Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

Idyllwild Arts “Rocks the House”

February 28, 2010

In California and across the nation, funding for music and the arts has been cut drastically. And yet, the arts endure. Someone once said, “Artists are the first and last to speak.” In today’s economy, they just have to find creative ways of bringing their beloved arts back to the schools, especially grade schools.

On Saturday, Feb. 27, select students from the Idyllwild Arts music, theater and dance departments participated in the 3rd Annual “Rock the House,” a fund-raising festival to benefit the Palm Desert Charter Middle School. Idyllwild Arts Academy was among the 35 schools from the Coachella Valley, Redlands, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Indio and Idyllwild areas that showcased their talents.

“We’re here partly because it’s great publicity for our school,” said Marshall Hawkins, head of the Jazz Department, Idyllwild Arts, who hosted and participated in the event along with Paul Carmen. “Our kids get a chance to perform in front of a new audience. You can’t buy this kind of publicity!”

Those jazz music students who played with Marshall and Paul at “Rock the House,” included: Alejandro Barron, Jesse Berlin, Ashi Whatley-Manoff, Kathryn Schmidt, Benny Kleinerman, Reagan Schweers, Caleb Hensinger and Jacob Gershel.

The two 20-minute jazz sets, at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. were held in the jazz tent outside. Kathryn sang “Body and Soul,” an old Billie Holiday tune, and the jazz band played several different jazz tunes.

“Look! We’re considered ‘headliners,’” said Ellen King, a senior dancer. “Strata,” their Circus de Sole-type modern dance performance with world music (choreographed by Stephanie Gilliland), stunned the crowd, but it wasn’t without its problems. Their music wasn’t cued up in time, and it skipped throughout the performance. Luckily, it wasn’t obvious to the audience.

For the final bit of the “Strata” performance, Shih-Ching “Cyndi” Huang wore a white top and twirled around in circles. But since the music was skipping, she kept twirling and twirling until they finally stopped the music.

“I thought Cyndi was going to throw up,” said Dakota Bailey. “She twirled too many times.” Besides Ellen, Dakota and Cyndi, the Idyllwild Arts dancers included: Leva Navickaite, Adrianna Audoma, Macarena Gomez, Justin Patchett and Geneva Winters.

At 3 p.m., Joey Jensen, Preston Pounds and Ruby Day, three Musical Theater seniors, each sang a song of their choice, and then collaborated on a trio. Daphne “Kitty” Honma, from the Music department, was their piano accompanist. Ruby and Preston sang songs from the musical, “Hair,” including “Easy to be Hard” and “Where Do I Go?” Joey’s song, “I’d Rather Be Sailing” came from “A New Brain.”

“I’m so proud of all of our students today,” said Bonnie Carpenter, Associate Dean of the Arts, who coordinated the trip.

The group braved torrential rain and snow conditions in Idyllwild to get to Palm Desert, only to be met by sunshine and warm weather. They also had a warm reception by those who attending the “Rock the House” event. Young and old alike came up to various Idyllwild Arts dancers, musicians and singers, and congratulated them on their performances.

Disappearing Deer?

February 27, 2010

A dead deer disappears from along Hwy. 243 in Idyllwild

By Marcia E. Gawecki

Early Thursday morning, Feb. 25, a motorist spotted a dead deer lying along Hwy. 243 near the Nature Center in Idyllwild. She stopped to ensure that the animal was dead, not just injured and suffering. The California mule doe had a massive head injury, and did not move, even when she took pictures. Then she went to report it to the Idyllwild Ranger Station. Ten minutes later, the deer was gone.

What happened to the deer? Was it only stunned, and got up and ran back into the forest? Did another motorist take the deer home to butcher and eat? Did a couple of coyotes drag it off? Or did a California Fish and Game warden pick it up during that time and dispose of it?

Although dead animals are not in their jurisdiction, a couple at the front desk of the Idyllwild Ranger Station had their opinions on the matter.

“The deer could have gotten up and ran back into the forest to die,” said one U.S. Forest Service employee who wished not to be identified. “Or maybe someone saw you standing there and decide to toss it over the side of the hill.”

After all, Idyllwild is a tourist town, and dead deer are bad for business.

After reviewing a couple of photos, the other USFS employee said that the animal looked dead, not injured.

“Maybe someone decided to pick it up to eat it,” he offered. “I wouldn’t have touched it, though. It could have been diseased.”

He wasn’t sure if it was against the law to pick up a dead deer in the San Bernardino National Forest, but gave the phone number for the California Department of Fish and Game field office located in Palm Springs, that’s in charge of these things.

“I’m pretty sure that it’s against the law for anyone to pick up a dead deer along the side of the road,” the receptionist said.

He took the motorist’s name and number and said that an investigator from the law enforcement division would call her back. The investigator did not immediately return calls.

“A person must have a valid hunting license to pick up road kill,” he added. “And it has to be in deer hunting season.”

He added that when an animal is reported dead in the Idyllwild area, one of their crew will likely pick it up or they will ask a biologist in Idyllwild to dispose of it.

According to the California Fish and Game’s web site,, deer hunting season for zone D-19, is authorized after the first Saturday in October, and only for 30 consecutive days. No deer hunting permits would be allowed in February when food is scarce and they must venture out into the open. Furthermore, a hunter’s bag and possession limit is one buck with a forked horn–not a doe.

“I think someone decided to take the doe home,” said an Idyllwild resident later. “You never know. They may have wanted it for the venison steaks, its fur or even the skin.”

So what happens if someone finds a wild animal, such as a deer, and it’s injured and suffering?

“A CHP officer will sometimes shoot a wild animal that’s suffering,” added the USFS employee. “You can always call them to see.”

Tracy Philippi, of Better Wildlife and Pest Control in Idyllwild, will also shoot a wild animal that is injured, or dispose of a dead animal on your property. Call (951) 659-0525.

For anyone who wishes to report a dead or injured animal in Idyllwild, call the California Department of Fish and Game field office at (760) 200-9186, or visit

Sunrise at Lake Fulmor

February 25, 2010

Fast Fingers at Junior Recitals

February 24, 2010

Violinists Henry Chi and Minyeong Kim kicked off the Idyllwild Arts’ Junior Recital music series at 7:30 p.m. this evening (Feb. 23) at Stephens Recital Hall.  Each took turns showcasing their musical depth and adept fingering techniques.

Henry’s recital was first, and he warmed up to it by playing Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, seated in a semi-circle onstage with four of his friends: Ruo Gu “William” Wang, clarinet; Xian Fan “ShaSha” Liu, violin; Ai-Ching Huang, viola and Anais “XO” Liu, cello.

Since this piece was a clarinet quintet, William got more standout playtime, while Henry competed with another violin and viola.

“The students don’t get to pick the pieces for their recitals,” explained Douglas Ashcroft, Idyllwild Arts Music Chair, who was also a piano accompanist that evening. “It’s up to their teachers to decide.”

For his second piece, Mozart’s Rondo, Henry was alone onstage, except for Nelms McKelvain, playing the piano. This piece was up tempo and played very fast, and showed Henry’s fast-fingering technique.

The audience, comprised mostly of Idyllwild Arts students and faculty members, clapped and hooted enthusiastically after it was over. They marveled at Henry’s ability to play long songs from memory.

“The juniors have to prepare for this recital, in addition to doing all of their regular schoolwork, and attending classes, orchestra and small group practices,” Doug added.

As the title suggests, Henry’s third violin piece, Beethoven’s Romance in F, Op. 11, was romantic. With his haircut that hung in his eyes, Henry started to show emotion on his face during this piece.

His final, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, showed off his ability to pluck with his bow and entertain the audience. Doug accompanied him on this piece, which also featured long, dramatic pauses. A couple of students in the audience began to clap before the piece was over because they thought the long pause was the end of the song.

Henry didn’t crack a smile during the recital, but bowed deeply in appreciation of the audience after his final piece. He received a bouquet of flowers from a friend, and a standing ovation.

After a 15-minute intermission, it was Minyeong Kim’s turn. She walked boldly onstage in a red satin floor length gown with sequins and her hair in a ponytail. She nodded to Nelms, her accompanist, and immediately a big sound came out of her violin. Her first piece, Paganini’s Caprice No. 16, was very short, and powerful, but more edgy than Henry’s friendlier Mozart and Beethoven choices.

For her second piece, Prokoviev’s Concerto No. 1, Op. 19, Minyeong changed accompanists. Xue “Maxine” Gong, a fellow Idyllwild Arts student, took over the piano in a red, knee-length dress with roses. This piece by Prokoviev was a little lighter in tone and intensity, but definitely showed off Minyeong’s fast fingering abilities.

“It’s not surprising that her last piece came from a Russian composer,” said Yu-Wei “Una” Cheng, Minyeong’s best friend, who had helped her memorize her notes. “Minyeong’s (former) teacher in Korea was Russian.”

For her third piece, Minyeong chose Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28, by the French composer Saint-Saens. According to various web sites, it was commissioned by a 15-year-old violin prodigy at the time, and features virtuoso arpeggios and and chromatic scalar passages. Yet, the key remains in the darker lower range. Like Joan of Arc with her bow in battle, Minyeong played the edgy, dark music, while the audience remained transfixed.

During her final piece, however, Minyeong chose a more popular one that the audience could recognize, the Theme from Schlinder’s List by the American composer, John Williams. The piece was heartbreakingly sad (about a German businessman who saved 1,000 Polish Jews during the Holocaust), and earned Williams an Academy Award in 1993 for Best Original Music Score. Only during this piece did Minyeong show emotion by furrowing her brows.

Afterwards, the audience clapped, hollared and gave Minyeong a standing ovation. She walked away with three bouquets of flowers, including one from her mother and another from her best friend.

This evening’s Junior Recital was the first of many to come this year at Idyllwild Arts. Following the junior recitals, come senior recitals with a large graduating class. For those who like to hear outstanding classical music from young musicians, Idyllwild Arts is your (free!) ticket.

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Master Classes with the Gewandhaus Orchestra

February 22, 2010

By Marcia E. Gawecki

Hours before their Feb. 17 concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall (presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic), several principal players from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra agreed to give 12 Idyllwild Arts students master classes.

“The players at the Gerwandhaus Orchestra have a very special way of thinking about music and playing phrases,” said Peter Askim, music director and composer-in-residence at the Idyllwild Arts Academy. “The students get a different perspective on music making, and each teacher has a different way of explaining the same concepts.”

The fortunate Idyllwild Arts students who took classes that day included Seann Trull and Rachael Hill, French horn; Ruo Gu Wang and Shen Liu, clarinet; Ting Yu “Monica” Yang, Lei Shao, and Anais “XO” Liu, cello; Xiao Fan Liu, Minyeong “Stephanie” Kim, Martin Peh, Lea Hausmann, and Dorisiya Yosifova, violin.

The four principals from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra included Bernhard Krug, French horn; Andreas Lehnert, clarinet; Christian Geiger, cello; and Concertmaster Frank Michael Erben, violin.

Peter said that he chose the guest musicians based on their reputations as players and teachers, and he tried to give the most number of students the opportunity to experience the master classes.

Lei Shao, an Idyllwild Arts cellist, said that he chose the music for his hour-long session with Christian Geiger at the Colburn Center across from Disney Concert Hall. Lei said that he was excited, but nervous when he played for the professional cellist.

“He gave me some good advice on how to improve my playing, and I will apply it right away,” Lei said enthusiastically. The best part, he admitted, was when he got to hear Christian play on his own instrument.

Peter said the master classes were not easy to arrange, but he has connections with two American musicians who used to play for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. “Usually the musicians are very happy to teach and meet students from other places when they travel,” he said.

During the concert at 8 p.m. that night at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the students got to choose from seats located in the top balcony or behind the orchestra.

“I like to sit behind the stage and watch the conductor,” Peter admitted. “A lot of the students appreciated almost feeling like a part of the orchestra.” However, he wanted the pianists to sit in the balcony so that they could experience the piano soloist from that perspective.

“A lot of people don’t realize that at these concerts, it’s all about the music. You don’t have to sit where you can see the musicians,” said Samuel Chan, an Idyllwild Arts vocal student. Although Samuel sat behind the orchestra this time, he said the best place to hear was in the balcony.

For the students, their eyes were glued to the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra during the entire performance, which included two pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven: The Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat Major, Op 73 “Emperor,” and Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op 92.

Peter said that the Idyllwild Arts Student Orchestra performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 during their first concert in Idyllwild last year, and it was good for them to hear a professional version.

“The tempos that the conductor (Riccardo Chially) chose were different,” Peter said. “They have also been playing this music their whole life, and they are from the German culture that Beethoven is from. But I think our students did a very good job on the symphony last year, though!”

He thought the Leipzig Orchestra did a nice job that night. “Many students think that just playing the notes of a piece is enough, but seeing an orchestra like Gewandhaus shows them that the notes are just the beginning. Taking the notes on the page and turning them into such a moving musical experience, full of emotion and subtlety is beyond their imagination, and shows them how much they have to learn and grow.”

Kathryn Schmidt, an Idyllwild Arts jazz vocals student, said that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was one of her favorites because it was later adapted to include vocals. “The story is about a boy who loses his father,” Kathryn said. “It’s so beautiful and sad.”

Like Peter, she was particularly impressed with the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s ability to play very soft and loud.

According to the LA Phil materials, “Movement II (of the Piano Concerto No. 5) is one of the composer’s most sublime inspirations. The muted strings play a theme of incomparable beauty and sad tenderness, with the piano responding in hushed, descending triplets, creating subtle tension until the theme is fully exposed.”

The pianist who was supposed to accompany the Leipzig Orchestra was Nelson Freire from Brazil. However, for reasons unknown, Canadian pianist Louis Lortie replaced Nelson, and did an outstanding job. Lortie, who lives in Berlin, has received accolades for his Beethoven interpretations, stated LA Phil materials.

After the orchestra received a standing ovation before intermission, Louis came out and performed Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture, Op 43, for an encore.

“It’s ironic that he chose the Prometheus Overture as his encore, because that’s the piece that our orchestra played as an encore after they played Beethoven’s 7th Symphony last year,” said Samuel Chan, who is also Canadian. “We were rolling in the aisles and couldn’t believe that we chose the same music.”

According to the Disney Concert brochure, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the oldest civic concert orchestras in the world. It was founded by 16 merchants in 1743.

During his lifetime, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra performed all of Beethoven’s symphonies. This orchestra has an exceptionally wide repertoire and more than 200 performances each year. This is because of its multidisciplinary function as an orchestra, an opera orchestra and a chamber orchestra that performs cantatas with the St. Thomas Boys Choir.

Sheila Bernhoft had tears in her eyes after the concert, but she was not the only one. “The students were very, very inspired and had many new ideas to explore in their own music making,” Peter said. “They were also very appreciative, which makes me feel good and happy to do this kind of thing for them in the future.”

This was the last major trip that the music department will make this year. They plan to take a few small trips to see the Los Angeles Opera and the LA Philharmonic.

Copyright 2010 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

Painting with Sounds

February 19, 2010

Walter Thompson demonstrating soundpainting

Soundpainting is a live composing sign language created by New York composer Walter Thompson for artists working with improvisation. Currently, the language comprises more than 800 gestures.

On Feb. 15, Walter Thompson was invited by the Idyllwild Arts Academy to introduce soundpainting language to its students and faculty. Students were given the day off from their regular classes so that they could attend and participate in the daylong workshop.

In the 1970s, soundpainting was developed by Walter as a way of communicating with musicians during a performance without having to shout above the music. During his first attempt, Walter was not understood by the musicians in his orchestra, but they liked the concept and encouraged him to develop even more gestures. Over the next 33 years, Walter has developed soundpainting to include gestures not only for musicians, but also actors, dancers, writers, poets and visual artists.

Using the soundpainting language, an entire concert, dance or theater work, film score, or educational presentation can be created spontaneously.

During that Monday, Walter divided the Idyllwild Arts students into two large groups of about 100 students. One group worked with Walter onstage at the Bowman Theater, while the others watched the “performance” as it evolved.

To start, Walter introduced a few gestures, including those that would start the composition, increase its volume, increase its intensity, change tempo and, of course, stop.

For their part, each student performed a task based on their major of study. For example, actors would shout words, musicians would play a certain note on their instruments, while dancers would move their bodies, but not speak.

For those in the audience, it looked like organized chaos. Standing at the front, Walter would make soundpainting gestures, and move his arms across the group like a wand. At the moment his “wand” would pass in front of a certain section of students, all of them would perform their sound or gesture and stop. The sounding and stopping would happen in a matter of a few seconds.

“Some people have compared a soundpainting composition to a hard-edged flipping of TV channels,” Walter explained. To others, it looked like the “wave” cheer seen at many college football games, in which all the fans in the same section would stand together and “wave” or cheer to show their support.

To keep things interesting throughout the day Monday, Walter would change the words or gestures. Sometimes, he would only ask for air sounds.

“Now heckle me,” Walter instructed.  “Say anything you want, as long as you don’t swear or use profanity.”

“You can say, ‘Go home, Walter, you don’t know what you’re doing!’” he offered as an example.

Then, he gestured the “start” sign, and the students all heckled him at once. Then, he stopped and encouraged them to heckle him in a much louder voice–a theater voice–that could be heard at the back of the room at Bowman.

Most of the heckling was a jumble of noises, but one student’s “I hate you!” filtered through the din. Later, Walter said that he couldn’t hear any specific words or phrases during that heckling exercise. He was trying to encourage the more shy students to open up and experience the full composition.

At times, he invited various students and teachers to take over his conductor role, including Denise Boughey, Interdisciplinary Arts Chair, Bonnie Carpenter, Theater Department, and students Saehoon “Kevin” Jang, Visual Arts and Luna Enriquez, Interdisciplinary Arts.

“Luna did a great job, even though she was shy and didn’t want to get up in front of everyone,” Walter said. “But you could tell that she was paying attention and understood what we were trying to accomplish.”

Walter admitted that he asked Bonnie to compose a soundpainting piece was inherently difficult, but she did a great job considering the parameters.

The soundpainting workshop lasted until 5 p.m., and by the end of the day, Walter’s voice was rather hoarse from talking, and the students were eager to get out and enjoy the nice weather. Most of them said that they liked the soundpainting workshop, but thought it lasted too long.

“It could have been covered in a couple of hours,” many students said later.

For his part, Walter said the large number of students that he had to work with at the same time was a challenge.  During his other workshops, Walter said that he generally worked with 20-30 people. They’d work together for a week, and then have a performance at the end.

Walter was also surprised that more of the Idyllwild Arts music students didn’t bring their instruments to the workshop. During the afternoon session, there were only a few basses, a trombone and trumpet onstage.

“The students would have gotten a lot more out of the live composition if there had been more instruments,” Walter said. He hoped that the Idyllwild Arts students would be able to use what they learned from soundpainting in future multidisciplinary projects.

He said that the soundpainting term came from his brother, a musician. He thought of copyrighting it, but then decided against it.

“I don’t want people calling me up to ask me if I they can use soundpainting,” he said. “It’s a language, and people should feel free to speak it and use it whenever they want.”

However, Walter hopes that those who wish to teach soundpainting become certified with materials that he’s developed, and are available on his web site,

Oftentimes, Walter hears about instructors who are teaching his method incorrectly.

“It’s a language, and they’re specific gestures that mean certain things. It’s like a Swedish teacher giving you the wrong word for ‘boat,’ for example. he said. “You don’t want to go around using the wrong word for boat, do you?”

To remedy this, Walter will e-mail the instructor and offer his assistance, including the materials available on his web site.

“I don’t want to police people, it’s not what I’m about,” he added. “Most of those instructors who were teaching soundpainting incorrectly were receptive and happy that I told them about the materials.”

Wednesday’s Winter Wonderland

February 13, 2010

Mild Earthquake Near Idyllwild

February 10, 2010

Wes Rizor stands near tree fallen on power line

By Marcia E. Gawecki

At approximately 3:36 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 10, a mild earthquake shook Idyllwild. It only lasted a couple of seconds, but came on the heels of several natural onslaughts in recent days.

On Tuesday evening, Feb. 9, Idyllwild received about six inches of more snowfall. This was added to an already snow-packed base on the ground from a couple of weeks ago. Around 9 p.m. after it stopped snowing, Highway 243 was relatively clear, but the side streets were still hard to maneuver and vehicles were moving cautiously.

There were some trees that had fallen on power lines, but none has caused any power outages. “It’ll take a lot more than that tree to put out the power,” said resident Wes Rizor, who lives near Idyllwild Arts Academy, and used to drive for them. “I remember one year before spring break, the snow was falling so hard that we couldn’t even get the vans up the hill to the girl’s dorm,” Wes said. “They had to walk down the hill with all of their suitcases.”

Moreover, on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 6. a mud and rock slide caused major road damage to a section of Hwy. 74 at the Cottonwood burn area (at the base of the hill). The California Highway Patrol closed Hwy. 74 from Mountain Center to Hemet until further notice. Steve Hudson, an Idyllwild resident, said that it may take up to one month for the road to be fixed. In the meantime, residents are going through Garner Valley and Banning to get down the hill.

On Jan. 29, on Hwy. 243, near the U.S. Forest Service Alandale Station, a boulder slid onto the road around 10:30 p.m. (see post on this site for photos and more details). It was safely removed within a few hours.

Boulder moved to side of Hwy. 243

For the latest weather information in Idyllwild, visit the Town Crier web site,, and for up-to-the-minute earthquake information, visit the Green Cafe web site, This local site uses earthquake information programmed from government web sites. As a service, it provides information about earthquakes that occur near Idyllwild and from around the world.

Copyright 2010 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

Boulder Blocking Hwy. 243

February 9, 2010

Boulder removed from Hwy. 243 is marked by pylon.

By Marcia E. Gawecki

Around 10:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 29, about a mile north of the U.S. Forest Service Alandale Station, a large boulder managed to slide down the hill and land on Highway 243. A California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer was parked there in his sedan with his flashers on, covering the spot for oncoming drivers. A Caltrans bulldozer was also there ready for the move, and another was on the way. They had to get that boulder, about the size of an SUV, out of the road.

It looked like a formidable task, maybe something that would take a couple of hours, so I quickly called Jenny Kirchner, the photographer for the Town Crier newspaper. “You might want to come take a photo of this boulder. It’s right in the middle of the road near the Alandale Station,” I told her voice mail, and left it at that.

As it turned out, she got the message and wanted the photo, but was in a movie theater in Palm Springs at the time—without her camera. After the movie, she drove up the hill to get her camera, then down again to get the shot. She took it about 2 a.m., after it had been moved.

How she found the bolder in the dark and without a CHP marking the spot I’ll never know. The photo made the Feb. 4th issue of the paper, on page 3.

I had to go down the hill the next day and couldn’t find the boulder anywhere. As it turned out, Caltrans had moved it about 20 yards from where it slid. There’s a fallen tree and a big hole left there (see photo), but two neon pylons marking the new spot.

Boulders blocking Highway 243 are a big deal around Idyllwild, and especially a sore spot for the Town Crier newspaper. About two years ago, a much larger boulder had blocked the road for about a week, causing residents and tourists to go around the Hemet way. After much consideration, Caltrans blew up the bolder to get it out of the road.

Becky Clark, the former Town Crier editor, couldn’t even make it to work in Idyllwild that week, and was struggling to put out the paper from home. A reporter from the Press Enterprise in Riverside had called her asking about the boulder, and when it was going to be removed.

This boulder that slid last Friday night wasn’t quite as much of a headache for Idyllwild residents. In fact, only a few people knew about it. Yet, whenever it rains a great deal like it has over the last couple of weeks, rockslides are likely, and drivers should be wary.

NEXT UP: Photos of the bridge out in Valle Vista, at the bottom of the hill. Some say that it’ll take one month to fix.

Copyright 2010 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

A fallen tree and hole mark the spot where the boulder had been.

Boulder size comparison to car.

Welcome Home: Play Review

February 4, 2010

By Marcia E. Gawecki

“I’ve seen my show,” said Howard Shangraw, head of the Idyllwild Arts Theater Department, to the cast and crew of “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter.”

He was giving these students the ultimate compliment. He was pleased with the final rehearsal and their stellar performance. Even if no one came (in the aftermath of a 12-inch snowstorm that hit Idyllwild that weekend), he was happy.

“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” is a modern play that focuses on a wounded Marine now back from Iraq who is trying to “find her way home” through the help of misfits from Slab City. As outlined in the playbill, this show has become part of a national trend of theater performances that are shining a harsh light on Iraq’s seven-year war.

“This is one woman’s story about her own war experience,” Howard said. “If there’s any message here, it’s this: war is hell.”

The show’s stark reality started with the set. In center stage, wrapped around a large pole, was an American flag, our nation’s symbol of freedom. Yet, this one s soiled and tattered, and created from large strips of rags–the backdrop of an brutal story.

Behind the flagpole was a large, floor-to-ceiling video screen that featured flashbacks of ongoing gun battles and bomb explosions complete with sound effects. Other times, it served as a simple scene changer from a hospital, to a bus station, and then to Slab City, Jenny’s remote “haven” in Southern California.

“The video was our idea,” said Howard, proudly. “At one part in the script, the playwright suggested some slide scenes, but we decided that ongoing video and slides would really enhance the show.”

Howard said that Eric Bulrice, the set designer, an award-winning Idyllwild Arts graduate, went to Slab City, and shot stills of its drab, concrete reality, and even found videos of gun battles. Everything worked out well visually, and if there were any glitches during the show on Saturday night, January 23rd, they were not evident to the audience.

The beauty of a small cast, six in all, is that the audience gets to see the characters fully develop. We know their pasts, their idiosyncrasies, their hopes, their dreams and all the while, we’re cheering for them. At the final curtain bow, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. However, those were not tears of sadness, but of appreciation for a remarkable story well told.

“I couldn’t stop crying for about an hour after the show,” said Dominique DeRoss, a visual arts student, and roommate of Carter Smith, one of the cast members. “I was emotional because I was so proud of my roommate. I know how hard she worked on her performance, and she was so great!”

The show opens with Jenny Sutter, played by Amenta Abioto, being carried into a hospital on a stretcher. “I can carry my own weight!” she snaps at the two Marines, giving us a taste of her exploding anger, frustration and bitterness. It’s also where we first learn that Jenny has a prosthetic leg, a war wound that she obsesses over.

“The leg is not really a typical plastic prosthetic,” explained Howard. “That would have cost us $1,000, but it’s a wrap around one made mostly out of material. I believe it worked.”

Jenny, at odds with her new home environment, watches bus after bus leave the station, until Hugo, an attendant wittingly played by Juwan Lockett, takes notice. He asks about her destination, and she tells him to mind his own business, her eyes flashing. He is quirky–killing cockroaches with his shoe and shouting in glee–yet relentless in getting her to move on. Jenny is as guarded here as she was back there.

Carter Scott, who plays Lou, a loveable, yet neurotic, compulsive gambler-drinker-smoker-thief-and-sex-addict, befriends Jenny and takes her home with her to Slab City, a former WWII Marine base without water or electricity.

“How did I get here?” Jenny asks Lou, obviously appalled by her lowly surroundings, including all the quirky misfits who live there. Buddy, played by Riley Lynch, is Lou’s boyfriend, a physically handicapped lay minister who retells simple triumphs.

“What’s his story?” Jenny asks Lou, as Buddy limps away.

“When he was young, Buddy served as a ‘punching bag’ for his parents, until a neighbor took him out of a shopping cart one day and saved him,” Lou explains. “His parents never came looking for him.”

Buddy’s shoulders stoop, his arms hang awkwardly at their sides, and he limps. His physical ailments are not befitting his young age. Unlike Jenny, however, Buddy chooses not to focus on his physical shortcomings, but tries to heal the world instead.

Lou’s other friends, including Cheryl, her  “psychologist,” played by Madeline Otto, and Donald, a withdrawn weirdo, played by Joey Jennings, serve as the show’s comic relief.

Cheryl, in her business suit and comfortable flats, follows Lou around, encouraging her to abstain from all her vices. “She’s not really a psychologist, you know, but a hairdresser from Hemet,” Donald quips as he “outs” her to the others. “If you really want to help Lou, give her a perm!”

Joey, who wore a knit cap and eye shadow on his cheeks, wasn’t easily recognizable by his family members in the audience.

“I knew it had to be him because there’s only six cast members,” said his aunt from Idyllwild. “He just looked so different, but he stole every scene he was in.”

Like the other cast members, Joey visited Slab City with Howard before the show and met his real life counterpart. With his monotone voice, and eyes that darted sideways, Joey nailed Donald’s tragic character. Donald withdrew from society after he saw a truck crush his best friend to death.

“I miss people,” he admits to Jenny after their first kiss.

Yet, as we watch Jenny have nightmares, battle scene flashbacks, and angry encounters with everyone, we know she’s strong and is going to be all right. Her physical and emotional scars are situational–not rooted in youth.

The bomb, that was planted in a baby’s diaper at an Iraqi checkpoint, went off, killing 23 other Marines, and caused Jenny to lose her leg. That remarkable and grim reality of war wasn’t discussed much in the show. Perhaps playwright Julie Marie Myatt didn’t want to preach.

“How do you live with that?” Jenny screams at Donald near the end of the show. “Twenty-three people died because I didn’t check a baby’s diaper!”

Even when the scenes involved other characters, Howard kept Jenny onstage. “I wanted her emotional turmoil to be ever-present,” he said.

Yet, it is Lou, who makes Jenny remember her obligations. “I’ve seen your breasts, and those are breasts that have nursed children!” Lou exclaims.

“Quit looking at my breasts!” Jenny shouts back.

“You have children, for God’s sake! You can turn your back on your parents, friends, and brothers and sisters, sure. But not your children!” Lou announces in a woman-to-woman confrontation that leaves the audience tearful.

Another powerful scene was somehow created in slow motion onstage. When a balloon pops at her “Welcome Home” party, Jenny instinctively pulls Lou and Donald to the ground, covering them from the “bomb.” When they all realize it was only a broken balloon, there’s an awkward silence as Jenny and Lou struggle to stand up. Then Donald laughs hysterically, and we all hate him for it.

After the party disaster, Lou found solace in booze and cigarettes. When he finds her, Buddy doesn’t preach. We get a good idea on how emotionally fragile everyone is.

In the final scene, Jenny and Lou are back at the bus station. Jenny is headed home to Oceanside, while Lou is off chasing rainbows.

“Go back to Buddy,” Jenny encourages, believing for a second she has a chance for a real relationship. But we know it’s going to take years of therapy to undo those damages of youth. We know somehow Jenny is going to make it. She’ll get physical therapy at the VA Hospital, spend time with her two girls, and piece her life back together. Maybe she’ll even forgive herself.

“God, give me something to believe in,” Jenny kept pleading in her nightmares. Lou said that she could identify with that too. Left with an uncertain ending to the Iraqi war, it’s a plea that we all can share.

Copyright 2010 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

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