Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Classic Week

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
The perfect classical week stretched from Mendelssohn to Rossini, from Downtown San Diego to Carlsbad Village, with the theatrical side trips sometimes wondrous in nature. I am here on a Monday/Tuesday morning with a messy household but clean laundry and groceries in the fridge. Life is good. Here is the report.

Gil Shaham and Mendelssohn

The experience began Sunday, Oct. 17, with San Diego Symphony’s Jacobs Series season opening, graced by guest artist Gil Shaham, one of my favorites. He played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with maestro Jahja Ling on the podium and the orchestra in rather fine fettle. It was heaven to hear and to see this gracious, superb artist as he danced his way through the movements, advancing playfully on concertmaster Jeff Thayer, who responded facially, stuck as he was in his chair. Thayer and the orchestra, as always, responded musically as well. Never cause for concern tonally, Shaham is a total delight, dispelling the rumor that all is unbending when it comes to the demeanor of classical artists. He’s so human you want him at your dinner table.

Lamb's Players Equivocation

The first part of the week itself was restful in advance of my overstuffed but satisfying weekend, which began on Friday with Lamb’s Player’s Theatre’s regional premiere of Bill Cain’s unbelievably satisfying Equivocation, which director Deborah Gilmour Smyth and her leading man, Robert Smyth, first saw in its 2009 premiere at Ashland. Lamb's stupendous company – Paul Eggington, Francis Gercke, Caitie Grady, Ross Hellwig, Brian Mackey and Robert Smyth, is amazing, and the play itself – about Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot – is eminently satisfying to the Bardophile, with all kinds of references to Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet. Oh, I think I must return to see it again before it closes November 20. www.Lambsplayers.org

This production, running in the San Diego area at the same time as Cygnet’s August Wilson repertory (through November 6) makes us the luckiest theatregoers on the West Coast just now.

Cinderella goes to the opera

Saturday night, we attended San Diego Opera’s production of Rossini’s Cinderella, which I wrote up for Opera News. The spectacular physical delight comes from a co-production between Opera Queensland, New Zealand Opera and Leipzig Opera, where it returns this December. Catch it here at the Civic Theatre October 25, 28 and 30 ere it dissolves. www.sdopera.org

Prince Ramiro (David Portillo) plants one on his intended bride,
Cinderella (Lauren McNeese)
photo by J Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson

Sunday presented a rare doubleheader – Neil Simon’s 1993 Laughter on the 23rd Floor at North Coast Rep and Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage at New Village Arts. Simon, of course, is the master of comedy, though like all his plays Laughter has its tristesse in that it concerns the end of an era in television comedy, with Simon’s firsthand knowledge as informant. He was there and it shows.

North Coast fields a fine company of unusually subtle farceurs directed by Tom Markus. All the characters are writers on a weekly TV show based on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” circa 1953.They are Brett Alters as young Lucas (the Simon character), Louis Lotorto as the fashion plate ladies man, Milt; Nicholas Mangiardo-Cooper as a lovable Russian immigrant named Val; Christopher Williams as Brian; Phil Johnson as Kenny; Omri Schein as Ira Stone; Amanda Sitton, outrageously funny as the only female writer; Artistic Director David Ellenstein as the comedian, Max Prince; and Caroline Drage as Helen the gofer.
David Ellenstein as Max Prince
Photo by  Aaron Rumley
The action moves like a well-oiled clock. It’s a grand, tight ensemble. Worth the drive just to see Ellenstein in his boxers punching holes in the office walls.


Although I’m not a great fan of Reza, I must admit she has insight into people’s behavior, an instinct for what’s funny about that behavior, and an ear for dialogue. Seeing both her hit plays, God of Carnage and Art (at the Horton Grand) in one month was a trial for this woman who will do anything to avoid confrontation. Like Annette in God of Carnage, it makes me feel ill, though not to the extreme in Reza’s play.

Annette Raleigh (Artistic Director Kristianne Kurner) and her exceptionally busy corporate attorney husband, Alan (Manny Fernandes), are invited to meet with the Novaks (Melissa Fernandes as Veronica and Jeffrey Keith Jones as Michael) in their spacious, art-filled, black and white Manhattan condo. Veronica is a writer and Michael is involved in marketing household goods. They have done very well for themselves. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss a playground altercation (with injuries) between the couples’ 11-year-old sons.

Manny Fernandes and Jeffrey Keith Jones
Photo by Shawn Hagen

What begins as civil discourse with an equally civil disagreement over minutiae of a written description of the playground incident devolves into chaos, much like the civil discussion and disagreement over a painting in Art.

Jessica Bird directed NVA’s outstanding company on Kristen Flores’s deliciously designed all black and white set. The actors are clad, equally brilliantly, in black and white by costume designer Elisa Benzoni. Lighting by Sherrice Nojgani is a plus (we know those dimly lit spaces off the living room), and sound designer Blake McCarty almost overcomes the venue’s penchant for swallowing dialogue not spoken straight at the audience. Sigh.

It was a delightful day – two enjoyable plays in North County with a collegial dinner in between – the fitting culmination to a classical week.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Two One Man Shows

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
Two One-Person Shows

The Trump Card

I have tried and tried again to write about The Trump Card, which I saw on the first night of its brief run (October 4-9) at the Playhouse. I loved the intimacy of the Mandell Weiss Forum as I heard creator/performer Mike Daisey’s opening line: “You, my friends, are fucked.”

Photo by Matthew Murphy

After that – the best line in the entire shebang – it was downhill for me, perhaps because I have OD’d on the election run up and am alternately dismayed and terrified by what I see. Just as Daisy's imagined audience. And that was before the video release October 7.

At any rate, Daisy, a large man who wipes his face incessantly with a white handkerchief, continues as Trump through October 9. You may laugh a bit, as did I. Or you may love it, just as a very critical, very politically involved friend did. Lajollaplayhouse.org or 858-550-1010.

A Honeymoon Abroad

The most profoundly funny and serious discovery this week was a notice in the New York Times that told of a well-respected lesbian activist who’d been widowed some years ago. Now in her mid90s, she recently remarried. The brides have plans for a long honeymoon abroad. If Trump gets elected they will stay four years.

 Old Globe presents The Lion

Another one man show, this one a musical written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer and titled The Lion. The show's title comes from a song Scheuer’s father sang to him and his siblings that asked the question, “What makes a lion a lion?”

Although their relationship was difficult – nothing Scheuer did seemed to satisfy his mathematician dad or make him proud, especially the C-minus in Math – the pubescent Scheuer was profoundly affected when, in the middle of a weeklong cold shoulder, his father died, leaving him with no opportunity to apologize for a note he’d written.

The musical takes onlookers through Scheuer’s move to New York City on his own, just as soon as he could escape his brothers and sister and mother. Her grief depressed him.

The goal is to grow into a well-adjusted man despite his dead father still looking over his shoulder, judging everything. A failed longterm love affair and serious illness are involved before resolution, a thunderous and brilliant moment of amplified rock music titled “The Lion.”

The story is told almost entirely in music – a kind of accompanied recitative – with Scheuer utilizing six guitars placed around the stage, plus one carried onto the recording studio set designed by Neil Patel for the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, which is in the round. Scheuer wears a subtle body mike in addition to the mikes placed around the stage. Even then, some spoken words were lost when he faced away.

Fathers and sons are a common theme. Scheuer’s father, seen through a boy’s eyes, was harsh, but he was loving. When Scheuer first evidenced interest in the guitar, his dad made him a banjo out of a cookie tin and rubber bands (“Cookie-tin Banjo”). The boy wanted to play like his dad, who gave him his first real instrument. “He showed me the G Chord, and I never looked back.”

Benjamin Scheuer
Photo by Ursa Wag
The music is undistinguished, and so is Scheuer’s voice, a medium sized, straight-ahead baritone. But what is splendid is his stunning, intricate guitar work, an entire melodic language in his fingertips. His song lyrics are also fine, and he’s a most attractive man and a good actor. I was enthralled and moved by his simply told 75-minute story (a perfect length) and impressed by the fact that he never let the experience sink into bathos. No doubt the sighing man behind me would disagree.

“The Lion” continues though October 30 www.theoldglobe.org or 619-23-GLOBE

Small note: In the theatre mags they call her “the award winning Broadway coloratura.” No way. It is, and always was, merely a wide vibrato.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Intrepid's Art

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
Yasmina Reza’s Art produced by Intrepid

What if your best friend spent $200,000 on an all-white painting by Antrios, a trendy modern artist? What if you told him you think he was “had,” and furthermore, told him the truth about the painting as you see it?

Serge (Jason Heil), the purchaser, is a Parisian dermatologist and apparently does very well. Recently divorced, he lives in a rather starkly furnished apartment with a view of the city. An aeronautical engineer, Marc (Daren Scott), who mocks Serge’s purchase, fears his friend of 15 years is slipping away from him aesthetically and hopes to enlist support from a third friend, the soon-to-be wed Yvan (Jacob Bruce). The least complicated of the three, Yvan is affable and conciliatory, even when dealing with his bride-to-be and her female relatives and his, who are warring about wedding details. 

Yvan tries to ameliorate the rift between Marc and Serge. Things have not gone well for Yvan, who is reduced to selling stationery (for his bride’s uncle, no less), having had his own business in the past.

Over the course of the 85-minute play, deftly cast and directed by Christy Yael-Cox, the three men battle petulantly (in pairs and eventually all together in a hilarious knock-down ) and incessantly, set on a course to destroy whatever camaraderie they enjoyed previously. Because of their long term friendship, they truly know how to push one another’s buttons to comedic effect. The questions that come most strongly to the fore are: whatever needs and rewards attracted them to each other in the first place, kept them together through various life events, and the relevance of these relationships now – All of these fervent explorations seem set in motion by the purchase of the painting.
Heil, Bruce and Scott
Photo: Courtesy of Intrepid Theatre

This is an exceptionally funny, intellectually stimulating play, an examination of the cryptic disagreements between three expressive men, and the underlying issues that are raised by the schism. The play was greeted with acclaim and numerous awards. Having seen it thrice now, I can say much depends upon the actors’ subtlety and almost imperceptible gifts. This is a production in which the lift of an eyebrow may cause gales of laughter.

Heil is wonderfully awkward; Scott, fabulously arch without being outright unlikable (“The older I get, the more offensive I hope to be”); and Bruce, understated, at least until he launches a masterfully delivered, bravura, 11th hour speech. The denouement is outrageous and unexpected, and, as I’ve opined before, the play goes on a bit longer than necessary, presenting a coda that consists of more of Reza’s frequently employed direct address. Nonetheless, it’s a brilliantly constructed play and its language is excellent.

Heil, Bruce and Scott

Photo: Courtesy of Intrepid Theatre

Yael-Cox is to be lauded for envisioning these particular actors in these particular roles, for directing them superbly, and for hiring the right production team to support her vision: scenic designer Michael McKeon; lighting designer Sherrice Mojgani; costume designer Jeanne Reith; sound designer Kevin Anthenill, who also composed original music; and fight director Brian Byrnes.

The play was originally written in French and after premiering in Paris (1994) was translated by Christopher Hampton into English for the London (1996) production and into American English for the Broadway (1998) production, which received a Tony for best play.

See Art at the Horton Grand Theatre through November 6. www.intrepidtheatre.org