Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Dame Judi Dench
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A Little Illness Music

I've got this cold or flu kind of thing. You can't count on a regular cold pattern anymore, apparently--they seem to have their individual characteristics, and ups and downs. But I've never been a suck-it-up and soldier-on type. I don't get sick very often, but when I do, I do it up big. I stay in bed longer, and the rest is resting. "Feed a cold" is also advice I've made into a lifestyle.

So I don't do much. This time around I spent several hours watching a VHS tape I made from TV programs in the 90s, back when the A&E cable channel actually tried to be an Arts & Entertainment channel, and Bravo! was about performance arts. Now they all play the same CSI reruns and have their own perverse "reality" shows. But there was a time that one or both of them ran imported programs from England, where an interviewer called Melvyn Bragg did interviews and so on with notable actors and other theatre artists.

I watched his interview/lunch with Albert Finney, and two fascinating pieces following Ian McKellen (then a youthful 45) in rep at the National Theatre over a season, and Judi Dench rehearsing and playing in A Little Night Music. The McKellen piece was a good insight into that life (in which he might be playing one part, rehearsing the next play, and learning lines for one after that on the same day) as well as a peek into his working process. One of the plays he was working on was Michael Frayn's translation and edited version of Chekhov's first and unproduced play, which Frayn dubbed Wild Honey. As he rehearsed, McKellen was driving himself crazy trying to understand the character he was playing, even going back to a full translation of Chekhov's script, with many long philosophical speeches. He was afraid he would be a disaster and bring down the production. He noted ruefully into his tape recorder that Frayn had shown up for a run-through and had simply grinned. But when the play opened, McKellen was astonished to hear the audience laughing--they had just revealed to him that the play was a comedy. It was also a hit. (Frayn himself tells this story about McKellen in the introduction to his "Plays: Two" volume.)

The Dench piece went back into her acting history with some wonderful clips from old productions. Olivier's "cry" as Oedipus is well-known theatrical legend, but Dench as Lady MacBeth let out a truly terrifying and prolonged scream that deserves its own fame: it said volumes about the character. Dame Dench played Mother Courage in 2005, which must have been something to see, and hear. In this film piece, director Sir Peter Hall says that Dench was blessed with an extraordinary voice, "and in theatre, voice is very nearly all."

Brecht by Man Ray
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First Principles

Eric Bentley

The Jan./Feb. issue of The Dramatist includes an interview with Eric Bentley, now 91 years old. For me, Bentley is the benchmark of theatre criticism and scholarship. He's an extraordinary writer, fair and yet with strong opinions, eloquent and writerly, yet direct. His books, such as The Playwright as Thinker (and Thinking about the Playwright), In Search of Theater and The Life of the Drama are invaluable and indispensible--and in that peculiar way that the best books on theatre can be: exciting. Bentley was also a scholar and a playwright of the 1950s Blacklist in America, and it was when researching that subject that I first came upon his work (though it wouldn't be until the 1990s that I read his theatre criticism. I haven't yet read his books specifically on Brecht and Shaw.) Bentley has a clear vision of what he believes theatre should be and do, but he is also nuanced and generous.

It's a short interview, touching on some of his history. He was interested in music and languages first, and more or less slid into theatre by meeting Brecht in California and agreeing to translate some of his work from German into English. He also acted a few small parts in Shakespeare repertory-- plays which happened to be directed by John Geilgud. Right place, right time, and he was off.

Bentley became Brecht's first and persistent champion, although he is clear that he disapproved of Brecht's continued fascination with Stalinist Communism (he faults the elderly G. B. Shaw for the same blind spot.) He also championed Shaw when he was unpopular, as apparently he is again on the English stage.

In this interview Bentley had these comments on Brecht's Mother Courage, which was seen here at HSU, directed by John Heckel: "The songs in Brecht's plays are quite unlike songs in anybody else's plays [in which they are] incidental...but in Mother Courage... they are pillars on which the whole play stands. They are not secondary but primary. It's the songs plus some dialogue--not dialogue with a few songs."

His comments on his own career are clear-eyed and instructive. He says that his plays are more often read than staged, but this is typical for plays that last. But he is disappointed that his later books haven't had the impact of his earlier ones. " a writer facing a public, it is easier to be young than to be old. It is easier to be immature and wild rather than to be controlled and have a bit of common sense. All my first efforts were received much more favorably than my later efforts. That's something that disappoints me very much, because I feel that my later efforts were better."

This interview isn't on line, but others are, like this one specifically on Brecht. And since the Young Actors Guild production of A Dream Play just concluded, while John Heckel is preparing his next production for later this month at HSU (Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9), here's a link to my essay on the two Brecht productions done here last year, Heckel's Mother Courage and the Young Actors Guild adaptation of Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Monday, January 29, 2007


Brian Friel's Translations has been revived on Broadway, and was reviewed in the New York Times recently. This photo is from the HSU production in 2005, directed by Bernadette Cheyne, with Bob Wells.
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Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Dream Play and North Coast Prep

The Dream Play by August Strindberg is performed at the Van Duzer Theatre by the Young Actors Guild. These shows from the Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy are unique. They bring together young people devoted to an arts-based education with visionary theatrical veterans (director Jean Heard Bazemore and set designer Gerald Beck) in adaptations of stylistically unconventional and substantive plays that these days just aren’t seen much on the North Coast.

 The play’s not the only thing of interest on the stage. As with performances of other high school, junior high and young people’s group (such as those at Dell’Arte, Ferndale Rep and NCRT) that aren’t reviewed here, the experience of witnessing young people discovering themselves on stage can be inspiring, resonant and educational for the audience as well as the students.

 The play in turn can itself be infused with more meaning by youthful enthusiasm and sincerity. The Dream Play has all of that, plus an efficiently flowing, focused production, and Beck and Bazemore’s magnificent stage pictures: there’s a scene with a trapezoidal door suspended in space, with similarly shaped screens floating above an elegantly composed set of actors that’s breath-taking.

 These are juniors and seniors, some of them in their fourth or fifth play, and some on stage for the first time. The cast also includes exchange students from China, Germany and Ghana. A school production allows large casts, and there are as many as 20 actors on the stage in this one, with a Greek-style chorus that big enough to suggest the power of the people’s voice, whether used for good or ill.

 I saw Saturday’s performance, with Isaiah Cooper deftly expressing the Officer’s changing moods and circumstances (he alternates with Sterling Johnson-Brown), and Tehya Wood, stately, radiant and beautifully costumed as the Daughter of the god Indra (she alternates with Hanna Nielsen and Nicky Vakilova.)

 Bohdan Banducci, blessed with a fine stage voice and presence, plays the impoverished Lawyer whose marriage to the Daughter reveals earthly woes. Fiona Ryder’s aria wowed the crowd, student James Forrest composed the dramatically effective video projections, and all the actors capably brought out the humanity and the humor of the characters and the play.

 This isn’t pure Strindberg—there are musical interpolations and a much different ending, extolling the virtues of relationship and group action rather than the author’s emphasis on the eternal tensions of the human condition. But that’s also fitting for a youthful vision, and I found that seeing this play in action illuminated a further reading of Strindberg’s text.

 Saturday’s audience, which was clearly involved in each stage moment, included a certain couple with an extra interest. Joyce Hough and Fred Neighbor are familiar figures in the North Coast music scene.  Jean Bazemore directed an HSU production of A Dream Play in the Van Duzer in 1969. Joyce Hough played the Daughter, and Neighbor was the Lawyer. They met while doing the play, and their nightly 20 minutes alone crouched in a crawlspace waiting for their entrance might have had something to do with an ensuing romance and marriage a year or so later. They were there together Saturday, sitting in front near Gerry Beck, who also designed the 1969 production.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Opening on the North Coast

Jake's Women by Neil Simon comes to North Coast Repertory on January 25, with Michael Thomas, Jolene Hayes, Shelley Stewart, Suza Lambert Bowser, Kim Hodel, Theresa Ireland, Condry Whisenhunt and Derby McLaughlin, directed by James Read. Details on dates and times here. Pictured is the Broadway cast playbill from 1992.
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Michael Frayn: "To be part of a good audience is exhilarating."

First Principles

Let's Hear It for the Audience

I've just finished writing a review for the San Francisco Chronicle of British playwright Michael Frayn's new book, The Human Touch, which is a book of philosophy. Though he writes nonfiction, fiction and screenplays, Frayn is most famous in the U. S. for his comic farce, Noises Off (which I saw on Broadway, and had a seat so far from the stage that I vowed never to economize again with rush tickets; I see Broadway plays so rarely that it makes no sense to ruin the experience with a bad seat) and his intellectual drama, Copenhagen (which I would love to see on stage; I saw the much truncated film version, and I admire the play I read.) Though this book is about the nature of knowledge and even reality, I see the playwright in it--or such is a premise of my review.

Though the central point of the book is a central preoccupation of many of his plays, it may have been especially inspired by aspects of the quantum physics and the ensuing philosophy in Copenhagen, which is about two giants of atomic and quantum physics, Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, in World War II. The uncertainity of what they each said about the Allied and German atomic bomb programs remains an international mystery and inspired the dramatic action of the play. (The mystery and Frayn's involvement in it became the basis of an elaborate hoax perpetrated on him, which he describes with good humor in his little book with David Burke, The Copenhagen Papers. )

However, the point of mentioning all this here is a passage I came across in the introduction to Frayn's first volume of his collected plays, and wanted to share. It's about the role of the audience in theatre. Here's Frayn:

"I sometimes feel that the skill of audiences is not always sufficiently noted. Some theatregoers arrive late, certainly, some of them comment on the performances aloud and wait for the laugh-lines to cough. But the suprising thing is how few behave like this, and how many understand the conventions and are prepared to abide by them. To find two, or five, or ten good actors to perform a play is difficult; to find two hundred, five hundred, or a thousand good people to watch it, night after night, is a miracle. So many people in one room who will sit quietly and listen for two hours---not calling out slogans, not breaking down under the strain of so much communal self-discipline! To be a member of a good audience is exhilarating."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

O'Toole on the Tube

"Actors are people, only more so." So said Peter O'Toole on the latest in a series of fascinating conversations with Charlie Rose, broadcast last night. If you missed it, you can see it here. This is O'Toole in probably his most famous film role, as Lawrence of Arabia. Despite 8 nominations for brilliant lead acting, he's never won an Oscar--but hopes are high for his new film, Venus. In the interview he talks about the importance of his first love: the theatre.
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Maggie and Me (and Lettice & Lovage)

I once had after-theatre supper with Maggie Smith, sort of.

Familiar to a new generation as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies, she was then known as the Oscar-nominated star of Travels With My Aunt, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and other films. I was actually supping with Pat Mitchell, then the entertainment reporter for a Boston television station, now the head of PBS. The restaurant catered to Boston's theatre people, including those participating in touring shows. It was a lively place. At one point in the evening I heard someone playing the piano and singing who sounded a lot like Joel Grey, fresh from his Cabaret fame. I turned around: It was Joel Grey.

I was seated next to Pat but at the next table, across from me and a little to the left, was Maggie Smith, in town starring in Noel Coward's Private Lives. She was dining with a man older than both of us who I didn't recognize.  I had an unobstructed view of her any time I turned my head that way, but Pat was on my right and quite attractive as well, so I wasn't tempted to stare.  But I did turn to see her looking at her companion with those large, empathetic blue eyes, both hands on his arm.

I thought of that moment when reading that British playwright Peter Schaffer wrote Lettice and Lovage for Maggie Smith, at her request.  I could readily believe she could be very persuasive.

Shaffer was already famous for Equus and Amadeus, both serious plays focused on male characters (perhaps that's why they both end in "us.")  But Lettice and Lovage would be a comedy principally featuring older women.  The risk worked out well for both author and actor.  The play won a Best of the Year award in London, and when it came to Broadway in 1990, Maggie Smith (who played Lettice) won the Best Actress Tony.

This week Lettice and Lovage comes to Ferndale Rep, with Marilyn Foot as Lettice and the Rep's artistic director Marilyn McCormick reprising her role as Lotte from the Rep's production a decade ago.

"It's a sweet story about two women who basically don't fit into society, " says director Rene Grinnell.  "They form a friendship that eventually becomes what saves them."

Lettice (a name derived from the Latin word for gladness) Douffet is the dramatically-inclined and history-minded daughter of a Frenchwoman who ran an all-women theatrical troupe that performed Shakespeare in French.  But now she is a tour guide at a London house of historical significance, if not much interest.  As the play begins she is livening up her patter with flamboyant inaccuracies.  Lotte, her temperamental opposite, is her boss who fires her for this transgression.  This of course turns out to be the beginning rather than the end of their relationship.

The play deals playfully but meaningfully with issues of reality and fantasy, an authentic versus a conventional life, the present versus the past, and more topically, with the ugliness of contemporary buildings and the need to preserve classic architecture.

It is also very English in its references and humor (or humour) but the Ferndale production took this as a challenge.  "Everyone had a lot of fun doing the research on the history, the architecture and most of all on British life," Grinnell said.   Since Lettice and Lovage is still produced often in America, it must translate pretty well.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Camelot Revisited

from an HSU production of Camelot in 2003
A newly rewritten and restaged version of the classic Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot will begin its maiden tour on January 30 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. According to this Reuters report, the show has been re-focused to address deficiencies that have been present since its opening on Broadway in the early 1960s. It's shorter, with more stage action, especially in the troublesome second act. Though a few songs have been dropped, at least one has been reinstated that was heard on the original cast album but not in the show itself.

Camelot was the first Broadway show I saw, on my first visit to New York when I was a freshman in high school. I saw the original production with the original cast, which included Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet. With its romantic updating and contemporary meaning of the Arthurian myth, and the wit of both the music and lyrics, it remains my favorite stage musical. For me, not many measure up to it.

I remember being completely transported by the first act, and then feeling a little lost in the second act, until the very end. I always thought it was because of my inexperience, but apparently this was a more common impression. I saw the HSU production a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. The new version is currently trying out at the La Mirada Theatre in southern California, starring Michael York.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

First Principles

The Invention of Empathy

The January issue of American Theatre contains a remarkable essay by Oskar Eustis, the new artistic director of the Public Theatre in New York. It's actually excerpted from a speech he gave at a Theatre Communications Group forum--and I urge you to read it all here.

Eustis talks about Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival (the free festival in the park that revolutionized American theatre) and the nonprofit Public Theatre--how Papp saw the Festival as the dramatic equivalent of the public library, providing access to everyone, for free. Eustis goes on to talk about the relationship of theatre in America to American ideals and founding ideas. He traces drama as a fundamentally democratic form back to the Greeks:

As soon as Thespis turned and spoke to someone else, as soon as he invented dialogue, everything changed. The storyteller—who has had this authorial, god-like, unified perspective—isn't right anymore. His point of view is not the authorial point of view. He is one of two points of view that are on stage. At that juncture we realize that truth resides not in the storyteller—truth resides somehow in the dialogue, in the space between two people. You're imagining that you're in my shoes: You empathize with me, and then empathize with whoever I'm talking to. That act—that empathic leap of imagination—is the democratic act. In order for a democracy to work you have to believe that nobody has a monopoly on truth. That there is no such thing as absolute truth—otherwise the whole idea of democracy is nonsensical. All it would be is a compromise. In order to really believe in democracy, you have to believe that truth resides in the dialogue between different points of view.

It is such a powerful idea and a true one: theatre is about entertainment, yes, but it is also about empathy. By creating characters that are basically real, and showing them interacting in dialogue, drama allows the audience a simultaneous objectivity (that's not me, I'm out here watching) and subjectivity (I feel that way, too; that person is like me) that allows both consciousness of self and empathy for others.

Drama tests preconceptions, the standard accepted view, and every ideology. Even great writers with strong ideological beliefs, like Tolstoy, could not ignore counter-examples and other points of view in his dramatic fiction. Eustis says it was that way from the beginning. He writes about the earliest Greek play we have: "Aeschylus's The Persians. It is one of the few Greek tragedies not based on mythological material." It is about the defining moment for ancient Greece--its triumph over the greatest power of its time, imperial Persia. Eustis writes:

It's a chance for the Greeks to relive the pleasure of having defeated the Persians. But you also can't read the text without knowing absolutely that Aeschylus was asking his audience to identify with the Persians—eight years after this war. He was asking them to imagine what it felt like to lose this war, what it felt like from the other person's point of view. And he was also doing something even a little bit more subversive than that, I think.

He was saying, "We've triumphed. We're the most powerful. We sit on top of the world. But look who, eight years ago, was sure that their empire would last forever. Look who was positive that God was on their side. Look who was sure that their armies could never be defeated. And think of what happened."

This is the power of drama. It is true on all scales and all levels. Read this essay--you'll be glad you did.

Two other comments: When I first started going to New York regularly in the late 70s and early 80s, I loved going to Papp's Public Theatre. I often stayed with a friend in the East Village, when it was still a kind of urban wasteland, and even though I didn't know any theatregoers (my friends were into music, my business was usually journalistic), I passed on CBGB's to walk over to the Public as often as I could. I saw the latest Sam Shepard plays there, and Kevin Kline's Hamlet. There were several plays going on at the same time, and there were usually rush tickets available to something, so the already relatively cheap tickets were even cheaper.

It was an exciting place. I always saw actors I recognized and other figures in the arts in the lobby and going in and out of the theatres. Once I was about to leave a men's room and had my hand on the door when it opened towards me from the other side. I found myself eye to eye with John Housman. The Public put on the newest work, and it was receptive to outsiders. I got one of the few real responses to a play I sent around back then--a positive, encouraging letter--from the Public.

The second comment is that I've thought about doing this blog for awhile, but I wasn't quite motivated enough to actually start it. I still don't know if it's a good idea, but when I read this essay, I was compelled to start it--because Eustis said so much that needs to be heard.