Pat Launer, Center Stage
“ANNA IN THE TROPICS” – Moonlight Stage Productions
“Anna in the Tropics” is a very hot play… set in a steamy 1920s summer in sultry, South Florida. In a close, confining cigar factory, workers retain their old Cuban custom of having a Lector read to them -- to pass the time, decrease the routinized boredom and expose them to great literature.
The new Lector has chosen Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” which, though set in frigid Russia, only increases the heat factor in the shop. Every worker has a deep personal response to the story of Anna, her husband and her lover; the constraints of their society, the longing, the rapture, the jealousy. As the reading proceeds, a strong sensuality permeates the air, with hot-blooded consequences.
At Moonlight Stage Productions, under the direction of Carlos Mendoza, we don’t feel the heat, or the fire. Though the performances and design work are solid, a deeper layer of fervor seems to have gone untapped. And there’s a dearth of music, which is crucial to this culture and locale. The brightly-sunlit setting would benefit from more sweaty, earthy, sepia tones, though red lighting effectively punctuates the two moments of extreme passion.
This lyrical 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winner by Nilo Cruz is rich with lush, suggestive language. It may be superficially about cigar-rolling, cockfights, and automation forcing the old ways to yield to the new. But at heart, it’s about universals of human emotion, and the power of language and literature to inflame us.
Jordan DeLeon perfectly captures the optimistic innocence of a young girl ravished by romanticism. Melba Novoa is fine as her older sister, a frustrated housewife who strays, like Anna. Her costume should evolve along with her sexuality. The men have the requisite machismo, but not the sizzle.
I’ve seen the play twice before, in a professional and a student production. I wanted it to seduce me yet again; but this time, my response was more intellectual than visceral.
Moonlight Stage’s “Anna in the Tropics” runs through March 29, at the Avo Playhouse in Vista.
Aired: 3/27/2015 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer
“OEDIPUS EL REY” – San Diego Repertory Theatre
Sophocles comes to the barrio. Well, not the ancient Greek playwright himself, but his most famous, 2500 year-old creation, “Oedipus Rex,” one of the most profound and enduring tragedies of Western literature.
In “Oedipus El Rey,” acclaimed L.A. playwright Luis Alfaro has brought the ancient story up to date, re-populating it with cholos in California prisons and communities. This is the tragic tale of a man in search of his destino, or destiny. But cruel fate has doomed him.
A blind seer predicts that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. Much is done to avoid the dire prediction. Oedipus is sent away immediately after his birth. He becomes a petty thief and winds up incarcerated, but has big plans upon his release. And when, through a prison connection, he meets Jocasta, the recently widowed Queen of the barrio, he knows he’s on his way. He works his way into her heart and the onto the local throne.
But Oedipus, AKA El Maldecido, the accursed, will fulfill the prophecy and suffer the consequences of aiming too high and trying to write his own story, rejecting the traditional ways of his gente, his people – the belief in God, curanderos and místicos.
This timeless parable of destiny and fate, faith and free will, makes a brilliant transition to contemporary So-Cal Chicano culture.
In a gorgeously rhythmic, stylized approach, San Diego Rep founding artistic director Sam Woodhouse helms an outstanding and versatile cast, headed by charismatic Lakin Valdez and stunning Mónica Sánchez, whose meetup is electrifying and whose nude love scene is erotic and beautiful.
The set, sound and lighting, the projections, choreography and fight direction, meld into one seamless, breathtaking whole, one heart-rending tale of passion, hubris and the dire violence-riddled fate of so many Latino men.
“Can we tell new stories?,” the gang members ask at the end of the play – just before the prison locks clamp shut on them again.
We’re left to wonder if the bars, the chains, the cycle can be broken.
“Oedipus El Rey” runs through March 29, at San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.
Aired: 3/20/2015 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer
“CHAPTER TWO” – North Coast Repertory Theatre
There’s a strong scent of nostalgia in the air at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
As part of its 33rd anniversary season, the company is taking a trip down memory lane, in more ways than one. They’re re-mounting the first show ever produced by the theater: Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two.” Written and set in the late ‘70s, the comedy is classic Simon, who never met a one-liner he didn’t like. The man can wield an axe of humor to shred a serious scene faster than an army of first-responders.
This excellent production features meticulously designed set and costumes, and compelling, convincing performances. But despite the rapid repartee, the piece drags on – for more than 2½ hours, and its light weight can’t sustain that duration.
The matinee audience of Baby Boomers-and-beyond laughed its collective head off, even though the comedy covers the sober subject of a recent widower and a divorcée diving back – perhaps prematurely -- into the warm water of romance.
Like many Simon works, it’s semi-autobiographical, based on his relationship with actress Marsha Mason – wife #2 of 5 – after the death of his first spouse. Not surprisingly, his central characters are a writer and an actress, superbly played by North Coast artistic director David Ellenstein and visiting actor Jacquelyn Ritz. For additional, though not indispensable, comic relief, each has a sidekick: George’s slick womanizer of a brother, and Jennie’s unhappy housewife/actress friend, effusively portrayed by the very funny Louis Lotorto and unrestrained Mhari Sandoval.
Ellenstein co-directed with Christopher Williams, and they keep the pace sprightly. No one writes rat-a-tat badinage like Simon, but his nonstop quippiness can wear out its welcome, especially when plunked in this play’s formulaic structure and overall predictability.
Neil Simon was the 20th century king of American comedy. He’s still good for a few laughs – and maybe even a deep thought or two about loss, healing and mid-life love.
“Chapter Two” runs through March 29, at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
Aired: 3/5/2015 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer
“THE TWENTY-SEVENTH MAN” – The Old Globe
A writer writing about writers. A story about storytelling.
Nathan Englander’s “The Twenty-Seventh Man” is a slice of Soviet history that was barely known until the KGB files were opened in the 1990s. It’s a tragic tale that, sadly, keeps repeating. The theater program informs us that, last year, 900 writers around the world were jailed, harassed or killed.
This particular annihilation occurred in 1952, when Stalin rounded up all the foremost Yiddish novelists and poets and had them executed on the same day.
In Englander’s short story, published in 1999, there were 26 well-known writers thrown in prison. A very young man, a total unknown, was tossed in with them.
Englander’s stage version premiered at New York’s Public Theatre in 2012, directed by Barry Edelstein, who’d worked extensively with the writer in shaping the play. Now artistic director of The Old Globe, Edelstein is presenting the work’s West coast premiere.
It’s not easy to create the claustrophobia of a prison cell on an arena stage, but the design team has fashioned a magically morphing metal square, stunningly lit. Edelstein shepherds his stellar cast with wit and sensitivity. Yes, there’s humor. Four Jews in a confined space; you think there wouldn’t be jokes?
But the situation is no laughing matter. The men realize they’re doomed, even the arrogant Stalin loyalist, Korinsky, who’s initially played by Robert Dorfman a bit fey and over-the-top. But after his Kafkaesque interaction with the Agent in Charge, he’s brought down to size. The other prisoners, representing the great Yiddish writers from a vast, flourishing community, are the wonderful Ron Ohrbach as the hilarious boozer Bretzky, The Glutton, and a superbly calibrated Hal Linden as the wise, wizened Zunser. The young man, who wonders to the end why he’s there, and if he really qualifies as a writer, is wide-eyed, thoroughly convincing Eli Gelb, who gets to tell the group’s last story.
The conversation throughout is intense, philosophical, lyrical and thought-provoking. You won’t forget this play any time soon.
“The Twenty-Seventh Man” has been extended through March 22, in the Old Globe’s White Theatre in Balboa Park.
Aired: 2/27/2015 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer
GLOBE FOR ALL – The Old Globe
The Old Globe is takin’ it to the streets. Well, maybe not the streets, but out of the theater box and into the community.
Renowned producer Joseph Papp created the Mobile Shakespeare program in 1957, and decades later, Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein re-animated Mobile Shakespeare while he was at The Public Theatre, bringing the Bard to underserved communities.
This fall, he tried out the concept in San Diego, with Globe for All, a free touring production of a Shakespeare play, brought to such varied venues as a military base, centers for the elderly, a homeless shelter and a correctional facility.
The 90-minute production featured a cast of 10 professional actors, including recent alumni of the Old Globe/University of San Diego graduate theater program. Each facility was offered a one-hour pre-show workshop about the language, themes, characters and plot of the play.
The intention, said Edelstein, is to “overcome whatever barriers – economic, geographical or cultural” prohibit some community members from seeing or appreciating Shakespeare. “Theater in general, and Shakespeare in particular, are necessary to living a full and rich life,” says Edelstein, who directed the project’s first production, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
I saw the streamlined show at Father Joe’s Villages, San Diego’s largest residential service provider for the homeless. What was most impressive, besides the talent and commitment of the cast, was how well they interacted with the audience (dogs, infants and all), and how rapt most of the spectators seemed to be, catching all the humor and commenting freely on the action. It was a very exciting and energizing experience.
If the Globe can once again secure funding from local Foundations, it intends to repeat the process next year, with another play and director.
Here’s a toast to the Old Globe for helping to bring theater to every corner of our diverse county. Bravo!
The newly-launched Globe for All will, hopefully, be an ongoing, annual program of the Old Globe.
Aired: 12/5/2014 9:01:00 AM
Copyright © 2014 Pat Launer
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