Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

In River City

July 20, 2012

Robert Foxworth as Henry Drummond, Bob Pescovitz as Judge and Adrian Sparks as Matthew Harrison Brady Photo by Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
The summer theater season is in full swing in San Diego where the Old Globe has recently rolled out all of their outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theater productions for the summer. Adrian Noble has returned for the season as Artistic Director for the Globe's 2012 Shakespeare Festival and has stuck with the format of recent years with a comedy, As You Like It, a drama or history play, Richard III, and another classic play. This year the non-Shakespeare classic is Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, directed by Noble in an attractive if somewhat golden-hued production. The play is a fantasy of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial during which a Tennessee school teacher was put on trial for violating state law by teaching evolution to his students. The play is a bit more idea-oriented than narrative-oriented with its speeches from Matthew Harrison Brady, the play’s stand-in for William Jennings Bryan, and Henry Drummond, the ersatz version of
 Clarence Darrow. Of course, the fact that there are people in America who still want to have these inane 100-year-old arguments over evolution does make the show eerie, but its important to remember that the authors had other targets. The play is also a thinly veiled attack on McCarthyism in the 1950s and is as much about socially responsible critical thinking as it is about evolution. What Lawrence and Lee saw as a somewhat out of date debate about science was actually a vehicle for bigger fish.

This message still communicates with the audience, and in San Diego there were several who applauded and cheered Drummond’s passionate defense of the right and responsibility to think freely in this country. Noble doesn’t always quite manage to hit all the notes in the show, though. The leads, Robert Foxworth as Drummond and Adrian Sparks as Brady were both believable and relaxed, fleshing out their many passionate speeches with real personality. But there was something hazy and softly lit about the show with a physical sensation and busy movement among the cast that made the whole thing feel as much like The Music Man as anything else. The design and physical movement tended toward sunny, bright, and sweetly comic nostalgia bumping up against the more biting political commentary of the show. On balance, though, it’s a worthwhile revisiting of a show that does have contemporary overtones.

Jay Whittaker as Richard III Photo by Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
Far more successful was Lindsay Posner’s staging of Richard III with its graffiti covered concrete wall sections and angular modern costuming. These are not unusual visual cues for Richard III - a play most design teams find irresistible, placing it among the obvious aesthetic debris of 20th-century fascism. Posner’s team isn’t above that either, but the direction is sharp and quickly paced even in those moments when the level of angst is cranked up higher than it need be. The title role goes to Jay Whittaker who plays the villainous king often with a barely restrained glee that works well for him physically. He’s about the most handsome, physically robust looking Richard III that you’re likely to see and, while he may not look the part of a malformed despot, he makes it work legitimately in his own skin. The women in the cast are uniformly strong including Vivia Font as Lady Anne, Dana Green as Queen Elizabeth, and a particularly commanding Robin Moseley as Queen Margaret. The looming sense of dread and the inevitability of small minds is just as palpable here as in Inheret the Wind with the benefit, of course, of Shakespeare’s beautiful words. It’s a solid quality production that should rightfully highlight this year’s festival.

Miles Anderson and Sean Lyons in Divine Rivalry Photo by Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
And, while not a part of the festival itself, right across the plaza, the Old Globe is presenting one of their two big summer indoor shows – Michael Kramer and K.S. Moynihan’s Divine Rivalry. (The other, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage will open later this month.) The historical event behind Divine Rivalry was the real life meeting between two giants of the Italian Renaissance, DaVinci and Michaelangelo who were brought in to each paint opposing frescos at Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio – neither of which was completed. The two artists were contemporaries of one another and did meet for just such an occasion, which, in the play, is presented as a contest sponsored by none other than another Florentine contemporary of the artists, Machiavelli. Interesting fodder to be sure, but Kramer and Moynihan don’t seem to have much to offer in terms of dramatic exploration or development of the material. The show is filled with ironic and unfunny in-jokes all delivered with a winking nod to the audience. The dialog is prosaic and patently dull in much of the performance. The show almost comes off a reportage with little to no poetry. There are some attractive uses of video projection, but its not enough to lend any substance to this particular rivalry. There's plenty of time and opportunity to see most of these shows, particularly on the outdoor stage, which is always one of the highlights of the San Diego summer.

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