasso: Actor/writer/artist Herbert Siguenza , who’s currently appearing at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in his solo show, “A Weekend with Pablo Picasso,” will appear in costume to help unveil a historical mural of the great artist in Barrio Logan. It all goes back to 1973, when artist Mario Torero inherited a black and white photo of Picasso from acclaimed photographer Douglas David Duncan. Torero stylized the image and brought it to life in full color, painting it on the wall of the Community Arts Building in the Gaslamp District. The building was later demolished to make way for Horton Plaza . In 2005, Torero and his group of artivistas began painting a series of murals on Logan Avenue , including a re-creation of the “Eyes of Picasso.” The new re-creation will be unveiled by Siguenza on Saturday, March 27 at 1 p.m., following the César Chavez Parade. 2259 Logan Avenue , Barrio Logan .
… The Second Coming: Dubac is back… with the sequel to his witty solo show, “The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron?” Robert Dubac , who appeared for more than six months at the Theatre in Old Town in 2005, returns to the Poway Center for the Performing Arts, where he also performed the first piece, with his hilarious second installment, “The Male Intellect: The 2nd Coming,” which tells us about the male and female brain, and Dubac’s ever-elusive search for What Women Want. If that quest sounds familiar, you may be sure that Freud is in the mix, too, as well as Pavlov and Dubac’s wacky, tell-it-like-it-is Uncle Bobby. A multi-talented and engaging performer, Dubac rails against our cultural hypocrisies and tickles our brains as well as our funnybones . Saturday, March 27 at 8 p.m. at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts. The show contains mature themes and adult situations. (858) 668-4693 ; www.powaycenter.com
… Stages of the Future, Part 1: The Playwrights Project is offering a workshop designed to sharpen the playwriting process. The five sessions of “Play by Play: Cultivating Emerging Playwrights” will culminate in the opportunity for budding writers to have their play read before a panel of theater professionals. Classes meet at Playwrights Project’s homebase at NTC in Point Loma ( 2590 Truxtun Road, Ste 202 ), on Tuesdays from April 20-May 18. Application forms and eligibility requirements can be found at www.playwrightsproject.org/programs
… Stages of the Future, Part 2: The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has announced Jason Wells as winner of its 2010 M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for an emerging playwright. Wells’ play, “Perfect Mendacity,” was commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club, developed as part of Steppenwolf Theatre’s First Look Workshop Series, and premiered last May at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota , Florida . The play explores duplicity and self-deception in the corporate world. Last year’s Osborn Award went to Yussef El Guindi (writer of “Back of the Throat,” see review above) for his play “Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat.” A perusal of the list of Osborn Award winners since 1994 reveals that San Diego has only seen four of the 16 plays (“The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” Old Globe; “Waiting to be Invited,” Common Ground Theatre ; “The Glory of Living,” InnerMission Productions; and “Thunder Knocking on the Door,” Old Globe). Come on, San Diego , let’s hear more acclaimed new voices!
… Women Storm the Globe: It’s not our Globe; it’s Shakespeare’s Globe, the Bankside theater in London which is a reconstruction of the venue for which Shakespeare wrote. The Bard, as we know, created some of the world’s greatest female characters, but until now, no female had ever written for the Globe Theatre. Now at last, nearly 400 years after Shakespeare’s death, the first woman will pen a play for the vast circular stage. This September, Nell Leyshon will present “Bedlam,” about the famed lunatic asylum (the Bethlehem Royal Hospital , still in existence, is now called a psychiatric facility). The play draws a parallel between the alcohol-reliant culture of the 18th century, when there was a “gin epidemic,” and today’s binge-drinking society. “Bedlam” appears in the same season with a bold interpretation of “Macbeth” by Lucy Bailey, whose graphic, violent dramatization of “Titus Andronicus” a few years ago engendered considerable critical acclaim – and scores of people fainting at every performance, a few carted off to the hospital each evening in shock. The Globe will also present a play that offers a radical re-appraisal of Anne Boleyn, the beheaded Queen of England. Playwright Howard Brenton will reveal her as a “sexually explosive woman” who was neither victim nor manipulator, but a key player in making the Reformation stick in England . Okay, that one’s written by a man… does it still count?
… Back at OUR Globe…The Old Globe is offering two new educational programs for young actors. And we do mean young. Theatre Tots is a series of 90-minute classes that introduce children ages 4, 5 and 6 to the art of acting through the exploration of children’s literature. Two Saturday mornings a month, in April, May and June. The Middle School Summer Intensive is a two-week program for students in grades 6-8, ten 5-hour sessions culminating in a performance of scenes for friends and family. Weekdays, July 26-August 6. Further details are at (619) 238-0043 ext 2145 or GlobeLearning@TheOldGlobe.org
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v “An American Duet” – two provocative plays in repertory, both excellently done
ion theatre, through 4/17
v “The Pirates of Penzance ” – overblown and over-the-top, with over-the-moon singing
The Welk Resorts Theatre, through 5/2
v “An Inspector Calls” – razor-sharp production of a mystery/thriller classic
Lamb’s Players Theatre, EXTENDED through 3/28
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, in the SDNN Search box.