Sunday, December 23, 2007

Alice in Christmasland

Was his name Lewis "Christmas" Carroll? Not really. (It wasn't even Lewis Carroll, come to that.) But Lewis Carroll has been associated with Christmas long before Dell'Arte and Ferndale Rep both decided to do their Christmas plays based on his writing, here on the North Coast.

Since the mid 20th century, it was Walt Disney who linked Alice in Wonderland and Christmas in the American mind. Even before his animated movie version was completed, he showed a scene from it as part of his Christmas television special in 1950, co-hosted by the young Kathyrn Beaumont, who provided Alice's voice in the film. When his Disneyland show became a weekly series, he featured an hour version of the movie as his Christmas shows in 1954 and again in 1964.

All this is revealed on the two disk DVD of the Disney movie, still the best known dramatization of Alice. Moreover, the digitized DVD version reveals its breathtaking use of color, and of course the kind of sumptuous and witty animation that just isn't done anymore. (The people who made Yellow Submarine must have watched it many times.)

Alice has been dramatized many times for the stage (including ballets and musicals, and experimental dramas by the likes of Andre Gregory, whose early 1970s version is immortalized in a book of photos by Richard Avedon) and in movies and TV, where the usual practice became to fill the many brief roles with well-known actors and comedians of the time.

Jonathan Miller did a 1966 television version with Peter Sellers, John Gielgud and music by Ravi Shankar. Ralph Richardson and Michael Crawford were in a 1972 film, with Alice played by the future "Bond girl," Fiona Fullerton. There was a 1985 version, scripted by Paul Zindel and with music by Steve Allen, that featured Donald O'Connor, Martha Raye, Telly Savalas, Shelley Winters, Sid Caesar and Ringo Starr. Kate Burton was a charming Alice in her first credited role in 1983, co-starring with her father, Richard Burton, as well as Nathan Lane and Maureen Stapleton. And a 1999 TV movie featured Martin Short, Robbie Coltrane, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lloyd and Miranda Richardson with Jim Henson's puppets. (All of these and more are available on DVD.)

Charlotte Henry as Alice in the 1933
film, with script by Joseph Mankiewicz.
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Kate and Richard Burton in a 1983
TV Alice
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Stage versions of Alice in Wonderland go back so far that Charles Dodgson (the well-born clergyman who taught mathematics, and wrote for children under the name of Lewis Carroll) saw some, and even reviewed one for a London periodical. He regularly attended the theatre, and though he thought its public nature gave theatre the responsibility to depict moral behavior, he also defended it to his more severe fellow Christians. Lewis Carroll wrote plays himself, although the scripts aren't readily available, and as far as I can tell were performed as amateur theatricals for children, and by children.

From Dell'Arte's production of Lewis Carroll's
The Hunting of the Snark. (You can glimpse the
Tardis in the background, though strangely, the
Doctor is never mentioned.)
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This Christmas season, Ferndale Rep did The Party, an adaptation of the Mad Hatter scene in "Alice," written by Vikki Young, as their annual school matinee. It's described as teaching "the importance of manners," and manners certainly were central to "Alice", even when they were being dissected and demolished.

For its Christmas show, Dell'Arte dramatized a famous Lewis Carroll nonsense verse narrative, "The Hunting of the Snark." I didn't see the Ferndale show, but I did see one performance of this one, at the Van Duzer Theatre.

 The costumes (by Lydia Foreman) and set (by Jody Sekas) were terrific, and the ensemble of actors was first rate. In retrospect, I wished I'd seen it in a smaller venue (or that I'd been closer to the stage), because that kind of intimacy with the characters may have compensated for the lack of engagement I felt, which I attribute to the script and its approach.

Ever since then I've been trying to figure out why I wasn't crazy about this show. There wasn't much of a story, so while many parts were funny--characters, costumes, bits--there wasn't enough to either carry it along or give it any substance. This show tried to more or less literally translate the poem into action, though what makes it a funny and engaging nonsense poem isn't the action. It's most often the language (which this show did try to feature) and sometimes the incongruities on the page (like the blank nautical map) that don't quite have the same impact on stage. Of course, other elements have more impact--like seeing the costumes and masks move and interact. But verse can carry itself forward with rhythm and clever surprises. That's harder to sustain on stage.

Also the poem is very English, and very much a product of its time. Some of the referents are so obsolete as to be incomprehensible, like "bathing-machine," and even some of the key images in the refrain, so familiar to children of Carroll's time, are remote from the experience of today's children, or unknown:

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

One reason the Disney film succeeds (it seems to me) is that it successfully suggests Alice's English late 19th century world. So many of Carroll's nonsense verses are based on real verses that well brought-up children of Alice's era were expected to memorize and recite. The Disney film suggests this very economically, and can be a way into the book itself on that score (as it was, I believe, for me as a child.) But out of context, even some of the characters in "Snark" may be incomprehensible to children and others of today.

But even though unknown words and unfamiliar character types can still be funny, nonsense depends on contrast with sense, and successful caricatures and parodies of character types depends on knowing what the characters are supposed to be like, and how they are supposed to behave. Much depends on knowing these character types, especially when they are taking themselves very seriously, just as the vaudeville antics of the Marx Brothers (for example) often depends on some idea of what doctors, lawyers and professors, or down on their luck con men, are supposed to be like. At least before the Marx Brothers themselves became icons. And if you don't know from experience what they're like, you should get some idea from how they are portrayed. If they are only ridiculous, they lose the contrast.

It may be that the rigidity of categories and stereotypes is important--if not essential--to nonsense. What makes it nonsense is the nonsensical person or action (or combination of words) is playing it absolutely straight. Since the English upper class was notoriously stuffy, and yet also known for harboring eccentrics who embody living nonsense to some degree, the way is prepared for the kind of nonsense that Carroll creates. Clowning (which probably began as parodying the stereotype of the country bumpkin) and physical comedy, plus masks and costumes can do this, but it can also go too far into itself.

What does work, and I imagine especially for children, is that Carroll creates likeable characters that do translate to stage and screen. So the characters the actors create can delight on their own, at least for awhile. I guess what I am missing is the other layer, especially since in this case the literal story is not very interesting.

The literalization of a fanciful tale, while always tempting, can also have hidden dangers. Seeing imagined figures in brilliantly costumed splendor can be great fun. But seeing the imagined action acted out is perhaps something else.

For example, in the play as in the poem we're told that there is a kind of Snark called a Boojum, which causes the person who captures it to vanish. And in the play as in the poem, the Baker finds a Snark and vanishes, "For the Snark was a Boojum, you see." (According to Carroll, this last line of the poem was the first that came to him, out of the blue while he was walking.)

But reading the lines has quite a different effect than seeing the action. In the poem, the Baker vanishes, and that's the end. In the play, the Baker essentially dies, and the other characters react to that. That's a big difference in mood and in the kind of play it is, and whether the death is appropriate or appropriately handled become questions. It's not nonsense anymore.

All of this may itself be nonsense. Many people saw the show and it seems most enjoyed it thoroughly. Carroll was creating nonsense for children, so it was about the authoritative inconsistencies of adults, but also about those strange creatures called words and numbers, as well as about fantasies responding to the natural world and the world of dreams. Perhaps this approach works for its primary audience, the children in the dark.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

August Wilson Century Cycle

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August Wilson's Legacy

August Wilson's legacy lives. In fact it's probably only getting started. Audiences in Washington will have the opportunity to see all of his 10 plays this spring, in the order of the decades of the 20th century in which each is set, and that approach is likely to be repeated elsewhere in the coming years.

Within the theatre world, it's particularly vital. In the new issue of American Theatre, there's an interview with playwright Lucy Thurber, whose play, Scarcity, dealing with an American working class family, is printed in the issue. Thurber recalls a conversation with Wilson at the O'Neill summer playwrights conference. "I write about poor white trash," she told him. "Are you trash?" he asked her. "No," she said, "I'm just using it as a descriptive term to explain that part of the population." But Wilson said, "Again, I ask you, are you trash? Are the people that you grew up with trash? Are the people that you love trash?"

"That was a huge, emotional moment for me," Thurber said. "Where it cracked, this play was born. The language we use about ourselves is important. There is something about having the courage to talk with dignity and trust and faith about these parts of America that are us."

August Wilson wrote about the African American experience in America. But the way he wrote about it has clear lessons for all writers, as Lucy Thurber learned first hand.

Also in that issue, there is a piece by Teresa Eyring, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group that publishes that magazine as well as the August Wilson Century Cycle collection of his plays, described below. She notes that Wilson was involved in preparing for the publication, and that at the publication ceremony his widow, Constanza Romero, talked about what this publication would have meant to August, had he lived to see it. Eyring went on to extoll the process of developing each of Wilson's plays--a process that he and his collaborators essentially invented--as a model for other new plays.

Here is more about the August Wilson Century Cycle, published by Theatre Communications Group, and available for Christmas giving from your favorite booksellers:

T’is the season of the boxed set, but this one has more significance than the usual holiday gift repackaging. This is the first physical embodiment of a singular achievement—ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, which together tell a long story of African American survival. It is the first time the plays of August Wilson have been collected to tell that story chronologically.

Since Wilson completed the cycle shortly before his untimely death in 2005, the nature and extent of this achievement is slowly being recognized. No American playwright of any color has come close to a series of ten major plays like this, or participated in the acclaimed productions of all their plays. Many others helped this process in vital ways, but even so it’s fair to say that August Wilson transformed and enriched American theatre as no individual has ever done.

From Gem of the Ocean (set in 1904) to Radio Golf (1997) and including Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Jitney and The Piano Lesson--each play is carefully true to its time, yet there are few historic events even mentioned, and the characters are ordinary people—predominately in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood. The most obvious virtue of these plays is their language—a version of black speech that is at once authentic and Wilson’s own poetry-- and this alone makes these plays unusually good to read as well as to see performed.

With this set it’s possible to feel the changes and the continuities in African American culture through the century. The reader is aided in this by recurring and even legendary characters, and by ancestors and descendants in the same family—and perhaps most hauntingly, in the fate of a single house.

In this boxed set, each play has a foreword by such luminaries as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, playwright Tony Kushner, writer Ishmael Reed, actor Laurence Fishburne and former theatre critic Frank Rich. Kushner writes that Wilson grappled with theological questions: “Eugene O’Neill, the playwright August Wilson most resembles, did that.” Reed writes that Wilson’s “ear was so good that his character’s words could be set to music.” Fishburne quotes favorite lines from “Two Trains Running” (he was in its first production, along with Samuel L. Jackson): “Freedom is heavy. You got to put your shoulder to freedom. Put your shoulder to it and hope your back holds up.”

There couldn’t be a better introduction to Wilson’s work than the intro to the series by New Yorker drama critic John Lahr. The cover for the set has a great photo of the author, taken in the last year or so of his life. The set lists at $200 and can be purchased for $126, so it’s definitely a gift item. And if you don’t have someone to give it to, think about gifting your favorite local library.

If you haven't seen an August Wilson play yet, take the next opportunity (which may be the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Fences next season) or you could even track down a used DVD or video of The Piano Lesson, which is the only Wilson play to be adapted for the screen so far (it was a TV production for the Hallmark Hall of Fame, directed by long-time Wilson collaborator, Loyd Richards. Or follow Toni Morrison's lead and read the plays, possibly the most readable around, even for people who don't usually read plays.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

The Nutcracker returns this weekend.
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This North Coast Weekend

It's Nutcracker time. The annual North Coast Dance production directed by Danny Furlong is at the Arkley Center in Eureka now. It opens Friday at 8, and continues Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at various times. See North Coast There's a preview by Wendy Butler in the ER and one by Betti Trauth in the T-S.

The Very Playhouse Christmas continues at the Arcata Playhouse but with one change: the Saturday matinee has been cancelled. But the Sunday matinee is still on (2pm) as are the Friday and Saturday evening shows (8 pm). Willi Welton reviews it in the ER. Bob Doran writes about it in The Hum column in the Journal, with a lineup of guest artists for this weekend.

The Hunting of the Snark returns to Dell'Arte's Carlo Theatre tonight and through the weekend (Fri., Sat. and Sunday) at 7:30pm, with admission charge.

At North Coast Rep, Fiddler on the Roof enters its final weekend, as does Charlotte's Web at Ferndale Rep.

Finally, it's not often theatre makes news hereabouts, but the T-S did a story on the Arkley Center at first accepting then refusing the annual production of The Vagina Monologues, which benefits local organizations dealing with victims of sexual violence. That the owners of its rival paper the ER and the Arkley Center are the same (they're named after the Center, not the paper) probably has something to do with the story appearing in the T-S (and not the ER). And we may not have heard the end of it, since sponsors were hoping that the Eureka venue would mean more revenue, and are asking North Coast citizens to contact the Arkley Center and politely show their support for this cause and this show (which the Center reportedly deemed "controversial.") Plans at present are for the show to go on at HSU, as it usually does.

Update on the Vagina Monologues story: a different version of events in the Eureka Reporter and another take in the Town Dandy Journal column.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

Johanna Hembry and Robin DiCello in
Relative Captivity, world premiere of the
"bold new play" by Margaret Thomas
Kelso, in its final weekend at HSU.
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This North Coast Weekend

Relative Captivity begins its last weekend at HSU tonight at 7:30. Betti Trauth reviewed it (favorably--that's where the "bold new play" quote above comes from) at the T-S. It finishes its run Friday and Saturday. Info: HSUStage.

Tomorrow night (Friday, Dec. 7) Four on the Floor begins two weekends of a Very Playhouse Christmas: A Family Friendly Holiday Revue at the Arcata Playhouse. Jacqueline Dandeneau, Elizabeth Masters and Tyler Olsen perform, directed by David Ferney, spicing up holiday sentiment with satire and clowning around. The show plays Friday, Saturday and Sunday of this weekend and next, starting at 8 pm, with afternoon shows on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM. Different special guests are expected at various performances, including Lila Nelson, the Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir, the Blue Lake Children's Choir and the Dell'Arte student clown band. 822-1575.

Continuing: Dell Arte's Hunting of Snark at various locations, Fiddler on the Roof at NCRT and Charlotte's Web at Ferndale Rep.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Early Fiddler

Several years ago I happened upon the galley of Ghost Light, a memoir by Frank Rich, in the discard box at Northtown Books. I picked it up, amused to speculate that I was probably one of the few people in Arcata who knew who Frank Rich was, and very probably the only one who had known him personally. Not only that, but the last time I saw him, I'd been lamenting about the lack of publisher interest in my proposed book on the arts in America, and he said he was having trouble finding a publisher for this book. I didn't know it was being published. And now the book found me.

He was still theatre critic for the New York Times then--he's since become a political and cultural columnist (and has published several more books.) He'd taken me to lunch that day at Orso, a great Italian restaurant in Manhattan that was his favorite. But we'd met years earlier, when he was an editor (and the film critic) at a weekly national magazine called New Times. (Completely unrelated to the publication of that name today.) He was my first editor there. I wrote several articles for him while I was living in Cambridge, Mass. and eventually met him when I Amtraked down to Manhattan. A few years later, after Frank moved on to review film for Time Magazine, New Times devoted most of an issue to my piece, "The Malling of America."

But it was only earlier this year that I actually read Ghost Light, and learned all kinds of things I didn't know about Frank. I knew he grew up in Washington, but I didn't realize how much theatre had been a part of his childhood and adolescence. Both of his parents, and later his stepfather, encouraged this devotion. As a teenager he even got a job at the National Theatre.

We are close to the same age, so I recognized a lot about the cultural context of his experiences. But I couldn't match his experiences with theatre. At that lunch he flattered me by referring to my "obvious love of the theatre." But I had nothing like his background in seeing Broadway shows, especially in the era of Washington as a tryout town.

This memoir is about more than shows or even growing up in the 50s and 60s. He writes about his mother and father as individuals, and about the complexities of his step-father, who helped him in many ways, but who also was physically violent. It's an absorbing, very readable book.

But the point of bringing it up here is Fiddler on the Roof. As an adolescent, Frank spent summers at an arts camp in Stockbridge, Mass. His closest friend there was named Harry Stein. That was another big surprise for me. I also knew Harry Stein--he was an editor at New Times after Frank left, and then at Esquire. I visited him at the Esquire offices once and he introduced me to Nora Ephron. (Harry later wrote a column on ethics for Esquire and became known as the "ethics guy.") But I didn't know that Harry and Frank knew each other, and certainly not that Frank and Harry were boyhood friends.

Nor did I know that Harry Stein's father was Joseph Stein, the man who wrote the play, Fiddler on the Roof, as well as many others. According to
Wikipedia, his show biz career began with a chance encounter with Zero Mostel, leading him to write for various radio stars and then as part of the legendary writing team for the Sid Caesar television show (along with Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner.) He is apparently still writing, by the way--this article mentions a 2007 musical based on Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, that had its first production at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut--a storied theatre where in recent years Westporters Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward have been heavily involved.

It turns out that Frank and Harry were present for a lot of the early history of Fiddler, and Frank writes about it in Ghost Light. Joe Stein was going through a bad patch in his career. His last few musicals hadn't gone well, and his TV series was being regularly ridiculed on That Was the Week That Was, a wonderful early 60s satirical TV show that I completely loved at the time. So Harry--and then Frank--were worried from time to time that his new show was going to be another flop.

Joe had permitted Frank and Harry to witness the very earliest manifestation of the musical he based on stories by Sholom Aleichem: a backer's audition. It happened one night after dinner at the Stein's apartment, while Joe read from the script while the composer played the songs on the piano and the lyricist sang them. This was the first pre-production, mimeographed script Frank had ever read. At that point, the show was entitled The Old Country.

But it was several years before the show got to an actual stage. It had changed producers, its title and its star--now it was Joe Stein's first inspirer, Zero Mostel. The first thing that worried Harry and Frank was the title. They thought Fiddler on the Roof was silly, and might doom the show. "Harry and I admitted to each other that it sounded like a children's show, not a real Broadway musical. What was wrong with The Old Country?"

After a tryout in Detroit (where it got unenthusiastic critical notices), Fiddler came to Washington in the summer of 1964. Neither Frank nor Harry had seen it when they were allowed to attend what they thought was a dress rehearsal. They were shocked by the lackadaisical behavior of Zero Mostel. He sang a song that sounded like gibberish to them, which he interspersed with obscene gestures directed at director Jerome Robbins, who he despised. Harry and Frank pleaded with Joe Stein to cut that terrible song, called "If I Were a Rich Man."

After the rehearsal, Harry was especially upset. "I can't believe it," he said. "I can't believe my father has another bomb."

But despite their trepidations, when they saw the first performance they were entranced from the opening number, "Tradition." " soon as the orchestra played its last note, I looked at Harry," Frank writes. "His face was plastered with a smile, and I saw him share it with his father..." The audience loved the show.

It turned out that they had seen not a dress rehearsal but a technical rehearsal, which is all about getting light cues correct and so on. The actors were just walking through parts of scenes. And of course, "If I Were A Rich Man" is probably the best remembered song from the show.

During its Washington run, Fiddler was Frank Rich's first theatrical adventure as a kind of insider. He and Harry went to every show, made some friends, had a crush on one of the actresses. This is one of the fun parts of the book, which is definitely worth finding and reading, even if it doesn't present itself to you in a free box.

Fiddler Delights

Ariel Graham as Golde and Brad Curtis
as Tevye in the current North Coast Rep
production of Fiddler on the Roof.
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Fiddler Delights at NCRT

Now to Fiddler on the Roof. First a review of the current production at North Coast Rep, and then some additional dialogue.
It seems like a long time ago now. Not only the late 19th century when the tales about Jews in Czarist Russia written by Sholem Aleichem took place, or even 1905, when Fiddler on the Roof (based on those stories) is set. But also the early 1960s when this musical was created: when several generations of European immigrant families were leaving their ethnic enclaves in cities and towns, and moving into mainstream suburbia. In a way, this voluntary exodus echoed the forced relocations—such as the one haunting this play--that brought many immigrants to America. All kinds of traditions and mores were changing and under attack from prosperity and the beginnings of 60s rebellion, and the infamous Generation Gap. This play’s story was as much about the time and place of its first audiences as it was about 1905.

It wasn’t too late either for ethnic-based entertainment, so pervasive in the 1950s, to have a last big moment. So Fiddler on the Roof premiered at just the right time—and of course it didn’t hurt that it was produced by Hal Prince, directed by Jerome Robbins, with songs by veterans Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, and script by Joseph Stein.

So can it play in 21st century Humboldt County? By now it’s a classic, with well-known and singable songs, and many of the other virtues of the golden age of musicals (some say it was the last of that era.) Generational issues at the heart of the story have become perennial, and a local audience can respond to the decidedly non-glitzy, rural town characters. As evidenced by the current production at North Coast Rep, the opening number, with the large cast shouting out “Tradition!” gets the audience to immediately identify with the events on stage. It’s a match.

The central character of Tevye, the milkman, was written for the supreme comic skills of Zero Mostel. Perhaps because we usually see Brad Curtis in leading man roles, funny lines at the beginning of the show didn’t connect the night I saw it. But his initial stiffness made his singing and movement in the classic “If I Were A Rich Man” song all the more appealing—it’s one of the most memorable moments in the show. Curtis’ rich, warm voice is superior, both singing and speaking, so as he relaxes into the role, he takes the audience with him.

As his wife Golde, Ariel Graham hits all the right notes, both comic and domestic (Joe Stein, who authored the play, started out writing for the Sid Caesar TV show, and its easy to see Caesar’s favorite partner, Imogene Coca, in this performance.) The Curtis-Graham second act duet, “Do You Love Me?” is another highlight.

Adina Lawson also excels at comedic acting as Yente, the Matchmaker. Denise Blase (with an especially fetching voice), Shaelan Salas, Nanette Vos (also the admirable Music Director) and Mara Fuller all shine as the daughters of Tevye and Golde, whose marriages form the central action of the story. In fact the whole cast of 38 performs well, under the delightful direction of Dianne Zuleger. Together with Rebecca Rubenstein’s choreography, the staging invisibly supports the action—and the “dream” sequence is a special treat.

The backing band (Laura Welch, Bethany Wells, Heather Benson, Jill Petricca, Julie Froblom, Elizabeth Halvorsen and Adam Bruce) also did well, even being as far back (and invisible) as it was.

The fast-moving first act was so involving that when guests at a wedding onstage applauded, so did some of the audience. The second act is more somber and seems less finished, but overall this Fiddler is a resonating success.

Monday, December 3, 2007

North Coast Auditions

As yet another possible service to North Coast stages, I'll see if I can keep up with audition information. So yon theatres, send it to me and I'll post it.

For instance, Ferndale Rep: a call for actors and actresses of color, ages 18-30, for a production of the rock musical "Hair" opening April 3 for a five-week run. All ethnic groups are encouraged to audition. Directed by Vikki Young, musical direction by Tom Phillips, choreography by Linda Maxwell. Please call the Rep at 786-5483 or email to schedule an appointment.

Also from the Rep: auditions for its 15th Annual All Teen Production, Bang, Bang, You’re Dead, by William Mastrosimone, on MONDAY, DECEMBER 17, and TUESDAY, DECEMBER 18th from 5:30PM to 7:30PM at the Carson Block Building, the third floor, 517 Third Street, Old Town, Eureka. Director Nanette Voss is seeking interested teens, ages 13-21 years, for as many as 20 roles for this drama on school violence. This production will be taken on the road to county high schools.

PRODUCTION DATES are March 6 – 28, 2008. During the four weeks in March, performances will take place not only at the Rep but also at three area high schools. These school performances will be held in assemblies in the mornings and afternoons on specific week day dates. There will be a Q&A with actors after each show.

Actors - Be prepared to read cold from the script and to discuss school violence. Scripts are available on line. Type in and search “Bang, Bang, You’re Dead” and the script can be downloaded onto your computer. For more information, please call the Ferndale Rep at (707) 786-5483 and ask for Marilyn or call Nan Voss at (707) 407-6234.

Paul Robeson as Othello, with
Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona
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Othello: The Pharma Interpretation

I'm way behind here. Let's see if I can catch up in the next couple of days.

First, the last bit about Othello. I ran across an intriguing theory about something that Shakespeare may have intended, and may have made sense to his first audience. We know that in addition to using old texts, Shakespeare was inspired by the latest news--the first forays of ships to America, for instance, and the science of his day. Which leads to something like a pharmacological component to Othello.

It depends in part on what kind of a Moor Othello is supposed to be. I tend to believe he's a northern African--I put more weight on the various mentions of Berbers and Barbary (real peoples and place) rather than the references to Othello being black--a relative term, since anybody not as white as a bleached Briton would be comparatively black, and the term is used metaphorically at times as well. (I even count as evidence Desdemona referring to her mother's maid "called Barbary" who sang the 'Willow' lament even as she died, which Desdemona then sings, and as Emilia does as she dies.)

The intriguing thesis is unfortunately buried in a dense feminist deconstructionist argument, but here's the gist: Othello's epilepsy may have been hereditary, and related to the fits of seers and prophets. A treatment for epilepsy was an Egyptian medicine, the kind derived from the gums of certain trees that Othello refers to in the play. And the special handkerchief that Othello reveres, as passed down to him by his father, was saturated with that medicine. Which is partly why it was so important to him.

This sense of Othello also relates to the "spells" which which Desdemona's father believed Othello charmed her. In any case, the themes of illness have fascinated a lot of scholars, who write about not only Othello but Iago, Casio and Desdemona. What interests me is what Shakespeare knew or believed, and what he knew his audience believed.

By the way, there's another production of Othello coming up this summer--starting June 3 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Friday, November 30, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

Margaret Thomas Kelso, author of Relative
a play about the families of
prisoners, opening at HSU this weekend.
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This North Coast Weekend

Big news around here is the opening of Margaret Thomas Kelso's new play, Relative Captivity at HSU. It's apparently big news elsewhere, too: front page banner at the T-S and cover of Northern Lights with preview by Betti Trauth...Front page banner in the E-R and front of art section lead preview by Wendy Butler. Preview in the Arcata Eye this week, too. The show runs Thursday through Saturday this weekend and next, 7:30 in Gist. Much more at HSU Stage. (That's my favorite of the photos taken for the show by Kellie Brown of HSU Graphic Services. Nobody else used it, so I will.)

By the way, if you see the show, Margaret is very interested in hearing your response. This is the play's absolute first production, and responses are helpful in taking the script further. You can get it touch with her directly, or leave your response here, or at the HSUStage blog.

(As some of this blog's readers are in England and such places--and I'm not making that up--I'll note again that Margaret is my partner, and I did the publicity for the show, as I do for all shows produced by the Humboldt State U. Department of Theatre, Film & Dance.)

There are two other shows that had mid-week starts but one weekend performance left, both on Friday:

“Anéis de Saturno” (“Saturn’s rings” in Portuguese), the result of a two month collaboration between Dell'Arte International School second year students and Guest Faculty Artist Carlos Simioni of the Brazilian theater ensemble, Lume Teatro. It's Friday at 8 at the Carlo Theatre. Info: Dell'Arte.

And the touring Broadway production of Mel Brooks' The Producers, Friday at 8 at the Van Duzer, via CenterArts. I saw it Wednesday and it's very impressive and a lot of fun.

Continuing: Hunting of the Snark, the Dell'Arte Christmas show, continues at various locations. Betti Trauth loved it at the T-S, Willi Welton had reservations about the script in the E-R.

Also continuing: Fiddler on the Roof at NCRT and Charlotte's Web at Ferndale Rep.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Othello on Film: Olivier

Frank Findlay as Iago, Laurence Olivier as Othello.
Though this is a black and white still, the 1965
film is in color.
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Othello on Film: Olivier

I didn't realize until I read another review of the show that in my review I hadn't noted that Jabari Morgan, who played Othello at the Arcata Playhouse, is black. Partly that's because he gave a great performance as an actor, regardless of any additional category. But also I suppose I realized that discussing the racial politics of this role would take more words than I had in the print version of the review.

Othello is called a Moor, which could refer to a number of racial types. He is called (and calls himself) black, but that's a dodgy term historically. Even in the early 20th century America, some Italians were considered "black."

There has been a great scholarly argument especially over whether Shakespeare was referring to a North African-- a lighter-skinned Muslim Berber, or a darker skinned sub-Sahara African. In terms of Shakespeare's time in England, it could go either way. The internal evidence within the play is ambiguous, though I tend to be more persuaded by the Berber interpretation.

Nevertheless, it has become standard that actors of southern African descent have a corner on the Othello role. Now in the early 21st century it is so much so that when Patrick Stewart wanted to play the role, he did so (in Washington, D.C.) with a completely reversed cast--all the other actors, including Desdemona, were black.

But at least until the 1960s, the role was often played by white men in dark makeup. There may not have been enough black actors in England until the 20th century but the racism was overt in the U.S., where even the play itself was not allowed to be performed in some places in the South because of the interracial romance, regardless who played the parts. And even when the great African American actor Paul Robeson wanted to play the role, he had to play it in England first (opposite Peggy Ashcroft) before getting that opportunity in the U.S., more than a decade later. But Paul Robeson's performance opposite Uta Hagen in 1943 is one of the most famous American Othellos, and a tremendous hit--it played more than twice as many times on Broadway than any Shakespeare before or since.

Which brings us to the movies. The most famous filmed version of Shakespeare's Othello has to be the 1965 movie with Laurence Olivier as Othello. Olivier played Othello as a dark African, with something like a Caribbean accent. "I had rejected the modern trend towards a pale coffee-colored compromise," he wrote in his autobiography. He designed his own three layers of makeup, which took three hours to apply. He had prepared for the role by doing vocal exercises to deepen his voice. His stage performance was one of the triumphs of his career.

Though the filmed version of the stage production (with Frank Findlay as Iago and young Maggie Smith as Desdemona) was shot in just three weeks on obvious stage sets, there is enough camera movement to qualify it as a movie. Olivier often used external changes (he was famous for building new noses for himself) to get him in touch with the internal identity of the character. In this case he wanted to feel "black to my very soul."

In 1965, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and more obvious racial variety in England, Olivier risked a lot, and he got a lot of criticism for--some said-- playing a stereotypical black, in an interpretation that made Othello's heritage a key to his passionate behavior. Others felt it honored the reality of a black character.

By contemporary standards, at the very least, Olivier overdoes it at times. But his portrayal is still powerful, and provides plenty of opportunity for debate, about Othello and race, separately and together. Though Olivier later wrote that the role is essentially unplayable, his acting is gripping at times.

Findlay played Iago with a working class accent, and later films would adopt and extend this approach.

Othello on Film: Hopkins, Fishburne

Laurence Fishburne as Othello, Kenneth Branagh
as Iago in the 1995 Othello.
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Othello on Film: Hopkins, Fishburne

Less well known is the BBC version of Othello, directed by Jonathan Miller in 1981 with Anthony Hopkins as Othello and Bob Hoskins as Iago. The casting of Hopkins did cause controversy because of his race. The role had been offered first to James Earl Jones (who played it in the U.S. opposite Christopher Plummer as Iago) but the British unions wouldn't allow the role to be played by an American. They wanted a British actor of African heritage. What the real politics were in all this is impossible to know.

Hopkins had played the role on stage, although in recent years he's referred to it as not a success. In fact, when he auditioned as a young man for membership in Olivier's National Theatre, a speech from Othello was nearly the only Shakespeare he knew. When he offered it at his audition, Olivier--who was playing the role on stage at the time--cried "You've got a bloody nerve!" Then Olivier expressed nervousness that Hopkins might do it better. When Hopkins finished, Olivier offered him a place in the company. "I don't think I'll lose any sleep tonight," he said, "but you're awfully good." (Olivier became a mentor to Hopkins, who later became so adept at imitating Olivier's voice that he was hired to dub in some of Olivier's lines in the restored version of Spartacus.)

But in contrast to Olivier, director Miller has Hopkins play Othello as a light-skinned Moor, more Arab than African. Viewers today may well find Hopkins' wild hair a bit much, but like Olivier's very different take on the role, he is compelling to watch. More than in these other films, Hopkins' Othello seems to be rebelling against killing Desdemona until almost the end, when Iago applies his most naked pressure, attacking Othello's masculinity. And when Iago's treachery is revealed, the understanding of how he was skillfully duped that comes into Hopkins' eyes, sets up the rest of the scene: his relatively calm farewell speeches, salvaging some honor in his dishonor, and his suicide.

His Desdemona is Penelope Wilton (known these days to Doctor Who fans--such as myself--as Harriet Jones) but it is Bob Hoskins as Iago who delivers a truly great movie performance in what is even an less cinematic version than Olivier's, except for the remarkable closeups (especially of Iago as he devises how to trap Othello, and Othello as he is about to go into his fit.)

Hoskins makes his every thought eloquent by facial expression, voice and body movement. Even the way he walks tells us about the character. He plays Iago as a working class conniver, an improviser who makes mischief and manipulates his "betters," apparently for his own amusement, just to see them make fools of themselves. He's barely suppressing his laughter in the very first scene, and his scorched mirth is evident many times throughout. But as the play moves to its bloody conclusion, his laughter became almost constant and psychotic. Yet there is still the air of the trickster about him.

Since this was part of the BBC project to film complete versions of all of Shakespeare's plays, this is the most complete text available on DVD. And it does seem to me that some of the supposed mysteries of motivation etc. are cleared up by lines that are often cut.

The most recent filming of Shakespeare's actual play that I know of is the 1995 version starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago. Filmed on location in Italy, it is the most scenic version--beginning with a long shot of Othello and Desdemona (played by Irene Jacob) in a gondola. As it approaches, Othello puts a white mask in front of his face.

This film flirts with this very racial interpretation as well as a few others, without being very consistent about any of them. For example, the Freudian disciple Ernest Jones argued that Iago had a homosexual crush on Othello--an interpretation that Olivier tried when he first played Iago in the 1930s on an uncooperative Ralph Richardson as Othello. In this film there is one scene where Branagh makes a blatant move in this direction, but that's about it.

Laurence Fishburne has worked on stage as well as on TV and in the movies, notably in August Wilson plays. He gives Othello a dignity and authority, and, like Hopkins, is very calm at the end. He plays Othello as intelligent, sensitive and too trusting and naive. Branagh's Iago owes much to Hoskins', (as indeed does A.J. Stewart here in Arcata.) There are some nice cinematic touches by director Oliver Parker--eyes that literally glow green, Iago knocking chess pieces into the water and then the bodies of the dead dropped into the sea. It's an inconsistent but often provocative and always watchable film.

One other interesting interpretation is of the key character of Roderigo, the first of the nobles that Iago manipulates. In the Olivier version (as in the Arcata stage version), Roderigo is mostly just dim. In the BBC version, he's dim but also proud, easy to flatter. But in this version, Michael Maloney (who stars in one of my favorite unknown films--about a ragtag company playing Hamlet--directed by Branagh, also in 1995, called A Midwinter's Tale) plays Roderigo as excessively passionate and impulsive. Which he plays very well.

Othello on Film: Welles

Orson Welles as Othello in the
1952 film version he directed.
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Othello on Film: Welles

The first of these Othellos to be filmed, but one of the last to be seen, was directed by Orson Welles, who also played Othello. This film's history is an epic journey. It started in the late 1940s, when Welles--a Hollywood outcast at the time--was filming his vision of Othello in bits and pieces, between paying film work and when he had the money. He filmed it in various locations throughout Europe, wherever he happened to be.

The film was finished in 1952, and released in the U.S. in 1955, to very mixed reviews. After being shown in only three theatres, the film essentially disappeared for the next three decades. Thought completely lost, a print was found in 1981, but still it was not really seen until the film was restored in 1992: exactly forty years after Welles completed it.

And "completed" is a relative word. The restoration was far from perfect, and the shoestring budget shows up in some bad dubbing and a few awkward effects. But apart from all that, it is very close to magnificent.

At least as a piece of moviemaking. This is the most cinematic of Othellos on film. The words are Shakespeare's but the editor is Welles--he tells the whole story in about 90 minutes. It begins with a montage of the funerals of Othello and Desdemona, while Iago is hoisted to his punishment. These opening scenes, the black and white cinematography, the framing, askew camera angles and silhouettes are reminiscent of Bergman, and later of Kurosawa and even Fellini.

Welles started out directing theatre, including Shakespeare--he created the famous Federal Theatre Project production of an all-black Macbeth during the Depression. He knew the plays, and by this time he knew moviemaking, too. So he could re-imagine the text as a film script--for example, by showing Othello's epileptic fit from Othello's point of view, as he wakes.

Iago is played by Micheal MacLiammoir, an accomplished Irish actor, who later wrote that Welles instructed him to play Iago as a repressed homosexual, fixated on Othello but in an impotent rage--once again, a variation of the Freudian via Ernest Jones theory. It doesn't clarify the play, nor does Welles performance, but the movie does--and it is striking, even amazing to look at.

Suzanne Cloutier played Desdemona--blond, lovely and so young she's growing up on screen, over the four years it took to make the film. She probably looks more the age imputed to Desdemona in the play, and has the beauty to bewitch Othello, but I didn't sense any sparks between them. That's something lacking, it seems to me, in all these films. Maggie Smith was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the Olivier version (as was Olivier), and Irene Jacob and Penelope Wilton give fine performances in their films, perhaps even true to Elizabethan mores, but the central romance remains a convention and Desdemona's part in all these films is too much as a cipher to be satisfying.

Friday, November 23, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

"Hunting of the Snark" is this year's
holiday show from Dell'Arte.
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This North Coast Weekend

It’s a Lewis Carroll Christmas! Both Dell'Arte and Ferndale Rep have Lewis Carroll themed Christmas shows. First up this weekend is Dell’Arte with The Hunting of the Snark, an adaptation of the famous Lewis verses. It premieres Friday and Saturday at the Carlo Theatre and moves to various locales for free shows, beginning at the Van Duzer at HSU on Sunday. Schedule and details: Betti Trauth previews it at the T-S.

NCRT's ongoing production of the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof got its round of reviews: mine in the NCJ, Betti Trauth's at the T-S and Willi Welton's in the ER are all quite positive.

Also in the ER, Wendy Butler reviews the ongoing Charlotte's Web at Ferndale Rep, and offers some observations on reviewing community theatre. Betti Trauth reviews it at T-S.

Willi Welton reviews the Shake the Bard production of Othello, in it's final weekend at the Arcata Playhouse.

I'm running a little behind here, but I hope to post soon on the film versions of Othello and about an intriguing theory about the play I found. Then more on Fiddler on the Roof.

Monday, November 19, 2007

David Hamilton collage of Othello at Arcata
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Othello in Arcata

When Venice was a great power, its most trusted military leader was Othello, a Moor. In secret, Othello wooed the daughter of a Venetian noble, Brabantio, and as the play opens their secret marriage is about to be revealed. Iago, a trusted officer who may or may not be seriously aggrieved at being passed over as Othello’s second in command, and who may or may not really believe that Othello seduced his wife, is certainly out to get Othello from the play’s first beat.

When Iago’s first attempt—turning Brabantio against Othello—isn’t enough, he devises a plan to convince Othello that his new wife, Desdemonia, has been unfaithful with Michael Cassio, who conveniently is the officer who got the job as Othello’s lieutenant that Iago covets. It works, all too well.

Much of this story was found in the Italian tale that Shakespeare adapted, but besides the histrionic themes of jealousy, envy and carnal passion, the play is riddled and beset with questions. What is Iago’s problem? Why is Othello so easily convinced and moved to violence? Some of the most famous productions in Shakespearian history have tried to address these and other vexing questions in a play that continues to fascinate audiences.

The production of Shakespeare’s Othello, Moor of Venice by Shake the Bard Theatre Company currently at the Arcata Playhouse makes good use of this intimate space to focus on the dynamics of the play itself. A traditional but minimal set (conceived, designed and created by David Hamilton, Jack Freeman and Sam Neuwirth respectively) is complemented by Pat Hamilton’s handsome and evocative costumes, and Gabe Groom’s suggestive sound design. Director David Hamilton has employed some cunning stagecraft to keep the action on track and to focus particular moments. The result is a clear and creditable production, with solid performances, including a brilliant, thrilling one—and a virtual clinic on acting Shakespeare-- by Jabari Morgan as Othello.

Morgan’s interpretation is well-considered and creative, and its skillful expression rivets your attention. From his first entrance and his first calmly, warmly resonating words, his Othello is every inch a general, until this shock unhinges him, and he struggles against a kind of madness. Morgan’s masterful physical (including vocal) effects in the second half of the play are dazzling, but I was just as impressed by his precision in the first half, when he is alive to every moment. Too many actors, especially in Shakespeare, feel the need to indicate with gestures the meaning of the words. Jabari Morgan acts the words, and every actor should watch his performance to see the difference.

Iago presents his “honest” face to others, but exposes his malevolent intentions to us in soliloquies that poet and critic W. H. Auden thought should be played “slightly mad and with terrific gaiety,” which aptly describes how a cavorting A.J. Stewart performed them. He indulged in a bit too much indicating for my taste (is it really necessary to mime heart on a sleeve?) and his lighting accented an evil brow a bit too obviously. He was most effective and disconcerting playing the calm and solicitous public Iago, and his creepy grin in the final scene chillingly illuminated both sides of the character. He also matched Morgan’s power in some key scenes together.

Erik “Rez” Peterson is efficient in the mostly functional role of Cassio, a self-consciously upright aristocrat with a weakness for arrogance and wine. Rich Chase plays the pawn Roderigo with a trusting dimness that makes him Iago’s effective tool, yet with the sense of wrong that leads to Iago’s undoing. Abe Green has one of the better voices, and as a younger than usual Brabantio, he can stand toe to toe confronting Othello. Darcy Daughtry has a small but winning role as the reputed strumpet, Bianca.

Jennifer Trustem is a fiery Emilia, Iago’s wife as well as Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting and staunchest defender. As Desdemona, Jay Shepherd emphasizes her naiveté, and together she and Trustem create a very effective (at least when audible) scene on what would soon be Desdemona’s deathbed, employing dialogue that has Shakespeare sounding like an Elizabethan feminist, with the gender equivalent of his more famous “has not a Jew eyes?” aria in The Merchant of Venice.

What past ages called passions, and attributed to temperament, culture, class and race, we may reflexively consider psychological or mental illnesses. In our culture Iago may remind us of psychopaths and sociopathic serial killers, Othello perhaps as psychotic or even schizophrenic; Desdemona as abuse victim. There is scholarly support for the idea that both Othello and Iago were victims of physical maladies known to have mental effects (Othello’s epilepsy being long associated with satanic possession, demoted in Shakespeare’s time to obsession.)

But even so, as David Hamilton claims in his program note, these characters all represent aspects of ourselves. Many will recognize some misguided Othello in authority, or the Iago of the office, complete with cascades of malignant consequences. All of the main characters—including Desdemona, Emilia and Cassio— are flawed and make small mistakes that conspire to the tragic end. As Desdemona muses, “How foolish are our minds.”

This show wasn’t an unqualified triumph the night I saw it—there were some weak moments, diction problems, and unhelpful lighting, especially in the final revelation scene. But it’s well worth seeing, and Jabari Morgan’s performance is not to be missed. This Othello plays one more weekend.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

Denim Ohmit as Wilbur and
Nicole Cowan as Charlotte in
Ferndale Rep's production of
Charlotte's Web, opening this
weekend. Photo: H.R. La Bue.
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This North Coast Weekend

Ferndale Rep begins the holiday season tonight (Thursday, Nov. 15) with its production of Charlotte's Web, the classic story by E. B. White (in paperback, it is the best-selling children's book of all time), written for the stage by the veteran children's story adapter and playwright, Joseph Robinette. The Rep has assembled a cast of 27, directed by Carol Martinez, with scenery and lights by Gary Franklin and costumes by Vikki Young. Though the play brings barnyard animals alive to the delight of children, its themes of friendship, active affiliation and courage in the face of the unchangeable cycles of life make this a story for families to share. The play runs through Dec. 16. Betti Trauth previews it at the T-S.

Also opening Thursday is the North Coast Rep production of the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof, which plays through Dec. 15. More on this next week.

Thursday is the second of two midweek performances of Evita by the touring company, presented by CenterArts at the Van Duzer Theatre. You're going to have to really like Andrew L. Webber for this one.

Last but not least, the Shake the Bard production of Shakespeare's Othello continues at the Arcata Playhouse. I reviewed it at the Journal, and Betti Trauth reviewed it at the T-S. Both of us praised Jabari Morgan's exceptional performance as Othello, and suggested theatregoers not miss it, just for that. I hope to have much more here on this show and on the play, especially the movie versions, as the week goes on.

Critic vs. Playwright vs. Critic

It's an old story, but always interesting when it's revived. It's also usually a New York story, as it mostly is this time. First the Critic--Charles Isherwood of the New York Times--wrote a piece urging playwrights who'd gone to Hollywood to write for TV to use their downtime during the current Writer's Guild strike to return to writing plays for the theatre.

He probably meant it as a "light" and clever, gently chiding little piece, but writers on strike don't find much humor in it, and one playwright--Jon Robin Baitz--took umbrage on other accounts as well. In the process, he goes after the New York Times critics with some precise criticism of his own.

Both pieces are very interesting reading, especially Baitz's. He calls for critics to have some humility, and I can't argue with that. But I don't read these New York Times critics much so I don't know about his specific characterizations of them. I was interested, however, that among the "good" critics he names by contrast he includes former NY Times critic Frank Rich (someone I did and do read, someone in fact I knew and worked with, and about whom there will be more here very soon). Because when playwrights complained about critics a couple of cycles ago, they were often complaining the most about Frank Rich, who they dubbed the Butcher of Broadway. Those castigations were mostly unjustifed then; I have no idea if Baitz is right about the critics there now.

But what Baitz says about the real lives of playwrights is important, and important for those interested in American theatre to know, including (if not especially) critics and writers about theatre. Check it out.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

On DeMark, Get Set--

Go to the HSU Studio Theatre for two performances of Jeff DeMark's show about the wonderful world of crap jobs, Went To Lunch, Never Returned. The shows start at 7:30 pm on Thursday and Friday (Nov. 8-9). Tickets are $7, $5 students/seniors, benefitting HSU technical theatre students. The Arcata Eye has a brief preview.

Opening this week is a production of Shakespeare's Othello by Shake the Bard at the Arcata Playhouse. Preview Thursday, and opening weekend Friday and Saturday, beginning at 8pm. Jonathan Glen previews it at the T-S.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

George Bernard Shaw. How many
of his plays would have survived
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First Principles

Let Playwrights Be Playwrights

In general, "play development" is work done on the text of a play before it is produced, so it has to do principally with the playwright and the writing. There are two kinds of play development that make sense to me: in an academic setting, where students works on the plays they're writing with a teacher or mentor, and when the playwright refines the script in the course of getting it ready for a production. And even these require some caveats.

These days, play development has also come to mean a torturous path with many pitfalls for the playwright and the play, as the process becomes more concerned with money, and is increasingly often prolonged to produce income for the people or entity in charge of "developing."

Playwright Richard Nelson spoke about this process, and excerpts were published in American Theatre magazine. He goes at the primary assumption first: "what a playwright writes, no matter how much he or she works on it...the play will always be not right--will always need help. In other words, writing a play is too big of a job for just the playwright to achieve. This, I believe, is now a prevalent attitude in the American theatre. And this mindset is devastating."

As a result, Nelson said, playwrights who want to be produced know they have to submit to this process, and so "why finish anything?" He says that young playwrights tell him they purposely include badly written sections so that the "help" will be directed there, and not the parts of the play they care about.

The "help" by theatres comes about sometimes in commissions, which pay the playwright for the first draft and then for the rewrite, but basically the "help" is done to earn "participation"--that is, the piece of the play's profits in subsequent productions. This has become a new feature of the nonprofit theatre--a theatre that invests its time in "helping" gets some of the playwright's money if the play goes on to, say, Broadway. So if playwrights want their new play produced, they must go through this process of being helped, whether they want it or not, and then they pay for it, and keep on paying for it. Nelson thinks this stinks.

But that's not Nelson's only objection--he feels the process makes mediocre plays. A script is subjected to so many judgments--from producers, literary managers, dramaturgs, etc.--usually applying conventional wisdom about the rules for a good play. "Rules for writing plays. My god! One hears young playwrights being told what a play 'must do' or 'how a play works.' One hears writers being told that a character's 'journey' isn't clear enough, or that the writer needs to determine a character's 'motivation.' One hears how a play has to 'build' in a certain way, or how 'the conflict' isn't strong enough. These are terms that seem to suggest a deep understanding of what a play is and how it is put together, but in fact they tell us very little."

They're too general, for one thing, and they don't always apply. "To see how silly this prescription is, one has only to ask: What is the clear motivation of Lear?"

"The playwright doesn't write out of motivations but rather out of truth and reality, out of people and story and worlds he or she wishes or needs to create for us," Nelson counters. Plays can be written to formula, but they are formula plays. Sooner or later, plays are shaped by these conventional wisdoms, and they begin to all be alike. Even the process of play development itself has a leveling effect: Nelson says that since new plays are routinely subjected to mandatory readings first, but some plays--especially plays with lots of characters interacting but not always talking--don't come alive in readings. So playwrights write plays that do, for their own survival.

A certain style of play development has always been part of the American commercial theatre, but the route from nonprofit to larger commercial productions hasn't always been to the play's benefit. In Hot Seat, his collection of theatre reviews for the New York Times, Frank Rich remarks that "almost every play" that was transferred to Broadway from regional or Off Broadway theatres "was the worse for wear." Often this had to do with losing key actors or glitzing up the set, but sometimes it was the rewriting.

The exceptions he notes are plays by Tom Stoppard and August Wilson. How each of these playwrights approaches "development" is well documented. Though August Wilson took his plays through the O'Neill Center process (and later did say he felt pressured from time to time to be more conventional) he also always remained in charge of his own process, and the result. Later in his career, he rewrote solely on the basis of what he saw in rehearsals. Tom Stoppard does the same. In both cases, they rewrite not on the basis of "help"--though they both gratefully took suggestions from actors, directors and even onlookers--but on the basis of how the play was working as it was being brought alive, for that's the difference in playwrighting: it isn't just on the page. It has to work on the stage.

But what works on stage is also measured by what the world the playwright is creating. That may be a very eccentric world, and in this there is resemblance to other creative writing. Writing in the New Yorker about a new series of abridged classics, Adam Gopnik found the abridged version of Moby Dick was a perfectly serviceable novel--- "by conventional contemporary standards of good editing and critical judgment, improved," which means "a clean story, inhabited by plausible characters--the 'taut, spare driving' narrative beloved of Sunday reviewers."

The problem is, he writes, it's not Moby Dick. Melville didn't write "just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book."

There are lots of non-masterpieces that are only crazy, of course. But Gopnik concludes that "masterpieces are inherently a little loony." Can a masterpiece survive development? It's a question well worth asking.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL in its final weekend
at HSU.
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This North Coast Weekend

URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL is in its final weekend at HSU, escorted by rave reviews by Betti Trauth at the T-S and Wendy Butler in the ER. The show starts at 7:30 tonight (not 8, which one review said) tomorrow and closing night, Saturday in the Van Duzer.

Productions of the HSU Department of Theatre, Film and Dance began starting shows at 7:30 last year instead of the standard 8 pm, and lately other theatres have been adopting it, though not consistently. So as experience shows (I missed a 7:30 curtain recently myself) it's best to double-check.

Speaking of which, Eureka High School is performing Larry Shue's The Foreigner tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at 7:30 at the school. It continues next weekend. Wendy Butler previews it in the ER.

On the other hand, the Dell'Arte Youth Academy performs at 8 pm tonight, outside the ongoing Dell'Arte Horror Experiment which continues this weekend in the Carlo Theatre. Ron Thunman has a preview at the T-S.

As part of the HSU campus Dialogue on Race, a production of The Colored Museum is in the Studio Theatre on Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. There is no admission charge.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween 2007

courtesy Alix Metcalfe.
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Monday, October 29, 2007

This North Coast Halloween

There are a couple of pretty interesting theatrical events this Halloween on the North Coast. Dell'Arte is presenting "The Horror Experiment," three one-act plays in the Grand Guignol manner, on Halloween (Wednesday) at 8pm, and also on Thursday and Friday, November 1st (All Saints Day) and 2nd (All Soul's Day, unless they changed those since the nuns drilled the dates into me.) Betti Trauth has a preview in the T-S, as does Wendy Butler in the E-R. (There's also a T-S feature by Sharon Letts on the Dell'Arte International School.)

Ferndale Rep is doing something very intriguing--an on-stage re-creation of a radio play--the Mercury Theatre's production of "Dracula." It was another of Orson Welles' Halloween productions, the most famous being "War of the Worlds" (though the fact that it was a Halloween show isn't so often remembered), which Ferndale did on the 50th anniversary of that particular Martian invasion. "Dracula" is performed at the Ferndale Rep theatre on Wednesday at 7:30, for the special price of just five bucks. But you can also listen to it on the actual radio--KHUM is broadcasting it live. Betti Trauth previews this one, too, for the T-S.

Of course, a little theatre will likely be coming to your front porch on Wednesday evening. I like the commercial that says the real horror of Halloween is having to give away your chocolate. I must get around to replacing the bulb in the least by Thursday.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

Urinetown: The Musical opens
at HSU.
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This North Coast Weekend

Opening tonight for two weekends is the HSU production of URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL, in the Van Duzer Theatre on the HSU campus in Arcata, Thursday through Saturday beginning at 7:30, with a matinee this Sunday at 2 pm. The local press was all over this, with photos and previews by Melinda Spencer in the Lumberjack, Ron Thunman in the T-S Northern Lights, an unsigned preview in the E-R, a preview in the Arcata Eye with an endorsement by Scene Editor Jennifer Savage, and a preview graph and photo in the Calendar section of the North Coast Journal. There's more photos and info at Urinetown HSU.

My Name is Rachel Corrie has moved to the Arcata Playhouse for this weekend, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm. Jennifer Savage reviews it in the Eye, as does Willi Welton in the E-R.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Jessica Kanpp as Henry IV, Sazi Bhakti as Prince
Hall in the North Coast Prep production, Mortal Men,
Mortal Men.
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Henry W

If you care about homegrown theatre, Friday was a great day on the HSU campus. In addition to ongoing rehearsals in the Van Duzer for the HSU Theatre/Music production of Urinetown: The Musical, opening this coming Thursday, and production meetings elsewhere on campus for the next HSU show, Relative Captivity by Margaret Thomas Kelso, there were two shows in Gist Hall Theatre--a matinee and the evening performance of North Coast Prep's Mortal Men, Mortal Men, and in the Studio Theatre, an evening performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie, an independent production.

I saw Mortal Men, Mortal Men that evening--it was kind of another opening night for the production, as major roles were rotated for the first time. Suzi Bhakti was an energetic Prince Hal, with fire in her eyes, and Jessica Knapp a stately King Henry IV. (Jeffrey Venturino and Connor Alston plays those roles on alternate nights.) I believe the Hotspur I saw as Keenan Hilton (alternating with Reed Benoit)--he was fiery and mercurial, as that character should be.

The play is, as previously indicated, Jean Bazemore's adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV and V plays. The first act covered both parts of Henry IV, though with emphasis on the first part, and the shorter second act zipped through Henry V. Because these productions have an educational function first (this one performed by freshmen and sophomores), the adaptations favor getting as many roles as possible on stage. But the emphasis was also on the costs of wars and their often dubious justifications, rather than the putative glory. So key moments were Falstaff's speech on honor ( "What is honor? A word. What is that word honor? Air.") delivered with intelligent and effective subtlety by Alexander Johnson (unless it was Jesse Drucker), and in particular, a moment not normally emphasized but given a riveting reading by Dillon Arevalo: as Williams, one of the common soldiers the disguised Henry V talks with on the eve of battle. Williams tells Henry "But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day..."

Gerald Beck's set of slanting platforms, the excellent costumes, the live student band, and the staging by director Jean Bazemore and Assistant Director Gretha Omey (who directed Henry IV Part 1 at North Coast Rep) provided these students superior support. I am impressed each time with their vocal performances in particular--they all speak clearly, within the range that's best heard from the stage, and in this case they speak Shakespeare's lines intelligently and expressively. There are more performances Saturday and Sunday evening at 7:30.

Henry V is one of the more familiar of Shakespeare's history plays mostly because of two movie versions. Laurence Olivier's portrayed Henry V as a hero forging a nation from nobles and common people with their own local and personal concerns, and rallying them in battle. The film was made in large part to rally England to fight the Nazis in World War II. Parts of the play that cast Hal in less than an heroic light were excised or downplayed (with the editing help of Winston Churchill.)

Then at the end of the 1980s, Kenneth Branagh portrayed Henry V as more introspective and doubting, but finally, also as a hero. With battle scenes that owe more to Orson Welles' The Chimes of Midnight (which centered on Falstaff in the action of the Henry IV and V plays) than to Olivier's version, the hellishness of war was better portrayed, but Henry's cause again justified.

Was his cause just? There's plenty in the plays to suggest otherwise. There's treachery--messages not conveyed, etc--and bad judgment (Hotspur, for example) and the supposed justification by the Archbishop of Canterbury (played as a pious warmonger in the NC Prep version), but there's also the clear motive from Henry IV to V that the best way to unify the nation and avoid civil war is to pick a foreign enemy, demonize it and rally the nation. Henry IV wanted to do that by means of the Crusades, while Henry V picked France. The result was more than 10,000 dead, Henry got little more than he was offered before the battle, and France and England were at war again within another generation.

Olivier and Branagh both directed and starred in their versions, so while they staged the movies visually, it seems they interpreted the character of Hal as actors, giving themselves strong parts to play. Others aren't so kind to Hal or the reasons for his war. Some critics see Shakespeare's Hal as an empty suit of armor, capable of charming anyone and playing any part, but without a moral center.

So it seems to me it would be fascinating to do Henry V as a kind of George W. Bush--a man with a complicated relationship to his father, the President, with a youthful record of carousing and avoiding responsibilities, whose main gift seems to be projecting an image of leadership. Who then uses rhetoric to unify a nation in a war that is more disastrous than dubious, and who even pretends to go down among the people, although his minions carefully make sure he doesn't hear anyone as forthright as Williams. The motives of the Iraq war can be seen as similiar, although the nation was unified for perhaps even less justifiable reasons. And in this war, the putative king has a very heavy reckoning.