It's impossible to imagine theater without the fourth wall: the imagined barrier between audience and performer where, supposedly, reality stops and illusion begins. It's also true that the convention has helped spawn, and will continue to spawn, some of the most tiring theater imaginable. I refer to the misguided notion shared by too many theater practitioners that the ultimate taboo is allowing the audience to realize it's only watching a play.This reliance on a dreary sense of theatrical reality is a primary reason that it's so hard to get new asses in old seats: instead of heightening reality, "realistic" theater often comes off as soulless.So what to do? Two San Diego plays illustrate two highly creative-and time-honored-ways of dealing with the fourth wall. In Scotland Road, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher invites the audience inside by invoking its imagination. In The Imaginary Invalid, director Todd Salovey resorts to a method that's less cerebral but just as effective: he smashes the fucker down.In the last decade of the 20th century, a tabloid newspaper reports that a 25-year-old woman has been found clinging to an ice floe some 250 miles off the coast of Iceland. Dressed in turn-of-the-century clothing, the woman, when asked where she is from, says one word: Titanic. Thus begins Jeffrey Hatcher's Scotland Road, an intriguing drama playing on the Old Globe Theatre's Center Stage; it's equal parts old-fashioned mystery thriller and thoroughly modern journey into psychic morasses of identity and self-worth.John (John Rafter Lee) is a rich descendant of John Jacob Astor, the wealthy aristocrat who sank with the Titanic. John hires a doctor, Halbrech (Katherine McGrath), to bring the strange woman to America. John has spent his entire life in a James Cameron-like obsession with the Titanic. He's determined to unmask this woman (an excellent Tanya Shaffer) as a fraud. However, as John's interrogations continue, he finds the woman knows as much about the Titanic as he does-in fact, she knows even more.It's obvious early on that it's all bullshit. There's no logical way this beautiful young woman could be a survivor of an 80-year-old shipwreck. But it's the illogical nature of the play that makes it so intriguing-and allows the audience to step into its world. Hatcher and director Craig Noel ask for the audience to imagine, to suspend reality-in terms of how characters look and speak-and imagine that the hum of giant turbines and the crash of waves is the sound of an ocean liner moving through the sea. By engaging the audience's imagination early, Hatcher allows the twists in his ending to unfold effortlessly. In the process, he turns his characters' search for the truth behind the Titanic's sinking into a search for individual meaning. Ultimately, Scotland Road is a play about defining one's self in a time when there are no more adventures left, no mountains to be climbed, no great battles to be waged-beyond the battle inside the human soul, a battle we are poorly equipped for and rarely, if ever, willing to wage. One character says, "You define your future in the greatest moment of terror you have ever known." But if you have never experienced great terror-or if your terror is more the existential, metaphysical sort than heroically sinking on a great ocean liner-what, then, are you left with?If the fourth wall is lowered surreptitiously in Scotland Road, it's gleefully violated in the San Diego Repertory Theatre production of Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid. This production is as wildly entertaining a ride as I've ever taken in a theater. Characters ask audience members for advice as to what course of action they should take; they ask to see their programs in order to determine just who it is they're playing; they take a short interlude to encourage audience members to subscribe. It's a controlled sense of lunacy that blends perfectly with the physically rambunctious nature of Todd Salovey's production. As Argan, a hypochondriac who is convinced he's going to die at any moment, Ron Campbell is at his comedic best. A gifted actor who can pull off the highest drama and the lowest comedy, Campbell is deliriously low in this Invalid. Just watching him try to extract his three-pronged metal walking stick from his groin time after time is worth the price of admission. As his daughter, Angelique, Julie Jacobs-who recently set the stage afire at the Sledgehammer Theatre-once again displays her extraordinary physical spills. She climbs atop bathroom sinks like a Siamese cat in heat, cartwheels at the thought of her lover, and never misses a chance to slam, hurl or faint onto the floor when a melodramatic flourish is needed.The performances, coupled with choreography supplied by Gina Angelique and her San Diego-based modern-dance troupe, Eveoke, illustrate both Moliere's highly physical sense of comedy and the modern reworking of his script. Adapter Mark Cuddy turns Moliere's source tale of a hypochondriac and the battalion of willing physicians eager to supply him with pills and panaceas into an indictment of HMOs and the professionals who have helped turn the art of healing into big, big business. When Argan's much-discussed but never-seen personal physician finally walks onstage covered in a gore-splattered white gown and chain-smoking three cigarettes, we see revealed the brutality and arrogance of a profession that may be much more sanitized in our time but is just as covered in the blood of the suffering. (Irony of ironies: Moliere was a man who loathed the medical profession. The Imaginary Invalid was his final play. While performing in the lead role, the playwright/director/actor was stricken with a violent coughing fit. He died hours later.)The final musical number reinforces the satirical, anti-big medicine sentiments at work. Convinced he knows as much as any doctor, Argan decides to become one himself. He answers a series of questions posed by physicians concerning how to treat various ailments (you bleed 'em, purge 'em and enema 'em) and then graduates. His proof that he's now joined the honored ranks of physicians? Surely the most indispensable piece of equipment in any modern doctor's medicine bag: a brand-new pager.Scotland Road at the Old Globe Theatre's Centre Stage, Balboa Park, San Diego, (619) 239-2255. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through March 15. $22-$39; The Imaginary Invalid at the San Diego Repetory Theatre, Horton Plaza, San Diego, (619) 544-1000. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. & Tues., 7 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $20-$30.More Theater Reviews
Mr. Zero's existence amounts to nothing. A pure automaton, he spends his days engaged in never-ending, mindless calculation. At home, his wife tells him how worthless he is; at work, his boss doesn't even remember his name.When he finally does take action and appears to free himself from drudgery, Mr. Zero sorely disappoints. It's not his fault, though-nor is it David Allen Jones' performance or Kevin Cochran's directing. Blame it on Elmer Rice's dated 1923 script with its message of predestination and an odd kind of unevolving reincarnation. Change is something not to be had in Rice's world, where the status quo rules.Where Act I so marvelously establishes Mr. Zero's trapped predicament, Act II renders him so utterly pathetic and stupid that you cease to give a damn about his fate. Jones plays Mr. Zero with such intensity and understanding in Act I that even his prolonged silences-like when he endures his wife's nagging in the opening scene-communicate his wretched entrapment. Because of Act II's weaknesses, Mr. Zero turns into a figure of self-mockery and easily becomes overshadowed by characters like Lt. Charles (Susan E. Taylor, who also dominates as the Tour Guide).Denise Moses is appropriately grating as Mrs. Zero. Given her initially acidic personality, however, she acts way too subdued to be believable when she later visits her husband in prison. As Mr. Zero's work companion and secret crush, Daisy Diana Dorothea Devore, Sonja Alarr is completely vibrant and sincere, even at the most corny of moments. Their work scene, set on Cochran's clever, oversized office contraption, provides the production's most effective and impressive scene-unlike their later embarrassingly sappy meeting in the Elysian Fields.
Adding Machine at the Grove Theater Center, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 741-9555. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. $18.50-$22.50.DANIEL SENDS HIS LOVE
Actor Timothy Campos wrote and performs this one-man show as a farewell to his grandmother Alice, who died when he was 12. And although I hate being the sorta heel that would stomp on the memories of a sweet kid who loved his granny, I just can't help it. To begin with, Campos' over-acting and Speedy Gonzales charge through his dialogue is unnerving. Housing up to 10 characters inside his head-from jazz-loving Uncle Horace (whom I actually kind of liked) to the way-too-self-aware Woody Allen-esque title character, Daniel-Campos has conversations as and with people who are never given time to "respond." In addition, his characterizations are supremely stereotypical, as well as from another era. (It would not be out of place to hear Daniel whine: "Gee, Wally, is there really a Santa Claus?") The bits we get to see of each-although revealing something about their relationship to Daniel (Mom is sweet and concerned, Dad is sweet and philosophical, Aunt Ethel is sweet and overbearing)-never tell us anything about the subject we're supposed to be learning: how much Daniel loves his dead grandmother. After an hour and a half of recalled Rockwell memories and re-enacted colorless vignettes, I still had no idea why Daniel loved his grandmother-and frankly, I didn't care.
Daniel Sends His Love at Actor's Playhouse, 1409 E. 4th St., Long Beach, (562) 590-9396. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Through March 8.
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