Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Roustabouts and Will Cooper’s World Premiere “Margin of Error” off to good start.

“Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. (Lord Acton)

Noted astrophysicist Anton Myrvold (Ruff Yeager) learned before it was announced to the world that he would be in the running for the Nobel Prize. In fact it was a sure thing. “I’m the runaway favorite. My selection is only a formality.” His colleague in Stockholm owed him favors…  I helped with a little problem, ‘some quantum chromo dynamics thing’. “In payment I made him promise to keep me informed of things.”

Kate Rose Reynolds, Ruff Yeager, Roxane Carrasco and Joel Miller
He waited his entire career (he teaches at the University of Chicago), in fact all his life to be recognized as one to be reckoned with after being put down as a child by an overbearing father. Little does he realize he’s following in his deceased father’s footsteps, but fails to see it. 

Of his two young, top graduate students Gray Foxberry (Joel Miller) and Britt Carlsson (Kate Rose Reynolds) Gray was the natural choice for Myrvold to give the coveted postdoc position to. Since Britt and Gray are a couple, he would find a good job for Britt as well. As was the custom, Myrvold’s position allows that he gets to choose the candidate to work alongside him.   

It was believed by Myrvold’s wife Sunita (Roxane Carrasco) that Gray would get the coveted Fermi Fellowship; it was talked about in the long wait leading up to the announcement that he would fill the spot with Gray.

While waiting for the two to show up for the big announcement, with a celebratory dinner of Indian food, Anton drops the news to his wife that he chose Britt instead to fill the spot. “I am awarding that pinnacle of postdocs to another graduate! I am giving it to Britt.” “She is a talented young woman.”

Ruff Yeager and Roxane Carrasco
And so begins playwright Will Cooper’s foray into the world of science and ethics, power, seduction, deception, compromise and cunning in his new play “Margin of Error” now in a taught production (Rosina Reynolds directs) mounted by ‘the new kid in town’ Roustabouts Theatre Company.

Cooper is no stranger to San Diego audiences.  A few years back Moxie Theatre mounted his “Jade Heart” to critical acclaim.

Cooper, Phil Johnson and Ruff Yeager have formed this new theatre company offering a series of events, new play readings, talkbacks and panel discussions. Johnson is producing the show. The three are a mighty force and promise to bring new works to its audiences.

Yeager and Johnson, no strangers to each other in collaboration, also brought us “She Rantulas from Outer Space in 3D” no less. It is a kooky comedy that Yeager directed and Johnson took home the honors of starring as the female lead. I know!

On a more serious note, Cooper’s “Margin of Error” cuts right to the core from the very beginning as we find Myrvold and Sunita congratulating each other on his appointment, but something isn’t kosher in Denmark. Yeager’s Myrvold is all over his wife in such a domineering and possessive way that it was almost impossible not to see how his behavior might end in disaster.

Roxane Carrasco, Ruff Yeager, Joel Miller and Kate Rose Reynolds
Yeager, who is a bigger than life presence in his own right, dominates Sean Fanning’s gorgeous and functional set with a piano (Yeager, an accomplished pianist plays a ‘classic romantic piece’ during the production) staged in the back of the well furnished and comfortable living room with an office off to the side (Curtis Miller’s lighting enhances these scenes) where ‘serious and revealing confessions gives us clues as to who these folks really are.

As in Albee’s “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf” no one comes out of this power play unscathed.

Over the course of the evening we also learn that Sunita, a well-known peace advocate dealing in conflict resolution is highly regarded in her own right (she carries scars on her back from a public flogging in India as a young rebel). Throughout in Cooper’s “Margin of Error” she can’t help but try to renegotiate some sort of peace between the parties, but to no avail.

Carrasco, who stepped into the part late, is near perfect as the one person with almost as much to lose as her husband if he carries on as a bully and predator. Being the peace negotiator that she is, hers is the only character with a center and one that understands the ramifications of what will happen to all of them if she doesn’t set some standards of good behavior.

Kate Rose Reynolds and Ruff Yeager
Speaking of behavior, Ms. Reynolds’ Britt has also lost her moral compass when we learn that she seduced, or maybe it was the other way around, Myrvold into giving her the postdoc position and to hell with Gray. After all, she worked hard for it and anyway, it would be easier for him to find work in his field of physics since women are not that hirable for anything but teaching, and she hates teaching; he said he loves it. Reynolds body language speaks volumes.

Miller’s Gray on the other hand, shocked and outraged by the news that Britt knew about the hire for three months, has a few aces up his sleeve as in found errors in Myrvold’s paper that were not revealed in time for the first printing, etc., etc. 

He makes no bones about the fact that his professor/advocate is praised for his high ethical standards and this disclosure would create some doubt about high ethical values. He has more but that comes out later as his is a controlled anger that Myrvold won’t understand and never anticipated until it’s almost too late.  

Things do take a nasty turn all around as the pressure reaches a boiling point in this high strung story of power, absolute power and ultimate destruction. It’s almost as if Cooper took a page out of the O’Reilly Factor, changed the names and places to expose another worlds view of ‘what we see is not what we get'.

It’s not easy keeping updated news events out of any new plays these days and while some of “Margin of Error” is predictable, the way the characters handled themselves and the caliber of acting under Ms. Reynolds direction, never became a distraction. In fact yours truly found the subject matter quite interesting and intriguing.

And even though I don’t know a thing about ‘dark matter’ or ‘the modified gravitational theory or any other scientific theories for that matter, I can weed out bad behavior and prevarication when I see and hear it.

Hats off to Roustabouts and the entire company.  

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through May 7th
Organization: The Roustabouts
Phone: 619.728.7820
Production Type: Drama
Where: 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $42.00
Web: theroustaboutd.org
Venue: Lyceum Theatre

Photo: Daren Scott

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Fun “On The 20th Century"

I know I’m coming to this party late, but recently I took myself down to Old Town and saw the Betty Comden, Adolph Green (Book and Lyrics) and Cy Colman (Music) “On The 20th Century”. What fun!

Steve Gunderson, Sean Murray and Melissa Fernandes
One year after my late husband and I moved to San Diego we found ourselves on (if memory servers) ‘The Sky Chief’ that took us from Los Angeles to Chicago.  A train change to the Boston & Oriel headed to Boston took us closer to friends and family we left behind.

We were flushed on our way to Boston and ate in the dining car every evening, changed into our comfy clothes downstairs in a huge room and spent days in the observation car. I loved it and I think that was the beginning of my love affair with trains.  

Years later while in Australia friends and I took the train from Perth to Sydney where again, we slept on the train, stopped off  (sometimes in the middle of the night) just to visit out of the way (Kilgoorlie) places along the Nullarbor Plain that we wouldn’t normally see.

I’m ready to across this country by train once more. So my natural inclination to hop aboard “The 20th Century” and let it take me wherever comes with my past history and love of trains.  I was not at all disappointed.

My fantasy is to travel on the Orient Express, but that seems out of the question. The next best is to look in on the luxury train (yup fictional 20th Century) traveling from Chicago to New York with a group of mostly eccentric characters.

Sean Murray and Eileen Bowman
Not in any particular order they include the bible thumping Letitia Primrose (Melinda Gilb), a high profile theatre producer, Oscar Jaffe (Sean Murray) who is trying to climb back to the top of his game and Hollywood star, Lily Garland (Eileen Bowman) his one time lover.

She’s had it with Jaffe and if fate woud have it, she never wants to see him again. She and he were an item at one time and now she has a new squeeze Bruce (Michael Cusimano) whose macho moves are a riot. He has a slapstick shtick right out of an Abbot and Costello movie with doors slamming into him that had me laughing out loud.

Sean Murray, Melinda Gilb, Melissa Fernandes and Steve Gunderson
Jaffe’s two sidekicks are Olive Webb (Melissa Fernandes) and Owen O’Malley (Steve Gunderson). When they are not bumbling or bumping into each other they are sharing a flask of whatever, in frustration over what to do about their boss.

Characters come and go with plans to reunite the couple. The goal is to get Lily and Jaffe back together again in some sort of a win-win situation as plots thicken and then fizzle. Jaffe is broke and needs Lily more than the other way around.

Strong support in performances come from the large ensemble including Brian Bayville, Trevor Cruse, Samantha Wynn Greenstone, Luke H. Jacobs, Amy Perkins, Drew Bradford, Debora Wanger and Morgan Carberry.

The one thing that remains constant is the amount of talent assembled on the small Cygnet stage under the deft direction of Sean Murray who still has the chops to bring the house down and the melodramatic were with all to keep us entertained as the come from behind loser to the take charge producer.

As his partner in crime and no wallflower, Eileen Bowman’s Lily takes a backseat to no one. She’s funny, gifted with a voice that’s second to none and she’s beautiful ta boot. She’s handful for Jaffe as every plot and plan he tries to seduce her just about ends in disaster for him. But please, don’t feel sorry for him.

Eileen Bowman, Sean Murray and cast
There is much more to this train-wreck of a story that makes “On The 20th Century” a trip worth taking. Sean Fanning’s set design of the luxurious Oriental Express with all the accouterment is to die for. Now that’s what I’m talking about.

The glitter, the drawing rooms, the narrow hallways and the huge drop curtain that gives us a picture of the outside of the train that comes down with the production numbers fills the entire stage. When the curtain rises, the cast can be seen on the inside looking out the windows and when the story resumes a cut-a way takes us to the inside of the train. It's all very well done.

Between Chris Rynne’s lighting, music director Terry O’Donnell and his band, Blake McCarty’s projections and Dylan Nielsen’s sound design this luxury liner is one eye -popping beauty. Add Jeanne Reith’s perfect period costumes, David Brannen’s choreography and a cast of all stars and you have one big celebration.

All Aboard. Ya hear now!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through April 30th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Phone: 619.337.1525
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 4040 Twiggs St. San Diego, CA 9210
Ticket Prices: Start at $31.00
Web: cygnettheatre.com
Venue: Theatre in Old Town

Photo: Ken Jacques

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

‘Travels’ Charms at North Coast Rep.

Graham Green’s novel “Travels with my Aunt” adapted by Giles Havergal is currently in a charming production at North Coast Repertory Theatre through May 14th

It’s an odd duck of a play with four characters (once again) representing at least 27 different types, yet all represent Henry Pulling at one stage or another in his life. Henry is the nephew of the notorious (ahem) ‘Aunt Augusta’ as in “Travels With My Aunt”.

They are identified in the program as Actor 1, Actor 2, Actor 3 and Actor 4. And while they are all dressed identically in black bowler hats, black suites with black vests, white shirts, stripped tie and black tie shoes, they somehow morph from distinct to interchangeable Henry’s to not so clear others with the blink of an eye, a change in tone, an accent, a gesture or a look. Elisa Benzoin is credited for costume design.

The four, James Saba, McBean, Richard Baird and Benjamin Cole play Henry’s adventures out like a well- tuned musical instrument. It’s delightful, amusing and if need be can be fairy dusted with some intrigue. But fear not, it is simply entertainment for those willing to sit back and follow the dots. Executive director, David Ellenstein and his talented cast do the rest.

David McBean, Richard Baird, Benjamine Cole and James Saba
Giles Havergal’s 1989 adaptation of Graham Green’s 1969 novel is an unforgettable romp for dear Aunt Augusta’s straight-laced and retired banker nephew when she finally meets up with him at his mother’s funeral. Before he can water another dahlia (he grows them) Augusta, his free -wheeling, no holds barred aunt invites him to her place for a drink “I have everything we require.”

She forgot to mention her body servant “I call him Wordsworth because I can’t bring myself to call him Zachary.” “Is he your valet?” “Let me say he attends to my wants.”

To Henry’s surprise Wordsworth also lets Henry know that he makes “jig-jig” with Augusta. Now that may be one for the book. Other characters that show up on their travels include an Italian war criminal, a CIA operative and his flower child daughter, a few police operatives, a Mr. Visconti and a Colonel Hakim to name a few.

Henry and Augusta travel from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express to her final destination in Paraguay where she is reunited with a former lover, Visconti. He was a war criminal and swindler who now is happy just being a smuggler. With each stop along the way another episode or event is revealed until we reach South America Aunt Augusta final destination.

It is on these travels Henry learns of her romantic escapades, ones she wears on her sleeve like a badge of honor. The further they travel the further away from his boring existence he becomes. For Henry, life was dust jacket and now it is one adventure after another. With each event Henry comes more inquisitive about how the other half lives.

The acting is simply outrageous in a wonderful way. James Saba (we should see more of him on stage) carries the weight of his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta and changes in a heartbeat back to Henry. The two are polar opposites in the beginning but as they begin their travels and more of her past is revealed, Henry is finally a believer.

David McBean is hilarious as at least three of the women, a German, an Italian and a young girl. He plays no less than 10 characters and each one is right up his alley.

Richard Baird is impressive as Wordsworth the large African from Sierra Leone whose love for Augusta is endless. He also plays Mr. Visconti and Colonel Hakim. All have accents of one ilk or another and he succeeds. He too plays 9 characters in all and each one is distinct from the other.

Benjamin Cole plays about five or six different characters. Two are non -speaking. His presence is always felt in one way or another. He may have a special look, move some props, act as a detective or police or just stand and look out at the audience.  

Marty Burnet's simple blue toned set with a few benches, some built in shelves along blue walls give the actors room to go about their business. Some of the shelves swing open to store whatever props  (Andrea Gutierrez) might be needed. Three large framed picture openings are used to provide an extra visual with Aaron Rumley’s beautiful projections. Melanie Chen’s sound design and Matt Novotny’s lighting design complete the picture.

“Travels With My Aunt” might even get some of us thinking about becoming more adventuresome even if Aunt Augusta isn't in the room. Have fun with this one.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through May 14th
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 858.481.1055
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, Solana Beach, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $46.00
Web: northcoastrep.org

Photo and Projections: Aaron Rumley

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Playing "Othello" in Globe’s “Red Velvet

There’s an irony that doesn’t go unnoticed in The Globe’s current production of “Red Velvet” by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Stafford Arima now playing through April 30th on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage.  

African American actor Ira Aldridge’s success as leading man in Shakespeare’s “Othello” is on trial here. Audiences will be privy to see and feel the full impact of the playwright’s reimaging of his story as played out beginning in Lodz Poland and ending back in Lodz in 1867. The story travels back to a time in 1833 when Aldridge (a commanding Albert Jones) was at the pinnacle of his success.  

Both agony and ecstasy are framed in a most profound way, with all the players in tact before our eyes, as Aldridge’s journey takes us on his short lived Covent Garden performance to ‘his decline and failing health.
Backstage in Lotz, Poland
It would take two hundred years after a white actor in blackface first performed Shakespeare’s “Othello” (1604) that the first African American, Ira Aldridge would take the lead as The Moor in London’s Royal Theatre in1826.

Before that he distinguished himself as a successful Shakespearean Actor and one of the mot accomplished American actors of the 19th century on foreign shores even though he was born in the U.S. At 17 he decided to move to England where race, he thought wouldn’t hinder him as much as it would in own country.

Aldridge was successful right up to that point. He performed as the leading man in “Macbeth” and “Richard III and even as Shylock all wearing light makeup and a wig. David Israel Reynoso's costumes are lush and colorful and class appropriate. They are enhanced by Jason Lyons lighting as is the entire production.   

It was a perfect storm: It was 1833 and Shakespearean actor Edmond Kean, the quintessential white in black face Othello, was unable to perform his usual role due to a fall. His son Charles Kean, a comically tragic and petulant figure, (John Lavelle) thought the role should automatically go to him.

Producer Pierre Laporte (Sean Dugan), a good friend and supporter of Aldridge offered him the part making this the first time a black actor would actually play a black character. After all, Aldridge had performed Othello to audience acclaim.

All this sounds wonderful and good except for his fellow actors appearing on stage with him. The reality was that a black actor upset the balance of their neatly organized troupe of performers including his leading lady Ellen Tree/ Desdemona (Allison Mack). But as a professional and one who seemed to have be taken with Aldridge, she was willing to go along with his new method of acting.

Cast of "Red Velvet"
We in turn see the rehearsals (he had one day to rehearse) and the actual performance of the ‘handkerchief’ scene played out over and over again. Unfortunately, his particular art of realistic acting (he is accused of bruising her arms among other more racial charges) as opposed to a more stilted was his undoing.

After his performance at Covent Gardens in 1833 to play the jealous lover in Shakespeare’s tragic “Othello”, reviewers in London not used to seeing an actual African American ‘manhandling’ a white woman, tore him apart. 

Heads were scratched, newspaper reviews were kept from the actor, he and Laporte argued back and forth (much too long) about the right thing to do etc., etc.

Albert Jones and Sean Dugan
They squabbled about his going on again. Their friendship was at stake and on the brink of dissolving, when the reality of the bad reviews hit the fan and the theatre that had never had a dark night due to lack of audience members, was forced to close temporarily.

To say the least, the reviewers were vicious against him even referring to him as a Ni****. He was forced to go back out on tour again, where he was favorably received in Ireland, Berlin, Stockholm and Brussels to name a few

Reconstructing history can be a tricky business. For the sake of agreement that Ms. Chakrabarti’s research and notes are as accurate as possible, “Red Velvet” is plush with images of backstage theatrical shenanigans, family infighting, theatre rehearsal halls, salons of the theatre’s famous and infamous and dressing rooms some with bare necessities others fully realized. (John Sherwood).

The play begins backstage on Lyon's dimly lit canvas with dressing table, chaise lounge and large trunk, when two young people barge on to the scene and begin blabbering in German for what seemed like an eternity.

This or may not have happened. For this reviewer, it matters not. It went on much too long and was too loud. The only significance yours truly found was the agony Aldridge felt on the way down (1867) as he applied whiteface makeup and dressed for his King Lear entrance.

Allison MAck and Albert Jones
In comparison, one couldn’t help notice the ecstasy and excitement in his preparation for “Othello” at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London back when he made his first entrance as the mighty Moor, short lived as it was.

Arima has filled Chakrabarti’s play with wonderfully colorful characters with competent actors to fill those shoes. Most are on top of their game. Listening in on the backstage gossip is part of the fun and angst the actors share about their other acting performances.

Standing out is Mark Pinter’s Terence, Aldridge’s servant and Bernard Warde one of the actors on the set. Amelia Pedlow’s convincing yet rather na├»ve Margaret Aldridge and annoyingly attractive actress Betty Lovell fit the bill. Local talent Monique Gaffney is perfect as the lone observer Connie the Jamaican servant who hears all but tells nothing.

And then of course Albert James is commanding as Ira Aldridge, the arrogant, magnificent, condescending, and beautiful and overbearing actor. My one objection is his over top shouting. Necessary? Don’t know but it didn’t impress.  His acting is brilliant and under different circumstances, I could watch him act all day.
Albert Jones and Monique Gaffney
My criticism of the play doesn’t rest with the ensemble. The play itself is a mixed bag. Distractions abound. The many accents of the characters are off-putting. Obscure funny lines elicit laughter from the audience. Yours truly either missed out on the fun or didn’t hear what was so funny. Parts are sketchy and underwritten and the long scene between Aldridge and Laporte seemed unnecessary.

What most impressed in this history lesson was the attitude, the camaraderie, the jealousy and the yes, the cruelty. 

In case you happen upon productions of “The Ira Aldridge Players” under the direction of Calvin Manson, don’t pass up the opportunity to catch their shows. Manson has been active in the San Diego community for over 40 years and has been on and off producing shows here.  Keep your eyes peeled.

For more detailed theatre history enjoy “Red Velvet”

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through April 30th
Organization: The Old Globe
Phone: 619.234.5623
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way,
Ticket Prices: Start at $29.00
Web: theoldglobe.org
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
Photo: Jim Cox