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November 12-December 4 2006
Tony Kushner’s haunting “A Bright Room Called Day” will get San Diego premiere by Diversionary Theatre and Backyard Productions
Tony Kushner’s haunting “A Bright Room Called Day” is the second production of Diversionary Theatre’s 2005-2006 season, opening November 12. Diversionary and Backyard Productions are co-producing the play, which will be directed by Brendon Fox. Kushner is most well known for his Pulitzer Prize winning “Angels in America.”
“A Bright Room Called Day” is the haunting story of a group of artists struggling to preserve themselves in 1930s Berlin as the Weimar Republic falls to its knees. The play transcends historical drama as we witness the outpourings of a contemporary New York woman who is morally outraged at the government. The play is, like “Angels in America,” a genre-defying mixture of literate comedy, serious drama, and political-philosophical meditation.
“For me, the beauty in this piece is the absolute timelessness of it,” said Jessica John, artistic director of Backyard Productions. “Kushner wrote a tale of very familiar people in an era many of us know very little about. Like the characters in the play, we struggle with our understanding of the current war. The varied reactions of our friends, colleagues and family members echo those of the people Kushner created. What is the correct stance to take? How much can we really do? The questions we tackle in the midst of political upheaval remain the same throughout time, because, as human beings, our hearts will continue to beat with hope for ultimate good.”
Begun as a workshop in 1985, the “A Bright Room Called Day” premiered in San Francisco in 1987, and was produced at the Joseph Papp Public Theater by the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1991.
When asked by Andrea Bernstein in an interview if he saw his plays as part of a political movement, Kushner responded, “I do. I would hate to write anything that wasn’t. I would like my plays to be of use to progressive people. I think preaching to the converted is exactly what art ought to do. I am happiest when people who are politically engaged in the world say, “Your play meant a lot to me; it helped me think about something, or made me feel like I wasn’t the only person who felt this way.””
Backyard Productions was founded by San Diego natives Jessica John, Lauren Zimmerman and Daren Scott in 1999. The company was established with a focus on powerful, riskier subject matter and strong female characters. They are dedicated to producing critically-acclaimed theatrical works by some of the best writers of our time, and has been honored to secure the San Diego Premieres of several of these works – including Patrick Marber’s Closer and Shelagh Stephenson’s An Experiment with an Air Pump. In 2004, Backyard Productions co-produced Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind with the highly lauded New Village Arts. This production was bestowed with both the San Diego Critic’s Circle Award and a KPBS (Patte) Award for “Best Ensemble”.
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Tony Kushner, a gay Jewish socialist who was raised in Louisiana, won a Pulitzer Prize and two Tony Awards for his two-part Broadway production of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.
[tab title=”Cast”]Priscilla Allen, Richard Baird, Amy Biedel, Robin Christ, Ron Choularton, Jason Connors, Jessica John, Daren Scott, Amanda Sitton and Lauren Zimmerman
[tab title=”Creative Team”]Playwright: Tony Kushner
Director: Brendon Fox
Set: David Weiner
Lighting: Jennifer Setlow
Costumes: Michelle Hunt
Sound: Francis Thumm.
San Diego Union-Tribune
November 14, 2005
‘Bright Room’ is chilling in its U.S-Nazi comparisons
By Anne Marie Welsh
Quietly, to the side of the main action of Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day,” a grad student named Zillah posts reminders of what she considers the current political nightmare: Karl Rove on the cover of Time magazine; newspaper stories about torture and twisted intelligence; posters calling George W. Bush “Worst President Ever.”
While this self-styled “hysterical rationalist insomniac” Zillah reads and ponders, a group of left-leaning actors, artists and thinkers meet, drink, argue and face history in 1932 Berlin. Now and again, a ghostly figure visits the vintage apartment of sweet and passive Agnes, hostess to these increasingly desperate soirees. And once, in the intense and darkly comic person of actor Richard Baird, the Devil himself comes calling.
” Welcome to Germany,” says Agnes, paralyzed as the Nazi menace closes in.
Diversionary Theatre and Backyard Productions have teamed to stage this early Kushner play, a first fantasia on some of the themes that would come to fuller, more exuberant life in the writer’s great “Angels in America” (1992-93). Director Brendon Fox’s production is very well cast and often bone-chilling in its political resonance and insight. But the staging also suffers a kind of clunkiness, for Fox hasn’t found solutions to exploring the episodic nature of this flawed script written in 1988 as a first salvo against the Reagan Revolution, staged off-Broadway in 1991, and since revised.
Scenes are short, and at Diversionary separated by near-blackouts and musical interludes. Too often, however, the energy simply fades between scenes, instead of accumulating interest or tension, as such scenes can in – for instance – a well-directed drama by Maria Irene Fornes. David Weiner’s set design is part of the problem; though wonderfully observed in its colors and details, its single door presents a traffic flow problem that distracts from the big issues the playwright and his characters engage.
Certain things about Kushner have always been a given. He called his first theater collective at Columbia University Three P Productions, those P’s standing for popcorn, politics and poetics – meaning entertainment, political engagement and artistic beauty.
In “Bright Room,” much of the entertainment comes from two characters – a flamboyant, gay sex researcher Baz, here in a breakthrough performance by Daren Scott, and a beautiful, ambitious film actress played to the hilt (and in a succession of gorgeous, gracefully worn period clothes) by Jessica John.
Much of the poetics comes from the Devil himself, who in Baird’s grand, yet subtle interpretation, arrives with a red-eyed dog to give a history-spanning monologue about the gradual dispersal of evil throughout the world. The speech is the literary high point of the play, its imagery rivaling John Milton’s in “Paradise Lost” and Baird’s delivery lending Shakespearean dimension to this Satanic visitor.
With evil so dispersed it’s invisible, he confirms Zillah’s moralizing about today’s “higher stage of Fascism.”
The Zillah character was savaged in the early New York reviews of “Bright Room,” which was directed at the Public Theatre by Michael Greif before he took over as head of La Jolla Playhouse. But now, with some revisions either made or approved by Kushner and with the changed political landscape in the U.S., this Jewish girl from Long Island seems no more paranoid and hysterical in her study of incipient ’30s fascism than the 60 percent of the American population who thinks the Bush administration lied the country into the Iraq war.
At Diversionary, the appealing and restrained Amanda Sitton plays Zillah with that same mix of self-mockery and radical fear that drives so many leftist bloggers. Among her best lines: “I never relax during times of reactionary backlash; the only ones sleeping soundly are the ones giving us bad dreams.”
In small parts as by-the-book Communists arguing over Stalin and what to do next, Any Biedel and Jason Connors are especially sympathetic, while as an uncompromising member of the German resistance, Robin Christ seems one-dimensional. So, too, with the sketchily written Hungarian film director played by Ron Choularton.
Backyard co-founder Lauren Zimmerman works wonderfully well against type as Agnes, the too-nice maternal center of the group. Faced with a plethora of choices, she retreats into inaction. And as this group of friends splinters when Hitler comes to power, she stays put, devolving, we guess, into the ghostly, always-hungry Die Alte (Priscilla Allen) who’s been visiting the apartment all along.
Despite awkward moments of structure and staging, this idea-rich and provocative “A Bright Room Called Day” is too relevant to miss.
[tab title=”Special Events”]Talkbacks: Friday, November 18; Sunday, November 20 following the 7:00pm performance; and Thursday, December 1.
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