G In broadcasting terminology, a “fade” is a transition from one scene or one moment to the next. In Tanya Saracho’s play Fade, the unlikely friendship between conflicted TV-show writer Lucia and janitor Abel makes numerous significant transitions, but the transition that proves most significant of all is the one that Lucia herself makes by the one-act tale’s end.
A onetime television writer herself (ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” HBO’s “Looking”), Saracho knows the intricate and pretentious language of that industry, and it’s that executive blather of which young Lucia, a diversity hire, is so contemptuous. She finds a quick ally in the affable, plainspoken man who cleans her office, though their initial conversations are tangled in semantics, offended stares and affronts over the nature of their respective Mexican heritages. Mexico-born Lucia (Sofia Sassone) is alone among white corporate suits, and lonely in her new L.A. life. All this she imparts at profane, exasperated high speed. The reserved, dutiful Abel (Javier Guerrero) sympathizes and eventually opens up to her in a big way. His personal revelation, and how it steers the course toward Fade’s dramatic high point, is an easily detected plot device. As such, the impact of Lucia’s climactic all-about-me misdeed is blunted.
Moxie Theatre is presenting this production of Fade in association with the Latinx company TuYo Theatre. Maria Patrice Amon is directing. For a show immersed in the quest for cultural identity and claiming one’s rights in a superficial, privileged world, this one eschews the temptation of drawn-out speechy scenes. It successfully opts instead for quickly paced late-night encounters between Abel and Lucia in her office. Sassone’s sometimes-shrill Lucia can be irritating and a challenge to care about, though Saracho obviously created a protagonist who is riddled with insecurities. Guerrero’s comparatively underplayed Abel has enough heart for both of the characters. Warm and believable, Guerrero even exceeds his fine turn in New Village Arts’ excellent production of Jose Rivera’s Cloud Tectonics earlier this year.
Fade’s final Lucia-Abel encounter, one bereft of dialogue, actually speaks the loudest, and is worth the transitional journey to get there.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/31/18.)
DeLeon Dallas and Emily Shain in "Actually." Photo by Jim Carmody
Amber (Emily Shain) and Tom (DeLeon Dallas) are freshmen at Princeton. Once Tom recognizes that Amber’s been eyeing him from afar, they share a flirty meet-cute followed by an innocent-enough first “date” at an ice cream joint. But when a subsequent rendezvous ends up in Tom’s dormitory bed, matters take a grave turn. What happened there depends on who you believe later, when Amber and Tom wind up at a disciplinary hearing over the question of whether he raped her. Amber says yes. Tom says no.
This is Anna Ziegler’s one-act drama Actually. The title echoes the word Amber spoke in mid-sexual encounter, one not shown to the audience onstage, to let Tom know that she’d changed her mind about the whole thing. Tom heard the word, he says, but didn’t take “actually” as a “no.”
With Brett Kavanaugh’s and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimonies still fresh, Actually’s “he said/she said” narrative couldn’t be more timely. San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of Ziegler’s 2017 play is tense and frank. Most of the 90 minutes is presented in twin monologues, with Shain’s stricken, stammering Amber recounting events before and leading up to the night in the dormitory, and Dallas’ overly confident yet anguished Tom doing the same. Both dwell heavily in each character’s excessive backstories: Amber has body issues and a mother who disses her, and she’s given the implied complications of her Jewish faith; Tom is an African-American at a predominantly white Ivy League school, his best male friend keeps trying to kiss him, and it will turn out his beloved mother is very ill. Possibly these looming circumstances are designed to explain both Amber’s and Tom’s distraction and lack of judgment (along with just being college freshmen), but Actually’s is a very busy script.
Presented on a stage bare but for two chairs, the actors openly confront themselves, and the life-changing seriousness of their situation. When they do clash, the play finds its passion, having occupied itself too much before then in name-drops of Kierkegaard and Nabokov or, less sublime, in references to kegs and Jello shooters. Actually has a verdict, but, as in the reality of the times, no clear reconciliation between truth and conscience. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/24/18.)
Opening night of Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of Persuasion began with an earnest pre-show explanation from director Robert Smyth about the context and significance, socially and academically, of Jane Austen’s last novel (published four years after her death). Smyth’s mini-lecture, essentially reproduced inside the program along with a detailed roster of the Regency romance’s interweaving families, suggested that the audience might either become confused or fail to recognize the import of Austen’s free-thinking heroine, Anne Elliot. But Persuasion is not that obtuse. While Anne is a complex character, the drama around her both in Austen’s novel and in this musical adaptation by Harold Taw and Chris Jeffries is a straightforward one: Will she reunite after eight years with the suitor she was forced to turn away?
As a musical, Taw’s and Jeffries’ show takes full advantage of the mannerisms, traditions and class distinctions of the early 1800s in southwest England. Songs spring from the stiff upper lips of the romantic leads, of course, but the jealousies and eccentricities of the tale’s other characters are also mined for pleasant, mostly expository musical numbers. While Persuasion’s tension encircles Anne (Allison Spratt Pearce) and the dashing Captain Wentworth (David S. Humphrey), it’s the comic relief provided by the gossips and social climbers on their periphery that keep solemnity at bay.
The beautifully voiced Spratt Pearce is enjoying an extraordinary year, having already given superb performances in Cygnet Theatre’s The Last Wife and Diversionary’s The Loneliest Girl in the World. Her melancholy Anne is sympathetic but strong, and when she at last is able to smile in the arms of her captain, the smile is contagious. Humphrey is stalwart and sincere as Wentworth, residing though he does in a rather stiff character. The supporting turns are delightful, including in multiple roles Linda Libby, Megan Carmichael and Omri Schein, the latter in drag that recalls Peter Sellers at his “The Mouse That Roared” best.
As expected the costumes designed by Jeanne Reith are exquisite, and the musical accompaniment by an ensemble under the direction of Patrick Marion is lush.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/17/18.)
Taylor Mac’s “Hir” cultivates mind-bending and gender-bending ideas. What may be its most cogent proclamation, that “everybody is a little bit of everything,” comes from head of the household Paige, who with manic fervor is embracing the new and damning the past. As life dramatically changes in and around her, seemingly by the minute, she’ll freeze in mid-conversation or mid-mannerism and announce “Paradigm shift!”
In this way, and in the play’s verbal storm of gender politics and psychobabble, Mac discourses on the fluidity of gender and the absurdity of institutions restrictive by their rigidity, by their reluctance to accept and even by their tendency to inhumanity. The American family is the institution in the crosshairs of “Hir,” a raucous but congested dark comedy now onstage at Cygnet Theatre under the direction of Rob Lutfy.
This is no Rockwellian family. If soldier Isaac (Dylan Seaton) didn’t get post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in Afghanistan, where his duty was gathering blown-up body parts in the Mortuary Affairs Unit, the house he returns to three years later seems sure to do the trick. His stroke-impaired father Arnold (Joel Castellaw) is dressed in a nightgown, his ashen face smeared with makeup and a fright wig fit for a clown atop his head. He’s also being served estrogen “shakey-shakes” by wife Paige (Deanna Driscoll), who’s let the house turn into a hoarder’s nightmare and who squirts Arnold with water anytime he doesn’t do as told. Then there’s Isaac’s younger sister, Maxine (Avi Roque), who’s injecting testosterone to transgender, and who already has a bit of a beard going.
Isaac (called “I” by his mom, who wants her shocked son to just go with the flow) gapes and runs to the kitchen sink to hurl a lot, an overplayed gesture of horror. Arnold is a pathetic figure later revealed to be much worse than that, while Max affirms a desire to “gender-redefine ‘here-story.” (“Hir” is Max’s chosen third-person pronoun.) Paige’s symbiotic relationship with Max is tied up in her own crisis of identity and purpose. The dishonorably discharged (for drug use) “I” – another play on pronoun? – and his macho desire for order have no place in Paige’s reconstructed domain.
The production’s very physicality and penchant for sight gags, whether they include a plastic water bottle, a banjo or a trove of garish wigs, feed the comedy but actually diminish the import of what Mac may be saying about gender and personal liberation. It’s not until well into Act 2 that the laughter is jolted away as if by electrodes, and who these people are crystallizes.
In any case, Driscoll, a fearless performer, rides this Tilt-a-Whirl of a narrative with limbs flying, leaving everything out there on the Old Town stage. Roque, who identifies as Latinx Trans/Non Binary, brings layers of vulnerability to the changing Max. Paige and Max are “Hir’s” heart and soul, a mother and child making different but deeply defining transitions amid the fray.
(Review originally published in San Diego Union-Tribune on 10/8/18.)
What if the person you loved had only 100 days to live? How would you spend them together? These are the questions addressed in music and conversation by husband and wife Abigail and Shaun Bengson in Hundred Days at La Jolla Playhouse. An enterprising work written by the Bengsons and Sarah Gancher, Hundred Days flees the bounds of conventional theater or concert. In just 75 minutes it incorporates music (rooted in multiple idioms), narrative and movement in frequently daring fashion.
Still, it can be self-indulgent to the point of discomfort, as during Abigail’s aching, wailing “Three-Legged Dog” number; and when addressing the literally eternal question of what does death mean, Hundred Days traffics in awfully worn territory. There’s no discounting the superior musicianship, which sounds crisp and urgent in the Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/10/18).
Though very sentimental, New Village Arts Theatre’s staging of Tony Meneses’ Guadalupe in the Guest Room is a warm and engaging 90 minutes that confronts profound family loss with dignity and restraint. Part of New Village’s bilingual and bicultural Teatro Pueblo Nuevo initiative, the one-act play tells the story of a mother (Gabriela Nelson) and son-in-law (Tom Steward) grieving under the same roof (his) the loss of Claudia, who was Guadalupe’s daughter and Steve’s wife. Their language barrier and incompatibility are bridged by a shared fascination with Mexican telenovelas, the emoting episodes of which are amusingly acted out by the other two members of this cast: Daniel Novoa, who otherwise portrays a kind gardener who falls for Guadalupe, and Charlene Coleman, playing a teaching colleague of Claudia’s.
NVA Associate Artistic Director Nadia Guevara makes her directorial debut with this little play, and she is gifted with a tender, understated performance by Nelson as Guadalupe. The lighting blackouts that separate the production’s mini-scenes are distracting, but the action is beautifully paced. Meneses’ script about grief comes with its share of tropes, but their familiarity does not lessen the appeal of his sympathetic characters.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/10/18.)
Kevin Hafso Koppman (left) and Donny Gersondo in "Young Frankenstein." Photo courtesy of San Diego Musical Theatre
San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of Young Frankenstein is assuredly a treat for your pre-Halloween fun. Running through Oct. 28 at the Horton Grand Theatre in the Gaslamp Quarter, this incarnation of the Broadway musical based on Mel Brooks’ 1974 film captures all the wackiness and atmosphere of its progenitor. Under the direction of Larry Raben, it even manages to accommodate a large cast and multiple, fairly elaborate set pieces on the less than roomy Horton Grand stage.
The much-loved film was written by Brooks and Gene Wilder, who starred as Frederick Frankenstein. Brooks wrote the book for the musical with Thomas Meehan, and also composed the show’s music and lyrics. A couple of the tunes, like “Deep Love” and Frau Blucher’s “He Vas My Boyfriend” are actually worthy of the movie. The others are intermittently clever but far from essential.
SDMT’s cast is a stalwart one, though. As Frankenstein, Kevin Hafso Koppman channels Gene Wilder throughout, but he’s quite winning in his own right. Jonathan Sangster, a reliable supporting player around town, delivers big time as the hump-backed Igor, while Christine Hewitt is a howl as Frau Blucher (cue whinnying horses). Melina Kalomas is statuesque and un-self-conscious as Frederick’s narcissistic fiancée Elizabeth, and Kelly Derouin as Inga and Donny Gersonde as The Monster could be called this show’s fine iterations of beauty and the beast respectively.
An extended “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” choreographed by Daniel Smith, complete with top hats, tails, canes and Monster, rocks the old Horton Grand in this musical’s high point.
Young Frankenstein runs through Oct. 28 at the Horton Grand Theatre, downtown.
To get the metaphor out of the way: the bull is singularly determined revolutionary activist Mary Woolley, and the china shop is the former Holyoke Seminary for Women in the early 20th century. But from the opening moment of Bryna Turner’s Bull in A China Shop, it’s clear that Woolley’s revolutions – academic, social and personal – are not merely grounded in historical context. The recording of a solemn chorale is shattered by strafing contemporary rock, and indeed a riot grrl soundscape recurs throughout this San Diego premiere of Turner’s play at Diversionary Theatre.
The anachronistic music is but a part of Bull in a China Shop’s nod to universal relevancy. Its five female characters speak in anything but hushed Victorian tones, and though they are costumed for the early 1900s, they are not emotionally bound by their tight collars and long skirts. Woolley (Jo Ann Glover) was a Wellesley academic who became president of Mount Holyoke and for more than 30 years reshaped it in her intensely feminist mindset. Jeannette Marks (Tamara McMillian) followed her to Mount Holyoke, where she taught English and eventually became department chair. She was also Woolley’s lover.
Written primarily in short, confrontational scenes, the play depicts a Woolley embattled on two fronts: the perpetual fight for the liberation of women both in academia and beyond; and the one to convince her lover that her idealism has not been traded for power or individual recognition. But the drama in Bull in a China Shop resides not so much in Woolley’s and Marks’ stalwart commitment, but in their enduring relationship. It’s tenderly conveyed by Glover in the more strident, humorless role, and by McMillian as Marks, a character drawn with more complexity. In this staging directed by Kim Strassburger the most resonant scenes are one with Woolley on a trip in China, likening her loving connection to Marks to a pair of devoted swans, and a blazing, funny solo turn by Andrea Agosto as a scorned, lovesick student of Marks’.
At only 85 minutes, Bull in a China Shop is soon over, and though a sometimes-choppy affair, it leaves the audience wanting more time with two remarkable women whose influence is surely felt today.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/3/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.