Turn Hamlet, with all its ponderous existentialism, inside out and you have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The three-act play by Tom Stoppard, first staged in 1966, has its way with the pronouncements of Shakespeare, making it still a diverting evening of theater and an edgy companion to the Old Globe’s 2013 summer festival that includes A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice. For those who haven’t seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, familiarity with Hamlet is crucial. That not everyone in the crowd is will be apparent when you notice that some theatergoers are laughing while others are not. But enjoying Rosencrantz … mostly requires a willing acceptance of the absurd and an appreciation for metatheatre -- the “play within the play.”
If that all sounds like too much work, fear not. The comic performances by Jay Whittaker and John Lavelle (it’s never totally clear who is Rosencrantz and who is Guildenstern) are spiced with keen physicality, priceless double takes and a rhythmic banter that is damned near Abbott and Costello-ish. Whether turning over coins (heads or tails?) to test the laws of probability, as they do in the first scene, or questioning the inevitability of death sans their friend Hamlet’s melancholy, this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make a delightful, complementary pair.
Besides tossing coins and ruminating, R&G are witness to (and at times participants in) scenes from Hamlet, with, notably, Lucas Hall as the Prince of Denmark and Triney Sandoval bellowing as the nervous King Claudius. On hand during these scenes to pierce the theatrical fourth wall is a camera crew complete with boom microphone, capturing the action. It’s no wonder that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have little clue about what the hell is going on around them, why they’re where they are, and what their role in the scheme of things is supposed to be.
A troupe of Tragedians, led by The Player (the stentorian Sherman Howard), teases our heroes throughout, as if they need any further messing with their heads.
For a three-act play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead unfolds efficiently. With director Adrian Noble at the helm, the action never wanes.
It would be an overstatement to call 2013 “The Year of Tom Stoppard” in San Diego theater, but this certainly has been a banner summer and fall for the knighted, Czech-born British playwright whose wit, intelligence and audacity permeate so many distinguished works. Among them are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the Hamlet knockoff that was the highlight of the Old Globe’s summer season, and Travesties, the fearless romp through literature and history (with heaping helpings of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest) now on stage at Cygnet’s Old Town Theatre. Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray is presenting Travesties and The Importance of Earnest in rotating repertory, just as he did 11 years ago when he was at the helm of the North Coast Rep. Seven actors are doing double duty, appearing in both plays: Jordan Miller, Maggie Carney, Manny Fernandes, Jacque Wilke, Brian Mackey, David Cochran Heath and Rachael VanWormer.
Of the two plays, Travesties is the more daunting, in part because of its non-linear composition, packed as it is with commentary on artistic purpose, precepts of Dadaism, characterizations of Lenin and James Joyce and Tristan Tzara (a founder of the Dada movement), and interweavings of Wilde’s classic The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s all recounted by the highly unreliable narrator that is Henry Carr (Miller), who may or may not be remembering actual events from World War I-era Zurich.
The effect is exhausting, as the action on stage seems to spin giddily out of control (though it’s not, thanks to Murray’s deft direction and a cast operating with pinpoint precision), and the literary, philosophical and political references are so ubiquitous that even the most scholarly audience member should keep his or her program glossary handy. In spite of these challenges, you can’t but be appreciate anew of Stoppard’s creative stamina and inventiveness. Travesties might not make you want to sit down and read Joyce’s gargantuan “Ulysses,” but it might reaffirm your belief in the integrity of knighthood and remind you that Sir Tom Stoppard is worthy of that and more.
British playwright Nina Raine’s Tribes asks us to consider the nature of language itself. Is it more than mere words, sounds, expression? This thought-provoking play about an incredibly dysfunctional (that’s putting it mildly) family wrestling with these same questions is an early highlight of the summer theater season. A cast of newcomers to La Jolla Playhouse under the direction of David Cromer brings a breathless intensity to Raine’s play, in which deaf son Billy (Russell Harvard) struggles to be heard in a manner most meaningful to him by parents (Jeff Still, Lee Roy Rogers) and two siblings (Thomas DellaMonica, Dina Thomas) in denial and afraid to change. Change is inevitable when Billy meets Sylvia (Meghan O’Neill), who is going deaf and who introduces him to sign language, the catalyst for not only Billy’s liberation from isolation but also the redefinition of his family life.
Tribes bravely takes on the controversy within the deaf community over sign language vs. “oralism,” while immersing theatergoers in a microcosmic world in which sound and silence are equally profound or frightening. Nowhere in the play is this more stirring than in the relationship between Billy and schizophrenic brother Daniel (DellaMonica), who hears voices in his head. The connection they forge at the end of Tribes punctuates a heart-rending evening, one where silences on stage and in the audience are unignorable.
With a nod to the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Pygmalion, the Old Globe Theatre is staging George Bernard Shaw’s rarely produced, often bitingly funny commentary on the classes. Brimming with Shaw’s wit and irony, Pygmalion also gave the world two beloved characters: speech professor Henry Higgins and Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle. If you’ve never seen Pygmalion (on stage or the 1938 film), you certainly know the beloved Lerner & Loewe musical version, My Fair Lady, the staging and subsequent filming of which proved to be the crown jewel in Rex Harrison’s career.
For this production, the Globe has enlisted a stellar team, beginning with newly named Globe associate artist Nicholas Martin, who directs. Fellow associate artists Kandis Chappell, Paxton Whitehead, Don Sparks and Deborah Taylor stalwartly support Robert Sean Leonard in the role of Higgins and Charlotte Parry as Eliza.
Though the play’s most memorable lines are well-known to My Fair Lady devotees, and laughter comes easily as a result (particularly when Sparks, as Alfie Doolittle, bellows across the stage), there’s a darker tone to this Pygmalion that possibly the opening nighters didn’t perceive. Leonard’s Higgins is glib and appropriately superior, but he seems preoccupied, even brooding at times (as when he climbs up the winding staircase to an organ and presses its breathy keys). As Eliza, Parry reminds us that in Shaw’s telling of the story (as opposed to the sunnier musical version), this girl from the lower class is profoundly unhappy with her lot, and with herself, practically up to and including the very sobering ending.
So ingrained in our minds is My Fair Lady that we miss not seeing Eliza taking her English lessons from Higgins, and more absent still is any particular scene that suggests a budding affection (or perhaps more) between professor and student. But this was the play Shaw wrote, and his attitude was decidedly unsentimental. Pygmalion must be accepted on its own terms.
Besides Sparks’ Alfie Doolittle, Whitehead is delightful as Higgins’ crony, Col. Pickering, and the sets, costumes and the requisite London rain are all bloody good, as a crony of Eliza’s might say.
“Tommy,” can you hear me? You’ve worn out your welcome. What was groundbreaking as a “rock opera” in 1969 and mildly interesting as a world-premiere stage musical at La Jolla Playhouse in 1992 (never mind the trashy Ken Russell-directed film in 1975) is now as creaky as an old pinball machine. Whatever daring that The Who’s mythical story of the deaf, dumb and blind boy flashed at the end of the ‘60s faded decades ago. And the narrative changes made when the album was initially transformed for the stage – changes that softened and mainstreamed “Tommy” –resulted in what became rather a bore. This is no direct reflection on Moonlight Stage Company’s well-intentioned, season-closing production of The Who’s Tommy, which rings all the buzzers and bells. But try as the able cast directed by John Vaughan does, it can’t resurrect an excitement and energy that existed more than a generation ago.
There’s such a joyous, fresh-scrubbed look to this production that it feels like “The Cast of ‘Glee’ Does ‘Tommy.’” While the bullying of Cousin Kevin (Mark Bartlett) and predatory abuse of Uncle Ernie (Paul Morgavo) have the requisite repellance, this ensemble’s Acid Queen (Anise Ritchie) isn’t very menacing. Eddie Egan is all sincerity as Tommy, but he never seems much like a rebel or false God. Like all of Moonlight’s summer of 2013 musicals, The Who’s Tommy’s choreography is crackerjack. Musicians conducted by Dr. Terry O’Donnell are faithful to Pete Townshend’s score, which after 44 years is, regrettably, uninvolving. The music of The Who in general smacks of another time long past, today as canned as classic rock radio. Does it seem possible that Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon were once considered proto-punks by a discerning intelligentsia?
It’s a shame that The Who’s Tommy is the closer of what has been an otherwise delightful summer at Moonlight, highlighted by a rollicking production of Young Frankenstein. Better to remember this summer under the stars by a “mad” scientist and a monster singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” than by a rock-culture relic that, let’s face it, should have been left alone as one of the great albums of all time.
Herbert Siguenza doesn’t merely portray Pablo Picasso – he inhabits him in his one-man show, A Weekend with Pablo Picasso. From the opening moments, when he is luxuriating in his bath, to the creation of the last of the weekend’s six paintings – attacking a canvas with the flourish of a bullfighter– Siguenza lives the passion, joy and ferocity of Picasso. Yet there’s a playfulness to this inhabitation that staves off self-indulgence, a warmth as radiant as the south of France in which this play is set.
Siguenza, an artist in residence at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, first proposed the idea of the Picasso show to Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse five years ago. A year and a half later, Siguenza, who wrote the script, workshopped the one-act play there. After productions in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Denver, A Weekend with Pablo Picasso, directed by San Diego Rep associate artistic director Todd Salovey, has returned to place of its origin. The premise: Picasso, at age 76, has been commissioned to complete six paintings and three vases over the course of a single weekend – which he knocks off as easily as one would a glass of red wine. The audience serves as watchful art students with whom the great painter shares his philosophies, his wit and a few confessions over the course of the weekend in question. Along the way, Siguenza, an accomplished painter in his own right, creates a body of Piicasso-like paintings and sketches. It’s fascinating to watch him work as quickly and deftly as he does. The lessons imparted about art – in particular how it is inexorably intertwined with politics – are taught less by a professor to his students than by a man of the world to other, more innocent members of his kind.
As you might expect, there is no dramatic arc to A Weekend with Pablo Picasso, no action rising to clear climax. This weekend unfolds at Picasso’s whim. Not mere monologue, the show is enlivened by music, stage projections and “bits,” which find Siguenza not only in bullfighter’s cape but at one point donning the red nose of a clown. But it’s the intermittent painting on stage that most makes us believe that we are, incredibly, in the presence of a personality as towering as his art.
Who’s educating who? This is the not so cryptic underlying question of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, the veddy British dramedy that in the ‘80s made a star out of Julie Walters, the actress who originated the title role on London’s West End and reprised it in a well-received film co-starring Michael Caine. While Rita is the one seeking an education, her tutor, Frank, is immersed in a serious case of professor, teach thyself.
The parts of the alcoholic Open University prof and the working-class girl he’s tutoring in literature and in life are decidedly showy ones. In other words, there’s dangerous opportunity for the pair playing the roles in Russell’s two-character play to run amok. Director Rosina Reynolds keeps that from happening in the North Coast Rep’s new production of Educating Rita, which features Meghan Andrews (last seen at NCR in Words by Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook) as the unpolished hairdresser who reads Harold Robbins and Bjorn Johnson as Frank, who hides his Scotch whiskey on bookshelves behind volumes of Dickens. Andrews’ accent doesn’t always sound exclusively Liverpudilian, and she occasionally seems to speak to the audience rather than to Johnson, but her good-natured Rita is a sympathetic one. She also gets to change outfits a dozen times. The more restrained Johnson with his unkempt hair and beard bears Frank’s burdens of booze and too many bad essays well, and conveys the rumpled look of a timeworn academic.
Like Pygmalion, Educating Rita is a tale of opposite classes learning to appreciate the other. Rita wants to understand great literature; Frank, it turns out, wants to understand her (he’s given up on himself). The two searching souls achieve a restless acceptance of their destinies, Frank’s more restless than Rita’s.
There are moments of genuine warmth and amusement in this production, though many of the quickly unfolding mini-scenes are short on dramatic tension. Frank’s college-office set, in which the entire play takes place, would feel claustrophobic if it weren’t so appealing (kudos to scenic artist John Finkbiner). No wonder it is, in different ways, both Frank’s and Rita’s escape.
Everyone and everything – including the script – is way over the top in Charles Busch’s nun-centric spoof The Divine Sister at Diversionary Theatre. Loosely a parody of such holier-than-thou flicks as “The Sound of Music,” “Doubt” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” The Divine Sister is a helluva hoot for the actors. Here’s guessing Yolanda Franklin, Daren Scott (in drag as the Mother Superior), Maggie Carney, Lauren King, Dangerfield G. Moore and Jacque Wilke have never had so much fun on stage. The audience may have less fun with a production that resurrects the usual nuns ‘n’ Catholic school gags, proffers awkward lip-synching numbers and is more plot-heavy than need be. It’s an 87-minute skit, more or less. Wilke, however, is howlingly funny in multiple roles, including that of a leather-clad Catholic hit woman.
Any way you cut it, The Sound of Music is as sugary sweet as one of those cupcake joints, just not as trendy. The old-fashioned family musical to end all old-fashioned family musicals was the last collaboration between Rodgers & Hammerstein. It may not have been their best show, but it arguably was their most popular.
I caught San Diego Musical Theatre’s new production of The Sound of Music on Mother’s Day, and the matinee audience was filled with mothers, fathers and lots of kids. Many of the latter grew restless by the time the 90-minute first act was over, but if your children have the endurance and the attention span, they’ll likely enjoy the songfest that includes the childlike “Do-Re-Mi,” the fanciful “My Favorite Things” and “The Lonely Goatherd,” which has to be the silliest Rodgers & Hammerstein tune of all time (the yodeling doesn’t help) but is still a kid-pleaser.
The star of the SDMT production is really the 23-piece orchestra directed by Don Le Master, which faithfully recreates The Sound of Music’s most affecting songs, among them the title tune and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” the near-operatic anthem that closes Act 1 and the finale. Allison Spratt Pearce is both earnest and jaunty as Fraulein Maria, and her vocals are pure if not wowzer. The two wowzer voices are those of Randall Dodge in the comparatively thankless role of Captain von Trapp and Victoria Strong as the Mother Abbess who gets to belt out “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” to the rafters.
The kids are, well, the kids. They sound just fine throughout, though some grown-ups will feel cavities forming as some of the numbers featuring the young ones are delivered.
Just as the Oscar-winning film adaptation was long, so is this production, but then you know that going in – or you should have. Director/choreographer Todd Nielsen moves it all along best he can, and there are no dead spots.
The score’s little treasure, “Edelweiss,” feels underplayed, sandwiched between a reprise of “Do-Re-Mi” and the von Trapp family’s musical ruse to escape the Nazis. (In the film, it was also sung earlier in the story.) Even so, it’s still the prettiest song ever written about a flower that was not a rose.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.