Wednesday, August 30, 2017

“The North Plan”: Another Fearful Moment in History, Farce or No Farce.

Following on the heels of Ion’s successful run of “The Ballad of Emmitt Till” by Ifa Bayeza, based on the true accounting of the deliberate and race based lynching and ultimate death of young (14) Till in 1955 Mississippi, when the country was at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, The Ion's are prodding us again with another look at what some might call a different type of uprising.

Now through Sept 9th Ion Theatre is presenting the San Diego premiere of “The North Plan”. It is Jason Wells’ 2012 part tongue in cheek -part politically shrewd enough to send shivers up your spine play about a government takeover by hostile forces.

The play has just enough truth, innuendo and ambiguity in it, by today’s standards, to frighten the bejeezus out of most theatregoers given the political implications and atmosphere in this current administration… and it was written years earlier. Perhaps Wells saw something we failed to see or perhaps it was overlooked in our own zeal to forget the past and move on.  
Daren Scott, Samantha Ginn, Tina Machele Brown
The play opens to our listening in to a host of vulgarities coming from a holding cell in the back room of a local police station in the small Missouri town of Lodus. It’s a small sliver of space held together with mesh wire on one side, a locked and chained door in front and the concrete walls of the building on the side and back. There’s a door leading to a corridor and the Chief’s office. (Jonathan Gilmer)

The loud and foul motor -mouthed prisoner ranting about her husband, the one that tried to drown her is Tanya Shepke (an excellent Samantha Ginn). Her rants go on and on about her kids who might now be taken away from her, and who may have to live with her reviled in-laws, and her work and her this and her that. She’s sober now, slept off her drunk and why is she still here?

Unfortunately for her she turned herself in for driving under the influence (because she’s a good citizen or she was afraid of being pulled over?) and lo and behold she had some outstanding warrants, ergo the cuffs and dismissal of her rants by administrative assistant Shonda Cox (Tina Machele Brown).

Shonda, an African-American deputy caught in the middle of a complex situation, is sitting on a folding chair reading a pre-law textbook and taking notes. Shonda, we learn, has no opinion and no answers for Tanya; she’s just a law enforcement placeholder.

Tina Machele Brown, Don Loper, Daren Scot and Samantha Ginn
After a fashion Chief Swenson, (a calm, cool and collected Don Loper) pokes his head into the room informing Shonda that he will be putting a political prisoner, Carlton Berg (Daren Scott), in the cell with Tanya for a short while until Homeland Security comes to question, (Enhanced Interrogation) and then transport him to one of the camps set up for political suspects.

Berg, we learn  is a mid-level government employee that works for the State Dept. He just happened to stumble on a database of names and profiles of individuals and groups the government found to be enemies of the state.

It could have been in the McCarthy era and Communism, the Nixon enemy’s list and Watergate, or the one referred to as “The North Plan”.

In a short history lesson many of us of a certain age might have forgotten, and in broken sentences in an effort to explain to both Tonya and Shonda, (both too young to have even known about what is happening), he blathers on in detail dating back to the Iran Contra kerfuffle.

Then high- ranking Marine Officer Oliver North acting either on his own or in cahoots with other thugs in the Reagan White House, formed a shadow government to do the bidding of the US Government (like invade another country) if the our duly elected officials refused to take action. The plan would also authorize our government to round up anyone here considered to be a security threat, dissident or rabble-rouser.

Daren Scott and Samantha Ginn
According to Berg, it’s happening again; a shadow government is emerging. “They are arresting people. They are censoring the media.” In his mind ‘The North Plan’ in the form of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is alive and well and he has the evidence to prove it. His name is on the list, and so to the camps.

In an act of desperation, he begs Tanya’s help. With careful instructions on where the evidence he stored is located, and a bundle of money to her if the task is completed, he implores her to act ASAP.

Somehow when she is released, which will happen, she must come back and retrieve the computer without being seen by the Chief or Shonda and pass it on to a newspaper friend who will expose what Berg calls, the hostile takeover of our government. . (“Maybe it just looks like a revolution.” “Maybe there are smarter people than us working this stuff out right now.”)

And that’s in Act I, all 35 or so minutes of it.  

Back at the station we find Shonda behind a desk doing her work and almost on the verge of helping Berg out. She’s in between the devil and the deep blue sea because Berg convinces her that she may be on that enemies list as well.

In a turn about second act, two Homeland Security agents Dale Pittman and Bob Lee (Jake Rosko and Fred Hunting) in black suits (of course) come bursting into the holding area, eyes like deer in the headlights looking for Berg. Dah, he’s behind bars.

The two are like Heckle and Jeckle played with exaggerated cartoon like characters gripping drawn handguns, sweeping the back room as if someone is after them. Cartoon or not, just their appearance is enough to send both shivers and chuckles. (“Are we killing people?”)

Somewhere else lurking in the building, Tanya is tiptoeing about eyeing a way to get to Berg’s computer. Looking altogether different in another set of clothes, some might call an outlandish looking outfit (Mary Summerday), with a cloth bag big enough to hide whatever she has in mind to hide, she manages to go unseen for a while.

The Chief lumbers in occasionally to reassure us that he is the more stable of all the characters and justice will be served in his own time and his own way.

Don Loper and Daren Scott
Aiding and abetting all this crazy political suicide is director Isaac Fowler. Lucky for us he has an eye and an ear for both glib and reality while keeping us pinned against the wall fidgeting and wondering how this will all play out.

Armed…oops, with an outstanding and completely committed (operative word) cast, “The North Plan” couldn’t be in better hands than with Samantha Ginn as the over the top foul-mouthed eccentric, who has always shown her versatility as “Sylvia” the dog in the play of the same name and Charlotte Corday in “The Revolutionists”.

She takes Tonya to higher places both physically and in tone in creating a character like Tonya. We can laugh at her stupidity and yes ignorance, yet there is a vulnerability about her. Ginn takes the prize home for her superb performance.

Both Jake Rosko and Fred Hunting are a hoot as they flounder around in incompetency trying to nail Berg. Some of the funniest capers involve the two men, especially Hunting’s Bob, and his complaints of being second fiddle to Dale rather than being co equals.

Don Loper and Tina Machele Brown, both in law enforcement but having different places in the history of it all, give solace that at least one will prevail and on the side of justice.

Daren Scott is thoroughly believable as the sought after and hunted. While some of the initial give and take repartee in the beginning might have been toned down for the audience to grasp the why of his plight, his complete emersion in his character gives cause to the reality of it all then and now.

With calls of fake news and downright lies coming from this White House, who knows if there is say a “Bannon Plan” plan in the works we don’t know about? 

Wells’ play has its moments of serious disbelief, but Fowler keeps his cast focused and that proves to be a plus for the overall production, as dauntingly funny and outlandish as it might be. Are there over the top moments? Yes. Does the second act devolve into chaos? Yes, but keep your eye on the bouncing ball.

Two phrases come to mind and they are not original by any means:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, (George Santayana). 

“Many a true word is said in jest” (Shakespeare)


See you at the theatre.

 Dates: Through Sept. 9th
Organization: Ion Theatre
Phone: 619.600.5020
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 3704 6th Avenue, San Diego, CA92103
Ticket Prices: $35.00
Photo: Daren Scott

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

“The Explorers Club” At Lamb’s is an Exploration Into The Art of Zaniness

If you’re tired of all the political news these days, try a bit of fun with Victorian politics, for a change. Lamb’s Players Theatre’s “The Explorers Club” now playing through Sept. 24th in beautiful downtown Coronado is not only a change of pace from the usual it’s farce plain and simple.

Picture this: You are living in Victorian England. You are a woman. You are a scientist and you make a miraculous discovery. You bring your discovery, ‘genuine warrior’ Loo-ah-JA-mweno-wepa-nefsmat-naa’rusengway (his name roughly translates “To Strike Without Warning and Waters the Ground with Your Blood) from the NaKomg tribe, the lost tribe of Lost City of Pahatlabong, to the lounge of the gentlemen’s Explorer Club.
 Fran Gercke, Omri Schein and Paul Eggington
The club is made up Lucius Fretway, a botanist and scientist, Harry Percy an explorer, Professor Cope, a herpetologist, Professor Walling, a zoologist, Professor Sloane an archeo-theologist, and Beebe, another explorer.

That they are all so stuffy and full of themselves doesn’t stop them from falling all over themselves, even though they vehemently oppose women in the ‘club’, by welcoming Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jessica John) a female anthropologist into their sacred space.

It piques their interest as long as she can tell them about her find and the fact that she will be having an audience with the Queen introducing Liugi (John Rosen) to Her Majesty. After that she is relegated to another part of the lodging.

Jessica John, John Rosen and Fran Gercke
It's incendental that Luigi’s skin color is a pale blue, his hair in blond braid, that he speaks an imaginary language (think of the Native American’s in Cowboy and Indian movies) and seems understand everything going on around him. Everyone in the club stares, but are completely taken in with her rare find. 

He eventually shows that he can mix drinks in the absence of their not so skilled missing bartender, Roger and can throw a wrench into the most somber of ceremonies, like meeting the Queen and whacking her over the head.

This sets into motion a visit from Sir Bernard Humphries (Brian Salmon) Queen Victoria’s private secretary, “Things do not look good for The Explorers Club.”

L. to R. Brian Mackey, Fran Gercke, Omri Schein and Ross Hellwig
 “The Explorers Club” by Nell Benjamin is silliness personified, poking fun at Victorian (1879) manners, misogyny, male superiority and the downright stuffiness and boorishness, albeit gleefully silly, of its male characters.

If you leave your troubles outside the door and get into the ridiculousness of it all you can enjoy some fine acting by Jessica John, Fran Gercke, Brian Mackey, Omri Schein, Paul Eggington, John Rosen, Ross Hellwig, Charles Evans, Jr. and Brian Salmon.

To go into a long explanation of each of their idiosyncrasies would be just as silly as the idiosyncrasies themselves, but here’s a sampling:

Sloan (Paul Eggington) is an archeo-theologist or Biblical Scientist.
He has been tracing the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel for some time now concluding that they were invaded by the Assyrians and sold to slavery and never mentioned again in the bible.

His assumption is that they went to Ireland bringing with them the Ark of the Covenant.  He thinks the Irish should be relocated to Palestine. Now he’s on a mission to raise money from the Irish Society to find the Ark on The Hill of Tara, or Torah! That in turn causes a small riot outside the explorers club.

Then there is Percy (Ross Helleig) the explorer, who claims to be the first to step foot on the East Pole (you know as opposed to the North and South) and is now in search of the West.

He’s been AWOL for so long that Fetway has assumed his role as president of the club. He just happens back on the scene looking much like a character out of Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. R. Brian Mackey, Omri Schein, Fran Gercke and John Rosen
Oh, yes, he did have a role in that one as he breaks out in song with the rest following. It’s one of the funniest as opposed to give me break moments in the show.

The shy botanist Fetway (Fran Gercke) falls head over heels for Phyllida as soon as he comes face to face with her. He develops a new plant and dedicates it to her. Then he proceeds to makes cigars from the leaves of the Phyllida venusti. He claims the leaves cause euphoria when inhaled.
Fran Gercke and Ross Hellwig
Cope (Brian Mackey) is a herpetologist who has discovered an especially poisonous cobra. He wears it around his neck like a fine piece of jewelry.    

Omri Schein is Professor Walling. He is a zoologist studying the intellectual abilities of guinea pigs. He discovered that they have enough intelligence to open the latch of their cages. He’s still looking for the ‘ones that got away’.

Director Robert Smyth has assembled a terrific cast to portray each of his off -kilter characters. Keeping the pace on fast track is a challenge but with the jokes and gags about each respective member it’s enough to recover from one and move on to the other.

John Rosen as Luigi
One especially mouth dropping caper is when Luigi serves up brandy for the men and slides the drinks off the bar with lightning speed into the waiting hands of a ‘soul brother’ and cheers and applause from the audience. 

As the only woman to gain entrance to the club, Jessica John, beautiful as always, manages to upset the apple cart especially when she comes back as her twin sister, the Countess Glamorgan, and once again keeping the men off balance.

John who plays Phyllida with as much amusement as she played the luring and alluring Marquise de Merteuil in “ Les Liaisons Dangereuses” earlier this year, sets this whole bit of nonsense into motion. Looks like the beginnings of a lucrative career.  

Jeanne Reith’s period costume designs are up to her usual par and Mike Buckley designed one of the best sets ever constructed on this stage; it’s outstanding. He also set the bar for lighting.

Credit Rachel Hengst and the Natural History Museum for the many props (animal skins) hanging on the walls, stuffed animals in glass displays and masks of different tribes.  Deborah Gilmour Smyth is cited for the sound design and Jordan Miller, fight director.     

Call it a romp, call it a farce, call it silliness, it’s fun none-the-less.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Sept. 24th
Organization: Lamb’s Players Theatre
Phone: 619.495.3066
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 1142 Orange Ave.
Ticket Prices: Start at $24.00
Photo: Ken Jacques

Sunday, August 20, 2017

‘With Just One Look’ “Sunset Boulevard” Pitches Into High Gear At Moonlight.

Sunset Boulevard is an icon in the minds of Angelino’s. It’s a destination and a place. Everyone wants to say that they have been there. To Norma Desmond, the faded fictional silent screen star of “Sunset Boulevard” it is home on however may acres her chateau sits, as she waits for Cecil B. DeMille to tap her for her next big leading role.   

“Sunset Boulevard” the musical hit the Broadway stage in 1994 after giving Los Angeles audiences a first look (why not?). This San Diegan happened to be in the audience as well.

Valerie Perri as Norma Desmond (Adriana Zuniga Photography)
It starred Glenn Close.  Everyone went gaga (not that one) over her. She won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award and she and the production racked up a few Tony’s.  At the time, this reviewer found the star elegant, her singing voice not up to par and the musical, not to be compared to the movie, overrated.

It came back with gusto to San Diego (San Diego Playgoers, now Broadway/San Diego) in 1999 with Petula Clark as Norma. Happily, she had the voice and range to pull off Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. (Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book and lyrics) While Close had the class and Clark the voice, the musical incarnation is still static.

“Sunset Boulevard” is based on the 1950 Billy Wilder noir movie starring movie legend Gloria Swanson as the fading, bitter and out of touch with reality silent movie star, Norma Desmond.

William Holden played Joe Gillis, the down and out cynical screenwriter turned gigolo at Desmond’s bidding because of his precarious state of being broke and out of work. Gillis acts as the narrator retelling the story in flashback.  

Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista has revived the show, mostly an adult audience show, for a three week run. It plays through Sept. 2nd.

Valerie Perri (Photo by Adriana Zuniga Photography)
The production has gusto and some fine acting and outstanding looking sets provided by Music Theatre of Wichita. The good news is that director/musical staging wiz Larry Rabin has Valerie Perri in the role of Norma.

She is the best of the show with chops to prove it and the acting skills to believe it. When she belts out “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” the shivers crawl up your spine.

And those costumes (Renetta Lloyd, Carlotta Malone and Roslyn Lehman) she swishes about in, are tailor made for a Norma Desmond star quality actress. R. Johnny Fletcher, Norman Large, Robert J. Townsend and Valerie Perri (Photo by Adriana Zuniga Photography
The show opens with actual footage from the film and puts us first at a crime scene with a drowning man, arms and legs spread-eagle face down, still dressed in street clothes, in Norma’s pool. It then segues to the gates of Paramount Studios with Joe Gillis running from the bill collectors. They want his car. We then segue back to a car chase around the infamous and dangerous Sunset Boulevard curves that land us back in Desmond’s driveway at 10086 Sunset Boulevard just around one of those curves.

 It is here that we see Gillis’ (Robert J. Townsend) tire blowing out in his 1946 Plymouth convertible.  He’s forced to hunker down there since the creditors want his wheels and he’s on the lam.
Norman Large and Robert J. Townsend (Adeiana Zuniga Photogeaphy)
After a brief, yet bizarre scene showing Norma mourning over a dead chimp, Gillis and Norma form a rather hostile alliance where she demands he stay at her home and help her rewrite a script she has penned. It’s for her grand return to motion pictures. 

After a bit and some coaxing from her man butler, (more on him later) Gillis does everything for Norma from pet sitting to lover as she plans her comeback.

The favors are returned in kind: She replaces his car with the much sought after Isotta Fraschini, buys him outfits in the latest fashions he will never need but to be on her arm. (“The Lady’s Paying”)  In essence he becomes her paid companion and in scene after scene she depends more and more on him while sinking deeper and deeper into a place one never wants to go.

For Townsend, in fine voice and playing second fiddle to Perri, his character is stymied until he meets up with the young, perky and bouncy Betty Schaeffer (Katie Sapper)  (“Boy Meets Girl”, “Too Much In Love to Care” and  “Sunset Boulevard”). When Norma discovers his relationship, well, the -you -know what hits the fan.

Most of the action takes place in Norma’s beautiful and elegantly, but dated furnished mansion (J. Branson) with a staircase for her to make her dramatic entrances and exits and with headshots of her that are bigger than life on easels and framed pictures placed around the living room.  

Valerie Perri, Robert J. Townsend and Norman Large (Photo by Adriana Zuniga Photography)
There is one big scene in the Paramount Studios (the place of her career comeback after silent movies with the 1949 Wilder film) with Campbell, Townsend, Perri and a large ensemble as Norma waits for DeMille to finish shooting a scene from one of his big biblical (‘Samson and Delilah’) movies to let her down gently as he rejects the script she wrote for herself and with Joe’s help.

Always in the background making sure that her every need is tended to is her major-domo/butler, Max von Mayerling (Norman Large), who in the movie is a creepy black clad overseer with a German accent. Large, who has also proven himself to have a gorgeous voice does not disappoint. (“The Greatest Star of All”, “New Ways To Dream”) He’s not quite as dangerous looking as much as concerned for Norma.
Katie Sapper and Robert J. Townsend 
John George Campbell plays a Cecil B. DeMille look a like that’s true to life. Other locals in the ensemble include among others, Debra Wanger, Luke Harvey Jacobs, Bethany Slomka, Lise Hafso and Evan White. 

Credit Jim Zadai on sound, Jean-Yves Tessier, lighting especially Norma’s dimly lit house, Kathleen Kenna makeup design, (Yes, it’s all about Norma) David Engel projections, and JD Dumas musical director with his twenty-one-piece orchestra bringing a crisp sound throughout the amphitheater.

Ms. Close has revived her role on Broadway this year. Go know? What goes around comes around. I’ll stick with Moonlight’s Valerie Perri.

If you are so inclined, rent the Wilder movie. It’s a classic.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Sept 2nd
Organization: Moonlight Stage Productions
Phone: 760.724.2110
Production Type: Musical
Where: 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $23.00
Venue: Moonlight Amphitheatre
Photo: Adriana Zuniga Photography and Ken Jacques