Thursday, October 2, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Humboldt State University presents a radio-style drama version of Her Own Way by Broadway playwright Clyde Fitch, the first play performed by Humboldt State students 100 years ago, on Friday evening Oct. 3 and Saturday afternoon Oct 4 in the Van Duzer Theatre.

  It's a celebration of stage at HSU, featuring Theatre, Film & Dance department faculty, staff, alums and special guests including Greta and Danny Stockwell, Calder Johnson, Bernadette Cheyne, Michael Thomas and 10 others.  There are three children's parts so it's also a family affair (Greta and Danny's daughter Glenys Stockwell, Rae Robison and JM Wilkerson and their son Dylan Wilkerson, etc.)  The event is coordinated by Derek Lane and Susan Abbey.  Much more information and many photos at HSU Stage & Screen. Tickets: 826-3928 or at the door.

The 2010 musical comedy The Addams Family is scheduled to open at Ferndale Repertory Theatre on October 3. With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, it is based on the ghoulish characters created by cartoonist Charles Addams. 786-5483, www.ferndalerep.org.

I Hate Hamlet continues at North Coast Rep.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

This is the final weekend for Equivocation at Redwood Curtain.  The show has been selling out so management strongly recommends reservations. 443-7688, www.redwoodcurtain.com.

Also continuing: I Hate Hamlet at North Coast Rep.  Review and additional notes in posts below.

TV or Not TV? I Hate Hamlet at NCRT

Another version of this review has appeared in the North Coast Journal.  There are additional notes below.

Several blocks from where a royal henchman cleverly castigates Shakespeare to his face in Redwood Curtain’s Equivocation, some contemporary Americans (and a distinguished ghost) are very conflicted about the Bard in the 1991 comedy I Hate Hamlet, now onstage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.

 After the TV series that made him famous was cancelled, Andrew Rally (played by Evan Needham) has been rediscovering himself as an actor in New York. His agent (Gloria Montgomery) encouraged him to audition for the title role in a Shakespeare in Central Park production of Hamlet, and he is cast.

 His romantic and virginal new girlfriend (Jennifer Trustem) swoons for the Shakespearian hero she wants him to be. But he immediately has second thoughts, especially after his Hollywood director (Anders Carlson) brings him a deal for a network series about a crusading young teacher in an inner city school who also has superpowers (he can fly, “but only about ten feet up. See, we’re keeping it real.”)

 All the action transpires in a vintage Manhattan apartment that Rally’s real estate agent (Kristen Collins) has found for him. It just happens to be the former abode of actor John Barrymore, whose 1920s Hamlet became legendary. A seance summons Barrymore from the beyond to advise Rally on his own portrayal of the conflicted Melancholy Dane.

 Should he or shouldn’t he? To be or not to be? TV or not TV? Does he hate Hamlet, or himself?

 I Hate Hamlet is a comedy by Paul Rudnick, rich in jokes but with a bit more substance than it pretends to have. It is also awkwardly constructed, especially at the start. With all the set-up, exposition and unfamiliar New York and German accents, the first act at NCRT wobbled gamely forward until Anders Carlson as the irrepressible Hollywood director infused the stage with comic energy. The character certainly provides it, with lines like: “Am I like the most self-obsessed person you’ve ever met? My answer? Yes.”

Carlson's character is also very funny on the supposed obsolescence of the stage.  After theatre and movies came television, he says.  "That's like, art perfected...I mean, when I go to the theatre I sit there and most of the time I'm thinking, which one is my armrest?"

The first act climaxes with a sword fight between the reluctant Rally and the buoyant Barrymore (choreographed by Jasper Anderton) that sparkles like the champagne Barrymore is simultaneously imbibing. Christian Litten is a lithe and athletic Barrymore, and even looks like the actor, especially in Laura Rhinehart’s costume that reproduces Barrymore’s Hamlet togs as seen in old photos.

 Most of what the play says about Barrymore is historically accurate and relevant to Rally’s dilemma. Barrymore was the theatrical equivalent of a sitcom actor until he triumphed as Hamlet on Broadway and perhaps more impressively, in London. Then he left for Hollywood.

 Director David Moore and cast seem to have elected to do a fairly subdued version of this sometimes raucously produced play. That choice perhaps allows for more human feeling in the Barrymore-Rally scenes in the second act—in any case, this is where Needham and Litten especially excel. Gloria Montgomery also delivers a moving set piece in Act II.

 On opening night some comic timing and delivery wasn’t yet sharp, a not uncommon occurrence. There seems to be more potential in the script for vocalizing (and projecting) some lusciously comic lines. Fortunately there are three more weekends in the run to discover such opportunities and possibly make a funny show funnier.

 Calder Johnson is scenic designer, Telfer Reynolds designed lighting, Michael Thomas the sound, Laura Rhinehart properties as well as costumes. I Hate Hamlet is performed weekends at NCRT through October 11. 442-6278, www.ncrt.net. 

[Aside]: In portraying a stage legend, I Hate Hamlet's 1991 Broadway production itself became legendary. The brilliant English actor (and former Hamlet) Nichol Williamson was increasingly erratic in his performance as Barrymore. In the sword fight one evening, he swatted costar Evan Handler in the back. Handler immediately exited the stage and kept on going, out of the theatre and out of the play forever.

I Hate Hamlet: Additional Notes

Why John Barrymore?  Why is he the Hamlet actor that returns from the beyond to counsel our TV-star protagonist in I Hate Hamlet?  After all, there have been more recent and therefore more familiar Hamlets: Laurence Olivier certainly was identified with the role, while Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole famously played it.

A short answer is that it was John Barrymore's former Manhattan apartment that playwright Paul Rudnick was shown (some online articles say that Rudnick lived there, but he doesn't make that assertion in his script notes.)  This coincidence sparked the writing of the play.

But there are meaningful parallels between Barrymore and our protagonist as well.  First, however, who was John Barrymore?

Perhaps even in 1991 it was too early to mention that John Barrymore is Drew Barrymore's grandfather.  The first generation of Barrymore actors were Georgiana and Maurice Barrymore (Drew's great grandparents.)  The next and most legendary generation was composed of the siblings Lionel, Ethel and John.  They all are best known now for their movie performances, but they began on the stage.

  Ethel was the first to become a star in 1901, in the unlikely Broadway show Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines by an early Broadway playwright I've been reading a lot about lately, Clyde Fitch (His play Her Own Way was the first ever done by Humboldt State, and is being restaged as a radio-style drama by HSU Theatre, Film & Dance on October 3 and 4.)

Captain Jinks was also John Barrymore's first Broadway appearance. As I Hate Hamlet says, he started with mostly light comedy, but he did try more serious drama before Hamlet, including a role in Ibsen's A Doll's House (again with sister Ethel) and more individually in an adaptation of a Tolstoy play,confusingly retitled Redemption (since that was the title of a different Tolstoy novel.)  He also did an historical drama called The Jest with his brother Lionel--and this made Lionel a star.

John Barrymore warmed up his Shakespeare with voice lessons and a reputedly very uneven Richard III.  But then in 1922 came his triumphant Hamlet.  His erratic behavior and lack of concentration and consistency were on hold for awhile.  He prepared for Hamlet "meticulously," writes famed critic and theatre historian Brooks Atkinson.  The result: "John Barrymore played a Hamlet that most people ranked with Edwin Booth's, by tradition considered the greatest."

Another critic wrote that Barrymore had revolutionized Shakespearian acting by ending the "school of recitation."  Barrymore's performance was "alive with vitality and genius--a great, beautiful, rare Hamlet--understandable and coherent."

Barrymore's Hamlet is also notable for his interpretation of Hamlet's relationship with his mother as Oedipal.  This Freudian approach was adopted wholesale by Olivier, especially in his movie version of Hamlet, which he directed.

A few years later Barrymore took his Hamlet to London, and triumphed again.  He then gave up the Broadway stage, moved to Hollywood and made movies, where  he fully earned his reputation for womanizing and especially for drinking (apparently emphasized more in the original I Hate Hamlet Broadway production than at NCRT.)

But it is not true, as stated in I Hate Hamlet, that he never returned to the stage.  He made one last Broadway starring appearance.  In a reputedly mediocre play (My Dear Children) he gave "a first-rate performance," Atkinson writes.  "There was a kind of admirable, if perverse gallantry about this final fling at the stage..." (Atkinson saw this play himself, and may have seen Barrymore's Hamlet.)  This play ran for four months in 1940.  John Barrymore died in 1942.

So the parallels between Barrymore and Andrew Rally, both obvious and subtle, underlie this "boulevard comedy" as Rudnick describes it.  Rally comes from commercial TV but at least part of him longs for artistic challenge and expression (so he auditioned five times for this Hamlet.)  Barrymore came from commercial theatre and was uneducated and untrained for classical roles, yet he pursued such roles and worked hard to excel in them.  Barrymore also knew the temptations of Hollywood--in his case, the movies.

They are both conflicted.  And of course they are talking about the most famously conflicted character in classical drama: Hamlet.

The contrasts between Rally and Barrymore--notably involving women and drink--also figure in the comedy, but the relationship they build in the second act is based on these common threads, as well as one more: the brotherhood of Hamlets.

Playing Hamlet is a kind of rite of passage for actors (which is partly why there is a new Hamlet somewhere in England almost continuously.)  Especially for a young actor it is the most complex role, offering the most challenge and the most breadth of opportunity for interpretation.  (Lear is the equivalent for older actors.)
David Warner Hamlet 1965

There is a kind of brotherhood established by the actors (a few of them women) who have played Hamlet, and a feeling established in theatre lore that after playing Hamlet an actor is never the same.  You get some sense of this in the conversation that David Tennant has with other Hamlets like Jude Law and David Warner  in the BBC's "Shakespeare Uncovered" series, which is viewable on YouTube.  I remember Tennant talking about this brotherhood of Hamlets and the mystique of the role in an interview, which I can no longer find.

A personal note: I don't recall actually meeting Paul Rudnick when we were both writing for Esquire, but I heard about him from mutual friends and editors.  The word was that he was very funny, and very New York.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

North Coast Repertory Theatre opens Paul Rudnick's comedy I Hate Hamlet with its actors benefit night on Thursday, September 18.  A successful TV actor must choose between playing Hamlet and starting a new TV show, while being visited by the ghost of legendary Shakespearian actor John Barrymore.  Directed by David Moore, it features Christian Litten, Evan Needham, Anders Carlson, Gloria Montgomery, Jennifer Trustem and Kristen Collins. Performances continue Friday and Saturday evenings through Oct. 11.  442-6278, www.ncrt.net.


Also opening September 18 is Beneath the Soulskin at Dell’Arte-- a work-in-progress written and performed by Dell’Arte graduate Robin Shaw and her Australian company, directed by Michael Fields.“It’s about the breaking of familial ties to the past, standing at the precipice of choice and choosing to leap,” Shaw said. "It's quite a moving, devised piece," said director Fields. "It's a work in progress which means it has that edge to it."  Admission is pay what you can. The show runs one weekend: Sept. 18-20 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. 668-5663, www.dellarte.com.

Equivocation continues at Redwood Curtain Thursday through Saturday evenings, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday.  Review and much more in posts below.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

An Unequivocal Success at Redwood Curtain

David Hamilton and Ambar Cuevas at Redwood Curtain
A slightly different version of this review appears in the North Coast Journal, where the sentence about actor Dimitry Tokarsky is inadvertently omitted.   This is my fault, and I apologize.

It is 1606 and the chief minister to the new English King (James I) commissions the most popular playwright of the day to write a play about the notorious Gunpowder Plot that sought to blow up the Parliament building while the king and his family were there. That playwright is William “Shagspeare”--one of several ways Shakespeare’s name was spelled by his contemporaries. The English weren’t big on consistent spelling at the time.

 So begins Equivocation, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka. It is a comedy and a political whodunit, told in contemporary language by a playwright who also wrote an episode of TV’s political potboiler “House of Cards,” but it's set in the early 17th century: Shakespeare In Love meets All the President’s Men.

Shakespeare’s sleuthing begins with a motive unknown to Woodward and Bernstein, or even Sherlock Holmes. He’s worried that the official version of events just won’t make a good play. For instance, the gentlemen conspirators were supposed to have dug a tunnel. How could they? It needed supports, and pumps to keep the river out. And what did they do with the dirt? “There will be 700 penny-a-place standees at every performance, all of whom make their living with their hands,” Shakespeare says. “And if there’s anything these groundlings will want to know about, it’s the dirt.”

 But the bigger dramatic problem is that the plot was foiled, so the explosion didn’t happen. What was good for the King is bad for Shakespeare, because the play has no ending.

 The actors of the company are very funny as they grapple with these problems (as well as Shakespeare’s latest confusing play about a crazy King Lear. “If we could get through his comedies-don’t-have-to-be-funny period,” lead actor Richard Burbage reassures the company, “we can get through whatever this is.”)

 In search of theatrical reality Shakespeare speaks with two of the alleged conspirators, and the play moves into the darkness of the time: political intrigue involving religion and the state, with the King’s chief minister and spymaster, Robert Cecil at its center. Shakespeare begins to wonder who profits from the Gunpowder Plot, and why.

 Equivocation is by Bill Cain, a Jesuit priest and writer who started a Shakespeare company in Boston. Another Jesuit (Henry Garnet) features prominently in the story, especially in regard to the concept of “equivocation” he championed: telling the truth, but indirectly. The moral questions raised by equivocation turn out to have significance as well for Shakespeare (who wants to "tell the truth but not get caught at it")  and his plays.

 Eventually Shakespeare completes a play, though not exactly the one commissioned, and it is the occasion for more mesmerizing action, including as a sword fight. Prior knowledge of Shakespeare and these times aren’t required, but they’ll add to the appreciation.

 Even more than usual for Redwood Curtain, the acting is excellent. This time the clarity and conviction of the acting are elevated as the actors meet the challenges of a witty, theatrical and multi-layered script. They respond with performances that rank among their best, at least in my experience.

 David Hamilton plays Shakespeare through the moods of his journey, revealing his humanity. Gary Sommers as Burbage and others, especially the Jesuit Garnet, is precise and evocative. James Hitchcock navigates both the wily Robert Cecil and Nate, the most grounded of the players, with economy and force.  Dimitry Tokarsky likewise inhabits his roles with an assurance we share. As both Richard Sharpe (the youngest player) and King James, Cody Miranda has a startling moment playing a scene between the two. With his posture and his eyes, he conveys the cruelty hidden in the cocksure King.

 The play also involves the central role of family, especially the relationship of Shakespeare and his daughter, Judith, whose cynical skepticism is eventually transformed. Ambar Cuevas plays all those colors well, but her performance in the closing scene is exceptionally moving.

 The other elements of this production are equally admirable: the elegant and spacious set by Ray Gutierrez, dramatic lighting by Michael Burkhart, pleasing costumes by Jenneveve Hood, among important others. Director Catherine L. Brown knits all these elements together into a convincing and entertaining world. Though not perfect in preview, this show is an unequivocal success.

This is an unusually rich and thematically ambitious play, and one that takes chances.  After all, it is a play about a play that doesn't get written about an event that doesn't take place. It even violates Shakespeare's rules (histories end in battle, comedies in marriage, tragedies in death): it is a history and a comedy that ends in death.

 To mention more about it would involve too much space and too many spoilers for an opening review, so I’ll suggest some of its textures in the notes below, especially for those who see it. But playgoers should be prepared for some enacted and mostly suggested violence, including torture. (It’s no coincidence that this play was written during the Bush administration.)

 Craig Benson is the fight choreographer, Brandi Lacy the dialect coach, and various effects are engineered by Jared Sorenson, Jillian Park and Hanah Toyoda. Christopher Joe is sound designer, Shea King assistant director and dramaturg. Equivocation is on stage at Redwood Curtain weekends through September 27. 443-7688, www.redwoodcurtain.com.

Equivocation: Notes and Spoilers

yesterday and today: The Globe
These notes contain spoilers, but mostly they address questions that might be raised by seeing the play.

 Equivocation is so rich in characters, themes and resonance (too rich for some tastes) that to do much more than introduce the basic action, as I did in my review, would just be confusing.

The play is set in 1606, yet in style it's contemporary.  Previous productions in fact have been done in modern dress, as the playwright suggests.  Redwood Curtain chooses a modified period style.

"The Shakespeare Code"
Since at least Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, there have been a number of plays that use Shakespeare's stories with a twist, or in which Shakespeare himself appears, usually as a more or less contemporary person in historical circumstances--from Shakespeare in Love (Stoppard again) to a classic episode of David Tennant's Doctor Who ("The Shakespeare Code.")  Equivocation follows in this "tradition", and depends on what are now the conventions of it.  Especially that we aren't thrown off by people in 1606 talking a lot like 2006, minus contemporary references.

Yet the play purports to show the interplay of  English politics and William Shakespeare's theatre company in the early 17th century, and involves a famous historical event--the Gunpowder Plot, which is still the focus of holiday celebrations in the UK. (We mostly know it as Guy Fawkes Day, celebrating both the anarchic spirit and the survival of the British government, with bonfires and fireworks.)

 So the first question that might arise after seeing the play could be: how much of the history is made up?

Robert Cecil
Most if not all of the characters named are authentic historical figures.  The play begins with Robert Cecil commissioning Shakespeare to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, based on a history written by King James himself.  Robert Cecil was indeed Secretary of State to both Queen Elizabeth and then James, and was widely regarded as James' spymaster.  James did write essays etc., though perhaps not this particular history.

Elizabeth's long reign had ended in 1603.  She died without children and without naming an heir.  Cecil was (as noted in this play) instrumental in having James installed as King.  James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, and was ruling Scotland at the time.  By becoming King, he became head of the Church of England.

Since Henry VIII, the official religion in England was the Church of England, with the King as its head.  Previously England had been Roman Catholic (with the Pope as its head), and ever since Henry there had been religious and political conflict between outlawed adherents of "the old religion" and the official Protestant religion.

The Gunpowder Plot was ostensibly a conspiracy of various English gentlemen and perhaps clergy to overthrow the government and establish a new monarch (Mary's young daughter Elizabeth, with a Catholic regent acting on her behalf.)  The idea was to plant a large quantity of gunpowder beneath the room where Parliament had its opening ceremonies, with the King, his family and ministers attending.  (Wikipedia has an extensive entry on the topic.)
King James

The official version of these events--the letter that eventually alerted Robert Cecil to the plot, the arrests that foiled the plot--are as described in this play.  The conspirators were said to have dug a tunnel to a room under Parliament--Shakespeare has problems believing this in the play, and subsequent historians have found no evidence for a tunnel.  Such a room existed (and still does.) Oddly it was in private hands at the time and no such extreme measures as a tunnel were needed to store gunpowder in it.  If the gunpowder said to have been found in this room really was there, it was more than enough to demolish Parliament and kill everyone in the room (according to a British TV experiment.)

Equivocation

Garnet
Two other historical figures and characters in the play are Thomas Wintour and the Jesuit priest Henry Garnet.  They were among those imprisoned, tortured and executed in the manner described in the play.  The play faithfully follows the version of his involvement that Garnet asserted--he knew only what had been said to another priest in confession.  He did in fact write a treatise on "equivocation," although he was not the only one or even the first to relate it to "mental reservation", a concept within Catholic and specifically Jesuit ethics, though it has earlier origins.

"Equivocation," as Garnet defines it in the play: "Don't answer the question they're asking. If a dishonest man has formed the question, there will be no honest answer. Answer the question beneath the question. The equivalent question. Answer the question really asked. And answer it with your life."

This play suggests that Robert Cecil himself was behind the gunpowder plot, or at least the story of it that he wanted told.  This was a suspicion of the time, and was developed as a theory by Father John Gerard in 1897.  Others refute these claims.  That Cecil learned of the plot and let it develop for awhile before exposing it is more credible, and more credible still is that he used it for his own political ends.

Cecil, by the way, was a hunchback as suggested in the play, and both his family's prior history he refers to, and its subsequent important history in British government he foresees into the 21st century (including a Nobel Peace Prize), are broadly accurate.

Besides Cecil and other figures involved in the gunpowder plot and its aftermath, Equivocation makes William Shakespeare a character, as well as depicting members of his theatrical troupe.

Shakespeare and all the King's Men

from Shakespeare in Love
 I could verify all the players in Shakespeare's troupe--the King's Men-- that this play names, except "Nate," but in an interview, Equivocation's playwright Bill Cain claimed that an actor by that name was in fact among them.  Richard Burbage was Shakespeare's lead actor.  Robert Armin played the clown roles and had an excellent singing voice.  He was a more verbal comic than Will Kempe, who he replaced.  Richard Sharpe was indeed a young member, who before he joined the company started out very young playing women's parts.

Shakespeare in fact did have a daughter named Judith, and she was the twin sister of his son Hamnet, who died at age 11.  But it does seem she was back with her sister in Stratford and not living with her father in London, as in this play.  The play also shows her reading and even editing Shakespeare's texts, but (according to Shakespeare biographer Peter Ackroyd) in fact she was probably illiterate.

There are many witty lines about Shakespeare and his present day status made by Cecil and others.  He's all things to all men, Cecil says, and adds later, "People will go to your plays as they used to go to church. Reverently. And they will leave exactly as they went in, unchanged but feeling somehow improved."

  It's also suggested that Shakespeare was a long-retired actor in his troupe, and not a very good one.  However it's probable that he stopped acting just a few years before, in 1603 or 04.  And there are those (including Orson Welles and Peter O'Toole) who looked at the parts he played and concluded he must have been one of the troupe's better actors.

This play shows the company rehearsing King Lear, and then performing Macbeth.  In fact Macbeth was performed for King James probably in the spring of 1606. King Lear was probably performed that December, so the earlier rehearsals aren't outlandish.

Equivocation begins with Shakespeare being given a commission to write a play based on the official version of the Gunpowder Plot, as written by King James.   Being named the King's Men was an honor but it also meant that the company performed many plays a year before the king and the court.  Still, there's no record of such a commission.

But the idea might have been inspired by a slightly earlier event, in which Shakespeare and his company may have been deliberately used as an adjunct to violent political plot, with potentially disastrous results.  In 1601, supporters of the Earl of Essex paid for a performance by Shakespeare's company of his play Richard II, which involves the deposing of the king.  Some of these were also conspiring with Essex to start a rebellion against the government.  It was alleged later that they were using the performance both as a cover for their activities that day, and as inspiration and justification for overthrowing the monarch.  But the revolt failed, and after some uncertainty, Shakespeare and players escaped punishment.
Orson Welles as Macbeth

Shakespeare, in this play and in reality, never wrote a play about the gunpowder plot, but as in this play, the next play he wrote and produced was Macbeth.  Scenes from it, with some theatrical additions, are the climax of Equivocation.

The relationships of Macbeth to James I, the gunpowder plot and the concept of equivocation drawn in this play are drawn elsewhere in the critical literature. From one point of view, Macbeth is about the consequences of killing a king.  It's the Scottish play, James was a Scot, and (according to Ackroyd) "King James had been greeted by three sibyls at the gates of an Oxford college and hailed as the true descendant of Banquo."  In Shakespeare's play, Banquo is declared the father of kings by three witches, and Macbeth murders him.  Shakespeare differs here from previous stories about Macbeth, in which Banquo is among the conspirators against the rightful king Duncan (who Macbeth also murders.)  This can be seen as illustrating of the charge Cecil makes in Equivocation, that Shakespeare, a master of equivocation, made sure to stay on the right side of the powerful.

In Equivocation, much is made of King James wish that there be witches in Shakespeare's play.  James was known for his interest in occult or malign spirits, and had written on the subject.

Judith Shakespeare
At the end of  Equivocation, Judith makes a powerful point about Shakespeare's last plays, and the father-daughter relationships within his general theme of family.  Peter Ackroyd makes much the same point in his biography of Shakespeare--in fact, since this book was published in 2005, it may have suggested this observation to playwright Cain.  "The essential bond is father and daughter. It may not be the pattern of his life," Ackroyd wrote, "but it clearly is the pattern of his imagination."


Contemporary Flavors

Equivocation was first produced up in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009, so it's reasonable to assume Cain wrote it during the G.W. Bush administration.  There certainly are echoes of the Bush administration's use and justification of torture.  There's suggestion of the political exploitation of the plot that succeeded (9/11) as well as the plot that failed (the gunpowder plot.)


There's also some echo of today's polarized politics. In the play Robert Cecil admits that his political purpose is to keep the country sharply divided. "When a country is evenly divided - and plots can be so helpful for that - the slightest touch of a royal finger on the scale changes the balance."

But contemporary as well as historical relevance go beyond these specifics, at least in Cain's stated intent.  He'd visited the Tower of London, seen where prisoners had been tortured, and noticed that the Globe theatre was close by.  He said that this play is about "the relationship of the Tower and the theatre," and that Shakespeare's troupe "was the only functioning democracy anywhere in the world in 1605."

Symmetries

There are several witty comments on Shakespeare's dramaturgy, and the nature of plays in general that this play turns into elegant symmetries.

In Equivocation Shakespeare complains that the gunpowder plot can be made into a dramatic play because the explosion never happened--it's a story without an ending.  He tries various ways to write this play, but does not succeed.  Yet what is Equivocation itself about? A play that never gets written about an event that never takes place.
fathers & daughters: NCRT's The Tempest

But this Shakespeare also wants to revolt against the strictures of what must be in a play. He tells Judith he yearns to write "A new kind of play. Not the clash of opposites, but their union. Not tearing; joining. Forgiveness, not blame." "A play that's not about revenge?" Judith retorts. "It can't be done."  But he does it in his later plays.

Several times Shakespeare also bemoans other conventions of the stage--histories end in battle, comedies in marriage and tragedies in death--and longs to write a play that defies these.  Arguably Shakespeare also did this in his later plays, but so does Bill Cain: Equivocation is a history and a comedy that ends in death (Shakespeare's.)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Opening this weekend at Redwood Curtain: Equivocation, a play by Bill Cain in which Shakespeare has a speaking part. It's got humor, melodrama, politics, special effects and swordfights.  Directed by Catherine L. Brown, it features James Hitchcock, Gary Sommers, Dmitry Tokarsky, Cody Miranda, David Hamilton and Ambar Cuevas.  It previews Thursday and Friday, September 4 and 5, and opens Saturday with a reception, all beginning at 8 p.m.  www.redwoodcurtain.com, 443-7688.



Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Stage: Review

When the play calls for an enchanted forest, why try to fake it on a stage, when you can take the stage to the forest? That’s the solution in the Plays in the Park production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, now at Redwood Park in Arcata.

 Down the grassy hill from the Arcata Community Forest, tucked in a corner bowered by real redwoods, a few stump-like platforms dot the uneven ground that is strewn with feathery wood shavings to pillow a stage. Bleachers hug its fringes. Behind them is a canvas-covered concession stand with hot drinks, cookies and popcorn. There’s a restroom in a lighted building nearby.

 The play begins at 7 p.m., in the last clear light of a midsummer evening. We first meet the nobles: Theseus, a duke of Athens, and his betrothed, Hippolyta, as they discuss their upcoming nuptials. Some productions obscure the fact that Theseus has won her in battle, for she is queen of the Amazons. This production suggests it in an intriguing way, by staging their first conversation during a friendly fencing match.

 The other nobles include an irate father and two young couples in a complex love tangle. Then we meet a group of commoners rehearsing a play they hope to perform as part of the duke’s wedding celebration. Then the spirit king (Oberon) and fairy queen (Titania) of the forest appear, continuing their ongoing argument that’s causing weird weather and unnatural events. Among the other creatures of the night is the magical prankster Puck, also called Robin Goodfellow. All three of these worlds will intersect in a comedy of confused enchantments.

 Much of the action and the beginning of the resolutions occur in this production’s first act. Dominating the second act is the commoners’ performance of a “merry and tragical” story about the star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare wrote his midsummer play within a year or two of Romeo and Juliet, and this playlet is its comically absurd version. Children in the audience on opening night led the laughter.

 The final scene, in which the magical creatures greet another night and address the audience, takes place near 9:30 p.m., surrounded by the real night’s first deep darkness. It is a living midsummer night’s dream.

 In many ways, this charming production could have been mounted any night in the past four centuries. Some features of it probably were part of the original: fairies played by children, a dog (Elizabethans loved a dog), and actors playing more than one part. In Arcata, Kenneth Wigley is appropriately imperious as both the duke and the spirit king, with comic notes of irony and vexation. Kim Haile creates a real character for the Amazon queen—sensuous, strong and thoughtful—and varies these qualities for the fairy queen.

 The most spectacular doubling is accomplished by Chyna Leigh who changes from a bespeckled commoner to the sprightly Puck before our eyes. Megan Johnson portrays Bottom, the commoner who is transformed into an animal particularly apt for the name, and who becomes the love object of the bewitched fairy queen. Leigh’s lithe, mesmerizing Puck and Megan Johnson’s buoyant, open-hearted performance as a gender-bent Bottom propel the action, the comedy and the magic.

 Yet for all its classic elements, this production is also subtly contemporary, without making a big point of shifting period or place. This is most evident with the thwarted lovers, who dress like North Coast students and make Shakespeare’s words seem natural expressions of their feelings. Eva Brena especially incorporates the hint of a familiar teenage whine in her character’s timeless complaints.

 The other lovers—played by Thsnat Berhe, Ethan Frank and Julia Hjerpe—are spirited and convincing. Ken Klima plays the irate father Egeus with authority.

 Especially important to audiences of Shakespeare in an outdoor setting: almost all of the time the actors speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard. The play’s bright surface is emphasized but Shakespeare’s psychologically acute explorations of conscious and unconscious, dream and reality are readily available in the words.

 Director Evan Needham makes some apt and inventive theatrical choices for troublesome moments while providing seamless entertainment. Calder Johnson designed scene and lighting, Marissa Menezes the costumes, Chyna Leigh makeup and hair. Performing as fairies are Sydnee Stanton, Emily Martinez, Zoe Osborn and Melina Ledwith. A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. through August 30 in Redwood Park.  822-7091, www.playsinthepark.net.


This summer Plays in the Park also presents Scheherazade: Legend of the Arabian Nights, a family show by Susan Pargman, a former arts director for the Cross Sound Church who currently runs Drama Kids International. It is directed by Charlie Heinberg, with choreography by Shoshanna, sound and music by Christopher Joe, scenic design by Mark Dupre and Calder Johnson, and costumes by Megan Johnson.

 The performers are Alexis Perez, Mia Gonzalez, Chris Joe, Tristan Ford, Caleb Haley, Alyssa Rempel, Jenn Trustem, Christine Johnson, Anaiyah Bird, Cara Pierleoni, Keryl Lopez, Anthony Fleck, Dylan Wilkerson, Mia Rasmussen and Benjamin Smith. Scheherazade is performed (with no admission charge) Sundays at 2 p.m. through August 31.

A Midsummer Night's Stage: Additional Notes

For the sake of brevity (and word count) in the review I refer to the folks who play the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude as “commoners” but they are more specific than that. They are workers (the Plays in the Park production shows them in overalls; this photo is from an Old Vic production) of a specific kind: a weaver, a joiner, etc. In other words, craftsmen or skilled workers. In Shakespeare’s time they were called “mechanicals.”

 Shakespeare wrote his midsummer play within a year or two of Romeo and Juliet, and this playlet is its comically absurd version.

Commentator Harold Bloom writes that this play was composed in the winter of 1595-96, and that Romeo and Juliet was written in 1595. Scholar A.D. Nuttall agrees that both plays were written in roughly these years but concedes that it can’t be proven that “either play preceded the other.” But he feels it is unlikely that Shakespeare would have parodied Romeo and Juliet in The Pyramus and Thisbe interlude before he had written it.  He considers other resemblances--and direct opposites--of the two plays.  The Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe of course predates A Midsummer Night's Dream, which in other respects seems to have no prior play or story as a model, a rarity in Shakespeare.

 Director Evan Needham makes some apt and inventive theatrical choices for troublesome moments...

 For instance, in an early scene the duke speaks a line that suggests his betrothed is not happy about how he handled the conflict involving the irate father and his daughter. Often this is performed as a throwaway, or her displeasure is muted. Needham had Kim Haile stalk out of the scene in anger. So the duke’s “What cheer?” not only made sense, it got a laugh.

 Some features of it probably were part of the original: fairies played by children, a dog (Elizabethans loved a dog)...

A dog act of some kind was a frequent feature of stage plays, including Shakespeare, although Elizabethan tastes in animal acts was also less benign: various cruel forms of bear-baiting and fighting were very popular shows. (Not to worry--the dog in the Plays in the Park is cute and may even get his tummy tickled.)

 But fondness for a dog on stage continued in subsequent centuries to the point that there was an actual version called “Dog’s Hamlet,” in which Hamlet spoke his soliloquies to his dog. This probably is a punning reference in Tom Stoppard’s short play “Dogg’s Hamlet,” in which players speak in an artificial language called “dogg.” Stoppard also made fun of the Elizabethan taste for dogs in Shakespeare’s plays several times in his script for Shakespeare in Love.

 ...Shakespeare’s psychologically acute explorations of conscious and unconscious, dream and reality are readily available in the words. 

Several commentators on this play point out how remarkably well Shakespeare anticipated Freud and Jung. I noticed a couple of examples at Plays in the Park. When Puck douses the eyes of one of the sleeping male lovers with a potion that causes him to fall in love with the first woman he sees when he awakes, and that is not the woman he actually loves but another, he immediately begins to argue in terms of reason why he’s suddenly changed his mind and now loves another. This is precisely how the unconscious works, according to Jung (and maybe Freud, I don’t know, I’ve read much more Jung.) We immediately rationalize impulses from the unconscious, and often actually believe we’ve made a reasoned choice when we’re operating from denial, projection, etc.

 I noticed also an example of the interpenetrating worlds of dream and reality is reflected in Bottom’s mixing of the senses. Awaking from his spell—his dream—he speaks of eyes hearing and ears seeing. But he does so again, in character during the Pyramus and Thisbe playlet.

The opposites that interpenetrate include spirits and mortals (there’s suggestion of a sexual interpenetration among the royals of each world), day and night, light and dark. The place where light and dark meet is the moon, and where reality and dream meet is the imagination. (The moon as a symbol of the imagination runs throughout literature, notably in the 20th century poet Wallace Stevens.)

 In this play there is a lot of moon imagery (noted in detail by literary critic Northrop Frye), including luna-tic. Late in the play, the duke makes a speech about the imagination in relation to madness and poetry that apart from the instant quotations (“What fools these mortals be,” “The course of true love never did run smooth,” etc.) is the play’s most famous speech. Unfortunately, in the Plays in the Park performance, that speech is mostly eliminated, as is at least one earlier reference to the moon as cold and lifeless.

The key lines in the play that unite the theme of love with the psychological and other oppositions belongs to Bottom, responding to the fairy queen when she first professes her love.  "Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that: And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays: The more the pity, that some honest neighbors will not make them friends." 

On Plays in the Park...

This is just the second year for Arcata Plays in the Park in the current incarnation.  There are lots of ways to do plays in parks in the summer, and mindful of this, especially for those unfamiliar with attending plays in these circumstances, I included more description than usual of the premises and conditions, so potential audience members have a better idea of what to expect.  I could have added a few more details: prepare for nighttime chill, bring something to cushion the metal bleacher seats and most particularly to this venue, bring a flashlight to get back to your car.  When it's dark in Redwood Park, it's really dark.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Other Versions

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which literary critic Harold Bloom asserted is among Shakespeare’s best plays, if not the very best, has been interpreted in many ways and forms. It’s been done as an opera by Benjamin Britten and a ballet by Balanchine. Felix Mendelssohn wrote music for it that has become so associated with the play that for centuries it was rarely performed without this musical accompaniment.


On the stage, Bloom called Peter Brook’s 1970 production an abomination, but Frank Rich is among those critics who considered it a masterpiece.  It became known for the use of trapezes and acrobatics.  Brook wrote about it in his book The Shifting Point in terms of themes (it is thoroughly about love, he maintains) and it seems from these pages that this was an interpretation very much influenced by the 1960s, including the gap between the generations.  Brook wrote about it again in the more autobiographical Threads of Time, concentrating on the process of creating it.  The cast worked on gymnastics and other exercises, and then when they were tired and ready to relax, they read the play aloud.  Gradually as they became more physically fit and familiar with each other, they ended the day discussing the play.  Brook felt this worked much better that starting with a table reading.  It's an interesting chapter.

Subsequent stage productions include some that saw a darker side to themes and characters in the play.  Some productions used the opportunities provided by the play to emphasize sex, sometimes in unconventional interpretations.  Some of this is theatrical overkill (the musicalization of Shakespeare) and intellectual laziness.  But there are darker areas in this play than are explored in most productions, especially of the Shakespeare-in-the-Park "family viewing" kind.  These themes and even speeches (noted by commentators like those mentioned in the above post) are part of Shakespeare's exploration of the unconscious, of the worlds of waking conventions and the "fierce vexations of a dream."


There are several versions of the play on film. The 1935 Hollywood version is notable for film stars in classical roles (James Cagney as Bottom, a young Mickey Rooney as Puck), for using Mendelsson’s music and for utilizing the play’s opportunities for visual effects possible only on film.


 Peter Hall reconceived his stage version for a 1968 film (Bloom’s favorite.) Paul Rogers plays Bottom, Ian Richardson plays Oberon and Ian Holm is a brilliant Puck.  Among the lovers are young actors Helen Mirren, Diana Rigg and David Warner (whose 1965 stage Hamlet is now legendary, though it wasn’t preserved on film.) The setting is supposedly Athens but it is noticeably influenced by the Carnaby Street fashions of the swinging sixties. In the 60s and 70s films, nudity in serious films was much more common than now, and the costume of Titania—played by the young Judi Dench—leaves little to the imagination. (Several Dench children play fairies.)  This is a pretty complete version of the play, that seems to have fewer cuts than these other film versions. And it's not bad as a film, though recognizably a '60s- style movie (not '60s zooms so much as jump cuts.)


There’s a 1998 film version of the popular Royal Shakespeare Company stage production directed by Adrian Noble. The play is re-conceived and stylized with some success (maybe not a lot) though Lindsay Duncan’s performance as Titania is itself reason to seek it out.







A 1999 Hollywood movie version is more interesting and satisfying. It moves the action to late 19th century Italy, which allows it to make droll use of new “magical” technologies like bicycles and the phonograph. The cast is composed mainly of experienced American and English film actors. It is very cinematic, with many dialogues in close-up and speeches almost whispered (particularly Rupert Everett as Oberon) which play remarkably well for a play originally meant to be shouted from the Elizabethan stage.

Dominic West (star of TV’s The Wire), Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart and Sam Rockwell are among today’s more recognizable names in this 1999 film—they acquit themselves well. (There’s a supply of bare skin in this version too, a lot of it Dominic West’s. Still, the mud wrestling sequence was a bit much.)

Stanley Tucci is a terrific Puck, Michelle Pfeiffer is a surprisingly good Titania, and Kevin Kline is a memorable Bottom.

There’s some wonderful invention in this version, and the Pyramus and Thisbe playlet is the best I’ve seen—very funny and then moving. And you see how much was at stake for the craftsmen who performed it. (There’s a performance of just this playlet by the Beatles viewable on youtube: not a musical version but an actual if somewhat improvised performance.)

 This 1999 film is notable also for using the well-known Wedding March in its original context—it was written by Mendelssohn for this marriage scene. Like the Redwood Park version I saw, it shortens the duke’s famous speech about the imagination. Perhaps they used the same script?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Arcata Plays in the Park begin this weekend. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Evan Needham, premieres on Friday August 8 at 7 p.m, and runs Friday and Saturday evenings through Aug. 30 at Arcata’s Redwood Park. Scheherazade, a retelling of Arabian Nights tales appropriate for families (genies, magic carpets, etc), directed by Charlie Heinberg, opens Sunday August 10 at 2 p.m. and plays every Sunday through August 31. There’s an admission charge for Shakespeare but Scheherazade is free. 822-7091, www.playsinthepark.net.

Continuing: HLOC's Roaring Twenties musical comedy Thoroughly Modern Millie (reviewed below), the melodrama The Poor of New York at North Coast Rep and the musical comedy The Wedding Singer at Ferndale Rep.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Humboldt Light Opera's Thoroughly Postmodern Millie

From the opening tableau of a 1920s Manhattan street scene that fills the Van Duzer Theatre stage, the Humboldt Light Opera Company production of Thoroughly Modern Millie has the look, the pace and the pizzazz of Broadway. It has all the elements of a big classic musical: vibrant costumes (by Caroline Allander, Madeline Myers and director Carol Ryder) sparkling choreography with sly Busby Berkeley touches (by Melissa Hinz, assisted by Hannah Mullen Jones), an 18-piece pit orchestra (conducted by Justin Sousa) plus the painted backdrops falling and rising while clever set and prop pieces whiz on and off the stage in Jayson Mohatt’s inventive scenic design.

 Like 1920s Broadway shows in particular, this early 21st century musical has more to do with stars than story. Melissa Hinz as Millie, the Kansas girl who quickly becomes a worldly New Yorker, plays the part with personality, assurance and happy feet. She has the ‘20s look, while delivering her lines with the wisecrack intonations of ‘30s screwball comedies.

 Gino Bloomberg is steady and appealing as her leading man, Katherine Johnson has a couple of show-stopping songs, and Linnea Hill, Kevin Richards, Kathleen Ely, Madeline Myers and Alissa Morey are among those who provide nicely comic characterizations as well as musical moments.

 The songs span more than a century of music. If “The Speed Test” sounds a lot like Gilbert and Sullivan, that’s because new lyrics are grafted onto an Arthur Sullivan tune. There are a couple of other operetta melodies by Victor Herbert as well as the title song by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen for the 1967 Julie Andrews film that’s the source material for this stage musical. (Musicals that started as movies seem quite the North Coast trend these days.)

 The new songs are by Dick Scanlon (lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music.) Tesori wrote the music for HLOC’s hit of last summer, Shrek The Musical. The songs are pleasant and forgettable but the underscoring (presumably by Tesori and whoever did the orchestration) brilliantly evokes the jazz age as well as old movie soundtracks.  This may be a difference from the 1920s Broadway musicals, which were often showcases for composers and popular songs as well as popular performers.

 The biggest weakness is plot. The main story is predictable and the secondary story is incoherent. Millie is thoroughly modern because her goal is to marry for money and not for love. So it’s not real hard to figure out how that will go, complete with fairy tale touches and last minute revelations.

As for the secondary story, in the movie it involved—of all things in a musical comedy—a white slave ring targeting orphaned young women, run by sinister Chinese villains. Responding to the racism in this version, the 21st century stage musical kept the Chinese villains but made one of them sympathetic—he falls in love with a victim.  The HLOC version completely removes the once common stereotype of funny-talking Chinese by making the villains Italians with heavy accents.

 Thanks perhaps to The Godfather and those collections of Italian love songs marketed as “Mob Hits,” Italians appear to be contemporary culture’s acceptable group to be stereotyped as criminals, however pathetic or buffoonish. The North Coast may be sensitive to its notorious history regarding Chinese residents, but others experienced prejudice here as well. In World War II, Italian Americans in Arcata and Eureka were placed under curfew and their movements were restricted.  If I recall correctly from an Arcata Eye article I read some years ago, in Arcata they weren't permitted closer to Humboldt Bay than the present location of Wildberries Marketplace.

 Mostly unacceptable now, stereotyped ethnic humor and ethnic villains were standard elements in American entertainment well into the 20th century. This production goes even further to lower the temperature by dodging the white slavery aspect and suggesting it’s more of a kidnapping plot. Why kidnappers would target orphans with no one to pay ransom for them isn’t explained.

 Still, audiences are more likely to leave with impressions of dazzling dancing stenographers and the dramatic skyscraper-ledge set than with many memories of the story or the songs. Thoroughly Modern Millie is a thoroughly postmodern pastiche meant to revive Roaring Twenties style and evoke the classic singing-and-dancing musical comedy. Except for its more currently fashionable lighting (often dim compared to the tried and true standard of brightly lit musicals), this production pretty much delivers.

 Directed with her usual panache by Carol McWhorter Ryder, with musical direction by Katri Pitts and Amy Chalfant, and with an additional cast too large to name individually, Thoroughly Modern Millie continues for two more weekends (Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.) 822-1318, hloc.org.

Additional Notes

The Broadway production won the 2002 Tony for Best Musical, and its star Sutton Foster won for Best Performance.  Her story is better (and more like a 1920s musical) than the story she played.  When the production wobbled out- of-town, Sutton Foster was suddenly promoted from a mere chorus member to the lead, something she'd never done before. With her performance the production jelled and became a Broadway hit.  From chorus girl to superstar!

Locally we've been having something of a Sutton Foster Festival without knowing it.  She went on to star in Shrek the Musical, HLOC's previous show, and Little Women, which HLOC did several years ago.  She also played in Young Frankenstein, which HSU produced this past fall, and a revival of Anything Goes, which North Coast Rep produced in 2012.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

photo by Bob Doran
One night, Jeff DeMark had a dream: he and some friends were performing at the Mad River Festival. Though he estimates he’s done about 20 solo shows at Dell’Arte, this summer’s festival wasn’t on his radar. But the dream was compelling and he emailed Dell’ Arte’s Michael Fields to tell him about it. “Good dream,” was Fields’ reply and soon this evening was arranged: Acting on a Dream: Summer Stories, Songs and Wild Left Turns, happens in Blue Lake at the Big Hammer Tent on Thursday July 31 at 7:30 p.m., part of Dell'Arte's Mad River Festival.

Half of Dell’Arte’s motto of “from around the world and down the block” was demonstrated in Elisabeth’s Book last week, with participants from France, Spain, Moldova and the U.S. The other half is somewhat accidentally exemplified in the DeMark show, which features mostly light-hearted summer storytelling by Blue Lakers DeMark, Marvin Samuels and Lizzy Moonbeam, along with Charlie Gilbert. Music is provided by DeMark’s band The Gila Monsters, which features Blue Lake residents Rick Levin (guitar) and Ron Sharp (bass) as well as Jean Browning (keyboards) and Paul DeMark (percussion.) 668-5663, www.dellarte.com.

Opening Friday (August 1) at 7:30 p.m. on the Van Duzer Theatre stage at HSU is the Humboldt Light Opera Company production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical set in New York City during the 1920s.  It's an updated version of the 1967 movie with Julie Andrews.  HLOC shows are always a summer highlight.

Directed by Carol Ryder, it features Melissa Hinz, Gino Bloomberg, Kevin Richards, Linnea Hill, Katherine Johnson, Kathleen Ely, Carl McGahan and Jake Smith.  There's an actual orchestra, conducted by Justin Sousa.  The show runs three weekends (Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sunday matinees on August 10 and 17 at 2 p.m.)  822-1318, hloc.org.

Continuing: The Wedding Singer musical at Ferndale Rep, the melodrama The Poor of New York at North Coast Rep, reviewed below.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

American Melodrama at NCRT

The Poor of New York, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, is a mid-19th century American melodrama, a classic of its kind. The story involves the machinations of an unscrupulous banker (played by David Simms) and his daughter (Brittney Sky Webber), and the effects of their manipulations on a family driven into poverty (Shirley Santino, Tim Donnelly and Kelsey Larson) and on an unfortunate young man from a prominent family (David Moore.)

 The context of a Wall Street crash and what we now decorously call “income inequality” has contemporary resonance. One character’s speech could be spoken today with few alterations: “The poor man is a clerk with a family, forced to maintain a decent suit of clothes, paid for out of the hunger of his children...These needy wretches are poorer than the poor, for they are obliged to conceal their poverty with the false mask of content...”

 Comic relief and opposite ethics come from a family that generously shares its scant resources (Wesley Fuller, Scott Osborn and especially the irrepressible Toodie SueAnn Boll.) With a crucial assist from Jenneveve Hood’s period costumes, the actors convincingly embody their characters. Jim Buschmann as the banker’s co-conspirator is especially strong, as is Kelsey Larson with a performance in a limited role that suggests greater potential. Other parts are played by Randall Larson, Lucas Hylton, Bob Service and Pam Service. Robert Keiber performs period songs.

 It’s no easy task to present a classic melodrama to a contemporary audience. Melodrama was the most popular stage form in Europe and America in the 19th century, though these plays are seldom performed now. Thanks in part to the moustache-twirling villains of the silent cinema and the tear-jerker excesses of soap operas, “melodramatic” has become a term of derision.

 Still, most conventions of the form—larger than life characters, the very good characters victorious over the very evil, with appropriate music—have migrated successfully to movies and television dramas. Today’s audience can buy into the melodrama of NCIS or Star Wars but seemingly can’t accept stage melodrama without irony.

 Irony however is pretty much the opposite of what melodrama offers, which above all is emotion. It’s no coincidence that melodrama prospered when larger-than-life 19th century actors ruled the stage. After generations dominated by naturalistic acting, it’s hard for actors and audiences alike to handle the emotions of melodrama. The opening night NCRT audience responded with genial boos for the villain and oohs and ahs for the love scenes, but as drama historian and critic Eric Bentley affirms, melodrama’s power is in evoking fear and empathy, and causing actual tears of sorrow and joy.

 But for modern actors and productions to fully commit to the emotions of melodrama is risky. It could provoke disbelieving laughter. The NCRT production seems to vacillate—playing it straight but also at times with an ironic wink. Or if not actual irony, a reserved naturalism that seems disproportionately tepid for this play, which allows the audience to see it ironically.   It might be more than interesting to go for stronger and bigger acting that tries to command the heart of the audience.

 Written by Dion (born Dionysus) Boucicault, one of the most prolific and successful playwrights of the time, The Poor of New York defies stereotypes of melodrama by presenting a villain with something of a noble motive, and another character who changes sides. Even surrounded by extraneous sing-alongs that suggest a nostalgic distance, there are scenes that can evoke real feeling, with insight into the America of today.

 Praise is due to Artistic Director Michael Thomas and the NCRT board for seeking out this exemplar of a rarely seen theatrical form, as well as the Greek tragedies earlier this season (along with the blockbuster “Les Miz”) that provided bracing variety to North Coast theatrical offerings. This is a worthy production that’s also intriguing for its potential, and for how it might play to different audiences each time.

 Directed by Alex Service with scenic and lighting design by Calder Johnson and sound by Michael Thomas, The Poor of New York is performed weekends through August 16. 442-6278, www.ncrt.net.

Additional Notes

 In the era of the actor-manager, Dion Boucicault was an actor/playwright/manager of sorts.  He is credited as being the first playwright to demand royalties (rather than a single flat payment), which set the stage for American playwrights ever since.

According to the NCRT Director's Notes by Alex Service, he "lost heavily in the 1857 panic and wrote The Poor of New York in the hope of paying his bills.   It saved the author financially and become one of the era's most popular plays, performed in constant revival across America and Europe for the next 30 years."

Boucicault is also known for writing The Octoroon (1859), one of the first plays seen in New York to tell a story about African Americans. Boucicault wrote between 100 and 150 plays, most of them either melodrama or farce.  The two forms can be seen as extreme simplifications of the major forms of tragedy and comedy.  Both tend to depend on contrivances rather than character.  But the line between tragedy and melodrama is not always so defined: for example some critics suggest that Shakespeare's Richard III is a melodrama.

The excesses of melodrama earned disrepute, but there are those who feel it is still a legitimate form.  But finding a melodrama from its 19th century heyday suitable for today's audiences proved difficult.  NCRT Artistic Director Michael Thomas wrote to me in an email:  "We wanted to do a genuine melodrama so started looking for one about 3 years ago. We gave up doing one last season because I found the scripts to be so racist or irrelevant or difficult to stage for various reasons. So we kept looking and finally Alex Service (Director) found this script and we all liked it. We want to offer a melodrama as a form of theatre we rarely do at NCRT. Turns out Michael Fields works with this script every year with students at Dell’Arte. They were planning on doing a version this summer but changed their minds."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

The Poor of New York, an 1857 melodrama about families victimized by financial corruption, opens at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka with a benefit for cast and crew on Thursday July 24 at 8 p.m. As a classic melodrama, good triumphs over evil. Performances continue through Aug. 16. Directed by Alex Service, it features David Simms, Randall Larson, Shirley Santino, Toodie SueAnn Boll, Scott Osborn, Jim Buschmann and David Moore. 442-6278, www.ncrt.net.  I'll review this for next week.

On Friday, the musical The Wedding Singer opens at Ferndale Repertory Theatre. Take a 95-minute Adam Sandler romantic comedy movie set in 1985 and inject it with an additional hour and a half of musical reminders of the 1980s’ more superficial features, add frenetic energy and period costumes and you’ve got this 2006 Broadway entertainment, which has since toured the world.

I'm not much for 80's nostalgia--having lived through the decade, I can't disentangle it from the lows (Reaganomics, Iran-Contra, privatization, decimation of the NEA, PBS and arts in schools etc.) and highs that don't quite fit the comedy stereotypes (Sting, Peter Gabriel, Mandela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Malling of America)--but I gather that it's fashionable now so there's probably a big audience for which this is the perfect summer hoot.

I don't know how funny The Wedding Singer is, but Ben Brantley's review of the Broadway production is hilarious.  A gamut of reactions to the Chicago production can be found in this collection of reviews.

The Wedding Singer was written by Tim Herlihy and Chad Beguelin (also the lyricist) with music by Matthew Sklar. Directed at Ferndale Rep by Brandi Lacy, with musical direction by Molly Severdia and choreography by Danielle Cichon, it features Erik Standifird, Sasha Shay, Tyler Rich, Megan Hensley and Cichon heading a large cast. The Wedding Singer opens Friday July 25, playing Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through August 17. There’s a special Actors Benefit performance on Thursdays Aug. 7 at 8 p.m., preceded by live music from The Attic at 7 p.m. 786-5483, www.ferndalerep.org.

A limited run of Elisabeth's Book at Dell'Arte begins Wednesday, and is previewed below.

This is the final weekend for the Durang Durang (see, an 80s joke) comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Redwood Curtain.