"The Tribe"in full peace-and-love mode in "Hair." Photo by Jim Cox
Before I get to "Hair," the Old Globe Theatre's return to live, in-person productions after nearly a year and a half, I have to address my own return to live, in-person productions after nearly a year and a half.
I last experienced live theater in early March 2020 at the San Diego Rep. I've missed it immensely. Streamed productions and Zoom theater, while earnest attempts by theatrical companies to both remain connected to their audiences and to help sustain themselves financially during COVID-19, just don't make it. I'm sorry. There's no communal anticipation before the start of a show, no group response to the story or the performances, no shared catharsis.
So there I was on opening night of "Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" in the audience at the Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. About half the packed house wore masks. I don't know what either the masked or the unmasked attendees felt, but I know what I felt: a profound sense of reclamation. After what has seemed much longer than 17 months, I had live theater with all its in-the-moment gifts of excitement and immersion, back in my life again. Our world is still far, far from safe and even further from normal. But for now there is theater once more.
Now, on to "Hair," the musical my parents warned me about back when they were warning me about everything.
It's tempting to dismiss the 1967 musical written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, with music by Galt MacDermot, as a "period piece." But why is "Hair," set in the "Drop out, turn on, tune in" '60s, any more of a period piece than the WWII-set "South Pacific"?
Is "Hair" a reflection of its era and its ethos? Of course. By today's measure, the tie-dyed shirts and hippie beads and jargon both dreamy and defiant could constitute a kind of socio-cartoon kitsch. Forget all that when you get to the theater. If you can, appreciate "Hair" for what it is right now, right in front of you: a sometimes slapdash, often silly musical that at its most slapdash and silly does entertain, and at its most meaningful (more about Act II shortly) will touch you in ways you hadn't seen coming.
James Vasquez directs this Globe production -- no snap given the size of the cast, the shifts in mood and the sheer number of songs (nearly 40, though some in Act I are not much longer than snippets). Mayte Natalio's choreography is buoyant in a hippy-dippy way, and the costumes designed by David Israel Reynoso look right out of your parents' or grandparents' attic, depending on your age. Hell, maybe they're right out of your own attic.
If you're uninitiated, "Hair" tells the tale of "The Tribe," a group of young people living in, as the Old Globe's program reminds us, in "the fluid-abstract world of 1968" in New York City. We get to know just a few of them well, but "Hair's" only substantial conflict involves Claude (Tyler Hardwick), who's been drafted into the military and, unlike his fiercely rebellious cronies, isn't so quick to burn his draft card at the intermission-preceding "Burn-In." Prior to this, "Hair" is all over the place with hurried character introductions, "revealing" testimonies from said characters, rhetorical middle fingers to the establishment and the prudes of the time, and subplots that are not each and every one fully resolved.
Happily, the second act of "Hair" is everything the first act is not: It's cohesive. It's compelling. It says something on deeper than a surface level. Claude's crisis of conscience and self-identity manifests itself in a vividly staged, elaborate drug-trip sequence about not just the Vietnam War, but the American soul at the time. It's as if everyone around him, too, gets a reality check, but they do so without losing the free-spirited, perhaps misguided idealism of the era or of the show itself.
It shouldn't have taken me this long to get to the music, so I apologize, but there are some winning songs in "Hair." Of those you know (thanks to radio hits made of them), the opening "Aquarius" and the closing "Let the Sunshine In," which were combined into one by the Fifth Dimension, are a thrill to hear onstage. The latter is in its way anthemic. The title tune "Hair" is an anachronistic delight, following as it does a comic sequence in which an older couple questions the Tribe's long locks. The performance of the soulful "Easy to Be Hard" by Storm Lever lacked passion for me, and the goofy "Good Morning Starshine" while so familiar is out of place in the comparative seriousness of Act II.
Claude's "I Got Life" and "Where Do I Go?" not only have heft, but demonstrate the talented Hardwick's fine feel for the role and his emotive vocals.
As for the first act's "Donna," "Hashish" and "Sodomy," I remember being amused and scandalized by them as a kid listening to the "Hair" album, but they feel oh-so-tame now.
Among the cast, the Globe's "Hair" offers a would-be scene-stealer in Andrew Polec as the wildly comic Berger. He is the caricature of every square's idea of a hippie. This show would be remiss without one.
I expected to see a lot more people in the opening-night audience wearing hippie-vintage garb, but most whom I saw were not.
Aside from a peace sign that dangled from a bronze neck chain, I never had any of my own to begin with.
I wonder whatever happened to that peace-sign necklace. I like to think it still exists, somewhere, and that even tarnished it's saying "Make love, not war."
"Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical" runs through Oct. 3 in the Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.
This stage review was written by Ashley Na, an associate member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle. She is a student majoring in journalism at San Diego State University.
What is a Valentine’s month without quirky love perfumes, mysterious herbs and a mix of Shakespearean magic?
The Old Globe and the University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program is staging a relatively modern twist on the comedic “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Unlike Shakespeare’s story which is set in Athens, Greece during the late 1500s, this adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” starts in 1942 at Athens Motor Factory, during World War II and the height of industrialization and economic boom.
Directed by Sam White, this virtual, pre-recorded production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” explores the complicated topic of love, jealousy and conflict through several subplots such as the complex relationships between four Athens factory lovers: Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius. Alongside the messy relationships, there is also a group of six actors rehearsing the play “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the wedding of the duke Theseus and Hippolyta. All these people find their emotions muddled and manipulated by a love perfume, administered by the cupid-like Oberon and the mischievous Puck.
The cast includes Jonathan Aaron Wilson (Demetrius), Jacqui Dupré (Hermia), Klarissa Marie Robles (Helena), Henian Boon (Lysander), Clarie Simba (Puck, Philostrate) and Christopher Cruz (Oberon, Thesus). Simba’s mercurial portrayal of Puck, for one, is memorable as she uses different musical elements to highlight Puck’s reckless and fun-loving personality. Although the musical pieces performed by Simba come into the play without any warning, that in itself depicts the sudden and continuous shifts of the character’s personality.
Cruz’s portrayal of Oberon is rather weak in comparison to Simba’s Puck. Despite the fact that Puck is Oberon’s right hand man, Cruz’s depiction is less bold.
Wilson, Dupré, Robles and Boon all complement each of the characters perfectly. For example, Wilson and Boon depict Demetrius and Lysander as similar characters in personality, but diametrically opposed rivals, while Dupré and Robles characterize Hermia and Helena as two women helplessly in love, both triggered by jealousy for each other from the perfume.
Although the plot line generally follows Shakespeare’s original play with only the changes of settings and time period, this telling is at once both modernized and dated. Unlike the small details of Rosie the Riveter posters which signified women’s empowerment during the early to mid 1940s, this society still follows the sexist and misogynistic reality of Shakespeare’s original time frame of Athens, Greece in 1595.
For instance, Hermia is shamed when she does not fulfill her father, Egeus’ wishes for her to marry Demetrius. Additionally, Demetrius forces himself upon Hermia despite continuous rejections and only loves her for her physical appearance and prosperity.
On the upside, director White employs a racially diverse ensemble of actors.
This production is socially distanced and seems to have been recorded in a specific room during the majority of the play. Later, all of the actors reappear on the stage. Considering this, the background was very consistent and in sync during each shot of the actors and actresses. However, there were moments when Robles’ camera started to shake, revealing that she was holding onto something resembling a selfie stick. There were other small audio issues including muffled, inaudible voices when the performers were all on the stage.
Despite some flaws, the small black and white video clips of machinery and factory workers, the creative use of special effects when Simba was spraying the love perfume and transforming Bottom to a donkey and small musical-style numbers, made us feel as if we were watching a movie rather than watching a traditional, classic Shakespearean play. This interpretation is interesting to watch as we await the ultimate fates of each character.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” presented by The Old Globe and the University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program is watchable, free of charge, until Feb. 28
The ensemble cast of "cul-de-sac," via Zoom. Photo courtesy of Coronado Playhouse
NOTE: This "Stage West" theater review is by Ashley Na, associate critic in the San Diego Theater Critics Circle and a student at San Diego State University.
Coronado Playhouse’s “cul-de-sac” is quite the definition of “keeping up with the Joneses” and shows the various extents people will go to to achieve their idealized “American dream.” Presented in a virtual, Zoom platform, “cul-de-sac” allows us to see the dysfunctional, toxic and deteriorated lives of three suburban families: the Smiths, the Joneses and the Johnsons with a twist of dark humor and satire.
Written by John Cariani and directed by Sean Paul Boyd, the play is centered on the lives of the Joneses and the neighbors around them who envy their seemingly perfect lives starting with their cars, the painted walls of their house, their perfect green lawn. The Joneses are seen as a picture- perfect family by the Smiths and the Johnsons. Although these three families all have a happy public life, their private lives are far from it. They are all grieving for the death of their hope. The Joneses are filled with regret for their decisions to have children and decide to “downsize,” the Smiths are still recovering from the loss of their child and the Johnsons are finding solutions to their unhappy lives and marriage.
The characters (portrayed Ashley Graham, Hunter Brown, Alyssa Anne Austin, Bayani DeCastro Jr., Jena Joyce and Steven Jensen) constitute one big, endless circle of misery. Their lives are a great disparity between what they want others to perceive them as, and what their reality is. If this disparity continues, all of these characters would continue their miserable lives, in false hopes that someday, someone or something can truly make them happy.
“Cul-de-sac” is a dark satire, which mocks those who are materialistic and idolize the nonexistent American dream. There is a sense of awkwardness that makes us feel uncomfortable during certain dialogues exchanges by different characters. For instance, Austin’s character Diane Johnson, is more concerned with changing the color of her walls than being worried about her unconscious husband whom she tried getting rid of with a frying pan, for the sake of finding her own happiness. It makes us feel as if we are in a cul-de-sac, a dead end. Nothing new or exciting. Just the same old people and same old “uninteresting” events in life. Perhaps it is our own perception of how we live our lives that is supposed to change. Others' perception of how we live does not matter. Happiness is something that is earned by us, not given to us by other people.
The production features a diverse cast. However there are evident flaws and limitations throughout this production. Graham’s microphone blared to a point where static was audible whenever the actress spoke a little louder than normal. Brown’s screen wasn’t the best quality compared to the other actors and actresses. The screen background of some actors was not the most consistent-- although most with a clean white wall, Decastro Jr.’s panel interior divider was a minor distraction. Most importantly, there was a terrible lag and moments of cut dialogue due to the connectivity problems.
Despite these shortcomings on the technical side, “cul-de-sac” is a peculiar play which deals with highly possible, everyday scenarios for many modern-day families who even when seeking happiness may be regretting their choices as they envy the seemingly happy lives of their neighbors, close family friends and others around them.
-- Ashley Na
Cygnet Theatre's production of Lauren Yee's "The Great Leap." Karli Cadel Photography
March 11, 2020. The last time I sat in a theater watching a live performance.
It was the San Diego Rep's production of Madhuri Shekar's "House of Joy." I remember enjoying the play and the performances and, as always, savoring the communal experience of theater with my fellow patrons and the conversation pre-show with my friends and colleagues.
I long for those joys. I dream of embracing them again.
It has been nearly 10 months since the opening and, as it turned out, closing night of "House of Joy." In the interim, theater makers in San Diego have ached and sacrificed and at the same time clung to their passion and tried to present meaningful programming best they could in a virtual format. Some of it has been satisfying, some not. But they have not given up.
Before March 11, San Diego theatergoers had already been treated to a wealth of memorable productions. They should not be forgotten.
The standout for me was Cygnet Theatre's production of Lauren Yee's "The Great Leap." That, along with the staging the previous year of Yee's "Cambodian Rock Band" at La Jolla Playhouse, was emotionally gripping theater of the kind that makes not having live theater today so wrenching. Its Tiananmen Square climax still resides in my soul.
Watching Netflix's film adaptation of August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" reminded me why I was so engrossed in the Old Globe's production of Wilson's "Jitney" last year. Its rich language is woven in pain but also in tenderness.
Early 2020 also brought us: Moxie Theatre's adventurous "Red Bike"; North Coast Rep's hilarious "The Outsider," La Jolla Playhouse's technically dazzling "Fly"; and of course the aforementioned "House of Joy" at the San Diego Rep, which I never got to actually review. It deserved high praise.
So do the theater artists in every craft carrying on since that March 11. I await with anticipation their eventual return to the stage as I await the rediscovery of the joys they bring me and all of us.
Nehal Joshi (left) and Eric Anderson in "Fly" at La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by Kevin Berne
La Jolla Playhouse's world-premiere production of "Fly," a musical adaptation of the much-told Peter Pan story, boasts dazzling choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler and Stephanie Klemons), fanciful scenic design (by Anna Louizos), a Wendy to cheer for (Storm Lever) and of course feats of flying that while not exactly taking your breath away still make your eyes pop.
But "Fly" is all about the pirates.
In Rajiv Joseph's book for the show, Captain Hook (Eric Anderson) is not only the funniest character onstage, he's damned near the most sympathetic. I've had a lot of Peter Pan experience in my day, including revisiting the adventures in-depth while an MFA graduate student not that long ago, and I always thought of Hook as an irredeemable meanie. In "Fly," he's hapless and exasperated and -- here's the kicker -- sympathetic. He's already lost one hand, and after Wendy slices off the other, our loyalties are definitely divided. Besides Joseph's characterization, Anderson's portrayal of Hook is comic but complex. His false swagger and empty threats toward Peter are counterbalanced by his personal sad state of affairs, including not having a mother figure. He and his band of "cutthroats" in Neverland covet young Wendy for this role.
What's more, the most memorable numbers in the "Fly" score are those sung by Anderson or with his mates. Their "Howl at the Moon" chantey is surpassed only by Anderson's faux-ballad "I Miss My Hand," in which he gets a little singalong help from Nehal Joshi as Smee (also wonderful in this show).
The remainder of the score (music by Bill Sherman, lyrics by Kirsten Childs and Rajiv Joseph) runs together in sameness, very much overshadowed by the aerobatics, the kinetic dancing and the opulent set pieces (the mobile pirate ship is the best of these, with the Jolly Roger replaced by a Walter Payton No. 34 jersey).
In Joseph's script, Wendy is an only child (unlike in "Peter and Wendy" in which she has younger siblings) and the daughter of a widowed father. Soon after being swept away by Peter (Lincoln Clauss, an adequate leader of the Lost Boys), she becomes a daring warrior princess who faces up with little fear to not only Hook and his band but to Neverland's menacing and hungry Crocodile (Liisi LaFontaine, bringing to mind The Acid Queen from the Ken Russell "Tommy" movie). Storm Lever, who recently appeared on the Playhouse stage in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical," has charisma to spare, and it's obvious that the protagonist of this Peter Pan telling is not Peter, but Wendy.
Nearly flying away with the whole show is Isabelle McCalla as the fairy Tink, swooping in and out of the action, delivering caustic remarks but also evincing the good heart of a Neverland sprite.
Jeffrey Seller, who as a producer has towering credits that include "Hamilton," "In the Heights" and "Rent," directs "Fly" as the spectacle that it is, but doesn't let the underlying story (about growing up) get away from him or his cast. Act Two is when the emotion of "Fly" sweeps through after a rousing but strictly surface-level opening act.
Not surprisingly, the costumes (by Paul Tazewell) are bold, bright and even bodacious -- Hook's coat is really more of a bathrobe. The flying sequences designed by Pichon Baldinu do not attempt to hide the technology that makes them happen, and that in itself is refreshing.
Right about now, Neverland seems like everyone's optimal escape. "Fly" takes you there with pizazz.
"Fly" runs through March 29 in La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre.
The goings-on beneath the white-rabbit hole at Lamb’s Players Theatre are as wildly whimsical as they are proudly nonsensical. In “Alice,” a musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” incongruity is 90 percent of the fun. While the sharpness of Carroll’s satirical sword may be missing from Elizabeth Swados’ 1980 creation for the stage, the fantastical elements and ingenious characters he created are delightfully intact.
This “Alice” is a relatively obscure work, best remembered perhaps for an early-‘80s production that starred Meryl Streep (yes, Meryl Streep) as children’s literature’s most famous heroine. It’s a strictly ensemble piece with all its actors, save the person playing Alice, filling multiple roles. Its musical score is all over the place, from Calypso to doo-wop, from pop-rock to shades of country, from a capella to the kind of jaunty group sings reminiscent of “Godspell.” At Lamb’s, by the way, a five-piece band led by Ian Brandon handles these divergent idioms with aplomb.
Familiarity with Carroll’s books is helpful, but only an appreciation for the unpredictable and a resistance to the need for explanation are required. “Alice” is all about the denizens of Wonderland that Alice (Megan Carmitchel) encounters underground. The strength of the Lamb’s production, directed and choreographed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth, is in those portrayals: Eileen Bowman as the Queen of Hearts and Humpty Dumpty; Geno Carr as Bill the Lizard, the Mock Turtle and a sobbing baby; Brian Mackey as the Mad Hatter; William BJ Robinson as the Cheshire Cat; Angela Chatelain Avila as the White Rabbit.
Also in the sprightly cast are Nancy Snow Carr, Caitie Grady, Jacob Caltrider, Erika Osuna and Fernando Vega, all of them returnees to the Lamb’s stage.
The first act basically mirrors Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the second act the somewhat darker “Through the Looking Glass.” The set and projections by Michael McKeon are evocative of the storybooks, the costuming by Jemima Dutra more subtle than you might expect for an “Alice” production.
A definite highlight is Alice’s duel with the jabberwocky in Act Two, an impressive feat of onstage magic. Less dramatic but entertaining in its own right is the staging of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, with the cup and saucer settings strapped to the backs of actors who hunch over to serve as tables.
To some degree, there’s an anything-goes approach to the festivities that jibes with the bizarro nature of Wonderland, yet it can be wearying, especially when certain sequences (the Mock Turtle/Gryphon bit for one) overstay their welcomes. It helps to remember that one mini-adventure will be followed by another, and another, until the windup when we learn, alas, that it was all a dream.
The “It was all a dream” explanation of childhood fantasies (see “The Wizard of Oz” too) is disappointing when you invest yourself in a completely other world. It’s gratifying, however, that in “Alice” our heroine in the puff-sleeved dress seems to cling to her imagination and its occupants even after she’s awakened by her mother.
Maybe Wonderland is a real place after all.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 3/10/20.)
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