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.
The look of Bollywood is very much a part of "Come Fall in Love." Photo by Jim Cox
For the record, I’ve never seen “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge,” better known as “DDLJ,” the 1995 romantic Bollywood film on which the Old Globe’s world premiere musical, “Come Fall in Love,” is based. So I’m not going to make any comparisons, as ardent fans of the movie might, between it and this lavish production onstage in Balboa Park. Nor will I make a point of opining on the issue, articulated in detail recently in a New York Times article, of the musical adaptation’s reinventing the love story between two NRI’s (non-resident Indians living outside of their native country) as one between NRI Simran and a spoiled Harvard frat boy, Rog.
Instead, I’ll consider “Come Fall in Love” on face value. It’s a light-as-air (in spite of what it may be endeavoring to say about feminism and Indian identity) musical romance with prodigious sets (scenic design by Derek McLane), gorgeous costumes (by Linda Cho) and choreography of Indian dances by Shruti Merchant that evoke in sight and sound the richness of Bollywood filmmaking.
The story ... I’m not especially in love with. The serious and bookish Simran (Shoba Narayan), a student at Harvard, encounters wealthy part-ay boy Rog (Austin Colby) at, what else? A part-ay, and she ends up being falsely arrested for something ridiculous having to do with flamingos. They meet again on Simran’s trip to Europe with her friends and predictably end up having to share a hotel room in Switzerland after missing a train.
Nothing between them to this point suggested to me that they would fall for each other, and it’s a bit troubling that wallflower Simran’s over-consumption of complementary champagne is the first step toward her falling for Rog. He gallantly slept in the jacuzzi, not taking advantage of her. Good for Rog, but should that have been enough to turn Simran’s head?
The long and short of it is by the time the Europe trip is over and Simran is bound for India to fulfill her arranged marriage there, she and Rog are pining for each other, their duet of denial, “Like You That Way.” being intentionally ironic.
What happens in Act 2, the far superior of the two acts, in India comes as absolutely no surprise. This is, after all, a love story and a happy ending is preordained.
Setting aside the story itself, “Come Fall in Love” enjoys some exemplary performances. As the lovers, Narayan and Colby are both pleasing vocalists and highly likable – that must not have been easy to achieve for Colby, whose first-act Rog is shudderingly vacuous, witnessed by the bacchanalian solo “Party and Spend Daddy’s Money.”
Irving Iqbal as Baldev, Simran’s strict father, and Kate Loprest as Minky, Rog’s grown-sorority-girl mother, both deliver the kind of supporting performances that get awards. Iqbal’s opening number, “So Far,” for example, initiates “Come Fall in Love” with flourish and a degree of gravity, while Loprest’s presence throughout Act 2 is funny, sexy and sassy.
The most touching moment in the show finds Rupal Pujara as Simran’s mother, Lajjo, comforting her daughter-at-a-crossroads in “I Give You the World.”
“Come Fall in Love’s” score by Vishal Dadlani and Sheykhar Ravjiani is bold and sometimes bodacious, heard to best effect in pieces featuring Rog, the character who most evolves in this tale. Nell Benjamin’s lyrics are in that same spirit. Have to say, though, the fall in la-la-la-love refrain of the title song can only be called cutesie.
Aditya Chopra, who directed “DDLJ,” directs “Come Fall In Love” as well and obviously understands the audience-pleasing dynamics that made the film such an enduring one and could be transferred to the stage. It’s counterintuitive to say that a two-hour, 45-minute production moves crisply because it really doesn’t, but there aren’t any draggy spots in “Come Fall in Love.” A couple of expendable songs? Maybe so.
“Come Fall in Love” isn’t precisely Bollywood onstage, but it possesses enough of Indian cinema’s vibrancy and energy to satisfy those devoted to it.
“Come Fall in Love” runs through Oct. 16 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
The ensemble of "Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes)." Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse
One precisely choreographed sequence in “Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes)” articulates the full reality of the immigrant experience: the desperation for a better life, the danger, the struggle to survive. In a matter of a few minutes’ time, with cast members in perpetual motion, a world spins out of control.
But there is sanctuary: a community center on the grounds of a church in Chula Vista where men and women who have escaped the hardships (and worse) of their native countries and fled to America gather to sing, dance and tell stories. This is the setting for a bilingual play with music by Andrea Thome and Sinuhe Padilla. “Fandango” is a production of New York-based En Garde Arts that’s being presented by La Jolla Playhouse under the direction of Jose Zayas.
Writer Thome based her characters on interviews she did in the New York City area (the play’s original setting). They are portrayed onstage in La Jolla by a fiercely committed ensemble doing double duty as actors and musicians with instruments. Padilla’s accompanying music, sung in Spanish, is alternately invigorating and affecting.
Because this is a bilingual piece, screens with translated words (either from Spanish into English or the other way around depending on the moment) are positioned to the left and right above the stage. I found them more distracting than helpful, and I’m not entirely certain they’re needed. The passions and essence of the numbers sung in Spanish speak for themselves. To fully appreciate “Fandango” it would be best to actually be bilingual, and I sorely longed to be during the 90-minute show. In fact, as a Southern California native, I should be. I am blessed to live among two rich, intersecting cultures and there is no excuse for my not being more conversant with the language of those who share my region.
Enough of me.
The interweaving personal stories of “Fandango” are compelling ones: Rogelio (Carlo Alban) and Elvin (Danny Ray Caraballo) are stable workers, each bearing the burden of painful truths: Rogelio, from Honduras, has not seen his daughter in almost a decade; Elvin wears a monitor shackled to his angle, a reminder that deportation could come at any moment. Mari (Jen Anaya), the play’s anchor character, has a mother in failing health; Rafaela (Silvia Dionicio) is a teenager long abandoned by her mother.
And yet there is hope and affection in all of them, expressed either in words or in song.
The anxious plot points of “Fandango” run much more intricate than this, however, suggesting that the play overreaches and never attains tonal consistency. It can be starkly poetic, as when Elvin’s cousin Johan (Roberto Tolentino) recites in monologue; playful, as when the likable Pili (Frances Ines Rodriguez) breaks down shy Rafaela’s barriers; wistful, as when Rogelio sincerely courts Mari in vain; and as exultant as the song and dance that at times fills the Mandell Weiss Forum with percussive energy.
Maybe that’s why “Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes)” feels one draft away from completion though it debuted back in 2020 in New York City’s boroughs.
Even as is, it’s a story that can never be told enough – at least until grave wrongs are righted and those who long to share the freedoms that we cherish are welcomed and respected.
“Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes” runs through Sept. 25 at La Jolla Playhouse.
Left to right: Wendy Maples, Liliana Talwatte (seated), Marci Anne Wuebben and Dagmar Krause Fields in "Steel Magnolias." Photo by Daren Scott
At first blush, “Steel Magnolias” would seem to be a leisurely tale about six Southern women just sittin’ around and talkin’ in a small-town hair salon. As anyone who’s seen a production of Robert Harling’s 1987 play (or the 1989 film adaptation) will tell you, it’s about much more than that. Woven into the gossip and interpersonal business of life in fictitious Chinquapin, Louisiana, are warm reflections on friendship and sacrifice.
Backyard Renaissance Theatre’s current staging of “Steel Magnolias” directed by Anthony Methvin demonstrates a keen appreciation for the play and its richly drawn characters. This is accomplished by letting the narrative unfold at its required relaxed (if at times dawdling) pace and by allowing the cast to establish its chemistry over time.
Done and done.
Truvy (Wendy Maples) is the anchor of “Steel Magnolias,” proprietor of the salon and earnest purveyor of advice for all. At the opening of the play she’s taken on a young, eager-to-please assistant, Annelle (Claire Kaplan), who is nervously guarding secrets. The gossipy Clairee (Dagmar Kruse Fields) is a regular presence at Truvy’s as is M’Lynn (Marci Anne Wuebben) and her daughter Shelby (Liliana Talwatte). The caustic Ouiser (Annie Hinton) pops in and out, armed with tart remarks and harmless grousing.
The first sign of unease in the otherwise friendly confines of Truvy’s comes with Shelby’s preparation for her wedding – and her mother’s unsolicited advice about anything related to it. The M’Lynn-Shelby relationship will prove to be the crux of “Steel Magnolia’s” drama and the nexus of its poignancy.
Talwatte, underutilized in Backyard Renaissance’s production of “Abigail’s Party” earlier this year, endows Shelby with a sweetness – but not a sugariness – that makes her easy to root for. In the play’s most complex characterization, Wuebben beautifully navigates the most emotional of “Steel Magnolia’s” waters.
The fact is, all these characters are likable in their own way, and thankfully the script isn’t overburdened by each of them having substantial back stories. The enigmatic Annelle comes closest, but her conflicts are shunted off into born-again gesturing.
Kaplan, so alluring and exciting as Picasso’s model in OnStage Playhouse’s recent production of Charles Borkhuis’ “Blue Period,” shows her versatility with “Magnolias.” She’s the outsider who becomes an insider, not unlike what playwright Harling may have wanted for audiences.
Its vivid characters aside, “Steel Magnolias” does demand more than a degree of patience from us. These women may hurry their opinions but they don’t hurry their stories. The atmosphere inside Truvy’s is loving but languid. On opening night at the 10th Avenue Arts Center downtown, the temperature outside was near 90 and it couldn’t have been much cooler inside until the A.C. kicked in, an inconvenience that the folks at Backyard Renaissance earnestly apologized for.
Then again, the swelter fit the play. While fanning yourself, if you closed your eyes you could almost smell the magnolias abloom.
“Steel Magnolias” runs through Sept. 17 at the 10th Avenue Arts Center, downtown.
Sutheshna "Suthe" Mani (left) and Sarah Alida LeClair in "The Pleasure Trials." Photo by Daren Scott
What if there was a pill a woman could take that would boost her sexual desire and ramp up her libido?
There is such a pill in playwright Sarah Saltwick’s “The Pleasure Trials,” now onstage at Moxie Theatre.
Dr. Rachel Milan (Sarah Alida LeClair) is a dead-serious researcher who believes she has developed a medicinal antidote to Female Desire Deficit Disorder, a syndrome that was identified and defined in a thesis by aspiring doctor Callie Young (Suthe Mani), who is now her assistant. Together they are conducting a trial study to determine the efficacy of the unnamed drug, each hoping it will ultimately earn FDA approval. The younger, more excitable Callie wants to be rich and famous; the grimly determined Dr. Milan wants to be the creator of a “miracle” pill.
Much of the first act of “The Pleasure Trials” is comprised of various study volunteers (all played by Andrea Agosto) being interviewed then returning regularly to report on their reactions or side effects (or lack thereof). Dr. Milan and Callie, meanwhile, interpret numbers and readouts and speak in deadening research jargon. The proceedings slog forward in spite of the personality Agosto instills in her multiple characterizations and the presence onstage of cellist Sharon Taylor, who adds grace notes or sound effects when needed.
It’s not until the far more engaging second act of “The Pleasure Trials” that the production directed by Marti Gobel sparks: Callie, after a breakup with her boyfriend, gobbles down a fistful of anti-FDDD pills, while through an attraction to one of the study volunteers Dr. Milan reveals why she is the way she is. If “The Pleasure Trials” was intended to be a comedy, you wouldn’t know it until Act Two. If “The Pleasure Trials” possesses tangible conflict, you wouldn’t know that until Act Two either.
The polar opposites that are Rachel Milan and Callie Young are so mismatched as collaborators that one wonders how they ever got this far in an actual research study. As the uptight doctor, LeClair is hamstrung by her character’s almost complete interiority. At least Mani gets to bust loose in the second act, though after popping way too many libido pills she comes off as high on Maui Wowie more than on sheer lust.
Versatile as Agosto is in her many turns as study volunteers, the play would be more interesting, especially in Act One, if a series of different actors played these roles. It’s not easy to suspend disbelief.
There’s no disputing that Saltwick’s play addresses important questions about female sexual desire and a woman’s right to not only happiness but pleasure. If only it did so with more vibrancy, more humor and less research-speak.
“The Pleasure Trials” runs through Sept. 11 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa in "The Lion King." Photo by Michael Murphy
You never forget your first time.
Seeing “The Lion King.”
For me it was in Hollywood at the Pantages Theatre back in the late ‘90s or early aughts … I’m not certain. But many years afterward, I remember vividly the thrill of the musical’s first 10 minutes, the “Circle of Life”/”Nants Ingonyama” entrance of the African animals into the theater – a stately parade down the aisles toward the stage.
So it was again last night at the Civic Theatre downtown in Broadway San Diego’s presentation of the nationally touring “The Lion King.” This year marks 25 since the Disney production based on the 1994 animated film, with music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, debuted on Broadway. Today “The Lion King” is the third-longest running musical on the Great White Way, and there’s no reason to believe it will be gone anytime soon.
The peerless Julie Taymor first directed “The Lion King” and created the costumes and mask and puppet design (with Michael Curry) for what is as dazzling to the eye as a theatrical production can be. There’s so much to take in and experience throughout the show one hardly knows where to focus.
If it sounds like I’m gushing, maybe that’s the sentimental attachment this big kid has for “The Lion King” and its coming-of-age story of life’s renewal and respect for all living things. Or maybe it’s just that all these years later it remains a damned entertaining spectacle.
The magic and precision of Taymor and Curry’s puppetry may exceed the book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi and even Sir Elton’s and Sir Tim’s score, but ultimately all components of “The Lion King” succeed harmoniously as they have from the beginning.
This touring ensemble is anchored by the ebullient Gugwana Diamini as the narrator Rafiki. In the musical’s three major comedic parts – that of Zazu, King Mufasa’s major domo, and young Simba’s friends Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the flatulent warthog – Jurgen Hooper, Tony Freeman and John E. Brady respectively are clear favorites with the audience, one populated heavily by parents with children. Gerald Ramsey projects the due integrity and gravity of Mufasa, though Spencer Plachy never seems as evil as he should be as the mad king Scar. Could be that his surrounding brigade of hilarious hyenas minimizes his menace.
Slightly overshadowed by all the larger-than-life supporting characters are Darian Sanders as the grown Simba and Kayla Cyphers portraying the lioness Nala who will become his queen. That’s no knock on their performances, which include some beautifully staged sequences: Nala’s flight from the Pride Rock corrupted by Scar in “Shadowlands”; Simba’s reckoning with his legacy and his duty in “He Lives in You”; and the balletic “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which is “The Lion King’s” ballad partner to its carefree frolic “Hakuna Matata.”
You’ve read this far and not a word about the plot of “The Lion King,” right? As if you didn’t know it by now. Suffice it to say that the Circle of Life is destined to prevail and that all living creatures of the African savanna get their moments in the footlights. Oh, and Simba learns that growing up comes with sometimes painful lessons – all of them worthwhile.
“The Lion King” runs through Sept. 11 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
Steven Lone and Richard Baird (with apple) in "As You Like It." Photo courtesy of New Fortune Theatre Company
Sitting outside in a quaint amphitheater in the round with a hazy moon overhead and the faint sounds of crickets chirping in the air, I breathed in an unfettered and unadorned production of “As You Like It” and wondered if this was how Shakespeare meant it to be.
After a five-year hiatus, the New Fortune Theater Company founded by Richard Baird and Amanda Schaar has returned to live productions with a staging of The Bard’s much-loved pastoral comedy under the stars behind Westminster Presbyterian Church in Point Loma. It’s not a permanent venue for the company, but for the purposes of this particular play and a celebration of New Fortune’s return, it’s ideal.
Actors perform under strings of lights sans set or amplification, coming and going from wings that are a church parking lot or the gateway to adjoining Westminster Park. The play’s six songs, such as “Under the Greenwood Tree,” are performed live – just singer/actor (Jaden Guerrero) and stringed instrument. There are no bells and whistles in this Forest of Arden.
Dan Hodge directs this production of “As You Like It,” with Schaar starring as the heroine, Rosalind, and Baird in the role of the melancholy Jaques. The cast includes Steven Lone as Rosalind’s stalwart suitor Orlando, Brian McCann as Touchstone the fool, Rachel VanWormer as Rosalind’s exasperated cousin Celia, and Neil McDonald as both Duke Senior and Duke Frederick. All are in peak form.
So regularly is “As You Like It” produced – the Old Globe Theatre launched its Summer Shakespeare Festival with it in 2019 – that its story is as familiar as any of the Shakespearean comedies: Rosalind flees her tyrannical uncle, in the company of Celia, and finds herself and the man with whom she’s fallen in love, Orlando, there as well. A game of disguise and flirtation ensues.
Love at first sight is de rigeur in the forest, where shepherd Silvius (Geoffrey Ulysses Geissinger) pangs after shepherdess Phoebe (Taylor Henderson), Celia flips for Orlando’s older brother Oliver (Michael Rodriguez) and even Touchstone finds his true love, the goatherd Audrey (Leigh Akin).
The exception to all this toujours l’amour is the brooding Jaques, he who affirms with dismissal that “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” Clad fully in black and at times in shades, Baird conveys every bit of the character’s wryness and gloom. His moody observations are somehow more engrossing in the open air.
Lone brings considerable physicality to Orlando, grappling early in the going with both his brother and the formidable wrestler Charles (Xander Brown). Schaar interprets Rosalind as playful but forthright. VanWormer and McCann are her delightful traveling companions.
Danny Campbell, Durwood Murray and Walter Murray contribute much, too, to their supporting roles in what is a very strong cast.
This is a lengthy show – about two and a half hours – and the amphitheater “seating” is in concrete bleachers, so lawn chairs are welcome (and will prove comfortable). The way the weather’s been lately, sweaters and blankets probably won’t be needed, but that’s up to you.
“As You Like It” marks an inspired and diverting return for New Fortune Theater Company. See it some summer evening before it closes on Aug. 29.
Christopher Michael Rivera (left) and Paul James in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Photo courtesy of the Old Globe Theatre.
What the Puck is going on here? Lysander, who was in love with Hermia, is now in love with Helena. Demetrius, who was also in love with Hermia, is now also in love with Helena? And Helena, who was in love with Demetrius, is now running for the hills. Hermia? Well, she’s still in love with Lysander, so now she thinks her BFF Helena is betraying her.
What fools these mortals be indeed.
It’s not mere mercurial behavior. They’re under the influence of the magic of Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck, a sprite who’s doing the bidding of Oberon, king of the faeries. Only Oberon didn’t exactly decree the wild and crazy ramifications of Puck’s misguided spell.
This is Act 3, Scene 2 of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” when all hysterical hell breaks loose. If you’re confused, you should be. That’s the charm of Shakespeare’s Athenian romp, dressed up for fantasy and populated by kings and queens, faeries, an eccentric acting troupe and those star-crossed lovers.
The Old Globe Theatre’s new production of “Midsummer” is the beneficiary of inspired direction from Patricia McGregor, who emphasizes the play’s rampant passions and slapstick physical comedy. While being true to these integral components, she contemporizes the goings-on, as with original music by hip-hop artist Miki Vale (also presiding from above as DJ), without undermining the heart of the play. Even the inclusion of Journey’s insufferable “Don’t Stop Believin’” is brief, and it’s not too jarring when Quince from the acting troupe chides a male colleague for “mansplaining.”
The DJ’s spoken preludes to scenes I could’ve lived without, but again, they’re quick and not intrusive.
Like all good “Midsummers,” this one is spectacularly turned out – David Israel Reynoso designed the costumes and the scenery on the Globe’s outdoor Festival Stage. Puck (Christopher Michael Rivera) is crowned by a green Mohawk, Titania (Karen Aldridge) looks right out of a glittery Vegas revue, and the ubiquitous faeries flit and float and dazzle.
For this “Midsummer,” Lysander (Bernadette Sefic) is a woman, adding nuance to her relationship with Hermia (Jamie Ann Romero) without screaming attention to it. Romero’s childlike exasperation is a crowd-pleaser.
They’re both outdone by Celeste Arias as the hapless Helena, who makes you want to root for her in the love department.
Among the theatrical players, the central figure is weaver Nick Bottom, played to the hilt by Jake Millgard. On opening night his mic seemed to cut out at one point, but that was no problem for him.
Puck is the comedy’s master of ceremonies. Rivera delivers the goods with all due precociousness.
For me, the perpetual issue with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is that though it moves swiftly through its multi-plot machinations, it must accommodate the long and labored performance for the court by Bottom and his cohorts at the end. This never seems to get funnier regardless of how many times I see the play, try as the actors playing the actors might.
Just goes to show Shakespeare wasn’t perfect.
Bottom line though (forgive me that): This Old Globe production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is suffused with otherworldly delights and vitality. That makes for an enchanting fairy tale.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs through Sept. 4 on the Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Stage in Balboa Park.
"Here There are Blueberries" cast members tell stories of the culpable at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during the Holocaust. Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse.
We are reminded of a terrible truth in “Here There are Blueberries,” a co-production of La Jolla Playhouse and Tectonic Theater Project written by Moises Kaufman and Amanda Gronich: A genocide doesn’t just happen. It takes people to make it happen.
At the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust over a million men, women and children were murdered. Meanwhile, SS personnel methodically and without conscience went about their “business” of operating the camp and hoping to rise in the Nazi ranks. They retreated to a nearby resort, Solahutte, to eat, drink and be merry.
They also posed for photographs.
“Here There are Blueberries” delves into a donation in 2007 by a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives of a photo album he said he found in an abandoned apartment in Frankfurt. Researchers with the USHMM uncovered that it had been the personal album of Karl Hoecker, aide to the Auschwitz commandant Richard Baer.
For 90 minutes, a cast of eight portraying both museum archivists and descendants of the identified Auschwitz killers tells the story through actual photographs of life at the camp on the other side of the gas chamber and crematorium. Rather than humanizing these individuals it attaches names to faces, establishing verified culpability and revealing without question that they knew what was going on in all its evil.
The culpable is not restricted to SS officers, either. The female communications specialists, or Helferinnen, who worked at the camp did not do so in isolation or ignorance. They were in their minds dutifully serving the Reich.
The donated photos show that some of these women were treated to relaxing getaways at Solahutte. The snapshot of Hoecker himself gifting a group with blueberries gives this intense theatrical presentation its title.
Much of “Here There are Blueberries” consists of cast members, including Rosina Reynolds, Jeanne Sakata and Elizabeth Stahlmann as Holocaust historian Rebecca Erbelding, playing museum researchers who explain the photographs (seen in wall-sized black-and-white projections by David Bengali) and the revelations made as to who was who, and who did what.
More compelling still are the dramatizations of interviews done with two of the grandchildren of SS personnel – one of them performed by Charles Browning and another by Charlie Thurston, with Grant James Varjas portraying a descendant who came forward and offered to gather in-person the stories of those like himself -- those processing the complex emotions of inheriting a murderer’s legacy.
The last part of “Here There are Blueberries” concerns another photograph album, this one discovered by an Auschwitz survivor named Lili Jacob. It depicts the thousands and thousands of prisoners at the camp, including herself, many of whom ultimately were sent to their deaths.
If ever there was a theatrical production where the audience sits in complete silence, this is it.
“Here There are Blueberries” is important to see and to remember.
“Here There are Blueberries” runs through Aug. 21 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.
In forefront: Ruibo Qian (left) and Kate Abbruzzese in "Dial M for Murder." Photo by Jim Cox
atta If a mystery is well written, every line moves the story forward.
Frederick Knott’s play “Dial M for Murder” is a well-written mystery. Created for BBC Television in 1952 it moved quickly to a London’s West End stage and then to Broadway. Most famously, it was turned into a film two years later directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly.
Place it in the hands of veteran playwright and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher and you have a “Dial M” for the 21st century. His commissioned adaptation for the Old Globe Theatre possesses all the twists and turns of Knott’s original play and the stylishness of Hitchcock’s film, but even though the story remains set in the 1950s, there’s one contemporary invention: The lover of London socialite Margot Wendice (Kate Abbruzzese) with whom she’s deceiving self-centered husband Tony (Nathan Darrow) is a woman (Ruibo Qian). (In case you’re wondering, man-about-town actor Bob Cummings portrayed Margot’s lover in the movie.)
Other than making Tony a failed writer rather than a retired tennis player – a device that enriches the tale’s irony – Hatcher stays quite true to Knott, a playwright he admires. “Dial M’s” is a simple premise: Tony decides to murder his wife for her money in a plot that involves both blackmailing her and the man Lesgate (Ruy Iskandar) that he hires to do the deed.
How Tony’s plan goes down is far from simple.
A stage mystery like this one requires active listening. It’s a talky affair by necessity, especially through most of the first act, and should your mind wander you’re likely to miss an important clue. “Dial M for Murder” is what Hatcher calls an “inverted mystery,” one in which we know who the killer is from the beginning, so it’s not a whodunit. The attraction for the audience is, like in a cracking good episode of “Columbo,” witnessing the villain setting up his crime then later covering his tracks.
The five-person cast onstage in the intimate Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre performs with panache while avoiding what had to be a temptation to overplay their hands in a true genre piece like this. Darrow is all smug energy and calculation as the morally vacant Tony. Abbruzzese could be one of Hitch’s cool blondes, but she gives her Margot some fire and resolve beneath the rich veneer. As Maxine Hadley, Margot’s mystery-writing paramour, Qian is the smartest person in the room, including the investigating Inspector Hubbard (John Tufts) and especially including Tony.
Under the splendid direction of Stafford Arima, the actors are frequently in motion, making the most of the small space and emphasizing where they are and where things are (as in potential clues) in the evolving mystery. It’s best to keep your eyes as well as your ears open throughout the two-hour drama.
Lighting design by Amanda Zieve, sound design by Leon Rothenberg and snippets of sultry music heighten the ambiance and the suspense. Ryan Park’s costumes, particularly for Margot, would please Hitchcock.
Fight director Rachel Flesher deserves plaudits too for the disturbingly believable attack on Margot by Lesgate. To say more about it would constitute a spoiler.
There’s a lot of exposition and explaining in the script, both before and after this confrontation. Mystery lovers will be indulgent. Others? Well, there’s always those gorgeous costumes, witty byplay and a phone that startles the hell out of you when it rings.
“Dial M for Murder” runs through Aug. 28 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.