Pat Launer, Center Stage" is provided in part by the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation.
The classic Christmas story, “The Gift of the Magi,” is all about sacrifice in the name of love. In O. Henry’s timeless tale, what each member of a cash-strapped couple gives up is an ironic match: he buys her combs; she’s sold her hair to buy him a watch fob; but he’s sold the watch to buy her combs.
In playwright Stephen Metcalfe’s update, “The Gift Teller,” the sacrifices don’t match up. The girl, a budding actress, still sells her hair –to buy an expensive lens for her boyfriend’s cherished, inherited camera. The guy has gone and sold the beloved camera – but what he buys her is two tickets to London, to perform in the play he’d begged her not to go to, despite her ecstasy over nailing an audition at last. This disrupts the perfect symmetry and sweet irony of the original.
The structure here involves a narrator, the titular gift-teller ostensibly, who moves in and out of the action, in the style of “The Fantasticks,” with a similarly simple array of props and settings. Though this feels like a time-worn trope, it does give the audience an opportunity to see Todd Blakesley, an unfailingly natural, credible performer, assume a range of characters and accents – from an Orthodox Jewish jeweler to a British director; a homeless man to a New England curmudgeon. Blakesley is the highlight of the show, though we could do without the playwright's requirement that he tell us what he’s going to do before he does it.
The rest of the cast at Scripps Ranch Theatre -- fresh-faced young actors Tatiana Mac, Virginia Gregg, Eric Parmer and Matt Murphy –play somewhat vapid, occasionally snarky, budding -- and starving -- New York artists, even though the central male, has a well-to-do, if crotchety and cantankerous dad, whom Blakesley imbues with an edge and a heart.
Sometimes-silly projections accompany various factoids about the origin of Christmas, Santa and elves. One point isn’t even accurate. Coca Cola was not, in fact, the first to use a red-cheeked, white bearded plump guy as the image of Santa Claus. That distinction belongs to political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
Lisa Berger, always an imaginative director, tries to add all kinds of enhancements, from projections to shadow puppets to silhouettes, and a moving neon chiron counting down the days to Christmas. Not all of them work, but the excellent onstage guitarist, Bob Giesick, takes us seamlessly from one carol to the next – somewhat more smoothly than the spasmodic shifts of scene and emotion. At the end, we get cliché encomiums about the holiday, its spirit and its symbology. One uncredited fact grabbed my attention: 7 out of 10 children prefer Halloween to Christmas. Sounds like a good theatrical idea!
“The Gift Teller” runs through December 8, at Scripps Ranch Theatre, on the campus of Alliant University.
© 2013 Pat Launer
The show urges you to “Come Look at the Freaks.” That’s the opening number of “Side Show,” which began life on Broadway in 1997 and has been “reimagined” for a La Jolla Playhouse ‘revisal,’ presented in association with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where it runs next summer.
This is the fourth time I’ve seen the musical, including two local productions and the sensational mounting at the Colony Theatre in L.A. in 2002. There, the opening was a hard-edged, aggressive song that, like the whole musical, asked the pointed and discomfiting question: Who are the freaks, anyway? The congenitally disfigured, or their gapers, gawkers and exploiters?
That edge, that disturbing angle, has been totally sheared off for the new version. The creators, composer Henry Krieger and lyricist/librettist Bill Russell brought on award-winning Hollywood director Bill Condon, and together they smoothed it all into the blandness of a biopic. This is the sad but true tale of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton who, born connected at the hip, were sold into a side show and later achieved some success in vaudeville and onscreen. Though they were talented, it was always the “freak factor” that was the attraction. They were repeatedly abused or exploited, even by the men who professed to love but them couldn’t get over their inseparability.
Except for the gentle, hulking Jake, who was promoted as an African “Cannibal King,” and left the side show with them as self-appointed protector. Jake always secretly loved Violet, but when he finally gets up the nerve to propose, she rejects him because of his skin color. He can accept her ‘difference,’ but she can’t accept his. This was a gasp-inducing moment in earlier versions, but it’s a fleeting toss-off now.
The extra backstory contributes little, as do jarring additions like the appearance of Houdini and the outing of Violet’s suitor. The sisters’ dual heartbreak is less palpable now; we lose the ache and the forced introspection, a confrontation of Otherness and tolerance.
Almost Two-thirds of the score has been rewritten, but it’s the original numbers that linger, especially the anthem of acceptance: “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and the other poignant sister duet “I Will Never Leave You.” The opening number and the comical “1 +1 = 3” remain memorable. Most of the rest of the music is fairly colorless, in melody and lyrics.
Emily Padgett and Erin Davie are appealing as fame-hungry Daisy and reticent Violet. As Jake, David St. Louis has the most charisma on the stage.
The set is overly fussy, but the costumes are wonderful, the orchestrations excellent, the masks and makeup noteworthy. But ironically, the new “Side Show” made me feel, dare I say it, disconnected.
“Side Show” runs through December 15, at the La Jolla Playhouse.
© 2013 Pat Launer
You don’t expect to see pole-dancing at the theater. But that’s just one of many dramatic – and sensual – talents of Caroline Kinsolving, who gives a knockout career-defining performance in “Venus in Fur.” As the suggestive title might suggest, this is one sexy show.
The setup is an audition. The actress arrives hours late, frazzled, rain-soaked, bedraggled and cursing like a sailor. The director is exhausted after a frustrating day of seeing 35 “incompetent” hopefuls, half of whom, he complains, “dress like hookers, and half like dikes,” and all are unable to even begin to act feminine. Vanda, who amazingly, has the same name as the character she’s seeking to play, doesn’t seem to have the goods, either.
Then she puts on a lacy Victorian dress and magically transforms into an imperious, headstrong woman of the late 19th century, reciting her lines impeccably in a new adaptation of ”Venus in Furs,” the 1870 erotic, autobiographical novella penned by Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who lent his name to the term Masochism, a practice that features prominently in the play and the play-within-a-play.
This Tony-nominated creation by the brilliant playwright David Ives is a stunning, whip-smart, often-amusing cat-and-mouse pas de deux. The power dynamics turn on a dime, as the story becomes increasingly dark and dangerous. There are so many layers of supremacy and subordination: male/female, director/actor, creator/muse. Love, sex, lust, fantasy, reality; all become intertwined and inextricable.
One of the glories of this marvelous San Diego Repertory Theatre production is the hairpin turns of locution, emotion and dominance. While Vanda embodies the sensuous, controlling woman, Thomas is channeling Sacher-Masoch himself. There’s an ever-shifting landscape of what’s real and who’s on top. At the end, spent from all the stimulation, we’re left with a revelation and the potential for destruction. It’s a breath-holding, leg-crossing, electrifying experience.
Kinsolving is a wonder, her body as exquisite and passionate as her acting. She’s superbly paired with Jeffrey Meek, who gives as good as he gets, completely convincing in his overheated states of fancy, fury and arousal. Watching him slowly encase her legs in shiny, black, thigh-high boots is quite the titillating experience.
An astutely written, carefully balanced psychosexual comic drama like this requires dual perspectives, and Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse wisely brought in a co-director from the distaff side: UCSD professor Kim Rubenstein. The set, lighting and sound contribute mightily to the high-intensity ambiance. And then there’s the costumes – especially striking and provocative for Vanda. There’s just one element missing: the titular fur. Sumptuous pelts feature prominently in the multiple levels of story, and not to have any of the luscious downy softness seems a shame. But there’s plenty here to excite your senses. Perhaps cold showers should be on offer in the lobby.
“Venus in Fur” runs through December 8, at the San Diego Repertory
Theatre in Horton Plaza.
© 2013 Pat Launer
Halloween is history… but the horror keeps hanging around. Watch out for alien spiders and translucent forest-dwellers.
Moxie Theatre is presenting the first full production of “Skinless,” by up-and-coming New York playwright Johnna Adams. It’s a creepy sci-fi story that straddles two time periods. In the current day, there’s Emmi, a Women’s Studies grad student. And then there’s the subject of her proposed doctoral dissertation, a forgotten horror writer of the 1950s. We hear long excerpts from Zinnia’s novel, interleaved with even longer disquisitions on traditional vs. contemporary feminism, delivered with supercilious cruelty by Emmi’s hidebound academic advisor.
The show brings together an impressive array of talent, from the excellent cast to lighting and sound that underscore the creep-factor. But there’s no action, and no characters to care about. The two parts of the piece don’t cohere all that well, and the scenic design gives the actors little room to maneuver between settings.
Zinnia, one of a flower-named family of dysfunctional females, is a weirdo who has a murderous gripe against her unseen monster of a mother, and she weaves her own story into her hair-raising fiction about people who are born without skin, or shed it mysteriously later in life. Interesting concept, especially if you’re a fear-factor fan. But with all the inactivity onstage, the play could just as easily be done as a reading, or a radio broadcast. It’s quirky, though; give it that. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and her ensemble make the most of an intriguing but unsatisfying creation.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, there’s “She-rantulas from Outer Space in 3D,” another homage to the 1950s, this one inspired by the low-budget B-horror flicks of the day. Add in a taste of “The Bad Seed” and a smidgeon of Donna Reed, and you’ve got yourself a world premiere by local favorites Ruff Yeager and Phil Johnson. Diversionary Theatre is serving up a comical dollop of drag, camp, gender-switching and one killer kid – who happens to be sprouting hairy arachnoid appendages.
Much is amiss on Main Street in Tarrytown USA. The men are disappearing and returning as impregnated women. The spiders seem to be out of this world. It all makes a kind of spoofy, silly sense. But what really elevates the inanity is some terrific performances. This is the best drag I’ve seen in some time.
Phil Johnson is pitch-perfect as a crinoline-wearing mid-century housefrau, and Tony Houck is haunting as her blood-thirsty extraterrestrial offspring. Andy Collins, Fred Harlow and Melina Gilb are a hoot in a range of roles. Co-writer Yeager directs with mirthful panache, and without taking it all too far over the top. That distinction goes to Jennifer Brawn-Gittings’ riotous costumes. And so, a dramatic genre is born: the creators coined a new term for their farce-plus-satire absurdity. They call it fartire. Puerile, perhaps, but also irresistibly entertaining. Oh, the horror of it all…
“She-Rantulas from Outer Space in 3D” runs through November 17, at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.
“Skinless” continues through December 8 at Moxie Theatre, near SDSU.
© 2013 Pat Launer
Messing with masterworks. Two theaters make merry mischief, with more or less success.
“The 39 Steps” is a deliciously hilarious mashup of Hitchcock movie titles that turns a film landmark into a crazy-quilt acting tour de force for four performers playing 40 roles. The original film, and the book it was based on, were not comical; this was an intense action thriller, the 1935 movie featuring a German megalomaniac extolling his Master Race, while stealing state secrets from Britain. There are plenty of thrills in the theatrical version, adapted by Patrick Barlow; but the spy caper takes a backseat to the wacky, low-budget shenanigans: waving coats by hand to signify rushing wind, climbing high stepladders for bridges, carrying props on and offstage.
It’s a tremendous feat, getting the comedy, the timing and the split-second costume changes just right. You need a superb and comically gifted cast, a stellar crew and a skillful director to mastermind the magic.
Lamb’s Players Theatre has it all, and then-some. Deborah Gilmour Smyth helms an extraordinary ensemble, centered by handsome David S. Humphrey as the hapless Richard Hannay, sitting in his London flat and bemoaning his boring fate. Before he can say Alfred Hitchcock, there’s an attractive young woman slumped across his lap with a knife in her back. He’s accused of murder and on the run… trying to out-smart the short-fingered vulgarian who’s trying to smuggle information out of the country, something involving the mysterious 39 Steps.
Solving the mystery is not half as engaging as the riotous stage business that gets us there: quick-change accents, genders and outfits - as the action sprints from London to Scotland, from bouncing and hiding in trains to hanging off the aforementioned bridge.
Hannay’s unwilling partner in crime, hooked to him by handcuffs, is delightfully portrayed by Kelsey Venter, who’s also the first-scene spy and a sex-starved farm-wife. Some of her wigs are better than others, but all her characters are funny. Then there’s Jesse Abeel and Robert Smyth, who play all the other eccentrics, male and female, intelligible or not. The props and costumes, musical interludes and pacing are terrific. This may not be Hitchcock, but it certainly isn’t for The Birds!
Here in the waning days of August, nothing beats “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Old Globe production is amusingly straightforward; Intrepid Shakespeare just closed its marvelous doo-wop musical version. Now along comes ion theatre, with its loosy-goosey disco incarnation, called “Ass, or A Midsummer Night’s Fever.” There’s more shtick than Shakespeare, and plenty of polyester, lamé, audience participation, line-dance instruction and more silliness than you can shake a light-sabre at. Not my ‘70s scene, but if that music be your food of love, boogie on.
“ASS, OR A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S FEVER” runs through August 24 at ion theatre, on the edge of Hillcrest.
“THE 39 STEPS” continues through December 1 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
© 2013 Pat Launer
For an archive of all of Pat's reviews, going back to 1990, use the 'search' function at www.PatteProductions.com.
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