Sunday, November 26, 2006

Mikado and Cinderella for Holidays 2006

There might have been no Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin, no Dorothy Fields, Lorenz Hart or Alan Jay Lerner; certainly no Kalmar and Ruby (the composing team on classic Marx Brothers movies) and perhaps even no Lennon and McCartney, if there hadn't been a Gilbert and Sullivan.

W.S. Gilbert wrote the ingenious, anarchic lyrics, and Arthur Sullivan the bracing music for 14 comic operas first performed in London in the late 19th century (the last of which premiered when Cole Porter was in kneepants). The greatest and most famous were H.M.S Pinafore,The Pirates of Penzance and the most performed (though probably not the best) The Mikado.

In his libretto, Gilbert seemed to have learned Jonathan Swift's basic trick of lampooning his time and place by locating it safely at some fictional distance -- in Japan, for instance, then known only through the usual bag of clichés and falsehoods common to Imperial ignorance. The Mikado is obviously more about England than Japan, and the current North Coast Rep production extends the gentle satire to here and now, as in the addition of telemarketers to people who would be "never missed."

The Mikado is sometimes mounted as a silky spectacle (probably one reason it's done so often), but while Suzanne Ross' scene design is efficient and Marcia Hutson's costumes (including kimonos painted by Jennifer Mackey) are handsome and occasionally splashy, they don't overwhelm the real fun of the story -- the songs and the performances.

 Dianne Zuleger's direction keeps everything on track, which liberates this as a performers' show, and at NCRT pretty much everyone shines. Bob Service as a fussily corrupt, self-pitying Pooh-Bah; Jordan Matteoli as a silent-movie romantic hero Nanki-Poo; Anders Carlson as a forlorn Lord High Executioner who manages in the end to reconcile his British fair play with his craven ambition, and Lonnie Blankenchip Jr. in his flawless turn as the deranged Mikado -- all judiciously employ their physical comedy skills with hilarious effect.

Darcy Daughtry and Serena Zelezny have their shining moments in supporting parts: The "schoolgirls" who sing one of the play's best-known songs, "Three Little Maids From School Are We," give a jolt of energy to the first act, and the show never looks back from there.

In last season's Once Upon A Mattress (NCRT) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Ferndale Rep), Minderella Willins excelled at playing innocent ingénues, but in this show she is the antagonist, with long red evil Queen nails out of Snow White, and she is just as convincing and mesmerizing. Her singing continues to be a wonder.

 Laura Hathaway is appealing as the love interest, Yum Yum, and it is her thrilling voice that is the most emotionally powerful of this show's many pleasing elements. It's a winner.

 When Carol Martinez saw her first play in a theatre at the age of two, she was so small that her mother had to hold her seat down for the entire performance so it wouldn't flip up and fold her away. The show was Alice in Wonderland, and she claims to remember parts of it to this day: "the cards falling from the sky at the end -- the magic of it."

 Currently working as a lawyer in Eureka as her day job, she grew up listening to the soundtracks her mother bought of traveling Broadway shows that came through Orange County, "So when I was about 10 years old, I knew all the lyrics to Oklahoma, South Pacific, The Sound of Music, all of those. I've been a musical theatre nerd for a long time."

This weekend sees the opening of Rodger and Hammerstein's Cinderella,the second show she's directed at Ferndale Rep (it's also her second musical; last season's Some Enchanted Evening was her first). Written originally for the fledgling medium of television in 1957, Cinderella became a stage musical soon after.

 The Ferndale version will feature Nanette Voss and Essie Bertain alternating as Cinderella, Tyler Rich as Prince Charming and Liz Power as the Fairy Godmother. There are 10 children in the cast, and Martinez has especially enjoyed working with the young teens she's seen growing up in the rehearsal process, "becoming really responsible, really encouraging and supporting each other."

As for the experience of directing the show, she saw Cinderella's tragedy differently than most. "It was tragic that no one loved her, that her stepmother and stepsisters treated her so badly. But the real tragedy was that she had no one to love, no way to express her love, until the Prince, which is interesting in light of the Christmas season when we say it is better to give than to receive. For Cinderella, that was really true."

Cinderella begins its run at Ferndale Rep this Friday, Nov. 24, and with it the holiday madness really starts.

The Dell'Arte Company opens its 26th annual holiday show, Entrances and Exits, that same Friday at the Carlo Theatre. Following a Saturday show the troupe embarks on its traditional tour of free performances beginning at HSU's Van Duzer Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 26. The show heads out of the county the following week, then returns for a series of local hops from Dec. 4-10, landing back at the Carlo for the Dec. 14-17 weekend. You should find the schedule at, or call 668-5663, ext. 20.

Next Thursday, Nov. 30, HSU opens its final show of 2006, Sheridan's comedy of gossip, The School for Scandal, directed by Redwood Curtain's Clint Rebik. It runs the customary two weekends; more information at

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Ladies Who Act: The Ladies of the Camellias

In beginning their season with The Ladies of the Camellias, North Coast Rep demonstrates respect for North Coast audiences, repaid with an entertaining evening in which the audience will also learn some theatre and social history.

This play by the contemporary Los Angeles director Lillian Groag is billed as a farce, among the most satisfying theatrical forms when it works. However, it is also one of the most difficult to write and direct. The pleasures for participants as well as audience of creating waves of riotous laughter, each new one “topping” the last, has been too tempting for many playwrights to resist. (If not for his untimely illness and death, August Wilson’s next play sounded like it was going to be a farce.)

 Some contemporary playwrights have successfully created classic farce (Joe Orton comes to mind) but many have failed. Others have upped the ante by using farcical elements in more politically and socially ambitious plays—Tom Stoppard, for instance. Then there are the influences on writers as well as audiences of the movie hybrids—the Marx Brothers films, slapstick and screwball comedies.

 We have one contemporary play about the theatre that is as close to classic farce as modern ironic drama gets—Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (the movie version, with such luminaries as Carol Burnett, Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, also demonstrates the difficulty of translating stage farce to screen.)

 The play at NCRT is stylistically more complex, and its content is more ambitious. The Ladies of the Camellias is set in late 19th century Paris, when new approaches from Germany, Russia and England were about to create the modern theatre that is the operational basis for the dramatic arts of our time.

 Two formidable actresses towards the end of the age of star-driven drama, Italian diva Eleanora Duse and the French legend, Sarah Bernhardt, were each to appear in the same romance, The Lady of the Camellias by Alexander Dumas (which is also the basis of the famous Greta Garbo film, Camille.)

 Meanwhile, a production of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is opening down the street. This was also an era of social and political turmoil that would eventually lead to World War I and the Communist revolution in Russia. All of these elements bear on the action onstage.

 This history is the substance of this play, surrounded by a variety of verbal as well as physical comedy, from droll Wildean witticisms (“A cynic is a romantic sulking”) to acerbic Noel Cowardly observations (about audiences entertained by a socially-conscious play, who then “go off and vote for the wrong people.”)

 Much of the humor is about theatre, and much of that is based on affectionate cliches about the excesses and vanities of actors, though there are some theatrical in-jokes of the kind that added bonus zest to Shakespeare in Love. Is theatre a playground for the rich, or are actors as socially outcast as anarchists? The roles of art and politics, of thought and feeling, form one of this play’s themes with contemporary resonance.

 Both Michele Shoshani (a veteran Bay Area performer new to the North Coast) as Sarah Bernhardt, and Gloria Montgomery (fresh from her triumph in NCRT’s Broadway Bound) as Duse effectively play these actresses as practical and intelligent, in charge of their legends and aware of the utility of their frivolities. Thanks in part to excellent costuming, Shoshani even looks French, and Montgomery has that Italian glow.

 The male partners (onstage and sometimes off) of these grand actresses were necessary but definitely inferior appurtenances, and Hans Crynock and David Hamilton milk those roles for all their obvious and subtle comedy, and even more subtle pathos. Crynock excels at small hilarious gestures and body language, while Hamilton brings an air of eager earnestness with a touch of sadness that gives his physical comedy another dimension.

As a play, The Ladies of the Camellias has problems. A good farce is like a wind-up toy: the first act winds it up, and it runs amuck in the second. But this play is so long and tries to do so much (perhaps too much) that it forces a single hysterical speed from the beginning.

Fortunately, Lonnie Blankenchip as Alexander Dumas arrives in time to admirably slow it down and anchor it for the audience. After a frenetic and excessive start (at least I find the miming of the lines more annoying than funny), both the gifted Theresa Ireland and the skillful Bob Wells have their moments. Nobody could make the two syllables of “password” funnier than Wells does.

 Without Nathan Pierce’s solid performance as the anarchist “Ivan,” this play with a large cast of differentiated characters and more than the usual amount of information to absorb, would have been unintelligible. Edward Olson provides a bracing turn—I won’t give away his surprise, but it enacts (and mocks) the classic farce mechanism of the Deus ex machina, the sudden solution dropping from the sky.

 A handsome set (framed by evocative, Beardsley-style posters) and the other elements of presentation support an audience-pleasing production. There were opening weekend problems of lines and timing that the actors should overcome as the run goes on.

 Director Carol Escobar had to deal with a play that sprawls in time and stage space, but is too interconnected to cut (and the playwright might react as the Blankenchip’s Dumas does to the idea of cutting text: as if it were a knife wound.) But a tighter play would have encouraged more differentiated and effective pacing and focus. Still, the opening Saturday night audience followed the action and had a good time, and subsequent audiences should, too.

Sunday, April 9, 2006

Anatomy of the Spider Woman

 Two men share a prison cell in Argentina. Molina is a gay window dresser imprisoned for indecency who escapes into the romantic movies he recalls out loud. Valentin is a heterosexual Marxist activist, imprisoned for political activity, who listens and responds, initially as a way to pass the time. Their lives and deepest beliefs are revealed as their relationship evolves and changes them both, within a story that has elements of intrigue and tragedy.

This is the premise of Manuel Puig's 1978 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman. It's been the basis of a movie (directed by Hector Babenco in 1985, starring William Hurt and Raul Julia), a musical and a play. The play, which Puig wrote, can be seen until April 22 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.

 The movie version and the play are very different -- they even revolve around different movie plots told by Molina. The play is much closer to the novel, reproducing large chunks of its dialogue. While the play loses some of the novel's complexity and texture, it has its own dramatic virtues: mostly seeing and hearing the characters, as interpreted by the actors.

The prison cell in the North Coast Rep production has some of the same look as in the movie, but the resemblance stops there. Michael Thomas (as Molina) and Paul Charles Spencer (as Valentin) make no attempt to imitate the inimitable performances of Hurt and Julia. They create their own versions of the characters, and because they do so with economy and skill, they demonstrate how live theatre can produce a unique, valuable and entertaining experience apart from any movie, novel or indeed any previous production of the play.

Co-directed by the two actors, the production moves at a brisk pace, yet their acting dexterity makes every moment expand with possibility. Neither wastes a movement or a gesture. It's a pleasure to watch two experienced, disciplined and thoughtful actors at work.

 Michael Thomas employs a restrained theatricality to create a Molina who is warm, funny and feminine, but also self-doubting. Paul Charles Spencer plays Valentin as quietly masculine, well-mannered, serious and compassionate, with his own demons of doubt.

 In terms of the play, their characterizations convey Valentin's middle-class and Molina's lower-class origins, an underlying element of the political and social themes. In terms of performance, they both win over the audience immediately. The other elements of the production -- lighting, costume, scene and sound -- ably support the actors' interpretations and the story they tell.

The play sacrifices some of the novel's early intrigue and foreshadowing to provide a provocative end to the first act, and the important action that happens offstage drains some of the drama, but overall this is a fulfilling night of theatre.

The novel deals more extensively with the authoritarian and repressive political context of Argentina in the '70s, and with Valentin's political adventures within it. But lacking much of that context, the political atmosphere for this play becomes our own (which may be why the most audible positive response on the night I saw it -- the second Friday of the run -- came on a line to the effect that if women were in charge, there would be no torture).

 Given our recent imbroglios over gay marriage and so on, along with seeing this relationship portrayed in front of us, the emphasis of the play is inevitably on that relationship, sexual and otherwise.

 Now playing at Ferndale Rep until April 28 is Anatomy of a Murder by Elihu Winer, based on a nonfiction account of a murder trial in Michigan written by the trial's judge (under the name Robert Travers). It became an Otto Preminger movie starring Jimmy Stewart, and only after that became this play. I haven't seen it yet but I did talk with the director, Renee Grinnell, a couple of days before it opened.

 She's chosen a film noir approach to this courtroom drama, expressed in the emphasis on lighting, to reflect the noirthemes: "The hero who is pushed to the edge by the femme fatale, and the fact that nothing is black and white."

A soldier is on trial for murder. His wife was raped, and he is charged with killing the bartender he believed to be the rapist. But as the trial proceeds and more facts and motives are revealed, nothing turns out to be certain. The trial is also an early instance of a psychological defense.

"It's intense," Grinnell said. "You really have to pay attention, but people like that. CSI, Law and Order -- people like courtroom dramas."

This production stars veterans Gavin Lyall and Jerry Nusbaum, Theresa Ireland and Albert Martinez (who acted together in Ferndale's recent Bus Stop), Steve Sterback, Dmitry Tokarsky and Tim Simpson. Newcomers include Sam McComber, Christie Myers (who returns to the stage after a nursing career) and Karyl Simpson, a psychology major who is furthering her education by portraying a psychologist.

 Grinnell also chose to set the play in the year the movie came out: 1959. "It's right on the cusp as the 1950s become the 1960s, when things were really changing." One of the changes is the language, which was considered so graphic in its day that, according to Grinnell, Jimmy Stewart's own father took out an ad in his local newspaper to denounce the film his son starred in because it was offensive.

But words like "intercourse" and "panties" are not likely to offend a 2006 North Coat audience, though Grinnell does issue one contemporary caution: There is smoking on stage. "But it's not tobacco," she added hastily. "It's herbal."