Theatre Magic

The mysteries of the living theatre conjure romance for everybody but there’s no audience more receptive than the theatre workers themselves. Those giving their lives to the art live with the endless urge to show just how splendid the rewards can be, despite the cost and the sacrifices.

Just consider a quick, top-of-the-head list of examples: The Producers, Fame, Kiss Me Kate, Light Up the Sky, The Royal Family, Speed-the-Plow, A Chorus Line, Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Fantasticks,  Phantom of the Opera, Noises Off, Follies, The Sunshine Boys… (deep breath).

Sometimes even the bosses get celebrated. It’s hard to visualize the romance in raising money and forcing teamwork, but theatre artists are willing to try, just to show you how endlessly exciting even the front office can be.

Juggling the Pieces

Phil Johnson in Cygnet “Mistakes Were Made.” 
Daren Scott Photo

At Cygnet Theatre, Craig Wright’s play Mistakes Were Madepresents a single flawed but resolute pilgrim in the Broadway wilderness, struggling to breathe life into  a project that sounds, frankly, unpromising. (The French Revolution, featuring Robespierre, 40 actors, a guillotine, a star-drop and a horse?)

But hey, nobody knocks another guy’s project, right? It might be the next Urinetown.

So this lone ranger, crashing about in his seedy office with 10 phone lines and a receptionist whose only obvious competency is an instinct for when he’s overfeeding his pet fish, must juggle single-handedly the egos, interests, angers, fears, superstitions, greed and (did I say egos?) of all the necessary participants the failure of any one of whom could obliterate the whole enterprise.

All he’s got on his side is quickish wit, silverish tongue and lots of little white pills.

It’s a one-man show, really, but  sometimes it seems over-crowded as the calls stack up: The movie star dickering over what percentage of lines above everybody else’s part he would need. The rookie author out in some bleak fly-over state dumbfounded at the demands of commerce. The agents who smell what might turn out to be real money. And some seriously convoluted long-distance haggling with shady potential backers who seem to be bogged down in a third-world sheep-rustling caper.

Well, all this comes to not much. And the end is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. But director Shana Wride and her actor, Phil Johnson, make it seem pretty momentous while it’s happening.

Johnson makes this guy a schlemiel who wouldn’t draw a second glance in an empty room. A bit overweight, slightly balding, indifferently dressed, Johnson works toward the character’s invisibility. Except that, there on the floor of his arena, gripping a telephone and upsetting stacks of stuff as he staggers through agonies that can’t be allowed outside this room, he is riveting in his savage passion to achieve. If sheer, dauntless perseverance will win out, he’s got a chance,

Wride, right with the author and actor in the rhythm and drive of the moment, flogs him onward with a careful crescendo of rising panic and aimless busywork that helps screw the tensions tighter. The long, coiled phone cord becomes the binding that holds this Prometheus on this rock.

But about that telephone. It’s just one of several aspects in this physical production that contribute to disorientation. I mean, when is this happening? Has this guy ever heard of cordless phones? Now and then he dons what looks like a Bluetooth™ headset but, if so, why the old-fashioned cord. The posters on the walls of Sean Fanning’s set don’t offer any coherent period clues. There’s a script reference to the Russian Tea Room, once a power lunch center for Broadway royalty but now long gone. In order to get the full whomp here, I needed some more specific ambiance.

Hard to resist that fish, though. (Erica Fanning is “aquatic consultant,” Esther Banks is “Puppeteer.”) It really almost seemed that there might be some kind of appalling sex scene about to happen.

Disorienting, this “theatre magic” stuff.


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Photo of Cygnet Theatre
Cygnet Theatre
Old Town Theatre 4040 Twiggs St. San Diego CA 92110 Work Phone: (619) 337-1525 Website: Cygnet Theatre website
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