Wednesday, August 29, 2007


"I dread success. To have succeeded is to have finished
one's business on earth... I like a state of becoming,
with a goal continually ahead and not behind."
George Bernard Shaw [photo from production of
Arms and the Man at the Shaw Festival. Click for
larger view.]
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Thursday, August 16, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

Tristin Roberts and Laura Hathaway in
Humboldt Light Opera's Titanic.
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Manic About Titanic

When the basic story is so familiar, and the narrative trajectory so extravagantly simple (big unsinkable ship sinks on maiden voyage), it all depends on how it’s done. The Humboldt Light Opera Company does the musical Titanic very, very well. The production excels in every aspect, creating a stylish, polished, harmonized and entertaining whole, with moments of unexpected emotion.

It’s a treat to be able to appreciate the skillful and artful execution of the show’s many elements, but the confidence that the production creates allows you to relax into the illusion and feel the emotion.

And it doesn’t depend on flashy, overwhelming technical achievements. You aren’t going to see a giant ship sinking. Though there’s a single, small tilting room in the second act, the most dramatic special effect is the well-timed skittering of a single tea cart.

Yet the sets and lighting (designed by Jayson Mohatt and Justin Takata) are sumptuous in their way, as well as elegant and eloquent, etching the scenes into memory. Kevin Sharkey’s costumes are ravishing. Director Carol McWhorter Ryder focuses on sets of characters, then fills the large Van Duzer stage with movement (and Sarah Carlton’s choreography.) The singing (as is often the case in an HLOC production) is superior. Above all, there is the orchestra: What a delight to have a full orchestra for a musical, and this one, under the direction of Justin Sousa, impeccably plays an evocative score.

The Titanic, the largest and most lavish passenger ship of its time, steamed out of England on its first and last voyage in April 1912. There were three classes of service for passengers: from first class for the wealthy and renowned, such as John Jacob Astor and his young wife, to third class for poor immigrants bound for America. One of the better moves in the musical’s script (by Peter Stone) is to focus early on a couple in second class -- a middle-class Midwestern businessman (Edgar Beane, played by Gene Lodes) and his star-struck wife (Alice, played by Elisabeth Harrington). Since Alice is so curious about the celebrities in first class she provides easy exposition, but with an endearing comic performance and a wonderful voice, Elisabeth Harrington goes beyond this simple expediency to establish the Beanes as the audience’s representatives, as well as a couple whose fate will matter.

We soon see the glamour of first class for ourselves in a dinner scene that literally glitters with sequined gowns and jewels, as characters are deftly introduced. Then there’s another large ensemble scene in third class which is unexpectedly affecting. The Irish émigrés could be living clichés (the burly young fisherman, played by Tristin Roberts, the three young ladies named Kate, played by Laura Hathaway, Krissy Dodge and Essie Bertain), but first with a trio sung by the Kates, and then in a powerful ensemble, they generate real emotion. Perhaps it evokes images of immigrant forebearers (though my grandparents and mother came over from Italy on ships much less majestic than this, where there were a handful in first class and thousands in steerage). But it’s the actors and their singing that really put it over, particularly the radiant Laura Hathaway.

The script probably tries to do too much -- there are so many themes and so many characters (based on real passengers) that little gets developed even cursorily. Phil Zastrow as the ship’s owner (and villain of the piece), Kevin Sharkey as its designer and Bill Ryder as the Captain all perform their fairly thankless roles well, but it’s the “minor” characters who stand out: Cailan Halliday as the quartermaster, for instance, and Kevin Richards as the chief coal stoker, and particularly Jordan Matteoli as Radioman Harold Bride. Matteoli seems born to play young (and usually innocent) characters in musicals set between 1910 and 1950. He gets an especially poignant song near the end. Though there are slack stretches and foreshortened stories, the emotion built into the situation -- the lives lost, the survivors, how everyone behaved -- comes through, thanks to the production and these characters.

I confess I couldn’t imagine song lyrics about the sinking of the Titanic. (The best I could come up with were: MRS. ASTOR: The ship is sinking! MR. ASTOR: Have you been drinking? It’s unthinkable! The ship’s unsinkable! CAPTAIN: Mr. Astor! It’s a disaster!) Not to mention finding a rhyme for “iceberg.” But this musical is more in the operetta style, with most of the dialog sung rather than spoken. Though serviceable and even witty in context, with few exceptions neither lyrics nor songs (both by Maury Yeston) are especially memorable. Perhaps that’s partly why this Tony Award-winning Broadway hit of a decade ago is so little known. But for the length of the show, it hardly matters.

And there are other oddities about the script, such as the Captain about to go down with the ship suddenly reflecting that in 43 years at sea, he’s never seen an accident. It sounds like an insert demanded by the cruise ship industry. But as a whole, the excellence of the Humboldt Light Opera production overwhelms these weaknesses. Maybe the ship sank, but this Titanic is buoyant.

You have only three more opportunities to see it: this Friday, Aug, 17, or Saturday, Aug. 18, at 7:30 p.m., or a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. at the Van Duzer Theatre on the HSU campus.

This North Coast Weekend and This Week's Column

The Humboldt Light Opera production of the musical Titanic concludes its run this weekend. My review of it as well as a rundown of the upcoming seasons for Ferndale Rep and North Coast Rep are in my Stage Matters column in the North Coast Journal this week. Meghan Vogel also reviews it in the T-S. Both reviews are very positive, so Friday and Saturday nights and a Saturday matinee are the final opportunities to go.

Also continuing this weekend are Ferndale Rep's production of The Sound of Music ( Willi Welton review in the E-R), Shake the Bard's Twelfth Night at the Arcata Playhouse (Barry Blake reviews it in the T-S), and North Coast Rep's The Nerd.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

The Sound of Music continues at Ferndale Rep.
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This North Coast Weekend

The Shake the Bard production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, set in Reconstruction era America, opens tonight at the Arcata Playhouse. It plays through August 26. Carla Baku previews it at the T-S, and there's an unsigned preview in the E-R. Shake the Bard is a combination of former Arcata Shakespeare in the Park veterans and high school students.

Betti Trauth reviews the ongoing Ferndale Rep production of The Sound of Music, at the T-S. Also continuing, the comedy The Nerd at North Coast Rep in Eureka.

Next North Coast Season

With their final shows of this season now playing (The Nerd and The Sound of Music, respectively), both North Coast Rep and Ferndale Rep have announced their next season.

Beginning in September, NCRT Artistic Director Michael Thomas has two modern classics: Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot and Marat/ Sade by Peter Weiss. The holiday musical will be Fiddler on the Roof, the spring musical will be Little Shop of Horrors, the Shakespeare between them will be the comedy All’s Well That Ends Well. And next summer’s comedy will be Lend Me a Tenor, the 1989 Tony Award winner by Ken Ludwig.

As announced by Artistic Director Marilyn McCormick, Ferndale Rep will host several showcases in September and October (including Jeff DeMark’s Hard As A Diamond, Soft As The Dirt, and a multimedia show by the L.A. based Camera Shrapnel) before its first production in November, an adaptation of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, followed by the courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men and an all-teen production about school violence called Bang Bang You’re Dead. The spring musical is Hair, the summer musical is Godspell, with a stage adaptation of the film classic Rashomon between.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

This Week's Column

Shelley Stewart, Alex Sutter and Andrew Jordan in Act I
of The Nerd by Larry Shue, now at Northcoast Rep in
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Who I Am Writing For

Who are my reviews for? It's a tricky question with even trickier answers, and I reevaluate them almost every time I write. How you can complain about a play that the audience likes? That's another part of the same question.

Reviewers are invited for opening nights, which are often filled with friends and family of the people who put on the show. At NCRT the theatre community gathers--it's also usually the night when the actors and others who've worked on the show are the beneficiaries of the concession money--and it's a celebration. In the case of The Nerd, they would also be saying goodbye to Dmitry and Tammy Tokarsky (he played the central role, she designed costumes) who are leaving the area, and welcoming Queena Isadora DeLany (she played Tansy, the love interest) who is new to the area and its community theatre.

But as an audience, it is different from the ones that will follow. I saw this play with the next night audience, a benefit for public schools; the night after that was for mediation services, two very worthy causes I support. Both of these instances--the theatre community gathering, and people in the community gathering to support something that benefits the community--exemplify another aspect of what community theatre is all about. I recognize and honor this. In fact, I love it. But my job isn't to write about that, at least not every time out.

Just as I keep the audiences in mind, I keep in mind that people who put on these plays do so at some sacrifice and work hard (they also have fun) and that they have egos and feelings. I believe in supporting the theatres as institutions as well as being fair to them and to specific productions.

 But in the end I am not writing primarily for the theatres, the participants in a production, and not even for the audiences, as such. My primary responsibility is to write for the readers of the North Coast Journal. Some of them will have seen the play, others have yet to see it, and some will never see it. My job is to give them something interesting to read, and I do that out of my own observations, experiences, predilections and point of view.

I recognize that people who go to plays aren't necessarily interested in where the play fits into local theatre history or comedies of the 20th century--they're out for a reasonably good time on a night out. But some of those people, as well as others who may or may not see the play, are interested in reading more about the play, the playwright, etc. They may be interested in a different point of view on what they saw. Fortunately here, they have the opportunity to get several points of view in print and on line. To me, that's all part of the experience of theatre in a community that values its theatre.

Some, perhaps many people within the theatre community basically understand this, and some even feel that their work is more honored by honest and serious consideration than by constant praise. At least some have told me as much privately.

And although people may use reviews to decide whether or not to attend a show, I very seldom suggest that they not see something. I hope that they are smart and confident enough to seek various points of view, and especially to go to the theatre and decide for themselves.

Shue, Nerd

If you’re interested in a summer night out, perhaps contributing to a worthy cause while seeing some friends and having some laughs, the North Coast Repertory Theatre production of The Nerd will probably satisfy. If your demands and desires are greater, maybe not so much.

 This comedy is set in Terre Haute, Indiana in the early 1980s where Willum, a young architect (played with steady likeability by Douglas Anderson), is trying to succeed in business without losing the soul of his creativity. He’s at an impasse in his relationship with his girlfriend, Tansy (newcomer Queena DeLany, also steady and likeable), who is about to make a career move to Washington, DC. Observing this is their witty friend, Axel, a theatre critic (played with genial sarcasm by David Moore).

Enter Rick Steadman, the man who saved Willum’s life in Vietnam (though they’ve never met). He is the title character and the fly in the ointment of normality, played by Dmitry Tokarsky with braying gusto.

 He disrupts a dinner party that includes Andrew Jordan as the gruff developer Willum is currently trying to please, Shelley Stewart as his sweetly repressed wife, and Alex Sutter as their hyperactive son. And the story goes on from there, to a “surprise” or two for the heartwarming ending.

 If this sounds like the premise of a sitcom episode, there is that feeling about the entire play. It could probably use a few long commercial breaks to dull the brain into not noticing the porous plot. It has a lot of jokes and sight gags — the NCRT audience I saw it with laughed at many of them, I laughed at some they didn’t, and nobody laughed at others.

First-time director Vicki Charlton kept the actors pleasantly flowing around a handsome living room set (which she created with Andrew Jordan and Shelley Stewart) that gives an unaccustomed sense of spaciousness to the NCRT stage.

 Lighting designer Suzanne Ross-Kohl, costume designer Tammy Tokarsky, sound designer Gabriel Groom and the set construction and properties teams served the play and the cast well.

 But as the play goes on, its flaws become disheartening, not helped by aspects of the production, at least that night: some poor enunciation and lackluster timing, forced pace and flagging energy. The well-handled mayhem of the first act dinner party wasn’t quite matched by inventiveness and verve in the second act. And the twists at the end don’t hold up past the first blush.

 The problems begin with the premise. Larry Shue, an actor who grew up in Eureka (well, the one in Kansas), wrote two comic plays in the early 1980s that are performed to an extent that is almost viral, especially by community and college theatres, and mostly in the summer. The second one, The Foreigner (which NCRT produced in 2005) is the better play, as I recall it (although I first saw it at a college summer theater production that was memorable mostly for the lead actor’s dead-on imitation of Pierce Brosnan, then the star of TV’s Remington Steele).

This one, written in 1981, prospered partly because the premise — the idea of “nerd”— was becoming fashionable. Although the concept of the clueless outcast — the doofus, the dork, etc. — is as old as time, or at least high school, the Nerd became the latest flavor in the 1980s, as reflected in the Revenge of the Nerds series of movies.

 One dictionary defines a nerd as “unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person: especially: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” It was a quality of the Reagan years — that mean-spirited putdown of intelligence in favor of the beer-swilling idiot as ideal American male, which not really coincidentally defined a marketing niche for beer and other products by attaching them to this purposefully limiting male cliché.

 In the '80s, when the personal computer revolution was just beginning, the term was particularly applied to computer enthusiasts. There are two problems with this: First, it doesn’t apply to “the nerd” in the play, who inspects chalk for a living and can’t run a primitive answering machine. Second, in 2007 it’s obsolete.

 Though these days some of these qualities adhere to what’s called “a geek,” the nerd stereotype has been diluted and defeated by time. The last movie with “nerd” in the title was Triumph of the Nerd in 1996 — a documentary featuring Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Jobs. Who wouldn’t want them at their dinner party?

Later Thoughts:

The Nerd has a lot of laughs in it, but for me the play's flaws turn them a bit sour in retrospect. The "surprise" I refer to but couldn't talk about in the review--CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD! --involve the revelation that the Nerd is not really the guy who saved Willum's life but the "friend" of Axel, the theatre critic, who played the part in some elaborate plot to get Willum and Tansy to realize they need to be together. When you realize that this involved the guy living full time on Willum's couch for weeks, totally apart from his own life, the credibility of the device starts to sink.

 Then there's the additional revelation that the job Willum thinks he's going to get in Alexandria (suburb to Washington, where Tansy is going to be a weather reporter) doesn't exist, nor does the man who offered it. Apparently Willum accepted the job and will move his life from Indiana to Washington because of a voice on his answering machine offering him a job: a funny commentary on life in the 80s when answering machines were new, but not very credible when you think about it for two more seconds.

Perhaps it's this lack of credibility, along with the humorous potential of the characters (author Larry Shue was primarily an actor) that encourages this play to be used as a showcase for comic actors--some famous ones in the U.S. and England, for example, have played it. If you have enough fun along the way, that the journey makes no sense becomes irrelevant.

 Much has been made in some previews and reviews that this is one of the few plays in which a theatre critic is a main character. That's not much of a distinction, and I doubt its accuracy: for example, not one but two theatre critics (actually three by the end, with a fourth who is never seen being a vital part of the plot ) are the major characters in Tom Stoppard's better and funnier play, The Real Inspector Hound. And as New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote of the theatre critic in The Nerd: -" a character, however welcome, who turns out to be as superfluous appearing in ''The Nerd'' as he would be attending it."

This North Coast Weekend

North Coast Rep's production of Larry Shue's comedy, The Nerd, has opened in Eureka. I've reviewed it in my column, and Betti Trauth reviews it in the T-S.

Ferndale Rep opens their production of The Sound of Music this weekend. Preview night is Thursday, Aug. 2, and the opening night event is Friday, Aug. 3, at 8 p.m. Betti Trauth has an interesting preview in the T-S.

Humboldt Light Opera opens a lavish production of the musical Titanic this weekend at the Van Duzer Theatre on the HSU campus. The production features a full orchestra and a tilting stage. It plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. the first three weekends of August, with 2 p.m. matinees on Aug. 12 and 18. There's an unsigned preview at the E-R.

Barry Blake reviews the current Arcata Shakespeare in the Park version of As You Like It in the T-S. He apparently doesn't think much of the play, so any violation of it doesn't bother him. For a different point of view on the play itself, there's the posts here.