Martin Benson’s staging of Shaw’s Misalliance at South Coast Repertory will delight just about anyone who sees it. But those theatergoers who also saw Bart DeLorenzo’s recent staging of King Lear for Antaeus are in for a particular treat at this Misalliance — especially if they saw both of the Antaeus casts.
Four members of the Lear company are also in Misalliance — and a couple of Shaw’s original lines underline the connections.
In Shaw’s comedy, an intruder (JD Cullum) holds the family of underwear magnate John Tarleton (Dakin Matthews) at gunpoint, hoping to force Tarleton to acknowledge a long-ago sexual dalliance with the intruder’s mum. As the gunman fumbles in an effort to retrieve his mother’s photos from his pocket, he doesn’t know where to put the gun, so his captive — Tarleton — offers to hold it for him.
“Do you take me for a fool?” sneers Cullum’s young hothead, aiming his rhetorical question at Matthews’ underwear mogul.
Well, yes, we do. In King Lear, Cullum was one of two actors who played Lear’s Fool. And Matthews was one of the two Lears.
Later in Misalliance, Tarleton is bemoaning his daughter’s behavior, and the aristocratic Lord Summerhays urges him to calm down. Knowing that Tarleton frequently advises others to read this or that author, Summerhays suggests that the exasperated father should go off and “read something.”
“I’ll read King Lear!,” replies Matthews’ Tarleton. The line is already sardonic in the original, drawing a line between the two frustrated fathers, but it’s even more so here. Of course, Matthews knows Lear’s lines by heart, so this particular Tarleton wouldn’t have to read them anew.
The other Lear cast members who segued into Misalliance are Kirsten Potter and Daniel Bess. Three other Misalliance cast members also list Antaeus credits (although not Lear) in their program bios: Melanie Lora, Amelia White and Wyatt Fenner. That leaves only two Misalliance actors who do not have an Antaeus connection — Richard Doyle and Peter Katona.
Antaeus (in North Hollywood) is beginning to look like a farm team for South Coast (in Costa Mesa). Except for Bess, all of the Lear vets in Misalliance have also worked in other SCR productions.
South Coast had initially scheduled its own King Lear for the 2008-2009 and then the 2009-2010 seasons, before it was canceled in the wake of the recession. But this Misalliance is so briskly entertaining that I’ll take it over an SCR Lear any day — especially, of course, since I just saw Antaeus’ intimate Lear in NoHo.
Other than different actors, Benson’s latest Misalliance is remarkably like his celebrated and much-awarded 1987 staging of the same play — including a new set modeled on Ralph Funicello’s original from 23 years ago. These lines, which I wrote then about the first rendition, also perfectly sum up my feelings about the second:
“Misalliance…comes alive with effortless assurance on the stage of South Coast Repertory, under the guidance of Martin Benson. This play is often called labored or improbable. Benson and company conceal the labor and ignore the improbable, making mincemeat of such objections.”
Misalliance, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tues-Wed, Sun, 7:30 pm; Thur-Fri-Sat, 8 pm; Sat-Sun, 2:30 pm. Closes Oct. 10. 714-708-5555. www.scr.org.
This past week was big on openings of plays about horrible social-political situations, from which the playwrights try to extract happy endings.
First Ruined opened at the Geffen. Lynn Nottage’s depiction of the brutalities of the Congo civil war ends with a scene that could have been written for a romantic comedy. I appreciate her attempts to ennoble the resilience of the victims, to find a shred of decency in a hellhouse, but it’s difficult — literally and figuratively — to connect the dots between the next-to-last scene, in which everyone appears to be doomed, and the smiling finale. How exactly did the central characters escape the grim situation of that penultimate scene?
Nottage deserves praise for dramatizing an arena that’s so far under the radar of most of the mainstream media in the U.S. — and also for realizing that unrelentingly graphic violence and bleakness, in the style of the suicidal Sarah Kane’s work, can lead to diminishing returns (see Nottage’s thoughts on any comparisons of her work to Kane’s here).
Nottage’s efforts (and director Kate Whoriskey’s) to provide intermittent lifts earlier in the play, through somewhat embellished musical sequences, work much better than the ending, because they don’t require such a drastic suspension of disbelief. The earlier non-musical segments also ring mostly true, although repeated impromptu recitations of poetry in one character’s mouth come off as an artificial way to make the character more ingratiating.
But there was one question of authenticity that nagged at me throughout Ruined — why do we see only three of the women who work for Mama in her brothel? She refers at one point to a half-dozen “girls” and then later to 10 — business is apparently booming. There is even a reference to a child of one of the other women being on the premises. But we see none of these other victims. Only three of Mama’s “girls” seem to do all the work — the sex, the housecleaning, the bookkeeping, the dramatic heavy lifting. The choice to make the others invisible looks more like a way to keep the play’s production costs down than an artistic decision.
Break the Whip also opened this weekend, at the Actors’ Gang. Tim Robbins analyzes a world of pain within the 17th century Jamestown Colony but then tries to keep hope alive with a panoramic finale in which English indentured servants, escaped slaves and Native Americans unite in the woods.
Actually, Robbins never tries to establish the same degree of overall realism that Nottage goes for in Ruined. His actors wear commedia-inspired masks throughout and engage in intermittent commedia shtick. Too bad that none of these distracting sequences work as either comic relief or as commentary on the more sobering stuff.
On the other hand, Robbins is hyper-realistic in the use of languages. The Native Americans and the African American slaves speak native tongues that are translated in (occasionally awkward) English supertitles.
I don’t understand why it’s so important to be realistically and politically correct in the languages, but it’s OK to shred realism and political correctness in the casting and staging. Although there are a few black actors in the show, many of the black slaves and most of the Native Americans are played by white actors wearing masks. Some of those masks even give the appearance of whites wearing blackface.
I know the Gang is committed to a certain non-realistic acting style, and it takes time to teach newcomers how to do it. But this project was in development for more than a year. Did anyone ever consider trying to form an alliance with Native Voices, the Native American company at the Autry?
Meanwhile, Mysterious Skin, at East West Players, is one play about a very bad situation that doesn’t try to instill a feel-good exit strategy. Child sexual abuse is the subject of Prince Gomolvilas’ adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel. One of the grown victims remembers his ordeal first as an extra-terrestrial experience. His gradual enlightenment about what really happened, when he and another victim were eight years old, is the play’s arc — but that enlightenment doesn’t necessarily bring release from the pain.
This is one of the most downbeat and graphic plays (in terms of language and nudity) that East West has ever presented — and yet another indication (see here and here) that midsize theaters don’t inevitably retreat into crowd-pleasing platitudes.
But while Mysterious Skin may not be “pleasing,” it’s certainly engrossing. Director Tim Dang provides one especially creative stroke in his use of the house lights. I don’t want to spoil the surprise of it, but it works as a way to make the audience more directly involved in the onstage events.
Ruined, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave., Westwood. Tues-Fri, 8 pm; Sat 3 and 8 pm; Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes Oct. 17. 310-208-5454. www.geffenplayhouse.com.
Break the Whip, Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd. Wed-Fri, 8 pm; Sat, 7 pm. 310-838-4264. www.theactorsgang.com.
Mysterious Skin, David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Wed-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 2 pm. Closes Oct. 10. 213-625-7000. www.eastwestplayers.org.
The Los Angeles Times obituary of Harold Gould didn’t bother to mention that he sometimes acted on Los Angeles stages. In fact, he was one of the greatest LA stage actors of our time. In my years reviewing LA theater, I can’t think of any actor I’ve praised more often.
Here are a few appraisals from LA Times reviews of Gould’s work on LA stages large (the Ahmanson) and small (the defunct Court and Room for Theatre, the Odyssey):
First, from Dan Sullivan’s review of I Never Sang for My Father, 1987, Ahmanson Theatre:
“Gould didn’t miss anything. He remembered the way an old man will mask his panic that his memory is fading by being twice as belligerent about details as before; the way an old man will flirt with a waitress until you could throw the menu at him; the way an old man would rather be considered a monster than be discounted.
Gould even allows the possibility that this old man is a monster. When he begins to recount the details of his triumphant business career during his wife’s wake, your dander starts to rise on behalf of [Daniel] Travanti [playing the son]. But the old man has taken a blow, and it catches up with him at an unexpected time — a moment that seemed absolutely real Friday night, as did Gould’s refusal to take more than a moment’s comfort from Travanti. No embrace in this family can last for more than a few seconds.”
And here are a few of my own comments:
Don Juan in Hell, 1987, Room for Theatre: “Fresh off a long line of devilish grandfather roles, Harold Gould now tackles the grandest and most devilish old-timer of them all-Satan. It’s such a splendidly alluring performance that one wonders if the ministers who have raised a stink about satanic rock-and-roll lyrics will mount a picket line at Room for Theatre.”
Incommunicado, 1993, Odyssey Theatre, in which Gould played Ezra Pound: “Gould…whips through all of Pound’s intricate language with remarkable fluency, yet he also makes the wordless act of brushing his teeth into a sensual experience.”
Old Business, 1994, Court Theatre, in which Gould played another father at war with his son: “Gould is a grinning barracuda. His Abe knows how to succeed in business while being really trying, especially to his son.”
R.I.P., Harold Gould.
A service in memory of Gould will be held in the Goldwyn Theatre of the Motion and Picture and Television Fund campus, 23388 Mulholland Drive, Woodland Hills. on Sunday, Oct. 3 at 2 p.m.