Friday, October 24, 2014

Geffen Playhouse's "Discord" Offers Intellectual Comedy Satire for Modern Thinkers

Sometime the only way to communicate controversial or ambiguous ideas is to employ the theatrical conventions of comedy and satire as the messenger of enlightenment.

In the Geffen Playhouse’s current production “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord”, written by Scott Carter and directed by Matt August, three of history’s great thinker/writers come together in a blisteringly funny battle of wits to explain their divergently held opinions.

David Melville, Larry Cedar and Armin Shimerman
Photo by Michael Lamont

Playwright Carter said that the story had been incubating in his mind for over two decades. He just needed an Epiphany to bring clarity and the direction needed to turn his thoughts into a theatrical script. With the help of friend and director Matt August, the property has been turned into a clever amalgamation of theories, ideas and opinions, some of which, reveal the private thoughts and lives of Carter’s three characters: Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy. Each character representing a different century in which each lived. The production is reminiscent of, and a takeoff on, the old Steve Allen TV show “Meeting of Minds” back in the late 70’s. It worked then and it works once again.

Los Angeles is primarily a movie and TV town, so it comes as no surprise that the cast portraying the three individuals of the play’s title have that sort of bent. So was the opening night audience. It was sprinkled with lots of actors and industry types.

Director August begins the evening revealing a completely dazzlingly white stage, with one door, which after a beat or two opens, and allows 18th century Thomas Jefferson, the man of logic and reason, portrayed in full Jeffersonian costume, by Larry Cedar to enter. Then the door locks shut. Cedar bewilderingly glances about to assess his situation and location (the logician). Then quickly realizes he is a prisoner of sorts but doesn’t understand why, and then becomes the narrator, tour guide, and the man of reason during this 85 minute adventure in words and ideas.

When the door opens a second time Charles Dickens (David Melville), the 18th century novelist and wordsmith walks in and quickly comes to the party as Jefferson explains we’re here to be judged by some tribunal of sorts. Dickens in full theatrical delivery flamboyantly demands to be allowed to leave. When nothing happens the 17th century sits down with the 18th century and both wait for the 20th century figure to arrive. When the door opens Count Leo Tolstoy (Armin Shimerman) enters complaining in full-throated, heavily accented Russian, his displeasure at his treatment. With all three participants present and introduced, the trio for the evening’s entertainment agree to defend their divergent opinions.

The discourse or “discord” as the title implies, is spirited and heated at times as each tries to convince other of the error of his position. What these three historical figures do have in common, however, is that each has written his own version of the Bible by which to believe and to live his life. It should come as no surprise to learn that all three historical figures in real life didn’t follow their own advice during their lifetimes.

Playwright Carter’s premise is rich in promise and entertainment value, however lurking just beneath the surface of the narrative text is a touch of the didactic approach as a way of engaging and imparting the information necessary to enjoy the splendid performances of Cedar, Melville, and Shimerman. Nevertheless, the audience can still come away with a stimulating evening of comedy and satire in the theatre, thanks to director August and his creative team led by scenic designer Takeshi Kata whose stark, spare hospital-like operating theatre room, sans the medical trappings, is visually arresting, and sets the tone for what is to follow. The lights by designer Luke Moyer, complement the costumes designed by Ann Closs-Farely, along with projections by designer Jeffrey Elias Teeter, and sound support by designer Cricket S. Myers, make for a seamless production.

Ambiguous endings from playwrights and screenwriters are all the rage these days, so it’s okay to dream up your own ending. Whether you do or don’t, you’ll still enjoy this production.

“The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” at the Geffen Playhouse runs through November 23, 2014.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

North Coast Rep Theatre Triumphs with “Freud’s Last Session”

At last, a thinking person’s play about the vexing concepts and issues concerning the philosophy of science versus the philosophy of faith in today’s society. It wasn’t much of an issue, say, 5000 years ago. Then again, there wasn’t much of a scientific community or advocates to challenge the established order. But, today it’s a much different kettle of fish.
Bruce Turk and Michael Santo ~Images Aaron Rumley

Playwright Mark St. Germain has crafted “Freud’s Last Session” – brilliantly staged and directed by North Coast Rep Theatre artistic director David Ellenstein – in order to bring together, one afternoon in 1940, two of the 20th century’s most influential writers and thinkers in a head to head spirited discussion.

The story in short, is set in WW II England, during the Blitz of London and revolves around a fictional meeting between Sigmund Freud and novelist C.S. Lewis. Near the end of his life, Freud has one final visitor, C.S. Lewis, the writer and former atheist now a convert to Roman Catholicism who is soon to publish “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. The two men are a contrast in styles. Freud (wonderfully played by Michael Santo) is irascible, highly opinionated, prickly and suffering from painful mouth cancer. Lewis (an introspective, low key Bruce Turk) is a glass-half-full, sunny outlook sort of a fellow and is unflappable most of the time. The result of their meeting is a lively debate touching on love, religion, politics and life in its many iterations.

Of course, the most spirited exchanges between polar-opposite philosophies inevitably boil down to either politics or religion or both as in our modern-day society. Despite one’s position on the issues, it’s a stimulating, thought-provoking, amusing, and engaging evening of theatre. And it all takes place in about 85 minutes.

Director Ellenstein’s entertaining production has two extremely talented actors in Santo and Turk, plus an erudite, richly-textured, intelligent premise and script from playwright St. Germain with which to have fun, as well as to tantalize his sophisticated theatre audience. Freud relishes his exchanges with Lewis occasionally punctuating his comments with “thank God”, at the end of sentences, which always get a laugh from the engaged and savvy audience. When pressed by Lewis, Freud replies, “It’s an old habit I’ve been trying to overcome for years”. The genuine mutual respect the characters have for one another is apparent from the outset, and the fluidity of their performances have Ellenstein’s creative fingerprints all over them.

The format is an old one. Two famous characters come together to discuss and/or debate their philosophically held public and personal opinions. Its “fight-night” in the theatre, between two highly educated and refined gentlemen, but without the rancor or “the win-at-any-cost” street-fighter tactics that pass today for civilized discourse. Words have power and are meaningful in St. Germain’s and Ellenstein’s highly literate and entertaining production, and surprise of surprises, there isn’t one “f-bomb” hurled from the stage into the audience (emerging playwrights please take note. Buy a thesaurus and apply generously to your dialogue).

St. Germain, Ellenstein, Santo, and Turk, are the main reasons this splendid production resonates with the audience. However, a great deal of the success of North County Rep Theatre productions rests on the creative shoulders of its talented production staff led by Resident scenic designer Marty Burnett, who provides the actors in this production a pitch-perfect rendering of Sigmund Freud’s Vienna home before Freud and his daughter Anna escaped from Austria to England. Its mahogany walls and built-in bookshelves lined with stacks of books, tables, and Freud’s large desk set the tone from the moment the audience walk in. It’s my belief that a great set has a lot to do with inspiring a talented cast.

Lighting designer Matt Novotny’s atmospheric lighting plot provides just the right amount of light to see the wonderfully spot-on period-perfect costumes of Alina Bokovikova from Santo’s classic black pinstripe, to Turk’s wartime clothes-rationing look. Turk looks as if he just stepped away from his teaching position at London University to meet Freud; complete with brown shoes and socks with a gray jacket, blue sweater, a light green, slender knotted tie and the ubiquitous trench coat, in the event it rains (It usually did when I lived there). Props design and stage dressing by Benjamin Cole enhance the overall look and feel of this impressive production which is definitely a triumph for North Coast Rep.

“Freud’s Last Session” at North County Rep runs through November 9, 2014.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Old Globe Theatre Presents World Premiere of Steve Martin Musical

A.J. Shively as Billy Cane and Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy ~ Photo by Joan Marcus.
A.J. Shively as Billy Cane and Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy
Photo by Joan Marcus
Life is a journey and every journey has a story to tell. The musical fable now on the stage of the Donald and Darlene Shiley theatre is the new musical “Bright Star”, co-written and composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, and deftly directed by Walter Bobbie.

The immensely multi-talented Steve Martin – actor, playwright, director, musician, producer author – has joined creative forces with Southern songwriter-singer Edie Brickell becoming of one America’s newest and successful musical writing teams in the process.

In “Bright Star” Martin and Brickell take us back to a time when Americans lived in a kinder and gentler society. One where Norman Rockwell drawings were the mirror of who and what we were; when rural America held County Fairs, church socials, and actually knew their neighbors no matter how far they lived from one another.

“Bright Star” is a gentle story set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Thomas Wolfe country, Asheville, North Carolina. It tells the beguiling story of Billy Cane (A.J. Shively), a young southern soldier, who has just come home from WW II, harboring a passion for writing and a desire to be become another Thomas Wolfe, He meets Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), the brilliant, but prickly, editor of a southern literary journal and together they discover a powerful secret that alters their lives forever. The story flashes forward and backward from 1923 to 1945. It’s also a tale about the timeless trans-formative power of love and hope despite what trials and tribulations life throws at us. It’s not all peaches and cream down south, so it has some dark moments as well. However, no spoiler alert here.

The cast, featuring eleven speaking, and or singing roles is led by Carmen Cusack as Alice, in a sensitive and winning performance; one steeped in the haunting lyrics delivered by a voice that has seen and endured pain. Cusack’s husky, smoky delivery is mesmerizing as a young Alice and is commanding as the older Alice the editor of the Literary Southern Journal.

Equally appealing, is Wayne Allen Wilcox as Jimmy Ray, Alice’s erstwhile lover. Their on- stage chemistry produces nice moments in the numbers “A Night Like This” and “I Had a Vision”. A. J. Shively as Billy, the character that sets in motion the story of Alice, Jimmy Ray and Billy scores with his numbers “Bright Star”, “Sun’s Gonna Shine”, and in his duet“ Always Will”, with lovely Hannah Elless portraying Margo Crawford as his sweetheart. Libby Winters as Dora Murphy, Stephen Lee Anderson as Daddy Murphy, Patti Cohenour as Mama Murphy, and Stephen Bogardus as Daddy Cane, provide solid support.

Wayne Duvall as Mayor Josiah Dobbs, gets his proper due during the curtain call much to the delight of the audience and Duvall himself; no more said on this. Jeff Hiller as Daryl Ames, the general factotum at the literary journal and Kate Loprest as Lucy Grant an assistant, provide most of the comedy moments in the production.

The nine member ensemble company who sing and dance under the baton of Rob Berman and the choreography of Josh Rhodes includes: Allison Briner, Max Chernin, Leah Horowitz, Joe Jung, Lulu Lloyd, Ashley Robinson, Greg Roderick, Sarah Jane Shanks, and Scott Wakefield who immeasurably enrich the overall musical experience of the production.

When it comes to the technical credits of a production, the Globe has few equals. “Bright Star” is dominated by the set design and visuals of award-winning and Theatre Hall of Fame Set Designer Eugene Lee whose mobile set pieces and wagons, house both scenes for the actors and provides a “home base” for the musicians who appear on-stage throughout the production. Lighting Designer Japhy Weideman adds to the dreamy overall quality of the story with his mood-enhancing shafts of light. Even more creative is the activation of the upstage drop curtain, which has been cut to suggest a silhouette of a mountain range beyond the town. The scenes, when splashed with an evening lighting effect, produce a stunning visual effect.

What separates, at least for me, “Bright Star” from the general run-of-the-mill musicals by today’s young composer/lyricist/ playwrights is the fresh choices of music, instruments, and style of the production. Martin and Brickell both work as performers in alt-rock, and bluegrass. Martin has his own bluegrass band – the Steep Canyon Rangers – and banjo-featured renditions and instrumentals are a big part of their success, so it comes as no surprise that bluegrass and the banjo orchestrations are front and center in this heart-warming production.

It’s the music and the orchestrations that propel the story forward, taking the audience along with it. What Aaron Copland did for “American” music with “Appalachian Spring” and “Rodeo”, Martin and Brickell do for Bluegrass, thanks to some wonderfully creative orchestrations from August Eriksmoen, and musical director Rob Berman. Walter Bobbie was a wise choice as the director. He brings many clever directorial touches to this impressive production.

Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein is on a roll when it comes to selecting and mounting winning productions. First, “The Winter’s Tale now to “Bright Star”. Let the good times roll. The production is not only a love valentine to aficionados of bluegrass music, it’s an entertaining evening of musical theatre, despite, perhaps, a song or two too many, but nonetheless is a new musical whose time has come. Don’t Miss It!.

“Bright Star” runs at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre through November 2, 2014.