Pat Launer’s
Center Stage

Funding for “Pat Launer, Center Stage” is provided in part by the Board of Trustees of Young Audiences of San Diego — Arts for Learning.

  • “Mandate Memories”– North Coast Repertory Theatre

    “Mandate Memories”– North Coast Repertory Theatre

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    For sheer infotainment value, a fascinating mix of history and personal drama, you can’t beat “Mandate Memories,” the world premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

    The two-hander reunites London-based playwright Lionel Goldstein and director David Ellenstein, who worked together at North Coast on the internationally produced “Halpern and Johnson.” Lately, they’ve been tweaking “Mandate Memories,” and though it can still use some trimming of historical background data, it’s a moving, touching pas de deux.

    In the summer of 2009, a middle-aged English homemaker is tending her beloved garden when a visitor arrives with a letter written, during Israel’s war for independence 60 years ago, by the father she never met. The elderly Froelich dances around her many questions, persistently cryptic and enigmatic. An Austrian-born Israeli, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen and a freedom-fighter in Palenstine, he doles out information slowly, gradually preparing her for the shocking revelation of his long-time connection to her life.

    The British were intimately involved in the formation of the state of Israel, in many not-so-savory ways, he tells her. She thinks her father, a Captain, was killed by Jewish terrorists – which is true, but not the way she was led to believe.

    The historical elements of Goldstein’s tale are factual, especially the hair-raising international game of ‘chicken’ played with soldiers’ lives.

    The production is lovely;the beautifully detailed set is elegantly lit. Ellenstein’s sensitive direction allows emotional moments to breathe, and teases all the nuance from these disparate characters, marvelously inhabited by L.A. actor Apollo Dukakis and local favorite Rosina Reynolds. Dukakis’ Froelich is intriguing, a tortured man who has seen – and participated in – more than his share of horrors. Reynolds is equally excellent as the wary, skeptical Jane Sterling who, like the story, gradually unfolds. Their arguments over the current Israeli-Palestine conflict will pique your social and intellectual interest. Their personal journey will touch your heart.

    “Mandate Memories” runs through April 27,at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.

    © 2014 Pat Launer

  • “RED”– San Diego Repertory Theatre

    “RED”– San Diego Repertory Theatre

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    In his early years, abstract expressionist Mark Rothko painted in bright, vibrant colors. But as he got older, his work became darker and more brooding; in 1970, he committed suicide, at age 67.

    But in “RED,” the 2010 multi-Tony Award-winning play by John Logan, the Russian-born Rothko is at his peak. He’s also at a crossroads. It’s 1958, and he’s just received a massive commission – to paint a series of murals for the upscale Four Seasons restaurant in New York. His new assistant, a budding painter himself, callshis fiercely principled employera hypocrite, selling out to crass commercialism. The irascible, uncompromising Rothko rails at him, andat the young bucks coming up in the art world –Warhol, Stella, Rauchenburg. Most of all, he fears his own irrelevance, and he’s terrified that his assistant may be right.

    Rothko’s words in the play come directly from the master’s writings and interviews. He was pedantic and dogmatic, but in 90 minutes, he teaches us a great deal about art and his creative process (“there’s tragedy in every brushstroke,” he says). And though he insists that he won’t be “rabbi, father, shrink, friend, or teacher” to his fatherless assistant, he becomes all of these, and more.

    The San Diego Repertory Theatre production, deftly helmed by guest director Michael Arabian, is a beautiful thing to behold. Washed in red and bathed in evocative sound, the spacious studio vibrates with energy.

    As the fictional assistant, Jason Maddy gives the performance of his career. Awestruck at first, he then competes with thetortured genius in a highly-charged canvas-priming scenethat, sadly, lacks the show-stopping sexual tension of the original production. As Rothko, John Vickery is a powerful, aggressive presence. He towers, he fulminates, and ultimately, he moves us, forcing us to look at the monumental work in terms of darkness and light, black and red.The paintings pulsate… and if you let it color your thinking, the play does, too.

    “RED” runs through April 27,at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.

    © 2014 Pat Launer

  • “ALL MY SONS”– Intrepid Shakespeare Company

    “ALL MY SONS”– Intrepid Shakespeare Company

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    Arthur Miller sure knew how to shake people up. When “All My Sons” was first performed in 1947, it was such an indictment of the American Dream, it was used to justify the playwright’s summoning by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

    Based on a true story of an Ohio company that provided defective aircraft engines during World War II, the play focuses on the Keller family, and the effect of sending out cylinder heads with a hairline crack, which resulted in the death of 21 pilots. Joe Keller’s partner went to prison. Two of his sons went to war; one never came back.

    Three and a half years later, the family remains on hold, the mother waiting for her son to return; the father waiting for the other shoe to drop; the remaining son crippled by survivor’s guilt. He’s dying to ask for the hand of his brother’s former sweetheart, who happens to be the daughter of Joe’s partner. When Anne and her brother arrive at the Keller house, hard truths are exposed, dreams and delusions destroyed, and every relationship is examined and re-calibrated.

    It’s a searing exploration of the many shades of morality and culpability, foreshadowing Miller’s masterwork, “Death of a Salesman,” with its themes of fathers and sons, idealism vs. pragmatism, and the ramifications of a faulty belief system.

    Intrepid Shakespeare Company brings every layer of drama and nuance to shattering life, in a near-flawless production. Director Christy Yael-Cox helms a superb ten-member cast, anchored by thegut-wrenching performances of Tom Stephenson as self-delusional, rationalizing Joe and Brian Mackey as his principled, tortured son. Jacque Wilke, Savvy Scopelleti and Tom Hall are also noteworthy. With every scene, the noose around this family tightens, until they’re squeezed so dry that tragic collapse is inevitable.

    In the effective design, a cloudless sky becomes progressively overcast. The crickets go silent. The music takes on an ominous undertone. Moral dilemmas are confronted by complex characters who, along with the timeless issues, may haunt you long after the lights go down.

    This is heart-rending, thought-provoking theater that mustn’t be missed.

    “All My Sons” runs through April 19,at the San Dieguito Academy Theatre in Encinitas.

    © 2014 Pat Launer

  •  “CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION” – New Village Arts & “THE FOREIGNER” – Lamb’s Players Theatre

    “CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION” – New Village Arts & “THE FOREIGNER” – Lamb’s Players Theatre

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    What happens when circumstances force you to tap into deep wells within you… and something wholly unexpected emerges? In very different ways, two Obie Award-winning plays -- a beloved 1984 farce and a quirky 2009 comedy -- take their characters on an unpredictable journey to self-knowledge and genuine communication.

    Lamb’s Players Theatre has hit paydirt twice before with Larry Shue’s wildly popular creation, “The Foreigner.” In the latest incarnation, director Kerry Meads shepherds an excellent ensemble, backed by the usual strong design work. At the center is funnyman Geno Carr as a self-effacing, pathologically taciturn Englishman left for three days at a lodge in rural Georgia. To calm Charlie’s terror of conversation, his buddy tells everyone that Charlie doesn’t speak any English.

    Inventing a language and feigning lack of understanding, Charlie helps develop the self-esteem of dim bulb Ellard, wonderfully portrayed by Kevin Hafso-Koppman. He becomes privy to all kinds of secrets, including a nefarious plot concocted by a scary Klansman convincingly played, for the third time, by Stacey Allen. The nearly nonstop hijinks are punctuated by racist and xenophobic comments that remain all too familiar today. But most of the time it’s a laugh-fest, watching Charlie begin to relish his role as raconteur and confidant, developing a new sociability and personality. He and everyone else is changed by the experience.

    Changes are taking place onstage at New Village Arts, too, in the offbeat, non-narrative “Circle Mirror Transformation,” written by Annie Baker, whom the New York Times recently called “one of the freshest and most talented dramatists to emerge Off Broadway in the past decade.”

    Her play is episodic and somewhat non-linear. It’s rife with repetition and unfilled pauses. There isn’t a traditional plot. And yet, by the end of nearly two intermissionless hours, we feel a deep knowledge of these five characters -- their weaknesses, pain and failed relationships. Backstories, emotional wounds and private longings are revealed.

    In a shabby community room in small-town Vermont, a six-week ‘Creative Acting’ class is being held. The loopy leader is a newbie at teaching this course. Her sometimes silly-seeming theater games are imaginatively used by the playwright to reveal character and history, inner turmoil and tentative efforts at bonding. Though the intention is to build perception, trust and listening skills, these exercises can be downright dangerous, especially in the hands of an inexperienced facilitator. The anonymous “Tell a secret you’ve never told anyone” radically alters the characters – and audience perception.

    Under the skillful direction of Annie Hinton, the pitch-perfect casting inspires impressive authenticity. These damaged, floundering souls are richly inhabited by Dana Case, Tom Stephenson, Rhianna Basore, Eddie Yaroch and Sophia Richards.

    There are dark recesses in both these comedies. And also intriguing insights.

    “Circle Mirror Transformation” plays through March 2 at New Village Arts in Carlsbad.

    The Lamb’s Players production of “The Foreigner” has been extended through 5/18, at the Horton Grand Theatre downtown.

    © 2014 Pat Launer

  • “HARMONY”Ahmanson Theatre (L.A.) & “SPRING AWAKENING” –Cygnet Theatre

    “HARMONY”Ahmanson Theatre (L.A.) & “SPRING AWAKENING” –Cygnet Theatre

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    Oh, the naiveté of youth. Sometimes it can be so endearing and ingenuous. But impetuosity can be reckless – even dangerous.

    That’s the case in two musicals set in Germany: the 2006 Tony Award-winning “Spring Awakening,” by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, based on a provocative 1891 Frank Wedekind play that was banned for decades. And the world premiere, “Harmony,” with music by Barry Manilow, inspired by the true story of the Comedian Harmonists.

    They were a mega-talented vocal sextet, who wowed audiences around the world in the 1930s, making million-selling albums and 13 movies. When they played Carnegie Hall, they had the chance to remain in the U.S. But their short-sightedness and rash self-delusion convinced them that the troubles back home would soon blow over. Three of their members were Jewish, and in short order, the Nazis disbanded the group and destroyed every scrap of their existence.

    Manilow and his long-time writing partner, Bruce Sussman, spent years researching the Comedian Harmonists. Their bracing musical opened in La Jolla in 1997, and they’ve been re-working it since then. Now it’s at the Ahmanson Theatre, in a co-production with Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, and it’s terrific: tighter and deeper, more solid and funny and heart-breaking. The cast is outstanding, the comic numbers hilarious. A new creative team includes inventive director Tony Speciale, who is abetted by excellent choreography and spectacular set, lighting, costume and sound design. This is a traditional musical, with an overture, a wide range of musical styles, a gut-wrenching story and colorful characters and relationships. It’s both thrilling and heart-breaking. Here’s hoping the Harmonists live on for a long time to come.

    Younger and more angst-ridden, the characters in “Spring Awakening” are adolescents in an earlier repressive German era, steeped in a hormonal rush of budding sexuality. They question everything, but get no answers from hidebound parents and teachers, and disaster ensues: teen pregnancy and suicide, physical and sexual abuse, and a botched abortion.

    The amped-up score is riven with teenage anxiety. Every abstract, poetic song, rather than forwarding the action, is an internal monologue. The show should be relentlessly electrifying.

    This is the fourth time I’ve seen it, and though Cygnet Theatre beautifully captures the drama, the raw, exhilarating energy is underplayed, except in the galvanic, unprintable 2nd-act song about being, shall we say tactfully, Totally Messed Up. The excellent six-piece band emphasizes the haunting ballads; but this should feel like a no-holds-barred, head-banging rock musical. The knockout, eye-popping lighting design, by Chris Rynne, successfully captures that potent vitality.

    The young cast is dynamic, and the singing is superb, though the lyrics are often difficult to understand, compounded by the intrusive use of standup mikes. The mostly outdoor setting, though appealing, minimizes the claustrophobic feel of this confining atmosphere.

    There’s much to learn from these two planngent musicals: about youth and maturity, history and tyranny.

    “Harmony” runs through April 13, at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

    “Spring Awakening” continue through April 27 at Cygnet Theatre, in Old Town.

    © 2014 Pat Launer

For an archive of all of Pat's reviews, going back to 1990, use the 'search' function at

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