Little Flower of East Orange: brutal acts to disturb, even offend, hardened playgoers
  • Little Flower of East Orange: brutal acts to disturb, even offend, hardened playgoers
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THE YEAR IN REVIEW. The world’s most anticipated drama — its end — came and didn’t. Advocates of the apocalypse are probably scrambling for a new Day of Doom so they won’t have to face their problems.

This year had two of the most anticipated musicals in recent memory, both about Japanese Americans. Allegiance, at the Old Globe, told the saga of relocation in World War II; in Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, at La Jolla Playhouse, a woman waged war on cancer cells, literally. Both had megatalented casts (Lee Salonga and George Takei for Allegiance; Paul Nolan and Tom Hewitt, in a minor role, for Yoshimi), and Yoshimi had some of the most dazzling effects ever seen on a local stage: a 14-foot avatar, smokey-pink robots that could appear and vanish, even fly. After a while, Robert Brill’s extraordinary high-tech set seemed capable of anything.

But each was incomplete. Take away the cast for Allegiance and the pyrotechnics for Yoshimi and what remains needs much more work, the scores included.

Two musicals that didn’t: Cygnet’s Parade and the Old Globe’s Scottsboro Boys combined all the elements: savvy direction (Sean Murray and Susan Stroman), inventive choreography (David Brannen and Stroman), talent to the nth degree, and individual standouts (Sandy Campbell’s arc in Parade, from ostrich-passivity to forthright assertion, made it impossible to imagine anyone else in the role).

The shows might be a marker as well. They portray unpromising subjects for a musical: brutal American racism and anti-Semitism. It’s a measure of San Diego theater’s growth that they were so well received. Fifteen, maybe even ten years ago, they might have been too iffy.

From afar, ten-minute plays staged in cars sounded, if not nonsensical, then at least strange. Two actors in the front seat, two audience members in back? Yes. And La Jolla Playhouse’s The Car Plays became such a hit they’re bringing it back next year. I hope they bring back — now it can be told — the hilarious one in which the actors sat in back and expected the two citizens in front to perform the play!

Mo`olelo Performing Arts’ Kita y Fernanda and Ion Theatre’s The Little Flower of East Orange dared a different kind of risk: they found striking new ways to put a theme into the audience’s heads.

Tanya Saracho’s Kita follows the lives of two Latina women. They grow up side-by-side in McAllen, Texas, but grow miles apart. Fernanda knew privilege; Kita was an undocumented alien. To alienate her audience, the playwright wrote scenes in either Spanish or English, sans subtitles. The choice became most apparent when an actor told a joke in Spanish and less than half the audience laughed. The others — like Kita in the story — felt left out. English speakers may have wanted the device to stop — okay, we get it — but it didn’t, and they remained excluded throughout, unable to wish it away.

This also happens in Scottsboro Boys, come to think of it, since the musical persists with an offensive, minstrel-show format long after the point’s been made.

In Little Flower of East Orange, Stephen Adly Guirguis writes scathingly, fingernails-on-the-chalkboard, about abuse: physical, chemical, psychological. Act One mirrors his subject. In brief scenes, many just flashes, the playwright bombards his audience with enough stark images and brutal acts to disturb, even offend, hardened playgoers — in effect, theatrical abuse.

Those who didn’t leave at intermission witnessed one of the year’s finest performances.

In the Band’s version of the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “Don’t You Do It,” the late, lamented Levon Helm sings the line: “If my heart was made of glass/ Well then you’d surely see (how much heartache and misery, girl, you been causing me).” In the rarest kind of acting, there are no tricks or techniques. Nothing blocks the way. You see straight into the heart.

Two years ago, Lois Markle gave such a performance in August: Osage County, as a crotchety survivor. Jeffrey Jones gave one as Danny in Little Flower. Danny’s ten kinds of catastrophe. He begins in handcuffs after a bar fight, and — as the playwright said in an interview — is “very angry and sad and inconsolable and alone.” He negotiates, not always successfully, an emotional minefield and somehow emerges with a smidge of grace. Critic-speak would say, “Jeffrey Jones was Danny. Every feeling, every hurt shone through.” Okay, but he really was Danny’s heart of glass.

Catalina Maynard, in Little Flower but especially as the lead in Ion’s Julia, as a sinking ship wanting to take collateral damage along, also had that rare, see-into transparency. As did Mark Christopher Lawrence in Ion’s Top Dog/Underdog and Moxie’s first-rate A Raisin in the Sun — most of all in that extraordinary moment when, after demanding this and that, his character flat loses it. He drops to his knees and pray-pleads for help. That move alone, so astonishing, unexpected, and completely true, called for a battlefield promotion, a Heart of Glass Award, on the spot.

I’m not just a fan of Homer’s Iliad, I’ve had the honor to teach it many times. And I went to La Jolla Playhouse’s An Iliad, in which one actor performs the 24-book epic by himself, with dread. And I was blown away by Henry Woronicz’s performance as the Poet. He could be Homer or a time-traveler. Either way, the telling takes a toll and conjures up the Poet’s own rage and “enough pain to break the spirit” as he paints the Trojan War in words.

Using Robert Fagels’s excellent translation helped a heap, as did Mark Bennett’s “soundscape,” performed by Brian Ellingsen, which made an amplified double bass sound like an entire orchestra. One of the most amazing features: it didn’t take long to adjust to the speaker and the sounds weaving through his words. Director Lisa Peterson kept the story focused so clearly that externals fell away. We weren’t in the Mandell Weiss Forum. We were huddled around a campfire, somewhere in time, listening to an ancient, tormented man tell a tormented tale as sparks crackled and rose into the night. ■

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