Thursday, May 31, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

Minderella Willens and Darcy Doughtry in Kiss Me, Kate
at NCRT starting this weekend.
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This North Coast Weekend

North Coast Repertory Theatre opens the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate tonight (Thursday.) A preview in the T-S. Expect my review in the North Coast Journal next week.

Ferndale Rep continues To Kill A Mockingbird. No other reviews so far but mine in the Journal. And of course the treasure trove of info right here below.

Dell'Arte International MFA Ensemble presents two thesis project programs of short plays this weekend and next: Unhinged runs May 31 and June 2, June 8 and 10, while Tooth and Claw runs June 1, 3, 7 and 9, all at the Carlo Theatre at the earlier time of 7 p.m.

A number of school productions go up this weekend: Sunny Brae Middle School performs Once on This Island tonight (Thursday) at 7 p.m. Coastal Grove Charter School's 7th and 8th grade classes perform Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at 6:30 p.m. at the Freshwater Grange on Friday. McKinleyville Middle School performs El Mago de Oz in Spanish at 7 PM on Friday and Saturday. The Messiah Choral Arts Academy combined youth choirs perform Godspell, Jr. at 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Stretching the weekend a bit, the Six Rivers Charter High School presents an adaptation of Antigone at 7:30 on Monday in the Arcata High Multipurpose Room. You can find details at the North Coast Journal Calendar, among other spots.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

To Kill A Mockingbird

Gregory Peck and Harper Lee during the filming of To
Kill A Mockingbird.
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To Kill A Mockingbird: The Novel

These notes are to supplement my column on the production of To Kill A Mockingbird now onstage at Ferndale Repertory Theatre. This section is about Harper Lee's novel, the next about the film and finally, some additional notes about the play.

In the town of Monroeville, Alabama, a rich man’s son was caught joyriding in a stolen car. His father persuaded the sheriff not to arrest the boy, but to leave the punishment up to him. He imposed three years of house arrest, but it turned into a life sentence when even after that time the young man found he could no longer face leaving the confines of his house, except at night. He became an object of mystery and fear in the neighborhood. Or so the local story goes.

This was Nelle Harper Lee’s hometown in the 1930s. She left it for college, then law school in her father’s footsteps, though she stopped just shy of completing her degree. Instead she went to New York, where she worked as an airline reservations clerk and accompanied her childhood friend, Truman Capote, as he researched his book about two murderers in Kansas, In Cold Blood. (Catherine Keener plays her in the film Capote, and looks very much like her 1960s photos.)

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and Catherine
Keener as Harper Lee in the 2005 film, Capote.
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She began writing in earnest in the mid 50s, returning frequently to Alabama to nurse her ailing father. One Christmas in Manhattan, a songwriter friend and his wife gave her a unique gift—a year’s income, to support her writing. (The songwriter was Michael Brown, who made his reputation and probably his fortune producing industrial musicals for clients like DuPont and Woolworth.) She used it to write the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, an immediate best seller when it was published a few years later, and an enduring American classic. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961, and remains among the top 10 best selling novels from then until now. It is one of the five most assigned novels in American schools, and American librarians recently voted it the best novel of the twentieth century.

Harper Lee transformed memories of her childhood: her father was the inspiration for Atticus Finch, Truman Capote became Dill, and that ghostly young man was the probable prototype for Boo Radley. (That origin story I started with here and in my column is not well known, by the way. I found it in an academic thesis online by the director of a University of Alabama production of the play, who visited Monroeville.)

To refresh your memory of the story: Atticus Finch is the widowed father of the tomboy Scout (Harper Lee’s self-portrait) and Jem (Scout’s older brother). Atticus is a lawyer appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.

Harper Lee wedded these childhood memories to a courtroom drama based partly on a case of her father’s, and partly on the infamous Scottsboro Trials of young black men falsely convicted of raping a white woman.

Boo Radley's sculptures, in the film.
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The novel was innovative in several ways. Through the narrative voice Harper Lee developed, she solved a perennial problem for writers: how do you accurately portray events from childhood to reflect both the feelings and perceptions of the time, and the fact that you’re looking back with the knowledge and insight of an adult?

The wedding of a kind of fictionalized memoir describing the texture of childhood and a particular place and time, with a courtroom drama involving an important social and political issue, was itself a synthesis that violated the rules. But in Lee’s telling, both elements gave power to the other. The somewhat languid mood of much of the early parts of the book (it takes place over three years) gradually quickens into page-turning drama.

Lee’s first submitted version of the work was reportedly more of a series of linked stories (ironically, a very hot form in fiction at the present moment.) But her publisher insisted on a more unified novel. Lee was able to achieve this partly by following in linear time the education of the young girl, Scout and her brother, Jem, and partly by weaving a few important themes throughout the book. The first was about innocence, both of children and of “the mockingbird”—the innocent who only sings and does no one any harm—which applies to both Tom Robinson, the accused black man Atticus defends, and to Boo Radley, the neighbor who lives in darkness, the stranger in their midst who receives their projections of violence, and is therefore a source of fear. He is different (and a kind of artist, who creates sculptures and leaves them for the children to find, along with talismans of his own “normal” childhood). He is literally unseen, and so represents the aspects of people we are blind to, because of our preconceptions. This obviously applies to race, and there is also a strong theme of class in the novel—which cuts both ways. (It can be argued that Atticus has his own class prejudices.)

The second theme, which follows from the first and is explicitly stated as a lesson to the novel’s children, is that of cultivating empathy and understanding by trying to see the world from the other’s perspective (as Scout does finally when she stands on Boo Radley’s porch at the end), by metaphorically living in someone else’s skin, walking in their shoes. This is a lesson about life and specifically about race. It remains the most crucial lesson in our public as well as private lives, and so this too accounts for this novel’s standing.

It is reinforced in other ways throughout the novel, notably by the brief story of Mrs. Dubose, a surly neighbor who insults everyone, including Scout and Jem, and says harsh things about Atticus. When Jem loses his temper and destroys her garden flowers, Atticus sends him to Mrs. Dubose to apologize and make restitution. Mr. D. requires him to read aloud to her everyday. When she dies, they learn that she was always in pain and addicted to morphine, which accounted for her harsh behavior. She decided she would die free of her addiction, and Jem reading to her was a way for her to bear the pain. It’s another example of assumptions and projections contradicted by understanding, as well as a story of redemption and the power of simple acts to do good.

Gregory Peck as Atticus and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson.
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To Kill A Mockingbird: The Movie

As the Civil Rights Movement came to fruition in the early 1960s, the book struck a chord. So did the equally classic 1962 movie version, starring Gregory Peck. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, and Peck won as Best Actor. It is still among the most popular and acclaimed movies of all time. Recently the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch as the greatest film hero in the history of movies.

The movie has quite a pedigree behind the camera. Alan Pakula produced it (today perhaps even more renowned as a director), Robert Mulligan directed, Elmer Bernstein wrote the musical score, and the screenplay was written by Horton Foote, the Texan playwright, who had written extensively for television drama and later wrote many acclaimed movie scripts, including Tender Mercies for Robert Duvall.

Harper Lee was a consultant on the movie and present for the filming (mostly on a backlot in California.) She and other participants formed lifelong friendships on that set. She and Gregory Peck in particular remained close. As she watched the first scene being shot she was seen to shed a few tears: he reminded her so much of her father.

Young Mary Badham, who played the six year old “Scout,” also kept in touch with Peck for the rest of his life. She felt close to him immediately on the set, and between takes would be seen hanging onto him in his lap. She called him “Atticus” ever after.

playing father and daughter led to a lifetime friendship:
Mary Badham and Gregory Peck.
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Mary Badham with Gregory Peck during the
filming of To Kill A Mockingbird.
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Jem and Scout: childhood recalled.
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Mary Badham with Robert Duvall as Boo Radley.
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Mary Badham with Gregory Peck going over the script.
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A wide search for children to play Scout and her brother Jem was conducted in various southern cities, but the actors selected, Badham and Philip Alford as Jem, lived within a couple of blocks of each other in Birmingham, though they’d never met.

Mary Badham was herself a “tomboy,” as was her character, and the girl that Scout was based on—Harper Lee. She acted for several more years, and was in one more notable movie (This Property is Condemned, based on a Tennessee Williams play, written by Francis Ford Copolla and starring Robert Redford and Natalie Wood.) She gave up acting by the late 60s but has returned to it in recent years. While Harper Lee is reclusive, living at least part of the time back in Monroeville, it is Mary Badham who represents this movie when it is honored and shown at festivals.

The movie streamlines the story of the novel by collapsing the events into a single year. It very carefully tells the story from the children’s point of view, even in shot selection. Though the subplot of Mrs. Dubose (played by the accomplished actor, Ruth White) was shot, director Mulligan felt it sidetracked the momentum of the film and most of the scenes were cut. It’s said her performance was brilliant.

There are so many indelible images, performances and moments in this movie. Mary Badham was remarkable, especially in a scene of Peck as Attticus putting Scout to bed and talking of her mother (added to the film and not a scene in the book), and then of course in one of the most moving scenes in any film—when she sees Robert Duvall behind the door, and recognizes him, and with a luminous smile says, “Hey, Boo.” Her face in this film is absolutely unique.

Mary Badham as Scout
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Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the courtroom scene.
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Peck as Atticus: American hero.
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And of course, Gregory Peck. In the late 50s and early to mid 60s, he was probably the film actor I looked to most as an adult role model. (Even if I had to learn that his thoughtful, brooding silences played better in close-ups on film than in real life.) What lasts about role models is what they bring out in you that was in you already, and now you have some means to express it, and above all, permission to express it.

I recall him especially in a couple of 1959 releases, the classic On the Beach, and the justifiably forgotten Beloved Infidel, in which he played F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Sorry, but I really liked him in that. He also played several Hemingway stand-ins in other films.) Later in Captain Newman, M.D., and a romantic caper film, Arabesque, and when I caught up to earlier films, especially Captain Horatio Hornblower and Roman Holiday.

As a film actor, Peck was able to project a great deal by not doing very much, by nuance, gesture, tone and simply by presence. The makers of this film understood and complemented this particular power. They allowed him to react without speaking; in a key scene, in which he learns that his client is dead and he must tell others of this, we see him mostly from the back.

But in that amazing year of 1962—JFK in the White House, John Glenn in orbit, James Meredith enters Old Miss, Silent Spring, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bob Dylan and folk music, and two crusading court room dramas on TV (The Defenders, and The Law and Mr. Jones) –Gregory Peck was clearly the soul of To Kill A Mockingbird. There was a Kennedyesque quality about him—if he’d been younger, he probably would have played JFK as the World War II hero who rescued his crew in the movie made about the incident, PT-109. He could be wonderfully funny, but in dramatic roles he often brought a sense of rectitude, and the full weight of that accompanied him in this role. I’m sure that when as a teenager I joined the now famous but then somewhat daring (Civil Rights) March on Washington the next year, I carried a bit of Peck as Atticus Finch with me.

The Ferndale Rep production: Denim Ohmit as Jem, Brad
Curtis as Atticus, Derby McLaughlin as Scout, Louis Sterback
as Dill. Photo by Dan Tubbs.
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To Kill A Mockingbird: The Play

These notes about the play supplement my review of the Ferndale Rep production in the North Coast Journal.

Christopher Sergel, a professional story adapter and play publisher, wrote the stage version in 1970, mostly for schools. He kept revising it, and in 1990 his latest version had its first adult production in the U.S. One version or another has been produced widely and frequently ever since, including every year for a three week run in Monroeville, Alabama. Harper Lee is no longer castigated there for airing dirty laundry. The town has changed a great deal, and she is its claim to fame.

I gather from my reading that in Sergel's more recent version, the character of Scout (whose given name is Jean Louise) appears also an adult, to more or less narrate and comment in the voice of Harper Lee. The earlier version used a character in the book and movie, Maude Atkinson, a neighbor of the Finches, as narrator. That’s how the Ferndale production uses her, so their production may be from this version of the script, used most often by schools for its didactic emphasis. In any case, the character of Maude does much less in the play than either the book or movie, except talk to the audience and occasionally to the children.

While the book could give us the richness of the author’s voice and the extension of time, and the film produced a sense of spaces and solitary moments, the stage play necessarily revolves around three key dramatic moments: the lynch mob, the trial and the attack on Scout and Jem. Yet the play also tries to tell a lot of the story, and weave in the main messages and metaphors. It may be too much.

The Ferndale production excels in telling the stories, and the actors are convincing in the characters they create. But the drama in those key moments is a problem. I offered a couple of possible reasons in my column, to which I’d add that the physical limitations of this stage (as well as the local actor pool) probably played a part also in tamping down the courtroom scene, especially due to the absence of crowds and a jury (the device of seeming to make the audience the jury—which is in this version of the play script-- is really hokey and doesn’t work.) But given the various limitations on this production, I should make clear that they’ve done an admirable job. They bring the story alive and present local audiences with a full and engaging theatrical experience.

The play’s most conspicuous difference is shrinking the Boo Radley story—in this production to almost nothing. This may partly be a product of all the story the play tries to cram in, partly to the limitations of the stage in showing the town and the various actions by the children connected to the Radley house, and partly to the emphasis of this production.

However, the play restores the Mrs. Dubose subplot to reinforce the message regarding perspective and empathy, of walking in another’s shoes. It also makes the title reference crystal clear from the very beginning (something done with much greater subtlety in the film.)

The subject of killing or not killing mockingbirds comes up in connection with guns. In the book, it begins when Atticus gives Jem and Scout air rifles for Christmas. In the movie, it’s at a dinner discussion when Atticus says he was 12 or 13 before he got his first gun. In all three, the children are astonished to find that Atticus is the best shot in the county. But in the play, much is made of his distaste for guns, but we never learn why. It’s the dramatic equivalent of leaving a loaded gun on the table.

In the Ferndale production, Atticus is not quite so heroic as in the film. This may be in the play script, combined with how Brad Curtis chose to play him. But where Peck’s Atticus is silent, he is talkative here— befuddled by the attack on his children, and perhaps feeling guilty, and argumentative when the Sheriff wants to ignore Boo Radley’s involvement in the death of the attacker.

The play does more with the issue of class than the film. The class issues are much more ambiguous than race issues. Atticus is kind to those worse off in the Depression. But he links poverty with ignorance, and there’s ample evidence that they are linked, in the hostility of the “white trash” element living near the black families, such as the Robinsons. In their trumped-up rape charges, there is a sense of wanting to get rid of the black families near them, acting as better off whites might act about “property values.” In this, they mimic in cruder form the more decorous racism of their class betters. This ties in with the moment that gets Tom Robinson convicted--when he says he "felt sorry" for the white girl. Today's audiences may not automatically understand what a violation this is. No matter how far down the class continuum a white person is, it was the iron law of the racist South that the poorest white was still better than any black person. For a black person to "feel sorry" for a white was to assert equality if not superiority, and that was unforgivable.

But class within the white world is more ambiguous: the abusive father and his daughter also both use class resentment against the aristocratic behavior of Atticus, to win the jury’s sympathy.

The ambiguity or doubleness of the class issue is presented in the minor character of Mr. Cunningham, who in the play is seen bringing Atticus a bag of foodstuff to pay him for legal services, but he is also in the lynch mob at the jail. (There is a fuller portrait in the book and film concerning his son and his relationship with Scout and Jem.) And it is in identifying Cunningham and talking to him as a person and a neighbor that Scout more or less innocently defuses the lynch mob situation.

As I mentioned in my column, it’s interesting to see live actors from our rural, small town communities in this play about a rural small town of another place and time. Racism has been part of this region’s history, though principally involving Native Americans and Chinese immigrants. Today we have many other ethnicities, as well as other differences in incomes, lifestyles, educations and occupations. The flashpoint of our divisions has recently been between those loosely described as timber versus environmental advocates. Many of these divisions are also power relationships, and have real consequences that can’t be glossed over with a soporific appeal to why can't we all get along. But this story, and its championing of justice and empathy, can be a useful addition to the dialogue.

To Kill A Mockingbird, the play, will be onstage at the Ferndale Repertory Theatre through June 17.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


George Bernard Shaw wrote his play, Saint
for Sybil Thorndike to play. She did
(as pictured above) to great acclaim. So on
the anniversary of the death of Joan of Arc,
this quotation from Sybil Thorndike (as recalled
by John Geilgud in his autobiography): "I hate
pathos. It's soft and weak. But tragedy

has fight." Posted by Picasa

Friday, May 25, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

The Finals, 10 minute plays at Dell'Arte.
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This North Coast Weekend

While the major street theatre this weekend is the Kinetic Sculpture Race, there's action on North Coast stages as well:

To Kill A Mockingbird, a play based on the famous novel by Harper Lee (and movie by Horton Foote) opens at Ferndale Repertory. Expect a review in next week's Journal.

Dell'Arte's School of Physical Theatre students present The Finals: seven original 10 minute plays, this weekend and next in the Carlo Theater in Blue Lake, beginning at 8 PM.

North Coast Dance begins its residency at the Arkley Center with an original production for children, called To Pluto and Back. It plays Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 4 PM and Sunday at 2 PM. Betti Trauth has a preview at the T-S site, as does Wendy Butler in the ER.

More information on these shows can be found at the web sites of the respective organizations, listed over there to the side.

Jeff DeMark has left a comment on the post below about his show last weekend.

Monday, May 21, 2007

On the North Coast

Went to DVD, Never Returned

We saw Jeff DeMark's Went To Lunch, Never Returned at Muddy's Hot Cup on Saturday. Jeff has been trying to get recent performances recorded for possible DVDs, with mixed results. The taping of his performance at the Arcata Playhouse earlier this month of his baseball show (Hard As A Diamond, Soft As The Dirt) worked out well, and work on a DVD is proceeding. But Saturday was the third attempt to tape the "Lunch" show, and the third failure.

At the break, Jeff learned that only the first ten minutes was recorded, and there would be no more. But he seemed to pour that frustration into a spirited physical performance of the second half of the show, much to the delight of the capacity crowd.

Going South? (Or North?)

Dell' Arte in SF and Shaking Up Shakespeare Summer

"The List" in Sunday's SF Chronicle Datebook features a photo from the Dell'Arte production of Artemesia, which plays at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco through June 3. Artemesia premiered in Blue Lake at last summer's Mad River Festival.

Also in Sunday's SF Chronicle Datebook, Robert Hurwitt describes several changes in various Shakespeare Festival organizations in and around the Bay Area. He also notes the changes underway for next year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:

The biggest changes are in store at the biggest festival of all, Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where Artistic Director Libby Appel is stepping down at the end of the season. Her replacement, Bill Rauch, has already shaken things up considerably. As of next season, both popular associate artistic directors, Penny Metropulos and Timothy Bond, will be gone, replaced by designer Christopher Acebo instead of a director. Among many other changes, the old preshow Green Show has been outsourced. Perhaps most significant for the future is Rauch's complete overhaul of the festival's new-play development programs and, judging by his plans for '08, an increased emphasis on Asian and Latino works.

This article leads into a listing of "Shakespeare in the Bay Area" this summer. For North Coasters who saw North Coast Rep's recent production of Henry IV Part 1, it's worth noting that the play will be done in August at Marin Shakespeare Company, along with Part 2. (Details at

Hurwitt notes that the most popular play this season is Macbeth, with a total of 5 Bay Area productions this spring and summer. A few months ago, when I was watching the second season of Slings and Arrows which deals with their production of the Scottish play at around the same time that I saw two old docus on Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, I was inspired to check out the old Peter Hall production of MacBeth starring those two great actors. (There is actually a restored version of this video with some sort of commentary by McKellen, but I saw the earlier VHS from the HSU library.) It was a fascinating production, all the more to me because I performed in the play in college. I played the Thane of Ross (and doubled some other characters) who of course is the fulcrum of the play. When Ross changes sides, it's decisive. Uh huh. Anyway, I was a little taken aback to see that the actor playing Ross in that production was Ian McDiarmid, later to achieve fame as the evil Emperor in the Star Wars movies.

In our Knox College production, I had an early scene with Richard Hoover, who played King Duncan. Hoover went on to become a production designer in Hollywood, for the classic Twin Peaks, the current series Numbers, and other TV shows and feature films.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

This North Coast Weekend

Dell'Arte Youth Academy presents
But We Digress, an original comedy
inspired by Bollywood musicals, again
this weekend in Arcata.
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This North Coast Weekend

The action this weekend seems to be in Arcata.

On Saturday, Jeff DeMark reprises another of his solo shows, this time with the theme of work. Went to Lunch, Never Returned gets started at 7 PM at Muddy's Hot Cup in Arcata. See you there.

Also on Saturday, the Toronto-based Faustwork Mask Theater presents The Mask Messenger at the Arcata Playhouse, via our local Four on the Floor Theater. It begins at 8 PM.

The Dell' Arte Youth Academy production of But We Digress continues Friday and Saturday at the D Street Neighborhood Center in Arcata at 8 PM.