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Tangled Up in 'Blue'

ae_Jewel__House_Blue_LeavesHeaven sent Clockwise from right: Roselyn Hallett as Little Nun, Kathie Kratochvil as Second Nun, Geraldine Byrne as Head Nun and Kendall Callaghan as Corrinna.Outstanding performance highlights Jewel Theatre's 'House of Blue Leaves'

There's a lot going on in the new Jewel Theatre production of John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves." A visiting Pope, surprise appearances by a Hollywood filmmaker and a famous movie star, a gaggle of comic nuns, spontaneous piano duets, and a bomb-wielding malcontent all figure into the plot that director Susan Myer Silton has tumbling in and out of the play's single set with farcical speed. Not to mention the thematic cacophony of mid-life disappointment and shattering dreams.

But what stands out amid all the mayhem is Julie James' transcendent performance as a fragile housewife/mother on the brink of madness. Nicknamed "Bananas," and force-fed pills to keep her calm, she wanders around in an unhappy daze longing to feel something again—anger, passion, happiness, anything. James plays her sweetly comic at times, in her unexpectedly alert observations, but it's her wistful, unfettered poignancy that galvanizes our attention throughout, whether or not she's at the center of the onstage action. Her relative serenity as craziness escalates all around her and not only makes her this production's only touchstone to recognizable humanity, she's also the only person onstage the audience ever cares anything about.

Set in 1965, on the day the pope is coming to New York City, the play's action is staged in the Queens apartment of Artie Shaughnessy (Mike Cymanski), a middle-aged zookeeper and aspiring songwriter still desperately looking for his big break. ("I'm too old to be a young talent," he keeps exclaiming.) Buoyed by the optimism of his new girlfriend from downstairs, the ferociously ebullient Bunny (Diana Torres Koss), Artie is about to move to L.A. and impose on a childhood friend, now a big-shot Hollywood director, in hopes of breaking into the movies—as soon as he can park his present wife, the wounded, schizophrenic Bananas (James), in the mental institution that gives the play its title.

But the real nuthouse is the Shaughnessy apartment (designed by Mark Hopkins as a nest of homey, middle-class clutter, complete with TV, upright piano, and, yes, kitchen sink), a microcosm for American celebrity-obsessed junk culture, where fame is all that matters. Through these portals traipse wandering starlet Corinna (a diverting Kendall Callaghan), a trio of pope-groupie nuns, Artie's big, bluff director pal, Billy (Erik Gandolfi), and the Shaughnessys' angry, Vietnam-bound son, Ronnie (Nat Robinson), who has his own ideas on how to get famous.

Silton gets big, showy comic performances out of her players, punctuated by Artie's cheesy songs. Musical theater veteran Cymanski plays piano with manic glee, and he and the buoyant Torres Koss carry off all the singing with entertaining chutzpah. All the players act up a storm, but Silton never quite finds an effective balance between slapstick comedy and the life-sized, melancholy heartbreak of Bananas. James' performance is so grounded in reality, it seems to belong to another play.

Part of the problem is the play itself. Written in 1966, it was first produced off-Broadway in 1971, when the Vietnam War still raged and the country was still in cultural flux. At that time, the notion that we over-idolize the famous was considered pretty radical (remember the scandal that ensued when John Lennon said in 1966 that The Beatles were "more popular than Jesus?"), as was Guare's device of letting onstage characters speak directly to the audience.

But now that these things are commonplace, the play seems like a rather dated period piece. Unfortunately, this production only occasionally conveys the true tragedy of these lives of quiet desperation that would make the material fresh and resonant for a new generation of audiences.


“The House of Blue Leaves” runs until Sept. 25 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz, 425-7506,   jeweltheatre.net. Show times are at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays.
Photo caption: Heaven sent Clockwise from right: Roselyn Hallett as Little Nun, Kathie Kratochvil as Second Nun, Geraldine Byrne as Head Nun and Kendall Callaghan as Corrinna.

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Heart Me Up

In defense of Valentine’s Day

 

“be(ing) of love (a little) more careful”—e.e. cummings

Wednesday (Feb. 10) is Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins. Friday (Feb. 12) is Lincoln’s 207th birthday. Sunday is Valentine’s Day. On Ash Wednesday, with foreheads marked with a cross of ashes, we hear the words, “From dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.” Reminding us that our bodies, made of matter, will remain here on Earth when we are called back. It is our Soul that will take us home again. Lent offers us 40 days and nights of purification in preparation for the Resurrection (Easter) festival (an initiation) and for the Three Spring Festivals (at the time of the full moon)—Aries, Taurus, Gemini. The New Group of World Servers have been preparing since Winter Solstice. The number 40 is significant. The Christ (Pisces World Teacher) was in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights prior to His three-year ministry. The purpose of this desert exile was to prepare his Archangel (light) body to withstand the pressures of the Earth plane (form and matter). We, too, in our intentional purifications and prayers during the 40 days of Lent, prepare ourselves (physical body, emotions, lower mind) to receive and be able to withstand the irradiation of will, love/wisdom and light streaming into the Earth at spring equinox, Easter, and the Three Spiritual Festivals. What is Lent? The Anglo-Saxon word, lencten, comes from an ancient spring festival, agricultural rites marking the transition between winter and summer. The seasons reflect changes in nature (physical world) and humanity responds with social festivals of gratitude and of renewal. There is a purification process, prayerfulness in nature and in humanity in preparation for a great flow of spiritual energies during springtime. Valentine’s Day: Aquarius Sun, Taurus moon. Let us offer gifts of comfort, ease, harmony, beauty and satisfaction. Things chocolate and golden. Venus and Taurus things.

 

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