Left to right: Jacque Wilke, Christopher M. Williams and Shana Wride in "The Outsider." Photo by Aaron Rumley
"The Outsider" manages to be political without being partisan. That's a feat. "The Outsider" also manages to make politics funny. That's a feat as well, particularly in these grim days when the political spectrum is downright depressing.
Paul Slade Smith's comedy adopts the premise that a timid, strictly behind-the-scenes lieutenant governor of an unspecified state is suddenly thrust into the No. 1 job after the governor resigns over an illicit sexual tryst (with a beauty pageant runner-up yet). To say that Lt. Gov. Ned Newley is reluctant and unprepared to take over is the play's grand understatement. But things change in a major way when an opportunistic and less-than-ethical political consultant flies in from the big city determined to not only mold Ned into a governor but into a political superstar. The catch: Ned is to be fashioned and presented as something between a rube and an "average guy" whose appeal is that he knows nothing at all about government.
North Coast Repertory Theatre is staging the West Coast premiere of Smith's 2018 two-acter, and it's funnier than even its premise may sound. Sure, there are a couple of dead spots in the storytelling here and there, but for the most part "The Outsider" is clever and blessed with some howling visual bits (best of all the live-TV interview with Ned and his dingbat secretary -- more on her in a minute -- that closes the first act).
Director David Ellenstein's got a marvelous cast, including North Coast Rep newcomer John Seibert, who makes a neurotic but likable Ned. Christopher M. Williams is sympathetically harried as Ned's able chief of staff David, who shudders at the shameless devices of the lauded political wonk Arthur Vance (Louis Lotorto, overplaying just a bit). Shana Wride is authoritative and wry as a pollster, Natalie Storrs sharp as a conscience-ridden newscaster, and Max Macke very good as a laconic TV cameraman who it turns out has a lot to say.
But this production belongs to Jacque Wilke, whose clueless but irresistibly perky Louise (aptly nicknamed Lulu) becomes the political consultant's prize project far and above what Ned Newley might have been. Wilke is a wonder to watch throughout, whether she's spouting ludicrous sentiments, demonstrating all that she doesn't know about working in an office, jockeying for time on camera, following Vance's choreographed color-coded-card responses to the reporter's questions, or just looking sweet and big eyed and happily vacant. She's costumed to look more than a little like Sarah Palin in Act 2, though Palin at her most energetic couldn't keep up with Lulu.
"The Outsider" also has a simple but admirable point to make about government and those who go in for governing, and it isn't made with a heavy hand. All the better for a comedy that for a couple of hours might make you forget what the insiders are up to.
"The Outsider" runs through March 22 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
Andrea Agosto (left) and August Forman in "A Kind Of Weather." Photo by Simpatika
Kid (August Forman) is trans and in transition in more ways than one. Gender and career identity are crystallizing. Romance (with the editor of Kid's book, Rose (played with pluck by Andrea Agosto) is blooming, albeit uneasily. Then comes the capper: Kid's father (Andrew Oswald) shows up out of a clear blue sky, disoriented and despondent and asking to crash indefinitely. The skies above Flatbush, Brooklyn, circa 2012, are darkening in Sylvan Oswald's "A Kind Of Weather," having its world premiere at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.
This production directed by Bea Basso is undeniably absorbing from start to finish 90 minutes later. Oswald has a talent for literate but unpretentious language, and the sorts of interpersonal conflicts dramatized in "A Kind Of Weather" need not be confined to the specific crises of its characters. Many of us know too well the slings and arrows of relationships with estranged parents or with potential romantic partners. Much to its credit too is the production's five-person ensemble, led by Forman, who fashions a sincerely vulnerable but forthright portrayal of Kid while anchoring the play's disparate emotive directions. Oswald, a recent honoree of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle for his performance last year in "The Hour of Great Mercy," also at Diversionary, conveys with subtlety all of Grey's tormented complications (his unfaithfulness to his wife, his infatuation with his lover, his guilt over his wife's subsequent sudden death, his conflict over the transition of his daughter, now son). Agosto's Rose when not in flirtation mode, is the story's blunt, sensible voice.
The messaging of the play is clear and dynamic enough, though the story's presentation takes many divergent theatrical turns. Kid, Grey, Rose and Janice, Grey's lover (played with dignity by Marci Anne Wuebben) recurringly address the audience directly in monologue, only to shift back into the rhythm of a scene. Kid and Rose's tense romancing gives way on a couple of occasions to MGM-big-screen fantasy sequences. All characters break into a stagy musical number at one point. In the execution of these strategies, the play's thoughtful tone persists, but I actually found myself being taken out of the story more than once to the point where I felt I was watching not people, but characters. A constant musical hum in the background was also distracting.
Kid's plight and, at the same time, Forman's performance as Kid, kept me involved on all levels, weathering if you will the production's overreaching for ingenuity.
"A Kind Of Weather" is the first in a trilogy of what Diversionary Theatre is calling its "Gender Series." Next up will be Miranda Rose Hall's "Plot Points In Our Sexual Development," beginning March 26.
"A Kind Of Weather" runs through March 8 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.
Rami Margron (left) and Opal Alladin in "Hurricane Diane." Photo by Jim Cox
There are two ways to look at Madeleine George's "Hurricane Diane": one, as a keenly crafted commentary on the ecological and environmental neglect we've done to our planet and the need for enlightened, responsible solutions -- all wrapped in a fantastical comedy; the other, as an absurdist spoof of Greek mythology, suburban-housewife angst and upward mobility -- played for laughs at full-throated volume.
As with most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but "Hurricane Diane" lists heavily toward the latter interpretation. Its West Coast premiere inside the Old Globe's cozy Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre seems to opt for freeze-frame one-liners and comic physicality over the imparting of any sobering messages. Climate-change backdrop or not, there's more "Real Housewives of New Jersey" here than "An Inconvenient Truth."
If opening night at the White was any indication, the choice to go this route, whether dictated by George's script or James Vasquez's diretion, was a wise one. Throughout all the sight gags and uttered innuendo, a significant number of audience members could be heard exhorting the characters and "Yessing!" their approval. Whether "Hurricane Diane's" messaging sank in over the 90 minutes is an open question.
Though not for me.
In spite of the lecturing from the main character, Greek god Dionysus-turned-butch-gardener Diane, about permaculture and ecosystemming, what struck and stayed with me were the comic turns of the five actors onstage. Frankly, least of all that of Rami Margron as Diane, who strutted and raged but didn't convincingly portray an otherworldly empowered seductress.
The story finds Diane, in her would-be seduction of these unhappy, wine-sipping housewives, scheming to recruit them as acolytes and in the process reinvigorate the neglected physical world. One at a time she pursues them: Beth (Jennifer Paredes), a decidedly unhappy sort; Renee (Opal Alladin), editor of HGTV Magazine and openly bisexual; Carol (Liz Wisan), a smart but materialistic businesswoman; and Pam (Jenn Harris), who dresses sexy and cracks wise like few have ever cracked wise. All are mired in unfulfilling marriages except poor Beth, who's already been abandoned in hers.
Diane's seductions are not very artful, yet all but one succeeds -- the details of that I won't spoil, for the circumstances constitute the most dramatic and spectacular sequence of the show.
The housewife actors (and yes, this is set in New Jersey) give it their absolute all, especially Harris in the juiciest role of Pam. Wisan is, like her character, more subtle and much more interesting. Alladin and Paredes blossom fully late in the going when they've become Diane's acolytes, physically and sartorially. How you'll feel about the musical numbers they perform is anyone's guess.
Bottom line: Greek mythology was never like this.
"Hurricane Diane" runs through March 8 in the Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
Miguel Gongora Jr. and Heather Warren in "Going To A Place Where You Already Are." Photo by Daren Scott
While undergoing an MRI to diagnose chronic back pain, Roberta goes into shock. When she is again aware of the world around her, that world is unlike any she’s ever seen, heard or felt. The brights are brighter. The tiniest sounds echo with warmth, comfort, familiarity. She moves in a soft, slow parade of one, scarcely aware of her physicality.
Roberta is … in heaven?
Bekah Brunstetter is hardly the first playwright undaunted enough to confront death and immortality, nor is her one-act drama “Going To A Place Where You Already Are” the first time she’s done so. Her poignant “Be A Good Little Widow” at the Old Globe seven years ago in its way tackled these same eternal questions. But then as now, Brunstetter is intuitive enough to create relatably human characters who ache to answer the unanswerable yet ultimately rely on each other for inner peace.
OnStage Playhouse’s production of “Going To A Place Where You Already Are,” smartly directed by Hannah Logan, addresses its inscrutable subject with tenderness and humor. Prior to her mid-MRI “transporting,” from which she does return to consciousness, Roberta (Jody Catlin) had told her husband of nearly 30 years, Joe (Richard Rivera): “I don’t trust strangers. Even God.” Joe is an equally avowed “dust to dust” atheist who will dismiss Roberta’s account of having gone “to another place” with knowing physiological explanations.
This is the one incongruity in Brunstetter’s otherwise seamless script: Wouldn’t Joe, who adores Roberta, humor her, at least in words, in spite of his dyed-in-the-wool disbelief?
Roberta’s MRI reveals that her body is filled with deadly tumors. Her newly embraced faith in another world is deepened by more dramatized glimpses of it, and of someone already there who’s near and dear to her past. At the same time, Joe’s staunch skepticism becomes rooted in his determination to not lose forever his beloved spouse.
Integrated into Roberta and Joe’s plight is the presence, initially long-distance and briefly in person, of his estranged, extremely neurotic granddaughter Ellie (Heather Warren). Even before Ellie finds herself unable to process Roberta’s fate, she is berating herself as a terrible person. Jonas (Miguel Gongora Jr.), the man she’s just slept with, is in a wheelchair and Ellie is convinced she’ll be uncomfortable and embarrassed if a relationship leads to their being together in public.
The Ellie/Jonas dynamic is more distraction from than adjunct to the urgency of Roberta’s and Joe’s tests of faith and love. Patrick Mayuyu’s appearances as an unseen, wonder-working angel, however, are charming and effective.
“Going To A Place Where You Already Are” is Joe and Roberta’s story, and at OnStage they become everyone’s grandparents. For all his scoffing, Rivera’s Joe is ever devoted to Roberta, and we admire him for it. Catlin’s truly lovely performance transcends what might be for some the unsettling inquiries of the play. If Roberta has glimpsed “the other side,” her joy, as embodied by Catlin, is infectious.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat