Thursday, September 21, 2017

“Roz And Ray” Hits Emotional Buttons Across The Boards.

Start with a topic you’re familiar with, most will say when giving advice to an up and coming possible next Pulitzer Prize Winning playwright.

San Diego native Karen Hartman began writing plays when she was fifteen and a student at La Jolla High School. The Playwrights Project founded by Deborah Salzar was the vehicle Hartman used to scoot her along to bigger and better things with her natural gift for writing.

Two time recipient of the Edgerton New Play Prize, and Senior Artist-in -Residence at the UW School of Drama, Hartman’s gut wrenching and emotionally gripping play “Roz & Ray” is now being staged in the Lyceum Space of the San Diego Repertory Theatre through Oct. 1st.

Under the deft direction of Delicia Turner- Sonnenberg and with two noticeably opposing antagonists, both physically and emotionally, the story unfolds to an almost unbelievable yet almost predictable conclusion… with a few eye-popping twists.
Steven Lone and Carla Harting
The characters, Roz (Carla Harting) and Ray (Steven Lone) are a fictional pair but the background materials used as the inspiration for the play are homegrown and very real.

With health insurance in the headlines these days it’s fitting that a play zeroing in on health care crisis, hospital protocol, insurance companies and independent labs creating formulas that we all depend on are the many topics of discussion in Hartman’s heartbreaking play.

Physician Roz and her patients, twins Mikey and Ray, Bug Ray son’s are discussing the advantages of the new magic medicine they will be needing to help their blood to clot when and if they fall or hurt themselves as the pay opens. Ray Leon is all over himself praising Roz for the special attention she is paying to his boys,

The twins were born with a rare bleeding disorder and as hemophiliac’s they need blood transfusions several time a week that in the past kept them hospitalized for several days at a time. This new magic medicine, Factor V11I, requires one injection, done at home, easy! It’s 1976. “We’re done with the dark ages.”

Set (John Icovelli) in the simple office of Dr. Roz stands a metal table acting as a desk, a phone, a few chairs and 3 sliding or push doors leading to back rooms, a reception area and or an exit, a mobile of blood in transfusion bags hangs above and in the corner is a first aid kit with the next home batch of Factor III. The dates are projected (Sherrice Mojgani also credited for lighting) on the walls in bold as the years pass in time from 1976 to 1987.
The scenes move back and forth in time with Ray and Roz discussing the progress made in the medical field to the findings made that some of the Factor III might be tainted with the HIV virus and how that will or maybe has already affected the health of Little Ray and Mikey.

“They might have been injected with a ‘blood borne plague’. Not once. Not twice. But up to three times a week. For their entire childhood.”

At some point the relationship between Roz and Ray a romantic connection and liaison grows, something she fights (not hard enough) and he pushes. He’s divorced and still angry with his ex, Evelyn. 

In between their secret meetings, (in her office or her apartment to which she gave him a key, her home phone number) the conversation develops into a lesson on how for profit pharmaceutical companies ‘market’ their product in hospitals plugging away at their magical drugs.

Sooner or later he is picketing outside the hospital “Dr. Ray Kagan Killed My Son”. She gave him the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. “It’s written by this Jewish Fellow”.

She knows he has sex with men. “Are you gay”.  “Did I just seem gay?” He denies it. She insists he use protection all the time.   

She saw the study. She kept it from him. She approached the hospital. Do nothing. Everyone was making bucks off of Factor 8, including Children’s Hospital.  She’s a hematologist oncologist not an epidemiologist.

How they test, positive and or negative never really reach the patients ears until its too late. But the journal reported two deaths in eight cases; from a medical standpoint it’s insignificant. Does she go with her hunch that the Factor is tainted and discuss it with others in her field, or does she stick with hospital protocol and let the cards fall where they may?

Carla Harting
Harting and Lone are Roz and Ray. She is the loving but timid Doctor afraid of making a mistake, he is a semi-closeted gay man hell bent on saving his sons so they can lead normal lives. Their nuances, casualness and easy way with each other are more than persuasive. But the outcome that was never in doubt plays out against bitterness and tragedy to the very end.

Both actors embody the characters and wear them perfectly. Lone is virile and strong and convincing. Harting is dwarfed in size next to him, older and better versed and noticeably falling hard.

The emotional ups and downs, the suffering and grief, the stress and lovemaking; the all out frustration resonates through the 90 or so minutes that it takes to move from optimism, friendship and lovers to sheer despair and near suicide is more than imaginable in this timely play.

Aids was the plague of the 80’s and the plays “Normal Heart” by Larry Kramer details it chapter and verse. This play came about through some family digging on Hartman’s part.

In 1992 an article appeared in The San Diego Reader naming Hartman’s father as one of the doctors ‘central to the issue facing the issue to hemophiliacs at the time.

Thousands upon thousands of hemophiliacs died as a result of tainted HIV blood. At the time President Reagan refused to take any action on the epidemic/crisis. Gay men became the targets of hostility, shame and right wing religious bigots.

Not much as changed in their religious hypocrisy but thankfully so may were and are able to get the medical help they need.

Bravo to Harting, Lone and director Delicia Turner-Sonnenberg (who makes everything look easy and yet profound) and Karen Hartman for bringing an important issue to the fore and making it understandable to civilians not connected to the medical profession.

There’s not much time to catch this one, but I urge that you do.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Oct. 1st
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Phone: 619.544.1000
Production Type: Drama
Where: 79 Horton Plaza Downtown San Diego, 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $33.00
Venue: Lyceum Space
Photo: Daren Scott

“Little Mermaid” X 2

Seeing the same musical twice in less than a few months apart makes it difficult not to compare. Such is the case with Moonlight’s “Little Mermaid” in July that earned raves from yours truly and this current show passing through San Diego’s Civic Theatre by way of Pittsburgh CLO Kansas City Starlight production running through Sept. 24th.

One indoor, one outdoor, one looking big budget glitz, tons of aerial flying, bubbly sea foam and great projections (no credit listed) the other big budget with less glitz but more heart and both with some hard hitting players on different levels.

“The Little Mermaid”, a Disney Production, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater and book by Doug Wright is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale of the same name.
Diana Huey (Credit Mark and Tracy Photography)
Simply put, Ariel (petite and in fine voice Diana Huey, “The World Above”) the Mermaid wants to be a person with feet to walk with and have no fins. She wants live with people not fish. She wants to do people stuff and longs to become hooked up with the handsome (not known to her) prince (Eric Kunze) who would rather be out on the seas with his mates rather than in a stuffy Palace eating the fish (from the sea) and entertaining guests. 
Ariel’s father is a King. King Triton (Steve Blanchard, “If Only”) is dead set against his youngest daughter going people on him when those very same people took away his wife, Ariel’s mother, he assumes
Cast of "Little Mermaid"
Adding to the drama (very little) Ariel was blessed with her mother’s gorgeous voice and while her six sisters all sing, none compares to this little mermaid’s. Sebastian is their music teacher.

The King assigns Sebastian (Melvin Abston “Under The Sea”) the crab to look after her but Sebastian is…well a crab, and more that keeping tabs on her she is out of his sight faster than you can say crab-cakes.

The drama does set in when Triton’s ’s sister Ursula (Jennifer Allen “Daddy’s Little Angel”) one of the more sinister sea monsters, at odds with her brother for her share of the sea, has some secret powers to use in aiding Ariel to make her dreams come true.

After all the fanfare, things get put back where they belong ‘cept for Ariel. We are led to believe that she (a mermaid) and he (an earthly Prince) live happily ever after. 

Just to quote Tevye, one of my all time people. “If a fish and a bird married where would they live?”

It’s Disney after all and my guess is they will find a place.

Technical support is top notch with Paul Rubin’s choreographed flying sequences (and there were many) John MacInnis’ choreographing, Colin R. Freeman, musical direction, Kenneth Foy’s scenic design, and Amy Clark Mark Koss costume designs and with Glenn Casale directing.

I couldn’t help notice all the San Diego connections in this touring show; actors who started their careers here and went on to national attention on Broadway.

Eric Kunze, whose Prince was charming. He could win any mermaids heart. Eric up in the North County and years ago could be seen in any number of shows like “Joseph” at Moonlight.

Steve Blanchard, who for years played the (Green) Grinch at The Old Globe turned the green grouch to the loving father who wanted nothing more tha  his daughters happiness afteer a fashion.

Jennifer Allen who plays a mean Ursula is another home grown.  Actor and daughter of the late Pricilla Allen she is following in her mother’s footsteps. Pricilla was also larger than life on stage delighting audiences with comedy, tragedy and everything in between.  (“Beauty Queen of Leenane”, “The Ventriloquist’s Wife”.)
Jennifer Allen with Brandon Roach (Flotsam) and Frederick Hagreen (Jetsam)
I caught up with Jennifer in New York after her performance in "Guys And Dolls" on Broadway in 1992. Yes. Home grown and charming and Ursula.

Jamie Torcellini is a hoot as Ariel’s friend Scuttle the Seagull (“Posituvity”). He dances and plays havoc with the English language. Torcellini also got rave reviews as Doolittle in Moonlight’s “My Fair Lady”.

From Moonlight to Broadway and back to San Diego hat’s off to the lively cast and crew of this “Little Mermaid” not to be confused with Moonlight’s “Little Mermaid”. That one also won high marks with Randall Hickman as Ursula and some pretty awesome local actors. And "Who Knows?"

Through Sept. 24th
Organization: Broadway San Diego
Phone: 619.570.1100
Production Type: Musical
Where: 1103 3rd, Downtown San Diego
Ticket Prices: tart at $56.00
Venue: Civic Theatre

Photo: Steve Wilson

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

OnStage "A Piece Of My Heart Tugs At The Heartstrings

Of all the monuments I have seen over the years and in my travels there are only two that move me to tears, one is Yad Vashem in Israel (The World Holocaust Remembrance Center) honoring the six million Jews that perished under Adolph Hitler and his Nazi regime and the other is The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

It’s a wall. The ‘Wall’ is long and made up of solid stone horizontal panels that stretches 246 foot and 9 long and has the names of 53,318 young men and women engraved in bold letters and in neat alignment as far as the eye can see.   

As a national monument the quiet at the wall stands in stark contrast to the noises, useless slaughter and united hostility toward those sent to the killing fields of Vietnam. While the fighting and deaths took place miles away, it stands almost on holy ground

Starting in the early sixties through 1973 each president serving our country continued to increase the number of fighting men and women to a country most knew nothing about. They were young and still wet behind the ears and that included the women, whose stories were never told until now.

“A Piece Of My Heart” by Shirley Lauro suggested from the book by Keith Walker is currently being staged at OnStage Playhouse through Oct. 14. Beautifully directed by James P. Darvas it is a gut wrenching account of a composite of women (based on 26 interviews) who served in the Vietnam War.
Emily Candia and Emilee Zuniga
Lauro’s historical piece traces six women from very different walks of life and life’s experiences. It all comes alive in one unforgettable scene after the other on the bleacher like set by Hector Cisneros that looked almost as dangerous to maneuver as it was to dodge bombs in the killing fields to which they were assigned.

Stretching across the landscape of America, Lauro’s account of the war theatre for the six women on stage represented The Red Cross, USO, Army Intelligence, and a civilian musician is no less compelling today than it was 12 years ago.

Allison MacDonald is Martha, the self controlled Army brat eager to please her family, graduated from Officers Training School when she volunteered.

LeeAnn (Emilee Zuniga is scrappy as the reluctant recruit) was a hippie when she was recruited, She was hoping to be sent to Hawaii, where everyone looked like her but unfortunately found her self in Nam instead.

Steele (a strong Ray-Anna Ranae) was a WAC for about eighteen years when she decided that volunteering for Nam would get her a better promotion when she got back to the states. As an African American, college graduate and from the deep- south, Uncle Sam was happy to have her serve, but back home no one was willing to see past her color.

Sarah LeClair on guitar and Carla Navarro
Sissy with strong religious leanings (no nonsense Emily Candia) was offered to become a teacher, nurse or secretary when she graduated college. She decided on nursing. And yes you guessed it she joined the Army to save the world and her do part her part to save Vietnam. 

Maryjo (Sarah Leclair is a talented musician playing pieces of popular tunes from the 60’s) was lead singer and rhythm guitarist in The Sugar Candies in an all girl band. Her agent convinced her that it would be fun to entertain a million boys in Vietnam.

Whitney (soft spoken Carla Navarro) is the Vassar educated Red Cross volunteer who was told that two groups were being sent overseas in early summer to either Korea or Vietnam. Thinking that Saigon was sophisticated and cosmopolitan and they spoke French that she would volunteer there.

Each and every one of these young women while relating their experiences take turns expressing themselves leaving pieces of their hearts, souls and humanity behind.

The life altering experiences (think Agent Orange, Tet offence) as told by this outstanding ensemble shines through with each unfolding vignette comes from six different perspectives. It is an emotionally draining, transformational essay making a compelling case to rally against war, any war.
Ray-Anna Ranae (Devin Wade in background)
They talk over each other, by each other, through each other and when confusion hits the ground and helicopters are heard flying overhead and bombs are dropping, and wounded men are being carried into makeshift hospital beds, and soldiers are dying all around and you would think nothing could be worse than the last episode they are describing when something worse happens, and they all survived to tell it.

A sisterhood is formed.

If being on the front lines was fraught with danger, and as the horror stories and pictures on TV every night at dinner time, brought us closer to the fighting wasn’t enough, coming back to a country that not only resented our being in Southeast Asia but we took it out on the men and women fighting over there as well.

Being back in the States and at home for these brave women was almost as traumatic as being on the front lines. They suffered the same indignities the soldiers in the fields suffered.

All six expressed frustration and anger when they realized they no longer fit in, or felt a part of society or connected with their families. Illness, drug abuse, alcoholism, depression and red tape put them on the outside once again.

In a six tissue finish, projections (Mike Mccullock) of the Wall listing names of those who did not come home can be seen on the backs of the women who came to pay their respects to their fellow GI’s.  
Sarah LeClair and Devin Wade
Representing all the men Devin Wade is to be commended for his ability to change characters on a dime. M. Kealea Miles, Jr. designed the lighting and sound and Pam Stompoly-Ericson the costumes.

It might be coincidental that Ken Burns’ 10 part series on The Vietnam War is now being shown on PBS or it might be time to reexamine our need to step in where angels fear to tread.  
“A Piece Of My Heart” is a must see show. Think Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and possibly North Korea. 

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Oct. 14th
Organization: OnStage Playhouse
Phone: 619.422.7787
Production Type: Drama
Where: 291Third Ave. Chula Vista, CA 91912
Ticket Prices: $22.00 General Admission.  $20.00 Student and Military discount
Photo: Adriana Zuniga-Williams

Sunday, September 17, 2017

“Wild Goose Dreams”: A High Tech Love Story Told On The Wings Of A Dream

There are wild goose chases and wild goose stories and wild goose dreams, I suppose.  I’ve been on many a wild goose chase over the course of my lifetime and I’ve heard wild stories as well, but it wasn’t until recently that I happened on a wild goose dream.  

In the case of “Wild Goose Dreams” at The La Jolla Playhouse, I felt as if I was in wild goose inner sanctum of loud noises sounds and other distractions not in concert with what I had expected. I was a good soldier and rode the dream to the end but sans hearing aids. To this day I still try to avoid those discordant sounds coming from my own devices.

The La Jolla Playhouse, in conjunction with The Public Theatre is currently staging Hansol Jung’s world premiere production, “Wild Goose Dreams” through Oct. 1st

Yunjin Kim and James Kyson
It’s a love story bound together by high tech blips, bleeps, beeps tweets, email, cell phones, Facebook, on line dating services, a digital Greek Chorus and any other way of connecting or not, lonely people from different walks of life and possibly different cultures seeking companionship.

Playwright Jung connects two unlikely souls, both looking for something or someone, through an Internet dating service. ‘Goose father’ Minsung (James Kyson) is from South Korea and supporting his wife and daughter living in the U.S. He wants his daughter to be educated there. He’s alone and lonesome.  

Nanhee (Yunjin Kim), with the help of her father (Francis Jue) defected from North Korea by swimming in dark and cold seas to reach the South. She is a survivor and now works for the government hidden away in a small cubicle.

Both are employed by their now government and both are reluctantly willing to find companionship. Nanhee’s defection five years ago still finds her alone, bewildered and naive in the art of relationships. The money from her work that she sends home is to help her father. 

The play, deftly directed by Leigh Silverman, starts charmingly enough with a ‘Once upon a time’ fable as told by Nanhee’s father about heavenly angels that want to defy the Emperor and sneak down to earth. They find an earthly river… and so he recounts the story of his daughter’s escape from her birth country ending with,  “If you have to choose between family and flying, I hope you would chose the flying.”)

Certainly something to ponder.
Yunjin Kim (center) and cast of "Wild Goose Dreams"
And then from nowhere a refrain of ear piercing sounds from a Greek chorus enters in the background  singing cappella. They are sounds you might hear popping up on your own computer breaking the stillness of the ongoing struggle to connect Nanhee and Minsung

The sounds seemingly never go away. The chatter of the Internet is loud and distracting (“Breaking news.” “Global leaders.” “Win a free trip.” “Ding dong, fine dust alert.” “Delete, delete.”) and for all its noise, takes away from the overall enjoyment of the show.

The two do get together letting their relationship grow in spite of age differences and other interruptions like Nanhee’s father showing up in her dreams as a penguin and offering advice or from the pesky internet that sometimes works but oft times not and the cell phones that disconnect in mid conversation.  

‘Dreams’ is clever to a degree. The acting is without question, excellent.  The play is timely as any topic can be given the saber rattling going on between this government and North Korea.

The cultural differences as shown through the generational gaps brought about by the soft –spoken, tale telling and beautifully nuanced Francis Jue, Ms. Kim’s demure postures and complex personality of doing the right thing or not and Mr. Kyson’s struggle to connect with his daughter and to leaving his wife for this younger woman, ring true.

Yunjin Kim and Francis Jue 
No question ‘Dreams’ stretches the imagination but the story is too complex and oft times incoherent. Trying to squeeze every idea Jung wants to say into a one- act play may satisfy some, but left this reviewer still in need of clarification at plays end.    

Linda Cho's costumes, Wilson Chin’s sets, Keith Parham’s lighting, and the penguin head, Jasmine Lee choreography and the seven- member chorus all contribute to a finely tuned but very long and multi-layered play.  

With all the noises coming out of Washington and with North Korea testing the boundaries of this countries reserve, some quiet discourse is in order. TBC.

The metaphor in “Wild Goose Dreams” reminded me of Kahlil Gibran’s “Your children are not your children” poem offering the same sage advice. 

Letting our children fly is the best gift we can give them.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Oct. 1st
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Phone: 858.550.1010
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $29.00
Venue: Mandell Weiss Forum

Photo: Jim Carmody