Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hershey Brings Peter Home to San Diego Audiences

I ran into Hershey Felder in the newly redesigned and comfortable lobby of the San Diego Repertory Theatre about three quarters of an hour before he was to take stage and introduce us to his new show, “Our Great Tchaikovsky”. He was carrying the clothes he would change into over his shoulder. He walked over to me, we shook hands and I gave him a  two ‘thumb’s up. He shook his head and said, “Not yet.” 
Hershey Felder is a man of many faces of musical plays, stories and biographies. Recently he revived and updated his personal love letter to Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro” as part of 23rd Lipinsky San Diego Arts Festival. In the past, some of his musical biographies include Gershwin, Chopin, Berlin and Beethoven. He adapted, designed and directed "The Pianist of Willensden Lane" the successful play with music that played in the very same theatre.  

He’s back with his with his longtime director/collaborator Trevor Hay, presenting us with his beautifully written poem  “Our Great Tchaikovsky”.  It is now showing on the Lyceum Stage through Feb. 12th

The tranquil set design is by the composer himself. It puts him up front and center against a background comprised of rather homey living spaces. A small picture frame suspended from the ceiling that enlarges what we see projected (Christopher Ash) in the background, is a perfect point of interest. 

Large birch trees occupy the big screen at his back. (It sort of reminded me of another of Russia’s great names, Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”). Those scenes will change from time to time with scenes from “The Nutcracker’s Ballet”, to beautiful gardens to black and white, in real time photos of some of his compatriots and functions he attended as a young man. His grand piano is off center, and in an alcove off to another side of the stage is a comfy chair with writing table he used to take notes, compose letters and jot down ideas.

Spotlight on Hershey as he walks on stage carrying a letter in his hand. He opens it, reads it out loud and there are small snickers, some muted laughs and not seen concerns. The letter, true story, is from the Russian government inviting Felder to come to Russia to honor their native son in this latest work,  “Our Great Tchaikovsky”.

‘Let’s see how this plays in Peoria’. He asks us if he should accept the invitation. Jewish Hershey Felder paying homage to famous gay Russian virtuoso on Russian soil?

That would take tons of chutzpah since besides playing in his own inimitable fashion some of Tchaikovsky’s more famous works, “Swan Lake” “1812 Overture”, “Nutcracker”, “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture” and “Eugene Onegin” to name a few, Felder also speaks volumes about Tchaikovsky’s demons, i.e. how he dealt with his homosexuality from an early age until his death, that to this day still remains a mystery.

Being homosexual in a homophobic world (consider Donald Trump’s 2017 world) in the late 1800’s Russia was something of a death trap for many homosexuals. In reality many decided to take their lives than to be put in prison for the crime of being gay.

Fortunately for Tchaikovsky, his brilliance and world -renowned recognition helped refocus on the magnitude of his compositions as the government looked the other way for a time anyway. To this day the Putin government denies Tchaikovsky was gay.

Perhaps turn about is fair play since Tchaikovsky was invited to New York in 1891 to conduct the premiere opening of Carnegie Hall. He loved the experience so much so that, in one of his diary entries he noted, “If I were younger I would probably derive great pleasure from staying in this interesting, youthful country.”

Felder is, once again in his element as both an entertainer and teacher. “I will do something I have never done before: show the audience how the character is created. And in so doing, hope to discover the great Tchaikovsky himself.” And so he does.

From his early beginnings to his love of mother, to his training as a government intern, to his love of music and men, to his failed/doomed marriage to love letters discovered after his death, to his (Tchaikovsky) writings and creative process Felder’s composure and demeanor are always above reproach. Before our eyes, we see more Tchaikovsky than Felder as the maestro grows in recognition and stature.

Tchaikovsky’s life unfolds before us as told by Hershey in a somewhat and sometimes difficult to understand Russian accent. It’s not terribly distracting, but if you have old ears, consider. Felder’s own playing is enhancement by Erik Carstensen sound design giving us a full -throated symphonic sound.  

Our own maestro’s playing is flawless, as usual. This piece is one of his more aggressive and concentrated plunges into the background and musical accomplishments of a complicated, gifted and troubled personality than most he has breathed life into.

It’s all- good. It’s relevant in today’s world and calls out to be seen. It needs to be seen for many reasons not the least of which the piece is exciting, beautifully rendered and eye opening. Another is that one of the president’s and his cohorts more deliberate threat to defund the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities for PBS Broadcasting  is crushing  If followed through it will destroy the very heart of artistic creativity.

Hershey tells it like it is making no bones about the fact that it was not safe to be a homosexual in Russia. It doesn’t take a Philadelphia lawyer to make the comparison between Putin and Trump where in the US the LGBT community (among other groups) today faces its biggest threat, so far, yet.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 12th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Phone: 619.544.1000
Production Type: Musical Biography
Where: 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown San Diego
Ticket Prices: Stare at $61.00
Venue: Lyceum Theatre

Photo: Daren Scott

Monday, January 23, 2017

“Bad Jews” Makes San Diego Premiere at Cygnet Theatre.

In playwright Joshua Harmon's new (and described by some as delicious and by some as savage) dramedy currently making a San Diego premiere at The Cygnet Theatre in Old Town three cousins, all Jewish with varying degrees of observance in the rituals and demands of the Jewish faith come together at Jonah Haber’s (Tom Zohar) upper west side apartment (Sean Fanning) soon after burying their beloved grandfather, Poppy.

Poppy was a Holocaust survivor. The fact that he was the only survivor left of his family was nothing short of a miracle. The fact that he managed to hide, under his tongue, a gold Chai (meaning luck and the symbol for the #18) and keep it for future generations was a double Chai.

Tom Zohar and Danielle Frimer
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Daphna believes (with all her misguided heart) that the Chai should be handed down to her because she is…the super Jew among the cousins.

She is studying to become a Rabbi and live in Israel. She is also more closely aligned with the traditions of Judaism and thinks it should stay in the family. Even Jonah thinks ‘it’s a family thing’. That’s some food for thought.

Liam the oldest of the three twenty something cousins, thought the Chai should be his because at some point Poppy said he should have it and by golly he will fight back to the last breath to keep it in his possession. Jonah (Tom Zohar) want’s no part of the Chai and he wants out of this argument even though he thinks it should be kept in the family.

Daphna (Danielle Frimer) has enough of the family goods on Liam to last a lifetime. Eating a non- kosher cookie on Passover in front of her years ago is just another weapon in her cache. Her vicious loud- mouthed supercilious and bellicose rants against him oft times brought the house down on opening night. Not so much on this end.

Tom Zohar, Kate Sapper and Josh Odsess-Rubin 
Just for you know what and giggles, Liam’s girlfriend, blond, blue-eyed Melody is the last person on the guest list.  She is the quiet, deer in the headlights, wide- eyed and bushy tailed, head over heels in love non-Jew almost engaged to Liam.

The fact that Liam and Melody missed the funeral because they were snowboarding in Aspen became another of the -oh so many areas of contention between Daphna and Liam. But the Chai is the Biggie!

Rant after rant, Daphna finds something to attack either Liam or Melody (once in a while Jonah) by bringing up family mishegas. She wants that Chai! The one complication unbeknownst to Daphna is that Liam already has the necklace with the Chai in his possession. In fact he took it to Aspen and was going give it to and  propose to Melody as a token of his love.

Josh Odsess-Rubin, Kate Sapper and Danielle Frimer
My first reaction after sitting through the all the screaming and finger pointing was that it took less than one hour into this 100 -minute intermission-les barrage of outrage between Liam and Daphna to make the quiet and easy going Melody sound almost as psychotic as the other’s looked and sounded.

Sapper is really a hoot trying to soothe Daphna by singing in her best operatic voice (OY!) with “Summertime” from Gershwins “Porgy and Bess”. (She majored in opera in college.) Have pity someone, she can’t sing to save herself.

She also had some pretty dingy come back lines for Daphna when she confessed that she always wanted hair like Daphna’s, or her explanation about her treble clef tattoo on her leg because she loves opera, to wit Daphna explains that Jewish law prohibits tattoos and if one does have one, they are wrong, not bad, but wrong! Period! Explanation point! End of conversation!

Frimer’s Daphna is so far off the charts when she is on one of her rants that she has to get an A+ just for being focused on being obnoxious. And that ethnic hair. It looked like it had been released from a tight braid bound up for years. Brushing the wavy thickness was another point of contention with Liam. There was hair all over the apartment floor, on the beds and he even felt he inhailed some to boot. 

Zohar, with the least amount of lines, makes the most of Jonah's nebbish character with body language and facial screw-ups that the audience laughed out loud at every chance they had. Suffice it to say; in the final scene he got ‘the last word’. No spoilers here. 

Odsess-Rubin, who wants it both ways, is as bad a Daphna in not being able to control his temper and loud outbursts on the one hand and not giving a damn what the others think of him on the other. They are all a bit of a mess. They hate each other. That should be a clue as to how they treat each other.

Director Rob Lutfy does his best to make each and every one of his one-dimensional characters worth caring about. It’s an admirable undertaking. Unfortunately Harmon gives him very little to work with. Anger and out of the ballpark ear deafening screams can never mask shallowness for character. Unfortunately no one in Harmon’s divided family show qualities like depth in character. It's easy not to like them in this flawed play.

This whole topic of Bad Jews had my panties in a knot. For lack of any other explanation for my discomfort with Harmon’s new play “Bad Jews”, is its title. It’s offensive to me. Who decides what or who makes a 'bad Jew'? Furthermore, what defines a bad Jew? 

Certainly ‘bad’ is not one of the adjectives one might brand another for eating on a ‘fast’ day or marrying out of the religion. How about non observant for starters? Or how about who cares?

The play’s cynicism also made me sad. More so, the topical stereotyping, the finger pointing, the money issues, the Ivy League schools and the disdain for family masked as humor are as much a turn off as is the title. “Virginia Woolf” this is not.

I’m sure my friend’s and colleagues or perhaps other Jewish members of the community will pounce on me for saying this but frankly I don’t think it matters to most what our thoughts are about how they practice, or not, their idea of what Judaism demands. It’s a complicated mess.

Is there room for a discussion for what the future holds for the new generation Jew? Of course there is, but lets start with a little civility  shall we?

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb.12th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Phone: 619.337.1525
Production Type: Dramedy
Where: 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town
Ticket Prices: Start at $36.00
Venue: Theatre in Old Town

Photo: Daren Scott

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Bien joué and thumbs up to New Fortune’s “ Les Liaisons Dangereuses”

Let’s face it the art of making love is well… an art. The art of making love looking like the art of making love is well…another form of art. But to the widow (and that’s the way she likes it) the Marquise de Merteuil (Jessica John) and her cohort in crimes of the heart ex lover Vicomte de Valmont (Richard Baird), the art of making deceptive love as a challenge to those on the other side of the marker becomes a game of ‘dangerous liaisons.’ Both have nurtured this work of art to perfection.

New Fortune Theatre, under the direction of company artistic director and co- founder Richard Baird with co-director Kaitlin O’Neal, is presenting the revival of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the 1782 novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

As one of the ushers was explaining to a patron the night I attended, “It has lots of exposition.” In other words it’s talky. What she failed to say was that it was also stylish, elegant and posh. Guilio Perrone designed the minimal and functional set pieces and Howard Schmitt the period costumes. Missy Bradstreet is responsible for the assorted wigs.

Richard Baird and Connor Sullivan
It is also beautifully choreographed. From the movements of the last piece of furniture to the dueling scenes and the looks and sneers on co conspirator’s faces (J. Tyler Jones flight choreographer) nothing misses a step. This happens throughout as the excellently coordinated and strong ensemble is emerged solidly in character.

The story, while fraught with intrigue, dishonesty, betrayal corruption, greed and snobbery plays into the hands of the idle rich in de Laclos’ pre revolutionary France novel. It’s no wonder the French people took to revolting.

Jessica John and Richard Baird
Liaisons hit the Broadway stages just last year and before that in 1987 and 2008 and in 1988 the movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

To say that it is a difficult piece to put together would be an understatement. It’s big, takes place at several locations; salons, bedroom chambers and chateaux in and around France during one autumn and winter season in 1780’s. The characters, while seemingly straightforward in their beliefs are more complicated than a Rubik’s Cube.

Most small theatres just don’t take it on. I believe I saw it mounted here once when Moonlight (Winter Playhouse) Amphitheatre had an indoor season in Vista. That was in 1992. Now it’s New Fortune Theatre’s time. They hit the nail on the head with this visceral and yes, talky production. 

What? You wanted more sex? Use your imaginations.

The Marquise and Valmont were once lovers.  Now they enjoy engaging in dangerous games involving and oft time destroying the lives of innocent people caught in their web. They still have a perverted interest in one another, but instead of making love for pleasure they take pleasure in ruining reputations.

Baird and Amanda Schaar

As the play opens the Marques offers Valmont the ultimate challenge to seduce Cécile de Volanges (Gentry Roth) an innocent, wet behind the ears woman child, just returned home from the convent. The Marques is so enthused about the challenge that she offers herself as the grand prize if Valmont succeeds. Valmont has plans of his own. He’s more interested in Madame de Tourvel (Amanda Schaar). She’s married, religious to a fault and for Valmont, a much bigger reward.

The games begin. The chemistry boils, broils and sparkles between Baird and John from beginning to end even as their nasty little plots begin to unravel beneath their feet. But just watching the glee, the penetrating looks and  body language is enough to make you want to squirm and wonder what motivates this destructive behavior. 

Jessica John and Richard Baird
Expect it or not, one will die and the other will be without a playmate. With eyes focused and snares flaring, the casting of these two local award winning actors playing against each other is a casting coup. 

What fun, in a rather perverted way (and I say that for myself), to watch the two get to play cat and mouse with each other. Baird who has a penetrating look even when not in character, is razor sharp when confronting the just as focused John, who is more than satisfied looking in on her ex lover as she pushes him to the limits of his skills only to land the booby prize in the end.

Dagmar Fields, Terril Miller and Richard Baird

Support comes, as mentioned earlier, from all sides of the coin. Danceny as played by Connor Sullivan, whom we’ve seen in at least three past productions, is a hoot as he all but drools and genuflects for Cécile, but ends up in Merteuil’s bed.

Others come together to make this one hell of a show. Dagmar Fields plays Valmont’s aunt with suspicion focused on her nephew. Terril Miller is Cécile’s mother Madame de Volanges. She's too interested in herself to really worry about her daughter. Justin Lang is Valmont’s valet, Christopher Torborg is a footman, Crystal Brandon is Julies maid and Taylor Henderson is Emile, the courtesan used by Valmont to keep Merteuil on her guard. It's all so nasty as in every definition of the word. 

Baird and company deserve kudos for taking on this huge undertaking. Check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Jan 28th
Organization: New Fortune Theatre
Phone: 619.544.1000
Production Type: Drama
Where: 79 Horton Plaza Downtown San Diego
Ticket Prices: $20.00-$47.00
Venue: Lyceum Space

Photo: Daren Scott

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Are ‘PRIMES’ our new reality?

Jordan Harrison’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama and his 2016 Horton Foot prize “Marjorie Prime” is making its San Diego premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre through Feb. 5th.

It’s a bold new idea that might strike a few nerves within the audience. No one likes to talk about memory or loss or for that matter dementia within the family. Some of the memory loss we all might be experiencing like the name of someone we really knew in our favorite movie but can’t seem to pull up right now seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Dee Maaske as Marjorie Prime
Nothing defines us more than the memories we carry within us.  In my family, my brother and I have different memories of the same occasions that happened in our family growing up. That too seems reasonable. But what happens when we don’t have that memory to rely on or anyone to fill in the blanks?

When that all goes away, what do we have left? That’s one of the pressing themes in Harrison’s play among other things. How it affects those around us and dealing with it is also of great concern.

For Tess (Elaine Rivkin) and Jon (Gregory North) Marjorie’s (Dee Maaske) daughter and son in law the impact of Marjorie’s memory loss is monumental, as you will see watching the play unravel or rewind in some instances.

It is a bit confusing at the outset (and for yours truly continued somewhat throughout) and what’s not revealed at plays end, will be the topic of conversation for many on the way home, as it was for me.

Steve Froehlich, Dee Maaske, Elaine Rivkin and Gregory North
The setup is such that it takes us further into the future introducing us to Walter (Steve Froehlich) a perfectly coifed handsomely dressed young man looking right out of an 80’s playbook.  He is as they might say in the industry, ‘an artificial intelligence composite’, or robot, made up of pixels programed to simulate Marjorie’s late husband when he was younger, maybe in his thirties. He is Marjorie’s PRIME.

Walter is parroting information about Marjorie’s past that Marjorie’s son-in-law Jon has fed him. Jon as a diary of sorts with all kinds of facts (he’s been married to Tess for over thirty years) and when the information needs updating, Walter gets it.

Dee Maaske and Steve Froehlich
Walter tells Marjorie stories to make her feel better. In other words, Walter is Marjorie’s memory. The professionals agree that this is the exact therapy Marjorie needs to keep her mind active and another source of company beside her hostility ridden daughter.

Marjorie will occasionally ask questions of Walter and the answers are spoon fed to her. “I could tell you a story. You liked that the last time.” “I’ll have to take your word for it.” In their reality, Walter can tell her as many versions of the story that she would like to hear.

Most of the time spent with Marjorie is all well and good. But there is trouble in Prime-ville between Tess and Jon that all is not as it appears. It seems that other ‘Primes’ come in and out of the picture and more morbid facts and family secrets come out at some of the most unexpected times. 

Information about Tess’ brother Damian, for example reveal the good the bad and the indifferent about the family dynamics and why Tess is so depressed and argumentative. No one talks about the down side of Damian’s life, rather in glowing terms. When we do learn of his suicide it hits us between the eyes as the truth about his short life is finally let out of the bag. More family secrets leak out over the course of the play.

Piecing the story together kept me wondering if it was just me, or the fact that dealing in the abstract is not one of my stronger assets. Slowly approaching an age closer rather than further away from Marjorie’s and noticing that oft times I have to run through the alphabet to remember a name or place caused me to have a few concerns of my own while sitting through Harrison’s play.

Gregory North, Steve Froehlich, Elaine Rivkin Dee Maaske (in foreground)
Director Matthew Wiener keeps us on our toes throughout, with a well -balanced cast making a case either for or against the need for a prime. Dee Maaske is charming and convincing as Marjorie. She grows in the role and one can definitely empathesize with everything about her that she has lost and will never get back.

Steve Froehlich is well programmed as Walter, her substitute husband. He is used as a tool to keep her interested and possibly prolong her life. While not doing too much when things do not revolve around Marjorie, he is always engaged.

Elaine Rivkin and Gregory North make a believable couple with North’s Jon a bit more compassionate toward his mother-in-law than her daughter. Tess has more at stake here than Jon, having grown up with Marjorie and all the family secrets that kept the family in a state of repression and depression for years. She plays into her grief well.

Marty Burnett’s set in Tess and Jon’s living -room is pretty much bare bones necessities with open kitchen, overall all generic looking with an easy chair off center for Marjorie’s comfort and a couch backing up against the kitchen counter and hallways of to the side.  

Elaine Rivkin abd Gregory North
It is enhanced by Matt Novotny’s colorful lighting design with changing seasons, beginning with all things bright and alive and colorful and ending with the dark empty layers of winter. Elisa Benzoni’s designed the costumes and Melanie Chin the soundscape.

Harrison’s “Maple and Vine” that made its Southern California premiere in 2014 is a look back at the past (1955) to a time when things were simple and ‘authentic’. Now he’s bringing the future to us in ways that might just become the norm in years to come. You be the judge.

1955 was a good year for me. Just sayin’.

Harrison’s play has also been adapted for the screen. It will be premiering at the Sundance Festival next year.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 5th
Organization: North Coast repertory Theatre
Phone: 619-858-1055
Production Type: Comedy/Drama
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, CA 92075
Ticket Prices: Start at $46.00

Photo: Aaron Rumley