San Diego Arts 2017: Theatre

Sigh. 2017 was my 60th year reviewing shows, mostly in and for San Diego. Will there be more? I shall see.

I continue to be sustained by the lively and mature theatre environment we have built here. At every level of ambition, from professional to recreational, there are committed artists and satisfied customers, a nice pyramid of achievement.

Specific enterprises may have their devoted followers but there’s no requirement to make a choice. I’m not averse to adventure, even after thousands of them, but I find that the Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse together satisfy my senior diet requirements. So, frankly, my look back on the year concentrates on their work.

The Globe is adjusting to a new managing director with seasons heavy on quality imports.  The Playhouse team continues to polish their pattern of alternating viable commercial projects with premieres by new voices. Both companies are exploring with success their ties to universities and expanding their art into new ground.

But it’s the audiences making all this possible that touch my well-worn heart so warmly.

San Diego audiences are so game! The Globe tends to attract prosperous townsfolk while LJP plays largely to stars of academia and mass media, but there’s lots of overlap. And always plenty of youngsters, at the opening nights anyway. The general atmosphere is “Dazzle me, please” and expectation hangs thick in the air. Social exchanges abound but really, the play’s the thing. I’ve been in countless audiences all over many maps and I’m most content with my homefolk, thank you.

What about 2017 specifically? No single show dominates though lots of aspects please.

Ensemble theatre displayed its power at the Globe with a haunting myth titled The Old Man and the Old Moon, created and performed out of ephemera by a septet of college classmates together for a decade despite the awkward undergrad name, PigPen Theatre. Also, a similar gang centered on classmates still in touch called the Fiasco Theatre, brought to the Globe a bold Imaginary Invalid that would have tickled Moliere himself.

The Fiascos are not quite as exclusive as the PigPens (who become a folk-rock band in their spare time) so Andy Grotelueschen, the corpulent hypochondriac himself, stuck around to play Friar Tuck in the romping Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood! later in the Globe season.

Kevin Hafso-Koppman, Paul L. Coffey and Jane Pfitsch, left to right, in The Imaginary Invalid at the Old Globe Theatre. Jim Cox Photo

The season’s versatility champ had to be the popular local actor Kevin Hafso-Koppman, who was the male love interest in Invalid, Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Elvis Presley in Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile. I do wish I could have seen more of the ebullient Fiasco actors ­ – especially the commanding  Jessie Austrian – in other roles.

In the imported Guys and Dolls, all was well (except for some annoying décor details) but only one performer stood out, Matt Bauman as a supporting hoodlum, the very essence of the Damon Runyon inheritance.

Among the Globe directors, I most appreciated Jessica Stone’s bottomless inventiveness on the Robin Hood follies and Barry Edelstein’s thoughtful Hamlet.

The single image with dominates the Globe year in memory, however, is Buster Keaton. Huh? You may think, and rightly so. But the great silent-film clown was so vividly evoked by Bryce Pinkham (for reasons too complex to address here) in Benny & Joon, the nimble musical version of the Kirsten Guenther film, that there was no ignoring him!

(That show, with an above-average score by Guenther, Nolan Gasser and Mindi Dickstein and a dandy staging by Jack Cummings III, also boasted one of the year’s best actor names: Jason SweetTooth Williams, who earlier worked at the LJP on Freaky Friday.)

Paul Alexander Nolan and the cast of Escape to Margaritaville at the La Jolla Playhouse. Matthew Murphy Photo

Friday is a Disney property, based on a movie with an unfortunate name, which was most entertaining but overshadowed by the other two big musical projects of the Playhouse season, Escape to Margaritaville, the Jimmy Buffet extravaganza leading his faithful to an early 2018 Broadway goal, and Summer, the assembling by Des McAnuff and friends of another feel-good juke box musical, this one based on the disco-queen portion of Donna Summer’s career.

These shows presumably bring along their own niche audiences, which helps the Playhouse budget and the quest for new blood. What makes them so affirmative, though, is the care with which they’re put together and the genuine respect for the material. Sure, it’s commercial but it delivers a solid professional project to a trusting audience.

The other three LJP shows this year were premieres with ideas worth chewing on. Well, maybe Kill Local, with all that macabre crime-as-a-job kidding around, doesn’t need pondering. But Rachel Bond’s At the Old Place and Hansol Jung’s Wild Goose Dreams deserve the quality exposure. Bond addresses contemporary woes in a deteriorating society and Jung brings delicate insight (almost crushed by heavy-handed production) of the situation in Korea.

Francis Jue, a character actor to be cherished, set a calm, folk-tale spine for Wild Goose Dreams that helped it slide through a thicket of electronic buzz and reminded us all once again that a tale-teller and an audience is all the theatre really needs. Although that big fight in Summer, between one of the three actresses playing the title role (Ariana De Bose) and a German character I never quite identified (Aaron Krohn) is the kind of unexpected thrill that keeps us all coming back.

It was truly an interesting and entertaining season, without revelations, but with no snoozers either. So, Oh, OK. Count me in for another swing through the calendar.


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