A Comedy-Drama Sandwich at North Coast Repertory Theatre

by Pat Launer May 28, 2018


james-sutorius-robyn-cohen-photo-by-aaron-rumleyDavid Ellenstein is making a sandwich: “two pieces of lite bread with meat in the middle.”

That’s how the artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre describes his spring-summer triad.

In theater terms, his ‘sandwich’ translates into two frothy comedies bookending a deep, intense drama.

He subscribes to the “Mary Poppins” musical credo: ‘A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.’

“That really captures my philosophy,” says Ellenstein, who’s celebrating his 16th year at North Coast. “I want to do all kinds of work at this theater: from farces to heavy tragedy, classics to experimental work. And I think our audiences will come along for the ride.”

Indeed they do. This year, 73 percent of the theater’s 2,300 subscribers renewed their subscriptions in an early bird offer – before the season was even announced.

The farces and comedies are an easy sell, and they always extend beyond their scheduled four weeks.

The April-May show was “How the Other Half Loves,” a smart, cleverly structured comedy written by the funny/acerbic English wit, Alan Ayckbourn, impeccably guest-directed by Geoffrey Sherman.

“The pre-sales were so strong,” says David, “we added the extra week before we even opened.”

The Other Funny Thing…

David expects an even greater response to his midsummer musical, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (July 11-August 12, possibly extending to August 19).

The 1962 musical boasts a book by Bert Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, with Stephen Sondheim contributing both music and lyrics for the first time in his professional career (he wrote lyrics only for “West Side Story” in 1957 and “Gypsy” in 1959).

“A Funny Thing,” a wacky musical comedy, was inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus (251-183 B.C.E.). It’s the funny/bawdy story of the slave Pseudolus, whose master lives next door to a house of courtesans. The primary plotline (among several) is the outlandish attempts of Pseudolus to win his freedom.

The shenanigans bear many of the marks of classic farce: puns, door-slamming, mistaken identity and satirical comments on social class. The title derives from a joke opener often used by vaudeville comedians: “A funny thing happened on the way to the theater…”

The original Broadway production, which ran for nearly 1,000 performances, garnered six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It starred the zany Zero Mostel, who also starred in the 1966 film.

“I’ve always loved the show,” says Ellenstein. “It’s a crackup. It’s a Borscht Belt musical with that over-the-top sense of humor.”

Ellenstein had been thinking about the show for five or six years, but he worried about producing it in the theater’s current space, with its small, narrow stage and cramped dressing room.

“I’ve been waiting for us to build a new theater. But I’m tired of waiting.”

Plans for a new playhouse, that would take the company from a 200-seat theater to a state-of-the-art facility with 350 seats, plus an additional, flexible, 100-seat black box space, have fallen through repeatedly.

“I decided to just accept the challenge. The show hasn’t been done around here in a while. I still think it’s really funny, and with the right people, it’ll just be a full-out good-time summer show.”

Ellenstein has reduced the original cast size from 22 to 13. Ten of the actors will be Equity (union) members, a huge expense for the theater. There will also be four band members.

“I’m breaking the bank on this one,” says Ellenstein, whose annual budget for the theater is $2.7 million. “It’s the most expensive show we’ve ever done.”

The lead role requires a large personality and a huge talent. David has cast Omri Schein, a very funny actor/singer, most recently seen on the North Coast stage as another hilarious servant, Passepartout, in “Around the World in 80 Days.”

“He’s a very funny guy,” says Ellenstein. “He can sing it, he can create the rapport with the audience. I think he’s ready to be pushed to be the best he’s ever been. And what a role to do that in!”

The rest of the cast features some of San Diego’s most comical and talented performers, including David McBean, Jason Maddy, Kevin Hafso-Koppman, Melinda Gilb, Noelle Marion and Luke Harvey Jacobs.

“The audience will have a blast,” David promises, “and we’ll have a blast putting it on. As for the logistics of the small space and this huge piece… we’ll figure it out [with help from resident designer Marty Burnett]. We always do. We can’t fit all those bodies into our small dressing room, so we’ll be using the theater school space two doors down.”

It won’t necessarily be an all-toga affair, either.

“The show is framed as a contemporary troupe putting on this play,” Ellenstein explains. “It’s their attempt at being Roman. That gives us – including ace costume designer Elisa Benzoni – leeway to have fun. We can also stick in anachronistic humor. In the original production, there were many running gags that had dual meanings.”

Now, for something completely different…

But before he embarks on that funfest, he’ll be directing the regional premiere of a highly acclaimed but somewhat risky drama, “The Father.”

“It’s an important play,” says Ellenstein, “that nobody’s done. Everyone’s scared of it.”

Written in French by Florian Zeller, with a translation by acclaimed British translator Christopher Hampton, the play received a 2014 Molière Award for France’s Best Play. It was also highly praised in London (2015) and on Broadway (2016), where it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play.

The content of the piece may be disturbing for some audience members. It’s a highly personal study of a proud old man’s mental deterioration. The Broadway production earned Frank Langella a Best Actor Tony Award.

For the North Coast production, Ellenstein tapped James Sutorius, a veteran actor who has performed successfully on Broadway and at the most prestigious regional theater companies in the country, including The Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse. He has also made numerous TV and film appearances.

In 2007, he won two San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Awards, for his memorable performance as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and his multiple supporting roles in John Strand’s “Lincolnesque,” both at the Globe, where he also performed in “The Price” in 2009. In 2012, he gave an aptly slick performance in the La Jolla Playhouse production of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Sutorius will play 80-year old-Andre, who lives with his daughter, Anne (to be played by L.A.-based stage and screen actor Robyn Cohen). Other characters are portrayed by local favorites Richard Baird, Shana Wride, Jacque Wilke and Matt Thompson.

“It’s an 85 minute puzzle,” says Ellenstein. “Only halfway through do you realize that you’re seeing the world from Andre’s perspective.”

As The Guardian put it, “there are strong echoes of ‘King Lear,’ both in the impending madness and the father-daughter relationship. It is an astonishingly unguarded play about the cruelties of love and the limits of patience, and the way child-parent relationships become inverted as old age creeps up and mugs us.”

In the New York Times, Ben Brantley called the play “cold-eyed, harrowing,” praising the “ingenious premise [of] presenting the world through the perspective of a mind in an advancing state of dementia, making reality … relative and unfixed. ‘The Father’ offers one of the most disorienting experiences in town.”

“I think the play shines a light on something many people have experience with, directly or indirectly,” says David. “An aging person you care about, losing his or her grip. I get the impression that Andre was a raconteur in his youth, a lady’s man with real joie de vivre. He doesn’t understand how all that has changed. He still thinks young girls are attracted to him, turning on his charm for the caregiver. He keeps thinking other people are stealing from him or tricking him. He thinks they’re all crazy, not him.

“Because the protagonist doesn’t have a full grasp on reality,” Ellenstein continues, “the plot doesn’t have a linear progression. Andre conflates time and place, but you don’t have to work to figure it out. It washes over you, and then you realize what’s going on.

“I’m very selective about doing plays like this,” Ellenstein asserts, “but I feel that it’s important to do them. That’s why I did ‘Wit’ (a play about a female professor dying of cancer). It was a great production, an artistic and critical success, but people didn’t come.

“Many said they go to theater to escape.  I can understand that. But a literary success is a piece of theater art, and I think it’s important that North Coast Rep does that kind of theater, too: hard-hitting, and sometimes hard to take.

“I’m as close as could be to the subject matter. I’m living it every day,” Ellenstein adds, referring to his 92-year-old mother, who’s living with his family (wife Denise and sons age 14 and 16). She’s in the same kind of mental decline as the character in the play.

“The perspective in the play,” David continues, “seeing the world through the elderly person’s eyes, is interesting for people who live it and for those who don’t. It rings so true.

“I’m secure enough in this piece of work, and honest enough to say, ‘If the subject matter is too hard for you, don’t come.’ But if you do, you’ll get new insights about this situation, your family, even yourself. Hopefully, it will provide a better understanding of what people undergoing this type of decline are going through. And that, hopefully, will lead to dealing with them in a kinder, more humane way. It’s enlightening. It’s a piece of art. And that’s what art is for, to make us more aware of who we are.”

After his ‘sandwich’ this summer, Ellenstein is cooking up North Coast Rep’s 37th season, which will include three comedies, one dark mystery, two dramas and a world premiere musical.

Another season of sampling the whole smorgasbord of theater.

“The Father” continues through June 24 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” runs from July 11-August 19 (and possibly beyond). Tickets and information: 858-481-1055; northcoastrep.org.


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