Sept. 8 2015 06:25 PM

Biennial Without Walls Festival returns with an ambitious lineup

Strange Fruit’s “The Spheres” integrates elements of theater, dance and circus.
Photo by Friedel Peters

When a festival only happens every two years, the wait can make expectations high. Even so, the only appropriate response to the lineup for this year's La Jolla Playhouse's Without Walls, or WoW, Festival is, well..."Wow." The second Without Walls fest, happening Oct. 9-11 in and around the Playhouse-UC San Diego Theatre District on the UCSD campus, will offer 21 site-based, immersive works, stretching the boundaries of theater, performance art and media, and incorporating collaborations with arts groups both local and international. Christopher Ashley, Playhouse artistic director, calls the festival "an explosion of work."

Playwright Liz Lerman's powerful play Healing Wars, about the devastating and complex effects of combat on mind and body, is part of that explosion. (Healing Wars will have an ongoing run continuing after the festival.) So is the "epically scaled visual work," as Ashley calls it, The Spheres, by the Australian arts company Strange Fruit that integrates dance, theater and a circus. Among the local collaborators familiar to San Diegans are ion theatre, the recently reborn Sledgehammer Theatre, choreographers Jean Isaacs (San Diego Dance Theater) and Patricia Rincon (Patricia Rincon Dance Collective), UCSD's ArtPower and the Fern Street Circus. The popular Car Plays produced by Los Angeles's Moving Arts will be back, and multiple projects from UCSD's Department of Theatre and Dance will be part of the second WoW Festival.

"It's been really exciting to partner and feel the energy that is coming out of the small theater groups and the museums and the dance groups and the universities and the young artists," Ashley says. "We're kind of surfing the wave of that energy."

The success of and positive response to the first WoW Festival (tickets range from free to $29 at, as well as the anticipation of the second, testifies to the ever-growing interest in site-specific, alternative theater that intimately involves audiences.

"It's challenging the form of what theater is and how to watch it," Ashley says, "and often activating audiences in new and unexpected ways. They're very much acknowledged as one of the things that's going on." The WoW Festival, he added, "is the kind of event you might post on Facebook or tweet about. I feel like many of the people in the audience watch the work with an open, excited, adventurous frame of mind. Unlike a play, where you're looking at one art experience and you ask yourself 'did I like that, did it work', you end up having this free associative, optimistic engagement with the art in a way that I love."

The festival village will include food trucks, live music and even a beer garden, and on Family Day (Oct. 10), hands-on programs will be hosted by San Diego museums. "It works like a party as well as a theater event," Ashley says. "I love it that people keep telling me after the 2013 festival about friends they'd made. It's really social."

More theater

In Your Arms: The Old Globe is calling this ambitious world premiere a romantic dance-theater musical. Seems apropos for a production that features 10 stories by such playwriting heavyweights as Christopher Durang, Lynn Nottage and Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime), and the choreography of Christopher Gattelli, who conceived the show along with Jennifer Manocherian. Opening at Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24. $36 and up.

Cell: Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company launches its new season with a production of Cassandra Medley's play, initially inspired, Medley has said, by one particular immigration detention center scene in the acclaimed 2008 film “The Visitor.” Mo'olelo Executive Artistic Director Lydia Fort will direct Cell. Opening at Downtown's 10th Avenue Theatre at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26. $35.

Orange Julius: In this world-premiere by Basil Kreimendahl that was workshopped in La Jolla Playhouse's DNA Series, orange is Agent Orange, the herbicidal warfare product used by the U.S. in Vietnam, and Julius (Jeffrey Jones) is a father who served and is dying from cancer because of the poison. Trying to bond with him is his gay daughter, Nut (Rae K. Hendersen). Opening at Rolando's Moxie Theatre at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26. $30.

Hay Fever and The Vortex: The inimitable Noel Coward is celebrated in Cygnet Theatre's annual two-shows-in-repertory project. Rosina Reynolds stars both in The Vortex from 1924 and in Hay Fever, which followed a year later during Coward's prolific 1920s. These comedies should have laughter ringing. Opening at Old Town's Cygnet Theatre at 3 p.m. (Hay Fever) and 8 p.m. (The Vortex) Saturday, Oct. 3. $34 and up.

The Oldest Boy: One of the theater's most provocative playwrights, Sarah Ruhl (Clean House, Dead Man's Cell Phone) penned this story about two parents torn between the love of their 3-year-old son (“portrayed” by a puppet) and his spiritual destiny. Opening at Downtown's San Diego Repertory Theatre at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18. $18-$75.


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