San Diego's Jazz

Pat Launer, Center Stage

Funding for "Center Stage" is provided in part by Audrey Geisel and the Dr. Seuss Foundation
  • “MR. WOLF” – South Coast Repertory Theatre

    “MR. WOLF” – South Coast Repertory Theatre

    It’s all about identity. Who are we, and how are we shaped – and shaken up – by circumstance?

    The title character of Rajiv Joseph’s “Mr. Wolf” possesses all the ominous danger of the predator he’s named for. At first, he seems an avuncular astronomy professor. But his star pupil, Theresa, whom he’s grooming to be a brilliant scholar – and a prophet - was abducted by Mr. Wolf 12 years ago. Now 15, she’s never encountered people or shoes or chocolate. She’s about to be exposed to all this and much more. Another wolf is at the door: the FBI. Mr. Wolf makes a lethal exit and sends Theresa out into the world.

    There, she meets her father, who’s devoted his life to finding her; her mother, who gave up on her years ago; and her stepmom, who met her new mate in a support group for parents of kidnapped children.

    Every character will suffer an existential crisis or two. Identity, faith, hope and survival are seminal in Joseph’s work, including his magnificent, Pulitzer Prize finalist, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”

    In this world premiere, Joseph is asking many questions, across many domains. Perhaps too many. The play has some excellent interactions, some searing, stomach-churning moments. But the two mothers are underwritten, and there are a number of detours that don’t forward the arc of the story. Further tightening of focus will serve the provocative drama well. Joseph knows how to push socio-political and emotional buttons, while upending our comfortable attitudes.

    At South Coast Rep, the production is wonderfully designed. Under the direction of David Emmes, the men are outstanding – Jon Tenney as the Father, and John de Lancie as Mr. Wolf and several other characters. College senior Emily James is spectacular as Theresa, ingenuously exhibiting both brainwashed wisdom and infinite curiosity.

    There’s serious potential in a play that poses this many unfathomable questions.

    “Mr. Wolf” runs through May 3, at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

    Aired: 5/1/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “UNCANNY VALLEY” – San Diego Repertory Theatre

    “UNCANNY VALLEY” – San Diego Repertory Theatre

    Immortality – would you choose it if you could? And if you did, would you want all your knowledge and personality in a computer system for eternity – or reconstituted in a perfect simulation of yourself? At what age would you want to be replicated? Would your avatar have all the rights of any human?

    These are some of the provocative – and troubling – questions raised in “Uncanny Valley,” by Thomas Gibbons. The title refers to the instinctive reaction to human simulations: the more lifelike, the more fascination gives way to repulsion.

    It’s 2042. Claire, a scientist, is training her fourth mind clone robot.

    At first, startlingly, Julian is just a head on a desk. Scene by scene, he acquires parts and skills. It’s thrilling watching him develop – how much knowledge he already has, how quickly he learns – about humor, nostalgia and feeling, which he can describe but not sense.

    His creation is complete when he takes on the life and persona of a wealthy, 76 year-old, businessman, dying of pancreatic cancer which, like Alzheimer’s, has still not been eradicated. The new Julian is robust, attractive, in his mid-30s.

    He flouts protocol to come back and visit Claire. In his well-tailored suit, he’s less charming: arrogant and narcissistic, fluent in corporate-speak. What had been an enthralling experiment suddenly turns into a terrifying reality.

    Gibbons casts his net too wide, posing many questions, taking no sides, providing no answers. The details of Claire’s personal life seem intrusive and unnecessary.

    At the San Diego Rep, the scenic and sound design are excellent. Under Jessica Bird’s taut, well-paced direction, Rosina Reynolds and Nick Cagle are superb. A very human scientist, she’s getting a glimpse into the Uncanny Valley. Cagle is a wonder, thoroughly mastering Julian’s jerky moves and acute curiosity.

    In a discussion of Artificial Intelligence, things inevitably turn dark. Just how far should we go with this?

    The National New Play Network has chosen this drama for a ‘rolling world premiere.’ That means audiences around the country will have their sleep disturbed by this unsettling piece of theater.

    “Uncanny Valley” runs through May 10, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.

    Aired: 4/24/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “BUYER AND CELLAR” – The Old Globe

    “BUYER AND CELLAR” – The Old Globe

    “What’s it like?... To have been at the top for so long?,” Alex asks Barbra. Though he’s a fictional character, she’s, well, Barbra Streisand. The question is valid, and the answer remains the same, across the centuries: no matter how much fame, fortune or celebrity is attained, people still carry the beat-up baggage of their damaging youth.

    Ms. Streisand will never shake off her Brooklyn poverty. And maybe that’s why she obsessively buys and hoards, at least according to Jonathan Tolins, who wrote the charming solo show, “Buyer and Cellar,” now making its San Diego premiere at The Old Globe.

    Streisand does, in fact, have an entire shopping mall in the basement of her Malibu mansion. She is its only customer. Tolins has created Alex, an under-employed actor, to become the shopkeeper of those Streisand stores, spending his days dusting, arranging, coveting, and waiting for his demanding purchaser to arrive. Gradually, they develop a friendship of sorts, and he even becomes her acting coach.

    The 2013 comedy doesn’t ridicule Babs, except for suggesting that she treats people like objects or acquisitions. And that she’s not a terrifically happy camper.

    Broadway veteran David Turner is delightful company as Alex… and Barbra, and her supercilious house manager, and his snarky, jealous boyfriend, Barry. Turner doesn’t exactly impersonate Streisand, but he nails her facial expressions and mannerisms. He takes us into his confidence, sharing his stories as he switches effortlessly among the characters, who are subtly differentiated.

    He flops around the spare, ultra-modern set on the White’s arena stage; we’re meant to imagine the shops and the whirring frozen yogurt machine, and the descriptions are vivid enough to pique our imaginations.

    Amid all the name-dropping, pop culture and theater references, and quippy one-liners, an undertone of sadness lurks: a sense that there’s a considerable amount of loneliness at the top – and on the lower rungs as well. The play’s comical conceit underscores the delusion of our blind, envious idol-worship.

    “Buyer and Cellar” runs through May 10, in the Old Globe’s White Theatre, in Balboa Park.

    Aired: 4/17/2015 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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