Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
July 1, 2010
THE PLAY: “King Lear ,” Shakespeare’s masterwork, at the Old Globe
The eyes have it in “King Lear.” The dazzling play of parallels features innumerable references to sight and vision. One myopic father, Gloucester (the formidable Charles Janasz ), has his eyes plucked out. The titular King (robust Robert Foxworth ), a more figuratively blind paterfamilias, loses his most beloved daughter, choosing instead to fall for the barren flattery of her more malevolent sisters. Gloucester is duped by his wicked, malicious bastard son, Edmund ( Jonno Roberts, nasty in his nefarious plotting, with less oily charm than might be desired). Edmund also goes after his brother, Edgar (Jay Whittaker, wonderful in his various personae), who’s robbed of everything, and becomes one of the play’s madmen. Lear goes mad in a wild storm and Gloucester isn’t far behind.
The filial ingratitude is matched only by the patriarchal pig-headedness. It all stems from Lear’s desire to go into semi-retirement, dividing up his kingdom among his three daughters. He saves the largest portion for his youngest and best loved, Cordelia (USD/Old Globe MFA student Catherine Gowl ). But when she refuses to produce lavish protestations of love like her two-faced sisters, he casts her off with unreasoned fury. When he finally realizes the error of his ways, his arrogance and bitterness turn to humility and forgiveness. But alas, it’s too late – for Cordelia or his faithful Fool (Bruce Turk, solid), who’s accidentally stabbed in a playful accident, rather than being hanged as in the text.
Adrian Noble, former artistic director of England ’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, has taken some surprising liberties with time, place and action: the costumes (Deidre Clancy) are of indeterminate period; middle daughter Regan (Aubrey Severino ), here a brutal alcoholic, vomits onstage; Cordelia’s hair is ruthlessly pulled by Regan and her equally vicious sister, Goneril (Emily Swallow). The raging gale in which Lear rails at his fate is a loud, swirling snowstorm (though the Fool sings famously of the rain that “ raineth every day”). And in a moment of what can only be termed gratuitous gore (it gave rise to a gasp of revulsion on opening night), when Gloucester has his eye gouged, the slimy orb drips through the attacker’s fingers.
Moments of beauty offset the violence, like the splendid opening scene, with fallen leaves heaped around the stage (Lear in the autumn of his years?). But the set ( Ralph Funicello ) is a sometimes dangerous affair; the long, jutting, dock-like wood platform is so high that actors must either leap onto it or be carried off it. The lighting (Alan Burrett ) and sound (Christopher R. Walker) are excellent, but also faltered at times at the opening, a rare occurrence at the Globe. The original music (Shaun Davey) is aptly majestic, but at emotional high-points, it has its schmaltzy, movie moments.
And so it goes in this production: some wonderful elements, some questionable. The language is well spoken but in the seminal mad scene, the storm is so loud, even bellowing his wrath and despair, Foxworth has a hard time being heard above the din. His performance, like the character’s character, grows in stature and grandeur over the course of the play. His late scenes are stunning and heartbreaking.
This is a good “Lear,” not a great one. But it’s always worth the opportunity to spend time with the sadly broken families in this gut-wrenchingly brilliant play.
THE LOCATION: The Old Globe’s Festival Stage in Balboa Park . (619) 234-5623 ; www.theoldglobe.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $29-$78. “King Lear” runs in repertory (on selected evenings, Tuesday-Sunday), alternating with “The Taming of the Shrew” and “The Madness of George III,” through September 23
Bottom Line: GOOD BET
THE PLAY: “Surf Report ,” a world premiere, at the La Jolla Playhouse
La Jolla Surf Report: deeply shallow, few swells.
The new play by Annie Weisman, erstwhile San Diegan who got her start as a statewide winner of the Playwrights Project’s Plays by Young Writers contest, takes place in our town. Unlike her perky, quirky first effort, “Be Aggressive,” also set locally and also premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse (2001), this one’s all foam, no curl.
The characters are the main problem; besides being utterly unlikable, one and all, they are stereotypical and trite: a beach-y/bitchy Valley Girl type; a wildly wealthy venture capitalist who surfs daily and is a complete solipsist (the rest are just narcissists); a workaholic woman slavishly devoted to said investor, who repeatedly chooses to lavish her time and attention on him over her confused, artist manqué daughter and hapless, cancer-riddled husband.
There are some decidedly ugly interactions between Judith (Linda Gehringer ) and her middle-aged boss, Bruce (Gregory Harrison, who moves and talks like a surfer – because he actually is one); and a barely believable scene between Judith and her ailing, neglected, though not totally guiltless husband (Matthew Arkin ); and a couple of deliciously nasty interactions between daughter Bethany (UCSD MFA student Zoë Chau ) and her former high school non-friend, Jena ( Liv Rooth , recently seen at the Globe in another lightweight comedy, “Boeing Boeing ”). But the real focus here is between mother and daughter, each of whom feels compelled to make contact ( Bethany has escaped her vapid past for the urban sophistication of New York ) but prays that the other won’t answer the obligatory phonecall. They’re totally different, Bethany insists. Except they’re not. And that’s the play-ending revelation.
There’s a melodramatic Act One ender, and another climax comes when Judith tries to pitch an investment idea to Bruce — an experimental cure for cancer, instead of the beauty- and youth-enhancing products he’s always supported – she’s slapped down for “stepping over the line.”
Most of what’s being said here is either flat, clichéd or, in the case of the blonde bimbette Jena , annoyingly repetitive (especially the locution which follows most of her lines: “sulking much?” “Hello! Doomed much?”). At first, Rooth is a hoot, with her aggressive ignorance and insouciant attitude toward life and death. But pretty soon, we’re wishing they’d all wash out with the tide.
In pre-production interviews, the L.A.-based Weisman (currently a writer for TV’s “Desperate Housewives”) has said she was fascinated and inspired by the unlikely juxtaposition of surf culture and biotech wizardry in San Diego – a mixed bag of brainless brawn and science braintrust that often overlaps. But though Harrison ’s character is supposed to embody that dichotomy, there’s nothing particularly insightful said about the overlap. Weisman’s a talented writer, but it seems like time for her to leave her old home behind.
That’s not to say she wasn’t given a gorgeous playground to mess around in. Rachel Hauck’s suggestive set gives us a backdrop of huge waves and equally expansive digs: Bruce’s modern, well-equipped oceanfront mansion. The lighting ( Ben Stanton), costumes (David Zinn ) and seaside sounds (John Gromada ) are evocative. The performances, under the direction of Lisa Peterson (who also helmed “Be Aggressive”), are solid and convincing. But the play can’t seem to convince us to care.
THE LOCATION: La Jolla Playhouse (Mandell Weiss Forum), on the campus of UCSD, ( 858) 550-1010; www.lajollaplayhouse.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $31-$66. Tuesday-Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., through July 11
THE PLAY: “Engaged ,” an early farcical comedy by W.S. Gilbert (before he joined Sir Arthur Sullivan), presented by Talent to aMuse Theatre Company
Before there was Gilbert and Sullivan, churning out a series of classic, clever operettas (“The Mikado,” “H.M.S. Pinafore,” “The Pirates of Penzance,” and more), wordsmith Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was prolific in his own right, creating numerous plays, stories and poems. His most successful, though rarely-seen, play is “Engaged” (1877), which foreshadowed some of his satirical work with Sullivan. This piece takes as dim a view of marriage as you’re likely to see (except in Oscar Wilde plays, for which Gilbert’s were an inspiration).
Men are fickle and feckless; women are beguiling and devious. The highest bidder gets the spouse. In this sometimes witty, sometimes silly, convoluted morass of characters, countries and plotlines, gender, age and class distinctions are sharply drawn, and you need a scorecard to keep up with who’s about to wed whom. It’s all harebrained fun, and Talent to aMuse , under the direction of Welton Jones, has a field-day with it.
Gilbert insisted, in his preface to the play: “It is absolutely essential… that [the piece] be played with the most perfect earnestness and gravity throughout. There should be no exaggeration in costume, makeup or demeanour .” Well, I wouldn’t exactly say this production honored his professed wishes. No one felt any qualms about going wayyyy over the top, occasionally to amusing effect. At times it was all just too too much. The standouts in the cast were Sam Zetumer as Cheviot Hill, the bachelor on whom every man seems to be dependent and to whom every woman seems to be attracted. His poses and declamations were a hoot. As two of his many lovely paramours, Bernadette Ralphs had a deliciously haughty mien, counterbalanced by Sarah Hunter’s “poor little Scottish lass,” who looks adorably naïve, but is slyly seductive. George Weinberg-Harter, in addition to playing a paternal role, designed the delightfully whimsical sets, which were complemented by the attractive costumes (Pamela Stompoly ). The effort was strained at times, but lighthearted and droll overall. (Production closed).
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS FOR THE WEEK
v “King Lear” – a good, if not great, production; Shakespeare’s magnificent tragedy is always worth seeing
The Old Globe Theatre, in repertory through 9/23
v “Eurydice” – modern twist on an ancient myth; magical, deep and beautifully crafted play and production
Moxie Theatre, EXTENDED through 7/18
v “Private Lives” – bitter, acidic and deliciously irresistible
Cygnet Theatre, through 7/3
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Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic. She can be reached at patlauner.sdnn ( at) gmail.com