San Diego, CA--- Before his death in 1901, Verdi “conceived of a home, a haven for retired opera singers and musician’s without the means to provide for them”. It was completed in 1899 and over the years became known as Casa Verdi. From the time it opened in 1902 it has housed over 1,000 singers, composers and orchestra musicians.
Can you imagine a retirement home filled with temperamental divas and crusty dirty old men all living under one roof?
Ronald Harwood’s (“The Dresser”) quasi comedy, “Quartet” currently playing at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre through Aug. 24th was inspired by a documentary about Casa Verdi and its residents. It was called “Tosca’s Kiss”. Harwood saw a play in that film and ergo we have “Quartet”. Some might recall Dustin Hoffman directed the movie of the same name starring Maggie Smith.
In “Quartet” Harwood has created four flesh and blood characters, former opera stars in their own right, who are stuck between a rock and hard spot waiting for something to happen in a retirement home where all they have on their hands is time and memories.
He gives us a bird’s eye view into some of the thinking, acting out and just plain silliness old folks do because they think they can. Mostly though it’s about what they think of themselves and each other and their legacies. Not many in the opening night audience needed reminding of what we are like. We know!
Three have lived in this house in Kent, England for some time and pretty much know each others personalities, shortcomings and vulnerabilities. The fourth will arrive later upsetting the apple cart in more than one way; she truly thinks she is still the diva of her past life.
When we first meet up with them they appear to be busy writing and reading, listening to audio music, being nosy and plain pains in the butt. They are in a comfortable and somewhat elegant looking salon/music room surrounded by musical instruments, busts of famous composers, comfy chairs and desks, and odd pieces of furniture; some not related to each other. (Ralph Funicello). Most of the talk is just that, talk and not much action.
They humor each other and continue bask in the glory of the good old days. It helps that their newly released ‘Quartet’ from their “Rigoletto” CD oft times generates a little extra income plus they have the pleasure of listening to themselves on it one more time. This will prove to be a win/win for them after the dust settles.
Talk flows, gossip abounds and operas and stars of their past adventures are commonplace. Reginald or Reggie (Robert Foxworth) is the serious one of the group but does have his little moments that actually crack up the audience and breaks the monotony of sameness.
He is in the process of writing his memoirs. Foxworth, seen many times on the Globe’s stages, is the anchor of this piece. His performance is fun to watch and perfectly timed.
Wilfred Bond or Wilf (Roger Forbes) has his mind on sex and how he can do it with Cecily Robson or Cissy (Jill Tanner), who is busy at the moment listening to a CD with headphones at her ears, never hearing Wilf, “Cissy, in all honesty, you have the most beautiful tits I’ve ever seen”. “In fact your whole body causes me to pulsate with lust”.
Cecily, or Cissy Robson (Jill Tanner), is a bit loopy, disheveled, forgetful and loveable. Hers is the most authentic and interesting character. If I had my druthers, I could have watched her ditsyness all night compared to Roger Forbes’ Wilford Bond, who in his golden years is a bit over the top by going on and on about his libido: “I think about sex all bloody day and all bloody night”. I'm assuming this trash talk is supposed to amuse but this reviewer got tired of it real fast. Forbes fills the role of Wilf with gusto and enthusiasm. But for the lines given him, he is a pretty impressive presence and interesting to watch.
On some level they appear to be excited to perform in concert for the rest of the residents on the occasion of Verdi’s birthday. They don’t quite know what that would look like in lieu of the fact that their voices might not be up to the task. They talk and plan and talk some more.
When they learn that a new resident is coming the room goes silent.
Cissy is the first to find out who and what the new person is, and show some irritation because no one bothered to consult her or them ahead of time.
After she announces that the newcomer is the famous soprano Jean Horton (Elizabeth Franz), Reggie’s former wife and well-known diva, he too shows his indignation for not being informed ahead of time as well. He grows silent and grumbly.
Will they all be able to patch up their differences, stop acting like spoiled children, (which we older folks have a tendency to do) and sing together as the professionals they once were or not? Cissy wants it, the management encourages the ‘quartet’ to sing together again, but our spoiled diva Jean won’t have any of it.
Some say that the mind is the first to go. Some say it’s the legs. For Jean, and the others it’s the voice. That’s what has Jean bogged down and unwilling to face for fear of being ridiculed. Facing our own mortality is no easy task when you are past being a kid. Again, for most sitting in the audience on opening night, I’m sure that thought crossed minds many times.
After all, Jean was a Diva. For her, it took all three of her pals to convince her that she will be OK. Once she admits that to herself and to her colleagues that her instrument is not what it used to be she softens a bit and things lose their edge somewhat.
Finally Reg learns to get along with Jean, Wilf continues his sexual innuendos, Cissy will be Cissy; she knows no other way and the four will go about their business getting ready for their concert.
Before we have a concert, we need costumes. Two stage hands roll a huge chest out on to the stage. Vintage “Rigoletto” costumes from out of costume designer Charlotte Devaux deep trunk of old opera apparel appear and everyone is excited beyond excitement except Jean. Although she accepted to be in the group, she was not going to mend her costume to fit. That all gets worked out to everyone’s benefit and I want to say that they all lived happily ever after but we know better.
Director Richard Seer has a very seasoned cast all doing their best to be their best. Between the four there are more years of experience than I can count. Each could, if they wanted to, retire now. They are of that age, but why when they can be doing this?
In the program bios, it notes that Forbes has been acting for over forty years, Ms. Franz) for over fifty, Jill Tanner worked at the Globe over thirty yeas ago in “Romeo And Juliet” (Jack O’Brien directed and he’s been gone from the Globe officially since 2007) and Foxworth’s acting career spans, well you can ask him, he’s local and always a pleasure to see on our stage.
In any event, the characters in “Quartet” are doing their best to stay afloat amid a hostile outside environment where time and tide wait for no man. They manage to succeed most of the time. And yes they do perform in costume Verdi’s Quartet from Act Three, Scene One of Rigoletto: Bella figlia dell’ amore, to a standing ovation. For them it doesn’t get much better.
Memories are made of this.
Mark Twain said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter”.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Aug. 24th
Organization: The Old Globe
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Ticket Prices: Start at $29.00
Venue: Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre