Friday, June 29, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

"Red Light in Blue Lake" on Saturday
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"What is the attraction to theatre, to the costume trunk, to make-believe with false faces and greasepaint kits in front of the mirror? Is the point to escape the form I have been put in and by magic disclose the image in the heart?"

James Hillman
The Soul's Code

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tartuffe Review and the Festival in Mad River

They ride beneath a diamond blue evening sky, with the silhouetted solitude of gold-green hills surrounding, and passing of course the wide phantom waters of the Blue Lake. They walk from quiet streets through the unassuming fence into the big backyard called the Rooney Amphitheatre.

They seem mostly of the current theatre-going age: early to middle Baby Boomers now (you know, my g-g-generation), folding amiably weary bones into dark green plastic chairs. In front of them the younger families array their blankets in the grass, unpacking the faux Tupperware containers of healthy munchies. Soon the children are dabbing at their strawberries while parents discreetly sip their wine.

 All begin the bundling—the coats and sweaters, sleeping bags and even scarves, against the chilling evening and the cold oncoming night. They face the storied stage, expectant. Many have been ritually coming to Dell’Arte’s Mad River Festival for years, but all here—audience and performers, too—are enacting a tradition that goes back to the glimmering dawn of theatre.

 In her current best-selling book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich chronicles much of this history. For thousands of years, people on a certain day dropped their toil and their daily selves, and put on masks and costumes for frenzies of singing and dancing that led to ecstasy and exhaustion, or even trance and speaking in tongues, before they returned revived to the village and the fields.

 Some of these seasonal events were meaningful ceremonies, others were more profane. Wine and wildness characterized festivals of ancient Greece and the Saturnalia of Rome, but apart from the participatory revelry there was entertainment by certain specialists. The Dorians of very early Greece held a festival called the komos, the root of our word “comedy,” presided over by the chief singer and master of ceremonies, the komoidos, or comedian.

 In villages and towns of 12th-15th Europe there was the Feast of Fools and festivals featuring Lords of Misrule--ordinary folk in the roles of princes, mayors and bishops, who by their behavior lampooned the lot. But soon the country people themselves were ridiculed by the imitating antics of the cloddish, clumsy, gullible characters called clowns. Rulers of church and state first tried to co-opt the festivals and then ban or at least tame them, as well as demonizing the entertainers.

 But the festival fever always returned, and theatre formalized it. One lineage runs from Roman comedy to Commedia dell arte and the broader category of physical theatre, with its blend of acrobatics, clowning, circus and farce; another crosses from the satirical comedies of Aristophanes presented at the Dionysia festivals, to the Lords of Misrule and jesters, to later political and social comedy.

 The whole idea of actors impersonating characters comes partly from the festival shows. Then when a certain 17th century son of a French upholsterer who called himself Moliere took his failed theatre troupe out of Paris and into the country, he won laughing audiences with revivals of farce and commedia. It was in that early spirit that the Dell’Arte Company presents his later play, Tartuffe.

 It could be argued that stripping down the work of the mature Moliere to commedia elements does violence to his more sophisticated satire and urban emphasis on language, but this European Union of Italianated Tartuffe fit the festival occasion to a “oui.”

 It is a telling blend. On a handsome set representing a wealthy French home, the excellently exaggerated costumes and makeup support a playing style that emphasizes the caricature in character in the mannered society of that French period (especially David Ferney as the mincing Valere), showing it to be as ridiculous as the masked stock characters of commedia (most prominently, Adrian Mejia as Orgon, the patriarchal Pantalone.)

 But important for the summer festival audience, there’s a villain to boo, a damsel in distress (sort of), lovers to be separated and brought back together, some sharp social wit (an errant daughter is warned to wear her wig because, “no wig, no ruling class”), and the obligatory local references and political swipes (inserted a little more awkwardly than usual, though.) As well as music, chastely stripping nuns, chases, a little juggling, an adorable little monkey, the obligatory stilt walker, and a human pyramid (sort of) at the end.

 Also crucial to the outdoor setting: every voice is strong and expressive, every word enunciated through the open air clear back to the dark green chairs and weathered picnic table.

 The villain of the play is Tartuffe, the apparently pious, secretly lecherous and greedy hypocrite. Though he is absent from the first act, everyone talks about him. Orgon is convinced of his virtue, and is prepared to cancel the wedding of Valere to his daughter Mariane (Jacqueline Dandeneau, who plays her as winsome and dim.) Orgon says he will assign her to Tartuffe instead, and signs over his fortune to him in the bargain.

As Tartuffe, Michael Fields effects his second act entrance at twilight, in a sedan chair surrounded by a shower curtain of silver spangles. He makes up for lost time with the spirited and experienced economy of his actions and characterization.

 That Adrian Mejia is the youngest member of the company playing the old man Orgon is more than ironic—he uses his physical suppleness to delightfully express the conventions of age. Even though he is not the title character, Orgon is the real star of the show—established by the fact that it is the part Moliere himself originally played.

 As Elmire, Orgon’s young wife, Deborah Taylor Barrera is the lone non-Dell’Artisan; she brings her fresh beauty, stage skills and presence, and gets into the antic festival mood. When Elmire hides Orgon under a table to witness Tartuffe trying to seduce her upon it, the trio of Fields, Mejia and Barrera play the scene with the physical and verbal dexterity that is the Dell’Arte style at its highest hilarity.

 In the end there is scant virtue to reward but it’s a happy enough conclusion, and peacefully smiling parents carry away blanketloads of sleepy children, old friends chat about festivals past, and there is music, foolery, and naughtiness more to come (the adults-only late night cabaret, “Red Light in Blue Lake,” is next, on June 30.)

(Barry Blake reviews the show in the T-S.)

Tartuffe in Ashland and Elsewhere

If you're in the mood to see a different production of Tartuffe as well, you're in luck: there's one at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, beginning in late July.

 I saw a production years ago at Carnegie Mellon University that I remember for it's inventive ending. In the text, there is a sudden reversal of fortune when the representative of the government who Tartuffe believes is about to evict Orgon and his family, but instead arrests Tartuffe. The reason he gives is "We live under a prince who is an enemy of fraud, ...whose eyes penetrate into the heart..."

This "prince" was Louis XIV, the King of France when Moliere wrote the play and first produced it. There was a lot of opposition by the clergy who felt portraying Tartuffe as a fake devout insulted them, and they succeeded in getting the play banned for a time. It's been inferred that by making the King the one who saves the day, Moliere was trying to counter their influence and curry favor with the final authority on whether the play could be mounted.

But Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, was not named in the text. However, in the CMU production, all seems lost and Tartuffe seems about to triumph when down from the ceiling on a kind of trapeze comes the King himself, with a sort of sunburst halo around him. And it is he who condemns Tartuffe in person.

Tartuffe is famous for its title character, especially as an emblem of hypocrisy, and for the scene in which Orgon hides under a table to discover Tartuffe seducing his wife upon it, which Moliere adapted from a Commedia del Arte scene his traveling players used to do for provincial audiences.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Tartuffe at Dell'Arte Preview

In his roundup of summer Shakespeare in the Bay Area, San Francisco Chronicle drama critic Robert Hurwitt noted the predominance of plays dealing with “bloody, conniving or inept abuses of power,” including five separate productions of Macbeth. Even the four productions of The Tempest fit the trend, he writes, since “as famous as it is for reconciliation, that outcome hinges on the impeachment and removal of a corrupt ruler from office.”

 The political Zeitgeist is reflected in a different way at the upcoming Mad River Festival at Dell’Arte. “There’s a theme that runs through the festival this year,” said co-Artistic Director Michael Fields, speaking on a cell phone from a sidewalk in Minneapolis where he was attending a conference of the Theatre Communications Group. “The plays deal with our arrogance in thinking that we’re right, and if everybody understood this and behaved just as we do, everything would be much better.”

He identified this tendency as “hypocrisy,” though it might be more accurately called self-righteousness, but its expression in dogmatic religion and ideological politics has been widely noted as bitterly characteristic of our times.

 It is a theme, Fields said, that runs through the first festival offering, the Dell’Arte Company’s own Tartuffe (opening June 21, final performance on July 1), as well as the Dell’Arte Youth Academy productions (two plays under the banner of GenNext on Stage, July 5-7) and the visiting production, The Greatest Story Never Told, an original work by a Virgina-based theatre of mostly Dell’Arte alums called Creatively Independent (July 12-14.)

Tartuffe, the classic 17th century comedy by Moliere, deals with the hypocrisy of religious zealots who accept whatever one of their supposed adherents does, as long as their particular version of “faith” is professed.  That easily includes actions contrary to their own dogma as well as more widely recognized crimes.

Just about everyone is fooled, which is high comedy on stage, though we are witnessing its tragic outcomes unfold this summer on larger stages where it’s for real. It not only has obvious applications to our time, but was proven to be an accurate reflection of Moliere’s when members of the Church had it censored and banned from production.

 “It’s a great play—one of those timeless pieces,” Fields commented. “ I feel like Moliere is the grandfather of our company in so many ways, because it’s that mixture of physical work with really strong content, but not in a didactic or preachy way-- in a way that is involved in character. And it’s very human. It is really the human comedy.”

 This particular production is unusual in that it began not in Blue Lake but at the Marin Theatre Company (which, as Fields points out, is the third largest theatre in San Francisco.) Frequent Dell’ Arte director Giulio Cesare Perrone, who had worked at Marin as a designer, proposed doing Tartuffe there with the Dell’Arte Company. The result was some 30 performances in November and December.

“We created the work,” Fields said, “and they built the set that Giulio designed. They produced and promoted it, and paid us well to fill a five week slot in their season, which is unusual, but it’s ideal for a company like ours.”

“We thought it would be a great way to start the festival, because we have a production that is fully mounted. We bought the set and we’re using it for this production. It’s probably one of the most visually striking sets we’ve ever had.”

Except for the addition of Deborah Taylor, well-known in the Bay Area, the cast is composed of Dell’Arte regulars, with Michael Fields in the title role. Perrone’s concept is to combine Italian commedia with Moliere’s French theatre, including such classic commedia figures as Pantalone, “the oldest character in the play,” Field notes, “played by the youngest member of the company—Adrian Mejia, who is only 25. He does a great job.”

Tartuffe is in the outdoor Rooney Amphitheatre, and because of Blue Lake’s noise ordinance mandating that the show must be over by 10PM, Fields has shortened the script somewhat. There will be live music in Afro-Cuban style, suggesting the colonialism that the attitudes in the play enabled. “That’s talked about in the play, too. We’ve added some pre-show music and integrated some ‘carnivale’ aspects into the production, particularly because it’s outdoors,” Fields said. “But once we get into the piece, we really are doing Tartuffe.

 Returning to Robert Hurwitt for a moment, his mixed-to-negative review of this Tartuffe at Marin was grossly distorted in the Marin Theatre publicity to make it sound like a rave. The out-of-context and therefore mendacious quotes are unfortunately standard these days, but agree or disagree with his conclusions, such misrepresentation applied to a play about hypocrisy is disconcertingly ironic.

This North Coast Weekend

The Dell'Arte production of Moliere's Tartuffe opens this year's Mad River Festival in Blue Lake. It premieres tonight (Thursday June 21) outdoors at the Rooney Amphitheatre. Bring a blanket. I previewed the show in my NC Journal column last week. A more extensive rah rah preview of the festival by Meghan Vogel is here and here at the T-S today.

Over in the ER, dance performances are highlighted, including two tonight: Virginia Niekrasz-Laurent’s The Dancers Studio presents “Showcase 2007" (also Friday and Saturday), and Jane Morgan’s Studio of Dance Arts presents their “Dance Festival 2007,” on the occasion of their 25th anniversary.

Kiss Me, Kate Kontinues at NCRT in Eureka.

Meanwhile, Jeff DeMark will be performing for his hometown folks in Racine, Wisconsin for the first time, this Saturday. Send him your good vibes.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Here and Everywhere

Sam Shepard, author of A Lie of the Mind, to be produced
by the North Coast's Sanctuary Stage, and Curse of
the Starving Class
, by ACT San Francisco, both next season.
Photo courtesy ACT. Posted by Picasa

Here and Everywhere

Here on the North Coast, Sanctuary Stage has announced an ambitious upcoming season, which includes a 24 hour ten-minute play competition, Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind and their second Samuel Beckett Tribute. Right now, they're auditioning " Actors, Musicians, Dancers, Jugglers(Circus Artists)" on this coming Saturday, June 23 at 11 AM. Auditions will be held at the Eureka Theater 612 "F" Street. Additional information at or call 786-9151.

The American Conservatory Theater (ACT) is coming to the end of celebrating its 40th year in San Francisco. It actually started in Pittsburgh in a theatre I know well (although I was away at college at the time.) ACT has also announced its upcoming season, which includes a different Sam Shepard play (Curse of the Starving Class, which I saw early in its life at the Public Theatre in New York), David Mamet's Speed the Plow, Gogol's The Government Inspector (directed by Carey Perloff, who is also doing John Ford's 'Tis A Pity She's a Whore), and Athol Fugard's Blood Knot.

The UK is buzzing about Ian McKellen's King Lear, in rep with Chekhov's The Seagull, also starring McKellen. They started in Stratford and will transfer to London in the fall. It occurs that there isn't a strong contemporary movie version of Lear out there (though Patrick Stewart told the story without Shakespeare's words in his transplanted TV movie, King of Texas). McKellen successfully took his Richard III to the big screen. From the reviews it sounds as if this is a lavish production, so...maybe?

Finally, Elizabeth Fuller (who responds to my post on Dream Houses in the comments) sent along a link to the New York Times review of Behind the Lid, a production by the performance artist Lee Nagrin, who died on June 7 at age 78. She was (Ben Brantley writes)" a staple of downtown Bohemia for more than half a century, belonged to a tribe now all but extinct in Manhattan, for whom theater was truly a religion, a means of pursuing the ineffable." His review ends:

The visual effects — from that simulated atomic blast to the apparition of a giant talking totem pole — are riveting throughout, psyche- roiling combinations of a childlike primitivism and an uberartisan’s sophistication. Similarly, the entire enterprise can seem silly, frightening, pretentious, sincere and magnificent, all at the same time.

Rather like the great experiment that was avant-garde theater in New York for the second half of the 20th century. “Behind the Lid” is an evocation not only of Ms. Nagrin but also of an entire theatrical subculture that now has only a flickering existence.

In a prologue, Ms. Nagrin’s voice speaks of the artist as a “pearl diver” descending into “the depths of the past” and transforming what she finds there into something beyond time. With Mr. Twist’s loving assistance, she is plumbing those depths again.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

August Wilson at a rehearsal for Radio Golf. Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette photo.
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August Wilson's Last Requiem

What could be more audacious for a self-educated African American from the Hill District in Pittsburgh, already approaching middle age, than to announce shortly after his first surprising stage success that he intended to write ten plays, one for each decade of the African American experience in the 20th century? August Wilson did, and then, he did it.

Radio Golf, his last play in this cycle--completely unique in American theatre--was finished shortly before his relatively sudden and certainly much too early death almost two years ago. As usual with his plays, it made its way slowly to Broadway, where it was nominated for the Best Play Tony. And now Playbill announces that it is closing (although the article doesn't say exactly when.)

I've read the script of Radio Golf as published last year in American Theatre magazine, and found it very accessible, very funny and more tightly and traditionally structured than his previous plays. In his last interviews he suggested his next play, liberated from this cycle's responsibility, would go even further into comedy, and perhaps farce.

Radio Golf is the last in the cycle chronologically, set in the 1997. Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, is the first of the cycle, and is now on stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I'm not going to get to New York but I do hope to get to Ashland. When I do I will be writing at length about the plays (Besides recalling the productions I've seen in Pittsburgh--where most are set--I intend to read them all again in chronological order) and about the time I spent with August Wilson.

The closing of his last play's initial production on Broadway ends an era, but perhaps it also begins another. I'm hoping that some theatre somewhere will soon take on the magnificent task of mounting all ten plays in chronological order. Man, I want to be there for that.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

As befits sum-sum-summertime, it's mostly street theatre this weekend with the Oyster Festival in Arcata and the Garberville rodeo. But there's a big benefit on stage for one night only--Friday (June 15) at the Arcata Playhouse. Thanks for the Mammaries: A Titilating Cabaret features comedy and music by a local all-star lineup, for the Humboldt County Breast Health Project and the international Weekend to End Breast Cancer. It starts at 8 PM. Betti Trauth has a preview at the T-S. And as the event press release says, "So grab your bosom buddy, walk three abreast to the Arcata Playhouse and get ready for a titillating evening of the breast entertainment in the county." Reservations recommended, and can be made by calling 822-1575.

This weekend is your last chance to see To Kill A Mockingbird at Ferndale Rep, and Kiss Me, Kate continues at North Coast Rep in Eureka.

If you're making plans for next weekend, my NCJ column this week previews the Mad River Festival and in particular, Dell'Arte's production of Tartuffe which leads it off on June 21.

Speaking of that column, I asserted that the Marin Theatre grossly distorted Robert Hurwitt's San Francisco Chronicle review of Tartuffe in their publicity. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, you can see for yourself: Here is the original review, and here is the Marin page that lifts the quotes (over to the right of the page.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Elizabeth Fuller's Dream Houses

Dream Houses

Update: Elizabeth Fuller responds in the Comments at the end of this post.

In a recent interview, playwright Tom Stoppard reinterated a view on reviewing that he's held since his first interviews in the early 70s: that the job of reviewers is to express the effect the play had on them the night they saw it. (As a young writer, Stoppard was a theatre reviewer, a contemporary of Kenneth Tynan. This is an old English tradition. H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw first met after a play by Henry James they were each reviewing for different newspapers.)

It's a point of view I take seriously, and basically agree with, although with various amendments. (Okay, you can count up the "view"s now.) For example, the night I saw Dream House at the Arcata Playhouse, I had a kind of allergy attack, which distracted me, and colored my experience of the play. But it would be irresponsible to let it color it too much in writing about the play. And although I was interested in meeting Elizabeth Fuller and hearing the experience of other playgoers at the reception afterwards, I had to go straight home. What if I'd stayed? That would not have changed my experience of the performance, but might well have suggested different ways to approach it in writing.

Stoppard was also talking about the typical newspaper reviewing situation, in which you're writing a review right after the show for the next day's paper. I usually have a few days before my weekly deadline, and with a play like this one, time is useful in letting impressions settle and some idea of the pattern of the play emerge. But I find that even several days is not enough to do more than make tentative conclusions. So one does fall back on immediate impressions--but ones that have lasted a few days, and become the most prominent.

Yet the journalist in me wants to be more "accurate" than that. The review is above all a piece of writing in a newspaper, meant to be read for all the reasons other stories are read--because it's informative and entertaining in itself. But communicating to an audience that is at least partly composed of people who can see the play themselves is not the same thing as talking about your own impressions as if yours were the accurate ones, or even representative. All of this is partly why I insist I'm writing a theatre column, and not theatre reviews.

Now it's been nearly a week since I saw Dream House, and another way to organize my impressions has emerged. That is, I absorbed this "through-line" of the play but other impressions were more dominant: this through-line is the self as a collection of voices talking to the central "me," and their ultimate effect is to produce and impose shame.

Carl Jung and doubtless other psychologists and philosophers believed that each of us is many people. Probably James Hillman would say that's why early civilizations had so many gods. The voices in our heads also include important outside influences: everything from parents and partners to "society."

The conceit of the play is that it's come time for the "me" to create a home. Which we always want to be our "perfect" home: the dream house. But what is perfect? Not the self. But how we arrange our imperfections becomes our creativity, and our self. Accepting, honoring and celebrating that becomes the conclusion.

From the beginning, the play is also structured as literally a dream. The house is the self, perhaps with some reference to the "earth household" of the world, and also to the play itself--because that's what the stage is, in performance: a dream house.

The voices are represented as sisters, a very theatrical device that allows Elizabeth Fuller to create characters with separate voices and physicalities. The "me"--the one the other voices are talking to-- in the beginning is "Bozo," a nickname but also the "me" characterized as a clown. As stage business, I frankly found this annoying, but conceptually it sort of works. The clown's comedy is about awkwardness, though the pratfalls can be thrillingly graceful and daring. The central character is very awkward, anxious and uncertain. That, as well as other elements of her personality, invites shaming.

The idea of shame is brought home near the end, very powerfully, when she strips naked and presents a rapid-fire series of angry and contemptuous comments about her body, as if coming from all the other voices in her head. It's the least gratuitious nude scene I've ever seen. It was intriguing to me that throughout the play she used wigs and clothing to never allow herself to appear conventionally attractive. Then she was naked, with sagging belly (and being of roughly her age, this really made me wince.) But immediately afterwards, she put on a shift which left only her attractive legs naked, and took off the wig that revealed blond hair and, in sum, a quite attractive woman. At the time I found this another dislocation, and a puzzling one. But it does seem to follow the arc of the play. With self-acceptance, beauty.

That what screws us up in life is being "shamed," or made ashamed of who we are and what we do, is not exactly a new idea. Intellectually, I suppose I felt a bit cheated about that. But this is a play, not an idea. It's a performance, and that's its emotional power.

I suspect most of the audience responded primarily to the "sisters"--the portrayals of the Developer, the Plumber, the Dreamer, the Inspector, the Gambler, the Slut. Those were very skillfully done, and they are the meat and potatoes of the show. When I wrote my comments for my column, I was still bothered by what I felt were lost opportunities to make the various levels of "house" more vivid, and I was still feeling negative responses to some other structural elements and stage business. But without seeing it again, I can only be very tentative about that. Who knows, it could have been allergies.

I hope we will see Elizabeth Fuller back here again. Chances are we will. With her husband and theatrical partner Conrad Bishop, she operates out of Sebastopol as The Independent Eye. Her credits are amazing-- some 3,000 performances, 32 seasons of 73 shows, including 52 new plays. Together they've written some 60 produced plays. From Milwaukee to Chicago to Philadelphia to CA, with prestiguous visits to the Meccas of Louisville and New York, such commitment to theatre is awe-inspiring.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

2007 Tonys Biggest Winner

Congratulations to playwright Tom Stoppard,
whose trilogy "The Coast of Utopia" dominated the
2007 drama Tony Awards, winning Best Play,
best direction, featured performances, and best
scenic, costume and lighting design.
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Thursday, June 7, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

New this weekend in a limited run at the Arcata Playhouse: Dream House, described as a "surreal solo comedy" starring Elizabeth Fuller, tonight (Thursday), Friday and Saturday at 8. There's a preview by Meghan Vogel at the T-S.

Shake the Bard Theater Company and McKinleyville High advanced drama students present First Thursday Night Improv at Muddy's Hot Cup on Thursday at 7 PM.

Also at 7 PM Thursday, Arcata Arts Institute Advanced Theatre Workshop presents One Act Plays in the Arcata High Multipurpose Room.

Continuing: NCRT's Kiss Me Kate. In addition to my column in this week's Journal, Barry Blake reviews it at the T-S, and Laura Provolt in the ER.

Also continuing: Ferndale Rep's To Kill a Mockingbird (there's a review this week in the T-S by Carla Baku.)

Also continuing: the Dell'Arte MFA shows, Tooth and Claw, and Unhinged, as well as McKinleyville Middle School's El Mago de Oz on Friday and Saturday, and Six River Charter School's Antigone on Saturday. Details on the NC Journal Calendar and elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Kiss Me, Kate

Arnold Saint Subber—his name even sounds like a musical comedy character—wasn’t the first to notice that backstage goings-on sometimes mirror the scenes onstage, and even exceed them in dramatic pretense and flamboyant comedy. Nor would he be the last. But while serving as stage manager for a production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, Subber observed one of the more celebrated couples in 20th century Broadway theatre—Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine—acting out as well as acting, and the idea for his first show as a producer was born.
It became Kiss Me, Kate, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Porter had begun writing witty hits in the 1920s, became a Broadway legend in the 1930s with hit shows starring the likes of Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman, but his popularity faded in the 40s. Badly injured in a riding accident and in pain for the rest of his life, Porter agreed to try once more with this Broadway show, principally because he had to abandon California and live in New York for awhile to avoid IRS penalties.

 In 1948 Kiss Me, Kate became his longest running success, and its music is often considered his best. The story mixes a couple of star-crossed romances among actors in a low-rent production of Taming of the Shrew, with some Shakespeare (more or less) as part of the action.

 But at heart it’s more of a show business story, as reflected in several of its songs (The famous “Another Opening, Another Show,” and “Too Darn Hot” as well as the characteristically catchy “We Open in Venice”) There are also a couple of lovable gangsters to add danger to what passes for a plot. It’s easy to guess that this story influenced movies like Shakespeare in Love and My Favorite Year, as well as the theatrical farce, Noises Off.

 In 1953, Kiss Me, Kate became the first and probably the only musical movie to be released in 3-D, and it was done several times for television (my soundtrack album is from the 1968 Armstrong Circle Theatre series, starring Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence--with choral arrangements by Ray Charles.)

 These days, its politically incorrect aspects makes it a harder sell, and today’s theatre is less familiar with this kind of music, and this kind of musical. But North Coast Rep is meeting the challenge with a production that updates some stage elements while remaining true to its essential style and spirit.

 Backed by a live band, the big production numbers (choregraphed by Rebecca Rubenstein) are energetic and enthusiastic, but this style of musical provides special opportunities for solos and duets, and that’s where the really transcendent moments occur. In the female lead as Lilli (and Kate, in the Shakespeare play within the play), Minderella Willens brings her formidable voice, on display in many colors, particularly in the growling, booming, comic tour de force, “I Hate Men.”

 Darcy Daughtry plays the second female lead (Lois Lane/Bianca) and brings down the house with her sexy, superpowered second act solo, “Always True to You in My Fashion.” Daughtry, like Willens, has a superb and thrilling voice.

 But while the verbal wit runs out about halfway through “Always True…” it only accelerates in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” done to perfection by the dynamic duo of Phil Zastrow and Rigel Schmitt as the theatre-loving gangsters turned song-and-dance men. Their performance was the moment I felt truly transported to Broadway in its Cole Porter prime. I believe I even detected a brief Jimmy Durante homage. These three numbers alone are worth the price of admission.

Anthony Mankins brings leading man looks and presence to Fred/Petruchio, and Jordan Matteoli is a pleasing second lead as Bill/Lucentio. Gene Cole as General Howell adds a needed jolt of comic focus towards the end of an increasingly halfhearted plot. While the ensemble singing and dancing styles mostly suggest a vaudevillish variety, there’s a bit more of a Bob Fosse approach that begins “Too Darn Hot” opening the second act, a sizzling set piece featuring local favorite, Pryncz Lotoj.

 With direction by Xande Zublin-Meyer (Dianne Zuleger is musical director), the cast finds every double entendre in both Cole Porter and Shakespeare—including one that Porter may not have intended. I detected a few post-1948 references in the jokes, but on opening night the audience still got the one about Truman and Dewey. Scenic designer Calder Johnson suggests the seedy theatrical milieu while allowing plenty of always scarce stage space for the singing and dancing. Not all aspects of opening night went smoothly, but there was plenty of energy and invention that promises a glittering run.

Additional Notes:Kate Then and Now

I mentioned that I have a soundtrack album from the 1968 Armstrong Circle Theatre television production (not the kind of thing I actually would have listened to in 1968--this is a bargain LP I acquired some time later.) It starred Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence--married at the time, so there undoubtedly were backstage stories relating to the onstage play, and the play within it.

The opening number is probably the most famous or at least repeated song in this musical--"Another Opening, Another Show." On the soundtrack it was handled as I recall it being done every time I heard it anywhere else-- in a very enthusiastic and upbeat style from the start: a big chorus number throughout. The North Coast Rep production handles it differently, though. It starts out in a slow, world weary fashion, sung by a few exhausted looking individuals scattered across the stage. As if to say, oh no, not another opening, another show...Gradually however they catch the show contagion and the song is soon upbeat and joyful.

As John Gielgud points out, every production is an experiment, and this handling of the song is clever, playing on the irony of the lyric, which befits a Cole Porter tune. As refreshing as this treatment might be, however, I don't think it works all that well dramatically. Things are going to start falling apart in the story very soon. It seems best to start at a high point, and let the complications set in gradually, scene by scene. Though the big chorus, upbeat treatment is musically tiresome at this point, dramatically on stage I believe it is still best.

Mindy & Darcy
However, the situation is different with the three numbers in the show that I single out in my review as the high points of the North Coast Rep production: "I Hate Men" (sung by Minderella Willens), "Always True to You in My Fashion" (sung by Darcy Daughtry) and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" (performed by Phil Zastrow and Rigel Schmitt.) In these three songs, their versions are superior to the soundtrack. I wouldn't attempt to compare voices of the women singers here and there (Carol Lawrence and Jessica Walter on the record), but just in terms of style the TV versions are comparatively bland. Willens and Daughtry not only have excellent voices, they act these songs vocally with great style and wit.

The same can be said of Zastrow and Schmitt, who sing practically every verse with some little difference or nuance--a Jimmy Durante emphasis, a sudden English accent, etc. And that's just what they all do vocally. Willens is always great at using her eyes and expressions to augment her singing. Daughtry turns her number into a strutting, swirling show-stopper, and Zastrow and Schmitt do a song-and-dance routine that you should commit to memory it's so classic.

This certainly speaks well of the current production, which (I remind you) is the only one you can see live right now. But it also helps to confirm an impression of the late 60s I had at the time--that the popular music of the previous era was typically being performed in a very bland and conventional way by then, as if by rote. (You can tune in to a TVland rerun of a late 60s Lawrence Welk to see and hear what I mean.) It was a kind of music at the end of its dominance; all the energy was in rock & roll and the folk, rock, blues, etc. combinations that were revolutionizing popular music at the time. In fact, music of earlier eras was already being re-energized through rock music, as in several now familiar tunes on the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is itself 40 years old this month.

The soundtrack album also reminds me, however, how much richer this music sounds when played by a full orchestra. That's what Cole Porter wrote it for, and the strings especially give it character as well as body. It's a real loss that so few musicals anywhere use full orchestras, and the small ensemble here at NCRT can only suggest the feeling of this Broadway musical as it was meant to be heard.