Kathleen Turner kicks ass in Red Hot Patriot

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Kathleen Turner stars in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, a one-woman show about the Texas journalist and satirist Molly Ivins, the woman who coined the nickname “Shrub” for George W. Bush. Photoscourtesy of kevinberne.com

The moral of the story seems to be: if you’re going to kick some political ass, make sure you’re wearing red cowboy boots – and it helps to have a brain, a fire in your belly (fueled, no doubt, by some hooch) and a sense of humor fueled by a larger-than-average intellect.

It seems Molly Ivins had all of the above, at least the Molly we meet in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre (grammatical question seeing as how we’re dealing with a journalist: why the hyphen in the adjectival phrase “kick-ass” describing wit but not in “red hot” describing patriot?).

Ostensibly a one-woman play about Texas’ leading red-haired liberal crusader with a typewriter, the play stars Kathleen Turner as Ivins, and just for theatrical kicks, we have a silent Michael Barrett Austin making occasional appearances to deal with copy coming across the AP teletype machine (an antique with metaphorical significance). Ivins, who died after a fight with breast cancer in 2007, is at her desk (there’s an armadillo on it) trying to write an obituary for her father, whom she calls “The General,” even though he’s not dead yet. She and The General have never seen eye to eye about anything (he’s a Republican, for instance), so the words are not coming easily. But playwriting sisters and journalists Margaret Engel and Allison Engel, working with director David Esbjornson actually have Molly in a sort of netherworld where solo shows can take place without the audience wondering too much why this person is talking to them and why she happens to have a slide show filled with personal photos projected on the back wall.

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Turner, who is in much better form here than she was last time we saw her on a local stage in the low play High in 2012, is delightful here, all grit and guts and guffaws. Molly is a great character and her humor and activism happen to jibe with Turner’s own, so there’s a very grounded sense of self here that lends an air of authenticity. Turner even looks a little like Ivins, which makes the slide show not as odd as it might be.

Turner’s Ivins essentially takes us through her life as a reporter, columnist and author, all the while sticking it to the establishment and trying (in vain) to alert the world that people with the last name Bush should not be allowed to run the country. There are, of course, many hearty laughs at the expense of Texas politicians but also many pithy observations about the field of journalism itself, a fading art Ivins practiced with her own special genius. I know we’re supposed to come away from this play feeling like we should honor Molly’s memory by getting involved in a cause of some kind, but what I found inspiring was her affection and passion for writing and journalism – that words matter.

Speaking of words, the play itself doesn’t skirt darkness – Molly’s drinking, her cancer, her father – but the play is not edgy. The corners are all rounded for our protection (or Molly’s). Molly isn’t necessarily polite, but the play is. Still, we get a strong sense of her and why her work matters and is worth our attention. Even if the play isn’t quite the raw and raunchy and rebellious drama it could be, it’s a moving memorial to a one-of-a-kind American who was unafraid to be a frickin’ pain in the ass to people in power.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Kathleen Turner for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.


Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins continues an extended run through Jan. 11 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Kathleen Turner – up and down in High

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Kathleen Turner (left) is Sister Jamison Connelly, a nun and drug rehabilitation counselor working with a 19-year-old addict played by Evan Jonigkeit in the drama High by Matthew Lombardo, part of the SHN season at the Curran Theatre. Below: Turner breaks the fourth wall. Photos courtesy of SHN

Cringe No. 1 came early in Matthew Lombardo’s unsustained High at the Curran Theatre. Kathleen Turner was standing center stage in character as Sister Jamison Connelly, a nun and drug rehab counselor. That great Turner voice, all basso notes and gravel, sounded a little like it was under water. But there she was, standing in front of a backdrop filled with stars telling us about a younger sister named Theresa and the bedtime story she liked so much about a boy who liked to fly. Why does the little sister like the story so much, the older sister queries in her memory. “Because I want to be high.”

That was actually Cringe No. 1 and Cringe No. 2. Not having read or experienced this play in any way before, I immediately knew two things: the fate of little sister Theresa would not be a good one. And that heavily intoned word, “high” – oh, look, dear, it’s the title of the play and must be important – would probably be the last word of the play as well. Yup. And yup.

High is so well intentioned in its need to display the torment of addiction and the constant conflict of faith, and the three actors here are so game that it’s a shame the play comes off as such melodramatic trash. Director Rob Ruggiero never lets the production become anything more than a rehash of the oft-told rehab story.

You have to give it to Turner, though. Her late-’70s training in the NBC soap “The Doctors” (as Nola Aldrich – it was, along with “Days of Our Lives,” one of the soaps my mom and I would watch during summer vacation) puts her quite at ease here playing a cussing nun who was homeless for three years as a result of her alcohol addiction. She gets the rhythms of this pulpy material. Of course Sister Jamie, as she’s called, drops f-bombs and gets regular laughs from saying “tough shit” too many times. Apparently nuns aren’t interesting unless they’re prim monsters (as in Doubt), lounge singers (as in Sister Act), adorable governesses (as in The Sound of Music) or smack talkers.

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If this gig provides none of the challenges of Turner’s last role as Martha opposite Bill Irwin’s George in an extraordinary Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at least she’s fun to watch, even if she’s never quite believable as a questioning nun in recovery. She has rapport with the audience, which is a good thing, because she breaks through that fourth wall a few too many times. And her co-stars, Tim Altmeyer as a priest with secrets and Evan Jonigkeit as a 19-year-old crystal meth addict, do what they can to lend theatrical weight to what is essentially a TV movie we’ve all seen before (and seen better).

Even David Gallo minimizes the impact of the story with his all-white set dominated by two doorways that would be more appropriate to sketch comedy or some sort of zany farce. The set comes across as cheap and with no weight of reality. The same could be said of the play itself.

Some of the interactions between Turner and Jonigkeit generate some electricity, but their story is so clogged with brutality and horror that we get very little sense of them as human beings outside their tragedy-filled pasts. And then Lombardo throws in a lot of Catholicism and God talk to confound the proceedings further by trying to weave faith into the story of addiction, which could be interesting in a story that is not this particular story.

In the program, playwright Lombardo writes about his own fairly recent experience with drug addiction, and those two pages are far more powerful and compelling than anything he puts on stage in High.


[bonus interview]
I talked to Kathleen Turner about her role in the development of High and its ignominious failure on Broadway.
Read the story here.



Matthew Lombardo’s High closes March 27 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30 to $100 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Review: `Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

Irwin, Turner find laughs, depth in howling Woolf
three stars [1/2] stars Painfully funny

Why is it we’re still interested in George and Martha, the bellicose spouses in Edward Albee’s 1962 drama in which very little happens?

Within the first few minutes of the play, Martha calls George a “dumbbell” and tells him, “You make me puke…If you existed, I’d divorce you.” Then she describes him as a “simp,” “blah,” “cipher,” “zero.”

Ah, marriage.

Albee’s play doesn’t shock as much anymore, but more than 40 years after its sensational debut, it still stings. Maybe that’s why we’re willing to sit through George and Martha’s nightmarish relationship. We go to the theater to feel something, and a sting is something.

Of course our interest in George and Martha depends largely on the actors playing them, and in the touring Broadway production of the play now at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner (above) are putting on a hell of a show — hell being the operative word.

With her Body Heat and Romancing the Stone days behind her, Turner has evolved into something of a sexy linebacker. She’s still sexy and gravelly voiced, but she’s also big and scary. There’s a vehemence to her underscored by intelligence that gives you the distinct impression this woman isn’t going to take any crap from anyone.

And Irwin, beloved in the Bay Area for years as part of the Pickle Family Circus and later as one of the world’s greatest clowns, seems at times to turn George into a clown, but he also manages to make the character so tightly wound, so deeply troubled it seems he’ll pop his sanity spring at any moment.

The Turner-Irwin pas de deux — under the sensitive direction of Anthony Page — is more than enough reason to see this sturdy production, especially if your only memory of the play is the 1966 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. This version is much funnier, much less shrill and, thanks to Albee’s 2004 revisions, much more mysterious.

To watch George and Martha eviscerate each other in front of their late-night, post-party guests Nick (David Furr, below with Turner) and Honey (Kathleen Early) is to witness performers truly come alive in front of their audience. Are George and Martha really as awful as they seem, drinking up a storm and screaming at each other about deeply personal failures and flaws? Or are they playing games and putting on a show for their own perverse amusement?

There’s no real answer, but that’s pretty much it for plot. Somehow, Albee manages to stretch the mystery (and satisfy our voyeuristic need for “schadenfreude,” the German notion of finding happiness in the misfortune of others) over three acts, titled “Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht” and “The Exorcism.”

It certainly helps that Furr, as the latest golden boy to catch Martha’s eye, and Early, as his quick-to-vomit lush of a wife, are such compelling victims of George and Martha’s twisted idea of an evening’s entertainment.

Nick and Honey are shocked by George and Martha’s sparring, but George reassures them: “Martha and I are merely exercising, that’s all.”

Well, they get quite a workout.

By Act 3, when the constant cocktails have turned everyone into zombies and the games get really ugly, Albee is aiming for something more than harsh comedy or dark social satire. As George and Martha talk about their (possibly fictional) son, their games become more exposed and their need for each other more blatant.

This is where the production flattens out some. Genuine emotion feels foreign, and, like addicts, we’re left wanting just a little more bile. Seeing George and Martha as damaged human beings rather than well-armed matrimonial guerillas is, sorry to say, a disappointment.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is exhausting, but in a good way. By the end, you feel you’ve experienced something, even if that something makes you feel you’ve had too many drinks, cigarettes and fights and you can’t wait to leave the stuffy living room (terrifically realistic set by John Lee Beatty and lights by Peter Kaczorowski) you’ve been happily trapped in.

We’ve appreciated Albee’s sharp, funny writing and the expertly nuanced performances, but, like Nick and Honey, we just want to go home and see if any of the wounds are visible.

To paraphrase George, that, as they say, is that.

For information about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? visit www.shnsf.com.