Politics, Premieres and Progression at the La Jolla Playhouse This Summer

by Pat Launer May 28, 2018


set-rendering-photos-courtesy-la-jolla-playhouseIt’s gonna be a sizzling summer at the La Jolla Playhouse: political relevance, two world premieres, one West Coast premiere and a new managing director.

Artistic director Christopher Ashley is still basking in his 2017 Tony Award win for his stunning direction of the heart-rending musical, “Come From Away” (still playing on Broadway, and selling at 101 percent capacity). But he’s by no means standing still.

He’s bidding a sad farewell to managing director Michael Rosenberg, who’s been his partner for nine of his 10 years at the Playhouse. And he’s offering a jubilant welcome to Debby Buchholz, a 15-year veteran at the theater, most recently as general manager.

“Michael is fantastic,” says Ashley. “And he’s been an amazing partner. He truly is a theater visionary. And he has a terrific sense of humor. He’s a treasure to the American theater. The McCarter Theatre Center [in New Jersey] is lucky to have him. I’m sad about Michael leaving and completely delighted that Debby is stepping into that role.” (More on Debby next month; my July theater feature will focus on her exclusively).

It’s a busy time all round, for Ashley and the Playhouse.

In the past year, five productions that were launched in La Jolla went on to New York. In addition to “Come From Away,” there was John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons,” which was nominated for a Tony Award for Best New Play. The wired, highly charged funnyman Leguizamo receives a Special Tony this year.

Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk” was also nominated for Best Play, and “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” snagged Tony nominations for two performers who played the Queen of Disco at different ages/stages: the knockout LaChanze (Best Lead Performance by an Actress in a Musical) and Ariana DeBose (Best Featured Performance by an Actress in a Musical). Only “Escape to Margaritaville,” a jukebox musical created around the songs of Jimmy Buffett, came away from the Tony noms empty-handed.

Overall, it’s a pretty heady time at the Playhouse heading into summer, and the work doesn’t shy away from the state of the nation.

“Every play we’re doing this summer feels like a play to do right this minute,” Ashley says. “And they were created by a really adventurous set of writers.”

The three summer offerings concern issues of immediate relevance: income inequality, immigration, race, gender, the political divide in America and the abuse of power.

And there will be royalty. “queens” is the second show up this summer, and “Seize the King” is the third. Later this year, the Playhouse premieres a new musical about Princess Diana.

“That was totally accidental,” Ashley says with a chuckle.

“This is our fifth straight year of all new plays and musicals [nearly 90 premieres all told, so far].  What we have this year is both emerging and established American playwrights, writing about the world at this moment. None of it is dead-on agit-prop [political or ideological propaganda]. All these new works represent sophisticated, nuanced artistry brought to this current moment in our history.”

Burrowing beneath the surface

First up is “Squirrels,” a quirky new play from the quirky, Tony Award-nominated Robert Askins, who wrote the hilariously irreverent “Hand to God,” wonderfully produced last year at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. In that piece, a hand puppet turns into a foul-mouthed Satanic mischief-maker.

In “Squirrels,” the 38-year-old Askins has moved from animalistic puppets to, well, animals, presumably representing the animal instincts in us all. Every character in the play is, yes, a squirrel.

There are six principals in the cast, with three additional furry-tailed rodents, played by UC San Diego MFA acting students, as “Squirrel Ensemble.”

“It’s savagely funny and very demented,” says Ashley. “Rob’s imagination is completely untethered.”

The off-the-wall creation pits the rich, hoarding Gray Squirrels against the starving, outcast Fox Squirrels. Winter is coming; distrust is mounting. And a wily outsider wreaks havoc.

The promotional material describes “an epic animal kingdom soap opera teeming with rebel armies, conspiracy, love and family loyalties. No squirrel will go unharmed.”

“It really is a story about squirrels,” says Ashley, “but there’s a parallel between the Gray and Red squirrels and the current socio-political issues. It’s also Shakespearean – with contemporary resonances to ‘King Lear,’ ‘Othello’ and ‘Richard III.’ And it’s a comedy. Then, of course, there’s the strangeness that only exists in Rob Askins’ mind.

“But he’s a really disciplined writer and a fantastic collaborator. A great combination of a true professional and a total wildman.”

Although Ashley and the Playhouse have been involved in several readings of the play, this is the first time it will be ‘on its feet,’ so there will continue to be revisions throughout the process. Mere days before rehearsals began, a new draft re-framed the piece from a three-act to a two-act play.

Among the challenges of bringing this imaginary world to life are creating appropriate costumes, set and movement. A stellar design team to the rescue.

The costume designer is Paloma Young, an alumna of the UCSD MFA program and a Tony Award winner for “Peter and the Starcatcher” (an imaginative prequel to “Peter Pan”), which got its start as a Page to Stage production at the Playhouse, before moving on to Broadway and garnering nine Tony Award nominations, nabbing four statuettes in 2012. In 2014, Young won a Lucille Lortel Award for “Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” the Moscow-set musical adaptation of part of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

The designer, writer and director “looked at more videos of squirrels than you can imagine – how they play, how they fight, how they make love. Our version will be part squirrel, part human. The toes will be squirrelly, and we’re having fun puppeteering the tails.”

Anjanette Maraya-Ramey will choreograph the physical movements of these humanimals, who will cavort in “a 24-foot high jungle gym of a tree,” as Ashley puts it, a set that springs from the inventive imagination of two-time Tony-winning scenic designer Beowulf Boritt.

“The cast,” says Ashley, “is multi-talented, with great vocal skills and excellent physicality. They’re all actors with a lot of emotional intelligence; because there’s so much re-writing, they have to be able to approach the rehearsal process with boldness.”

Women on the move…

Moving on from the animal kingdom, the Playhouse will present the West Coast premiere of “queens,” by 33-year-old Martyna Majok, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for her play, “Cost of Living.” Her breakout drama, the searing/funny immigrant story, “Ironbound,” received an excellent production at Moxie Theatre last year.

“I couldn’t be more delighted for her Pulitzer win,” says Ashley. “She’s a great talent, as exciting as a writer gets, and she’s really exploding onto the theater scene now. She’s crackerjack with language, and a really smart crafter of stories. I think she’s the whole package: smart, verbal, inventive and theatrical.”

Her play will be directed by Carey Perloff, longtime artistic director of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. She last directed at the Playhouse in 2014, a superb production of “The Orphan of Zhao.”

Majok’s “queens” (reason for the lower case title unknown) is set in 2017, in a rundown tenement basement in the borough of Queens, New York.

“With an all-female cast, it focuses on immigrant women who come through this building from different countries, trying to figure out their lives,” says Ashley. “The play explores the women’s relationships, and pays tribute to the amazing women who have given birth to events in the building – past and present. The writing style is really bold, and it beautifully personalizes the economics of class.”

When it premiered at Lincoln Center Theater in February, the New York Times said, “it strikes at the heart of the immigrant experience.”

One concern about that first production was that it tried to cover too much territory. It spanned 16 years and introduced 11 different refugee/immigrant women, each escaping something dreadful in her home country, a diverse geographical array that included Ukraine, Belarus, Afghanistan, Syria, Honduras and Poland, Majok’s own birthplace.

“She’s been rewriting nonstop since then,” says Ashley. “She’s a real perfectionist, and very ambitious. She came out here with ideas for a major overhaul. This will be her version 2.0.”

From queens to the King

The final summer offering (8/21-9/16) is the world premiere of “Seize the King,” by Will Power, a highly regarded playwright, performer, rapper, composer and lyricist, known for his innovative writing and exploration of new theatrical forms.

This will be his third visit to the Playhouse. He created a new work for children in 2007, (“Honey Bo and the Goldmine”), and his major play, “The Seven,” premiered here in 2008. That was a modernized musical version of the Greek tragedy, “Seven Against Thebes.”

This time, power is tackling Shakespeare, with a five-person re-interpretation of “Richard III.”

Shakespeare described the highly ambitious, mistrustful King Richard as “rudely stamp’d” and “unfinish’d.” He has an insatiable desire for power, and once he has it, he wields it tyrannically, and will quash any perceived threat. Over the course of the history play, he becomes increasingly paranoid and unhinged.

Any resemblance to current leaders is purely intentional.

“You can’t do a play about politics and not think about this president,” Ashley allows. “He’s too ubiquitous. He’s an attention-magnet, a genius at getting people talking about him. We’re talking about him right now! But this play won’t feature any dead-on imitation. It’s about power and politics: the abuse of power and the self-destruction of power. No names will be named; the audience will make the leap.”

“Jaime brought this play to me,” says Ashley, referring to his associate artistic director since 2014, who will helm the new piece. Jaime Castañeda, who has demonstrated his humor and humanity in “Tiger Style” and “At the Old Place” at the Playhouse, will direct the Power play.

“He was really excited about it. And I’ve been a big fan of Will Power. His work can be based on classics, but it has such a contemporary feel. ‘Seize the King’ is set in an imagined theatrical universe inspired by the current moment. I think Will’s poetic imagination and his irresistible style are powerful, surprising and funny. He’s bold and articulate. I always walk out of his plays feeling like I understand the world better.”

So, gear up for a summer in La Jolla – with squirrels and sovereigns and immigrants.

The world premiere, “The Squirrels” runs June 6-July 8. The West Coast premiere of “queens” plays from July 3-29. “Seize the King,” another world premiere, runs August 21-Sept. 16. Information and tickets are available at 858-550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org.


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