Thursday, August 21, 2014

Love Is In the Air at San Diego's Old Globe

Hubert Point-Du Jour as Valentine and Britney
Coleman as Silvia - Photo by Jim Cox
If you haven’t seen a production of the Old Globe’s Summer Shakespeare Outdoor Theatre Festival this year you still have time to catch “Two Gentlemen of Verona” in the Lowell Davies Outdoor Theatre in Balboa Park. Whether Shakespeare is writing stories about comedy, drama or tragedy, the subject of love is never far away. It’s the universal engine that stokes the fires of romance which acts as a powerful elixir and a necessary component in all Shakespearean plays.

This time The Old Globe wraps up their highly successful 2014 Shakespeare Summer Season with the delightfully entertaining rom-com “Two Gentlemen of Verona” directed by acclaimed Globe alum and Tony Award nominee Mark Lamos.

The play is considered to be among Shakespeare’s earliest efforts in playwriting, and features themes of male friendship and bonding, both fidelity (on the part of the ladies), and almost infidelity (on the male side), cross-dressing, a touch of bawdiness and, of course, true love. It’s Shakespeare’s version of a coming-of-age tale between two friends and the women they love.

The story revolves around two young men Proteus (Adam Kantor) and Valentine (Hubert Point-Du Jour) who are boyhood best friends. Thanks to the energetic company ensemble, we see them in their various classes performing fencing, physical training, dancing, and doing the things that gentlemen of that time did to prepare for life’s adventures. When the time comes for them to venture out from Verona into the big city of Milan to make their fortunes, decisions have to be made.

Valentine wants Proteus to join him on the way to Milan. Proteus, however, has a different plan. He’s in love with Julia (Kristin Villanueva) and wants to remain close to her in Verona. A disappointed Valentine then sets out on his own. Proteus’ father Antonio (Arthur Hanket), thinks Proteus should follow his friend to Milan (during the Renaissance children followed the advice and suggestions of their parents).

In Milan, Valentine and Silvia (Britney Coleman), the daughter of the Duke (Mark Pinter) have met and are in love. When Proteus arrives, he too falls for the lovely Silvia. Later, he reveals to the powerful Duke that Silvia and Valentine plan to elope, whereby Valentine is banished from Milan leaving the field clear for Proteus to present his case for her love.

Meanwhile, Proteus’ earlier love, Julia, assumes the disguise of a male page and travels to Milan to find him. The now-banished Valentine meets a band of rowdy outlaws in the forest and becomes their leader. Are you still with me? Good. Silvia in search of Valentine is seized by his outlaws and is rescued by Proteus, who once again professes his love for her. Silvia again spurns Proteus. Once she gets back to her father’s castle with Valentine and Proteus, Julia arrives and reveals her true identity to all, regaining a contrite Proteus’ love. Two weddings are then arranged: Valentine with Silvia, and Proteus with Julia. Shakespeare’s plays are heavily plotted and dense with narrative threads that go off in all directions. So, let’s just say that they all lived happily ever after.

There are some finely judged and very funny performances in this production. With a cast of 23 performers it is difficult to list everyone, however, there are always standouts: Adam Kantor as Proteus, Hubert Point-Du Jour as Valentine, Britney Coleman as Silvia and Kristin Villanueva as Julia fill those standout roles.

Solid support comes from Lowell Byers as Turio, the foolish suitor of Silvia (with a cod piece that stands out as well); Mark Pinter as the Duke; Rusty Ross as Speed, the crafty servant to Valentine, and Richard Ruiz as Launce, the clownish servant to Proteus and on-stage handler of a scene-stealing black lab retriever-mix named Crab that reinforces the W.C. Fields dictum to never appear in a scene with an animal or a small child. Both are tough acts to follow. I loved Fields’ snarky, sarcastic, response when asked years ago if he liked children. “Yes”, he replied, “when they’re cooked properly.” Not only is Crab's portrayer Kokomo a scene-stealer, but she receives thunderous applause following every exit.

The creative team led by director Lamos is first rate. The gorgeous costumes designed by Linda Cho fill the stage with a palette of colors. From dazzling red and sparkling diaphanous white, and long pink flowing gowns to the rich looking blue doublets and cloaks - costumes of the aristocracy - coupled with the contrasting scruffy-looking brown costumes of the outlaws renders the stage design by John Arnone, awash in color. The lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge and the sound design by Acme Sound Partners further enhance the vision of director Lamos, who stages his production with a sure and steady hand.

Even though “Two Gentlemen of Verona” is an early Shakespeare play, his writing style, plot, and characters are very relevant for today’s society. Once the audience gets the hang of the rhyme and meter of the language, it’s easy to follow, whether it’s Renaissance Italy or 21st century San Diego.

There has always been a certain amount of scholarly concern over Shakespeare’s intentions when crafting “Two Gentlemen.” Is it a comedy underpinned with overtones of farce, or is it a farce outright, laced with comedic shadings concerning friendship and the effects of love? The production is a visually stunning, light and entertaining rom-com romp that sends the eternal message that what this troubled world needs now, more than ever, is love sweet love. So enjoy.

“Two Gentlemen of Verona” runs through September 14, 2014.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Future of American Theatre is in Good Hands

Some in the professional theatre community view critics as their natural enemy out to destroy or trivialize the efforts of all theatrical companies. Over time, a tradition of sorts began – something akin to the bridegroom not seeing his bride before the ceremony – in other words, bad luck or a doomed marriage. Bull. I’ve never met a fellow critic who walked into a theatre hoping the production would be bad, boring or worse in order to write a clever, witty review that denigrates the production as a way of elevating their own importance.

As a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), I thought it would be interesting to see what and how theatre professionals, both administrative and creative types, discuss and approach their work. How they grapple day to day with such thorny issues as work ethics, problem solving (marketing and finance issues) the creative process in general, and how they plan for the growth of a necessary industry during difficult times in a challenged American economy.

When seeking news of what’s happening in American not-for-profit theatre, you can track those happenings via the Theatre Communications Group (TCG). Once a year the organization convenes its National Conference in a different city, allowing members and interested parties to come together, press the flesh, attend workshops and panels, and exchange ideas on the state and future of American theatre.

Started over 50 years ago by the efforts of a handful of theatres, it has grown to represent nearly 700 member theatres and more than 12,000 individuals nationwide. In addition to offering its members networking and knowledge-building opportunities, it also publishes the award-winning American Theatre magazine, considered an essential source for those seeking a career in the arts.

So when TCG selected the city of San Diego to host their 2014 National Conference, it presented me with a perfect opportunity to satisfy my critic’s curiosity to observe the current state of the art. If you are not familiar with TCG, it is the national organization whose mission is to strengthen, nurture, and promote the professional not-for-profit American theatre.

More than 900 theatre professionals from all over the United States attended the conference in June and the energy level at the Welcome for Newbies and First Timers session was intense on day one, rising even higher on days two and three. I would estimate that about 75 percent of the attendees was under 40 years of age. That’s good news for those of us older folks who are happy to see the legacy of American theatre is secure.

Due to my being on a “No Fly” list of sorts (critics are not permitted to attend certain workshops and panels), I had to glean bits of information and breaking news from the four plenary sessions that everyone could attend, mostly in the form of insights shared during liquid-fueled epiphanies in the hotel bar post-sessions. The three-day experience led me to conclude that America’s theatre professionals are mostly upbeat about the prospects for America’s not-for-profit theatres.

As the saying goes, “it’s not your father (or grandfathers’s) theatre any more”. That’s not to say that today’s makers and shakers are stuck in a time warp. Quite the contrary. But the landscape is beginning to take on a new look when it comes to confronting the reality of creating and producing theatre as we know it today.

Theatre is an evolving art form and always has been. Sometimes, it’s just not easy to recognize change when it arrives

I think when theatres begin their season selection process, a blending of the familiar with the bolder choices that are being made by new and emerging theatrical companies is a prudent way to go. Both sides of a critical component need to have their day in the court of paying patrons – the ultimate arbiter of which way is better in the theatre – to prove their case.

It reminds me of the heated and passionate discussions of fifty years ago when many theatres, actors, directors, and boards of directors wrestled with a critical decision when it came to making an immutable theatrical choice: do we build a proscenium stage or a stage in the round? Thus the thrust stage was born, and the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont and the Mark Taper Forum’s thrust stages have led the way in producing plays and musicals without compromising audience enjoyment.

While “compromise” as a position is not in favor in our current highly partisan environment, I also believe that the arts communities in America are smarter and wiser when it comes to working together than the folks in Washington D.C.

Overall I came away from the TCG Conference with the conviction that torches have been passed to younger professionals who are smart, creative, and eager to embrace the challenges of ideas and concepts that not only nourish one’s soul, but please their audiences in the bargain. Despite having to accomplish their goals on limited budgets the new generation is eager and capable of thinking “outside the creative box” when it comes to protecting and keeping the American theatre dream alive.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Geffen Playhouse Premieres Neil Labute Drama "Reasons to Be Pretty"

Shawn Hatosy and Amber Tamblyn - Photo Michael Lamont

Playwright Neil LaBute is a prolific writer of plays and screenplays. But he rarely appears on the radar screens of mainstream American theatre-goers. Some accuse him of being a misogynistic playwright on steroids.

That label may be a little unfair. They said the same thing about G.B. Shaw’s take on women, but Shaw performed his misogyny surgery with wit, style, and intellectual rigor; whereas LaBute assaults his audiences with characters that boast a raw, street smart approach to the modern man/woman relationship, complete with a plethora of F-bombs, shouted at the top of their voices, and other favorite sexual expressions that pass for dialogue these days. If one scratches beneath the surface of our ever changing society, one will discover complicated and somewhat pathetic characters that continue to hold a fascination for LaBute as well as for others.

In his latest play “Reasons to be Pretty” (directed by artistic director Randall Arney, now playing on the Gil Cates Stage of the Geffen Playhouse), LaBute introduces us to four characters in their mid-twenties who are what some might label as borderline losers. The younger generation come off as spoiled, self-indulgent and suffering from a lack of parental oversight when they were growing up - and they’re still not grownups when we catch up with them.

The play opens with Stephanie (Amber Tamblyn) screaming at the top of her lungs a series of four-letter expletives directed at her live-in boyfriend Greg (Shawn Hatosy) who is trying to calm her down. Not an easy task. This is a marital squabble (sans wedding rings and license) between a live-in couple who have trouble communicating. It seems Greg dropped a casual remark to his best buddy Kent (Nick Gehlfuss) about women in general and their beauty in particular. There is nothing unusual about that, except that Greg failed to defend Stephanie’s specific beauty, and when the two buddy’s exchanges came back to Steph via her “friend” Carly (Alicia Witt), all hell broke loose. Whatever would the world do without gossip as fodder material for writers?

Alicia Witt and Nick Gehlfuss - Photo Michael Lamont
In the case of their friends Kent and Carly and their situation Carly, who works as a night security guard, loves her husband Kent. The issue for them is that Kent has a roving eye for the ladies and for Crystal, a new young hottie at the factory where he works. The set-up is complete. Now we wait to see how all this will unfold. One problem for the audience is that these four flawed characters are not easy to like or to root for.

Director Arney has each character deliver their “A-ha monologue” in a spotlighted area straight out to the audience. It’s this convention that gives us some insight into the world of these fallible creatures. I just wish he took a firmer hand in the vocal modulation and orchestration of the actor’s emotions and delivery.  At times, less is better when it comes to the actors shouting at each other all the time. Also, there were times when 18-wheeler big rigs would have no trouble slipping in between dialogue cues.

For two and a half hours these talented actors have to maneuver the minefield of LaBute's, sometimes raw and sometimes banal dialogue which is liberally peppered with references to “beer, broads, baseball and sex.” It is almost like being back in my old military barracks. It was tolerable then, but now fails to engage and just comes off as tedious.

According to LaBute’s program notes, the world is obsessed with how people wish to be seen by others and that’s very true. Everyone wants to be perceived as being pretty or handsome. Unfortunately, life just isn’t that way. Real beauty is always in the eye of the enlightened beholder. We can still be happy inside our own skins, despite what the world thinks or says.

The technical credits are always solid at the Geffen, and this production is no exception. The set design by Takeshi Kata makes good use of wagons in expediting scene locations and scene changes and still provide enough space for the actors to do their things. Lighting designer Daniel Ionazzi provides just the right amount of illumination for mood enhancement, yet still allows the costumes of David Mickelsen to be seen and appreciated.

“Reasons to be Pretty” at the Geffen Playhouse may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but one cannot deny the dedication and the commitment on the part of the talented ensemble cast. The production runs through August 31, 2014.

Monday, August 4, 2014

British Comedy Scores High Marks in “Quartet” at San Diego's Old Globe White Stage

(from left) Robert Foxworth as Reginald Paget, Elizabeth Franz as Jean Horton, Jill Tanner as Cecily Robson, and Roger Forbes as Wilfred Bond ~ Photo by Jim Cox.
L to R: Robert Foxworth as Reginald Paget,
Elizabeth Franz as Jean Horton, Jill Tanner
as Cecily Robson, Roger Forbes as Wilfred Bond
Photo by Jim Cox
No matter how famous one thinks they are it always comes as a shock when they discover that they can no longer perform whatever they did to make them famous in the first place. The spirit is always willing it’s the aging flesh and vocal cords that hammer home that epiphany in the current production now treading the boards on the Sheryl and Harvey White Stage at the Old Globe in Balboa Park.

Playwright Ronald Harwood’s delightfully charming comedy “Quartet” is playfully and zestfully directed by Richard Seer.The play’s core story of four aging grand opera singers who now reside in an English country home for retired musicians, simply stated, must make a decision: one to get along with one another and two to perform for their fellow residents a concert they promised when they first arrived a year ago.

Harwood’s deliciously sly comedy features four meaty roles for actors of a “certain age” and those roles are filled by four actors who perform as though they were born for their parts. Old Globe favorite Robert Foxworth plays shy and introverted Reginald Paget, a fussy, classically-trained singer of the old school who bristles at the suggestive shenanigans and randy language of Wilfred Bond, portrayed by Roger Forbes, who fancies himself as the retirement home lothario.

Jill Tanner as Cecily Robson is oblivious to the sexual blandishments of Wilfred, mainly because she wears headsets while listening to the music of their old operas every time Wilfred’s randiness gets the better of him. She is bubbly Miss Optimism the rest of the time. Elizabeth Franz portrays Jean Horton, the imperious grand dame of the opera world and the ex-wife of Reggie. When these “Three Musketeers” learn that Jean will be moving in as a permanent resident, all eyes and attention turn toward Reggie, who refuses to talk about the situation.

Elizabeth Franz as Jean Horton and
Robert Foxworth as Reginald Paget
Photo by Jim Cox
Foxworth is a character actor with a wonderful range. I fondly remember his Henry Drummond portrayal in “Inherit the Wind” at San Diego’s Old Globe, and his performances as Lyman Wyeth in “Other Desert Cities” at the Taper and again at the Old Globe, among many others.

Roger Forbes makes his Old Globe debut with “Quartet”. After a distinguished 40 year career performing on stages in England and America, he is more than ready for his Globe debut. I suspect he’s performed a zillion of Alan Ackybourn’s comedies along the way. His Wilfred Bond portrayal is bawdy but harmless, much like like a favorite lap dog whose bark is worse than his bite (and most of the women residents know it).

Elizabeth Franz who plays the imperious Jean Horton is as regal-looking as one would expect of a diva of the opera. Demanding to a fault, even irritating to others, but if one looks a little deeper, one would find a very vulnerable and frightened lady who can’t come to grips with her retirement and thwarts all efforts of help.

Director Seer has his creative A-team working on this production. Set Design wizard Ralph Funicello places everyone in a proper-looking English retirement home. The only element missing would be the presence of the late great character actor Joyce Grenfell as the kooky lady in charge of the home. York Kennedy’s lighting and Christopher R. Walker’s sound design, along with costumes by Charlotte Devaux, are first-rate contributors to a solid comedy production that has more than a few poignant messages to deliver along the way. On leaving the theatre, I overheard two couples saying, “This was so much better than the movie!” The decision to present the play in the round on the intimate White Stage was a wise choice.

Speculating that 90 percent of the opening night audience is receiving Social Security benefits, I feel safe in saying this comedy is definitely a lock when it comes to appealing to seniors. But I wouldn’t rule out the younger set from enjoying the state of affairs the characters find themselves in. After all, retirement is a destination we’re heading toward, like it or not.

“Quartet” runs through August 24, 2014.