What’s New is News on Local Stages
By Pat Launer
Wanna know what Americans are talking and thinking about? Saunter into a theater this month and you’ll get an earful from seasoned professionals as well as brilliant young students. Life, death, love, memory, cancer, coming of age, health care and family secrets and lies. It’s all on the docket on San Diego stages.
The highest profile new work is a singular collaboration among local theaters of diverse size and stature. The La Jolla Playhouse and San Diego Repertory Theatre, in association with the small, 20-year-old Vantage Theatre, are working together to make us a stop on the limited national tour of the Second Stage Theatre (NYC) production of “Let Me Down Easy,” which wowed Off Broadway audiences in 2009.
This is the latest creation of acclaimed actor/playwright/professor/author Anna Deavere Smith, an award-winning stage performer who appears regularly in movies and TV (“The American President,” The Human Stain,” “Nurse Jackie,” “The Practice”) but is best known for creating a unique brand of solo theater. When she received her MacArthur “genius” grant, her stage work was described as “a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie.”
What she does is turn her laser focus on a hot-button topic, such as the riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn (“Fires in the Mirror”), or the racial havoc following the Rodney King verdict (“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992”). In “Let Me Down Easy,” her target is life, death and the American health care system.
According to Smith, “It’s about the power of the body, the cost of care and the resilience of the spirit.”
In eight years of preparing for the piece, she spoke to more than 300 people — celebrities like Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, actor/model Lauren Hutton and many lesser-knowns, including doctors, the dying and survivors — distilling it all down to 21 emotionally-charged stories. Smith uses their words verbatim, channeling the distinctive voices and personalities with a quick-change of accent, dialect, gender, prop or costume.
“It’s not just policy, it’s not just politics,” Smith has said. “These are lives at stake: our lives, how we’re going to live. And also, I think, our dignity as Americans.”
“Our production of ‘Let Me Down Easy’ is the result of an extraordinary act of synergy,” says San Diego Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse. “Anna did all the interviews. Second Stage produced the show. When a national tour was contemplated in 2010, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley and Vantage Theatre artistic director Dori Salois jumped onboard with us to form a partnership to bring Anna here. Because of our friends across the nation and across town, San Diegans can see the work of one of America’s most esteemed theater artists.”
You won’t want to miss the tour de force that has been called “radiant,” “astonishing,” “engrossing and moving,” performed by the woman Newsweek dubbed “the most exciting individual in American theater.”
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, April 27-May 15 (sdrep.org).
Young Voices, Old Souls
Still hungry for tantalizing, titillating, thought-provoking ideas? Sate yourself with a few world premieres at the 11th annual Baldwin New Play Festival of UCSD.
Each year, these exciting productions, written by gifted MFA playwrights, are put onstage by the mega-talented MFA directors, actors and design students. Graduates of the MFA Playwriting program have gone on to have their plays produced and commissioned by major regional theaters across the country as well as Off Broadway. This year’s works are filled with passion, insight, humor and magic.
“What strikes me about the four plays in this year’s festival,” says professor Naomi Iizuka, head of the MFA Playwriting Program and a renowned playwright in her own right, “is how innovative they are. These plays are all grappling with big ideas and doing so in very fresh, original ways.
“In Krista Knight’s ‘Salamander Leviathan,” a meditation on the price of love, a man sells his soul to the devil,” Iizuka continues. “Lauren Yee’s play, “A Man, His Wife and His Hat,” is a wild, delightful fable, featuring a golem, a floating baby and a giant hole in the earth full of memories.
“David Myers’ ‘Small Prophecies’ is an insightful, fiercely smart and terrifying window into what it means to grow up in 21st century America. ‘Bodies in the Park,’ by Sharif Abu-Hamdeh, seems to be a mystery involving a dead girl, but it’s really an exploration of the lies we tell and the secrets we keep from those we love most of all.”
Ghosts, parenthood, growing up, lost love and a missing hat.
“The plays this year are defined by how different they are from one another,” Iizuka concludes. “They run the gamut from fantasy to drama. It’s that diversity of voices that I find so exciting.”
Take it from me; you will, too.
The Baldwin New Play Festival runs on the campus of UCSD from April 13-23 (theatre.ucsd.edu).
Pat Launer is an Emmy Award-winning arts writer and theater critic who’s written for newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and online. Her theater reviews can be heard weekly on KSDS-FM, and she writes regularly for Patch.com. Pat has been named a Living Legacy by the Women’s International Center. www.patteproductions.com.