Published in Décor & Style Magazine
Old friends and enemies take to the stage this month. Peter and Wendy return, along with all our Dr. Seuss friends. And two literary masters exchange barbs after death.
Peter and Wendy is a magical, musical retelling of J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel about the characters in his 1904 hit play, Peter Pan. One critic described the award-winning production, by the acclaimed New York-based collaborative theater company, Mabou Mines, as a “classic story… turned outside-in.”
Adapted by Liza Lorwin, with original music by Johnny Cunningham, the show makes its San Diego premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, directed (as was the 1996 original) by Lee Breuer, the McArthur (“genius”) Award-winning former co-chair of the Yale School of Drama and Mabou Mines’ founding director.
One actor serves as the narrator/storyteller who captures all the voices in the Darling nursery and Neverland. At the same time, a bevy of puppeteers and musicians bring the characters to life. This retelling focuses on the dark side of the story — the odd, sad love affair between the boy who won’t grow up and the girl who is lured from the safety of her home into another world.
The visually stunning show, which won Obie Awards for Best Production and Best Performance in 1997, challenges us to translate events as they unfold. The bunraku-style puppets, each manned at times by as many as three puppeteers, perform dazzling feats. Shadow puppets serve poignantly in secondary roles. It’s been said that the piece “blends the elements of theater into a work of artistry that has the power to hold an audience of small children while their adult companions weep over matters that the younger viewers will not understand for years to come.” Ultimately, the play is about a parent’s truest challenge — encouraging children to fly, with the faith that they will know the nursery window is always be open to them. (through 11/10, at La Jolla Playhouse; 858-550-1010).
When it comes to a favorite, fanciful character from kiddie lit, The Cat in the Hat is right up there with Peter Pan. And Cathy Rigby has had the great good fortune to play both. The two-time Olympic gymnast made her theatrical debut in 1981. A decade later, she received a Tony Award nomination as Best Actress in a Musical for her star turn in the 35th anniversary production of Peter Pan. Now, after having played the role of The Cat in the Hat in the Broadway production of Seussical, the Musical, she is starring in the national tour, which makes a brief stop at San Diego’s Civic Theatre.
In a recent interview, Rigby said the Peter Pan was “near and dear to [her] heart.” It paralleled her own story, “growing up as a gymnast with no childhood.” Peter Pan, she said, “is all about denial,” but the Cat in the Hat “is all-knowing, a much simpler character, a risk-taker, too. He’s about enjoying life and having a good time. He’s a little bit like Jiminy Cricket, where he guides people to keep their values and keep things in perspective. ”
In Seussical, the Cat serves as the emcee, introducing other characters such as Horton the Elephant, the Grinch and the Whos from Whoville, Gertrude McFuzz, Mayzie LaBird and a gaggle of other beloved Dr. Seuss originals. Chaos has erupted in the Jungle of Nool, and it takes The Cat, Horton and others to bring harmony back into this magical world. Though some critics were less enthusiastic, Jeffrey Lyons of NBC called the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty show “the best family musical to hit Broadway in a long, long time.” (10/29-11/3 at the Civic Theatre, courtesy of Broadway/San Diego; 619-570-1100 or 619-220-TIXS. Seussical visits the Orange County Performing Arts Centre 12/25-1/4; 7114-556-2122).
Some say women can be catty, but no two high-profile females bared their teeth and claws in public (though almost never face-to-face), with as much venom as writers Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. In fact, in 1980, McMarthy went on “The Dick Cavett Show” and said of Hellman, “Every word she writes is a lie, “including and and the.”
That sparked a famous libel suit, with Hellman demanding 2.25 million dollars. Unfortunately, she didn’t live to see the case come to court (she died in 1984; McCarthy died in 1989). But screenwriter Nora Ephron, in writing her first play, Imaginary Friends, is bringing both literary luminaries back to life.
“I’d always been fascinated by this fight between them,” said Ephron, renowned writer of blockbuster hits like “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” “I just kept playing around with [the idea] in my head to see, would it make a television miniseries, or what. And someone said to me, ‘Well, could this be a play?’ And I thought, ‘How could this be a play? They were almost never together. But then I thought — but now they are! Now they’re both dead. The two of them are now together, and I could have quite a lot of fun with that in a play.'”
And so she has. Imaginary Friends makes its world premiere at the Globe Theatres, directed by Jack O’Brien, flush from his wonderfully received, hilarious production of the new musical, Hairspray. He’ll be back in New York after Imaginary closes here; it’s scheduled for a December 12 opening on Broadway.
Ephron and O’Brien have surrounded themselves with a stellar company: music by Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line, Sweet Smell of Success “The Way We Were,” “The Sting”), lyrics by Craig Canrelia (Sweet Smell of Success, Working), and starring Tony Award-winners Swoosie Kurtz (as Lillian Hellman) and Cherry Jones (Mary McCarthy), with Harry Groener playing various husbands, lovers and others. An ensemble of 11 will handle most of the songs. The creators are intent on calling this “a play with music.” “This is not a musical,” Ephron insists. “It is a play. And the truth is, if you remove the music, the play is a play without it. It’s not like a musical, where a huge amount of the dramatic action takes place while people are singing.”
There certainly is a lot of dramatic action, because these two women led wild and exciting lives. At its core, though, the play is about truth and writing.
“One of the things that’s interesting to me,” said Ephron, “is that Mary really believed that there was a difference between fact and fiction. She basically made a religion out of the truth. And I don’t think she really understood that even when you tell the truth, you’re telling a story. And I think Lillian never realized that she’d gone way further than you could in telling a story and pretending that it was true. So it’s really very delicious, when you have two people who are absolutely sure they’re right, for different reasons. But is either of them right? That’s part of what the play is about.”
(through 11/3, at the Globe Theatres; 619-239-2255).
Up in Costa Mesa, South Coast Repertory Theatre is combining the familiar and the brand spanking new, opening its 39th season with an extended theater complex, the Folino Theatre Centre (a $50 million expansion/renovation project). To inaugurate the new Centre, SCR is mounting a beloved standard and a world premiere.
On the Mainstage, recently re-dubbed the Segerstrom Theatre, will be George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. In spite of its impressive record with new creations, South Coast Rep has staged more award-winning productions of Shaw plays than works by any other playwright. Now, founding artistic director Martin Benson turns his attention to the intellectually charged atmosphere of Major Barbara.
At the center of this 1905 moral/social comedy is Andrew Undershaft, a self-possessed, millionaire armaments manufacturer whose wife booted him out of the house years ago. When he comes back to see how his children turned out, they’re appalled by his “munitions over morals” philosophy. His eldest daughter Barbara, a pious Salvation Army major, engages her father in a high-stakes battle of wits, with marriage, family and wealth hanging in the balance.
The new, 336-seat Julianne Argyros Stage will be introduced to the world with a brand new work by Richard Greenberg, an SCR associate artist who has premiered five commissioned plays for the theater. Like his brilliant, Pulitzer Prize finalist, Three Days of Rain, The Violet Hour explores the capricious nature of time. Here, returning home from World War I, a new breed of men is convinced that the future belongs to them. Among the most visionary is Princeton graduate and fledgling book publisher John Pace Seavering. He begins his workday in a small, cluttered office, distracted by his assistant and two potential clients — his lover and his best friend — as he searches for the evening’s theater tickets. Before he steps into a Broadway-bound cab that night, he stands on the threshold of precarious personal and professional decisions, and the beginning — or end — of a lifetime of love.
(Major Barbara runs 10/11-11/17; The Violet Hour plays 11/5-24, at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa; 714-708-5555).
Pat Launer is resident theater critic at KPBS radio and TV. Her theater reviews can be heard Fridays at 8:30am on 89.5FM, or viewed online at kpbs.org, gaylesbiantimes.com and patteproductions.com.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.