Daren Scott and Samantha Ginn in "The North Plan." Photo courtesy of ion theatre
Jason Wells’ The North Plan, making its San Diego debut courtesy of ion theatre, clearly aspires to pungent political satire. Its hyper-physicality and broadly drawn characters, however, render it closer to political farce. The thriller-brand premise is smartly conceived: a thuggish splinter group has taken over the federal government, martial law has been declared, and a fugitive State Department bureaucrat (Daren Scott) armed with a stolen “enemies list” finds himself under arrest in a tiny Ozarks town. But the threatened outside world feels like fantasy beyond the walls of the town’s one-cell police station. There, the antics of Tanya Shepke (Samantha Ginn) and how they become co-antics with everyone else in the story (bureaucrat Carlton Berg, a police chief and his assistant, and two Department of Homeland Security suits) outdo and out-shout anything that might be happening on the martial-lawed streets of America.
Behind bars apparently after a drunken driving bust, Tanya is one notch above hillbilly, a victim of few breaks in life and of a no-good husband who tried to drown her in a bathtub. But she is fearless, impetuous and prone to firing fusillades of f-bombs at anyone who pisses her off – which is everybody. Ginn, a talented comedienne, has unfettered fun with the character, who finds herself pulled into fellow arrestee Berg’s plan to get his enemies list into the hands of someone who can help save the country. The first-act setting up, behind bars, of this conspiracy between Berg and Tanya is frantic and frankly hysterical. Kudos here to Scott, Ginn and director Isaac Fowler.
When the Homeland Security wonks (Jake Rosko and Fred Hunting) arrive in Act 2, The North Plan’s action inside the little police station ramps up, culminating with deadly gunplay, but all of it played as if with accompanying laugh track. There’s no telling how what happened will impact the bad guys in charge of the country or the emergence of an organized opposition, but you won’t care. Not after you’ve watched this Tanya Shepke – another revolutionary who called herself Tanya, aka Patty Hearst, is referenced during the play – strut her stuff. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/30/17.)
Jessica John, John Rosen and Francis Gercke in "The Explorers Club." Photograph by Ken Jacques
Silliness rules in Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of Nell Benjamin’s The Explorers Club, a balm as Lamb’s artistic director Robert Smyth suggested on opening night for all the grim current events swirling around us. Nothing is taken too seriously in this swiftly moving comedy about a vivacious female scientist (Jessica John) in 1879 London who desires to be a member of the all-male Explorers Club. Her calling card is a blue-skinned native (John Rosen, owning this show) she has brought to Britannia from a far-flung jungle country. Reacting with either beguilement or astonishment are the explorers, portrayed at Lamb’s by a rousing ensemble that includes Fran Gercke, Ross Hellwig, Paul Eggington, Brian Mackey and Omri Schein.
What happens in The Explorers Club is less significant than its good-humored nonsense, such as the fellas breaking into a song from H.M.S. Pinafore or the wacky choreography that accompanies the native-turned-barkeeper sending rounds of drinks flying down the bar. The sight gags also feature a beloved “cobra” and an equally beloved “guinea pig.” Their relationship doesn’t end well, by the way. Everyone (well, not the cobra or the guinea pig) is lushly costumed by Jeanne Reith, and the veddy English men’s club set by Mike Buckley is magnificent. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/23/17.)
Say this for Sunset Boulevard. Unlike most of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s scores, which boast one memorable song, this 1993 musical based on the classic Billy Wilder film has two: “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” Both are sung by Valerie Perri, who as faded movie queen Norma Desmond is the chief reason to experience Moonlight Stage Company’s outdoor production of this show, directed by Larry Raben. Though Robert J. Townsend and Norman Large are just fine as doomed script writer Joe Gillis and eerie servant Max, it is Perri, portraying Norma with unfettered passion and escalating delusion, that wins the day. As always, Moonlight’s staging is lavishly costumed and robustly orchestrated, and projections by David Engel enhance the illusion that you’re back in a noir L.A. that once was. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/23/17.)
Opal Alladin and Grantham Coleman in "Hamlet." Photo by Jim Cox
The very language of Hamlet, transcendent in its exploration of human beings’ deepest and most fraught emotions, assures its resonance in any context and any iteration. Further, its dark psychology and currents of madness and revenge make it breathless theater. The Old Globe’s Summer Shakespeare Festival production directed by Barry Edelstein takes full advantage of Hamlet’s complex enticements – exploiting with atmosphere and chills its hazy ghost story; manifesting its oedipal underpinnings (a marriage bed, along with a colossal armored figure in gold, are the chief set pieces); and giving us a Hamlet (Grantham Coleman) who, though seeming more manic than mad, is an intense and energized presence, whether inhabiting his revenge or looking into his soul.
Elsewhere, Talley Beth Gale’s Ophelia-gone-mad sequence is a flashpoint of the evening on the outdoor Festival Stage, while the always reliable Patrick Kerr is a suitably sputtering Polonius, and Cornell Womack and Opal Alladin a brazen Claudius and Gertrude.
Penetrating but also entertaining in its theatricality, this is a Hamlet suitable for this summer’s sweltering nights when who knows “what dreams may come”? (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/16/17.)
Marisa Matthews and Jason Maddy in "Evita." Photo by Daren Scott
The San Diego Repertory Theatre has launched its 42nd season with a revival of the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber docu-soaper Evita, a musical now old enough (it began, like their Jesus Christ Superstar, as a concept album, debuting in 1976) that some may be seeing it for the first time. This Rep production directed by Sam Woodhouse is lushly and reverently staged with solid albeit unspectacular performances by its three leads (Marisa Matthews as Eva Peron, Jason Maddy as Juan Peron and Jeffrey Ricca as the extremist narrator, Che). What brightens this Evita is the Rep’s partnership in the production with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. The SDSCA’s exuberant young performers bring freshness and vitality. Evita’s enduring calling card, of course, is that ballad you know all too well, sung in arguably theater’s second most famous (after Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story) balcony scene. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/16/17)
Amanda Quaid (seated) and Matthew Amendt in "Kill Local." Photo by Jim Carmody
Chances are after seeing La Jolla Playhouse’s Kill Local, you’ll never think of the old fireside favorite “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” the same way. In UCSD MFA grad Mat Smart’s graphic tale about a family of assassins, the children’s song is the recurring, otherworldly refrain of beautiful contract killer Sheila (Amanda Quaid). It’s also one of many unsubtle attempts Smart’s gratuitously violent play makes at irony in the name of black comedy.
In this world premiere play directed by Jackson Gay, Sheila, her mother (Candy Buckley) and to a lesser extent her sister Abi (Xochiti Romero) are propped up as killers for hire who in between blowing people away are ordering takeout from Chipotle or, in Sheila’s case, working on a relationship with the possibility of marriage and even kids. But when Sheila makes a mistake after assassinating a corporate sleazo (Matthew Amendt) in the first of the evening’s bloody doings, a complication arises that threatens not only the family business but Sheila and her kin’s lives.
Smart builds in biting lines for all, and in the case of Mom’s second-act mutilation of the teenaged threat to the family (Carolyn Braver), shock value to go with them. But his characters’ balancing act of irreverence and self-examination is unconvincing. Sheila, for example, is the satellite of Kill Local’s twisted universe, but we’re only teased with insight into why she keeps killing, whether she feels anything in so doing or afterward, or where her ruthless life is headed. In spite of an able performance from Quaid, and an entertaining one from Buckley as her mother, neither their characters nor any of the others feels much like real people. In a play about murder, even one seeking horrified laughter, you have to care why someone lives as well as about those who die, “deservedly” or not.
With an opening sequence that has the impact of a brick through a plate-glass window, Kill Local promises a journey into the mind of a remorseless killer who may also be a human being with deep-seated frailties. It only takes us halfway on that journey, leaving us with a protagonist who is – and THIS is irony – a bloodless one. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/9/17.)
Manuel Felciano (left) and Daniel Reese in "Ken Ludwig's Robin Hood!" Photo by Jim Cox
The exclamation point at the end of the title of the world-premiere comedy at the Old Globe – Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood! – is very much intentional. This new depiction of legend’s most famous robber of the rich and giver to the poor is closer to Mel Brooks’ mid-‘70s TV parody “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” than it is to Russell Crowe’s brutal 2010 film “Robin Hood.” But coming as it does from the skillful pen of playwright Ludwig (Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy For You and Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, the latter seen at the Globe two years ago), this Robin Hood tale is a delightful improvement on either of those extreme interpretations. Its comic antics never sink to the level of lowbrow, nor do its moments of noble earnestness ever take themselves too seriously.
Director Jessica Stone has a rogue’s gallery of Ludwig-spawned characters to frolic and sword-fight on the Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White stage in the round. To complement the requisite dashing Robin (Daniel Reece), there’s a Maid Marian (Meredith Garretson) who wields a bow and arrow like Katniss Everdeen, a bawdy Friar Tuck (Andy Grotelueschen) who’s about as devout as a hambone, a towering Little John (Paul Whitty) who doubles as a musician, and a nefarious Prince John (Michael Boatman) who “quotes” Shakespeare … who wasn’t even born at the time this story is set -- the 12th century. Robin’s chief nemesis is Sir Guy of Gisbourne, played with Harvey Korman-like villainy by Manoel Felciano, with the doltish Sheriff of Nottingham portrayed by Kevin Cahoon, just as hysterical here as he was in the Globe’s Love’s Labor’s Lost last summer.
Besides boasting its roundly talented ensemble, this production proves inventive in staging derring-do in such compact confines: a 200-foot castle wall is “climbed” – horizontally; a rousing archery tournament is held, with invisible arrows flying; and the swordplay throughout is vigorous and strictly in fun.
Like so many new comedies for the theater these days, this one is perhaps 10 to 15 minutes too long, but the merriment of this show’s merry men – and women – is contagious, making Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood!’s exclamation point well deserved. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/2/17.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat