Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 2003
When La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff sets out to plan a season, he contacts theater artists and asks what projects arouse their passion.
“Passion is crucial in tough times,” McAnuff says. “It’s easy to be timid. But it’s important to keep a sense of danger in the work. If you’re talking to artists with sensitivity and vision, they’ll capture the times, often in ways you don’t expect.”
The 2003 Playhouse season features three world premieres, an American premiere, two new adaptations and a spanking new work-in-progress. Meanwhile, ground is being broken on a state-of-the-art facility that will offer the potential for year-round creative exploration.
The new season is bookended by classics (Chekhov and Shakespeare). The opener is “Uncle Vanya” (6/1-29), a new adaptation by Tony Award-winning playwright Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theatre (which is co-producing). This “completes the cycle,” says McAnuff, the fourth of the great Chekhov tetralogy produced at the Playhouse (preceded by gorgeous productions of “The Cherry Orchard,” “The Three Sisters” and “The Seagull”). The deeply human story of hardship, heartbreak and hope stars Amanda Plummer, who was a wonderful Juliet for McAnuff in 1983. “Chekhov’s plays are always relevant,” says McAnuff. “In this one, written on a landscape of turbulence (1905-6), you can feel the pulse of change. Indirectly, it confronts economic instability and world order change. Thoroughly relevant. And Chekhov creates the most complex and paradoxical characters in all of literature.”
Also a bit Chekhovian, according to McAnuff, is the world premiere he’ll direct — Tom Donaghy’s “Eden Lane.” “At first, it appears to be a domestic comic-drama,” McAnuff explains, “but then a more surprising and important theme emerges — how the 21st century family, with all its contradictions and complications, works. The play has a great sense of irony and real heart — a combination I find irresistible. It’s a brilliant character study, essentially about people trying to escape — and in this day and age, there is no escape. The bittersweet comedy is set outside New York just after 9/11. Like a Chekhov play, you never see the plotline coming”
Continuing the Playhouse’s longtime encouragement of New Vaudevillians, the Aquila Theatre Company brings us the West coast premiere of “The Comedy of Errors” (10/26-11/23). With its “staggering physical comedy,” McAnuff sees it as “Shakespeare meets the Three Stooges.” The New York/London-based company describes it as “a visit to a 1920’s Turkish cartoon dream… sexy, energetic, accessible and fun.”
Two acclaimed directors who’ve often worked at the Playhouse revisit with pet projects. Lisa Peterson, who last helmed Annie Weisman’s smash-hit “Be Aggressive” (a Patté Award winner for Best New Play of 2001), returns with “The Country,” by English playwright Martin Crimp, which premiered in 2000 in Britain and has been produced in Germany, France and Italy. The play, says McAnuff, has “a Hitchcockian side to it, as well as a Pintaresque quality.” Love, sexuality, drug addiction and financial problems contribute to the fatal complications in this web of relationships. The Times of London called it a “brilliantly tense production.”
Tina Landau, who splendidly directed “Marisol” and “Cloud Tectonics” at the Playhouse, is back to direct “Beauty” (9/16-10/19), her own contemporary spin on the Sleeping Beauty story. The piece started locally, workshopped with UCSD students last year. In a medieval timescape, a young girl comes of age just as the world around her slips into the modern era. Confronting the concept of beauty in our times, the play is considered appropriate for adults and young audiences (age 9+).
The Page-to-Stage (work-in-progress) production is “The Burning Deck” (7/8-27), New Yorker Sarah Schulman’s loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s novel, ‘Cousin Bette,’ which ironically, was McAnuff’s first feature film (1998). “I was really struck by her feminist take on the novel,” he says of Balzac’s tale of French social history and universal human passions — especially desire and vengeance. “It’s intriguing to set this  story in the New York bohemia of the 1950s, a time when attitudes about women and sex were starting to change dramatically.”
When it comes to young women versus society, nothing this season may top “Fraulein Else” (6/10-7/13). When actor Francesca Faridany read Austrian Arthur Schnitzler’s 1924 novella, she was smitten — and inspired to write her first play. “What leapt out at me was this character,” Faridany said of the 19 year-old at the center of the story. “She’s sassy, witty and very intelligent, deep and intense, but also completely frivolous” And she’s trapped in a society overcome by decadence and patriarchal conventionality.
In a 90-minute stream of consciousness, Faridany takes the audience on a breathless, traumatic journey that leaves them gasping at the end. When this co-production opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in February, Faridany’s performance was hailed as “brilliant,” and Stephen Wadsworth’s direction made the production “breathtaking.”
This is the ninth joint project for the couple, who married last year. To Wadsworth, Faridany’s adaptation “preserves the literary quality and the cutting-edge feel of Schnitzler.” In her research over the past four years, including development at the celebrated Sundance Play Lab, the English/Iranian Faridany found that novelist/playwright Schnitzler had actually considered trying this piece onstage. He never did, but Faridany has the distinct feeling “that he’d be excited by it.” Critics and audiences seem to agree.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.