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  • “THE TWENTY-SEVENTH MAN” – The Old Globe

    “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

  • “THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE” – Intrepid Shakespeare

    “THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE” – Intrepid Shakespeare

    There are foot-spellers and hand-spellers, whisperers and eye-crossers. Everyone’s got a gimmick in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and they make for a lovable bunch of obsessives in Intrepid Shakespeare Company’s new production.

    The 2005 musical, with a score by William Finn and book by Rachel Shenkin is, for a titular Shakespeare troupe, a long way from the Bard, who couldn’t even seem to spell his own name the same way every time he wrote it.

    But for anyone who’s ever been in any kind of elimination competition, this show is irresistible.

    It was originally written as a one-act, and that would seem best. This production breaks it up, with a first act that’s non-stop funny, introducing the quirky characters and comic bits, calling up four audience members to join the Bee, and offering hilarious sample sentences to illustrate test words, some of them written by funnyman Geno Carr, who plays the unstable geek of a Vice Principal delivering the words to the high-stress contenders.

    The second act takes an unfortunate detour with a maudlin solo about one kid’s absent parents that stops the fun in its tracks. But the rest, including the wild backstories of the other five champ spellers, is consistently amusing and entertaining.

    The cast is terrific, with especially uproarious performances by Kevin Hafso-Koppman as the eye-crossing space-case, Leaf Coneybear, and Omri Schein, reprising a role he played at North Coast Rep five years ago: the smartass, nasal-voiced, fleet-footed nutjob William Barfey, um, that’s Barfée. As the host and long-ago bee-winner, Nancy Snow Carr sports a stellar soprano that soars above all.

    Each of the solos is well executed and superbly presented, and the group numbers are a hoot, thanks to the direction of Kathy Brombacher and choreography of Jill Gorrie. Sprightly accompaniment is provided by musical director/pianist Terry O’Donnell and percussionist Daniel Doerfler. Excellent use is made of Intrepid’s new venue, the attractive Performing Arts Center at San Marcos High School.

    Any way you spell it, this production is a winner.

    “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs through March 15, in the Performing Arts Center of San Marcos High School.

    Aired: 2/20/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “THE DARRELL HAMMOND PROJECT” – La Jolla Playhouse

    “THE DARRELL HAMMOND PROJECT” – La Jolla Playhouse

    You probably know him from his pitch-perfect impersonation of Bill Clinton on “Saturday Night Live.” You may not know that he was the longest-running cast member on that show. Or that he’s performed for four Presidents. There’s a whole lot more you don’t know about Darrell Hammond, and he’s now at the La Jolla Playhouse to tell you.

    This world premiere, “The Darrell Hammond Project,” goes dark and deep. Yes, there are many hilarious impressions, from Daffy Duck to Dick Cheney. But Hammond is, as the title suggests, a work in progress. And he’s here to divulge the harrowing story of his life, which features five detox experiences, nine psychiatric facilities, including two on lockdown, and a plethora of diagnostic pronouncements, ranging from schizophrenic to alcoholic, with some of his astonishing string of 40 psychiatrists suggesting that he was bipolar, uni-polar, psychotic, or had multiple personality disorder. More than 13 drugs have been prescribed, not to mention the ones he took to self-medicate.

    But as hair-raising as his journey has been, as gut-wrenching as it obviously is for him to tell it, tell it he must. There’s catharsis going on here, to be sure, but equally important is the subliminal message that you cannot suffer in silence, secretly cutting yourself to take away the fear or pain or voices or colors, whatever plagues you. Sharing your story is critical.

    Hammond has an engagingly matter-of-fact way of telling horrific tales. He’s also, of course, very funny. And slyly sarcastic. He can metamorphose from character to character in a nanosecond. His comedic skills are impressive. So is his perseverance and endurance through a nightmare existence.

    The audience surrounds him on three sides in Robert Brill’s beautifully minimalist set, backed by bookshelves and wonderful lighting and projections. With co-writer Elizabeth Stein and Christopher Ashley’s sensitive direction, subtle shifts in tone carry us through the emotional tough spots. Humor helps. It’s gotten Hammond through life, and it gets us through the night.

    “The Darrell Hammond Project” runs through March 8, at the La Jolla Playhouse.

    Aired: 2/13/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • GLOBE FOR ALL – The Old Globe

    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

For an archive of all of Pat's reviews, going back to 1990, use the 'search' function at

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