The sun, it was said, never set on the British Empire during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Its colonies were far enough flung that at least one was catching some rays every minute of the day. Playwright Caryl Churchill opens Cloud 9, now at Antaeus Theatre Company (through April 24), in the waning years of Queen Victoria's reign, when a complacent, patriarchal mindset was hastening the Empire's unraveling.
It would take longer for the repression of sexual identity and equality to unravel, but Churchill wants to link the legacies of imperialism and Puritanism and so she sets her second act when the play premiered, but has her characters age just 25 years. By the time the play opened in February 1979, it was clear that in May, Margaret Thatcher, head of the incoming party, would became Britain's first (and so far only) woman Prime Minister. That meant the two-act arc of Churchill's play about gender, power and freedom lay in the shadows of two towering women leaders. That the author's name recalled the most famous male leader who came between them was an interesting coincidence.
The ironies and inequities are easy to catch in Antaeus production, with alternating casts under Casey Stangl's direction. The cast reviewed here is John Allee, Gigi Bermingham, JD Cullum, Graham Hamilton, Adam J. Smith, Joanna Strapp and Laura Wernette. (The other cast is listed at right.)
Clive (Smith) is a colonial governor of a district in Africa. A familiar comic dimwit, his racism and sexism are completely ingrained. He patronizes his wife, Betty (Cullum), with even more condescension than he gives Joshua (Allee), a local whose assimilation out of his tribe has earned him the position of Clive's estate overseer. Predictably, Joshua is much smarter than Clive, and subtly manipulates his master.
What gives the play its sizzle is the way sexual desire, grown wild under blanket repression, seethes in every character. Even Clive's pubescent son Edward (Bermingham) is fired with an urge to satisfy Harry (Hamilton), a manly adventurer with men on his mind. In a Chekhovian roundelay, Betty lusts for Harry while her husband pursues neighborly Mrs. Saunders (Wernette) and the children's governess (also Wernette) attempts to seduce Betty.
By 1979 nearly all the pieces of the former empire have broken free and the characters, too, are experiencing new liberty. Though the vestiges of colonial rule and social restraints still weigh on them, things have improved. The biggest change is in Betty (Bermingham, who has swapped roles with Cullum), but the focus is on her children: Edward, his sister Victoria (a doll in Act 1 now played by Joanna Strapp, who was Betty's mother before intermission), and Lin (Wernette). Whereas Wernette's first act character failed to win Betty's affections, Lin, a single Lesbian with a rambunctious daughter (Smith), succeeds with Victoria (who is growing estranged from her husband (Hamilton). Meanwhile Edward is in a gay relationship with Gerry (Allee) that recalls Betty's marriage to Clive. Edward is now the sensitive and domestic one whose man remains distant and controlling. Together the three form a new kind of family.
Stangl has succeeded in keeping the crazy quilt of scenes and behavior on a fairly even keel. She is assisted by musical direction and sound design by Peter Bayne. It is a reminder of Antaeus' depth. The entire cast handles their roles well, but special kudos to Cullum and Bermingham for their stretches, and to Allee, whose singing is a real gift to this production.
This follows the success of Antaeus' 2014 production of Churchill's later, better-known Top Girls. It is a fine way to experience an important writer we'd like to see more of.
by CARYL CHURCHILL
directed by CASEY STANGL
ANTAEUS THEATRE COMPANY
March 3-April 24, 2016
(Opened 3/10, Rev’d 3/19)
CAST Reviewed: John Allee, Gigi Bermingham, JD Cullum, Graham Hamilton, Adam J. Smith, Joanna Strapp, Laura Wernette (the Hotheads); and Chad Borden, Bill Brochtup, David DeSantos, Liza de Weerd, Bo Foxworth, Abigail Marks, Deborah Puette (the Blighters)
PRODUCTION Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, set; A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, costumes; Leigh Allen, lights; Peter Bayne, music/sound/music direction; Jessica Mills, wigs/hair; Bo Foxworth, fights; Kristin Weber, stage management
HISTORY Developed with Joint Stock Theatre Company in 1978; Premiered at Dartington College of Arts, Devon, on Valentine's Day 1979. The original Off-Broadway production ran at the Lucille Lortel Theatre from May 1981 to September 1983, earning Obies for Churchill, director Tommy Tune and E. Katherine Kerr as Ellen/Mrs. Saunders.
JD Cullum and Joanna Strapp, top; inset, Gigi Birmingham, John Allee and Adam J. Smith
Spinning into better
We're warned about judging books by their covers but Bekah Brunstetter's new play is best judged by its title. The idea of "going to a place where you already are" is the best sign that something's going on in Going to a Place Where You Already Are, currently receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory (through March 27) under Artistic Director Marc Masterson's direction.
Depending on whether your glasses are half-full or half-empty, you can read the title as suggesting the quest for spiritual certainty is futile or find comfort in the thought that the answer you seek is, as we used to say, "right in your own backyard."
There are two stories going on in Going. An elderly couple, Roberta (Linda Gehringer) and Joe (Hal Landon Jr.), are relying on each other and good humor as they now see the drape of death approach like a slow, black storm. We meet them chuckling in a back pew during the funeral of an unknown co-worker, and get to know them when Roberta gets a dreadful diagnosis.
The second story follows Joe's granddaughter, Ellie (Rebecca Mozo), as she fends off the non-threatening advances of Jonas (Christopher Thornton), a patient paraplegic with a temperament perfectly suited to her "'It's-not-you-it's-me's."
Ellie will eventually discover that the place she wants to go is where she could be with the adoring Jonas. A quasi-near-death experience helps her get there. Because his take-out food order is slow, Jonas isn't home when his apartment building is quickly destroyed by fire. Other than this close call, Brunstetter wisely avoids making death a concern of the younger couple, which is an accurate portrait of pre-middle-age life.
Post-middle-age life is something quite different. Although Roberta and Joe are facing the end with heads high and healthy acceptance, the funeral for Joe's co-worker prompts Roberta to re-raise a subject her atheist husband clearly has been stifling since they entered what is a second marriage for each. "I must understand what I don't believe so I can better not believe it," he says to explain his reason for being interested in the subject. When it comes to faith, however, he just can't go there.
Roberta will give the older pair's story a more conventional near-death experience when she briefly slips away during a hospital procedure. While out, she will meet an angel (Stephen Ellis), who is the sort of kind and accommodating concierge we'd expect if Heaven were a Disney Resort. Perhaps "Foreverland." Pamphlets and brochures aren't needed because as the angel happily demonstrates, anything Roberta might want will be in infinite supply during her E-ticket eternity.
Except for Joe, he gently adds. There is no guarantee the logic-bound Joe will ascend.
And so the land-of-light at the end of Roberta's NDE tunnel is a smorgasbord of her favorite foods – now mercifully calorie-free. Without the title phrase – which is never spoken or really alluded to within the script – it would be a pretty tepid affair without much in the way of new or interesting ideas. However, like fine-art signage over a dollar-store entrance, it gives us cause to check the merchandise for treasures. And so we go back to the futility-comfort dichotomy. On one hand, as philosophers theorize, not only is everything possible in infinity, it's inevitable. So, Roberta's diner-ex-deus might just be a practical certainty, something every soul who makes the entrance requirements can expect of heaven. On the other hand, perhaps all Roberta's seeing is a projection of wish fulfillment. That the guide she meets at Heaven's Gate is the one character who can relieve the guilt that has weighed on her for decades, seems to tip the scales towards self-projection.
Masterson's staging is low-key and genial. He gets fine performances from all five actors. The production, with an elaborate, one-scene final set that is its own projection of grand endings, is designed by Michael B. Raiford (set), Christina Wright (costumes), Tom Ontiveros (lights), and Vincent Olivieri (music and sound). Joanne DeNaut cast it and Jennifer Ellen Butler is stage manager.
As with most major-theater matinees, the audience skewed towards the older couple's age group. As the stage light bounced off gray and hairless heads, as motionless as cobblestones, it was clear the play had our attention. For this crowd – my crowd – the world projected had the ring of Tomorrowland.
GOING TO A PLACE WHERE YOU ALREADY ARE
by BEKAH BRUNSTETTER
directed by MARC MASTERSON
SOUTH COAST REPERTORY
March 6-27, 2016
(Opened 3/11, Rev’d 3/19m)
CAST Stephen Ellis, Linda Gehringer, Hal Landon Jr., Rebecca Mozo, Christopher Thornton
PRODUCTION Michael B. Raiford, set; Christina Wright, costumes; Tom Ontiveros, lights; Vincent Olivieri, music/sound; Joanne DeNaut, casting; Jennifer Ellen Butler, stage management
HISTORY Commissioned and developed by South Coast Repertory. World premiere
Hal Landon Jr. and Linda Gehringer, top; inset, Rebecca Mozo and Christopher Thornton
According to the USDA, a cup of lettuce has just five calories. According to Sheila Callaghan's Women Laughing Alone with Salad, an entire head of it serves well as a symbol of misguided denial. In its West Coast premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (through April 3), director Neel Keller and his impressive cast make sure Callaghan's script, a wild burlesque with satirical dressing, shows its teeth.
The slim story of contemporary men and women groping for fulfillment is merely the spine of the binding here. As she did, differently but as successfully, in Bed, reviewed here, the imaginative Callaghan gives the play a flywheel heart that sparks numerous inter-related issues. The brighter ones land; the purely playful are just for show. The main target here is the pervasive power of image-based marketing. In the mass-hawking of health products, supplements, beauty aids and diet plans, we've deëmphasized the importance of what's supposed to be behind our appearance.
That the play doesn't suffer that fate behind the bounty of production elements is credit to Keller, who controls the mayhem without confining it, and his cast of Lisa Banes, Nora Kirkpatrick, David Clayton Rogers and Dinora Z. Walcott, who keep their characters real without diminishing the farce.
It's telling that, except for an awkward lead in to a man-powered ménage a trois, female characters in Laughing Alone never talk to each other. In the opening scene, they sit as strangers during a lunch break, picking through takeaway containers of loose leaf. A man briefly shares the bench, brandishes a three-pound burrito, then moves along. The women break into hysterics at the absurdity before turning on one another and angrily tossing their salads.
Surprisingly, the story is ostensibly that of the burrito-eater. Guy (Rogers), a stand-in name for the generic "man," is in a relationship with the beautiful young Tori (Kirkpatrick), a yoga-slim herbivore who worships him and wants to marry and move to L.A. But the typical, roving-eyed guy has seen the "real woman" in Meredith (Walcott), a dancing denizen of a club he frequents, and wants what she's got – or, appears to have. Meanwhile, his mother Sandy (Banes) is unable to properly celebrate his birthday because of her latest self-mutilating anti-aging ploy.
In a careful generational reference, the flashback to the 33-year-old Guy's birth goes not to the logical 1983 but to the pivotal 1972. Perhaps it's that this was the year before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, an event that mildly echoes when Sandy reminds her now-grown son that under different circumstances her choice might have been different. Or, perhaps it's to suggest that, as Sandy's equal-rights activism morphed into motherhood, so went the movement.
In the second act, all four actors have swapped gender roles and the female actors now chat away mindlessly as men, tossing jocular clichés about sports and music. In a more subtle and successful update of the well-intentioned but misguided "it-takes-a-man" message wrapped in Tootsie, the empowered woman-man is now in charge because she fearlessly blurs all boundaries.
Banes gets a showcase opportunity and shines impressively. Kirkpatrick, a fine actress (and for fellow fans of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, its founding accordionist), makes Tori admirable despite her belief that a woman who isn't rail thin has "let herself go." Walcott may have the most fun, dancing at length, performing striptease with a lettuce costume, and getting general immunity from much of the manufactured hype. For his part, Rogers, with the affable appeal of a Paul Rudd, manages to keep us rooting for him.
The scenic and projection embellishments are wonderful. Keith Mitchell designed the set, Elizabeth Harper the lighting, and Ann Closs-Farley the costumes. And, without a hair-and-makeup credit in the program, we must assume kudos for those extraordinary elements go to her. John Zalewski created the soundscape and Keith Skretch the omnipresent barrage of projected marketing images. Ahmed Best choreographed the fights and Ken Roht staged the musical numbers, which climax in Banes' gut-string-wrenching male rock-guitar fantasy.
Walcott's Meredith says that women in the 1920s "owned the fuck out of their shit." The statement is made again about another group, perhaps to stress the point that women today can really own the fuck out of their shit, as long as they don't end up face down into a bowl of leafy greens – or Maybelline.
WOMEN LAUGHING ALONE WITH SALAD
by SHEILA CALLAGHAN
directed by NEEL KELLER
KIRK DOUGLAS THEATRE
March 6-August 3, 2016
(Opened 3/11, Rev’d 3/18)
CAST Lisa Banes, Nora Kirkpatrick, David Clayton Rogers, Dinora Z. Walcott
PRODUCTION Keith Mitchell, set; Ann Closs-Farley, costumes; Elizabeth Harper, lights; John Zalewski, sound; Keith Skretch, projections; Ahmed Best, fights; Meg Fister, casting; Brooke Baldwin, stage management
HISTORY Women Laughing Alone with Salad was developed in the 2012-2013 CTG Writers’ Workshop, then at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., where it had its world premiere in September 2015. West Coast premiere