Fourth Time’s a Charm: Another La Jolla Playhouse “WOW FESTIVAL” – In a New Venue

by Pat Launer September 24, 2019


32870803007_b8a808c51d_oTalk about your WOW factor.

The La Jolla Playhouse searches far and wide–and locally–for unique, intriguing and entertaining presentations for its Without Walls (WOW) Festival. Since its inception in 2011, WOW has become a signature Playhouse initiative, designed to venture beyond the physical confines of traditional theater.

The first two Festivals of site-based, immersive/interactive performances (2013, 2015) were held in and around the Playhouse theater district, on the UC San Diego campus.

Over the years, a bevy of individual WOW-works have been presented in unlikely places: the San Diego Botanic Garden (“Susurrus,” 2011), Martini’s Above Fourth Supper Club (“Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir,” 2012), Little Italy (“Accomplice: San Diego,” 2013), SILO in Maker’s Quarter (“El Henry,” 2014), the Lafayette Hotel (“The Grift,” 2015), Writerz Blok (“The Bitter Game,” 2016), the Challenged Athletes Foundation (“What Happens Next,” 2018) and (a personal favorite, which made repeat appearances), in automobiles, with an audience of two in the back seat (“The Car Plays: San Diego”).

In 2017, the Festival was spread out around downtown. But there was no central meeting-place where folks could discuss what they’d seen and get recommendations for where to go next.

The fourth iteration of this 4-day biennial festival combines the best of the fests, extending into the community at the Arts District Liberty Station at the former Naval Training Center in Point Loma. This 100-acre expanse of indoor and outdoor venues will have a central hub (the Show Imaging Festival Stage, with ongoing acts) and an open lawn area (the North Promenade) for congregating, sharing, connecting–and scoping out the many food and drink options at Liberty Station.

In the past, performers have balanced precariously overhead, participants have walked blindfolded through a maze, and a huge puppet emerged from the ocean. This year promises to be equally innovative and beguiling.

“There truly will be something to appeal to everyone,” says Christopher Ashley, the Rich Family Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse. “We’re delighted that audiences of all walks of life can gather to celebrate our community’s adventurous spirit and rich cultural diversity.”

This year, the Festival curator and producer is accomplished, 30 year-old Playhouse Associate Producer Teresa Sapien, who has been part of all previous WOW events, and has traveled the country and beyond to find provocative performances.

“It’s a real joy to be out in the community,” Sapien says of the new venue. “The NTC Foundation has been enormously helpful and supportive.”

There will be more than 20 presentations at this Festival. Half are free and outdoors; all the indoor presentations are ticketed.

“For the first time, we’ll have a mix of international, national and local acts,” says Sapien, who received more than 50 responses to the “intensive application process.”

Three productions were commissioned by the Playhouse:

“Ikaros,” by New York-based Third Rail Projects, an audience-centered narrative of flight and failure, told through myth, film, poetry and dance. In view of the airport, the piece includes a walking tour through a desert garden path, and features images of the mythical Icarus and flight pioneer Amelia Earhart.

“Las Quinceañeras,” by Liberty Station resident artist David Israel Reynoso and his immersive company, Optika Modern. In 2017, they produced “Waking La Llorona” for WOW, and were intrinsically involved in the Off Broadway mega-hit, the “Macbeth”-inspired “Sleep No More.” Their latest surreal, immersive, multi-sensory experience explores the Latinx rite of passage by inviting adventurous audience members to meet with a ‘paranormal optician,’ and then take a “hallucinogenic journey” into the early 1990s, to relive several 15 year olds’ celebrations.

“Written in Stone,” motivated, says Sapien, “by people’s deep love of the car plays,” will be produced by San Diego’s Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company, the Playhouse’s 2019 resident theater. Using unexpected spaces around Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens at Liberty Station, they’ll present five new 10-minute plays that were inspired by their location and written by a diverse array of commissioned playwrights–from New York, Chicago, Texas, San Diego and Alaska.

Other productions, from Australia, France, Poland, Mexico, New York, Utah and Israel, will have attendees experiencing a re-creation of a 1913 women’s suffrage pageant (“Allegory”); touching an unseen refugee through a (gallery) wall (“As Far As My Fingertips Take Me”); boarding kids on foot-propelled sailing vessels on an imaginary urban ocean (“Boats”); and roaming the poetic universe of T.S. Eliot (“Peregrinus”).

The Israel submission is “Portals: Interactive Connected Trees,” by Matan Berkowitz. The installation turns two trees into ‘portals of nonverbal communication.’ When one tree is touched, it “charges up” with light and sound; then, it wirelessly triggers the second tree, bringing it to life. As long as both trees are being touched, they are establishing communication between two different locations and people.

A few presentations from the wide range of local producing organizations include the following:

“Senior Prom,” from Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theatre, part of its Aging Creatively senior dance program;

“How High the Moon,” by local playwright Mike Sears: a modern folktale employing live music, animation, puppetry and actors to tell about a young couple who set out to make their story complete by retrieving the moon, but the journey also tests the fabric of their love. Presented in a nighttime storytelling circle;

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” from San Diego Ballet: a whimsical take on Shakespeare’s beloved comedy as a ballet under the stars. A garden-set 360-degree experience;

“Without a Net,” from Malashock Dance: a multi-dimensional participatory experience with an edgy, risqué, down-on-its-luck traveling circus/carnival. Audience members don costumes for the photo booth, play with the projection technology, and watch circus-themed dances, aerial acrobatics, a ‘clowntortionist’ and sword swallower;

“Hall Pass,” from Blind Spot Collective: short plays and musicals by rising talents, set and performed in a high school, offering a glimpse of the world young people navigate every day. Audiences choose their own adventure as they experience the trials and triumphs of the class of 2022.

“The Golem of La Jolla–Excerpts in Concert: A modern parable spoken and sung”: With music by acclaimed composer Michael Roth and libretto by Allan Havis, Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at UC San Diego, this contemporary chamber opera is as timely, ancient and political as could be.

“Michael and I have been worried about the rise of white nationalism,” says Havis. “Despite the marches, murders and angry rhetoric, Jewish people we know casually are doubling down on support of Trump. We needed to say and do something. Another Jewish progressive we know suggested that ‘what we need is a Golem. It’s the only way to get through this nightmare of history we’re living through. It’s a time of morally demented leadership with very limited moral conscience or checks and balances on the Republican side.’

“So we thought about that, and thought, ‘What if the Golem is conjured and has free will, and shows up for the job, but doesn’t want to do the work? And we thought: Which is the more moral action? Doing something sacred and blasphemous, but that kills less people? Or using traditional law enforcement to confront the mob? What do you do when you’re at a crisis point?”

The piece is set a month before the 2020 election, when mosques and synagogues nationwide are under siege by white nationalists. A mysterious rabbi from Prague visits a fictional La Jolla Synagogue’s Rabbi Joan, trumpeting the arrival of an avenging beast, a gigantic, red-clay Golem.

The original Golem legend came from 16th century Prague, where Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel reported bringing a Golem to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations, to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms. The word ‘Golem’ was used in the Book of Psalms to mean an amorphous, unformed material. Many versions have the Golem eventually going on a murderous rampage.

“The Prague rabbi in our story,” Havis explains, “reasons that employing a Golem will be more humane than having the National Guard fire into the crowd. Not convinced, Rabbi Joan warns her community about placing their faith in Kabbalistic black arts. Meanwhile, all await the clash outside the Temple door, between a marauding armed mob and the hideous Golem.

“This is a timely fable,” Havis continues, “but it’s not a joke. It’s a serious meditation. I’ve belonged to a synagogue for years. Ten years ago, there were no police. Now, every Friday and Saturday Shabbat service, there’s a police car at the entrance. People are avoiding crowds, malls, schools, airports, houses of worship. We’re living in crazy times.

“If you’re under siege, and you get together a minyan, and everyone says the right incantation, as in a séance, you conjure up a Golem: large, invincible, totemic, more dead than alive, to protect the Jewish people. But it’s not a precise defense mechanism. These measures have an element of risk. This Golem decides that he should stay out of the fight. He’s a conscientious objector.

“The piece is bringing up political and spiritual matters,” says Havis. “This vibrant, energetic, young female rabbi is being tested; she has to show strength under fire. It’s an interesting dynamic, juxtaposing her with the older, male Rabbi from Prague. Which Rabbi will prevail with the congregation? The question is not resolved at the end.”

The piece is still a work-in-progress. At the WOW Festival, we’ll only see about 35 minutes, a partly staged reading with a few songs and some thematic music underscoring. The excerpt will only be presented one time, on the Festival mainstage (Sunday, Oct. 20 at 11am). That might draw you to the Festival, but there will be so much more to see and do–on that day and the other three.

“I’m quite proud of the mix,” says WOW curator/producer Sapien. “I think it will draw theatergoers, families, art and dance lovers, and those who enjoy experience-based events. We expect a big slice of San Diego to show up, in terms of age, zip code and ethnicity, including people just passing by. The WOW audience tends to be adventurous; they enjoy having new experiences. We can dream big and know they’ll follow us.”

The 4th biennial WOW Festival from the La Jolla Playhouse takes place Oct. 16-20 at various sites around Arts District Liberty Station, Pt. Loma.

Tickets and information: 858-550-1010 ;


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