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San Diego's most memorable theater and classical music in 1979

Lazar Berman
  • Lazar Berman

A friend of mine (whom I will refer to — so as not to embarrass him — as Jeff Smith) is a nicotine addict and cannot go for long without a cigarette. At a recent dinner in the home of nonsmokers he held himself under control throughout the appetizer and main course, but before we got to the dessert he had to break away from the table and retire into the garden for a smoke. Smoking is not one of my vices — I have quite enough to handle without it — so that I was curious to know just what Jeff had experienced during this episode. In reply to my question, he spoke of the growing discomfort, the longing, the need — and then the lighting up, the inhalation of the smoke, the glow of well-being as the nicotine courses through the veins (or wherever it goes), the renewed sense of joy in being alive.

I recognized the syndrome for I had often experienced it myself, though not through the absence or presence of tobacco. I am an addict of great art, and I know all the symptoms of deprivation and all. the ecstatic pleasures of feeding the' habit. I can therefore identify with my friend and with his fellow addicts, though I recognize that I am more fortunate than they are in two respects. First of all, the Surgeon General has not so far determined that great art is injurious to one's health. And second, the lover of art has two sources of the stuff that will relieve his longing — reality and memory — while the tobacco addict cannot make do without real tobacco. Who has not seen (or been) a smoker riding desperately around town at three in the morning in search of a cigarette machine? Whereas I, if I cannot get the real thing, can simply open one of the spigots in my memory and the joy of the past experience will come flooding out, all the headier for having aged and matured.

At the end of this year, I find that my store of permanently available artistic pleasure has been enriched by a number of theatrical and musical events I have reviewed over the last twelve months. The number is not large — this is San Diego, after all, where support of the arts is extraordinarily feeble - but the few performances I treasure in my memory are as good as anything one could find anywhere.

The chief of these is the most recent: Russian pianist Lazar Berman's stupendous recital in the half-empty Civic Theatre. I have merely to mention the name to myself and my whole spirit and body are renewed, refreshed, and revivified, as though I were dissolving a wafer of ambrosia against my palate. What was especially wonderful about this concert was that, through Berman's playing, the spirit of Franz Liszt was for the first time revealed to me in all its glory. Like many serious music lovers I had always felt a certain contempt for this flashy self-dramatizer, with his emphasis on sensational effects and his lack of classical structure. Recordings — even those by Lazar Berman himself—had done nothing to change my mind; I had listened to the music as a spectacular background for more interesting thoughts or activities, never really paying attention to what the composer and the performer were doing. Ber..man's concert here changed all that: listening to his performances of Liszt, suddenly I knew what it was all about, and I responded to this quintessentially Romantic music with an aesthetic intoxication that quite astonished me. Going back to Berman's records — his Transcendental Etudes and his Années de pèlerinage — I heard just what I had heard at the concert, and I reacted in the same way, totally absorbed by a marvelous new experience whose possibility I had not even suspected On previous listenings.

Lazar Berman has not only left me with a memory I can feed on for years; he has introduced ~me to a whole new world of addiction, awakening longings I did not know I had. He has made me a born-again Lisztian, and like all people after a conversion experience I am filled with compassion for those unfortunates who missed this concert, or who went and had ears but would not hear ("Berman was all right, but what a terrible program: Liszt!"}. I hope that they will sit down with a Berman recording and listen to it attentively and with an open mind: in matters of this kind, it is never too late, and today's most violent anti-Lisztian may be swooning over Mazeppa or Funérailles tomorrow. Great art, like God, is always ready to accept the repentant sinner back into the fold.

Just as inspiring, though in a very different way, is , the memory of the Shakespeare Festival's Comedy of Errors this past summer. Ken Ruta's production of this early — and, on paper, unpromising - farce performed the miraculous feat of changing the setting (to a seedy, provincial Greek town around 1950) and updating all the characterizations while at the same time remaining absolutely faithful to the letter and spirit of Shakespeare's play. It was a production overflowing with superbly inventive comic stage business, which went along with dialogue spoken so as to bring out every nuance of wit and sentiment.

The spirit of this production — a spirit I can summon up, to my delight, with a flick of the mind — was revealed most perfectly in its final scene. The play ended, in Mr. Ruta's staging, with a general dance to euphoric bouzouki music. The lost brothers (two pairs of them) had been reunited, husband and wife had found one another, the father's life had been spared by generosity of the Duke, a marriage was in the offing, all identities had been straightened out, and all debts had been paid. Each of these elements was a triumphant manifestation of the life spirit, irrepressible in its tendency to unite, to renew, to extend and enhance itself. The dance that brought the play to a conclusion was a pure symbol of this spirit, bringing together all the diverse wills of the various characters into a rich, pulsating harmoniousness. What the dance expressed, above all, was joy — a joy implied by Shakespeare's text, fully realized by Mr. Ruta's direction, energetically embodied by the whole cast, and now a lasting possession of my own.

Lazar Berman made Liszt a source of joy for me, and Ken Ruta made The Comedy of Errors a source of joy — and in both cases it was a completely unexpected joy, like opening an oyster and discovering a pearl. Equally unexpected was the overwhelmingly grand production of Verdi's early I Lombardi alia Prima Crociata, offered to San Diego and the world by the San Diego Opera during their summer Verdi Festival. This opera has been generally characterized as a somewhat primitive work, hampered by one of the worst librettos in the history of Italian opera. But director Tito Capobianco realized that what Verdi gives us in I Lombardi is a series of intensely dramatic moments, valued for their revelation of the explosive essence of human passions and experiences. His production not only served the music well; it also taught me what to look and listen for, and how to understand this idiosyncratic work on its own terms. What Mr. Capobianco gave us was a series of fairly static tableaux — formal, powerful, beautiful in form and color, a flawless representation in space and light of what was happening in the music. And his cast — of whom the outstanding member was bass Paul Plishka — gave splendid aid to the director in convincing me, much to my suprise, that I Lombardi is a very fine opera indeed, one worth listening to — with the ears and with the mind again and again.

I Lombardi is about jealousy, patricide, and religious fanaticism — and it is one of the mysteries of art that these disagreeable subjects can form the basis for something so beautiful and gratifying. Is this analogous to the way hot, irritating smoke, filled with a poison, can give a nicotine addict the serene feeling that all is right with the world? The same mystery was certainly to be found — and even more impressively, because there was no music to ease the pain — in the Woman's Theatre Ensemble production of a play called The Killing of Sister George. The subject here was emotional manipulation and blackmail in a sadomasochistic lesbian couple, but playwright Frank Marcus succeeded in transforming this unpromising material into a very funny and very tender commentary on human vulnerability.

It is a strikingly good play, but what lingers in my mind even more than the play itself is the high quality of the acting in this production. As an intruder into the unhappy menage named Mrs. Mercy, Kit Goldman gave a performance remarkable for its consistency of style — very British, very condescending, with a sticky artificial amiability always poised on the brink of self-parody. The artificiality of the character was mirrored in the performance, which was highly mannered and stylized; but Miss Goldman also managed to suggest Mrs. Mercy's concealed reality, the core of coldness, hardness, selfishness, and emotional greed lying beneath the thick syrup of gentility and solicitude. Darla Cash played the younger member of the couple as all innocence, daintiness, and controlled infantilism, with tiny, brief — and all the more disturbing — touches that revealed the depth of the character's emotional illness. Most impressive of all was the "Sister George" of Priscilla Allen, with her wonderfully rich voice, her superbly expressive diction, her mastery of the large theatrical gesture and of the tiniest change of facial expression, her total comprehension of the character. Miss Allen's command of these technical and artistic powers in her interpretation of the role made of her performance as grandiose and as moving a theatrical event as any I have experienced in a decade of frequenting San Diego playhouses.

There are a few other such memories from this past year: Marcel Marceau, Andre Watts's performance of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto with the San Diego Symphony, the Passion Play in Old Town, Arthur Wagner's production of The Caretaker at the Cuter. Taken together, they make up for. all the boredom and disappointment of bad concerts, poor productions of opera, and bad plays badly performed, which are also — alas! — characteristic of San Diego cultural life. And the be'>! thing is that I have the joyous occasions with me at all times, and can enjoy them whenever I like. The next time I have dinner with "Jeff Smith," he may notice the way, at certain points in the meal, I become a bit abstracted, looking off into the distance, smiling just a trifle, and with a flush of health and happiness flowing momentarily under my beard. Having read this, he will know that I have — so to speak — gone out into the garden for a smoke.

Christopher Schneider, Reader Contributor

Some thoughts at the end of the year about theater I've seen in San Diego:

The very worst aspect of local drama in 1979 has been so-called quality theater. That's when you put on your nice suit or your nice dress and go to the big theater, where you sit very nicely with your hands folded in your lap and see something which you know in advance will be good, for you've heard for ever so long that the play is a classic, or at any rate lots of fun. You may have never seen it before, but the reassuring presence on stage of an actor or actress whom you know from television is enough to convince you that nothing too terribly unsettling will happen. You will have gotten your money's worth.

One of the best-known purveyors of quality fare has been James Niederlander, whose San Diego Playgoer Series uses the Fox Theatre. I've seen some good things there, particularly Ain't Misbehavin'. But Playgoer's principal criterion for choosing shows seems to be this: they must be well-known hits (or at least there must be several names involved in a production that are well-known to an average audience).

Ain't Misbehavin' had wit and vitality in sufficient quantity to spark its audiences to life. Among its virtues were the graceful sass of Fats Waller's songs, the furious jitterbugging of Andre De Shields and Charlaine Woodard (choreographed by Arthur Faria), the bonhomie of Ken Page {who was dressed like Waller and sang the songs with similar good spirits}, and the ample sensuality of' Armelia McQueen and Zoe Walker (who replaced Nell Carter at the performance I saw).

That an award-winning show in the Playgoer series happened to be exciting, however, was more an exception to the rule than the norm - an exception I hope will be repeated this spring with Zoot Suit. More typical of the Fox's line-up was the production of Neil Simon's Chapter Two. An unbearably bland affair starring David (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) Hedison and Barbara (Ironsides) Anderson, the show treated the mourning of a husband over his recently departed wife as an opportunity for self-actualization. It was a hearty contender for the Christopher Lasch Award for Acute Moral Sensitivity.

The Mission Playhouse is smaller than the Fox in the size of both its building and its budget, causing the management to rely upon local talent rather than importing big names and big productions. The Mission, too, however, suffered from the Quality Theater syndrome. The choice of plays this year was relentlessly tasteful. Consisting mainly of well-accepted classics from twenty or thirty years ago, which everyone knew that everyone knows and likes — plays such as William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life and William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba. The productions were frequently both respectful and respectable, with fine performances by people like Diane Sinor and Martin Gerrish (in Sheba), Franc Ross (in Sheba, Life, and The Bed Before Yesterday), Pamela Adams (in Vanities and Life), and Flora Richards (in Bed). But the somnolent atmosphere of well-fed complacency there was overwhelming. In the course of a year, it was enough to make me feel like calling out that the Revolution had arrived, or to jump lip and dance naked on stage, or to do whatever else might have been necessary to get a little life into the proceedings.

The onlv sort of theater that holds my interest is that which stimulates audiences, the sort that gives people something new rather than the same old thing. luckily. we can get it at the Marquis Public Theater, the San Diego Repertory Theatre, and the Second Avenue Theatre. Some of their productions this year may have appeared a bit ragtag on occasion, and from time to time one got the feeling that their ambitions exceeded their abilities, but you were more likely to have seen an intelligent and lively production at one of these three theaters than almost anywhere else in the city. The Marquis gave us Angel City; the San Diego Rep, Ladyhouse Blues and The Club; and the Second Avenue Theatre, the Women's Theatre Ensemble's production of Night of the Tribades. I'll take plays like these any day over mechanical atrocities like Same Time, Next Year at the Fox.

Why does hardly anyone take any chances around here? What I consider to be good theater suddenly seems revolutionary, given a climate in which the Marquis, which puts on works like The Threepenny Opera and Amahl and the Night Visitors, is described in Applause magazine as a home for the avant-garde. It's almost as if the public had to be protected from revelations in the theater. Local theaters have reminded me of those two aunts in Proust's Swann's Way, who would only give young Marcel copies of copies of great works: in San Diego we get Chekhov filtered through Neil Simon, and August Strindberg filtered through Per Olav Enquist. Given a choice between the nice and the good, too many theaters this year opted for the nice. Rather than giving us the real stuff, they gave us a genteel facsimile. Of course, it's easy to understand their motives, since genteel facsimiles are what fill the seats and pay the salaries, but that's no reason to approve of the practice. They opted for Quality; the only problem is that the quality, more often than not, has been ersatz. If only we wouldn't be satisfied with second best.

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