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Ruined

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John Lyly had it right. "The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war," said he. "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, echoes that sentiment more than 400 years later. Wars are not reasonable; love cannot be rational.

La Jolla Playhouse's current production of Nottage's drama, which elucidates and castigates the wars of the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), is not truly fair, either. The subject is worthy and important, and the stories of those who inhabit it deserve illumination. Nevertheless, this play, as staged and presented, is not the thing that brings it all home.

Considering these times and the relevance of war's effects on those who had no willing part in it, it should. Blame a dragging (70-minute) first act with a mostly inexperienced cast for the lack of impact. Director Liesl Tommy shares culpability for a lack of tight direction and the inappropriate ennui. The script asks a lot of the actors, demanding they translate atrocities without melodrama. It is equally challenging for the audience, which must surrender early expectations of significant action. Nevertheless, the story triumphs in the end for the lessons it shares about love and war and those who live with, and through, both.

As the playwright has said, "(women's) bodies had become battlefields." Yet, the story is not a docudrama as much as it is a parable. It is a story tinged with humor and hope, and in those virtues lie its rewards.

Set (intricately and believably by scenic designer Clint Ramos) in a Congolese jungle bar-brothel where both the rebel and the government armies can enjoy drink, dancing and women, the contemporary tale focuses on the real people, drawn unwillingly into a political stag fight not of their making.

Opening with banters between a traveling salesman, Christian (played as benevolent fool by Oberon K.A. Adjepong) and the bar's indomitable owner, Mama Nadi (a forceful Tonye Patano), the first scene brings on the two traumatized refugee girls whom Christian rescued from certain starvation after their villages and families turned them out. Raped and "ruined," the limping Salima (a melodramatic Pascale Armand) and her comely friend Sophie (a composed Carla Duren) become part of Mama's family of prostitutes. They join the veteran Josephine (played with convulsive abandon by Zainab Jah) in forming the ersatz-win-not losing-as-badly situational complexity of a society forced by atrocious circumstance into survival mode. Mama profits, and her girls are protected.

We get it. In the first 20 minutes. So, what is with the following 50? The girls talk of missing their homes and families. Mama talks about her desires for continued independence. Salima's husband Simon (an anxious Okieriete Onaodowan) comes for her, talks loudly about capturing her, but stands in the rain rather than making a decisive move. The story deserves more action and less talk-talk.

However, in the much livelier Act 2, the armies are waging atrocities on women and children as they take turns popping into Mama's place for some cheering up (which involves drunken brawling, dancing and raping). Here is the rub and the irony. Mama profits, but mostly from those who commit the war crimes. She takes from the evil (the commandoes) and gives to the poor (her girls). Mr. Harari (an uncertain Joseph Kamal) is the more stereotypical profiteer, taking from anyone to boost his own depository. His success balances on his opportunistic skills.

Like the comparable Mother Courage, Mama balances on a tightrope barrier of luck, which depends on the two armies never being in her place at the same time and on those whom she trusts not to betray her. Ah, Switzerland, she is not. Neutrality is an illusion. The inevitable occurs. The war will come to all, and the results are classic.

An innocent is sacrificed. The armies converge, and lives are jeopardized. The trustee proves cowardly. But classic is not the same as simple, thanks to a redeeming and heartrending set of secrets and circumstances. Credit is equally due to Adjepong's emancipated acting that conveys the authentic Christian lacking in Act 1 and Patano's dexterous management of Mama's transformation.

It has become obvious that Mama cannot remain alone against the terrors of her world. Yet, she must give up something most precious to gain the possibility that love holds out to her. The girls are not as ruined as fate dictated, for life goes on and hope sparks a bit of music in the darkness.

No, Mr. Lyly, not all is fair. Yet, even in life's most horrendous and malevolent situations there exists the potential for rightfulness.

"Ruined" by Lynn Nottage plays on the Mandell Weiss Theatre stage at LaJolla Playhouse through December 19. Performances are: Tues/Weds at 7:30 pm; Thu-Sat at 8:00 pm; Sun at 7:00 pm. Matinees on Sat & Sun at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $31-$66, available at the Playhouse Box Office (858) 550-1010 or online at 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.