Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
TEASER: Reviews of “Whisper House,” “Hip Hop Kim Bop,” “My Year of Living Anxiously,” Jean Isaacs Cabaret Dances PLUS lots of local theater news
By Pat Launer , SDNN
February 4, 2010
The Past is Prologue
THE SHOW: “The Piano Lesson ,” a drama by August Wilson , at Cygnet Theatre
The piano of the title is practically a character in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play. For Berniece , it’s a shrine, a monument to her family’s painful past; its carvings present a specter of slavery and a memory of lost loved ones (who were traded in exchange for the instrument). To her brother, Boy Willie, it’s a new beginning; if he can sell the piano, he can buy a piece of the land his ancestors worked as slaves. The piano, like its owners, is haunted — by a ghost that makes unnerving, unsettling appearances.
Ultimately, it’s the piano itself that has lessons to teach, about history and legacy, precedent and potential, the delicate balance between reverence for the past and embracing the promise of the future.
“The Piano Lesson” was a 1989 addition to August Wilson’s series of ten plays chronicling, decade by decade, the African American experience in the 20th century. This one is set in 1936, against a backdrop of transition: Southern blacks moving north, but still facing a racial divide; and those remaining in the South, waiting for dramatic change. These harsh realities are played out in the extended Charles family, who sashay in and out of Uncle Doaker’s house in Pittsburgh (the setting for most of Wilson’s plays, and the city in which he himself grew up), where Berniece lives with her young daughter, Maretha (Madeline Hornbuckle, convincing). Berniece used to play the beloved piano daily, but since her mother died, she can’t even touch it.
Boy Willie, a fast-talking hustler, still a sharecropper in the South, bursts in on their carefully constructed life, demanding his half of the family heirloom. He’s already got a little money put aside, and he’s got a truck-full of watermelons to sell. Now all he needs to fulfill his dreams is the one thing his sister refuses to give.
Each character weighs in on the family debate: good-natured, hard-working Uncle Doaker (Antonio TJ Johnson, solid and compelling); and his brother Wining Boy, a hard-drinking piano-man (energetic and amusing Grandison Phelps III). The level-headed preacher, Avery ( Keith Jefferson , excellent, especially in his impassioned preaching), wants to set up a church of his own, and take Berniece as his wife. But she’s still grieving over the death of her husband, for which she blames her brother; she also suspects he had something to do with the death of the white man who keeps making ghostly appearances. Grace (Tanya Johnson-Herron, pleasant, but usually played more sexy/slutty) is a woman Boy Willie picks up in a bar and brings home, to his straitlaced sister’s considerable dismay.
And then there’s Lymon (handsome, charming Laurence Brown), Boy Willie’s genial buddy, who can’t wait to get his hands on all these freewheeling Northern women. He’s suckered into buying a suit from Wining Boy, and goes out on the town. But it’s Boy Willie who scores the lady he was eyeing. When Lymon returns to the house, he participates in the play’s most tender, sensual moment, a lovely near-love scene with Berniece , beautifully and sensitively directed, like the rest of the piece, by the gifted Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.
The philosophizing and singing of the men – the soulful reminiscences and the gut-wrenching, hard-driving chain-gang chant – add another musical dimension to Wilson ’s lyrical language.
But ultimately, the play rests on the fraught relationship between this disparate brother and sister. Mark Christopher Lawrence is a force of nature as Boy Willie, an impulsive whirlwind of crazy ideas and crazed energy. It’s a huge and outsized role, and Lawrence fills it with brashness, bravado, flimflam, humor and heart. Monique Gaffney is his ideal foil as Berniece : upright, uptight, determined, unyielding . She’s a strong woman who knows what she wants – and doesn’t want. And when she softens under Lymon’s tenderness, it’s heart-wrenching. After all the quarrels and conflict – even some physicality, perpetrated by Berniece , who’s tried so hard to move away from the violence of the family’s past – it’s a very emotional moment when these two finally come together at the end.
Turner Sonnenberg has amassed a stellar ensemble, and teased from them stunningly authentic performances. Her husband, Jerry Sonnenberg, has given her a lovely home to work with, rimmed in a proscenium of brick, a tasteful, attractive, 2-level retreat sporting wood floors, throw rugs, sconces and comfortably worn furniture (property design by Bonnie L. Durben ). The lighting (Eric Lotze ) and sound (George Yé ) contribute mightily, especially to the eerie, otherworldly moments that are such a signature of Wilson plays.
This piece is chatty; it weighs in at nearly three hours. And yet, it moves with the pace and musicality of a jazz riff. At the end, you’re reluctant to bid farewell to these folks. You want to know what happens to them next. That’s the mark of a captivating play, and confirmation of a dazzling production.
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. , Old Town . ( 619) 337-1525 ; www.cygnettheatre.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $17-46. Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., through February 28.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
Noo Yawk , Noo Yawk
THE SHOW: “Lost in Yonkers ” – a Pulitzer Prize-winner by Neil Simon, at the Old Globe
Neil Simon isn’t known for gravitas. Even his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama has numerous laugh-lines. But there’s plenty of pain in this dysfunctional New York Jewish family, where autocratic, Germanic Grandma Kurnitz terrorizes everyone: her childlike and barely breathing daughters, her inept and mobster sons. Those are the four remaining; Kurnitz lost two other children, and also buried her husband, after enduring a terrible childhood in Germany which left her wounded inside and out. Her defense is 20-feet of emotional armor. She is proud to be tough (“You don’t survive in this world without being like steel”), and she wields her cruel power as forcefully as she brandishes her cane, threatening one and all, making them cower, driving them to grow up into damaged adults. They’re funny at times, but no less broken.
“Anger has been in me for a long time,” Grandma Kurnitz admits, and she’s not about to lose it over the two young boys she’s forced to take in when their father, the hapless Eddie, has to go off to earn some money, being deeply in hock to a loan-shark. He borrowed the money to pay for his dying wife’s medical care. It’s wartime, 1942, and Eddie has gotten a job traveling the South, selling scrap iron for shipbuilding. He’ll be gone for ten months, and he had nowhere to leave his sons — Jay , age 15, and Arty, 13 — except with the grandmother they fear and loathe (kissing her, they say, is “like putting your lips on a wrinkled ice cube”).
So the kids settle in, earning their keep by tending the candy store downstairs (though Grandma keeps trying to trip them up on the job), and being diverted by their loving but nervously infantile Aunt Bella. She’s 35 years old, but as Jay puts it, pointing to his head, she’s “closed for repairs.” Pretty soon, their henchman/bagman Uncle Louie comes in, hiding out from some guys in a big black car. And then there’s Aunt Gert , who “says the first half of a sentence breathing out and the second half sucking in.” A motley crew, still under their mother’s thumb, still desperate for just one kind word or glimmer of approval. Fat chance.
Over the course of the boys’ stay, things change a little. The kids get a glimpse at what makes Grandma so mad and nasty, Grandma is forced to lighten up a bit. But it’s Bella who takes the greatest emotional journey.
On opening night, the cast hadn’t quite mastered the rat-a-tat rhythms of New York Jewish jokesters. Under the direction of Scott Schwartz (“Golda’s Balcony,” ”Bat Boy” and
“Jane Eyre” — in La Jolla and on Broadway), Bella (Jennifer Regan) started out so hyper and fluttery, she seemed like she’d spiral herself right up into the flyspace of the new Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. But Regan gained more centered balance as she went on, still deftly conveying the flighty childlike wonder (and angst) without being catapulted over the top. And her final confrontation with her mother is thrilling.
Spencer Rowe is likable as the nice-guy father, Eddie. Jeffrey M. Ben der (excellent in last year’s “Opus” at the Globe), is terrific as Uncle Louie. He’s got the patter down, the bravado, the comic tease. Amanda Naughton does a fine comic turn as breathless Aunt Gert . The boys (especially local actor Austyn Myers) still need work on their New York accents and comic timing, though Steven Kaplan is very nearly there in the cynical/comical role of Jay. As in many other Simon works, these two are the stand-ins for the wisecracking young playwright and his older brother, Danny. They have to be the crackerjack comic centerpiece of the play, to offset their stern Grandma. They weren’t there yet on opening night.
Judy Kaye, best known for her musical theater work (she originated the roles of Carlotta in “Phantom of the Opera,” for which she won a Tony; Emma Goldman in “Ragtime,” and Rosie in “Mamma Mia!”), has the perfect mien for mean old Grandma. She’s ramrod straight and thoroughly unbending. The ferocity of the character is unequivocally there. But she doesn’t quite make the character sympathetic, which is also necessary. And her final gesture, that buttons the play, feels unlikely and inauthentic, not organic to the character. Hopefully, over the course of the run, these wrinkles will be ironed out.
Ralph Funicello ’s set highlights the state-of-the-art capabilities of the new theater, with a fusty living room up above, and stairs down to the trap space (i.e., the candy store) that work wonderfully. The sound (Paul Peterson) and lighting (Matthew McCarthy) also make the most of the space, and the costumes ( Alejo Vietti ) are excellent exemplars of the period and pitch-perfect for the characters. Bella even graduates from saddle shoes to heels.
There are many delights to be had in this production; with a few tweaks, it could be spot-on.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park . ( 619) 234-5623 ; www.theoldglobe.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $29-62. Tuesday-Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., through February 28.
“ Mandragola ” – So there I was, standing out near the loading dock of the Mandell Weiss Theatre, where the latest UC San Diego production began. Being there brought back memories of one of the most unforgettable productions ever at the La Jolla Playhouse: “Children of Paradise” brought here in 1993 by the fantastically imaginative theater company (alas, no longer extant), Théâtre de la Jeune Lune. And who would be standing next to me but the director of that extraordinary piece, Dominique Serrand , who’s in town to meet with acclaimed Romanian director Gabor Tompa , who’s part of UCSD’s directing faculty. Dominique and I reminisced about his remarkable production and troupe (they also presented their jaw-dropping production of “The Miser” at the Playhouse, in 2005). As in “Children of Paradise,” the actors mingled among us, heavily made up, creating havoc, making a little trouble. But the similarity ended there. We followed the players into the Ted and Adele Shank Theatre (formerly the Weiss Forum Studio) and the highjinks began for real, though the wild tone was set outside.
“ Mandragola ” is Italian for Mandrake (a hallucinogenic plant that’s part of the nightshade family). The satire was written in 1518 by Italian Renaissance writer Niccolò Machiavelli (who’s better known for his controversial political treatise, “The Prince”). The play, a sendup of the corruption of Italian society, was written while Machiavelli was in exile , allegedly having plotted against the Medici .
The themes of mankind’s endless capacity for greed, self-interest, deceit and venality spoke to director Isis Saratial Misdary , who reconceived the piece in terms of corporate control gone haywire (translation by Mera Flaumenhaft ). The marriage broker Ligurio is transformed into the sleazy head of Ren Corp (formerly the Renaissance Corporation), “the world’s largest religious, healing services company.” Callimaco , the Florentine who solicits his help, has been turned into a foppish hedonist (almost all the men are played fey and bisexual, for no apparent reason). Callimaco insists on having, at any cost, the most beautiful woman in Florence , though she’s married and her virtue is beyond reproach. In a series of mad schemes, Ligurio solicits the help of Lucrezia’s ridiculous, incredulous husband, her priest and her unsavory mother. Everyone is dishonest, falsehearted and on the take; even the righteous Lucrezia falls in the end.
With all its satirical cynicism, the play is consistent with the other writings of Machiavelli, who posited that whatever it takes to get what you want, the end justifies the means. In “The Prince,” the quest for power overrides the rule of law. Here, fraud prevails over religion or morals. That’s something we can recognize these days. But the high concept and overexaggeration subvert the deft satire and reduce it to silliness.
The undergraduate performers are uneven in skill level, though Spenser Howard as Ligurio is quite tasty and has just the right falsely cheerful, sardonic tone. As Siro , Callimaco’s manservant, Lee Montgomery is also notable. The set (by Ian Wallace, a recent Patté Award winner) is clever, a series of boxes that are rotated repeatedly by overworked stagehands. The whole effort, while prodigious, makes one long for something far closer to the original. The production continues, in UCSD’s Shank Theatre, through 2/6
“13” – Having watched mega-talented composer Jason Robert Brown work with the CYC cast (California Youth Conservatory) a few weeks ago, I was determined to see the final outcome of his smart, comical musical about a young Manhattan boy of the titular age, approaching his Bar Mitzvah (“the Jewish Superbowl ”). Just months before the Big Day, his parents divorce and he’s forced to move with his mother from West 92nd Street to Appleton , Indiana . He’ll do anything to get the cool kids to come to his party – even undermine his true friends: a smart, nerdy girl who really likes him and a clever if conniving kid on crutches, who refers to their triumvirate of losers as “the crip , the geek and the Jew.” With help from a chorus of rabbis, and his own emerging maturity, Evan learns about genuine friendship and what’s really important, and how to ‘become a man,’ which is what a 13 year old is supposed to be doing at his Bar Mitzvah.
The piece is witty, and under the direction of Shaun T. Evans, the cast of about 50 (with alternating leads) was energetic and enthusiastic. I saw the Gold cast, though Reed Lievers played Evan for both ensembles. The fine five-piece band kept things lively and the kids seemed to be having a blast (especially since it was their final performance). They all acquitted themselves well. Lievers is an appealing performer, but he needs to slow down and articulate more precisely. Rebecca Lauren Myers and Ethan Eichman were sheer delight as “the geek and the crip ,” warm, funny, vocally strong. They really created believable characters. Same for Michael Mahady as Brett, the school hottie , who just wants to do “The Tongue” with his ditsy counterpart, Kendra. Nicolette Burton was a hoot as nasty non-friend Lucy, who pretends to be Kendra’s BFF, but really wants Brett for herself (she’s the bitchy Sharpay of this Junior High School Musical).
This was another coup for CYC, snagging the first local production of the show, which ran on Broadway in 2008. The company’s next ‘first’ will be a straight play, “A Few Good Men.” This is another San Diego premiere, and the very first youth theater production of Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed courtroom drama (Broadway 1989, film 1992). Watch for details here.
“Sondheim Unscripted” – As a musical theater lover, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see great improv of great musical theater. The pros of L.A.-based Impro Theatre are spectacularly quick-witted and imaginative, not to mention vocally talented. Their accompanist, Peter Smith, was, astoundingly, also improvising, following (or sometimes leading) the cast into song. An entire evening’s show (personally, I would’ve preferred something new after the intermission) was based on asking the audience for a show title; what came up was “The Time-Traveling Murderers.” It was hilarious to watch the five improvisers switch gears and years (when they asked for an audience suggestion for the next year to time-travel to, the response was “7” – not a whole lot of opportunity for dialogue there! Tough crowd.). They focused on slower Sondheim, not the neck- snappingly speedy songs. But they skillfully managed to be both clever and musical (in a non-lyrical, Sondheimian way), and also to present duets, trios, quartets, even a quintet. It was fantastic to watch them play off each other. They are amazingly gifted and very very funny. They’re due back next month with a return engagement of “Jane Austen Unscripted,” which features a newly created play in the style of the great novelist. Do NOT miss it! Treat yourself and your smartest friends to the most brainy, witty, dexterous, side-splitting comedy you’re likely to see all year. Impro Theatre at North Coast Repertory Theatre on Monday, March 1 at 7:30 p.m. 858-481-1055; www.northcoastrep.org
NOTE : Also coming to North Coast Rep on off-nights: “Nevermore… An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, starring Jeffrey Combs. Feb 23-24 at 7:30 p.m. www.northcoast rep.org
NEWS AND VIEWS
… V-Day is coming (both of them). You’re probably making plans for Valentine’s Day… but what about that ‘other’ V-Day, the one that, every year, aims to stop the violence against women with worldwide performances of “The Vagina Monologues.” Once again, InnerMission Productions and Triad Productions are collaborating for a series of V-Month activities. All proceeds go to The Center for Community Solutions (a local organization dedicated to ending relationship and sexual violence) and to v-day.org. There’s the V-Day Yard Sale, One Love Yoga Flow, Until the Violence Stops Poker Run, a screening of the powerful V-Day documentary, “Until the Violence Stops,” starring Eve Ensler , creator of all the V-awareness; performances of “The Vagina Monologues” (3/3 ,5 , and 6 at Diversionary Theatre) and the male counterpart, “The MENding Monologues” (3/4, 6 and 7 at Diversionary) a searing and insightful experience. There will also be V-Men Workshops, along with Congo Teach-Ins. Get all the V-dope at www.innermissionproductions.org
… Teaming up: Cygnet Theatre has joined the San Diego Black Theatre Collective (which includes Common Ground Theatre, the Ira Aldridge Repertory Players, the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre and the Vagabond Theatre Project) to host the staged-reading series “On the Horizon,” celebrating Black History Month by featuring new plays by African American writers. The readings, which take place through the month of February, include “ Trane, A Noble Journey ,” a story of John Coltrane, created by local musician Anthony Smith , directed by Hassan El- Amin ; “ Ain’t You Heard ,” by Charmen Jackson, based on the writings of Langston Hughes , directed by Calvin Manson; and “ The Strangest Fruit ,” by recent Patté Award winner Ronald McCants, directed by Antonio TJ Johnson. Performances will run on Monday nights at the Lyceum Underground Theatre in Horton Plaza , with encore presentations on Tuesdays at Cygnet’s Old Town Theatre . All proceeds go to the San Diego Black Theatre Collective. Information: 619-263-7911 . Cygnet reservations: 619-337-1525.
… Not-so-good News for the Arts: The venerable Pasadena Playhouse, founded in 1917, will close February 7, as company leaders explore alternative solutions, including filing for bankruptcy, to escalating financial problems. The Playhouse faces more than $500,000 in immediate bills, on top of over $1.5 million in bank loans and other debts. In 1937, the institution was named the State Theater of California. At this time, tapping into the $6 million donated for a capital campaign to refurbish the 684-seat mainstage is not an option. In 2007, celebrated architect Frank Gehry offered to donate his services to design a new 300 to 400-seat theater to augment the mainstage, which is a California historical landmark. The Playhouse artistic director is Sheldon Epps, who, in 1997, was hired away from the Old Globe, where he had been associate artistic director. Last week, the theater’s 37 employees were terminated.
… More Not -so-good News for the Arts: The National End owment for the Arts doesn’t fare too well in the President’s proposed FY2011 budget. He’s proposing a $6.3 million decrease from what Congress appropriated in FY2010 (from $167.5 million to $161.3 million). In addition, it’s possible that the consolidation of the Arts in Education (AIE) program within the Department of Education’s new ‘Effective Teaching and Learning for Well-Rounded Education’ project could lead to a diminished focus on arts education. Arts advocates can make their voices heard by writing their members of Congress, urging them to support funding for arts and culture through the NEA and voicing concern about the loss of focus for arts in education programs . More info is at Americans for the Art at www.artsusa.org
… Chekhov Lives (well, onstage, anyway): Russian President Dmitry Medvedev touched down in Taganrog in Southern Russia , the hometown of Anton Chekhov. He was there with a bouquet of roses, to pay tribute to the country’s most acclaimed playwright on the 150th anniversary of the writer’s birth. German director Peter Stein, in Moscow for the anniversary, said there are “three basic column of European theater. Shakespeare reinvented the Greeks for modern times and Chekhov for the 20th century.”
… Post Patté Proposition : Don’t miss the TV broadcast of The 13th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence: Friday, 2/12 at 8 p.m., repeating Saturday, 2/13 at 7 p.m. on Channel 4 San Diego. And while you’re waiting, check out the fabulous photos at http://www.thepattefoundation.org/Award_Photos.htm .
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v “The Piano Lesson” –flawless production of August Wilson ’s provocative, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama
Cygnet Theatre, through 2/28
v “Whisper House” – a quirky ghost story, with music; world premiere, excellently executed
The Old Globe, through 2/21
v “Expecting Isabel” – comedy on a serious theme (infertility); lightweight but well done
Moxie Theatre, through 2/7
v “Glorious” – crazy story, based in fact, wonderfully performed
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 2/7
v “boom” – wacky, sci-fi comedy, excellently acted and directed
San Diego Repertory Theatre, EXTENDED through 2/6
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, into the SDNN Search box.