Where Words Fail

Bill Camp in Notes from the Underground: "I am a sick man. I am a wicked man."
  • Bill Camp in Notes from the Underground: "I am a sick man. I am a wicked man."

In one sense the best, in most others the worst of times. Throughout the county the level of performance has never been higher. You can expect competent acting in most local theaters. Two examples: Scripps Ranch, an erstwhile “community” theater, is fast becoming a regular stop on the critics’ beat; Moonlight Stage Productions’ radiant Ring Round the Moon, in Vista, was a personal favorite.

For the first time, the Critics Circle announced nominees for its annual Craig Noel Awards before the ceremony itself (listed at sdcriticscircle.org). Ordinarily, the maximum is five per award. In some of the acting categories, six became finalists — culled from bulging lists of eight or nine strong candidates (that Monique Gaffney didn’t make the cut for her outstanding performance in Gee’s Bend at North Coast Rep still boggles the mind). The performance bar has never been higher; the economic bar, never lower.

A current TV commercial says one in six Americans is “going hungry” — one in six. But instead of showing them, you see images of smiling faces and great heaps of food — puffy pizzas sliding off of a tray — and joy abounding, thanks to the Bank of America. There’s a disjoint between what you see and hear. TV wouldn’t dare show the homeless man I saw on Rosecrans, holding a cardboard sign that read, “If this recession hasn’t bit you yet, you’re an a-hole!”

The result in theaters: artistic timidity. Stage the familiar, the nonthreatening, the audience-stroking; show steaming pizzas, not famished faces.

In recent years, the line between entertainment and art has blurred. What emerges from a look back at 2010 are attempts to take audiences beyond safe themes and stock responses to the place where words fail and emotions brim — the attempts, in other words, at art.

Ion Theatre deserves an award for courage. They took over the old Sixth at Penn stage, converted it into a handsome, intimate space, and never once gave in to the Don’t Worry, Be Happy syndrome.

They opened 2010 at Diversionary with Hurlyburly. The word on David Rabe’s vortex of narcissistic males: if you stage it, they won’t come. Those who did saw one of the year’s finest productions. Francis Gercke played Eddie, an Omega male so self-absorbed he might implode. For almost three hours, Gercke sustained a manic intensity. As part of an outstanding ensemble cast, Karson St. John did an unforgettable monologue as Bonnie, a stripper who uses a balloon. She sums up the 20th Century with “Who does anybody know who is doing okay?” Even so, she adds, people shouldn’t be “pushing others out of cars.”

In its own space, among other impressive projects, Ion staged Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, with Deanna Driscoll and Jeffrey Jones. Like Rosina Reynolds and Richard Baird, who clicked on every imaginable cylinder in North Coast Rep’s Ghosts, Driscoll and Jones did remarkable tandem work (allegedly a box-office no-no, Ghosts was one of North Coast Rep’s best-sellers).

Cygnet Theatre once again demonstrated its versatility. They followed a rip-roaring version of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (said to be audience-unfriendly, it played to sold-out houses — we seeing a pattern here?), with its exact opposite: Noel Coward’s elegant farce Private Lives. Like the contrasting styles, the sets couldn’t have been further apart: Sean Fanning caked Sweeney’s brick walls with London soot; Andrew Hull opened Lives with a windswept French Riviera exterior, which looked permanent, then followed it with a posh Parisian flat filled with, what, 20 pillows, 50?

One of my favorite scenes last year happened during the scene change for Private Lives. When first performed back in the ’30s, the transition took place behind a curtain. Cygnet did it before our eyes: a cavalcade of pillows, tossed here and there, bouncing into place, piling higher and higher. In the age of minimalism — economic and artistic — it was a kick to watch old-time, scenic opulence accumulate, amazingly, in about ten minutes.

My love of musicals has been lifelong, but my respect for well-made ones grows every year: so many elements to integrate, so many people wearing hats you wonder which works better, collaborators (Rodgers and Hammerstein) or control freaks (Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse)?

The musicals of 2010 provided no answer. They had appealing ideas: a haunted lighthouse (Whisper House, Old Globe), New Orleans’ red-light district and the birth of jazz (Storyville, San Diego Rep), a life of Charlie Chaplin (Limelight, La Jolla Playhouse). But none had a halfway decent book. The stories were just transitions to the next song. And in some cases, you’d swear the score and the book met for the first time on opening night. Some needed more central control, others had too much, but they made one thing clear: in musicals, the story’s still the spine.

There were two local answers for musical success: have James Vasquez direct (he codirected Sweeney and helmed Title of Show, the four-handed charmer at Diversionary); the other, cast Steve Gunderson. He excelled — if I can remember them all — in Hairspray, Into the Woods, The Grinch, Sweeney Todd. To top it off, Starlight did a lively version of Suds, which Gunderson cowrote.

For its summer festival, the Old Globe hired a director at once in control and democratic. Adrian Noble, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1991 to 2002, staged two of the year’s most impressive productions: King Lear and The Madness of George III. In both, speech and action were one. There was never a sense, as so often in Shakespeare and “classic” theater, of spaces between the two: strange pseudo-pauses or false emphases. The cast for Lear performed as if every moment was brand new. Best overall staging I’ve seen of that great play.

The critics only award acting that originates in San Diego. Might have to make 2010 an exception. Tovah Feldshuh’s one-person show, Golda’s Balcony — about Golda Meir, fourth prime minister of Israel — practically hypnotized Old Globe audiences. Whether gray-haired and chain-smoking in a beat-up blue bathrobe or shedding decades in seconds, Feldshuh was masterful — not only as Meir but also in cameos (including a hilarious Henry Kissinger).

It will be equally impossible to forget another “touring” performance: Bill Camp as The Man in Notes from Underground at La Jolla Playhouse (based on the Dostoevsky novel and originally staged at Yale Rep). Barefoot on a snow-covered floor, wearing a headset mike, his face often projected across the rear wall, Camp began with the book’s first words: “I am a sick man. I am a wicked man. I am an unattractive man,” and then backed them up. He played all four seasons often, it seemed, at once: funny, confused, passive, angry, the later percolating into a massive eruption. In the end The Man took on the full hatred of the audience. He just stared back, as if he didn’t care, so long as your reaction was violent.

I’m always curious about what makes a great performance tick. As I watched Feldshuh and Camp (and Rob McLure playing Charles Chaplin in Limelight), I applied the Technique Test: pull back and check out the craft, find the hooks and stays in their strings of moments. See the actor. Impossible. They were so focused you couldn’t break yours.

Ditto Ruined at La Jolla Playhouse. I had read Lynn Nottage’s play before (it won the Pulitzer Prize in drama for 2009) but had no idea it could sting — or sooth — so deeply.

Civil war storms around Mama Nadi’s demilitarized bar/brothel in the Ituri rain forest. Somehow, with gunfire not far away, she accommodates miners, rebels, and soldiers of the Democratic Republic of Congo and provides relative safety for her girls. Then forces close in.

And somehow the play (and the excellent Liesl Tommy–directed production) managed to find positives amid convincing chaos. The ensemble cast was amazing, and the sound/score so integral it became clear only afterward that Ruined is also a musical with choreography, songs, and an ongoing, pulselike beat.

When you reach that place where words fail and emotions brim, sometimes it’s tempting to corral — and distance — your response with metaphor. So Ruined is about “survival” or “exploitation” or what the author calls the “war on women.” And it’s all these in triplicate, but so much more, and far more immediate. As with the Technique Test, it wouldn’t let you pull away. As the song goes, the play and production were far better than a metaphor can ever, ever be.

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Jeff Smith nails it again - as usual: "The result in theaters: artistic timidity. Stage the familiar, the nonthreatening, the audience-stroking; show steaming pizzas, not famished faces." Everyone sees this elephant in the theatre lobbies, but no one is willing to point it out! THANK YOU Jeff Smith -- THANK YOU ion theatre! sheesh! I'm beginning to agree with Jerzy Grotowski: (paraphrased) 'everyone's a performer and theatre has become superfluous'. I'm always enlightend by reading Jeff Smith's columns and articles -- theatre and history -- he digs deeply into his subject matter and gives us such great lessons about the play, the theatre, and even philosophical and sociological trends! The kinds of things theatre ought to be doing. Thanks for pointing out some great mind-expanding theatrical pieces that are fighting through the sludge of 'cuisine theatre' that has become accepted as 'cutting edge' - Jeff Smith: a thinking man's (and woman's) kind of theatre critic for our times - post modern and otherwise. Thanks!

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