Bruce Turk as a deceptively calm Henry Jekyll in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Photo by Aaron Rumley
With a minimalist set, few props and four actors playing one character, there had to be an even chance that North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” would be more talky than terrifying.
Phew. Sigh of relief.
Owing to a clever script by Jeffrey Hatcher and inspired direction by Shana Wride, this dramatization of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” proves that a cracking good tale can be told any number of ways and that a lavish Victorian backdrop and visceral special effects are by no means necessary to do so.
The first act, which establishes characters as first acts do, runs long and indeed relies on an expository narrative. But once the physicality of the piece takes hold as it does with a vengeance in the second act, this “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is very much in the spirit of the Halloween season and even gruesome in a PG-13 sort of way.
This is the kind of show that North Coast Rep customarily produces very well, and it relies on talents familiar to its audiences. Wride is directing here for the first time, but has been a frequent performer in Solana Beach. Of the six-person cast, only Conner Marx, whose extensive television credits include the NBC doctor series “New Amsterdam,” is new to North Coast.
Bruce Turk, playing the tortured Henry Jekyll, carries the load here as he should, but Marx is a deliciously villainous counterpart as the Mr. Hyde that comes out when the doctor downs his terrible potion. Having two actors in this schizophrenic character avoids the logistical challenge of one performer having to shape-shift and disguise himself over and over.
Hatcher’s adaptation goes a step further: four actors get to variously play Mr. Hyde during the storytelling: Besides Marx, Jacob Bruce, Katie MacNichol and Christopher M. Williams. They’re even “choreographed” together here and there, heightening the anxiety that Dr. Jekyll’s murderous alter-ego is closing in on him.
The beguiling Ciarra Stroud completes the cast as hotel chambermaid Elizabeth Jelkes, a character not in Stevenson’s novella, who inexplicably falls for Mr. Hyde. Why, Elizabeth? Why?
Director Wride ensures – once again, especially in Act Two – that the melodrama keeps moving, while both the stage lighting (by Matthew Novotny and Erik Montierth) and sound design (Melanie Chen Cole) facilitate a grim, spooky and desperate atmosphere.
It may not seem like a big deal to audiences, but I’m picky about American actors essaying British accents. Bravo to dialect coach Emmelyn Thayer and to the cast for bringing this off without distraction.
While this is a bloodless “Jekyll and Hyde” it’s not without frights -- the bludgeoning in silhouette of one of Mr. Hyde’s victims, to name one; the fierce strangling of another, to name two. Like any effective horror story, what you don’t see is what’s often the scariest.
A final laurel is due Turk, whose mentally deteriorating Henry Jekyll never completely loses sympathy even though we know the awful depths of which his “other side” is capable. It’s a chilling and tragic performance.
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” runs through Nov. 12 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
Kendall Stallworth and Sergio Morejon in "Zach." Photo by Brittany Carillo
Echoes of “Saved By The Bell” aside, there’s very little in Christian St. Croix’s ‘90s-set “Zach” that looks, sounds or feels purely synonymous with that decade, now 30 years gone. What happens to a couple of teenage fast friends when they succumb to the bad influence of a charismatic new classmate could just as easily occur today -- minus smartphones and social media. Talk about your bad influences.
In Loud Fridge Theatre Group’s two-hander at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista, a pair of fun-loving teens -- African-American Gina (Kendall Stallworth) and Mexican-American P.J. (Sergio Morejon) -- are practically bullied by White, preppy, preening Zach (played back and forth by the two actors) into forming an elite clique with him. This coterie also includes P.J.’s heartthrob Stacy and an awkward class outsider (both also portrayed by Stallworth and Morejon). Before long, Zach has them participating in or cowering from activities that go way beyond the bounds of simple adolescent mischief.
That would seem enough fodder for 80 minutes of teen angst, but St. Croix’s side plots, interwoven to some extent with the Zach narrative, include cisgender Gina’s infatuation with another girl in school and P.J.’s encounter with Stacy’s racist father.
The upshot is a frantically paced change-of-characters exercise for Stallworth and Morejon, both of them students in San Diego State’s Department of Theatre, Television, and Film. That “Zach” is written for just two actors also necessitates a lot of out-loud exposition from them to move the story forward. There’s a sense of Stallworth and Morejon making it up as they along, which doesn’t necessarily serve the message-y material very well.
“Zach” does have much to say about the tribulations of high school in the ‘90s and otherwise. You know, that everything’s potentially fun (a laugh track accompanies some of the action in this play) but practically nothing is easy. Especially relationships, friendships, peer pressure and the critical exploration of self-identity.
San Diegan St. Croix is a thoughtful playwright who knows how to convey the psyches and emotions of young people, as in his “Monsters of the American Cinema” at Diversionary Theatre earlier this year. Tonally, the often-comedic “Zach” is more akin to his “Normal Heights” seen at the San Diego Fringe back in May. In either case, he demonstrated his talent for writing for youthful actors exploring their craft.
Of the two in the Loud Fridge show, Morejon more believably inhabits all the characters entrusted to him and it’s his Zach, sunglasses. swagger and ‘tude in full bloom, that we best are able to see on the stage designed by Duane McGregor. Expressive and energetic, Morejon demonstrates much promise as a future pro.
“Zach” director Amira Temple worked with both Morejon and Stallworth this past spring in an SDSU production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Mother------ with the Hat.” So this Loud Fridge staging had to be a natural transition for all three of them. It is heartening for the evolution of San Diego theater to see students getting a chance to grow on a professional stage and for directors like Temple, a recent graduate of SDSU, to be working with them.
The OnStage Playhouse audience was dominated by young people the night I went to see “Zach,” and their response was enthusiastic.
I wasn’t in high school in the 1990s nor did I watch sitcoms like “Saved By the Bell,” “Clueless” or “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.” But there were Zachs in my high school days before then and I had my own generation of silly TV with underlying “meaning.” I could sit in the audience in Chula Vista and laugh and even relate.
You never forget your high school years, even if much of the time you’d like to.
“Zach” runs through Oct. 28 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista.
Natasha Harris and Manny Fernandes in "Jane." Photo courtesy of Lamb's Players Theatre
It’s been Day 2 on my Governesses-in-Distress tour. First it was Chalk Circle Collective’s production of Henry James’, by way of adapter Jeffrey Hatcher, “The Turn of the Screw,” wherein a governess at an English estate battles ghosts.
Now it’s Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of David McFadzean’s adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” subtitled “A Ghost Story,” wherein a governess at an English estate fights an ardent war between head and heart.
Though “Jane” calls itself a ghost story, it really isn’t. In spite of winnowing down a massive Gothic novel into a two-hour play with music, McFadzean’s adaptation isn’t really spooky at all. Yeah, there are some masked gargoyles that effectively appear and reappear from the rafters and make ghoulish noises; and yes, a burly madwoman resides on the third floor of Bronte’s Thornfield Hall. But the world premiere at Lamb’s is pretty non-ghostly and in the main faithful to the original novel, pared down though the script is.
The focus is on heroine Jane (Natasha Harris): shunned as deceitful (with absolutely no reason why) by her snooty aunt, Lady Reed (Cynthia Gerber); banished to the Lowood Institution for orphaned girls where her first friendship, with the sweetly diffident Helen Burns (Lizzie Morse) ends tragically; and becoming governess to the precious Francophile ward (Morse again) of the unseen Mr. Rochester (Manny Fernandes) at Thornfield Hall.
Devotees of “Jane Eyre” the novel know this long and winding tale all too well, how Jane’s disdain for Mr. Rochester turns to love, how their planned marriage is undone by his admission that his insane living wife resides on the third floor of the estate, how after departing destitute she is taken in by a cleric (Sam Ashdown) and his family when all seems lost.
And then there’s the dramatic ending and denouement, which I won’t give away here. You Bronte disciples know it well.
Lamb’s’ production directed by Robert Smyth is stylish and absolutely enhanced by the wide variety of vocal music, a staple of productions by this company, gifted as it is with so many fine singers in its rotating repertory. These interludes add beauty and poignancy to many moments during the storytelling.
The setting for this McFadzean adaptation is the 1920s, a significant departure from the original novel’s unspecified time frame, though presumably Bronte intended it to be the mid- to late 1800s. In “Jane’s” world, a convenient phonograph plays standards of the ‘20s like Irving Berlin’s “Always.” Characters communicate on a telephone.
But this doesn’t feel like a 1920s story; rather, it has all the grim and proper Gothic trappings of its source material.
There are some fine performances on display at Lamb’s. The dependably professional Sandy Campbell plays two roles, including the estate housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax. Lamb’s regulars Caitie Grady, Jordan Miller and Gerber are equally at home in this production.
As the domineering but tortured Rochester, Fernandes is much more convincing in the second act than in the first. Even so, he never achieves very believable chemistry with Harris.
Re: Harris, she’s a strong, independent and credible Jane Eyre throughout. The only problem is the heavy accent Harris adopts during the production, one that waffles between near-Cockney and near-Scottish. It wouldn’t be so mitigating were ANY of the other actors using an accent this noticeable. As such, Harris seems to be performing in an altogether different play part of the time.
I took a true “Jane Eyre” fan with me to the show, and she had mostly praise for the production. I’m not a fan, but I can with confidence say the same: Lamb’s’ “Jane” is diverting and, in spurts, touching. The live musical interludes, an inspired idea to begin with, make it more than just another adaptation that might otherwise somewhat disappoint purists.
“Jane” runs through Nov. 12 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
Michael Cusimano and Megan Carmitchel in "The Turn of the Screw." Photo courtesy of Chalk Circle Collective
“The Turn of the Screw” is only Chalk Circle Collective’s first production, but right off the bat the brand-new company in town deserves an award: for the most inventive use of atmospheric sound of the year.
Chalk Circle co-founders (with Frankie Errington, who directs this production) Megan Carmitchel and Michael Cusimano have created a soundscape of original music and effects that for an hour and a half turn Diversionary Theatre’s upstairs BlackBox space into a haunted house. For Henry James’ brooding ghost story, adapted into a two-character play by Jeffrey Hatcher, haunted is a prerequisite.
I’d liked to have been a fly on the wall when Carmitchel and Cusimano, who co-star in this production, brainstormed, experimented and worked out their aural devices. Both are musicians as well as actors, so it’s not surprising that they share an intuitive gift for employing sound to shape a story. What is special within the telling of “The Turn of the Screw” is how heavy breathing into a microphone, tapping that same mic against the chest to simulate heartbeats, strafing the strings of a violin or plucking those of an electric guitar laying flat can produce such haunts and oscillations in mood.
Awash in these sound effects, the dramatizing of James’ tale about a governess in a spooky house with spooks on the loose unfolds like the creaking open of an above-ground tomb. As said governess (Carmitchel) discovers that her charges Flora and Miles are no mere precocious Essex kids in need of caretaking, the tension rises at the same time. The novella leaves room for some doubt about the governess’ sanity and whether what she’s experiencing might be in her head, but Hatcher’s roiling adaptation does not. There is every indication that the country estate Bly is under ghostly siege.
In Chalk Circle’s auspicious debut, Cusimano portrays the children’s uncle at the outset of the play, a stern mystery wrapped in an enigma. From then on he shifts between fluttering Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper at Bly, and the mysterious young Miles, who harbors secrets and something inhuman inside him.
“The Turn of the Screw” has been a project long dreamed of by Carmitchel and Cusimano. Their commitment to its eerie depths, fractured psychology and Gothic horror is clear. Each relishes in not only their performance but in the trappings of that horror.
The chilling disquiet of the first half of this production gives way to near-hysteria in the second half, with the actors wrestling on the floor and the confines of Diversionary’s Blackbox resounding with exhortations and even screams. Excessive? Perhaps. But this is a ghost story and it is Halloween season.
Carmitchel’s governess is nervous energy personified, becoming practically possessed herself by the time she realizes that she must be the one to figuratively if not literally exorcise the spirits of Bly. She must try to save the children.
Cusimano’s controlling and inscrutable lord of the estate is missed after his brief appearance. Nephew Miles, however, is just as inscrutable and Cusimano does well by that character’s more than practically possessed demeanor in the showdown with the governess.
There are built-in limitations to performing in a blackbox, but with only two characters onstage Hatcher’s “The Turn of the Screw” is designed to function in small confines. If claustrophobia sets in, all the better for an unsettling tale like this one.
“The Turn of the Screw” runs through Oct. 29 in Diversionary Theatre’s Blackbox space in University Heights.
Dr. AJ Knox (left) and Kym Pappas in "Doubt." Jason Sullivan (Dupla) photo
John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” is an exacting, pinpoint drama in which every spoken word matters. There are no casual conversations, no throwaway lines. For an audience it demands active, assertive listening with just enough time during for serious thought … and doubt.
New Village Arts’ season-opening production of “Doubt (A Parable)” under the direction of Kristianne Kurner is faithful to the smallest detail to the pace, deliberation and tone of Shanley’s 2004 play about the principal of a Catholic parish school in the Bronx and her strong suspicions that a priest in the same parish has sexually abused a boy student. A pulpit with a stained-glass window behind it serves the solemn (and pointed) homilies of Father Flynn (Dr. AJ Knox). The neat, cloistered office of principal Sister Aloysius (Kym Pappas) is the focal point of Christopher Scott Murillo’s versatile set. It’s where she sternly lectures the young and naïve Sister James (Juliana Scheding), where she confronts Flynn with her suspicions, where she tries, and fails, to enlist the support of the schoolboy’s mother (Sherrell M. Tyler).
Then there’s the space, stage left, that imagines a quiet garden for prayer, contemplation and inner torment. It is where Sister Aloysius retreats in her lone quest to do what she believes is right.
This is a career role for Pappas, whose Sister Aloysius is absolutely unwavering, a stern disciplinarian but also a self-appointed disciple of God. Her formidibility only makes the climax of “Doubt” more wrenching.
The role of Sister Aloysius has to be a daunting one for any actor, even for Meryl Streep who played the part in the 2008 “Doubt” movie. She must be so strong and so sure that we adopt that same certainty. Her cause must outweigh the dominant harsh side of her personality. Doubt must never creep in, until it does.
Aside from Pappas’ marvelous performance, Knox is impressive as Father Flynn, whose piety and smooth gift with messaging may hide a terrible truth.
Scheding’s Sister James is always on the verge of a nervous jag and comes off as someone who’d be a woeful witness for anyone or to anything. We expect her to break out bawling in practically every encounter with Sister Aloysius.
The final showdown between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn is ultra-tense peak theater, so much so that for someone who rarely pays attention to people sitting around me, I couldn’t help but notice the couple to my left – both of them sitting forward, leaning on every word.
Who could blame them?
For New Village Arts, which earlier this year staged the stupendous “The Ferryman,” “Doubt” is a quieter but also noteworthy achievement.
“Doubt” runs through Oct. 22 at the Conrad Prebys Theatre at the Dea Hurston New Village Arts Center in Carlsbad.
Preston Truman Boyd (left) and Nick Cartell square off in "Les Miserables." Matthew Murphy photo
Just as reading Victor Hugo’s voluminous 1862 novel “Les Miserables” is a major commitment of time, so is seeing the 40-plus-year-old musical based on it what has become one of the standards of modern-day musical theater. I ought to know. I’ve seen “Les Mis” three or four times, the most recent this week at the Civic Theatre downtown where a touring production is in residence through Oct. 15.
You sit there for three hours and digest a subplot-packed tale of good vs. evil, revolution, romance, reclamation and a helluva lot more. I’m a sucker for this show, I admit. It’s too long. It’s bombastic. It traffics in sentiment. But it’s just so damned good.
Broadway San Diego’s brought a national touring production of the sung-through “Les Mis” to the Civic Theatre downtown. It’s hard to imagine there are theatergoers who’ve never seen this epic show for which Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer wrote the music and lyrics. (As to credit for its book, start with Hugo, then add the authors of the original French text, Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel,, stir in additional material by James Fenton, shake vigorously with Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s adaptation, and you have this veritable classic.) It’s defensible what they say about “too many cooks” – seeing “Les Mis” again reminded me of a couple of plot points that really could have been excised for time, such as the unrequited love Eponine has for Marius, who as you will remember only has eyes for Cosette.
But I pick nits here. The fact that “Les Miserable” is so stuffed with song and narrative and is so sweeping is part of its longstanding appeal. After all, Hugo’s novel was thick enough to prop open a heavy door. Why should any kind of faithful adaptation be leaner?
The unquestioned star of this touring production is Nick Cartell playing Hugo’s redemptive hero, Jean Valjean. As my friend Pam Kragen with the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote recently, Cartell is nearing his 1,000th performance in the role. He has a remarkable voice, able to project an uncommon anguished sweetness as in the second-act “Bring Him Home,” in which he holds a note to astounding effect and earns deserved roars of approval from the audience.
In this touring production, Cartell is complemented by Preston Truman Boyd as Valjean’s base adversary, Javert. Boyd’s booming delivery overcomes acoustic issues that unfortunately Haley Dortch as the tragic Fantine is unable to.
Though her role, as I said, seems like it only pads the narrative, Phoenix Best is the best among the production’s female vocalists as Eponine. Her tender “On My Own” is an inspiring way to begin Act Two of the show.
For all its grimness and sincerity, “Les Mis” wouldn’t be “Les Mis” without the debauched Thenardier character and his bawdy wife. Matt Crowle and Victoria Huston-Elem are understandable crowd pleasers, low that their characters may be. Well, are.
With a little help from George Costanza in the memorable “Seinfeld” episode “The Jacket,” the boisterous “Master of the House” number is, in some people’s minds, the best known tune from “Les Miserables.” Les Thenardiers are unleashed and hilarious.
This touring production is impressively staged by Geoffrey Garratt, with scene-changing projections by Finn Ross and Fifty-Nine Productions and emotive lighting by Paule Constable. The sets, from the rowdy inn to the revolutionists’ barricade, are big-time.
Also effective and visceral are the re-creations of battle from the heights of the rebels’ barricade, with gun noises, pops, explosions and even powder smells filling the theater.
So … have I seen “Les Mis” enough times now? Can I close the book on it as I have for, say, “Chicago” or “A Chorus Line”?
I don’t think so. It’s a bigger, better show than either of those, and when it comes around again, whenever that may be, I’ll probably once more be brushing up on my Hugo, my French and my “Master of the House” lyrics.
“Les Miserables” runs through Oct. 15 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
David Shih (left) is the dominant and domineering Mitsuo in "Sumo." Photo by Rich Soublet II
Admittedly if I were to draw up a list of things I’m not particularly interested in, sumo wrestling would be on it, along with the likes of Sanskrit, fry cooking and orthomolecular medicine.
But like any well-told yarn, playwright Lisa Sanaye Dring’s “Sumo” is a PEOPLE story. (I write that in capital letters because it’s that important not only to a successful play but to a film, a TV show, anything with a narrative component.) What begins as an education into a world little known to most, that of Japanese sumo wrestlers, becomes an immersive drama, sprinkled with moments of playfulness. You come to care and feel for “Sumo’s” protagonist, young Akio (Scott Keiji Takeda) who dreams of achieving the peak rank of Yokozuna, as well as others who reside in the Tokyo training “stable” where at the outset of the play his job is to sweep and clean.
In the same way, Dring builds empathy for the others in the stable by humanizing each character. They may be men of prodigious strength and girth, but they are also shown to be individuals with insecurities, anxieties, manufactured masculine superiority and sensitivities.
In partnership with New York’s Ma-Yi Theater Company, La Jolla Playhouse is presenting the world premiere of Dring’s play, the 10th from its DNA Workshop to be produced on a mainstage in La Jolla. Ralph B. Pena, Ma-Yi Theater’s artistic director, directs an ensemble of 10, very ably assisted by among others the production’s fight director, Chelsea Pace, and cultural and martial arts consultant James Yaegashi.
My only experience with sumo wrestling being a brief sequence from the Bond film “You Only Live Twice,” which was filmed in Japan, I came into this production essentially without a clue. Counting on, apparently, most theatergoers being like myself, a goodly portion of “Sumo’s” first act is spent explaining both in action onstage and in utilizing Hana Kim’s projection design the hows, whys and wheretofores of the sport. I didn’t realize, for example, that the average sumo match between two wrestlers usually only lasts seconds.
Within the framework of this education in sumo is the introduction of Akio, who is eager to learn from the veterans around him, including the gruff and dismissive Mitsuo (David Shih), who has achieved the coveted distinction of being a Yokozuna and doesn’t want anyone to forget it.
While the more deliberate first act of “Sumo” is consumed with explaining the sport and its cultural roots, and establishing the various characters, Act Two brings several significant and even wrenching conflicts to the fore, including Akio’s betrayal of two fellow sumo trainees who are having a relationship. He also will ponder the price of trying to become what Mitsuo and the rarefied others like him have become.
These two developments, each in their own way, pack an emotional wallop. Yet the play’s turning points are neither preachy nor heavy-handed . One moment of reckoning for Akio, when he comes to terms with his past and present, is staged with the night’s most poignant and bursting use of color and technical effects.
This is a superior technical team overall, from Wilson Chin’s scenic design to Mariko Ohigashi’s costumes to the aforementioned Hana Kim. Setting the mood and propelling the pulse of the show from above is taiko drummer Shih-Wei Wu.
It should be noted that “Sumo” is not all navel gazing – as if these guys could see their navels. Demonstrating that even wrestlers cooped up together can bust loose and have fun, there’s a likably wacky karaoke scene. Somewhere the Spice Girls’ ears have to be burning.
“Sumo” runs through Oct. 22 in La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.