Valerie Scher is an arts journalist.
David Coddon writes about theater for San Diego CityBeat.
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. A comedy by Shakespeare, two plays that explore political, religious, and personal complexities, and in addition concerts featuring the best and brightest in classical music all ahead on our weekend preview. And of course, cute cats that do tricks. My guests, arts journalist, Valerie Scher. Welcome back.
SCHER: Hello. How are you?
CAVANAUGH: Good, thank you. And David Coddon writes about theatre for San Diego City beat.
CODDON: Good to see you again, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Let's start with you. There's a play in the wake, are it opens Friday at the San Diego rep. Tell us what the play is about.
CODDON: This is a play that is set in November of 2000. Around Thanksgiving. And it is the time if you recall we were still waiting to see who our new president was going to be. We were doing a long, long recount in the election between president bush -- well, he wasn't president at the time, George bush, and Al Gore. And it centers around a free-lance journalist not unlike Valerie and me, named Ellen. And Ellen is heavily politically engaged. And she also has a very complicated social life.
CAVANAUGH: Now, is this a political play? Is it about a play about social morays?
CODDON: It is kind of an amalgam. Of there's obviously a political subtext to the play. But I think more so, it's a play about this character discovering who she really is. And in the words of the playwright, and I'm paraphrasing, discovering some truths about her that she did not realize. So it's almost an examination of self as much as it is the American political system.
CAVANAUGH: And it sort of challenges some of the assumptions that people on the left seem to make more than it challenges the assumptions on the right; is that right?
CODDON: Yes, and I think that's just self awareness on the part of the author, again, Lisa Cron, who is an Avowed liberal. Yet I think she wanted with this particular piece to take a look at not only her philosophies but herself as well. And she does that.
CAVANAUGH: What do you know about the local staging?
CODDON: I know it's directed by Delicia Turnen Sonnenberg. And she's a terrific director. And the actress who's starring as Ellen is also a member of Moxie's board of directors. And she's terrific. And I'm expecting this to be an excellent performance.
CAVANAUGH: In the wake, as you say, it opens Friday, runs through March 4th. Valerie, are the Chicago symphony orchestra performs this weekend. You're excited about this. Tell us why.
SCHER: I am excited! It's no exaggeration to say that the Chicago symphony is one of the best orchestras in the world. And I have a special feeling because I grew up in highland park, Illinois, near the rabinnia festival, which is the summer home of the Chicago symphony. I first started writing about the orchestra as a young journalist, and I'll be delighted to hear it perform in San Diego in a program presented by the La Jolla music society.
CAVANAUGH: We often hear a symphony orchestra described as one of the leading orchestras of the nation or world. What makes an orchestra a leading orchestra?
SCHER: That's a good question, and one that's not so easy to answer. Of what is the special quality that makes an orchestra stand out? You can point to the kill of the individual musicians, you can talk about experience and tradition. You can cite the excellence of certain conductors. In the case of the Chicago symphony, it's a combination of all that and more. The orchestra is well known for the muscular quality of the brass section and the kind of -- I suppose you could call it cohesive intensity that can make a performance thrilling to hear.
CAVANAUGH: And the Chicago symphony is also very well known for maestro Ricardo Muti, right? Tell us about him.
SCHER: Muti is the Chicago symphony's tenth music director. He's one of the last of the big-game, old-school maestros. Born in Italy, is now 70 years old, has conducted all over. The Chicago is lucky to have him because he turned down the same job at the New York philharmonic. He's had some health issues, but he seemed energized by working with the Chicago symphony.
CAVANAUGH: What will we hear?
SCHER: This program is part of a tour of California, and it features music both old and new, Franz Schubert's last symphony, No. 9, we'll hear a new work called Night Fairy by Anna Klein who's one of the CSO's resident composers. It should be intriguing.
CAVANAUGH: They perform Sunday at Copley symphony hall. And back to you with Next Fall, it opens Saturday at the divisionary theatre. What's this about?
CODDON: This is a play that was Tony nominated a couple years ago. It is about a five-year relationship between two men. Their age difference is great, but the real difference between Luke and Adam is that Luke is an Avowed Christian, very religious, and Adam who's older is an Avowed agnostic/atheist. And what happens is that the Adam is in an accident, in which he is originally at the beginning in a coma. And then when whey comes to and recovers, he finds himself in the company of not only Luke, of course, but Luke's family who is just as religious as he is.
CAVANAUGH: Now, this is a play that has had multiple productions in cities across the United States as well as in, of course, New York City. Was it Broadway or off?
CODDON: It was originally off Broadway, and then did go to Broadway.
CAVANAUGH: What makes it so intriguing for so many different companies to put on a production of this play?
CODDON: I think first of all, audiences do not necessarily regard it as gay and lesbian theatre. I think the themes here are sexual, but more so, they're about what our faith is and what faith means in our lives. And that seems to resonate with audiences everywhere.
CAVANAUGH: And tell us about the playwright.
CODDON: Jeffrey novs is the playwright, and he was an actor for many years before he began writing. He did some writing for television too. And he is the head of a theatre company in New York, which is small but very prominent known as Naked Angels.
CAVANAUGH: And there are, as you described, some heavy topics here, religion, and so forth. But is there a comedy element as well?
CODDON: Definitely. I haven't seen the play yet. I've read the script. But it's got a lot of laughter built into it. This is a relationship that is very contemporary, very glib in many ways. And I think audiences are going to enjoy seeing the interplay between agnostic Adam and Luke's very religious family.
CAVANAUGH: It opens Saturday and runs through March 25th at the divisionary theatre in university heights. Now, a star of the piano is coming here on Friday. Jonathan Biss. Tell us about him.
SCHER: He's a young American pianist whose reputation is growing all the time. He gives recitals, performs with orchestras, plays chamber music, makes recordings and also teaches. He does it all.
CAVANAUGH: What is it about him that he has risen through the ranks of classical pianists so quickly?
SCHER: He's very talented. That helps. He's only 31, and he has accomplished a lot. I think it also helps that he was born into a nurturing musical family. His mother is violinist Miriam freed, his father is violist Paul Biss. And his grandmother was a very important cello teacher.
CAVANAUGH: We have a clip of Biss performing Beethoven's piano sonata in C minor, opus 10, No. 1.
(Audio Recording Played)
CAVANAUGH: That's just a small taste of Jonathan Biss performing Beethoven. He will be performing here in San Diego on Friday. I read that there's something very unique about his playing. What is that unique quality?
SCHER: I think his approach is very analytical without draining the emotion from the music. It's what I'd like to call brainy virtuosity, that you feel and emotional.
CAVANAUGH: The comedy of errors, David, we go back to you, and we go back to Shakespeare. It's recently opened at New Village Arts theatre. What's unique about this version of Shakespeare?
CODDON: Like a lot of companies, New Village Arts is trying to freshen up Shakespeare for audiences by putting it in a different setting with updated costumes. Of course you don't change the language of Shakespeare. But what New Village Arts is doing is taking a comedy of errors and making it like a 50s sitcom, as if it is happening in front of you with an off-stage director. The music varies from the leave it to beaver theme at points to the theme from a summer play. They're trying to take this work, which we know is Shakespeare's era, and transport it to our own 1950s.
CAVANAUGH: Does Shakespeare translate well to the 50s era?
CODDON: Well, I didn't feel peel transported. I give them credit for trying this. Shakespeare is Shakespeare. And once it begins, you kind of forget about the setting. And you think about the lines and the language, which is the draw of Shakespeare. Of the only thing they do that somewhat intrudes on your concentration for better or worse, they do have sound effects that are off-stage that, like with the flugelhorn and things like that, that is almost cartoonish. Those I think are a bit overplayed. For the most part, I think it works but it isn't revolutionary.
CAVANAUGH: This is the first play director Justin Lang has directed.
CODDON: He's been a variety of things. To my knowledge, he hasn't been Shakespeare before, but he has a very light touch. And his actors consistently when you hear about them, they enjoy working for them. And you can tell that this cast is having a good time. And that comes through. And that in itself is very engaging.
CAVANAUGH: Anything else you can tell us about the production?
CODDON: I can tell you that it's probably the quickest production of a Shakespearean play I've ever seen. Nothing's cut but the pace is so fast, Maureen, that you actually get in and out of there in under two hours. And I've been going to shake fear for many years. That's got to be a first.
CAVANAUGH: Wow, talk about speaking fast, huh?
CODDON: I don't know how they do it. It's not like you're conscious of them hurrying. It's just that the pace on stage is very brisk. There is an intermission, yet you're still out of there in two hours.
CAVANAUGH: I promised people cats doing tricks, Valerie, and you have this unique event to recommend. It's the amazing Acrocats. Oh, my.
SCHER: Oh, my indeed. Is this the San Diego debut of a traveling animal act that stars cats who do tricks you wouldn't expect them to do. I mean, you don't expect a cat to do anything unless it feels like doing it. Of I'll never forget the time I tried to get a cat into a cat carrier. Impossible! Forget it. I don't mean to sound catty, I love cats. But to see these cats do so many things so willing, is pretty amazing when you think about it.
CAVANAUGH: Now, there's a cat rock band, a cat that ring ace bell, a video on a website. It does seem gentle as compared to some of the old variety shows we remembered from the past.
SCHER: Perhaps so. These cats as you mentioned, the Rockettes, they play guitars, keyboard and drums, their musical style combining shredding and shedding. It's a new genre. They can also give a high five.
CAVANAUGH: I'm going to have to put an end to this!
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: I'm sorry! I've been speaking with arts journalist Valerie Scher and David Coddon. Thank you both so much.
SCHER: Thank you.
CODDON: Thank you Maureen.