Monday, October 30, 2017

“On Golden Pond”: An Early Valentine for the Young At Heart.

Whether we like it or not, it’s difficult not to be taken in by Ernest Thompson’s characters and their story in his play “On Golden Pond” now showing at the Welk Theatre in Escondido through Nov.5th.

Some might call it Welk’s swan song as it will be the last show produced at this theatre while renovations are being done to the 40 something year old lobby. This paricular show is being produced by Randall Hickman and Doug Davis’ Broadway Vista organization.

This is also the second time Hickman and Davis are dusting off this little gem. For yours truly it’s an early valentine for the young at heart and all the eternal romantics out there.   

The play ran on Broadway in 1979 for 126 performances and was later made into a movie in 1981 with Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn and Jane Fonda (Henry won an Oscar for his performance. Sadly he died shortly thereafter), you will have a chance to see it now, but because of its short run, get your tickets soon.

 “On Golden Pond” is the bitter- sweet love story between Norman (Lou Slocum) and Ethel Thayer ((Marilyn Wolfe). It’s a testament to their love, their devotion and their commitment to each other. Norman is a retired college English professor. They have returned to their cottage on Golden Pond in Maine, from Boston where they now live.
Marilyn Wolfe and Lou Slocum as Ethel and Norman Thayer
Every summer since their marriage forty- eight years ago, they spent the summers on Golden Pond. Norman fishes, reads and chats with the neighbors. Ethel picks blueberries and whatever else grows in the wooded area outside their cozy cottage. She bakes chocolate chip cookies and most of all she puts up with Norman and all his mishegas.

Ms. Wolfe is the perfect partner for Norman’s gruffness. She is perky, cheerful and understands her husband more than she lets on. “You know Norman, you really are the sweetest man in the world, but I’m the only one who knows it.”

The two sing to the loons (“Come here, Norman. Hurry up. The loons! They’re welcoming us back.”) that are there every summer and life is good.

But as we all know there are a few wrinkles in every life and we are about to relive them with this ageing couple coming face to face with their own immortality.  

The play opens at the lake house and on this particular summer Norman will be celebrating his 80th birthday and he’s scared.

He’s emotionally unavailable, stubborn to the core and rages with bravado. She tries to make up for it by both doting and disregarding. He loves fishing and the Boston Red Sox. This year though he’s rather pissed with the team. Coming from Boston, I get it. They can break your heart.

The last time he got excited about anything was when John Kennedy was elected President. She loves to look out at the Pond and coos to the loons. He checks out the classified ads to see if he can keep himself busy. They muse over long ago photos. Memories abound.

These past years however, she noticed that his memory was not as sharp as it had been in the past. It’s proven when, and in an emotionally disturbing scene he sets out to pick some berries. At her urging, just for him to be busy, he leaves with an empty pail. Shortly he returns with an empty pail because he forgot the trail and was frightened he would get lost.

 They enjoy each other’s company only as those who have shared a lifetime living that long together. She hovers, he’s crotchety and filled with bluster; she calls him an old poop and he ignores it.
Back row: Reese Castin, Torre Younghans, Doug Davis.
Front row: Marilyn Wolfe, Lou Slocum and Holly MacDonald
Their daughter is more of a ‘Mommy’s Girl’ than a ‘Daddy’s Girl’.  The relationship has not been a father and daughter love in in years.  Both are stubborn and each circle the wagons when they are together, which is seldom. “It seems like we’ve been mad at each other for so long…” “I didn’t think we were mad; I just thought we didn’t like each other.”(Norman)

When they learn that daughter Chelsea (Holly MacDonald) will be paying them an  ‘unexpected’ visit with her new boyfriend and his teenaged son, emotions run high and important changes happen over the course of this particular summer.

They happen because the friendship/relationship between the two leads, Norman and Ethel is so genuine, respectful and loving that it simply transcends any awkwardness that might otherwise get in the way.

They happen because life is about getting older and about being painful and because reconciliation and letting go is the natural order. They happen because love comes in waves, and often it hurts and children grow up and leave.

They happen because there are no guarantees in life and Norman knows that, as crotchety and absent as he may seem. They also happen because director Randall Hickman and his all around talented cast weave pieces of fragmented lives together making humble and fragile everyday folks whole, enough so that you really care about what happens to this family in the future.
Holly MacDonald and Marilyn Wolfe
When Chelsea, her boyfriend Billy (Torre Younghans) and his son young Billy (Reese Castin) arrive from California the Thayer household is turned upside down because young Billy is left to the care of Norman and Ethel so Chelsea and Billy, Sir, can vacation in Europe without the complaining of a 14 year old.  

After about a Nano second the youngster, who is taller than Norman, is taken under Norman’s wing and the two, no holds barred, form a friendship second to none or one that Norman has ever known.

They fish every day. Young Billy is given assignments of books to read and Norman turns into a mensch with a purpose even though he will deny it. Slocum’s Norman is absolutely, without a doubt perfect as a man in his twilight years holding on to his dignity the only way he knows how, with a good offense. 
Golden Pond
Both Slocum and Castin run away with the second act. Castin is just what the doctor ordered for Norman and he’s loving it, but don’t ask him to tell you. Younger folks have a way of putting a spring into the steps of their elders, and young Billy does just that for Norman.

Holly MacDonald’s Chelsea might be a clone of her father’s although she will deny it to her death. Her personality fits right in with his wisecracking and standoffish personality, hurt as it may. She even has some words for her mother in trying to describe why she never felt her mother was on her side.  “Life marches by, Chels. I suggest you get on with it.”

Doug Davis, the mailman has his Maine down-Easterner accent to the last broad ‘Ahs’ most of the time, and is quite funny as the boyhood boyfriend and historian of all the folks living on ‘the pond’.

After all the years and Chelsea’s divorce, Charlie still has a crush on Chelsea and their friendly repartee lends insight to their growing up summers on the pond.   

Torre Younghans’s Billy Sr. holds his own under Norman’s questioning and like it or not, he’s not going away. In fact when the couple returns from Europe they announce that they were married there. Since Billy is a successful dentist in California, Norman wants to know if he can get a discount on his dental work. Yup. That’s a typical New England sense of humor.

Thomas wrote “On Golden Pond” when he was 28. And most of his insights reflect the time and East Coast attitudes (He grew up in Maine) about religion and the Gentleman’s Agreement.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention overtones of anti Semitism and racial prejudice regarding what religions and colors were allowed to live on Norman’s sacred pond. Even that fact that Billy, Sr. was a dentist brought about a remark from Norman asking if he was Jewish.

I guess I’ll have to let that one go now that there are bigger fish to fry, unfortunately dating back to those times we thought we had overcome, only more blatantly.

Randall Hickman and Doug Davis built a cozy and attractive looking interior cottage with all the fixin’s. Jennifer Edwards does a fine job with the lighting and costumes provided by Broadway Theatre.

Billy, “Well how does it feel to turn eighty?”
Norman, “Twice as bad as it did turning forty.”

See you at the theatre.

 Dates: Through Nov. 5th, 2017
Organization: Vista Broadway Theatre
Phone: 888.802.7469
Production Type: Comedy/Drama
Where: 8860Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido, CA 92026
Ticket Prices: $20.00-$23.50
Venue: Welk Village Theatre

Photo: Broadway Vista Theatre

Saturday, October 28, 2017

“Hand To God ”: The Sock Heard ‘Round The Theatre World.

One could be impressed that the recent show now at The San Diego Repertory Theatre downtown, “Hand To God” is the most often produced in America.

Given the current political atmosphere and no holds barred attitudes, bigotry and misogyny, name -calling and disrespect for just about anything and everything; f- bombs, giving one the finger and outrageous goings and comings, I would have to say I’m not surprised. On the other hand I’m not impressed either.

Raves flow from the mouths of theatre goers in just about every city, state and theatre company about Robert Askins’ dark comedy featuring the puppet Tyrone denigrating anything in ‘his’ path from sex to religion to death of a loved one to bullying, to vulgarity to just plain “the devil made me do it” attitude.

“Hand to God” takes place in a church in Cypress, Texas in 1997 where Margery (an impressive De Anna Driscoll, “Quality of Life” and “Gamma Rays”), who recently lost her husband, is in charge of a puppet making class to help her through her difficult times. 

It’s certainly not unusual for churches and synagogues to use puppets in schools; we do it in my synagogue during children’s services as a learning tool. No objections here. 

In the opening scene, and there are about 12 short ones, when the voice behind the pulpit (he’s a puppet) begins his sermon: “In the beginning there was no divide. We were too stupid to be anything but what we were. When you had to sh*t . You just let it drop. It was a golden age.” 

It gets worse.
Tyrone looking rather harmless
These ramblings go downhill from there and end with blaming all the ills of the world, as we know them on the devil. Somewhere between obscenities and puppetry at its best, the message that things were better in the beginning when we had no rules is riddled with filthy talk and obscene behavior, for the sake of what, shock treatment? 

Color me out of that sermon.

Tyrone, the sock puppet in question seems permanently affixed to Jason’s arm or as some might venture is Jason’s id. That might excuse the volley of F bombs and anger that Jason is trying to hold back as Jason, the young man, who can’t seem to put the lid on Tyrone the puppet from going off the beaten track. His anger comes fast and furious but we learn that Tyrone is a demon, literally with a mind of his own and we’re off and running.  
Tyrone with Caleb Foote
Impressive, as in wowed, is the performance by the extremely talented young Caleb Foote who seamlessly goes back and fourth between the devil in Tyrone and the coming of age Jason’s dueling personalities fighting to either kill the beast off in opposition or for God’s sake, rip the damn sock off your arm and be done with it! We all might be better off for it.

In one of the best choreographed scenes of the play Jason and his crush Jessica (Christina L. Flynn) are on the playground and Jason, trying to play cool does the classic Abbot and Costello routine “Whose on First”. 

Now that was also impressive.
Christina L. Flynn with Jolene

Back at the church basement and the unimpressed the adults in the house and there are few, don’t hold back at all. They ramp up the hysteria to a fault when they learn that the runaway sock Tyrone, is the master or devil incarnate attached to the arm of 15 year old Jason, who can’t seem to reign him in.  They don’t have a clue either.  Exorcism didn’t work at all.

Margery has more to deal with than just the loss of her husband. Her son is out of control with a puppet that is also out of control. She too is heading toward ‘the out of control” category as we see soon enough.

Interference comes in the form of Pastor Greg (Jason Heil) and his attraction toward Margery, which is pathetic, ill timed and irreverent. Heil, (“Angels in America”, “Lion in Winter”) a seasoned actor in his own right looks the part, plays the pastor admirably, but from this point of view, it’s a thankless role. 

The more successful of the two after Margery’s heart (?) is the young, misbehaved and oversexed Timothy (Garrett Marshall) whose lust for Margery is obvious to everyone but the pastor who woos her with gusto.

When Timothy (whose mother is in rehab while he’s supposedly making puppets) and Margery do finally hook up it’s such a demeaning on the table -top quickie that yours truly felt embarrassed. 

All this, a few more obscenities and some high squealing from the balcony on opening had me willing my id to scream out loud, “Get me out of here!”
Garrett Marshall and DeAnna Driscoll
There are some plusses: Christina L. Flynn’s nerdy Jessica, another student in the puppet class, and her puppet sidekick Jolene are a breath of fresh air on some levels.  

On another, well… Jolene has plans for Tyrone and it doesn’t involve sermons. No, it’s all about puppet sex that’s so physically graphic that you almost forget they are puppets after all. The numbness is settling in.   

“Hand to God” premiered Off-Off-Broadway in 2011. From there it went to Off-Broadway and finally in 2015 it landed on Broadway. It opened in London in 2016. So fast up the ladder of success it is now making it to regional theatres and the SD Rep through Nov. 12th

Introducing it on opening night director Sam Woodhouse gleefully mentioned that it is the most produced show now running.

Praises go out to set designer Robin Roberts for her rotating church basement decorated in everything Jesus, Charlotte Devaux for her costume design, Trevor Norton, lighting design and his magic trick of on again off again fluorescent lights, Matt Lescault-Wood, sound design, George Ye as fight director and a hearty hand to puppetry consultant Lynne Jennings

There are some messages to be gleaned that come with the suffering of having to sit through some pretty rough and tough satire, blood- letting and shock treatment in the form of a sock treatment.

Most of us don’t take the devil may care attitude although we might want a Tyrone in our corner when the pedal hits the metal. Most of us are sympathetic to grieving widows and coming of age teens, and for what it’s worth, responsibility for self is of prime importance.
Tyrone the denom puppet and Caleb Foote's Jason trying to get rid of him.
‘The trouble with the devil is that you need him, then you need him to go the fu*k away’, 

As my theatre buddy assured, “Hand to God” is for those not in my age demographic. Hand to God he’s right.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Nov. 12th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Phone: 619.544.1000
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego, 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $42.00
Venue: Lyceum Stage
Photo: Daren Scott

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Best Laid Schemes “Of Mice and Men” Often Go Awry.

At the opening night performance of director Richard Baird’s striking vision of  “Of Mice And Men” at the North Coast Repertory Theatre through Nov. 12th, John Steinbeck’s Biblical parable was so intense you could hear a pin drop. 

Steinbeck, who wrote from his own experiences growing up in Salinas Valley doing farm work to help support him through Stanford University, first conceived “Mice and Men” as a play although it was written as short story.

“Of Mice and Men” is the tragic account of two itinerant ranch hands looking for work in Salinas, California during the Depression of 1937. They are diametrically opposite in personality and size but still cling together for companionship, protection mutual dependency and loyalty above all.
Nicholas Mongiard-Cooper and Jacob Sidney
Larger than life and baggy coverall clad Lennie (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper) loves to cuddle and stroke warm soft things like mice and rabbits, puppies and at the last ranch job, a woman’s dress. No matter how many times George (Jacob Sidney) reminds him, Lennie can’t keep his hands or himself from catching mice or wanting to pet a dog. “Trouble with mice is you always kill ‘em.”

The one thing Lennie doesn’t seem to understand is how strong he is. George does his best to look after Lennie, speak for Lennie and see to it that Lennie stays out of trouble but trouble follows as night follows day.

In casting Mongiardo-Cooper and Sidney, Baird’s visual couldn’t be more striking it if he tried. Mongiardo-Cooper’s size might just be enough to make anyone shy from him, especially after knowing his background. Yet his demeanor and speech only give away his mental instability not his physical strength.
Ted Barton, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Jacob Stanley
 But the contrast is so that it’s impossible to take your eyes off them especially when George, exhibiting a Napoleon complex, edges up to Lennie when he tries smooth over anything Lennie might have done to attract attention. Lennie, shying away pulls into his ample sized body fearing that he might get hurt. It’s almost too painful to watch.

We never see George strike him but reference is made to his doing just that in the past. Thankfully, Lennie’s simple mindedness and innocence doesn’t let that get in the way of his love for George and the American Dream they share. “When I think of the swell time I could have without you, I go nuts.”

It’s a pie in the sky notion, but it keeps the two bound together as Lennie probes George to tell and retell the story even though he knows it by heart. 

Steinbeck’s classic “Of Mice and Men” is like a magnet. No matter how often one sees it, new revelations cause aha moments and even the most seasoned theatre- goer cringes knowing of ‘the best laid plans’.  

Director Baird has assembled a gruff and gritty enough group of hands to maintain that comfortable feeling that each and every one of the hands belonged in that bunkhouse doing whatever it took get through the day.

In the bunkhouse, where most of the action takes place, few question are asked, the men go about their business as usual. They play cards and talk of the day’s work.

Coming and going is a way of life and Lennie and George fall in lockstep with Slim (J. Stephen Brantley, the mule- skinner), the ranch hand Wit, (Justin Lang) and the boss in charge (Ted Barton), whose bark is worse than his bite.  
Lawrence Brown, John Gereenleaf, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper
John Greenleaf’s Candy rings true as the ranch handyman after losing his hand in a work related accident and worries that his usefulness at the ranch will soon find its way to the boss. Wanting to hook up with Lennie and George, he reveals that he has money saved up to help the two move their dream along and is willing to overlook anything Lennie does to get out of Dodge.  

Max Macke’s Carlson stands out as cold and calculating ranch hand. His convinces Candy that he should shoot his sheep dog Sonny and put him out of his old age agony. With nudging every time the dog is in the bunkhouse he offers to do it for him.

Macke is a made to order Carlson. His off handed cruelness almost makes you shudder and when the gunshot is heard. It’s enough to want to cry.

In a room all to himself Lawrence Brown’s Crooks, the black stable hand, shows the most kindness after being startled by Lennie, in a moving scene where color doesn’t matter, intelligence is just word and humanity knows no bounds when he too wants to hop on the Lennie and George dream. He wants to go with them and work in the garden; the same garden that will grow the alfalfa for Lennie’s rabbits.

Brown’s award winning portrayal, seen recently as Cornwall in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars”, is revisited on his impressive depiction of the lonely and sympathetic Crooks; angry that some might be imposing on his space yet welcoming the chance to have someone close by.

Max Macke, Wallace Bruce,  Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper and J. Stephen Brantley
Curley, (Wallace Bruce arrogance and pent up anger lends credence to his place among the other men) is the boss’s son. He’s another small guy with big chip on his shoulders, jealous to a fault, he is always looking for a fight or his new wife (Sierra Jolene) who has a penchant for hanging out in the bunkhouse.  “He hates big guys…always scrappy.” “This Curley punk’s gonna get hurt if he messes around with Lennie.”

Curley’s wife, who remains nameless (even Candy’s dog has a name), brings about another cultural gap in the blatant misogyny and prejudice prevalent still, as some refer to her as the troublemaker or whore, is on the long list of the lonely and displaced. She continually breaks the rules by coming into the all men’s bunkhouse looking for something, someone; and it’s not her husband.

Sexy and seductive she plays the coy card and manages to attract Lennies attention. He looks at her goggle-eyed with fingers in constant motion and an almost childlike and awestruck way.  Lennie thinks she’s ‘real purty’

In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, the two sit together yet worlds apart while one fantasizes of rabbits and the other confesses loneliness. “Gonna get into movies.” “I’ll talk on the radio.”  “We’re gonna get out of here pretty soon…far away from here. ”
Jacob Sidney, Nicholas Morgiardo=Cooper and Sierra Jolene
In an assertive move to show how soft her hair is  she insists Lennie touch her long soft locks that in turn  sets into motion the highly charged and emotionally draining ending. Ms. Jolene is at her best in that last visit to the bunkhouse.

After Lennie strokes her hair she struggles to break free from his tight grip around her throat. To stop her from screaming out, and not knowing his own strength he strangles her and she falls to the floor  like a limp rag doll. Like all of Lennie and George's plans...

Another gunshot rings out marking the end of a troubled friendship bound together by loneliness and dreams.  George, the ever-faithful friend and brother, companion and protector  sets his companion free from the bonds that defined his life.

Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” opens on the sandy bank of the Salinas River. Two iterant workers filled with dreams of owning their own spread share their dreams and set their long trek into motion. It ends on that very same sandy bank of the Salinas River.

“Nobody ever gonna hurt nobody, or steal from ‘um. It’s gonna be nice.”

All hopes are dashed, Lennie is dead and George is just another drifter, alone.

With excellent technical support from Marty Burnett’s functioning, slatted bunk house with four bunks, a table and a few chairs, Matt Novotny’s excellent mood lighting, Aaron Rumley’s sound design, Andrea Gutierrez’ props and Elisa Benzoni’s well worn, stained and ruddy costumes, not to mention Baird’s insightful and fluid direction, Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” is another outstanding piece of work not to be missed.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Nov. 10th
Organization: North Coast Rep.
Phone: 858.481.1055
Production Type: Drama
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, St D, Solana Beach, CA 92075
Ticket Prices: Start at $49.00
Photo: Aaron Rumley