Antonio TJ Johnson and Joy Yvonne Jones in "The Ferryman." Photo by Daren Scott
The Irish wouldn’t appreciate the analogy, but Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman” is a play of Shakespearean scope. You’ve got three and a half hours of drama. You’ve got a huge cast, including children and live animals. You’ve got a complex and psychologically rich interweaving of family members, allies and enemies. You’ve got the backdrop of a major conflict – in this case not a battlefield war but “The Troubles.” You’ve got song on stage, madness on stage and violence on stage.
I rest my case.
That New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad is the first company outside of London or New York to produce “The Ferryman” is not only a coup for the NVA, but a triumph of ambitiousness. What a way to officially open its renamed Conrad Prebys Theatre at the transformed Dea Hurston New Village Arts Center.
“The Ferryman’s” been open since the end of January and it’s virtually sold out through the end of its run on March 5. It took me awhile to get a ticket, but I have to say it was worth it, and the three-plus-hour, two-intermission sitting didn’t bother me anywhere near as much as did driving home in a pouring rainstorm. Looking back, the weather was compatible with the overriding mood of the story of the Carney family at harvest time in Rural County Armagh in 1981.
Not that everything is dour, in spite of the tragic sacrifice of the Irish Republican hunger strikers very much palpable in the atmosphere. Harvest time is above all a time to celebrate and rejoice in being together, and as the massive Carney clan convenes at the start of the play there is laughter and playfulness amid the tension.
“The Ferryman” traffics in parallel narratives: the personal travails of the family and the political upheaval in their midst.
Head of the family Quinn Carney (Thomas Edward Daugherty, showing no signs of rust after having been away from his craft for 20 years) embodies both. He has a martyr of a spouse (Mary, portrayed by Kym Pappas) and a sister-in-law (Caitlin, played by Joy Yvonne Jones) who makes his life happy again. On the other hand, he is soon threatened by an IRA thug (Max Macke) to keep silent about the murder of Caitlin’s husband – Quinn’s brother – Seamus. If Quinn pursues justice for his brother, his feelings for Caitlin will be revealed. There’s even a family priest (Daren Scott) employed as a reluctant go-between.
The IRA has also infiltrated one of the family’s cousins, Shane Corcoran (Layth Haddad), who is among the harvest participants and revelers at the Carney farm. His presence proves volatile, explosive.
Under the same roof is Quinn’s Aunt Patricia (Grace Delaney) militantly swearing ruin to Margaret Thatcher and her foot soldiers, and a hapless Englishman named Tom Kettle (Dallas McLaughlin) who harbors a secret that will lead to disappointment and disaster.
All this plus delusional Aunt Maggie (Dagmar Krause Fields) whose grasp of reality is a slippery one; Uncle Patrick (Antonio TJ Johnson), ever-quoting mythology and the de facto presider over family festivities; Carney sons James Joseph (Nick Daugherty), Michael (Ben McLaren) and baby Bobby (portrayed onstage by a real, honest-to-goodness baby); Carney daughters Shena (Juliana Scheding), Nunu (Priya Richard), Mercy (Lucy Zavatterro) and Honor (Lena Palke); and … I’ve got to stop. My typing fingers are tired.
There are so many layers to “The Ferryman” story – too many to go over here – that it requires a family tree diagram and a recap of Irish rebellion history, both available in the handout program. What keeps the production from sinking under the weight of its own density are the script’s recurring mysteries, like everything else in this show depicted with care under the great direction of Kristianne Kurner; moments of joyous Irish dancing that are frustrating to watch because you’d rather be down on the stage with the actors; and of course some outstanding performances.
Besides Thomas Edward Daugherty’s stalwart and sensitive turn as Quinn, Johnson brings bigger-than-life presence to Uncle Patrick and Delaney unwavering intensity to Aunt Patricia. Among the young actors, Haddad shines as Shawn Corcoran, unwitting pawn of the manipulating Muldoon.
Doug Cumming’s scenic design, of the various cozy rooms, corners and stairwells of the Carney farmhouse, instill the new NVA theater with a touch of Ireland. Even when things are dark and dangerous inside the Carney home, it invites the viewer into a world where little things like a toast or a family meal or hearing “Erin go Bragh” in song can melt the heart.
Could as much as 20 minutes have come out of this show? Certainly. “The Ferryman” is a veritable saga. It’s hard to say whether it’s more estimable as a family or political drama, for each in its way is worthy of attention. It leaves us with much to consider and to reflect upon, including how happiness can become pain and how friends can become foes.
It was Charon who ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx on a journey for hoped-for immortality. This “Ferryman” transports us on a different kind of journey but one as equally concerned with the living and the dead.
“The Ferryman” runs through March 5 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad.
Emily Lopez and Will Blum in "Sunday in the Park with George." Photo courtesy of CCAE Theatricals
There. I’ve finally seen “Sunday in the Park with George.” Nearly 40 years after it opened. My personal Sondheim holy grail. You can’t blame me. The bio-musical about French pointillist painter Georges Seurat has only been produced in San Diego County once before – that was when the much-missed ion theatre staged it seven years ago at the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. Sorry I missed that. “Sunday,” which has enjoyed a couple of Broadway revivals, too, never seemed to be having one when I was in New York.
So here it is in 2023, produced by the thriving CCAE Theatricals company at the California Center for the Arts’ Center Theater in Escondido. T.J. Dawson directs a lush “Sunday in the Park with George” that stars Will Blum, a charming Broadway veteran of “Beetlejuice,” “Grease” and “The Book of Mormon.” Opposite him – and superb as Seurat’s model, Dot (apparent pointillism pun there) – is Emily Lopez, who is just as touching as great-grandson George’s 98-year-old grandmother Marie in the musical’s awkward and somewhat desultory second act.
Written by James Lapine with Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics, “Sunday in the Park with George” is eccentric as “Broadway musicals” go. Sondheim eschews big power ballads and hummable novelties in favor of a libretto mostly characterized by short, repetitive bursts of song – not unlike the way in which a pointillist artist might meticulously create. Its sweeping “Sunday,” which closes both acts of the show, is more conventional, and with the company in full voice outright gorgeous. Otherwise the likes of “Finishing the Hat” and “Children and Art” are Sondheim at his most playful.
All is revealing of Seurat, depicted as a man so obsessed with his singular artistic inspiration and attention to detail that he allowed Dot’s love to go unrequited. Their numbers “We Do Not Belong Together” and “Move On” speak to this in wrenching fashion.
“Sunday in the Park with George” requires an audience’s patience. It moves along slowly and at times in what seems like fits and starts – especially in the first act. There really are just two fully drawn characters, George and Dot. (You could argue George’s mother, I suppose). The rest are figures that live forever in Seurat’s painting that inspired this musical: “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte.” The nurse. The cook. The baker. The man with a horn. The soldier and his cardboard likeness. The woman with the baby carriage.
If you give yourself over to what’s happening onstage – that this is a painting that comes alive – it may strike you that you’ve never seen a show like this before, and that maybe in spite of its very mixed critical reception when it first opened “Sunday in the Park with George” merits the plaudits it received, including a Pulitzer Prize.
It is weakened, however, by Act 2, set 100 years after the first – in 1984. This George is a “modern” artist tortured by self-doubt, by the glad-handing business of the art world and by loneliness too. He may be more sympathetic than Act 1 George, but he’s nowhere near as interesting.
Blum does wonderwork throughout, credit him for that.
This CCAE production is first-rate on a technical level, with scenic backdrops in motion that evoke Seurat’s work (George Gonzalez scenic design), perfect period costumes by Janet Pitcher, Patrick Gates’ projections and sublime lighting by Michelle Miles. It all brings to mind the “Pageant of the Masters” experience up in Laguna Beach, where costumed figures live and breathe inside a picture frame.
Elan McMahan, as reliable as musical directors come in San Diego County, leads an excellent orchestra just beyond the stage.
Only when walking to the car after the show and Googling Seurat did I realize that he’d died at 31 years old, a tragedy.
He does live on in “Sunday in the Park with George.”
“Sunday in the Park with George” runs through March 5 at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido.
Laura Crotte and Diego Josef in "Under a Baseball Sky." Photo by Rich Soublet II
Baseball as metaphor is a tried and true storytelling device, as uniquely American as the national pastime itself. But its micro-lessons about hitting, throwing and running that become macro-lessons for human beings who feel behind in the count are international. Universal.
Jose Cruz Gonzalez’s “Under a Baseball Sky” is an American story. Where else but in the land of the red, white and blue (and in his play, the land of a newly-elected-to-the-presidency Donald Trump) could a naturalized mother from Mexico be arrested – and ultimately deported – for having a broken taillight? Where else could gentrification tear out, bit by bit, the fabric of a neighborhood, forcing an old woman from her home and reducing a kids’ baseball playing field to a trash heap?
The unnamed Latinx neighborhood in Gonzalez’s world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre is reflective of these deep-rooted injustices and inequities, yet throughout a tale with no shortage of inner pain there is hope, something we all cling to when we’re behind in the count.
Elderly but full of feisty fight, Eli (Laura Crotte in a bravura performance) resides next door to the derelict lot where once her children Paloma and Santiago played ball. There are specters in these midsts, as young Teo (Diego Josef) soon discovers when he begins working for her as part of his probation after threatening the life of a bully at school. In the middle of the two is even-keeled Chava (Joseph Morales), assigned to supervising Teo’s rehabilitation while also looking out for Eli, whom he considers an institution in the neighborhood.
What seems a straightforward enough premise is soon populated (possibly overpopulated) by secrets, tensions and scars of the soul. Eli is not only losing her home and her health but is mourning the untimely loss of both of her grown children and, it turns out, suffering for having betrayed them when she believed as mothers tend to believe that she was protecting them. Teo, meanwhile, agonizes that he is to blame for his mother’s arrest and detention, having been preoccupied with his own crises when he could have been fixing that broken taillight.
It isn’t long before the hard line between Eli and Teo begins to soften. The catalyst? Baseball. A shed on Eli’s property holds baseball keepsakes that a spellbound Teo can scarcely believe. Before long the old woman is putting on a catcher’s mask, crouching with her catcher’s glove and encouraging the boy to show her his fastball. Utterly charming, this is relief from the anguish and self-recriminations otherwise in the air.
In the intimate environs of the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre (on an inspired set by Anna Louizos that will gradually metamorphose) the five actors must navigate a narrative heavy with not only Eli’s and Teo’s personal traumas but the black cloud of Trumpism, the aforementioned beast of gentrification, anti-labor mobsters and even ghosts. This is a LOT packed into one 90-minute affair, the astute direction of James Vasquez and a stellar supporting cast (Ana Nicolle Chavez and Cesar J. Rosado complete the ensemble) aside.
Gonzalez’s script relies more than a few times on well-worn advice from Chava to young Teo, sometimes sounding like what a manager might tell a nervous hitter or a relief pitcher with the bases loaded. The family drama that engulfs Eli, Paloma and Santiago overpowers what Gonzalez wants to say about the importance of baseball in Mexican-American communities, to me the most compelling aspect of “Under a Baseball Sky.”
Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that baseball does prove a balm and a needed catharsis for all involved when it matters most.
A final note of acknowledgement of sound designer Leon Rothenberg, responsible for the atmospheric crack of the bat and thump of fastball into mitt leather that are heard crisply and clearly in the theater-in-the-round. It sounded like baseball. That’s the sound of spring and the hope that accompanies its arrival every year.
“Under a Baseball Sky” runs through March 12 at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
Mike Sears and Farah Dinga in "Birds of North America." Photo courtesy of Moxie Theatre
The tall trees beyond retired John’s Baltimore County back yard twitter with birds in autumn, though less and less as the years pass and the consequences of man-made climate change work their will. In between the diminishing music of the birds, father and daughter struggle to connect on almost every level.
Moxie Theatre’s 74th production in its 19th year is Anna Ouyang Moench’s one-act “Birds of North America,” which was first seen here in 2017 as part of the Wagner New Play Festival at UCSD. Then as now, the part of John, an avid backyard birder (don’t call it bird-watching, he says), is played by Mike Sears. His is a nuanced performance of slow-burn silences, grouchy pronouncements, stubborn assertions and sudden passive aggressions. Yet there is tender admiration inside him for the winged creatures whose appearances he documents in his ever-present birding record book.
Farah Dinga is John’s daughter Caitlyn, fighting the good fight most of the time with the weight of disappointments oppressing her. Her greatest disappointment may be the lack of the kind of relationship she craves with her old dad. (Her mother and brother are referred to many times in the play but never seen.) Dinga makes Caitlyn both worthy adversary and poignant counterpoint to Sears’ father character. Theirs is an affecting and wholly believable performance.
“Birds,” directed at Moxie by Lisa Berger, unfolds as a series of short, tense mini-scenes, each one a year or so later than the previous. Not as much changes as you’d expect as time goes by. John and Caitlyn spar and let intended hurts slip out and don’t seem to grasp that they have anything in common. Even their respective views through binoculars of the backyard birds are rarely the same.
Moench has avoided the predictable trope of the conservative father and liberal daughter, instead reversing the philosophical stances. John is a fierce environmentalist, Caitlyn employed first by a right-leaning website and later an oil company, which comes closest to anything in the play to summoning her father’s rage.
We keep waiting, through all the animus, for a father-daughter breakthrough. And waiting. And waiting. The sniping back and forth will remind many families of their own disharmony, including the frequent polemics, familiar and tiring as it sounds after a few rounds onstage.
What’s missing from the outset is an understanding of why Caitlyn makes these visits, why she seems to want a closer relationship with her father so badly. Is it because she is distant from her unseen mother or brother? Because love in general for her has been fleeting, even elusive? Hers is by far the more complex character of the two in “Birds of North America,” but even with Dinga’s complete commitment to their portrayal (the play’s post-miscarriage scene is devastating), Caitlyn’s yearning to know John better must be more complicated than just a child wanting a parent’s love and not feeling it.
While Moench’s script may have its weaknesses, there’s no short-changing the co-stars of “Birds of North America,” nor the fine directorial hand of Lisa Berger. The backyard scenic design by Robin Sanford Roberts with its sturdy trees and burnished leaves is lovely, while Matt Lescault-Wood’s sounds of birds winging gently by and overhead create a peaceful contrast to the discord beneath.
If Moench is making a statement about our recklessness with the natural world – and she is – it’s a subtly integrated one, which is much to her credit. Shouting rarely solves anything, as John and Caitlyn might attest.
“Birds of North America” runs through March 5 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.