It’s called Around the World in 80 Days at Lamb’s Players Theatre, but it should be called Around the World in Two Hours. That’s how long (or not so long) it takes to tell Jules Verne’s sprawling 1873 story of Phileas Fogg’s trans-global quest. It’s a whirlwind telling, with change of scenery that’s more imaginary than real, and almost no props (save a very inventive “elephant” and a snow sledge that swings like a pendulum).
Laura Eason’s adaptation of Verne’s novel and Lamb’s Artistic Director Robert Smyth’s staging must get props for ambition: London, Dover, Calais, Brindisi, Suez, Bombay, Calcutta, Yokohoma, Hong Kong, San Francisco and New York all on one stage. But the story is very earnest and light as gossamer, with an impeccably confident Fogg (Lance Arthur Smith) upstaged by his more frantic but likable valet Passepartout (Bryan Barbarain) and a Snidely Whiplash (minus the mustache twirl) of a Scotland Yard man (Jon Lorenz) who keeps turning up like a bad penny. Kaja Amado Dunn is sweetness personified as the Indian girl rescued from a funeral pyre, and though her character and Smith’s Fogg enjoy no particular chemistry, you just know they’re going to end up together.
It’s difficult to place much emotional investment in any of the adventures that comprise this episodic around-the-world trek. As soon as something seems to be at stake in one of the exotic locales, our heroes and heroine are snatching their suitcases, kicking up their heels and on their way again, racing to catch a coach, a train or a boat. (At least they don’t have to race to catch the elephant – they just negotiate to buy the beast.) If the pacing feels hurried, you can hardly blame director Smyth or the cast members – after all, Verne had 37 chapters to tell this tale.
The played-straight show could use much more tongue in cheek and tendency to spoof, as it does with a clever “Star Trek” reference in Act 2 and a running joke about absent balloons (you’ll have to be there). Jackie Chan tried to have fun with this story in a 2004 film and flopped. At least Lamb’s has that turkey beat, and you don’t have to sit through 80 days of movie previews beforehand.
The further time distances us from Vietnam, the more the realities of America’s misguided war become apocryphal and the more its pop-cultural framing diminishes our perception and overshadows our shortening memories of the horror. Grist for writers, filmmakers and playwrights in the 10 years or so following the 1973 Paris Accord, the war to some extent came to be symbolized by the head-trip images of “Apocalypse Now” or the iconic helicopter of “Miss Saigon” or the confessional memoir “Born on the Fourth of July.” History books for those born after the mid-‘90s teach My Lai and Agent Orange and napalm, but try asking a Generation Z-er why we were in Vietnam in the first place, then brace yourself for a blank stare. Mixing art, commentary and history is a redoubtable task. Explaining war to anyone who hasn’t been in one is more formidable still.
Actor-playwright Amlin Gray tried in 1981 with a black comedy called How I Got That Story, which episodically chronicles the intellectual and emotional awakenings of a reporter descended into the hell of “Am-bo Land,” tape recorder and notepad at the ready. The guerrillas, G.I.’s, bar girls and martyrs he meets erode then destroy his naivete. His life, as with the doomed and the dutiful alike, will never be the same.
Thirty-one years later, How I Got That Story is on stage at the Tenth Avenue Theatre downtown, where Seema Sueko directs a Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company production that utilizes only two actors: Brian Bielawski as the reporter and Greg Watanabe as all the other characters, male and female. Bielawski and Watanabe are as tireless as they are tenacious with their portrayals, surviving a scattershot and flawed first act before collaboratively striking a cathartic tone in Act 2, when the scenes of How I Got That Story are allowed to breathe.
The self-immolation of a Vietnamese man and a numbing visit to an orphanage are resonant moments. Some of the chaotic combat and escape sequences are less successful, and the human-generated sound effects suggest improv troupers who played with a tape recorder.
A pre-show video of testimonials supports the Mo’olelo production’s message that we should never forget. At the very least, we remember again for one night, even if we still don’t understand.
There’s one at every Thanksgiving dinner, the family member or friend who pontificates and preaches about politics, the rest of the guests be damned. Even if you are in philosophical agreement, it’s wearying.
Now you can envision Ellen (Aubrey Saverino), the fiercely committed pontificator of Lisa Kron’s In the Wake, through March 4 at San Diego Repertory Theatre under the direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. The first scene of In the Wake’s 80-minute-long first act is devoted to Thanksgiving 2000 in an East Village apartment, with freelance journalist Ellen in the company of her extended family – incredibly patient live-in lover Danny (Francis Gercke), his sister Kayla (Jo Anne Glover) and Kayla’s lover Laurie (DeAnna Driscoll), and Ellen’s longtime friend Judy (Stephanie Dunnam). Meanwhile, the specter of the still-unsettled presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore hovers over the proceedings and feeds Ellen’s lengthy diatribes. It’s all a precursor to Ellen’s gradual discovery that passionate and righteous though she is, she has a blind spot, and it comes with consequences beyond the political. When Ellen meets and falls for Amy (Karson St. John), a gay filmmaker, her house and her heart become divided. And you know what they say about a house divided.
Kron intended Ellen to be an allegory for a changing America, she says, and that’s clear enough in the self-revelations Ellen makes in Act 2. But the balancing act between political and personal awakening is a tenuous one. Ellen is so relentlessly didactic that she’s exhausting and not consistently sympathetic. Her righteousness feels like narcissism, particularly in the wake (pun very much intended) of the love triangle she creates.
In the Wake’s polemics should more frequently defer to visceral emotion of the kind Amy expresses when Ellen chooses between lovers. The discourse-dominated scenes may be sharply written, but they’re less human.
A screen above the stage flickers before each scene with footage from the 2000 post-election coverage and infamous moments from the subsequent Bush presidency. Between that and Ellen’s personal missteps, there’s plenty of collateral damage to go around.
Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” is one of the most enduring holiday tunes ever written. It’s a classic. The same can’t be said for the 1954 film “White Christmas,” in spite of the presence of stars Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera Ellen and Rosemary Clooney. The movie does benefit from a mostly stellar collection of Berlin songs, including “White Christmas.” Bing and Danny keep the goings breezy, and Clooney gives the squeaky-clean shine some sexiness.
The 8-year-old musical written by David Ives and Paul Blake, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, strays even further from the brilliance of the original song. Its story, about two WWII vets-turned-song and dance men, the sister act they romance and the ex-general to whom they pay tribute, is about the same as the film’s. Throw in a few Berlin numbers not in the movie (“How Deep is the Ocean “ “I Love A Piano,” to name two), a few new (and unnecessary) characters and you have “White Christmas Live!”
San Diego Musical Theatre is dishing it up for the holidays in North Park, and like folks after Christmas dinner, it’s overstuffed. The minor housekeeper and granddaughter parts from the movie have been transformed into too-visible characters: an Ethel Merman-wannabe (Karla Franko) and a precocious singing granddaughter from California. There’s also a laconic, grunting handyman – the less said about him the better.
Among the leads, ebullient Jill Townsend, recently seen in the Globe’s towering Allegiance, is the most engaging, as Haynes sister Judy. Laura Dickinson as sibling Betty renders a powerful “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” and David Engel is dependable in the rather dull role Bing played in the film. Jeffrey Scott Parsons, as the other half of the song-and-dance duo, can be irritating, but then so was Danny Kaye.
The choreography at the SDMT, by Lisa Hopkins, is the high point of the production. In fact, the large ensemble of costumed dancers generates so much energy that the rest of the show seems to lag. You’re more than ready to sing along to the closing “White Christmas” – but then “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” gets tacked on for some reason. Yuletide excess. It’s a tradition.
Time travel can be tricky business, and at Diversionary Theatre, which is staging Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, it’s trickier still. Francis Gercke and Brian Mackey play gay lovers in both 1958 and 2008. Each is named Philip and Oliver, but the Philip and Oliver of 1958 are not the same characters as the Philip and Oliver of 2008. Still with me? Jessica John is Sylvia, Philip’s melancholy wife in ’58 and Oliver’s straight gal pal in 2008.
Directed by Glenn Paris, artistic director at ion theatre, The Pride puts under the microscope the complexity of gay attraction and relationships. Half a century ago, closets were full and feelings were suppressed not only by self-recrimination but, as shown in a harrowing Act 2 scene, by institutionalized aversion therapy. Philip and his wife’s boss, Oliver, are drawn together then rent asunder as much as by the times as by their fears. The 2008 characters called Philip and Oliver are undone by one’s promiscuity and each lover’s insecurities.
Consequently, the 1958 scenes hold greater emotional and psychological heft, and Gercke, Mackey and especially John seem to dig deeper in them. The Act 1 closer, set in ’58, conveys The Pride’s darkness and desperation, which seem to waft in and out of the contemporary sequences.
Good People, David Lindsay-Abaire’s play set in both working-class South Boston and upper-class Chestnut Hill, is having its local premiere at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. It’s intended to be a biting commentary on the class divide, though it never decides whether it wants to bare its teeth or be a salty quip-fest around the bingo table. Its characters – the bingo-playing “Southies” and the lace-curtain Chestnutters – are rather unlikable, though Robin Pearson Rose’s Dottie the landlady is like out of an R-rated episode of “The Golden Girls.” Struggling single mother Maggie (Eva Kaminsky) is so desperately short on self-esteem and self-respect that she inspires pity more than sympathy, especially in Good People’s more confrontational second act.
From the moment the bone-tired and recalcitrant Anna Christie plops herself down in Johnny-the-Priest’s saloon, you suspect that she is the proverbial “woman with a past.” By the end of Act 1, you’re damned near sure of it. When your suspicions are confirmed in Act III, you wonder what took Anna’s guilt-ridden old salt of a father and churlishly self-righteous lover so long to figure it out.
Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, one of the Irish playwright’s most melodramatic (and that’s saying something) works, withholds its emotional explosions. But finally the tale becomes a shouting match between Anna’s Swedish father and Irish lover, with the alternately contrite and resolute girl in the middle, dodging flailing arms and recriminations. In an overcooked production at the Old Globe Theatre, Bill Buell (as Anna’s father, Chris), Austin Durant (as the lover, Mat Burke) and Jessica Love in the title role occupy the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre like combatants without neutral corners. Lurking in the darkness, invisible, is the “old devil sea” that is the play’s much-repeated metaphor. Love’s too-measured delivery is swamped by the warring Swedish and Irish accents, and O’Neill’s resolution, which smacks of Anna’s submission, doesn’t elicit sympathy for anyone.
Juan Jose’s history lesson is the stuff dreams are made of. One moment he’s in the presence of Lewis & Clark and a bespectacled Sacagawea (he calls her “Saca-chihuahua”). The next moment he’s looking down the barrel of a hapless Ku Klux Klansman’s gun. Juan Jose’s dreaming transports him to a Japanese internment camp, to Woodstock and into the hot seat at a TV game show that will decide whether he becomes an American citizen.
American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose, now at La Jolla Playhouse, is a madcap and frequently potent lesson in U.S. history. It’s a new work by Richard Montoya of the intrepid Chicano-Latino performance troupe Culture Clash, last seen at the Playhouse in 2006’s uproarious Zorro in Hell. Directed by Jo Bonney and propelled by a cast that includes Culture Clash’s Montoya and Hebert Siguenza and seven others, American Night bristles with commentary about the profiling of not only Mexicans but all minorities that Uncle Sam marginalizes and scrutinizes.
Juan Jose (Rene Millan) is a young Mexican who yearns to be a U.S. citizen to make a better life for himself, his wife and their child. The dreams that visit him the night before he takes his citizenship exam cause him to think long and hard about his imagined better life. The episodic American Night is fast moving and rife with sight gags (a costumed bear, a sumo wrestler, a Teddy Roosevelt, a Ben Franklin and many more). It’s a jam-packed one-act that might have been two, but possibly director Bonney and Culture Clash felt an intermission would interrupt the flow. Tackling 200 years of American history is ambitious to say the least, and some sequences are more successful, and funnier, than others. That being said, when Montoya (who portrays a heavily armed revolutionary and a side-splitting Bob Dylan, among others) and Siguenza (comically brilliant as always) are on stage, everything seems to work.
The use of a back screen for words and graphics enhance this trip back in time, and a musical finale led by Siguenza as one of our hammiest pop singers is just the right capper for this American night, Juan Jose’s and ours.
A robust performance by Cygnet Theatre Artistic Director Sean Murray as Don Quixote invigorates the old warhorse, Man of La Mancha, at the Old Town Theatre. In the spell of love and that well-known impossible dream, Murray’s Cervantes/Quixote is the anchor for a gifted cast that includes David Kirk Grant and Bryan Barbarin (both seen in Cygnet’s stellar Parade), and Linda Libby and Katie Whalley (companionable in ion theatre’s Gypsy last year). A restrained overture performed by two guitarists sets in motion a production that is well costumed (design by Jeanne Reith) and staged on a set by Sean Fanning that facilitates ominous entrances from above, sword play and fighting muleteers.
If Erika Beth Phillips is operatic as Aldonza and numbers like Sancho Panza’s “A Little Gossip” filler, the anticipation of and reveling in “The Impossible Dream,” given its due by Murray, makes revisiting Man of La Mancha satisfying enough.
If R2D2 took an acid trip, he’d no doubt wind up in the world of Heddatron, Elizabeth Meriwether’s spaced-out story of a Michigan housewife, Henrik Ibsen and robot abduction. If that sounds like input overload, imagine the task of pulling off a show featuring five functioning robots on ion theatre’s little BLKBOX stage. The ‘bots are the stars of the show, but a human cast led by Monique Gaffney as abductee Jane Gordon holds its own in a production directed by ion’s Claudio Raygoza. Besides the transcontinental travel, there’s a time-travel subplot, in which a doofus Ibsen (Charles Peters) tangles with August Strindberg, a deprecating wife and an uneasy legacy. Heddatron is a narrative and audio-visual mishmash not for the conventional theater-goer, or for those who can’t abide Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” resurrected to shuddering effect.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat