Catalina Maynard in "El Huracan." Karli Cadel Photography
What’s a mere hurricane compared to the storms in the mind that make reality murkier and connections to loved ones more tenuous?
In the late summer of 1992 in Miami, Hurricane Andrew looms. Inside one Cuban-American home, Harvard student Miranda has returned to “help” her mother Ximena and grandmother Valeria, who is slipping gradually and heartbreakingly into dementia.
Before we even get there, we’re in the audience at the Tropicana Club in Havana where a young Valeria and a dashing partner are dancing to the joyous escapism of Frank Sinatra singing “In Other Words (Fly Me to the Moon”). The magic and music will give way to the helpless circumstances in the Miami household.
There are many layers to Charise Castro Smith’s beautiful “El Huracan,” now onstage at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. It’s more than a story of slipping away, more than a so-called memory play. In the best local production of the year so far (I know, it’s only January, but you have to start sometime), the synergy of the playwright’s sensitivity and a superb cast results in a profound and enduring theater experience.
The Valeria we meet at the outset (Amalia Alarcon Morris) is disoriented and delusional, much to the frustration and pain of daughter Ximena (Catalina Maynard) and granddaughter Miranda (Sandra Ruiz). But dwelling deep inside precious memories she has other lives: the playful relationship with her sister Alicia (Carla Navarro) and the courtship by her true love Alonso (Manny Fernandes).
In spite of her friction with her mother, Miranda is able to connect with Valeria in a way Ximena cannot, even to the point of getting her to perform a little magic as she had when a performer. But Miranda’s flirtation with Fernando (Christopher Cruz), the young man who’s in the home to prepare and safeguard it from the coming hurricane, leads to tragedy.
It’s afterward when years pass right before our eyes that the subject of forgiveness becomes paramount in “El Huracan,” directed with great acumen by Daniel Jaquez. It’s also the point when the play centers no longer on Valeria but on Ximena, who has inherited her mother’s terrible disease.
In both English and Spanish, Castro Smith, who is Cuban-American and from Miami, articulates the desperation of loss: of memory, of course, but also to some degree hope. I wished my own Spanish were better, for I might have appreciated all the more the tenderness residing in “El Huracan.”
Maynard’s performance is a special one, particularly in the last 15 minutes of the 95-minute production. The distance in her eyes and the anguish of Ximena’s internal struggle are wrenchingly sad.
Ruiz’s transformations over the years of the “El Huracan” story establish Miranda as a woman whose heart was always in the right place even if her will was not. Morris does wonderful things with Valeria throughout, always able to be affecting and somehow luminous.
Hurricane Andrew is almost an afterthought in the telling of this tale, though sound effects by Eliza Vedar are a reminder of its fury. (It is still considered to be the most destructive hurricane to ever hit Florida.) Guaranteed you won’t be thinking about it when the lights dissolve into darkness at production’s end.
“El Huracan” runs through Feb. 19 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
The cast of "The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci." Photo by Jim Cox
If only studying science or art history had been as engrossing in school as it is in Mary Zimmerman’s “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” in which the bromides, theses and philosophies of the great master are animated by movement, acrobatics and stage play.
The contradiction is that theatrical doesn’t necessarily translate to theater. While inventive and mostly diverting throughout its 90 minutes, “Notebooks” nonetheless taxes the attention span. Without a narrative arc or characters to invest in or any sort of palpable dramatic tension, this production of Zimmerman’s 1993 work at the Old Globe Theatre demands both patience and suspension of expectations.
Yes, the unpredictability of its sequences is part of the allure, along with scenic design by Scott Bradley that enables climbing, roping, perching and fanciful entrances and exits by the eight performers (all named Leonardo). Within this playground realm, they pose and perform while the words of da Vinci are heard as they move and react. I found myself mesmerized by what was onstage and only half-listening. I’m just not that receptive to intellectualized dissections of active processes such as painting.
Even if I personally would rather be mystified without explanation by what heights an artist or scientist can reach, da Vinci was compelled to break them down for us in the reportedly 20,000 or more pages of notes he made in his remarkable lifetime. You can be amazed by “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” if you give yourself over completely to its stagey exposition, directed at the Globe by Zimmerman.
The set pieces are meticulously conceived, to the point of appearing choreographed. They are also difficult to describe and to do justice to here, for each movement, paralleling da Vinci’s dissertations, is a significant part of the whole. They are pensive and thought provoking if not emotional, the representation of a brilliantly imaginative mind that operated like clockwork and gave the world order and understanding.
The athletic and expressive “Leonardos” are to be commended: Adeoye, Christopher Donahue, Kasey Foster, John Gregorio, Anthony Irons, Louise Lamson, Andrea San Miguel and Wai Yim. So too should Mara Blumenfeld for her costuming (based on Allison Reeds’ original design).
Chiefly, “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” establishes that with a genius, the left and right sides of the brain can not only function together but do so prodigiously and with eloquence. To some extent, this unusual piece is a journey inside that brain and its wondrous workings.
“The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” runs through Feb. 26 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
Left to right: Karole Foreman, Ciarra Stroud and Anise Ritchie in "Blues in the Night." Photo by Aaron Rumley
In North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Blues in the Night,” the illusion of a premise – three women occupying separate rooms in a Chicago hotel in 1938 – dissolves into the background pretty quickly. At the forefront are the songs, 25 of them, and three dynamic performers (Karole Foreman, Anise Ritchie and Ciarra Stroud) who sing their hearts out.
Sheldon Epps conceived this show 40 years ago as a revue, completely sung through and composed of blues songs, torch songs and no-good-man novelties. While its runs off Broadway and on were brief (less than two months in each case), “Blues in the Night,” named for the standard by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, enjoys production life today because the music is just so damned good.
At North Coast Rep, the vocalists, which also include Elijah Rock, are accompanied by a crack band under the musical direction of Larry Hartley: conductor Kevin Toney on piano, Roy Jenkins on bass, Danny King on drums, Thomas Alforque on trumpet and Malcolm Jones on reeds. Directed at NCR by Yvette Freeman Hartley, “Blues in the Night” is a smoky nightclub experience without the smoke, variously likable and heart-rending as each particular song dictates.
Many of the evening’s numbers are Bessie Smith compositions: “Baby Doll,” “Wasted Life Blues,” “Blue Blues,” “It Makes My Love Come Down,” “Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues,” “Reckless Blues.” Known as the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith brought a visceral baring of soul to the idiom, the sort of anger, heartache and world weariness that shadows foredoomed romance. Every ounce of that attitude is expressed in this revue, with the three women taking turns and intermittently singing together about good loving gone bad.
The characters are unnamed, but their descriptions are revealing. Foreman is the Woman of the World, one who’s seen and felt it all and carries the sadness to prove it. Ritchie is the Lady from the Road whose trunk of cabaret costumes is full of broken dreams. Stroud is the Girl with a Date who’s just finding out how fickle love can be. Rock is the Man in the Saloon, charming but likely to break any and all of their hearts “just like a man.”
Just as the sorrow emanates from performances like Foreman’s turn on Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” Ritchie’s rendering of “Lover Man,” the lament immortalized by Billie Holiday, and Stroud’s interpretation of Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me,” the humor crackles when Foreman exhorts, double-entendres flying every which way, about her “Kitchen Man” or Ritchie struts to “Take Me For a Buggy Ride.”
The choreography by Roxane Carrasco, like the mood shifts from song to song, ensure that “Blues in the Night” keeps moving, and its two hours never waver. Marty Burnett’s set provides a sultry backdrop for these immersive performances.
“Blues in the Night” won’t give you a case of the blues. Quite the opposite. It may, however, remind you that love can be an uneasy and capricious proposition.
“Blues in the Night” runs through Feb. 12 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
Cygnet Theatre's production of "Water by the Spoonful" was among the best theatrical productions of the year. Karli Cadel Photography
It’s never easy wrapping up an entire year of theater – its highs, its lows, its joys, its sorrows. Theater is such a rich and sprawling pageant of artistic craft and emotional expression. Those who make it reside in a magical world in which each living, unfolding moment matters. Those like myself who watch, listen and feel are, for a couple of hours in the darkness, privileged to share a bit of that magic.
After very little live theater locally in 2020 and 2021, it returned revived and reinvigorated this past year. Thank you to all the theater-makers who’ve ridden out the pandemic and continued to create, produce and perform. Your spirit and resolve are felt.
Now, to my choices (in alphabetical order) for the five most outstanding plays and musicals of 2022 …
• “An Iliad,” North Coast Repertory Theatre. Ten years after I first saw the one-person drama by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare onstage (at La Jolla Playhouse), The Poet’s monologue is more graphic than ever. North Coast Rep’s production starring stentorian-voiced Richard Baird was explosive and relentless, rather like the warfare itself that the 90-minute play indicts. Providing haunting accompaniment behind a scrim was Amanda Schaar on cello.
• “As You Like It,” New Fortune Theatre Company. Speaking of Baird and Schaar, the theater troupe they co-founded in 2014 returned to live productions after a five-year hiatus with a gloriously unfettered staging of Shakespeare’s romp in the Forest of Arden. The choice of venue – the little park behind Westminster Presbyterian Church in Point Loma – was perfect, heightening the sense that you were seeing The Bard the way his work was meant to be seen.
• “Desert Rock Garden,” New Village Arts Theatre. To my mind the most compelling world-premiere play produced in San Diego County this year, “Desert Rock Garden” was written by Roy Sekigahama, whose parents were interned in a relocation camp during World War II. His one-act about the improbable friendship between an elderly man (Lane Nishikawa) and a young girl (Chloris Li) at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah was thoughtful and uncompromising.
• “Iron,” Roustabouts Theatre Company. What an opportunity to experience one of San Diego’s greatest actors, Rosina Reynolds, in a tense, claustrophobic play worthy of all her skills. In Roustabouts’ production of Rona Munro’s play set inside a prison in Scotland, Reynolds (portraying Fay, a woman serving a life sentence) shares the stage with her real-life daughter Kate Rose Reynolds, playing Fay’s estranged daughter, Josie. It’s a potent combination.
• “Water by the Spoonful,” Cygnet Theatre. Not your prototypical addict’s story, “Water by the Spoonful” is multilayered and wrenching in both its storytelling and its characterizations. A steely Steven Lone is its central figure, Elliot, a tormented Iraq War veteran. In his sphere are his birth mother Odessa (Catalina Maynard), cousin Yaz (Melissa Ortiz) and chat-room denizens Bryan Barbarin, Emily Song Tyler and Christian Haines.
• “Bob Fosse’s Dancin’”, Old Globe Theatre. A world-premiere reimagination of the legendary Fosse’s original 1978 production, this tireless celebration of the art of dance was composed of a series of vignettes over two and a half hours, swiftly paced and often spectacular. A company of 20 performers dazzled on sets conceived by Robert Brill. The second act doesn’t match the impeccable first, but this felt like a big Broadway show, sparing nothing.
• “Cabaret,” Cygnet Theatre. Cygnet remounted its 2011 production of “Cabaret” for this 2022 summertime engagement, again with Sean Murray directing. Morphing from fever dream to nightmare, this “Cabaret” struck on a visceral level. Most affecting among the stellar cast that included Karson St. John, Megan Carmitchel and Will Bethmann were Linda Libby as a heartbreaking Fraulein Schneider and Eddie Yaroch as the Jewish shop owner who loves her.
• “Lempicka,” La Jolla Playhouse. This bio-musical about the dauntless Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka didn’t quite live up to the expectations I had for it beforehand, though the Playhouse’s production of the Carson Kreitzer/Matt Gould collaboration was dynamic and ambitious. Broadway veteran Eden Espinosa co-starred with high-tech projections and versatile set pieces, making for an imperfect but immersive trip into art history and history period.
• “Million Dollar Quartet,” Lamb’s Players Theatre. I don’t know how many times Lamb’s Players Theatre extended this rock ‘n’ roll songfest’s run, but there was a reason audiences kept coming. The jukebox musical about a Sun Records session that brought together Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins equaled irresistible fun. Each actor singing and playing was a treat, with Charles Evans Jr. standing out as the Man in Black.
• “Witnesses,” California Center for the Arts, Escondido Theatricals. The first original musical staged by CCAE Theatricals, a world premiere, was poignant and unforgettable. The witnesses were five Jewish teenagers whose secret diaries were the source of this important show with a book by Robert L. Freedman and stirring songs by multiple composers. This was the production that unquestionably announced the arrival of the 2-year-old CCAE Theatricals.
• I salute local theater critic Pat Launer, who is retiring after 40 years and some 5,000 reviews. She’s as much a part of the San Diego theater scene as are its producing companies. I’m proud to call Pat a colleague and even more proud to call her my friend.
• The closing, at least for now, of the 46-year-old San Diego Repertory Theatre was an immeasurable loss for theater here. That its suspension of operations announcement in June was followed by allegations of racism and misogyny made this all the sadder.
• Like so many in San Diego, both inside and outside the theater community, I mourn the passing of longtime critic and journalist Welton Jones. Not only was Welton a co-worker of mine at the San Diego Union-Tribune for many years, but later, after we’d both left the paper, it was he who assigned me my first theater review, for the San Diego Story.com site that he helped launch with Mark Burgess. This was the start of my life as a critic.
More important, Welton Jones was a delightful gentleman – a great storyteller, a fine journalist, a devoted historian. He also had a laugh like no one else’s and a generous heart. I miss him already.
Left to right: Catalina Maynard, Vanessa Dinning and Neil McDonald in "The Children." Photo by Daren Scott
The very first moment of Moxie Theatre’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children” is an omen of what’s to come: physicist Rose is alone onstage, bleeding from her nose as if she’s been slugged by a prizefighter.
Grim and graphic. That’s what’s coming, folks.
You’d expect a drama set in an English cottage in the aftermath of a nuclear-plant disaster to be, well, grim and graphic. And so it is for most of its melodramatic 100 minutes. The walls of the cottage occupied by Hazel (Vanessa Dinning) and Robin (Neil McDonald) seem to close in on them as they quibble and quarrel while an invisible but deadly enemy (the radiation released by the nuclear accident) lurks just beyond the “exclusion zone.”
The presence of Rose (Catalina Maynard), who has shown up out of the blue (not really as we learn much later) heightens the tension and claustrophobia. A surface-level cordiality between herself and Hazel vanishes when Robin returns home from the house he and his wife had been forced to abandon after a tsunami swept through it. (If the disaster circumstances in this 2016 play seem similar to what happened at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in 2011, that’s no doubt intentional.)
It’s crystal clear that Robin and Rose share a past, so very soon into “The Children” we have ourselves a triangle. But the volatility and impulses of that will pale beside a startling proposal Rose makes to the other two.
“The Children,” directed by Kim Strassburger, can be depressing and certainly disturbing. Its nuclear-accident aftermath isn’t even the major reason why. These three people – Hazel, Robin and Rose – are lost on so many levels and react by lashing out -- at the fates and at each other. At least Hazel is able to retreat into the supposed mindfulness of yoga, but for Robin it’s booze and for Rose, who's stricken with more than just loss of her way of life, it’s a desperate desire to do “the right thing.”
Unnerving as Kirkwood’s script is, “The Children” is a showcase for three actors in fine form. Maynard, with impressive credits all over town but actually making her debut at Moxie, brings a haunted, anxious unpredictability to Rose. McDonald, seen this summer in New Fortune’s excellent outdoor production of “As You Like It,” sinks his teeth into the complex Robin. Dinning is best of all as Hazel. She’s as believable steeping tea one minute as she is exploding in another.
Credit Julie Lorenz’s set as well: the interior of a cottage that’s as cozy as one can be with a poisoned world just outside.
If you’re not at all ready for the enforced merriness of the coming holiday season, “The Children” is a fitting indulgence.
“The Children” runs through Dec. 4 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
"Hamilton" returns to San Diego after nearly five years. Photo by Joan Marcus
Seeing and hearing “Hamilton” for the second time wasn’t as mind-blowing as it was the first. Back in January 2018 at the Civic Theatre, Back then, I realized in the first five minutes of the show that this was something -- if you’ll excuse the word -- revolutionary. Wednesday night, again at the Civic, I beheld a “Hamilton” that was no longer surprising or startling in its ambition but very much still dynamic theater.
I was reminded once more just how seamlessly creator Lin-Manuel Miranda infused the score with hip-hop beats, in essence creating a fresh language for musical theater that went beyond even his previous “In the Heights.” I was reminded too how compelling the story of Alexander Hamilton is, Miranda’s show having been based on a book by Ron Chernow. Not only is “Hamilton” damned entertaining, but what a way to learn some history at the same time.
Now as then, the second act of the show is a bit of a come-down, emphasizing back-door politics and the crumbling of Hamilton’s personal life following an often-electrifying first act focused on the revolution. There are moments after intermission when it descends into melodrama and even piety.
Present throughout, however, are richly drawn characters, products of Miranda’s brilliantly anarchic deconstruction of the Founding Fathers we are taught from childhood to revere (there’s another word to excuse me on): a scheming, vainglorious Thomas Jefferson; a near-Machiavellian James Madison; a Judas-like Aaron Burr. All are delicious in their way.
Then there’s Miranda’s George Washington, portrayed as every bit the firm but paternal leader he was, and of course Hamilton the immigrant revolutionary himself – profound, complex, fiercely committed to higher principles but undone by his failure to honor his personal ones.
This touring production of “Hamilton” is led by Deaundre Woods in the lead role, and he brings that ferocity and damage to the fore. There’s a nearly reckless commitment on display during the signature “My Shot” number that sets the tone for a tale that will be as propulsive as the beats beneath it.
Tre Frazier is just as charismatic as Washington as Isaiah Johnson was in the 2018 production. Paris Nix does marvelous double duty as Lafayette (in Act One) and Jefferson (in Act Two). Ellis C. Dawson’s turn as Burr, who is the show’s omnipresent counterpoint to Hamilton, is a sympathetic one – until the end of the story when all sympathy goes to our fallen protagonist. The comic relief of Alex Larson as a prissy and pouting King George is gold.
The other key role in “Hamilton” is that of his wife, Eliza, but Morgan Anita Wood oversings, at times to the point of being grating.
As before, the costumes and choreography of “Hamilton” are spectacular. The American Revolution never looked, sounded or moved so well.
I’m wondering if “Hamilton” will enjoy a historic legacy in the theater as have far less daring shows (take your pick). Time will take care of that. One thing’s for certain: no one’s been able to duplicate it, on any number of levels, since it premiered in 2015.
Don’t hold your breath, either.
“Hamilton” runs through Nov. 20 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
"Into the Breeches" cast members (left to right) Taylor Henderson, Katie MacNichol, Melanie Lora, Rosemarie Chandler and Mikaela Macias. Top: Shana Wride. Photo by Aaron Rumley
North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Into the Breeches!” is one of the surprises of the year. I knew this play about WWII-era women who (and I mean this with all due respect) manfully team up to stage a Shakespearean production at a Providence theater while all the boys are “over there” (I know … wrong world war, but they used it in “Into the Breeches!” too) would be entertaining, and it is. I knew it might come with sight gags, and it does, one of which is a doozy. I knew it would warm the heart on occasion, and it does.
What I didn’t count on what the unexpected depth of this 2018 work by George Brant (“Grounded”). Without shouting from the Rhode Island rooftops, “Into the Breeches!” champions inclusivity in the theater and otherwise, taking pointed aim at gender expectations and discrimination, racism and homophobia.
“Into the Breeches!” is not a “message play.” Its commentary is embedded in the telling of the story and in the investment we quickly make in all of its characters. Were this not so, it might not be the two-hour pleasure that it is.
At the respected Oberon Play House in Providence, Maggie Dalton (Melanie Lora), the wife of its at-war star director, has a brainstorm: With the men all gone and the theater dark, why not stage a production of The Bard’s venerable “Henrys” with an all-woman cast? Though her suggestion is treated as totally outrageous by both the Oberon’s resident diva, Celeste Fielding (Katie MacNichol) and its stuffy board president Ellsworth Snow (James Newcomb), it shouldn’t be. After all, when Shakespeare himself was staging his works back in the Elizabethan day, men played all the parts. Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Juliet, Portia, you name her.
It’s Maggie’s sheer willpower that overpowers both Celeste and Snow, and so begin auditions in the community. Recruited are two young women whose husbands are fighting the good fight abroad: the childlike June Bennett (Mikaela Macias) and Grace Richards (Rosemarie Chandler), who demonstrates immediate and impressive talent for Shakespeare. Brought into the fold as a means of keeping Snow on their side is his dizzy wife Winifred (Shana Wride), whose thespian ability would seem “big” enough to occupy the tip of a pencil.
And watching from the wings are two back-stagers who will play a significant role in the production but also in the unfolding of the tale: the stage manager Stuart Lasker (Geno Carr) and costumer Ida Green (Taylor Henderson).
A push-and-pull between Maggie, who is directing, and Celeste, who is diva-ing, complicates matters, as does an important decision Maggie must make about Stuart and Ida’s participation in the production. There’s little suspense that it will all be worked out, but “Into the Breeches!” director Diana Van Fossen has the pacing and transitions working from start to finish, and it’s that aforementioned bond we make with the characters that wins the day.
Lora, so mysterious and alluring in North Coast Rep’s production of “The Homecoming” earlier this year, does a complete 180 as solid-as-a-rock Maggie Dalton and is even better here in a more substantial role. MacNichol is having a blast as over-emoting Celeste. Her teaching the young women how to walk like a man – with quite the prop – is worth the price of admission. Wride has the choice comic part of Winifred Snow and definitely makes the most of it.
All in the ensemble contribute to what is a show that’s easy to like and thoughtful enough to care about.
Bonus for Shakespeareans: the timeless language of the “Henrys,” in particular the powerful “Band of Brothers” speech.
Bonus for wartime period nostalgists: between-scene tunes in the house like “In the Mood,” “Take the A Train” and “Boogie Woogie Piggy.”
“Into the Breeches” runs through Nov. 13 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
Left to right: Brian Mackey, Michael Cusimano and John Wells III in "Ken Ludwig's Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery." Photo courtesy of Lamb's Players Theatre
Hats off to Angela Chatelain Avila, Michael Cusimano and especially Omri Schein, the three quick-costume-change actors in Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of “Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.” Their morphing from character to character with barely a half-minute offstage is the plum of this farcical take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Schein, one of the top character actors on San Diego stages, can win a hearty laugh with a mere facial expression or grunt, and this production is funniest whenever he’s onstage. Happily, that’s most of the time.
I first saw this show in 2015 when the Old Globe produced it in its theater-in-the-round Sheryl and Harvey White space. Making ingenious use of the intimate confines, that “Baskerville” had props dropping from anywhere and everywhere, and cast members coming and going constantly. In Lamb’s much larger setting, the kinetic craziness of that Globe staging is absent, making this “Baskerville” directed by Robert Smyth more conventional comedy. The quick changes are just as head-spinning, but the pace of the play is more sluggish. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” novel is complex and probably too long; Ludwig’s fun with it comes off as more complex than it should be, and it’s certainly too long, even at 90 minutes.
Here, Brian Mackey occupies the starring role as the lanky, supremely self-confident and eminently arrogant Holmes. John Wells III is the trusted companion and chronicler of Holmes’ feats, Dr. John Watson. While both of them are very good as these well-known characters, theirs are the straight-men parts, mostly reacting to the antics of the other 30-something characters played by Cusimano, Avila and Schein.
If there’s a benefit to “Baskerville” being on a larger stage it’s the ability to utilize projections (designed by Christian Turner) to create the backdrop for 221 B Baker St. or Baskerville Hall or the lonely and deadly moor of the story. Props are few and really not needed anyway.
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” like all of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures is, but for the smug detective’s ironical quips, without any humor at all. That makes this tale ideal for parody, not unlike the way Mel Brooks masterfully turned Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” into a comedy-film classic.
The story of a mysterious and lethal hound that stalks the environs of Baskerville Hall in Devonshire, England, is told pretty faithfully in Ludwig’s script, with the comedy sprinkled over it practically from start to finish. It nonetheless can be too expository and explanatory as the truth of the tale is bit by bit revealed. This makes the show highly reliant on the performances of the quick-changing character actors, even more than on its Holmes and Watson.
Cusimano spends most of his time as the loud but likable Texan Henry Baskerville though does duty throughout in a number of other roles, including Doyle’s recurring Inspector Lestrade.
Avila tackles everything from the lovely Beryl Stapleton, Henry’s love interest, to the Cockney Baker Street Irregular boy Cartwright. Her finest moments, though, are as Mrs. Barrymore, the female half of the pair that tends to Baskerville Hall. She brings to mind a hybrid between Elsa Lanchester in “The Bride of Frankenstein” (that hair!) and Cloris Leachman’s brilliant Frau Blucher in Brooks’ “Frankenstein” spoof.
It’s hard to know where to start with the tireless Schein. His meatiest part is that of the butterfly-seeking villain Stapleton, but he’s everywhere in this show: as the kinda creepy Dr. Mortimer who brings the Baskerville legend to Holmes’ attention; as the kinda creepier manservant Barrymore; to the frightening convict Selden, trying to escape capture out on the moor; to any number of clerks and cameos, of either gender. Schein just shines.
Sight gags abound, the most memorable one being Watson, Baskerville and Mortimer fighting a fierce wind to get from one place to another. No wind machine is used; it’s all improvisation and nicely done.
Holmes purists will find all the joking around at everyone’s expense sacrilege, but this play is not for them. It’s for those who appreciate silliness and a little slapstick and just enough atmosphere to dupe them into thinking they’re in southern England for an hour and a half.
“Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” runs through Nov. 20 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado. A return engagement will be Jan. 3-8.
Kristina Wong in her one-woman show. Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse
Is it too soon to laugh about COVID-19? Is it OK to keep crying about it?
I found myself doing both while in the audience of Kristina Wong’s one-woman production, “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. I was acutely aware of the poignancy of the moment: Like everyone else there, I had a mask on (it was required), and I was watching a COVID-era show about Wong and her network of mask-making “aunties” who made a difference in so many people’s lives and undoubtedly saved some too.
Wong is a tireless performer able to toggle back and forth between broad comedy (as when she inflates a balloon, standing in for a cyst she endured on an unmentionable part of her body) and the edge of breakdown (recalling the courageous Asian photographer Corby Lee, a friend lost to the virus).
The 90-minute show is chronological, taking us from the early dark days of the COVID shutdown to late 2021, when masks were being factory-produced and those sewn together with love and sacrifice by Wong and her far-flung volunteer Auntie Sewing Squad (or A.S.S.) were no longer as in demand. We meet the women (and a few men) virtually enlisted by Wong who collectively made more than 350,000 masks for donation to the very neediest.
Along the way, Wong makes time for snippets of searing commentary about the “banana republic” that the great American democracy has so dishearteningly descended into. Neither the anti-vaxxers nor the politicians and especially not the racists escape her sharpened oratorical sword.
Reminders come too of the other terrible events that paralleled the spread of the worst health crisis to date in American history: the murder of George Floyd, the persecution of protesters in its wake, the deadly wildfires of California, the attempted coup of Jan. 6. It’s a lot to tackle in a one hour-and-a-half show but remarkably Wong with only the help of a projection screen and a few props moves things along swiftly and compellingly. There are also bits of audience participation that are clever and mercifully brief.
We know that the COVID crisis has changed but it has not ended. Even so, we should be able to stare it in the face, confront its brutal realities and wring from it what little cathartic triumphs we can. “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” seems like a good place to start.
“Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord” runs through Oct. 16 at La Jolla Playhouse.
Left to right: Greg Hildreth, Rebecca Creskoff, Sophie von Haselberg and Joshua Malina in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." Photo by Jim Cox
Nothing like a little high-THC grass to mellow out an escalating confrontation over religion. But before we get to that, let’s backtrack.
Marrieds Debbie and Phil are happily ensconced in their spacious South Florida home with a teenage son, Trevor, all the household conveniences one could want and no inclination at all to practice their Judaism. In Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” a one-act play based on his own 2012 short story, Debbie has invited a long-lost, onetime BFF for a visit. But Lauren, who she knew growing up together in Queens, is no longer Lauren. She’s Shoshana now, an “ultra-Orthodox” Jew living in Jerusalem with her husband Yerucham (formerly Mark) and their 10 children. That’s right. Ten.
In this smart and flammable comedy on the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White theater in the round, it doesn’t take long for the “happy reunion” to turn pugnacious. Phil (Joshua Malina) made it clear before the visitors ever arrived that the whole thing in his mind was a bad idea. He suspects Shoshana (Sophie von Haselberg) and her spouse (Greg Hildreth) whom he detests will try to convert eager-to-please Debbie (Rebecca Creskoff) to orthodoxy.
Right you are, Phil. The former Lauren and Mark portray their life in Jerusalem and their immersion in their religion in patently idyllic terms. When Debbie and Phil retaliate in defense of their secular, non-restricted life in Florida, sparks fly, with neither sharp-tongued husband holding back. Soon each couple is defining their own Holocaust, teen Trevor (Nathan Salstone) is in the fray shocking the friends from Israel with his mocking espousal of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (there is such a thing), and all pretense of a huggy reconciliation between Debbie and Shoshana is abandoned. Note: By prescription, Shoshana couldn’t hug Debbie, or anyone else, even if she wanted to.
Director Barry Edelstein lets those aforementioned sparks fly indeed, but “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” never flies out of control. It’s constantly on the brink of explosion, though, especially when Debbie and Phil’s vodka supply starts fueling the heated exchanges.
Which brings us to the pass-around pot that’s broken out just in time to apparently prevent the company from bolting. The ensuing everybody’s-stoned scene is of the kind that we’ve seen a thousand times before, but it does bring welcome catharsis to the sniping and resentment in the air.
The story culminates with a game for which the play is named, one that has to do with who would provide shelter for whom in the event of a second Holocaust. In this corner, Debbie. In the other, Shoshana.
Edelstein previously directed Englander’s tremendous “The Twenty-seventh Man” in this space at the Old Globe in 2015. “Anne Frank” is nowhere near as engrossing, but it is a highly thoughtful play, one with the volume often turned way up.
The cast is a stalwart one, with Malina making a spontaneously snide Phil and Creskoff’s Debbie desperately trying to make the whole “party” work until, provoked, she can’t try any longer. Hildreth’s Mark is relentless, while von Haselberg’s Shoshana is the play’s most nuanced and riveting character.
It’s said that neither politics nor religion should ever dominate a social gathering. Well, it’s not said at Phil and Debbie’s fancy house in South Florida, but then Shoshana and Mark have a lot to do with that.
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” runs through Oct. 23 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theater in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.