Tuesday, May 30, 2017

“Shockheaded Peter” is not everyone’s cup of tea.

I think every child has been exposed to children’s fairy tales or nursery rhymes at some point in their developmental years. Some are cute. Some teach lessons but they are obscure. “Humpty Dumpty” had a great fall and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put him together again.

Or “Jack and Jill” who went up the hill to fetch a pail of water and Jack fell down and ‘broke his crown’. “The Muffin Man”, “Little Jack Horner”, “Yankee Doodle”, “Old Mother Hubbard”, “Three Blind Mice”, “London Bridges” and the list goes on. They all sound harmless, but if you check it out there is a back-story to each.

Now let’s consider Heinrich Hoffmann’s 1845  “Struwwelpeter” or “Shockheaded Peter”. It’s a music box spin on naughty children and misguided parents.  These wicked and macabre little tales are not quite as subtle as those mentioned above. According to program notes “Hoffmann wrote and illustrated these verses for the moral instruction of his three-year-old son, Carl.

Children at that time were expected to obey their elders no matter how deceitful and brutal adults were.” And to top it all off, they were read as bedtime stories, gruesome and disturbing as they were. 

Described as “A vile and repulsive story told by reprehensible characters in a thoroughly degenerate fashion. Absolute Bliss.” (David Bowie). To some it’s deliciously wicked. To this I must add one person’s bliss is another’s misery.

Cygnet Theatre in Old Town is currently mounting “Shockheaded Peter” created for the stage by Julian Crough and Phelim McDermott with original music by The Tiger Lillies based on Hoffmann’s  “Struwwelpeter”. It will be playing through June 18th.

Emcee Sarah Errington
Upon entering the theatre and before the curtain is pulled back we are taken into what looks like a circus playground. Soon after we are introduced to Peter? mistress/master of ceremonies (Sarah Erringron). “The mind is full of monsters…behind this this very crimson curtain stand portalsto the darkest recesses of the human imagination within which waits such monsters as your wildest nightmares could anticipate.” I should have been duly warned.

Emcee: “Sometimes we have to be cruel, in order to be kind and sometimes we have to be cruel, well, you know, just for recreational purposes.”

Siren (Steve Gouveia) plays about five different instruments and sings the ballads that are followed by the stories. His annoyingly strained and piercing falsetto voice was the final touch in the series of cabaret acts in what this reviewer might say, wanted to drive her to the exits. Gouveia, (a talent’ in his own right, he was in the original Broadway show of “Jersey Boys”) is dressed to the nines in tutu, high heels laced up to the knees, clown wig with lipstick…oh well. ‘Nuff said about that.

Steve Gouveia as Siren

The Emcee makes her appearance and then we start up with a new episode in Father’s (Adrian Alta) and Mother’s (Kevane La’Marr Coleman) bizarre life with their Shockheaded baby boy, who was a big disappointment to them when they looked into that baby blanket for the first time and were horrified at what they found. Their story goes from bad to worse and gets bogged down with all the other ghoulish madness going on on stage.

Forgive me if I’m not impressed with Cygnet’s choice of this outlandish spectacle. I may be in the minority but watching children starve because they refuse to eat, (“He’s like a little bit of a thread, And on the fifth day he was dead.”) or have their hands cut off because they suck their thumbs is hardly wicked fun.

Forgive me as well if my sense of dark humor refused to find a starting point at which I could find the energy to laugh, smirk or even smile. Don’t misunderstand, I like a good laugh and I often find that humor can be unearthed in most everything. But not so much here.

To their credit, and to director to Rob Lutfy and set designers Sean Fanning and Jungah Han and choreographer Michael Mizerany, Peter Herman’s wigs, Chris Rhynne’s lighting Matt Lescaul-Wood’s sound, musicians Mark Danisovsky, Nathan Hubbard and Patrick Marian, and especially Shirley Pierson’s wonderful costumes and excellent and original puppets, and aside from the weird and grisly spectacle on stage, the technical support deserves kudos. 

I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge Danielle Airey (part of the large ensemble) in a masterful aerial performance a la Cirque style as she winds through a series of ribbon tapes suspended from the rafters and masterfully goes through her dance. It is beautiful. Brava!

Sarah Errington and Danielle Airey
See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June 18th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Phone: 619.337.1525
Production Type: Musical
Where: 4040 Twiggs Street, San Diego, CA 92110
Ticket Prices: Start at $42.00
Web: cygnettheatre.org
Venue: Theatre in Old Town

Photo: Daren Scott

Monday, May 29, 2017

“Gidion’s Knot” is a tangled mess with no easy solutions.

Twenty-five minutes can seem like a lifetime or a fleeting moment. In Johanna Adams’ “Gidion’s Knot” now in a tense and emotionally exhausting production directed by Kym Pappas and starring Carla Nell (co- artistic director) and Jyl Kaneshiro, it seems like a lifetime to Heather, Gidion’s fifth grade teacher and not enough time to Corynn, Gidion’s mother.  

Adams’ eighty minute play touches on a series of topics dealing with cyber-bullying, schoolyard bullying, parental bullying, supervised parent-teacher conferences and school projects to mention a few.

Jyl Kaneshiro with Carla Nell
Corynn is at Gidion’s elementary school to get answers about why her son was suspended from school. “I came in here with a simple question. What the hell happened?”

Heather’s lack of experience as a teacher (she has just two years in) avoids answering at all costs. While Corynn trolls the fifth grade classroom like an aggressive warrior waiting to pounce, Heather shies back into a fetal like position behind her desk hoping time will be on her side and Corynn will give up and leave.  

Answers to questions come in bits and pieces. Kaneshiro’s Corynn rides an emotional roller coaster on what she eventually learns about her son and Nell’s Heather is an emotional wreck at plays end. The unseen but center of attention Gidion, comes to life in what’s said and not said about him by both women. Some of his classmates have some choice words about him as well.

What prompted the visit and what came out of it are the set ups for the real questions of how much we really know about our kids and how much influence and or personal likes and dislikes teachers have over the behavior of their students. To the point, is freedom of expression, positive or negative, part of the package when the schools have an agenda and the kids don’t follow along?

Corynn, a professor of Medieval and earlier forms of literature, is positive her son’s essay is the work of a creative mind that should not be boxed in by narrow-mindedness.

Heather, on the other hand is appalled at the subject matter and the graphic and gruesome descriptions Gidion uses to express himself.

Corynn thinks he’s a genius. His essay is ‘beautiful’. Heather counters, “I disagree.” Both have a point of view depending on which side of the desk one sits and how emotionally solid each is in their convictions. You be the judge. 

InnerMission’s tiny black box space is shared with Diversionary Theatre located in back of the larger theatre. The small space is depicted as a fifth grade classroom with Heather’s desk in front of a white board facing the audience/students.

Hanging on the walls are formula for writing essays, good citizen guide -lines and student essays about Gordion’s Knot are tacked onto cork frames. Around the ceilings pictures of the Greek gods cover the walls in every direction. (Robert Malave).

Alanna Serrano designed the costumes. Corynn dressed casually in black pants and a print top is in stark contrast to Heathers wrap around sweater covering a loose blouse and black pants. Nate Cargill’s lighting works wonders on the graphics and Alex Guzman’s sound gives us a sense of timing

Jyl Kaneshiro is comfortable in her own skin and surroundings. Hers is a force of nature at odds with her small frame. But don’t let looks deceive.

Carla Nell's Heather is ill at ease pulling continually at her sweater while measuring her surroundings.

Corynn knows her way around the classroom even though it’s not hers. And while the room physically belongs to Heather, she is constantly looking for an escape route either by checking her watch or waiting for her phone to ring.

Adams is no stranger to San Diego audiences. In 2013 Moxie Theatre mounted the west coast premiere of “Skinless” a little gothic mystery/horror story. “Gidion’s Knot” is not quite gothic but if you are in Heather’s chair, it could become a horror story in its own right. On the other hand, mystery is also a good choice.

If there is an up side to “Gidion’s Knot”, yours truly is thankful that she is no longer gainfully employed as a teacher. Teaching kindergarten and second grade in the ‘60’s was a picnic compared to now.

It’s worth a see.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June 10th
Organization: innerMission Productions
Phone: 619.324.8970
Production Type: Drama
Where: 4545 Park Blv. University Heights, 92116
Ticket Prices: $12.00-$25.00
Web:  innermissionproductions.org
Venue: Diversionary Black Box
Photo: Adriana Zuniga

Thursday, May 25, 2017

“Ballast” makes lasting impression first time out of the chute at Diversionary.

Diversionary Theatre in University Heights is presenting the world premiere production of “Ballast” by Georgette Kelly in what some might call real life experiences. Two of its cast members are in real life trans characters and know from whence the playwright is coming as she characterizes the difficulties either ‘coming out’ or ‘transitioning’ has become in these days of ‘enlightenment’.

Years ago prime time talk show host Phil Donahue was one of the first to host a show totally dedicated to transgender issues. The San Diego Reader devoted much print to the story of a local man who went through the surgery only to decide that he wanted to reverse it.

Fast-forward to today and ‘transgender’ is as much in the vernacular now as is the favored term ‘same sex couples’. That said resistance to any such change in this current political environment has become as toxic as it has ever been. It is in this context that Kelly's play is so important.
Dana Aliya Levenson and Jacque Wilke
“Ballast” zooms in on two relationships, both dealing with partners and or family that may or many not share to the fullest the others’ need for acceptance in their newly chosen sex, thereby turning their lives in an upside down situation. On the other hand each of the partners experiencing the change is seeking stability or balance as their own lives are rapidly transitioning as well.

Dana Aliya Levinson
Zoe (Jacque Wilke), a social worker is married to Grace (Dana Aliya Levinson), who in his past life had his own parish. Now because of his transitioning to a woman the church frowns/will not recognize same sex marriage leaving Grace without a pulpit and Zoe wishing she had her husband back. “He used to smell different. When I roll over in bed, I smell a stranger on the sheets”. “My one is now two”. 

In each case dreams play the better part of living out their subconscious desires while the reality in their waking hours is not as wonderful, or as bad, as dealing with the same issues in real time.

Jacque Wilke and Skyler Sullivan
Zoe used to be able to fly in her dreams. “Now I keep having a different dream…my spirit has forgotten how to fly.”  In her dream sequences she hires a flying instructor (Skyler Sullivan) to give her flying lessons. “I’d like to get away from earth awhile.”  

On the other hand dreams stress Grace out. She dreams of standing in front of a pulpit, where her congregation accepts her transition from male to female. What she remembers though is that her dreams are ‘disjointed, disheartening, dysphoric: the tone always off…like a reminder I don’t belong”.
Jennifer Paredes and Maxton Mikes Baeza
Xavier (Maxton Miles Baeza) sees his birth sex as a mistake. Born with all the female parts he sees himself as a male; always dressed as a boy and always will. His mother Ruth (Dana Chase) has had it with his antics and eventually throws him out of the family home.

In his dreams Xavier sees an older self staring back through a prism.  His dreams are like nightmares. “The nightmares? They suck. But so does insomnia.” His way of dealing with his conflict and pain is self- mutilation.

His partner in crime is high- school buddy since kindergarten Savannah (Jennifer Paredes). She thinks he is the one for her. She sees him as a person and accepts him as he is. His sexual identity is whatever he wants it to be and she accepts that. “I want you to stop hurting”. On so many levels she is more in tune and or more mature about Xavier’s needs to being accepted than Zoe is to Grace
Dana Aliya Levinson and Dana Case
Her dreams are kind of out in left field, “Sometimes they’re sexy.” She also has dreams about Xavier most of the time. The two play off of one another but its obvious Savannah leads and Xavier follows as in their getting drunk together at Zoe and Grace’s apartment.

Xavier and Grace met on a transgender website, chatted a bit about age music, school, religion; she’s a pastor his rabbi accused him of breaking his mother’s heart. He wants to meet IRL but it’s against the rules. Later on Grace finds Xavier at her home, much to her surprise and Zoe’s chagrin.

Maxton Miles Baeza and Skyler Sullivan
Kelly’s play toggles back and forth from dream sequence of the two couples interacting/exploring their relationships, and how gender plays an important part in their dreams and their spirituality as the time line moves them forward in their transitioning of acceptance or not.

“Ballast” is an engrossing piece wonderfully mastermind by executive artistic director Matt Morro who keeps the pace clipped and always moving with an ace cast that never once is out of sync with his or her character.

Real life situations abound as Wilke convinces that she is lost in a sea of transition not necessarily brought upon by her. The same can be said of Levinson’s experiences even though the changes are of his choosing.

Paredes is all over her role as the enabler Xavier needs to get him through the rough spots and Baeza will continue to struggle until, I’m guessing, the age of innocence morphs into the age of reality and he gets help along the way.

Case and Sullivan give excellent support as they assume the roles of several characters each of them encounters on ‘the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference’.

Ron Logan’s all minimalist scenic design, Sherrice Mojgani’s accurate lighting, Emily Jankowski’s sound and Tara Knight’s projections enhance the easy and oft times very short transitions/changes from ‘dream to reality’. It works perfectly on the wide stage at Diversionary.

In all  “Ballast” deserves 2 thumbs up. 

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June 4th
Organization: Diversionary Theatre
Phone: 619.220.0097
Production Type: Drama
Where: 4545 Park Blvd. University Heights, 92116
Ticket Prices: $15.00-$45.00
Web: diversionary.org
Venue: Diversionary Theatre

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Old Man-The Old Moon- The Old Globe and a Whale of a Tale

Did you ever wonder why the moon isn’t ‘full’ all the time, as in ALL the time? Wonder no more. PigPen Theatre Co’s “The Old Man and The Old Moon” tells it all. But, not so fast. This is not ‘show and tell’. Nope, this is a yarn that seems to not have a beginning (“You see its endless and once you’ve heard it, you’re all wrapped up in it and its bound to carry you…”) and wanders into a sea of uncertainty; a no man’s island for the sake of a good story.  

With visuals like Lydia Fine’s scenic design of wooden boxes piled strategically as stairs, wooden planks and handwritten signs to signify places, canvas sheets stretched over wooden planks to allow for a bit of puppetry a -la shadow screening, a rag mop atop a broomstick with plastic bottles morphs into a dog (shaggy dog?) and a cast of seven dressed in an eclectic collection of coveralls, overalls etc., we’re off and running.   

PigPen Ensemble  (Photo Jenny Anderson)
Adding to this rather hodgepodge looking assemblage, Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design, and Bart Cortright’s lighting design the stage and actors, all playing multiple roles and a variety of instruments including guitars, harmonica, bottles, banjo, piano, drums and accordion, the stage and lights fill the auditorium like a celebration on the 4th of July. 

The music, Celtic folklore or whatever it sounds like to you (at one point half of me felt like I was in the movie “Deliverance”) entertains us when we enter the theatre and again when we leave and everything in between including Fiksel's sound effects to emphasize romance, to heighten the color of the mood or foreseeing impeding danger. Yes there is danger as when our old man (Ryan Melia) finds himself in the belly of a huge fish. Sound familiar?

The saga does wander a bit but manages to get back to basics and happy endings after all is said and done in this 90 -minute journey of self-discovery in every sense of the word. It’s charming, baffling, creative and entertaining all at once.

A shaggy dog, a boat and an unfinished journey.  (Photo Jenny Anderson)
PigPen Theatre Company ‘began creating their own unique brand of theatre, music, and film as freshmen, all seven, at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama in 2007’. Along with the tight ensemble of seven who collaborated on the story and director Stuart Carden at the helm this West Coast premiere will be playing through June 18th.

Photo Joan Marcus
The saga starts off innocently enough with the old man slowly climbing a ladder to the moon to refill it with liquid light, as there is a leak in the moon. If left unattended, well you guessed it. When he comes down from his ladder, his wife (Alex Falberg) wants some help in the kitchen with dinner.

But the issue for her isn’t just dinner. She wants to go out for a bit of change in scenery since she’s tired of staying home all the time after years of marriage and being tied to the house. Both have forgotten what it was like when they first met.

                  Ryan Melia as the Old Man   (Photo Jenny Anderson)
When the old man makes all kinds of excuses not to leave the house, she leaves on her own in a boat no less, never telling her husband that she is leaving or where she is going.

He panics because he can’t lose her so he starts off on his own epic journey/odyssey around the world to find her. What he encounters is a stretch of the imagination that touches on loss, memory and renewed faith in human kind. It’s all that and more.

When you enter the theatre with a blank slate and exit with a smile it’s good for what ails you.

Hats off to Ryan Melia, Alex Falberg, Matt Nuernberger, Dan Weschler, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen and Arya Shahi.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June18th
Organization: The Old Globe Theatre
Phone: 619.234.5623
Production Type: Musical Tale
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Perk, San Diego, CA 92103
Ticket Prices: Start at $29.00
Web: theoldglobe.org
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage.