Friday, June 23, 2017

Old Globe’s Shakespeare’s “King Richard II”: Politics in the rough.

Of all the sports currently being played out on the world stage today, politics is by far the dirtiest, backstabbing, most talked about, examined and throat cutting game in the market place. 

Today the players wear uniforms of a different cut than in Shakespeare’s day (or not). Today most are in blue suits, red or blue (or variations of the same) ties and most carry a big stick and a self- satisfied smirk. Most have been in training for years some not, but that matters not. Yes, ‘ art imitates life’ and in a big way this sporting political season.

Think Shakespeare in the Park and Oskar Eustis’ and “Julius Caesar”. That struck a nerve and rightfully so. Sometimes bad things happen to bad people who tamper with less fortunate people’s lives. Sometimes it just takes a while for the oppressed to catch up.

Since we here in San Diego are pretty far from away Central, we prefer our Shakespeare in our very own Balboa. This summer, it’s one of the Richard’s, II in fact and only one of four plays the Bard has written entirely in verse. That said one would have to pay close attention to realize it.

I was surprised, though and moved when out of the blue several including Bishop of Carlisle (James Joseph O’Neil), Bolingbroke and Mowbray began chanting their lines. I felt as though I was experiencing a religious moment.
James Joseph O'Neil,  John Ahlin, Samuel Max Avishay, HArry Percy and Troy Kittles.
The Kings; John, Richard II, Henry IV part I, Henry IV part 2,HenryV, Henry VIpatr1, Henry VI part 2, Henry VI part 3, Richard III, and Henry VIII make up Shakespeare’s ‘history tetralogy’.

Most are often produced, some of a lesser nature. The current offering on The Lowell Davies Festival Stage at The Old Globe through July 15th, in its season opening is of the lesser; “King Richard II”, written well before his more popular “King Richard III, is stuff we now chew up and spit out without a thought.

Robert Sean Leonard with Jake Horowitz in background
When Richard II banishes or exiles his two adversaries (one his cousin), steals from his flock, distances himself from his people, raises money for an army and raises taxes on the backs of the poor, Shakespeare memorializes him more as a man in conflict with himself and as a poet rather than a flawed, arrogant and oppressive ruler. What excuse do we have?

The Old Globe’s ‘Richard’ under Erica Schmidt’s direction is rich in talent, politically current enough to start a million conversations and designed to stretch the imagination (John Lee Beatty’s set is enhanced by Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting design) with the huge backdrop of ancient looking doors set high above the stage and used effectively when the cast (Greek chorus?) has something to say or so or do, as when they throw dirt and garbage at the toppled king) without being directly on the stage. It’s very effective.

The play opens with a dead body wrapped in gauze and waiting to be removed. It was the Duke Of Gloucester one of the king’s four uncles that some believed the King had a hand in his killing.

We find stage and screen star Robert Sean Leonard sitting on his golden throne dressed in a long white gown trimmed in gold (Andrea Lauer), high above the masses looking over those assembled down below. He is now officially of the age to be monarch and not a popular one at that.  

His task on this day is to settle a dispute between his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Tory Kittles), son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (Charles Janasz) and Thomas Mowbray (Ian Lassiter) who is accused of treason by Bolingbroke.

Dueling worriors and cast against the stunning set by John Lee Beatty
In order to settle the dispute between the two men a sword dueling contest is the day’s entertainment. There is a glove throwing battle that goes on for a bit adding some humor to their declaration of battle. Both are armed to the gills and in an arena of sorts cordoned off to keep the two from?? Falling of the stage? Well not to worry. As soon as the swords make contact, Richard throws his golden gauntlet down calling a halt to the duel.

Instead the King decides to exile both: Mowbray forever and Bolingbroke for first ten years and on second thought, six years. That turns out to be a miscalculation on his part. No one is happy with the decision. Unbeknownst to the king, plans were already in the making to dethrone him.

Troy Kittles and cast
Bolingbrook is convinced that Richard stole lands from his father that eventually would belong to him. Richard, because of his flawed and weak character, his arrogance by taking lands that did not belong to him, and his catering to the rich, failed to acknowledge that Bolingbroke had the support and admiration of the commoners. They favored him over the King.

While Richard is away fighting a war in Ireland, Bolingbroke is gathering his own army. Bolingbroke’s eventual invasion of England with his own army of loyalist allows him reclaim the throne and eventually as history will attest, be crowned King Henry IV.

And so begins the saga of tormented and flawed King played with an astute interpretation, more of the poet than the warrior and ruler by Robert Sean Leonard. Self –assured that he is divinely chosen, yet conceited, ambivalent and disconnected from his people and territories, he loses his hold on reality and everything else connected to his kingdom.

When he is finally forced to give up his crown, no bloodshed here, and is sent off to prison do we see the man under his blond wig (nice touch) and golden crown. It is here in prison that he finally comes face to face with his own mortality.

Sean Robert Leonard
In some ways I found him to be a pathetic character as he wept, talked to himself and looked for some support from the prison guards. That did not last too long, though. Leonard is a fine choice for the King.
Charles Janesz, Nora Carroll and Robert Sean Leonard
Charles Janasz, a familiar actor seen in almost all the Shakespeare of years past, is a welcome sight as John of Gaunt and later The Gardner. As Richard’s uncle he lives long enough to curse Richard after he sends his son into exile. He knows that Richard is responsible for his brother’s death. “Let heaven revenge; for I may never lift  An angry arm against His minister.” Janesz as always makes every production he’s in noteworthy.

Troy Kittles is as regal as any anointed king as Henry Bolingbroke. He’s intriguing to watch as he moves throughout as a thorn in Edward’s side and exits the victor.  

Ian Lassiter serves Mowbray well in his exile scene and Elizabeth Mackay, as The Duchess of York is stunning as she pleads for her son’s life. Richard’s wife Queen Isabel, (Nora Carroll), is none too pleased with her King. Suffice it to say, he has little interest in her.  

Several MFA students also turned in fine performances, while having little to say as well but looking busy none-the –less.  

Overall Schmidt’s efficient direction keeps the play moving at a nice brisk pace, enough to keep the sandman out of this reviewer’s eyes.

As far as the politics are concerned, keep your eyes on the bouncing ball. It ain’t over till it’s over.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through July 15th
Organization: The Old Globe
Phone: 619.234.5623
Production Type: Tragedy
Where: 1363 old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00
Venue: Lowell Davies Festival Stage

Photo: Jim Cox

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

“Big Fish” makes impressive splash on Lamb’s intimate stage.

In “Big Fish” The Musical, based on Daniel Wallace’s novel and the Tim Burton film now in a splendid production at Lamb’s Players Theater through July 30th, the lead character Edward Bloom (Brandon Joel Maier), a traveling salesman shares with his young son, Will (Gavin Reed August) that being on the road is not about the destination. “The road is something that’s in you-you don’t drive it, it drives you.”

“Big Fish made it to the Broadway stage in 2013 but had a very short shelf life, managing only 34 previews and 98 regular performances.  It was nominated for the Drama Desk Outer Critics nominations. Unfortunately it’s the one that got away from Broadway audiences.

The show and story has had some adjustments away from the original Broadway production with new songs added and a smaller cast version (for 12 actors), which is up and running on Lamb’s intimate stage.

Gavin Reed August and Brandon Joel Maier
Yours truly found the stage play, having seen it twice in the past two or so years, charming, insightful, rather delightful, and with a message for the ages: children will always challenge their parents and parents being parents want what they think is best for their children.

In this case Edward finds way to express his love, hopes and desires for his only son by repeating his fantastical stories that in the end will find a connecting thread. 

Edward Bloom is an ordinary guy with an extraordinary imagination. He fills his son Will’s head with stories from his heroic playbook; stories of adventure, of dreams and visions, people and places.

His tales rich in imagination are a turnoff for young and later older Will (Michael Cusimano) who would rather have had his father around for his soccer and baseball games than on the road. Later he implores his father not to make a speech at his wedding. See how that plays out.

Michael Cusimano 
When Will discovers that his father is dying of cancer and he and his wife Josephine (a supporting Catie Grady) are about to become parents themselves; and a boy at that, Will takes his own journey into the past events of his life only to discover that love lives in the heart of his father’s dream world.

It begins with a giant ‘fish story’ and takes on a life of its own; adventures shown in flashback, (“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you show a man how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”) too inconceivable to believe yet with enough tease to know that something lies beneath the surface. (“Be The Hero” and “Fight The Dragons”.)

Edward’s stories take him and his young friends deep into the woods where they meet up with a witch (Anise Ritchie) who tells Edward how and when he will die.  He comes across a Giant named Karl (Donny Gersonde) in the woods (sound familiar?) whom he befriends, a friendship that will later pay dividends.

John Rosen and Brandon Joel Maier at the circus
He finds work in the circus and becomes under the spell of the circus master Amos Calloway (John Rosen) Rosen is a standout as several characters including the town’s doctor, sheriff, circus ring master and werewolf. 

And the adventures go on. He befriends a mermaid (Mary Joe Duggan), discovers his first kiss and girlfriend, Jenny Hill (Megan Carmitchel). His tales are enough to stagger anyone’s imagination, but in Lamb’s intimate space I found myself more of a participant than an onlooker; somehow I identified with both young Will and the stories my own Dad used to tell me. (He was a clown in a circus. He loved the circus. I believed him.)

Back for a reunion of sorts, both Maier and Kelsey Ventner (Sandra Bloom) appeared together in the award winning production of “Les Miz” at Lamb’s a few years ago. (He played Jean Valjean and she Fantine)

Kelsey Venter and Brandon Joel Maier
In ‘Fish’ she is the devoted wife who, in a sense grounds the family and softens the father son/push me, pull you saga that will eventually send grown Will to live outside his birthplace in rural Ashton, Alabama (“Two Men in my Life” and “Time Stops”, “I Don’t Need a Roof”) to the big city and away from his father’s storytelling. She will also be the impetuous that bring him back home.

Maier on the other hand is in just about every scene and his beautiful voice is still as rich as ever. He’s also a good story- teller and a credible one at that. His devotion to both wife and son has a removed yet sincere feel to it.  

 The small cast is charged with playing multiple characters and makeup the ensemble. They include Charles Evan’s. JR., Jordan Miller, Siri Hafso, Anise Ritchie, Mary Joe Duggan, Jenny Hill, Jack French to name a few. 

Gavin Reid August and Brandon Joel Maier with cast.
Michael Cusimano is the perfect fit as the older Will. Both acting and musical skills show through and his performance as annoyed son, loving husband and later concerned son ring true. (“Be The Hero”, reprieve) His character really came into its own in the second act.

As young Will Gavin Reed August is a find and a future star. Enthusiasm, concentration and immersion in everything he did on opening night blew me away. He’s outstanding.

Musical director G. Scott Lacy and his seven-piece band played on even with a faulty keyboard (we later learned). That’s live theatre for you.

Yours truly was completely unaware, so the band played on with some help from Patrick Duffy’s sound design. It was all-good.

Javier Velasco’s choreography was put to good use by a talented and energetic ensemble all who sing and dance admirably. Director Deborah Gilmour Smyth leads with a sure hand that resonates heart.

Mike Buckley’s simple set is helped along by Nathan Peirson’s lighting and Michael McKeon and Patrick Duffy’s projections especially ‘The Fish’.
Anise Ritchie as The Witch
Ms. Ritchie is awesome as the witch dressed to the witches with Jeanne Reith’s eclectic costumes, a cross between whimsical and period. Susie Ferguson and Melissa Jellyman complement most of the costumes with an assortment of wigs.

“So what do you do when you’re swallowed by a fish in the middle of a river all alone? It’s yours to find out.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through July 30th
Organization: Lamb’s Players Theatre
Phone: 619.437.6000
Production Type: Musical
Where: 1142 Orange Ave, Coronado, CA. 92118
Ticket Prices: Start at $24.00
Photo: Lamb's Players Theatre

Monday, June 19, 2017

“Withering Heights”, Mr. Toads Wild Ride through Emily Brontë’s ‘love and love’s labor lost’.

If you’ve ever been on ‘Mr. Toads Wild Ride’ at Disneyland you can imagine the trip founding father Phil Johnson of the newly minted Roustabouts Theatre Co. and his sidekick in arms Omri Schein are able to spin on Emily Brontë’s Gothic love story, and only novel (I might add)“Wuthering Heights”? Don’t ask!

“It’s gothic; it’s depressing. Everyone dies. It’s perfect for a comedy” (Schein)

To believe what yours truly actually saw in this world premiere production (written by Johnson and Schein) that just recently opened at Diversionary Theatre is one that needs to be seen to be believed. And that’s no joke.

Omri Schein as Catherine and Phil Johnson as Nelly
Fear not though’, it is a wild and bumpy road; 120 minute tour de force that takes the audience through more doors/curtains than are required for any Disneyland ride. So sit back, fasten your seat belts and hang on!

I will attempt to fill you in on some of the memorable details since much of the dialogue and shtick was lost in translation due to laughing out loud by so many of the audience in this relatively small venue. Not placing the blame anywhere, yours truly was as guilty as the rest. At times I found myself laughing into the next set of the Heathcliff - Catherine on again of again love affair.

Schein as Isabella Johnson as Heathcliff
The gags and character changes come fast and furious. The two actors on stage (Phil taking on six characters and Omri, seven) simply go behind a curtained picture frame (Scott Amiotte) and came out as another character with a minimum or no costume change (Elsa Benzoni). Oft times they come through the picture frame with a slight change in tone or an affectation or inflection of any one of the 13 characters that is established from the start.

Sound effects come are by Melanie Chen indicating a storm, horses approaching, location etc. Lighting by Curtis Mueller, wigs by Peter Herman and Bonnie Durban’s props help create the overall look, tone and period.    

Both wear the same wigs throughout. For Phil, a reddish longer than shoulder length bob, frame his smiling or frowning face depending on which character he is at the time. The schmata around his waist is used for an apron when he takes on the role of Nelly, the narrator/maid, or that same flowered cloth is draped over his head as a shawl when playing young Catherine or the older Catherine and as a fashion statement when he is Heathclif.
Phil as Heathcliff 
Phil as most of you know is the consummate funny man so when he put his sock dog puppet on his arm, barking and attacking whatever dogs bark at or he attacks Heathcliff, it’s side splitting craziness. And lest we forget the fart stuff, I guess that comes with the territory.
Phil and mad dog
Omri has a few more subtle looks; a bow in his cropped black wig, a pair of glasses, a codpiece, well you get the picture. Omri is the perfect foil for Phil’s antics.

Not to be outdone, Schein has a few or more tricks up sleeve as well. His thicker than fog accent and those crossed eyes take some practice. Lets not forget his manly struts especially when he comes out as Joseph, the pipe smoking servant barely understood or his feminine shuffles as Cathy Earnshaw, ‘a beautiful heroine’.   

Nelly sums it up
The funny thing (and I say that in all earnestness) is that they follow Brontë’s tale through to the end. And I might add lovingly, like the story, it goes on a bit too long. 

David Ellenstein, artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, directed. What fun that must have been; I can only imagine. Suffice to say, both men are deliciously and decidedly  coo coo.

For some summer madness this one might just end up being the Pièce de Résistance.


See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through July 9th
Organization: Roustabouts Theatre co
Phone: 619.278.7820
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 4545 Park Blvd. City heights 92116
Ticket Prices: $38.00 + $4.50 ticket fee.
Venue: Diversionary Theatre
Photo: Daren Scott