By Pat Launer

Auspicious beginnings: the opener of the Wagner New Play Festival at UC San Diego and the first collaboration between Malashock Dance and Art of Élan.

The Malashock/Art of Élan partnership “Lifeblood Harmony” only played this past weekend, but it was a stunner. Best choreography by John Malashock – maybe ever! Having the stellar live musicians onstage added a whole other layer to the wonderful dance moves. The performers were uniformly fantastic. The movements in these three premiere works were fluid and exhilarating, acrobatic and emotional, whimsical and heart-rending.

“Lifeblood Harmony” by the Malashock/Art of Élan partnership. Photo by Jim Carmody

The three modern classical musical pieces were very different and each quite exciting. The first dance, “Great Day,” was performed to Judd Greenstein’s “At the End of a Really Great Day.” Greenstein was in the audience, which provided an additional frisson of excitement. Though the music and dance were exuberant, the piece was inspired by the death of a close friend of the composer, who died suddenly and tragically, but ‘at the end of a really great day.’ So the joy was there, and at the conclusion, a taste of the pain and sadness.

“Dreams and Prayers” was reminiscent of Malashock’s marvelous 2000 work, “Blessings and Curses.” And in fact, he confided that he’d taken some pieces from that earlier creation for this one, danced to Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Dreams & Prayers of Isaac the Blind.” There were Jewish echoes of suffering and hardship, and triumphing over adversity. There were images of Jacob’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac, while his wife stayed at home, agonizing. This was such beautiful, meaningful, touching work – on the part of the wonderfully synchronized dancers and musicians.

The third and final number, “Gumboots,” was created to David Bruce’s piece of the same name. Inspired by the oppressed mine workers of South Africa, one would have expected a bit more of the anguish and titular boot-wearing. Still, the musicianship and terpsichorean talent were superb.

This is a terrific partnership that should certainly be continued. The response was rapturous; the creators were beaming. Look for another inspirational collaboration soon (we hope!), and be sure not to miss out the next time.

Now, you still have time not to miss “in the crowding darkness,” one of three full-length works that comprise the Wagner New Play Festival (there are also two one-acts and a staged reading). This captivating premiere, by a third-year MFA playwriting candidate Jeff Augustin, concerns a veteran returning from the Afghanistan war and trying to re-assimilate; and it’s also about same-sex marriage. And marriage in general. And friendship, and family. And interracial relationships. And privacy vs. publicly parading your personal life. Augustin has a lot on his mind, and his dialogue is excellent, as are the performances by undergraduate and MFA students. The magnificent design work is also student-produced.

The new play “in the crowding darkness” at UC San Diego. Photo by Jim Carmody

Director Michael Moran helms an outstanding cast of seven in a story that’s provocative, both sexually and dramatically. It’s not what you think – and you may come out having re-thought what you think. Returning from war isn’t easy; not everyone can pick up where they left off – in a relationship or a life. Gay marriage isn’t as simple as doing just what heterosexuals do, acquiring rights and forging ahead. It still isn’t simple for families – or even for friends.

The title comes from the Bronzeville collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) about “old marrieds,” which includes the line: “But in the crowding darkness, not a word did they say.”

It’s always thrilling to see what young playwrights have on their minds. Every year, I look forward to the New Play Festival. The quality of writing, acting, direction and design are very high, and the issues raised are thought-provoking and stimulating.

Get in on the ground floor of the future (well, really, the Present) of theater. Many UCSD alums have gone on to have successful careers in New York and elsewhere around the country. San Diegans get bragging rights: We can say we saw it first.

  • The Wagner New Play Festival runs through April 26 in various theater spaces on the campus of UC San Diego.
  • “in the crowding darkness” plays on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, April 22-24 at 7:30 p.m. in the Shank Theatre. The running time is 100 minutes.
  • Tickets ($10-$20) are available online at

Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at