Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

The Who & the What and The Winter's Tale

San Diego's two largest theatre companies, the La Jolla Playhouse and the Old Globe, recently hosted major openings within days of each other. Turns out that both plays were about the varieties of "being a man," though approached from vastly different directions.

Kai Lennox and Bernard White
Photo by Kevin Berne
The Playhouse's contribution is the world premiere of Ayad Akhtar's The Who & the What. Mr. Akhtar, the recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for his play Disgraced, likes to write about culture clash, particularly involving Pakistani Muslims living in the United States. The Who & the What is set in Atlanta and features Afzal (Bernard White), a father who, after the death of his wife, is trying to shepherd his two daughters into marriage and family. Mahwish (Meera Rohit Kumbhani), the younger daughter, seems to have one foot in the traditionalist camp and the other very much in American culture. Zarina (Monika Jolly), on the other hand, has earned advanced degrees in literature and has been postponing marriage (somewhat to the dismay of her sister, who feels pressure to wait until Zarina has married before taking the plunge herself) while working on a novel about which she is quite secretive.

Into this family's world walks Eli (Kai Lennox), a convert to Islam. It turns out that Eli has been lured there through a page that Afzal has created for Zarina on an Islamic dating site. Afzal has been surfing the site to find a suitable man to offer his daughter. Zarina, a self-described feminist whose book, it turns out, explores the role of women in Islam, is predictably unhappy to meet Eli, but ends up being charmed.

Mr. Akhtar has written a highly literate comedy that keeps the audience laughing throughout. The play's tension may arise from the family's somewhat different individual understandings of Islam, but the father-daughter dynamics and Afzal's desire to have the bookish Eli be "more of a man" are themes with which non-Islamic audiences will find easy to identify. And, any author who can pull off quoting the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the French literary theorist Jacques Derrida while keeping the audience with him in the process is a master in my book. In fact, the play's title comes from Derrida, and when it appears in the dialogue toward the end it serves to pull several disparate threads together and provide the audience with a fine "aha" moment.

Chicago-based director Kimberly Senior has worked with Mr. Akhtar in the past, and her sensitive staging using the Potiker Theatre's three-sided configuration helps the audience to feel in the action—even though the "action" is mostly words. Scenic designer Jack Magaw has provided a large open playing space onto which small unit sets can be pushed. Lighting designer Jaymi Lee Smith brings the audience into the action by making its members into "witnesses" of it. Costume designer Elisa Benzoni and sound designer Jill BC Du Boff both remind the audience that these characters are fully American, as well as Pakistani in origin and Islamic (to one degree or another) in upbringing.

The performances are all well drawn. Mr. White's larger-than-life father gets a lot of the laughs and a lot of the love, despite describing himself as "traditional" and "conservative" (both only partially true). Ms. Jolly finds her character's rebellious nature but also her longing, and Mr. Lennox makes for a patient suitor who locates his voice as a man in the process. Ms. Rohit Kumbhani falters while walking her character's tightrope between the Islam and secular worlds, but she regains her footing as the play progresses.

Highly recommended. If I had a "critic's choice" award to give, this production would receive it.

La Jolla Playhouse presents the world premiere of The Who & The What, by Ayad Akhtar. Through March 9, 2014, Tuesday/Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8:00pm; Sun at 7:00pm; Sat/Sun at 2:00pm at the Potiker Theatre on the University of California, San Diego, campus. Tickets (starting at $15) may be obtained from or by calling (858) 550-1010.

Directed by Kimberly Senior, with Jaymi Lee Smith, Lighting Design; Tom Magaw, Scenic Design; Jill BC DuBoff, Sound Design; Eliza Benzoni, Costume Design; and Gabriel Greene, Dramaturg.

The cast consists of Monika Jolly (Zarina), Meera Rohit Kumbhani (Mahwish), Kai Lennox (Eli), and Bernard White (Afzal).

Billy Campbell and Cornell Womack
Photo by Jim Cox
The lead paragraph for the Old Globe's production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale should have been about this being Barry Edelstein's first production as director since becoming the company's artistic director. But the lead is really more about what Mr. Edelstein didn't do than what he did.

A Shakespeare scholar who is gifted with speaking simply and elegantly about his topic, Mr. Edelstein took the challenge of one of the bard's most confusing and jarring plays and turned it into an exploration of what it takes to be a man.

And, he finds that Leontes (Billy Campbell), his central character, must journey over a period of more than fifteen years and be affected by the examples, both positive and negative, of several other men before he has learned the deceptively simple lesson that the ability to love overcomes all of the "junk" we put into our lives.

The production begins with Mamillius (Jordi Bertran), Leontes and Hermione's (Natacha Roi) son, sitting at a toy piano that is too small for him picking out a simple melody. The melody is complicated by an onstage pianist (Taylor Peckham, performing original music by Michael Torke) as if to demonstrate that a child's simple things become more complex with the onset of adulthood.

Disaster quickly strikes Leontes, however. He becomes insanely jealous of his best friend Polixenes (Paul Michael Valley), imagines him to be the father of Hermione's unborn child, and banishes him, along with the faithful retainer Camillo (Cornell Womack). Hermione's daughter is born, but Leontes banishes her, too, sending his courtier Antigonus (Mark Nelson) to leave her in the wild (and, to suffer the fate prescribed in one of Shakespeare's few stage directions: "Exit, chased by a bear"). Reports come to Leontes of the deaths of both Hermione and Mamillius, and the summoning of the judgment of the Oracle demonstrates that the guilt of all lay only in Leontes' fetid imagination.

Meanwhile, the daughter is rescued by two rubes, an old shepherd (Mr. Nelson, making a quick recovery from being mauled) and his son (Brendan Spieth). They raise Perdita (Maya Kazan) to age sixteen, and, as fate would have it, she is courted by Florizel (A. Z. Kelsey), Polixenes' son. Fate again conspires to reunite Leontes with family and friends, and even with a vision of both Hermione and Mamillius. Leontes gets to see how men actually succeed, both as men and as fathers, and how loyalty and manly love is not always immediately rewarded but in the long run works out best.

Mr. Edelstein's production emphasizes deceptive simplicity, both in the setting (scenic design by Wilson Chin, lighting design by Russell H. Champa, costume design by Judith Dolan, and sound design by Fitz Patton) and in the storytelling. Mr. Torke's music provides a perfect companion to Mr. Edelstein's vision, and the cast deliberately underplays the most dramatic moments (with the exception of Mr. Campbell, whose transformations to the mad Leontes and then back to the chastened Leontes take a while to ring true). Reliance on the performers to speak a difficult text without much visual support may tire an audience, but those who stick with the performances will ultimately find them to satisfy a deep desire for the triumph of humanity. And, those who see both The Winter's Tale and The Who and the What will find themselves enlightened about the simple yet at the same time complex nature of manhood.

The Old Globe presents The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare. Through March 16, 2014, on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego's Balboa Park. Performance times are Sunday/Tuesday/Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8pm, and Saturday/Sunday at 2pm. Tickets (starting at $29) are available from or by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623].

Directed by Barry Edelstein with Wilson Chin (Scenic Design), Judith Dolan (Costume Design), Russell H. Champa (Lighting Design), Fitz Patton (Sound Design), Michael Torke (Original Music), Taylor Peckham (Music Director), Bryan Byrnes (Fight Director), Jan Gist (Voice and Dialect Coach), Caparelliotis Casting (Casting), and Anjee Nero (Stage Manager).

The cast consists of Erin Elizabeth Adams (Dorcas), Jordi Bertran (Mamillius), Meaghan Boeing (Emilia), Lindsay Brill (Mopsa), Billy Campbell (Leontes), Angel Desai (Paulina), Jamal Douglas (Mariner), Kushtrim Hoxha (Cleomenes), Paul Kandel (Autolycus, Archidamus), Maya Kazan (Perdita), A.Z. Kelsey (Florizel), Mark Nelson (Antigonus, Old Shepherd), Natacha Roi (Hermione), Robbie Simpson (Dion), Brendan Spieth (Clown), Paul Michael Valley (Polixenes), Cornell Womack (Camillo), Patrick Zeller (Jailer), and Nadia Guevara and Albert Park (Ensemble).

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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