San Diego Arts 2017: Theatre

“Knowledge,” playwright Anton Chekhov once declared, “is of no value unless you put it into practice.” That’s a little on the simplistic side, but Andy was 104 percent correct: Practice is the soul of discovery, the only true path to the refinement of the goal.

On its surface, San Diego theater acquitted itself quite well in 2017 and appears on the way to compatibility with Chekhov’s advisory. Some splendid Broadway/San Diego tour material fueled a balanced, multifaceted local effort; what relatively new companies there are (Backyard Renaissance, The Roustabouts) boast extremely seasoned leadership and surely will exploit their savvy in the public interest.

Indeed, theater here grows more practiced and comfortable with itself each year — but an early fall development marred 2017 behind the scenes, its effect a serious affront to the well-oiled machine it took at least 15 seasons to erect.

Sarah Errington, left, and Shockheaded Peter cast members Kevane La’Marr Coleman, Adrian Alita and Steve Gouveia. Photo by Josue Castro.

Let’s look at the happy stuff first — not the least of which was my pick for San Diego’s best show of the year. Cygnet Theatre Company’s Shockheaded Peter was last spring’s marvel of imagination as it gleefully hoisted child discipline on its own petard. Psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann’s 1845 book was a straight-faced scare tactic directed at his son; adapters Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott eventually intervened, turning recriminations like amputated thumbs and fatal burns on their heads for the absurdist cruelties they are. Director Rob Lutfy tapped the unbridled joy of excess, his outrage yielding to outrageousness in a cripplingly comic nod to the human experience.

Blatant commercialism found a place last fall in the form of Broadway/San Diego’s Disney’s the Little Mermaid, its colossal color schemes framing the delightful story of a mermaid’s gamble on romantic love. The scale’s rustic side yielded fruitlessmoon theatreworks’ compelling American Carnage: A Love Story, Carlsbad playwright/director Aimee Greenberg’s look at artificial intelligence and its wholesale assault on the human condition.

Melvin Abston, center, and the cast of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Photo by Steve Wilson.

But a city’s theater climate can’t evolve without the required lapses — and we found two at San Diego Repertory Theatre. In November’s Hand to God, the Rep presented a foul-mouthed hand puppet’s as a reflection of our worst selves, as if holding up a mirror to our failings. While Hand to God was bad enough, it was preceded by the Rep’s weak adaptation of Into the Beautiful North as a screed on border issues and Mexican sovereignty.

The San Diego theatre community was not exempt from the country’s #MeToo movement exposure of sexual harassment when a veteran actor detailed her experience with a fellow performer’s alleged transgressions and the venue officials’ reported inaction in addressing them. The back-and-forth appeared as a thread on Facebook, with the actor excoriating her counterpart for  unwanted attentions during rehearsals for a show. Amid his vehement and repeated denials, she assailed his physical advances and recounted a cast member’s tearful fears for the former’s safety.

Her protests allegedly yielded the man’s apology but insufficient response from the producing theatre company. The show went on, as it always does; meanwhile, the Facebook thread became a script in itself, its ranks swelling with praise for the actor’s bravery and lament over their own victimizations.

“The stories that are coming out; the amount of theaters culpable; the victims that are hurting: I’m ashamed of our community right now,” the actor told San Diego Story.

“I hope that changes, but right now, I just am.”

To be sure, this actor is no idiot. Sadly, neither are the raft of accused named since the Harvey Weinstein scandal became an instant legend three months ago. The list of those named encompasses fields such as politics, sports, business and fashion. That’s quite a mix of revenue producers and stewards of the public good. So too is it the harbinger of its own destruction, depleting its commercial base as surely as it scuttles the public trust.

I came here from Ventura in 2003 as the theater critic at San Diego CityBeat. It was open season on the art back then, with waves of local performers either vying for some kind of residency or seeking to start their own troupes. Time and money (or lack of it) have pared that roster, leaving us with a fairly responsive cadre of artistic directors and performers.

As 2018 advances, let’s hope that fair play holds the same sway. Besides its inherent depravity, sexual harassment is a surefire way to impede artistic progress.



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