Wednesday, April 16, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Redwood Curtain and Humboldt Light Opera Company team up to produce the musical I Love You Because, with book and lyrics by Ryan Cunningham and music by Joshua Salzman.  It's directed by Carol Ryder and features Gino Bloomberg, Amy Chalfant, Carl McGahan, Hannah Mullen, Shaelan Salas Rich and Craig Waldvogel.  Previews are Thursday and Friday (April 17, 18) with official opening night on Saturday.  It's scheduled for a five week run but it's in the relatively tiny Redwood Curtain theatre, so reservations are highly recommended., 443-7688.

At North Coast Rep, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Revised) [Abridged] concludes its run with shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Closing out its Family Fun series, Arcata Playhouse hosts Santa Barbara's Boxtale Theatre Company with its production of The Odyssey Friday and Saturday  (April 12-13) at 7 p.m. plus a 2 p.m. show on Saturday.  Using physical theatre, masks, stilts, shadow puppets and live music, the show dramatizes the homeward voyage of Odysseus and his encounters with Poseidon, Athena, Zeus, the Cyclops, the Sirens, etc.  This is of course a family-friendly event (school classes will see it in addition to these public performances.)  (707) 822-1575,

Dell’Arte presents a work-in-progress, Elisabeth’s Book, Friday and Saturday (April 12-13) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre.  (There will be no Thursday show for the public, as previously announced.)  This original piece uses movement, music and images to tell the story of three women who survive concentration camps and further trials after World War II. Based on a true story and conceived by Joan Schirle, it is a collaboration among performers Schirle, Laura Munoz and Ruxy Cantir, and director Alain Schons (a French designer/director and former director of the Dell’Arte School.) Audiences for this in-progress version will help shape Elisabeth’s Book for its official premiere at Dell’Arte in July. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. It is deemed not suitable for young children. (707) 668-5663 ext. 20.

After the weekend, Dell'Arte also presents a one night reprise of Three Trees, the anti-militarist clown show created and performed by Lauren Wilson, Stephanie Thompson and Joe Krienke, on Tuesday April 15 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.  It's a warm-up for a subsequent tour.  The Dell'Arte publicity quotes the North Coast Journal as describing it as "Alice in Wonderland meets Mother Courage."  I guess that was me.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] continues at North Coast Rep Friday and Saturday at 8 . Then on Sunday at 7 p.m., another film in "NCRT's Night at the Movies" series is screened: the classic 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac, with Jose Ferrer, directed by Michael Gordon.  It's free to season ticket holders and five bucks for everybody else.

Physical Reality, the HSU Dance Concert, completes its run Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 in the Van Duzer, with a matinee on Sunday at 2 p.m. Maia Cheli-Colando reviews it in this week's NCJ.  HSU Stage & Screen.  Tickets: 826-3928.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

The annual HSU Dance show, this year entitled Physical Reality, opens tonight (April 3) at 7:30 in the Van Duzer Theatre.  It continues Friday and Saturday evenings, Thursday-Saturday next weekend, with a matinee on Sunday April 13 at 2 p.m.  Tickets: 826-3928.  Information: HSU Stage and Screen.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] continues at North Coast Rep.  My NCJ review includes the following sentences--see if you can spot the multiple puns. (Yeah, well I've got to have some fun.)

So the authors of this more recent revision had the benefit of hundreds of audiences to fine-tune a perfect laugh machine. If the highly lubricated opening night audience at North Coast Rep is any proof, it works.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

North Coast Rep opens The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised] on Thursday (March 27.)  This Shakespeare parody is directed by David Hamilton and features Victor Howard, Anders Carlson and Gavin Lyall.  It plays weekends through April 19.

Monty Python's Spamalot continues at Ferndale Rep.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Dell’Arte School first-years present 10 short melodramas of their own devising in An Evening of Melodrama, Thursday-Saturday March 20-22 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. The 27 students involved come from 12 countries, including Iran, Georgia, Brazil, Greece, Puerto Rico, Zimbabwe, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Canada and Spain.  (Photo above is from a 2007 melodrama performance.)  707-668-5663,

The Random People's Theater Project presents a community-based project, Night At The General: 10 vignettes set in a hospital.  It's performed at the Mateel Community Center Friday through Sunday (March 21-23) at 8 p.m. with an additional 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Monty Python's Spamalot continues at Ferndale Rep.  My review (with an update on Ferndale's future) is in this week's North Coast Papa Murphy's Pizza Journal.

The Love List continues at Redbud Theatre in Willow Creek Friday and Saturday .

Friday, March 14, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

The Arcata Family Fun Series presents an original premiere, Well At the World's End, at the Arcata Playhouse on Friday and Saturday, March 14 and 15.    Three folk tales are brought to life with shadow puppets and Japanese-style Bunraku puppetry designed by James Hildebrandt. Directed and written by Jacqueline Dandeneau, it features an original score composed and played by Gregg Moore. Anthony Arnista, Meredith Baldwin and Johanni Guererro perform as puppeteers, narrators and characters. Performances are Friday at 7 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. 707 822-1575. Tickets also available at Wildberries Marketplace, Redwood Yogurt and Bubbles in Arcata.

  Ferndale Repertory Theatre opens the Monty Python musical comedy Spamalot! on Saturday March 15 at the earlier time of 7:30 p.m. This 2005 Tony Award Best Musical encases favorite scenes from the Python film classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in a broad Broadway musical parody. Directed by Carol Escobar, with orchestra conducted by Dianne Zuleger, it features Edward Olson, Brandi Lacy, Anthony Mankins, Tyler Egerer, Dmitry Tokarsky, Daniel Kennedy and many more. 707 786-5483,

Little Shop of Horrors continues at Eureka High, and The Love List at Redbud Theatre, both Thursday through Saturday.

On Saturday at 6 p.m., members of Dell'Arte School's third year ensemble present Blue Lake: A Last Resort, stories from the town's colorful past.  Free. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

The HSU production of Spinning Into Butter ends its two-weekend run in Gist Hall Theatre Thursday (March 6) through Saturday at 7:30, with the final performance at 2 p.m. on Sunday.  It's been a long time since an HSU show has been reviewed, but there are two for this one: Beti Trauth in the Mad River Union  (a rave) and Kate Haley on the A&E blog of the North Coast Journal online.  After the Thursday performance there will be an audience discussion led by Ramona Bell from the HSU Department of Critical Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies.  826-3928, HSU Stage & Screen.

Also concluding its run this weekend is Making God Laugh at Redwood Curtain.

Eureka High opens Little Shop of Horrors at 7:30 Thursday-Saturday.  441-1735,

The Redbud Theater in Willow Creek opens the Norm Foster comedy The Love List with a dinner show on Saturday March 8 (dinner at 6:45, play at 7:30.)  Performances continue the next two weekends, March 14-15, 21-22 at 7:30 p., with a Sunday matinee on March 16 at 2:30 p.m.  Tickets are available from Dream Quest.  The Love List, directed by Rick Stewart, features John Pinto, Richard Junkin and Libby Pinto.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Blanche and Blanchett

The Oscar for best performance by an actress was awarded to Kate Blanchett for her role in Blue Jasmine.  In her acceptance speech she thanked the theatre company she has been working with in Australia, and noted (here and elsewhere) that her stage training was essential for playing this role.

There's more than one reason for that.  While some critics mention its debt to A Streetcar Named Desire, the classic play by Tennessee Williams, they generally go on to quickly discuss the contemporary resonance after the high profile real estate swindles.  But this movie is almost scene for scene a reinterpretation of Streetcar, and Blanchett is very much Blanche Dubois.  It has been noted that Blanchett played that role on stage in Australia in 2008.
Blanchett as Blanche

The point of mentioning this is not to accuse anyone of anything untoward, but to note both the movie's debt to Williams' play and the fact that this cements the play's place as an authentic American myth.  I can think of only one other American play that has this mythic weight: Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. (They were first produced in New York within two years of each other.)  Miller's play has demonstrated its mythic status through a series of successful New York stage revivals and films, as well as productions in many other countries.  Now Williams' play has proven its mythic power by being powerfully adapted to different times and a different situation.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

On Thursday at 7:30 in the Gist Hall Theatre, HSU opens Spinning Into Butter by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Cassandra Hesseltine.  Of Gilman, British drama critic Michael Billington wrote, “It is rare to find an American playwright dealing with ideas as well as emotions.” Gilman’s latest play, about a social worker deciding who gets custody of a drug addict’s baby, is currently in its premiere production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. But Spinning Into Butter is the play that first made Gilman’s reputation.

At first with humor but then very directly, it tackles the twin themes of unconscious racial bias and political correctness on a college campus. After a highly successful premiere in 1999, it became the third most produced play across the U.S. through the following year. How pertinent it is today will probably be a subject of the discussion held after the play next Thursday (March 6.) led by Ramona Bell from the HSU Department of Critical Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Director Cassandra Hesseltine (actor, teacher, director for North Coast theatre and elsewhere) is currently Humboldt-Del Norte Film Commissioner. “Being half Mexican has given me certain experiences while being half white has given me others,” Hesseltine said. “I’ve drawn on both for this play.”

 The actors are Mary May, Giovanni Alva, Cody Miranda, Nadia Adame, Keith Brown, Galen Poulton and Indiana Steinkamp. Scenic design is by Jared Sorensen, lighting by Andrew Buderi, sound by Christopher Joe, makeup by Anna Duchi and Erin Henry. Spinning Into Butter is performed at HSU for two weekends: Thursdays-Saturdays Feb. 27-March 1, March 6-8 at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on March 9. 826-3928,

At Dell’Arte, Ronlin Foreman brings back his acclaimed solo comedy Pigeon Show (A Play of Fools), February 27-March 1 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.  Ronlin, a teacher at the Dell’Arte School, portrays five characters in a physical theatre presentation that’s been called amusing and disturbing.

“Foreman has brilliantly conceived and masterfully portrays five characters who play (some tragically) with themes of fear, anguish, and the uncertainties of being hysterical,” says Dell’Arte Founding Artistic Director Joan Schirle. “He’s been called an ‘Infectious Fool’, and ‘Inspired Lunatic’, and a ‘Clown Extraordinaire.’ This original piece of theatre by one of the most gifted performers of the generation of Movement Artists should not be missed.” Appropriate for all ages, but most suitable for adult audiences. (707) 668-5663,

The comedy Making God Laugh continues at Redwood Curtain.  Beti Trauth reviews it at Tri-City Weekly.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Dell’Arte School second years present their adaptation of Italo Calvino’s wonder tale, The Distance of the Moon Friday-Sunday, February 20-23 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. “Appropriate for all ages, but most suitable for adult audiences.” This tale of a time when the earth and the moon were much closer is probably the most popular piece in Calvino’s Cosmicomics, a set of stories that form a sweetly fantastical alternative history of the universe. (707) 668-5663,

Making God Laugh continues at Redwood Curtain (see review and discussion below.)

More of God Laughing

My review of Redwood Curtain's current show, Making God Laugh, is in this week's North Coast Papa Murphy's Pizza Journal.  I wanted to get beyond the review headlines here, but first let's review the review, or actually, repeat it:

The structure of Making God Laugh, now onstage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, is straightforward. A nuclear family of five is presented in four scenes: Thanksgiving 1980, Christmas 1990, New Year’s Eve becoming New Year’s 2000, and Easter 2010. It’s like Same Time Next Year, the family edition.

 With a crucifix on the wall, the Ten Commandments above the door and a statue of the Virgin Mary, it’s a very Catholic household. This adds some edge to the saying that one of the characters quotes, the title references, and the play illustrates: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Variously attributed to Woody Allen and “Old Proverb,” it’s quoted in a number of sermons on the Internet counseling humility rather than questioning divine benevolence.

 In 1980 the three grown children have left the nest and are returning for the holiday. Maddie (Sasha Shay) is the misunderstood daughter, an aspiring actor continually belittled by her mother for not being thin enough to capture a husband. Richard (Rigel Schmitt) is the troubled son, the former high school football star, now tending bar, bathed in Brut and hair spray. Thomas (Luke Sikora) is the good son, studying for the priesthood but not taking himself too seriously.

 Ruthie (Teresa L. Desch) is the mother who wants everything about the holiday to be perfect (as she tells us repeatedly), and pushes her children to be her idea of perfect. Bill (Randy Wayne) is the quiet and affectionate dad, the peacemaker.

 Written by regional theatre journeyman playwright and actor Sean Grennan, the play often seems assembled from a “heartwarming comedy” kit, with predictable character twists and payoffs to every repeated theme. Both despite and because of that, it is frequently funny and delivers emotional moments, especially in the final scene. The humor is mostly gentle, especially in resurrecting illusions of the past (remember Y2K?) Though this comedy skates quickly over the surface of many contemporary issues, some profound and even tragic implications may linger. Still, if this were dinner theatre you probably wouldn’t need dessert.

 Desch and Wayne are solid and subtle as the parents, though I felt I’d seen them play these characters before. Redwood Curtain first-timers Schmitt, Shay and Sikora are appealing and mostly convincing, and they all handled their set-piece moments well. It’s efficiently directed by Kristen Mack, with a handsome set by Daniel C. Nyiri, lighting by Liz Uhazy, costumes by Marissa Menezes, sound by Mack and Tim Ward. Making God Laugh is onstage at Redwood Curtain weekends through March 8.

 Okay.  What more is there to say?  (And as odd as it seems to have to say this while reviewing a play, the following contains "spoilers.")

I saw this at first preview and the acting was a bit tentative.  I couldn't tell if some of the repetitions were in the play or blown lines.  However I extrapolated the next more polished performance.  Usually I go to the second preview of an RC show, but this time it was February 14, and nobody wants to see a critic on Valentines Day.

I hope I communicated my twin feelings about the play--that it is without much in the way of surprise or depth of treatment, yet it is admirable in what it does.  The structure is simple but beyond the surface, it's also pretty clever.

In this production at least, it's not really a realistic play.  Although it takes place over 30 years, only the five principals ever appear on stage.  By the end, two of the children have life partners, but they're not included.  No friends of anyone ever appear for the holidays.  Even more telling, the house--that is, the set--never changes in those 30 years.  The living room looks exactly the same, right down to the same books on the coffee table.  Symbolic certainly, but realistic, not very.

An additional tip-off might be the set's double front door.  It looks like the entrance to a church.  I don't think I've ever seen anything like that as the front door of a suburban house, at least before they started being the size of small cathedrals.

There's also the family itself.  The program calls this "a suburban living room in the United States."  So is this Every Family?  No, it's a Catholic family, and from repeated references to da Bears, it's probably in a Chicago suburb.  There are highly Catholic suburbs of Chicago, but they are also ethnically specific. That ethnicity makes a difference in how Catholicism is expressed.  But the ethnic dimension is ignored.

What about class? We learn that Bill (the father) works for the Post Office.  Without much more direct evidence, this seems a lower middle class household that depends on one steady salary and a probably decent union pension. (This as well as other features makes this seem more of a 1950s family, though the ages of the children suggest the oldest was born in the late 50s.)  But money is never discussed except in terms of one of the son's comically bad investments (which allow the audience to laugh because they know how those investments must have turned out.)

Even the device of a different holiday every ten years is artificial, sort of.  Why would they choose Thanksgiving one year, and Christmas another?  Maybe everybody is close enough geographically in 1980 to be there for both, and later it's the Christmas biggie that draws them?

New Years 2000 is inspired however, and not necessarily a reach.  The audience can laugh at the wonder over 8-track tapes, the choice of Enron stock over Google, etc.  But  many of us must know someone who was in panic over Y2K.  At this point it may be impolite to remind them.  This scene contributes some physical comedy as well, though it seemed a bit over the top in preview.  Maybe a bigger and more laughing audience helps it.

The play deals overtly and specifically with time, but at least in this production, only the mother and father visibly age.  Again, a kind of abstraction.

As for the plot, doesn't everybody guess from the beginning that the priest is not going to be a priest by the end, and that somebody is going to come out ? The only thing in this play I hadn't seen in another play is the portrayal of "happy dementia," although I read an account of it--by a playwright actually (Alan Bennett, in his autobiographical book about his mother,  A Life Like Other People's.)

 The mother's sweet present-centeredness in this scene is the device by which all the plot points and themes are resolved "in a sleep," though the appropriate speech from The Tempest is maybe too much.   Sasha Shay was so present and expressive in her role throughout,  but I'm not sure the direction served her well in this recitation.  It looked too contrived.

This scene takes place on Easter, the Catholic feast of the Resurrection, but it's not really Easter, so it's a false resurrection?  In any case it's spring, the season of hope, yet it's the ending.  If the playwright meant all that, this is possibly more profound than it seems.

So on the surface, the play is a long illustration of the quote, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans," and of this insubstantial pageant (though not really the seven ages.)  But within it, never really explored, are potential tragedies. Though I was never quite convinced that the mother was really a lesbian and simply repressed it, this could be a tragic fate.  The daughter's failure to have an acting career, one son's near-continuous failures in life.  The particular balances involved in figuring out whether these constitute tragic fates or just the vagaries of life are outside this play, but the fact that people may think about them, according to some, would make this a successful night of theatre.

Friday, February 14, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Redwood Curtain opens Making God Laugh, a comedy by Sean Grennan this weekend.  Directed by Kristen Mack, it features Teresa Desch, Randy Wayne, Rigel Schmitt, Sasha Shay and Luke Sikora.  Previews are Thursday and Friday, with official opening and reception on Saturday February 15 at 8 p.m.

This is the final weekend for Oedipus the King and Women in Congress at North Coast Rep.  Last performance is Saturday.

This past week we lost two legendary performers.  Sid Caesar transformed vaudeville comedy for television in the 1950s, linking past and the future he helped to create.  He nurtured an equally influential set of writers, including Neil Simon, whose play about the Caesar team, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, was produced at North Coast Rep in 2012.   Here's the background on Sid Caesar I wrote at the time of that production.

Shirley Temple's reign as the shining child star of the Depression years is known today mostly by reputation, though the boomer generation will remember some of those movies on TV.  Some of her tap-dancing routines with the great Bill Robinson are preserved in video compilations like That's Dancing.  In her autobiography, she noted that when she held his hand after one of their dances, it was the first time a white female and a black male had touched on the silver screen.

As an adult, Shirley Temple produced a series of fairy tale films for television, including Babes in Toyland.  That production influenced the version that Dell'Arte performed this past Christmas.  As I noted, in her introduction to this show she seemed almost a parody of the sweet child she had worked hard to portray.  But in the show itself she was almost unrecognizable in her marvelous performance as a wicked witch.  There was more to Shirley Temple than the image.

May they rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Contact Information

Those of you in the North Coast theatre community who want to email me about coming events or anything else concerning this blog or my North Coast Journal Stage Matters column, please use the following address: stage matters at sbc global dot net.  Don't use the stage matters at the NCJ address, as apparently emails addressed to me there are considered public property.

To clarify further: send your calendar announcements and press releases to the appropriate addresses at the Journal, and copy me at the address above.  For actual communication between you and me, use only that address.  I realize that it is a reasonable assumption that because I write the Stage Matters column published in the Journal, that I work there.  I don't.  In fact I've never actually been to their Eureka offices.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Dell’Arte School first years present Charivari!, a bawdy and boisterous commedia dell’arte show on Thursday Feb. 6 through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. May not be suitable for children. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. 707 668-5663,

Oedipus and Women in Congress continue at North Coast Rep.

Speaking of Dell'Arte, congrats on receiving a grant from the Theatre Communications Group to further an international collaboration with French designer/director Alain Schons.  The grant will support development of Elisabeth's Book, a new work by Joan Schirle in collaboration with Laura Munoz and Schons.  It's about three Hungarian women enslaved in a German munitions factory in 1944.  After some work-in-progress showings in April, the work will premiere at the Mad River Festival in July.  Schons was a North Coast resident in the late 70s and early 80s and served as director of the Dell'Arte School.  He will direct Elisabeth's Book.

In other North Coast stage news, Beti Trauth reports that Greta Stockwell has been elected president of the Ferndale Rep Board of Directors.

On the auditions front, this from Humboldt Light Opera Company:

"Auditions for HLOC's Thoroughly Modern Millie will be held on Saturday, February 15 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the sanctuary of the Arcata United Methodist Church (1761 11th Street). Auditionees should prepare a song, and bring sheet music for the accompanist. Visit to register for an audition slot, and for detailed information on available parts. Thoroughly Modern Millie is based on the film of the same name, and features music by Shrek composer Jeanine Tesori. The show will be held for three weekends, August 1-16, at the HSU Van Duzer Theatre. Questions? Email"

Thursday, January 30, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

The Arcata Playhouse Family Fun series gets off to an early start with Scotland’s award-winning Puppet State Theatre Company performing The Man Who Planted Trees on Friday January 31 at 7 p.m. and Saturday Feb. 1 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. The play employs comedy and puppetry to tell a tale based on Jean Gioni’s classic novel about a man and his dog who transform a barren wasteland by planting a forest. Tickets at Bubbles, Wildberries and Redwood Yogurt in Arcata and through (707) 822-1575,

Continuing: North Coast Rep presents Oedipus the King and Women in Congress (see post below.)

 Heads Up: Dell’Arte School first years present Charivari!, a bawdy and boisterous commedia dell’arte show on Thursday Feb. 6 through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. Redwood Curtain opens the comedy Making God Laugh on Feb. 13, and HSU Theatre opens the drama Spinning Into Butter on Feb. 20, directed by Cassandra Hesseltine.

Greeks to Us

My NCJ Stage Matters column this week covers three plays: the Sophocles/Aristophanes double bill at North Coast Rep, and one of the two plays done this past weekend by North Coast Prep, within a theme about an important purpose of theatre.  All in 850 words, and for the same low, low price.

So there's a bunch of stuff that didn't make the cut.  The classical Greek era is always fascinating to contemplate--a mere century in human history, which seemingly invented theatre as we know it from a variety of sources, and then pretty quickly disappeared.  The roots include religious ritual and the oratory of a democracy, along with other less definable traditions--but the combination is unique.

Then there is the legacy, based on the small number of plays that survived, and essentially one source on how it was all done: from Aristotle, known chiefly as a philosopher, but we in the biz know him as the first theatre critic and journalist.

The few plays we have versus the number we know were written and performed is a daunting problem. Aeschylus is thought to have written 90 plays--there are titles of 79 preserved.  Only seven plays survived.  Euripides wrote at least 88 plays.  Eighteen survived, with another of contested authorship.  Aristophanes wrote 40; we have 11.
Oedipus the King at NCRT

Then there's Sophocles, whose long life and career almost span the entire classical period.  He wrote more than 123 plays, of which we have the titles of 114.  He won at least 72 first prizes. Yet only seven of his plays survive in complete form.

I recall a teacher in college musing that we should have faith that the right plays survived, that the best always survives.  That is of course an untestable hypothesis, and I confess I felt it mysteriously apt at the time, though now I wonder if that's not just wishful thinking.  Some notable theatre experts believe Oedipus the King is the best play ever written.  But who is to say there wasn't an even better one among the lost?

The plays were performed in the annual spring festival, perhaps the first combined religious, civic and artistic event.  The audience (limited to men, but attendance was a civic and religious duty) arrived at daybreak to see a full day of theatre--usually 3 tragedies capped by a comedy. This may not have been as grim as it sounds--not all of the tragedies ended unhappily.  In Athens the government paid the production costs, and the actors were paid year round.  They underwent extensive training and were highly skilled. There were cash prizes for the top three playwrights, as awarded by a five judge panel.  However, the judges were probably strongly influenced by the audience reception.

These were plays in our sense, broadly speaking.  But they had a relationship to societal beliefs about the Greek gods that are difficult for us to fully appreciate.  From where we are we can perhaps see it as a combination of religion and archetypal psychology. But it does seem that religious ceremonies were an early model. At first the plays were done with one actor and the chorus.  Aeschylus introduced a second actor (which meant there could be dramatic dialogue between individuals), and Sophocles a third.  The actors wore masks (NCRT uses them for the Aristophanes, but not for Oedipus.  In Oedipus the chorus represents the people of Thebes, but there are speaking roles for specific members.)

 The Theban plays of Sophocles were written over several decades.  Scholarship suggests he wrote them out of order: Antigone when he was 54 and Oedipus the King maybe 15 years later.  The middle play, Oedipus at Colonus, wasn't performed until after his death at the age of 90.

Oedipus the King has been more popular on stage than it seems to be now.  In 1946 it was one of Laurence Olivier's most fabled triumphs.  When Christopher Plummer played Oedipus in the 1968 film (viewable on YouTube), it was his third performance as the character.  The filming took place in an ancient isolated amphitheatre in Greece, during the first days of a repressive military dictatorship.  All Greek artists in every field were in danger of arrest.  The great Irene Pappas was to play Jocasta, but she had to flee the country. (Lili Palmer took the role.)  The production actually harbored a number of Greek artists, poets and intellectuals who escaped Athens and were hiding out as extras.    

There are plenty of translations, adaptations and modernizations of classic Greek plays.  Most of what I can recall seeing here on the North Coast falls into that third category.  In 2011 HSU hosted the CSU East Bay production of Xtigone, a retelling of Antigone by Chicago playwright Nambi E. Kelley.  In 2008--back when Arcata Playhouse hosted adult plays--the Ghost Road Company of Los Angeles presented a modernized Elektra based on Aeschylus.  Also in 2008, HSU produced Helen, a play by Ellen McLaughlin based on Euripides, directed by Margaret Thomas Kelso.
Darcy Daughtry in Helen 

Of the translations of Oedipus the King I have at hand in my Fortress of Solitude, the one with the most poetic language is by Richard C. Jebb. Olivier performed with a translation by the great 20th century poet W.B. Yeats; Christopher Plummer's film used a translation by poet Paul Roche.

  But none I've seen is as plain and streamlined as the adaptation by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay, the script used in the NCRT production.  This has the virtue of clarity in the basic action of the play, and it does preserve the important imagery of light and dark, sight and blindness, health and sickness that emphasize the play's profound ironies.  But a lot of Sophocles the poet is lost, and at times the plainness of the language got inadvertent laughs on opening night.  (Speaking of opening night, it almost got off to a disastrous start when after an ill-advised snatch of the Supremes and unnecessary short opening scene, the lights came up too quickly on the King struggling into his too-short costume, and we saw Oedipus in his underpants.)

As for the Aristophanes, the comedy now at NCRT is based on his play Ecclesiazuase.  Appearing as the Greek classical period was ending, it bears marked resemblances to his Lysistrata.  British translations naturally enough called it Women in Parliament.  There are however several new versions calling it Women in Congress, especially by women.  (It's a nice pun that way as well, since political and sexual congress are its topics.)  The version at North Coast Rep is by Jules Tasca, a journeyman regional playwright ( this site says he's written 102 published plays: 12 full length and 92 one acts; the math is off somewhere, but one assumes all have survived so far.)
Women in Congress at NCRT

Tasca's experience acting in a commedia dell'arte troupe shows in this version.  But it is not only a simplified version--the utopian changes wrought by the women who take over Athens are played pretty straight.  While appealing to us (especially in the nation state of Arcata), at least some commentators believe Aristophanes was satirizing Plato's utopian Republic, so his view was more jaundiced.

The NCRT production is pleasantly comic, with witty lines and energetic performances.  As she recites the utopian changes, Shelley Stewart makes you want to believe again. The rest of the cast performed well, savoring their comic bits. But from the beginning the show was underlit for a comedy, and though I noticed it immediately and then forgot about it, it may have had a depressing effect.  Comedies need to be bright. Seeing them shouldn't be work.  But given the lighting limitations at NCRT, and the difficulty of resetting lights from the moodier first play during the intermission , there's probably little they could have done about it.

  I guess I don't mind these tinker toy adaptations because these plays are so rarely seen, and they should be seen and experienced on stage. And as remote as they are in time, they probably do need streamlining and reorienting. On the other hand, Tasca has written new versions of Hamlet and Macbeth --and on Shakespeare I lean the other way.  You better be better than the Bard if you mess with him, and that's unlikely.  (Satires etc. are something else, though I maintain a high bar for them as well, so we'll see how good the next NCRT show is.)

As for the North Coast Prep's Spring's Awakening, I pretty much covered it in the column though not in detail.  My editor had a problem with "a poetic stagecraft." If I'd had the space I probably should have provided examples for the uninitiated, but anyone who has seen a Jean Bazemore (director) and Jerry Beck (designer) production will know what I mean, and I think this metaphorical term is suggestive enough that most readers will get the idea.  There's the economy and symbolism, the use of scarves for flowers and flowing fabric for the river, etc.  The descriptions however seem too vulgar.  There's a delicacy and yet a suggestive solidity. It's expressive in imagery and movement, but simple.  It's, you know, poetic.  If this indeed turns out to be the last Bazemore-Beck show, it was a worthy example.

True to the history of the play however, the production was somewhat controversial.  That seems more a reflection of these nervous times than this production.  Though some of the play's hard edges were softened, it gained enormous power by being played by actors who were near the ages of the adolescent characters.  Their portrayals of the adults were also very telling, from a younger point of view.  I found out about this production at the last minute, and I'm glad I got to see it.  

Thursday, January 23, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Oedipus the King by Sophocles is probably the most famous of the Greek classics, and arguably the most important culturally. But if it isn’t performed (as it apparently hasn’t been for a long time on North Coast stages) it can become just a bad academic memory, or a remote and daunting rumor. We may forget it is first and foremost a play to be experienced live on stage. That’s one reason Michael Thomas decided to direct it at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, along with Aristophanes’ Women in Congress, a satirical comedy with sly contemporary relevance. They open tonight (Thursday Jan. 23).  .Each play is about an hour long, separated by an intermission.

 Another reason is that Thomas really likes these plays. “Oedipus is one of the greatest mystery stories ever told,” he said. “We get all these pieces of the puzzle as we inch towards the horrifying truth.” He finds Women in Congress hilarious and “eerily apt for today. It’s about how women take over a ‘do-nothing’ Congress because the men have been such failures.” He selected modern translations that eliminate arcane references and concentrate on story and character. “There are a lot of parallels to today in the comedy, and the tragedy deals with ageless issues. I want the community to have the opportunity to see them.” This daring double bill plays weekends through February 15.

 Northcoast Prepatory and Performing Arts Academy performs two plays this weekend: an original musical approach to Shaw's Pygmalion (directed by Gretha Omey Stenger) at 5:30 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 23) through Sunday plus a Sunday matinee at 1, and Spring Awakening, a drama with music and dance for mature audiences (directed by Jean Bazemore) Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m., with a 1 p.m. Saturday matinee. All shows are in Gist Hall Theatre at HSU. Tickets through and at Wildberries. 707-445-2355.

 The comic duo Third Base (Nick Trotter and Jerry Lee Wallace) present their latest sequel, Son of Myths of the Plastic Age II at the Arcata Playhouse on Friday and Saturday, January 24 and 25 at 8 p.m. Their combination of word play and physical comedy also includes original music in collaboration with the New York group Bonejesters.

 Redwood Curtain presents its seventh annual radio variety show fundraiser, The Seven Deadly Zounds! on Saturday January 25 at Blue Lake Casino’s Sapphire Palace. Dinner begins at 6:30 p.m. and the show combining comedy sketches and music starts at 8. It features Pamela Lyall, James Floss, Randy Wayne, Lynne Wells, Bob Wells, Terry Desch and Christina Jioras. It’s also broadcast live on KHUM. Tickets and information for this popular event:

 As part of Mad River Steelhead Days in Blue Lake, Dell’Arte presents Fish Tales, a family-friendly variety show, on Saturday Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. It features local string band Kingfoot and local storytellers Jeff DeMark, Thomas Dunklin and Kit Mann, and a song by Janessa Johnsrude and Ruxy Cantir. Tickets are pay-what-you-can or free with Steelhead Days registration, but reservations are highly recommended: (707) 668-5663 ext. 5.

The Man Who Didn't Come to Dinner

My NCJ column is out, which includes a section with the above title.  In this space I will include portions of it together with some additional material I couldn't go into for reasons of space.

First, though a little Ferndale Rep timeline for the past three executive directors:

Marilyn McCormick
Marilyn McCormick, an actress and refugee from Hollywood who got involved in the Rep in 1982 or so and became president of the Board of Directors, was named Executive Director in 1996.  She served in that capacity through 2007.  She announced her retirement early that year, and so she completed the season while the search for a new exec was underway.

As the result of a national search, Ginger Gene became the exec in 2008.  Coincidentally she was, like McCormick, originally from western Pennsylvania.  She had worked in various capacities mostly in the southern states, and came directly from Washington, D.C. where she completed her Master of Arts in Arts Management degree at George Mason University and worked with the Washington Stage Guild.
FRT's production of Cabaret--Ginger Gene's last as director

All was still smiles in public as late as August 2012, with the announcement of the new season. Beti Trauth's story in the Times-Standard quoted Dianne Zuleger (though not GG) who noted that Gene's play selection for the season was approved by the FRT board of directors.  

But just a few weeks later, Trauth was writing "It's curtains for Ferndale Rep's producing executive director."  Ginger Gene's contract was not renewed, after (the story said) a period of discussion with the board.  The board would not give reasons for the curtain falling so abruptly and unceremoniously.  Ginger Gene was gone.

Her season however remained intact except for the final show scheduled: the Sondheim musical Assassins was dropped, and Victor/Victoria was added.  Ironically, it would be the only show the new exec director would direct.

For that last GG-designed season Dianne Zuleger and Greta Stockwell took over as interim directors.  A search (perhaps national, certainly regional) with a quick turnaround was launched, with Zuleger as the point person receiving the applications, with a deadline of November 2012.

In May 2013 Brad Hills was announced as the new FRT exec. He came from Bend, Oregon where he had been the executive artistic director of Innovation Theatre Works for about five years until it folded.

 In an interview with Beti Trauth, he said that he found that FRT "had separated itself from the community" and many former supporters had turned away. He felt that  FRT should be "a reflection of this community."  To that end, he said he was instituting thematic seasons, and the first theme was to be "Family, Friends, Ferndale!"  This was to be the 2013-14 season, beginning with Our Town, The Music Man and The Man Who Came to Dinner--a drama, a musical and a comedy all dealing in some way with small towns.  

Victor/Victoria was Brad Hills' directorial debut at FRT--
and his swan song.

Hills directed the last show of the 2012-13 season, Victor/Victoria.  He was scheduled to direct the musical Spamalot in March.  The new season started with Thornton Wilder's Our Town.  But even before the second show, The Music Man opened in late November 2013, the FRT board of directors fired Hills.

 Beti Trauth again had the story, in the Tri-City Weekly.  Again, the board would not comment on the reasons for this even more abrupt end. It's usually implied that legal entanglements are why personnel decisions aren't discussed in public.

Hills however wasn't so reticent.  In a post on the Humboldt Theater Community Facebook page he touted accomplishments that included improving season ticket and sponsorship revenues, beginning new programs,creating a fundraising campaign and that he had "uncovered vast bookkeeping errors and restored credibility to our financial systems."

In a recent email interview, board member Dianne Zuleger repeated that they could not comment on either the board's reasons or Hills' assertions. "I CAN say that we have several board members with advanced degrees, executive management experience and/or experience running a business, so the decision was not made without some intelligent consideration..."

Matching up those two statements, and without suggesting wrongdoing, I don't know that I need to meet a shadowy figure in a parking lot to suggest that "follow the money" in some form or another might be a fruitful approach in ascertaining what happened and why.

However, changes to the Hills-designed season suggest that play selection was also involved.  As noted in the previous post, The Man Who Came To Dinner was the first casualty, though the exact relationship of that cancellation to the Hills' firing is uncertain.  But the rest of the season seems currently in flux.  Hills had originally scheduled Spamalot to open March 7 and run through March 30.   Now directed by Carol Escobar (with Dianne Zuleger remaining as music director) it is slated to open March 14 and run through April 6.

Hills had added two plays under his "Stage Two" programming--same stage actually, but shorter runs and cheaper prices.  They were Backwards in High Heels opening April 17 and Spitfire Grill opening July 17.  The last "mainstage" show was to be Dixie Swim opening June 5.  All three of these plays are likely gone.  Spitfire Grill has already been replaced by a musical version of The Wedding Singer.

According to Zuleger: “The board is in the process of mapping out a sustainable business plan to ensure that FRT continues to produce quality, worthwhile live entertainment that appeals to older and younger generations alike.” Technical repairs to the theatre are underway, and the duties of executive director are being divided among board members and volunteers for now, and maybe for longer. (For example, Greta Stockwell is acting as Producer for Spamalot, doing what the exec director normally would do.)

"Once we determine the best option that allows the theater to remain financially viable, we'll be recruiting locally for at least one position," Zuleger said.  No new national search of the kind that brought Gene from Washington, D.C. and Hills from Oregon is contemplated. Given what happened to the last two people who pulled up stakes and moved to Ferndale, the attraction to applicants might be questionable anyway.

Some folks who have been around here longer than I have allude to FRT's historic habit of chewing through executive directors and unceremoniously throwing them away.  I happened to hit a period of stability, during Marilyn McCormick's 11 year run.  That she'd already been involved at FRT for more than a decade when she was hired as exec is something that has probably occurred to the current board.  But will staying local be the answer?  Stay tuned.  Once again, the real drama in North Coast theatre is offstage.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Not This North Coast Weekend

A show was scheduled to open this weekend: the 1939 Kaufman and Hart comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner was supposed to be on stage at Ferndale Repertory Theatre.  It was very quietly cancelled little more than a week ago.

Beti Trauth broke the story in the Tri-City Weekly, writing:  "Due to a number of undisclosed casting and production problems resulting, in part, from the recent dismissal of Ferndale Repertory Theatre's former executive director Brad Hills, the board of directors has decided to cancel the opening show of 2014, “The Man Who Came To Dinner.”"

The production had almost been cancelled earlier, according to contemporaneous posts on the Humboldt Theater Community Facebook page.  The problem was casting--several auditions didn't yield enough actors, particularly men.  But then it seemed the production was proceeding, until this unusually late cancellation (sudden health problems to key cast members excepted.)  Another oddity: the cancellation was not really announced--no posting on Ferndale's web page or Facebook page, not a word on the Humboldt Theater Community page, and no official email.

The play certainly has a large cast--the original production had more than 30 actors, even with some doubling for minor roles.  It also seems like a tough play to produce well, with a large and somewhat complicated set and a lot of movement in several scenes that depends on quick timing.  Would it have been worth the effort?  I wonder.  Though it won a Pulitzer, the play doesn't read as well as Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You, successfully produced at North Coast Rep in September.  Its characters and humor seem dated.  Under the best conditions it seems like it would be a challenge to mount successfully, but that's part of why we go to theatre--to be surprised.

The play centers on an unpleasant and tyrannical but famous and witty radio commentator, who was lecturing in a small Ohio town when he broke his leg and had to stay in a wheel chair in this house for months.  It was written for and based on the New York drama critic Alexander Woollcott (though playwright Robert Sherwood impishly suggested that it could have been about FDR aide Harry Hopkins, who went to dinner at the White House one evening and moved in for several years.)  It was made into a 1942 film in which Monty Woolley reprised his starring role, supported by some Hollywood greats like Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan and Jimmy Durante.  (It's set at Christmas, so it's sometimes on TV in December.)

How The Man Who Came to Dinner got scheduled at Ferndale Rep in the first place is part of a larger drama.  In 2012, the Ferndale Rep Board of Directors did not renew the contract of then executive director Ginger Gene.  This termination was described variously as "mutual" and "amicable," but it sure was sudden.  The board doesn't comment officially on personnel decision--I gather there are legal restraints.  But the word (or the gossip) going around was that the board felt she had lost touch with the Ferndale community.  There was some suggestion that her choices of plays were part of the problem.

Whatever the truth of it, the first season scheduled by the new executive director, Brad Hills, seemed to support that contention, for it had the fairly transparent theme of "Family, Friends, Ferndale!" The first plays of this season in particular had very definite small town themes: Wilder's Our Town, and The Music Man.  Since The Man Who Came To Dinner is set in a small town, and to an extent pits small town innocence against cosmopolitan cynicism and chicanery, it seemed to further the theme.

Now Hills has been fired, just two plays into what would have been his first full season. After the musical now in preparation (Spamalot!) there will likely be other cancellations and substitutions to the rest of Hill's season.

But there's more to this story which I intend to tell in my Stage Matters column in the Journal this week.  However, due to other topics I must cover, I'm facing space constraints, so it's likely there will be an expanded version here soon after.

Otherwise, the new year in theatre really gets started next weekend, with the Redwood Curtain radio show, and stage shows at North Coast Rep, Arcata Playhouse, Dell'Arte and what looks like a student show at HSU (I only work there occasionally, nobody tells me anything.)  Check my column or check back here next North Coast weekend.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

R.I.P. 2013

Among the losses to international stages are these, the famous and the lesser known, who represent others not named here:

Like many British actors--particularly of his generation and before--Peter O'Toole was a star on the stage before he made his first film.  His Hamlet, using the full text (which is rare), was much praised.

Richard Griffiths was primarily known as Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films, but he was mostly a stage actor, costarring recently with Harry himself, Daniel Radcliffe.

American actor Julie Harris was renowned as much for her stage work as for her movies, though her performance in East of Eden opposite James Dean is indelible.  Other American actors known primarily for film and television are Eileen Brennan, Jean Stapleton, Eleanor Parker, Deanna Durbin and Esther Williams.  Lesser known American actors whose loss will be felt on stages are Ruth Maleczech, Martha Greenhouse, Kevin Gray, Patricia Blair, Jane Connell.  American stages also lost director and actor Arthur Storch, and director and author Herbert Blau.

British actors lost this year also include Lewis Collins, Jean Kent, Paul Rogers, Nigel Davenport, Pat Keen, Barbara Hicks, Bill Wallis, David Lyon and Keith March.  Canadian, South American, European and Asian stages lost important figures as well.

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heany was a playwright as well as poet, and Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing wrote plays and libreti for opera as well as fiction and essays.  She was also a keen theatre-goer.

  Poland lost one of its foremost international playwrights, Slawomir Mrozek.  Franca Rane was a prominent Italian playwright and actor.   Ostad Mohammad was a playwright and director.  Walter Muparutsa was an important playwright and actor in Zimbabwe.

Cuban-born Dolores Prida was known primarily as a columnist for the New York Daily News but also found success as an Off-Broadway playwright. Pittsburgh lost an important playwright in its vibrant theatre scene with the death of Mary Virginia Whipple.  Donald Bevan began as a Broadway playwright and later became a Broadway caricaturist. Playwright John Davidson also founded the Children's Theatre.  A former reporter, Thomas Tafero was a young playwright and actor in New York.

Many of these playwrights were also actors, directors, producers and teachers.  But their focus remained foremost on theatre and film.  There are others however who include the stage in an even larger scope of endeavors.  Philip Slater had that kind of life.  Known primarily as the author of nonfiction books such as The Pursuit of Loneliness, or the fiction/nonfiction hybrid Earthwalk, his livelihood was provided mostly by university teaching.  Yet he also had a life as an actor and playwright.  While his death at age 86 is to be mourned, his books remain alive, and his plays exist to be brought to life by future generations.  It seems like an honorable and fulfilling life.

Update 1/4/2014: Here's what playwright and actor Alan Bennett wrote about the death of Richard Griffiths in journal excerpts from 2013 just published (and posted) in the London Review of Books. Bennett wrote the play and screenplay The History Boys, one of Griffiths' better known performances.  He won many awards for his performance in it on stage, including a Tony.

29 March. Richard Griffiths dies. We’ve been away for a couple of days so are spared the unctuous telephone calls that always come from the tabloids on such occasions, ‘We’re sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings’ or ‘We hope we’re not intruding on your grief.’ Outside his family the person who would have known him best as an actor at the National and who would have been most acquainted with the logistic difficulties caused by his bulk was his dresser. No one will think to ask him, and I’ve never known him gossip about the actors he’s dressed (myself included), but he would have an angle on Richard and how he coped with his life that is unshared by any of the obituary writers.

Richard had an unending repertoire of anecdotes and an enviable spontaneous wit besides. I was working with him at the time when Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose was being laboriously raised from the depths of the Solent. This was being done by means of a cradle when suddenly a cable snapped and the wreck slipped back into the water.

‘Ah,’ said Richard. ‘A slight hiccup on the atypical journey from grave to cradle.’

Here's a story on Griffith's funeral, which brought out the Brit acting elite, including Daniel Radcliffe.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Year Not in Reviews: Plenty of Fields, Backstage Drama

Michael Fields.  Photo by Kellie Brown
This is a slightly different version of my year end Stage Matters column in NCJ published during Christmas week.  So in the likely event you missed it, it's my annual opportunity to write about something--or some things--that didn't get into my reviews and columns over the year, which in this case is (or was) 2013.

North Coast stages depend on a relatively small number of producers, directors, designers and actors who often work on several shows in a given year, before moving on or staying for decades. But even within this context, Michael Fields had a remarkable 2013.

 Fields directed four major productions and was responsible for the final script of at least two. This was in addition to his normal duties as Producing Artistic Director of the Dell’Arte Company and as chair of the entire California State Summer School for the Arts Theatre Program. But more than quantity it’s the newsworthy and innovative nature of these productions for the North Coast that requires more notice.

 In February Fields directed a contemporary translation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, called Hater. But this wasn’t at Dell’Arte—it was at HSU, with a cast of mostly HSU students. It was a fast-paced yet heartfelt production, visually bold and with lively and subtle performances, notably by Johani Guerrero.
Johani Guerrero in HATER

 It was also the first production of this translation outside of New York—which doesn’t happen here very often. Fields had met translator Samuel Buggeln (who is also a New York-based director) and brought him to the North Coast for a week—also an unusual event.

 Even while he was adhering to a script in staging Hater, Fields was teaching one of the two classes that helped create Humboldt Unbound from scratch. HSU students and faculty collaborated on shaping ideas for a theatre piece on Alexander von Humboldt for HSU’s centennial year. Fields guided this unprecedented process at HSU (which required political as well as creative skills), wrote the final script, directed the show and tapped Dell’Arte colleagues to help create the sights and sounds of this singular production, which appeared on the Van Duzer stage in November.

 And even while Humboldt Unbound was aborning, Fields was working with Dell’Arte International School students on their collaborative adaptation of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, which returns the Dell’Arte holiday show to a family-friendly narrative as a comprehensible and emotionally satisfying framework for the dazzle within it.

 In between he directed (and in part adapted) The Comedy of Errors for the Mad River Festival, the first play by Shakespeare that Dell’Arte produced in 38 years (and he was in that one.) I wrote at the time that it was one of his best directorial efforts.

 I have reservations about Dell’Arte-style “devised theatre” and aspects of the school’s pedagogy, but two mainstays of the Dell’Arte philosophy are practically personified in Fields’ work: his attention to process and his commitment to community. This was not his easiest year offstage, but the care in his work never wavered.

 Fields included two quotes in this year’s Dell’Arte holiday greeting: "Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." (Teddy Roosevelt) “Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place.” (Rumi) These are words he lives by.

 So what else about North Coast stages didn’t make it into the reviews and previews this year? Well, just like every year, a lot of the drama, most of which has nothing to do with the play that’s presented. It’s supplied within the production itself.

 For instance: The leading man who leaves a happy musical a few weeks before opening because his girlfriend doesn’t like how he looks at the leading lady. The actors who can’t make eye contact onstage because of what’s happened offstage. The actors who hate their director, the director who can’t stand the actors.

 The musical director and the stage director of a musical comedy who are barely speaking. The set that remains the designer’s fantasy until there’s no longer time to do much more than throw some flats together. Rehearsals suddenly turn into group therapy; illnesses or bad behavior turn them to chaos. Passionate liaisons begin and end within the run of a show, so that two strangers at first rehearsals are estranged lovers by the final performance. (Not all of this happened this particular year... at least not necessarily.)

 Participants tell these stories, sometimes even to me (though some actors just look at me with a frozen expression that suggests they’re fighting the impulse to back away while holding up a cross.) Besides backstage gossip, I occasionally hear their critiques of their own shows that can be more bluntly devastating than anything I’ve written. Well, anything I’ve published.

 While creating a production doesn’t only (or always) involve backstage drama, this should remind us that it’s done by people. And while participants want to produce a good show for audiences, the process itself is often the reason they show up. Applause is nice and necessary, but the process is the point.

It's the journey they take together: they talk about the play, put it on its feet, create its world, solve problems, think about characters, work with each other and see what they can do. Doing it is the chief reward, especially in community and education-based theatre, which is most of what the North Coast offers. Even more than elsewhere, our theatre is subsidized by the work of the people presenting it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

This North Coast Holiday Season

This is a longer version of my holiday show preview column at the NCJ.  Also check this previous column about the North Coast Rep holiday season show, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown.

 Apart from the deeper meanings, it comes down to: Christmas R toys, right? And not just for children (or do I have to give back my Enterprise com badge and Doctor Who sonic screwdriver?) And what’s better than toys that come alive?

 Among the many shows that play with this idea was Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta Babes in Toyland. It’s been reworked many times for stage, film and TV, and even though the original script in the Library of Congress reads like one of their own shows, Dell’Arte has reworked it again for their 2013 holiday production.

 “We’re guided by the essentials of the Victor Herbert story,” said director Michael Fields. In the Dell’Arte version, the villainous Barnaby has taken over Toyland and is mass-producing terrible toys. The original Toymaster has disappeared. The various characters (including the Toymaster and a few Mother Goose figures) wind up in the Forgotten Forest, where people don’t remember who they are and have to figure it out. “It’s very funny, it has a happy ending,” Fields said, “ and there’s square-dancing.”

 As always the Dell’Arte holiday show is made to travel, from its compact playing time to the set. “We have to create a visual world that supports the show, but with sets and lights that can be loaded in and out of a truck 17 or 18 times,” Fields noted. This year’s set, which transforms from various structures into the Forgotten Forest, is designed by Lynnie Horrigan, with lighting by Michael Foster and costumes by Lydia Foreman. Tim Gray composed the music and designed sound.

 Cast members are Andrew Eldrege, Darci Fulcher, Billy Higgins, Ariel Lauryn, Allie Menzimer, Lucy Shelby, Jerome Yorke and Emily Newton. “Some years we gone a little dark with our holiday shows,” Fields said. “But this year it’s very upbeat, energetic and bright to look at, with vivid costumes and a vibrant world. It’s in the genre of family theatre, which for me is a kind of European concept of theatre that isn’t just for children but is certainly family-friendly.”

 Or as Fields summed up: “It’s fun. It’s free.” And yes, “certain toys come alive.”

 Babes in Toyland opens at Dell’Arte’s Carlo Theatre on Friday and Saturday, November 29 and 30 at 7:30 p.m., then tours up and down the North Coast before returning to the Carlo for the weekend of Dec. 19. All shows until final weekend are free. You can find the full schedule online at, where there’s also ticket information for the various venues.

 More on other versions...The script of the Victor Herbert original Babes in Toyland at the Library of Congress (and online here) satirizes consumer culture to a remarkable degree, including that new phenomenon, the department store. If this is really the 1903 script (which it may not be—it apparently changed several times), it seems  consumerism (along with advertising, etc.) was already going strong at the turn of the 20th century. The earliest indictment of the consumer economy I’ve read is H.G. Wells trenchant novel Tono-Bungay, first published in 1908.

 As an ordinary part of their creative process, the Dell’Arte troupe researched available movie and TV versions, beginning with the 1934 Laurel & Hardy film. This is the only version I recall, renamed March of the Wooden Soldiers, which I saw on TV a couple of times as a child. Although I was impatient with the singing, I was fascinated and excited by the life-size toy soldiers coming alive to defend the good guys.

 “That movie was directly influenced by the film version of The Wizard of Oz,” Michael Fields pointed out. It's not the first time. Apparently a lot was shared by the stage version of The Wizard of Oz and Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, which premiered the same year.  Which show took from the other is an open question.

 There was a 1961 Disney movie, and TV versions in 1986 and 1997, but before all of these there was a one hour version that was part of a series of dramatized fairy tales hosted by Shirley Temple. She had a series of specials in 1958-59 called Shirley Temple’s Storybook that became a weekly series in 1960, The Shirley Temple Show. It’s unclear whether this was broadcast earlier, but officially Babes in Toyland was seen on December 25, 1960, on a Sunday evening opposite Disneyland. It’s notable for being in color (a year before Disneyland.)

 Shirley Temple hosts it, surrounded by three of her own children, and talking slowly in that goody-goody voice that weirdly reflects her childhood persona. But she also acts and sings in the piece, as a heavily made-up ugly, evil witch. And she’s excellent.

 It also stars Jonathan Winters as the evil Barnaby, comedians Jerry Colonna and Joe Besser (of late Three Stooges) and the young Danny Thomas-era Angela Cartwright. Like most versions after the first, the Toymaster is no longer a villain, but it does preserve some of the baddies with names straight out of Othello, for some reason.  There's one or two jokes about advertising but greed is mostly expressed in other ways. (The DVD suggests where the TV commercial breaks were.)

 Of this version Fields said “It’s really fun and quite a good inspiration for us. You got the tail end of vaudeville with those comedians.”

 Another annual family-friendly holiday show happens at the Arcata Playhouse with a comedy at the center and different guest musicians for each performance. This year it’s Bigfoot Lodge Holiday Jamboree, directed by Jackie Dandeneau. It features Amy Tetzlaff and Ryan Musil as refugees from Wisconsin who come to the North Coast with their strange ways to take over the Bigfoot Lodge, and Bob Wells as the resident Bigfoot expert. Meredith Anne Baldwin and real Wisconsinite David Ferney also perform, with live music by Tim Randles.

 Set and lobby design is by local artists Lush Newton and Malia Penhall, with recycled holiday pieces from Scrap Humboldt. A shadow play by James Hildebrandt is also featured. This year’s guest performances include the Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir, Art Jones, Steven Weven, Trish Riel and pooch, Damiian Lange, Julie and Curtis Thompson, Shoshanna, and Pacific Union School Choir.

 Beginning Dec. 5, Bigfoot Lodge Holiday Jamboree runs for two weekends at the Arcata Playhouse, Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday Dec. 8. Tickets are available at Wildberries Marketplace or call (707) 822-1575. You can find more information including a schedule of guest appearances at

 The Music Man by Meredith Wilson (script and songs) is the Ferndale Repertory Theatre’s holiday show, though probably not because Wilson also wrote “It’s Beginning To Look A lot Like Christmas.” It’s a big, bright musical from Broadway’s Golden Age, with a love story, children, marching bands, a happy ending, and songs you sing on your way home.

 It’s about a con man, and there’s nothing more American than that. Take the tricksters of folk tales around the world, add capitalism and the con man appears. “Con” stands for “confidence,” which is what the con man has to inspire to be successful. In this story as in many others, the con man is the city slicker who fools the country bumpkins (“clowns” were originally countryfied figures of ridicule.) This theme was clearer when there was a sharper distinction between urban and rural.

 Directed by Dianne Zuleger, the cast of 30 is led by Jaison Chand as the con man Professor Harold Hill who comes to River City, and Caitlin McMurtry as his love interest, Marian the Librarian, and includes Gino Bloomberg, Greta Stockwell, Anders Carlson, Laura Rose and Tyler Egerer. Linda Maxwell is choreographer, Elisabeth Harrington and Nanette Voss are vocal directors, Karen Kenfeld Fuller is costume coordinator, Bruce Keller scenic artist, with sound by Ian Schatz and lighting by Telfer Reynolds.

 The Music Man opens at Ferndale Rep on Friday November 29, and plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2 through December 22, with Thursday night performances on Dec. 12 (benefit for cast and crew) and Dec. 19. For tickets call 707-786-5483 or on line at

The original production of The Music Man took forever to develop but once on Broadway in 1957 it ran forever. It became a national legacy with the 1962 technicolor movie. It was Robert Preston’s defining role, on stage and on screen.

 On Broadway it was one of the last of the classic Golden Age musicals. The writing was on the wall with the show that was its greatest rival for the Tony that year: West Side Story. The notoriously conservative award went to The Music Man, but that’s not the judgment of history.  It might even be said that one of the last and best of the classic musicals came up against one of the first and best modern musicals.

 While “(Ya Got) Trouble” (“right here in River City”) and “Seventy-six Trombones” are probably the songs most associated with the show, the tuneful score also includes “Till There Was You,” most famously recorded by the Beatles in the early 60s. They didn’t know it came from The Music Man, but Paul McCartney (who sang it solo) found out—and eventually bought the rights to all of Meredith Wilson’s songs. So it seems that some royalties will go from Ferndale right on over to Sir Paul. Merry Christmas to him, and to all, and good night.