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Clybourne Park

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Currently offered by San Diego Repertory Theatre, Bruce Norris’ Tony and Pulitzer awards-winning play, Clybourne Park, begins where Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama, A Raisin in the Sun, ended. In Hansberry’s play, a black family, the Youngers, is soon to move into a house in an all- white neighborhood. Act 1 of Norris’ script focuses on the white couple, Bev and Russ, who sold them the home, as they prepare to move away from the all-white middle class neighborhood. In midst of their packing, which is facilitated by their black domestic help, Francine and her husband Albert, several locals drop by to voice their objections to the sale, and the couple is forced to defend their choice and their liberal principles. In Act 2, 50 years later, Clybourne Park has undergone a sea change. Now, a white couple, Lindsey and Steve, prepare to invade the African-American locality, tear down the house, and build a modern dwelling designed by their own architect. Clybourne’s neighbors are again objecting to the newcomers, this time on historical preservation grounds. Both acts feature crude, racist, misogynist jokes and taunts, giving the play its comedic genre, even though it is not altogether humorous.

A dark sub-plot creates a tragic undertone that resonates more today, especially in heavily military San Diego. That sub-text focuses on Bev and Russ’s dead son, who hung himself in the upstairs bedroom just months after returning from the war in Korea. Its theme of military PTSD and suicide is more relevant and modern.

Ironically, Norris’ play offers nothing new about race. But in its depiction of the damage done by war and its personal, familial and community aftermath, it speaks clearly, reflecting today’s headlines of upticks in warrior suicides and the helplessness of those left behind. The play’s obvious forsaken include Russ, who exhibits his lack of control in depression, and Bev, who hides hers in cheerful optimism and nervous concern.

Their only child is dead and the war, presumably the Korean conflict, is responsible. Yet, as the story moves along (albeit in fits and starts, due to odd pacing), other unsettled accountabilities, including the neighbors and even the neighborhood grocer, emerge. It takes a village to rehab a traumatized soldier, but the village must recognize and accept its duty. Evidently, Clybourne Park had other issues occupying its consciousness. Primary in its citizenry’s concern was its racial boundary (Act 1), and its “historical” integrity (Act 2).

Hansberry’s precursor drama’s title comes from a book-length poem by Langston Hughes, "Montage of a Dream Deferred", published in 1951. In his prefatory note for “Montage…” Hughes explained that the poem’s rhythms derived from “Afro-American popular music” and its sources.

”…this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of a jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition,” he wrote.

He could have written similar words to explain the rhythm of Norris’ play, which contains the punctuations and, particularly, the “disc-tortions” of two communities on the thresholds of transition.

Unfortunately, The Rep’s production is fraught with mixed cadence that interferes rather than progresses, pulsing as if it needs a defibrillator, with an irregular beat. Fault director Sam Woodhouse’s puzzling blocking and pacing, which shuffles characters into odd places, creating distance where intimacy belongs. In the jumble, important conceits get lost or become irritating. Attention must be paid to: a chafing dish, a trunk, and capital cities of foreign countries so that the symbolism is not hobbled or buried.

For example, Bev begins the first scene yelling at Russ about the Neapolitan ice cream he is consuming. That iconic 1950s dessert places the action precisely in the middle-class white home where the husband could eat from a carton in the living room and feel normal and kingly. But the word, Neapolitan, begets a quiz about capitals of the world’s countries that carries a nasty undercurrent of male brain dominance. The geography one-upmanship threads throughout the play, making a clever vehicle that ferries the classicism into Act 2. There, it emerges as a travel cross-examination masked as tourist chronicles, pitting genders and ethnicities against each other.

Speaking truth to power could be another theme here. But the power is not consistent and truth is as elusive as a green flash. So, veracity shoots out in dark and inappropriate humor and biting sarcasm, escalating, predictably, into hysteria and fisticuffs. Only the deaf pregnant woman is immune.

Meanwhile, there are some noteworthy performances, as actors serve in dual roles, splitting their characters between acts.

Mark Pinter as husband Russ and handyman Dan adeptly surfs a wave of emotion in his roles as depressed father in Act 1 to hail-fellow-well-met contractor in Act 2. Matt Orduña simmers as Albert/Kevin, in both decades, holding the anger just beneath the skin, where it festers until a physical or verbal punch busts it through his characters’ not-so-thick dermis and spraying all those within close range. Amanda Leigh Cobb ably brings out the un-PC-comedy in her role as deaf pregnant wife Betsy in Act 1, switching to the assertive, but frustrated spouse Lindsey in the second act. As the domestic Francine and community activist Lena, Monique Gaffney resists pigeonholing, warding off a too submissive servitude in Act 1 and using both histrionics and patience in her pleas for reason and compromise in Act 2.

Other roles and portrayals sink and swim into stereotype. Although his neighborly frenzy contains many of the play’s more humorous lines, Jason Heil as neighbor Karl in Act 1 and husband Steve in Act 2 goes a bit over the top. Ditto Sandy Campbell as wife Bev, later realtor Kathy, who yells in the beginning, making everyday discourse too voluble. In all fairness, Campbell has a tough row to hoe with the weird blocking, and she does manage to pull off a believable woman of the house most of the time. As Reverend Jim and lawyer Tom, Jason Maddy portrays the slimiest characters, and he exposes the sleaziness of hypocrisy and opportunism, even though the roles themselves are caricatures.

Likewise, Robin Sanford Roberts’ crack house set design for Act 2, which belies any argument for historic preservation, although Act 1’s 1950s bungalow is spot on. Jennifer Brawn Gittings gets the costumes, and Missy Bradstreet’s wigs fit the fashion and the humor of both decades.

The final scene, a prologue in epilogue position, tells a story both chilling and superfluous. Chilling in its depiction of the final moments of a mentally wounded warrior, with Jason Maddy as the isolated son; superfluous because all the details came in the first act. Nevertheless, it has something important to say. Even in the midst of modern day ethnic negotiations, a shameful, indiscriminate neglect deserves at least its day in the sun.

Clybourne Park plays at San Diego Repertory Theatre in downtown Horton Plaza through February 10.

Performances: Th-Sat 8:00 p.m; Sun at 2:00 p.m., with selected Sun., Tues, Weds at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $33 to $52; $18 students, discounts for groups, seniors, military.

Reservations: www.sdrep.org or (619) 544-1000.

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.