Jay O. Sanders and Yvonne Woods in "Uncle Vanya." Photo by Jim Cox
Misery loves company on the grounds of the Serebryakov country estate where ashen spinster Sonya Alexandrovna (Yvonne Woods) and her deeply disillusioned (with existence and with himself) Uncle Vanya (Jay O. Sanders) head a dour, mostly joyless household that operates on duty, humdrum decorum and little else. Visits by the local doctor, Astrov (Jesse Pennington) only add to the sense of ennui – and increase the consumption of vodka. It’s when Sonya’s father, Alexander Serebryakov (Jon DeVries) arrives with his comely young wife Elena (Celeste Arias) that the tenor of the environs shifts dramatically.
That’s Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s quietly simmering (until the end of Act III of IV) dissection of life’s longings, impossible dreams and harsh realities, all of that manifested in the fate of the unfortunates who occupy the estate together for four months. The Globe staging in its Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre is a world premiere translation of Uncle Vanya by Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Nelson, the director. It’s also a production that plays both to the intimacy of the performance space and to the confidences and mostly muted confrontations between Chekhov’s characters. In a technique called microphone matrixing, the actors, rather than being mic’d individually, perform beneath low-hanging microphones. Audience members are given special headphones that will amplify the sounds from the stage, though they really aren’t necessary, the White Theatre acoustics being what they are.
Sanders’ title-role portrayal is a stalwart one and his Act 3 detonation startling and potent. The quiet strength of Sonya, too, is deftly conveyed by Woods, who among all those in this little realm that’s dark as a Russian night elicits compassion just as she gives it. Pennington, speaking in one soft register throughout, manages to make Astrov both likable and unlikable.
Uncle Vanya is ponderous, and its principals’ self-pity and blaming tiring over four tense but slowly unfolding acts. It will, however, reward the patience of those who stick with it, because its yearnings and its heartbreaks mirror life itself. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/21/18.)
Faith Prince in "The Cake" at La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by Jim Carmody
As “issue plays” go, Bekah Brunstetter’s The Cake is, well, sweet. Its bipolar dialectic (northeastern liberal vs. southern conservative) comes with layers of relevant tenderness and dollops of hearty laughs, both of which might defuse a lesser message show, but Brunstetter’s script is stridently uncompromising. That’s good news for the La Jolla Playhouse production directed by Casey Stangl which closes the theater’s 2017-’18 season.
The purveyor of cakes is a North Carolina baker with a blonde wig, a Bible Belt belief system and a lot of unexpressed regret in her heart. Faith Prince is outstanding as Della, whose conscience and long-embraced values are rocked to the core when her late best friend’s daughter Jen (Aubrey Dollar) asks her to make a wedding cake for her and her fiancée Macy (Miriam A. Hyman) – another woman. Though overly sentimental at times, The Cake doesn’t cop out in deference to a neat and tidy resolution, and it skirts the edges of but never lapses into regional or political stereotyping. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/14/18.)
Helen Cespedes (left) and Kate Abbruzzese in "The Importance of Being Earnest." Photo by Jim Cox
As dependable as the sun coming up over the English countryside, Oscar Wilde’s venerable comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest entertains mightily, staging after staging. So it goes at the Old Globe Theatre, whose production directed by Mara Aitken is both eye candy and ear candy. Inhabiting its sumptuous sets designed by Hugh Landwehr and romantically lit by Philip S. Rosenberg, a smart and sprightly cast milks every drop from Wilde’s shamelessly witty script. Both the male leads, Matt Schwader (as Worthing) and Christian Conn (as Algernon), and all three female principals (Kate Abbruzzese as Gwendolen, Helen Cespedes as Cecily and Helen Carey as Lady Bracknell) look tremendous, first of all, in Fabio Toblini’s costumes; yet it’s their verbal thrusting and parrying as they play the story’s delicious games that are most engaging about this lush production.
The Importance of Being Earnest is featherweight, escapist comedy for those wild about Wilde and wild about words. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/14/18.)
Left to right: Lydia Lea Real, Morgan Carberry, Taylor Linekin and Alexandra Slade in "Bliss (or Emily Post is Dead!)" at Moxie Theatre. Karli Cardel Photography
The mere fact that Emily Post, were she alive, would be shocked as hell by Jami Brandli’s Bliss (or Emily Post is Dead!) is reason enough to revel in this dark comedy that pretends (unfortunately, with much staginess) to be a Greek tragedy. The truth is, this joint world premiere (with Moving Arts of Los Angeles and Prometheus Theatre of Chicago) produced by the ever-fearless Moxie Theatre company is likable and quite funny in spite of itself.
Playwright Brandli’s device of transplanting the personae of Greek heroines Clytemenstra, Medea, Antigone and Cassandra to North Orange, N.J. in 1960 is inventive and a laudable undertaking, and Brandli no question knows her mythology. But she evidently wasn’t content with this device alone. On top of the Greek heroines who inhabit four women (well, three women and one teenaged girl), each in her own way oppressed or subjugated by a man, Brandli’s script leans heavily on a “mother’s little helper” pill-popping subplot, which on its own would be an amusing but thoughtfully poignant commentary on women of the time (and today) who are treated badly, even abused, by men and who feel like they have no way out. But the combination of the heavy-handed mythology and the pills bit results in a swollen script that sometimes can’t get out of its own way, even with the always-stellar direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.
The cast has fun with the material in any event, especially Lydia Lea Real as Maddy (nee Medea), who seeks and gets the show’s heartiest laughs. Morgan Carberry’s Clementine (Clytemenstra) exudes the most vulnerability, and Taylor Linekin, a student at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, does very well with the challenging teen role. The talented Alexandra Slade seems stifled in the part of the pronouncement-issuing, required-to-be-unemotional Cassandra. Meanwhile, Steve Froelich, the one male member of the cast, appears and reappears wearing practically nothing as the arrogant god Apollo – by way of Chippendales.
Deal with it, Emily Post.
Bliss (or Emily Post is Dead!) runs through Feb. 25.
Wrekless Watson and Andrea Agosto in "Cardboard Piano." Photograph by Simpatika
Sometimes the best theater is disturbing, and Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, at least in Act One, is certainly that. So sudden is its violence and so unredeemable the consequences thereof that its characters seem to hang in mute suspension for the rest of the production,. But they don’t. The internal churning and anguish of the two who survive to the second act is nearly as wrenching as what preceded it. For these two characters, each his/her own definition of victim, forgiveness and catharsis are elusive. For the audience at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights, which is staging the West Coast premiere of Cardboard Piano, there is little relief, but much enlightenment.
In Jung’s story set in Northern Uganda initially on the night of the new millennium (Dec. 31, 1999), the Ugandan teen Adiel (Andrea Agosto) is celebrating her engagement to her white lover Chris (Kate Rose Reynolds,), who happens to be the daughter of the pastor of the church in which they are making their pact. Theirs is a profound but forbidden love, but they proceed undaunted – until a wayward soldier named Pika (John Wells III) barges in on them, wounded and desperate. The fourth personage in this tautly unfolding scenario is a deadly armed soldier (Wrekless Watson) who arrives looking for the fugitive, and it isn’t long from there that Act One’s fuse runs out. At a recent performance, members of the audience gasped in the darkness, and why was understandable.
The second act of Cardboard Piano, set 15 years later in the same church, concerns itself with atonement, and while its events are less devastating than those before intermission, they are in their own way equally startling.
Jacole Kitchen directs an ensemble at Diversionary that seethes with intensity. Among them, Watson, seen last year in Intrepid Theatre Company’s excellent Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts 1,2, 3, is even better in this play, mostly in Act Two, in which his character “Paul” harbors a secret that spills out like blood.
Cardboard Piano is an unsettling but important work.
Cardboard Piano continues through Feb. 25.
Jose Rivera’s emotionally rhapsodic Cloud Tectonics is the first mainstage production mounted by Teatro Pueblo Nuevo, New Village Arts Theatre’s bicultural outreach initiative. The time-tripping love story, with an apocalyptic, then idealized Los Angeles as its backdrop, dates back to the 1995 Humana new-play festival in Louisville and to La Jolla Playhouse, where it made its West Coast premiere. At NVA, Herbert Siguenza directs a sensual staging that evokes the dreamlike play’s dark and inscrutable atmospherics yet places the emphasis where it should be: on its passionate and yearning characters.
Nadia Guevara beautifully underplays Celestina del Sol, the anchor of the tale and the woman who in Rivera’s world of magical realism and metaphor, can stop time with and for love. The unsuspecting but powerless Anibal de la Luna (Jose Balistrieri) learns this on a night – or is it two years? – that challenges his very comprehension of time … and much more. Cloud Tectonics, like other fabulist works of literature or drama, resides in its enchantment with the inexplicable and the lyricism of its words. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/7/18.)
Ben Levin in "Vietgone" at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Photograph by Daren Scott
The ingenuity of playwright Qui Nguyen is on exuberant display in the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of Nguyen’s 2015 Vietgone. His “geek theater” play is populated by everything from renegade bikers and pot-happy hippies to sword-wielding ninja warriors. At the core, however, is the story of how Nguyen’s Vietnamese parents fled following the fall of Saigon and met up in the good ol’ USA, where a sex-crazed love affair began.
In spite of a good deal of sophomoric comedy and some anachronistic rapping, Vietgone advances a thoughtful, sobering premise about the war and its aftermath from the viewpoint of those whose country was its bloody battleground. In an all-around impassioned performance, Ben Levin soars as Viet pilot Quang, while Katherine Ko brings attitude and fire to the part of his lover, Tong, whose ardency conceals many hurts. A graphic novel come to life, Vietgone is at times overwrought and searching for easy laughs, but its meditative side has staying power. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 2/7/18.)
The Full Monty is a whoo-hoo-hoo show, especially for women in the audience. Always has been. Always will be. That’s not to say that The Full Monty, now nearly 18 years old after first opening at the Old Globe Theatre, isn’t likable or enjoyable. Sure, it’s a one-bit wonder, as in “Wonder when the guys will take their clothes off?” Yet its story of six unemployed steelworkers in Buffalo who decide to dance-strip to make ends meet and to – here’s the dollop of seriousness –validate themselves, is an undeniable crowd pleaser.
So it is at the Horton Grand Theatre downtown, where San Diego Musical Theatre’s winning ensemble earns its hoots and hollers. Steven Freitas, Jonathan Sangster, Danny Stiles and Ron Christopher Jones lead the way, with Joy Yandell and Devlin ensuring that the men don’t completely steal the show. Choreographer Paul David Bryant and director Neil Dale orchestrate all the antics nicely on an undersized stage that gets crowded but never out of control. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 1/31/18.)
Stephen Schmitz and Vanessa Dinning in "Outside Mullingar." Photograph by Ken Jacques
Valentine’s Day is a couple of weeks away, but love is already in bloom at Scripps Ranch Theatre, which is staging a quaint and shamelessly romantic production of John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar. This four-person play set on adjoining cattle and sheep farms in the Irish countryside was presented two years ago by the San Diego Rep, and the Scripps Ranch version, a co-production with Oceanside Theatre Company and directed by Kathy Brombacher, is a reiteration of the 2014 love story’s charm. It’s also a reminder of the script’s fatal flaw in the motivation department. No spoilers forthcoming.
Nevertheless, the Scripps Ranch cast fronted by Stephen Schmitz (so memorable in last year’s Falling from InnerMission Productions) and Vanessa Dinning as two lonely neighbors approaching middle age is ideally suited to the prevailing sentimentality, right down to spot-on Irish accents. (Jim Chovik and Dagmar Fields round complement this pair as two oldsters on the doorstep of death.) When Dinning and Schmitz’s characters eventually connect, hankies will come in handy. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 1/31/18.)
Manny Fernandes and Allison Spratt Pearce in "The Last Wife." Photo courtesy of Cygnet Theatre
Cygnet Theatre’s The Last Wife is not so much a deconstruction of history as it is, in the words of playwright Kate Hennig, a reimagining of the people who made it. It’s also a potboiler of a historical drama set in contemporary trappings with howling ambition, lusting and assorted machinations enough for a full season of “Dynasty” (the ‘80s original, not the lame current revival). That is not to diminish a production that under Rob Lutfy’s skilled direction of a superb cast is both thoughtful and intelligent, and which is neither undercut by its scarcely contained emotion nor its didactics.
The “last wife” of the title is the remarkable Katherine Parr, or Kate, who reluctantly married King Henry VIII but who in her four years as his queen brought a dignity and shrewdness to the monarchy that were sorely missing under Henry’s brash, oft-tyrannical reign. She also facilitated a reconciliation between the king and his two daughters by previous wives, Mary and Elizabeth (Bess), and was responsible for their being restored to the line of succession, an act that would change the course of English history. The Last Wife determinedly mines the depths of Kate’s complex relationships: with Henry, with the three children (including Jane Seymour’s young son, Edward) and with her lover and future husband Thomas Seymour, Jane’s brother.
Allison Spratt Pearce is strength and luminosity personified as Kate in an inspired portrayal that, as the play intends, reverberates with the here and now. Manny Fernandes, in a highly physical performance, is more than up to the ferocity and repugnance of Henry VIII. Cashae Monya’s Mary is the most audacious character in The Last Wife, with 14-year-old Kylie Acuna intuitive beyond her years as Bess, and Steven Lone a lustful Thom who’s prone to petulance.
Cygnet’s staging could do without the accompanying “tension music” in a couple of confrontations, and here and there the 2015 script’s nods to currency are a bit wink-wink. But this production is by turns sensual, ferocious and even contemplative, and it is lengthy and well-paced enough to contain all the heat and reflection of its extraordinary characters. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 1/24/18.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat