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Kingdom City

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Censorship as a publicized social and political issue comes and goes, taking up space on front pages and front porches from time to time. Censorship as an act, however, is perpetual. Not hearing about it does not mean it has disappeared.

Take the case in a Fulton, MO, school district a few years back. In case you did not read about it, a high school production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was cancelled, not because it was about the 17th Century Salem witch trials, but because it contained implications of an extra-marital affair. Quaint by contemporary standards, to be sure, but the blue noses sniffing out literature they deem too polluting for young audiences are not discouraged by modernity. It is their own community standards they deign to preserve, not the Constitution.

Such is the topic of La Jolla Playhouse’s current world premier production, Kingdom City, Sheri Wilner’s drama exploring sides in the culture battle of a small town’s Christian majority and its high school thespians. The former forces are led by Luke (Ian Littleworth), the zealous youth preacher born anew from a life of ill repute. Leading the charge for artistic freedom is the new drama teacher, Miriam (Kate Blumberg), a New Jersey transplant whose career has hit a bit of a snag. Caught up in the fray are Miriam’s husband Daniel (Todd Weeks) and her students Crystal (Katie Sapper), Katie (Cristina Gerla), and Matt (Austyn Myers).  Katie and Matt are “courting” (another quaint idea), which adds a predictable teen dilemma to the mix, as does Crystal’s egocentric drama queen persona. Daniel, a writer with lots of block, is questioning his vocation and his commitment to big city values. And Miriam does not really know what she’s going after or running from, at least in the beginning.

As the plot thickens, each character must come to grips with a past that impacts not only the present but the individual’s method for dealing with it. Personal repression plays alongside community suppression in a variety of ways and means.

If all that seems somewhat jumbled, it is. Jackson Gay’s rather loose direction is not the main culprit here. The script could do with some editing and arcing. There is just too much trying to be said; saying it all borders on preachiness, and some of it gets in the way. Crystal’s horrific experience and Matt’s unwitting part in it (his “trying to help” doesn’t make sense) is the biggest example of veering from the course. It could be its own play, but it derails the essence of this one.

Miriam’s shrill and strident character is unlikable, and David seems a milquetoast. The kids’ struggles with sex and popularity are typical, but they do not really seem to understand what all the censorship fuss is about. They say the words, but their hearts are not in it, being otherwise engaged with the common crises of adolescence.

This play’s greatest strength lies in the well-drawn and authentically acted character of Luke, who is a scary figure in his manipulation of young souls. And the staging contains some conscientious focal points, which move things along. Luke’s stone wall creation is a hit-you-over-the-head symbol and it is not clear why it’s necessary to the town, but it does offer some good chances for character reveal and dialogue, especially between Luke and Daniel. The preacher’s “draw the line” game is also heavy-handed imagery, but it’s interesting and tidily threads several scenes.

What this play has to offer in understanding the dynamic between protectionism and repression is significant, and the author’s willingness to explore gray areas of such a political-religious-social issue is admirable and novel. It would be a great idea to sort it out better.

“Kingdom City” plays through October 5 on La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre stage.

Performances are: 7:30 p.m. Tues-Weds; 8:00 p.m. Thurs-Sat.; 7:00 p.m. Sun. Matinees at 2:00 p.m. Sat-Sun

Tickets are $15 and up

Reservations: (858)550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org

 

 

 

 

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.