Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In Memoriam 2008

Harold Pinter (center) and Eartha Kitt(top left) were the most recent theatre artists who passed away in 2008. They are, top l to r: dancer Cyd Charisse (before Hollywood she was in the Ballet Ruse), musical theatre star Eartha Kitt, Robert Mulligan, film director of To Kill A Mockingbird, actor Mel Ferrer. Playwright, director and actor Harold Pinter (center). Bottom row: actor and director Paul Newman in his stage role as the Stage Manager in Our Town, director Anthony Minghella, playwright Simon Gray (Otherwise Engaged, Butley) and actor Paul Scofield, famous from films but whose stage Lear was legendary. Click collage to make it real big. Here's the Guardian's account of Pinter's memorial service.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Clear on Lear

King Lear is an un-actable part that actors need to play. If playing Hamlet defines a classical actor's career, then playing Lear is the natural challenge to cap that career. Lots of actors have done both. Laurence Olivier made the first modern film of Hamlet and probably still the most famous, though he may have been a bit old for the part by then. (Though he looks a little like 1980s Sting in that photo.) He did his only King Lear for television in 1983. He was judged a bit too old and weak for it by then, though with brilliant moments. I don't know about that, but it's still available and there's a lot to like and learn in his performance. John Geilgud played both parts several times on the stage--he did his first of four Lears while in his 20s. He was happy with only one of them.

Clear on Lear

When the gasbags in Congress make speeches on the floor, they usually ask permission to "revise and extend" their remarks in the Congressional Record. That's more or less what I'm doing here, for Lear: a gasbag revising and extending my recent Journal column.

Some call King Lear the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, but it is among the least performed of his major plays. In number of productions, it doesn’t make the Shakespeare Top Ten of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or Broadway. The story of the old king who divides his kingdom among his daughters with calamitous consequences is certainly among the most analyzed, and playing Lear has been considered a crowning achievement for elder actors, but the role and the play itself also have the reputation of being un-actable.

There actually have been more productions in the past decade or so, perhaps as a generation of actors reaches that point, but also because the play speaks to contemporary artists and audiences. (See the accompanying photos for some examples.)

Shakespeare is a master of synthesis, and scholar Maynard Mack makes a convincing case that the preponderance of very bad and very good characters surrounding Lear is due in part to this drama’s roots in medieval morality plays. But virtue is not rewarded, and the demise of the king and his good daughter Cordelia was so shocking that for more than a century the play was rewritten with a happy ending. But after two world wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, the spectre of thermonuclear Armageddon and now the climate apocalypse, as well as the other automated cruelties of modern life, we don't shock much.

Another of Mack's insights involves themes Shakespeare often uses in his comedies, turned inside out into tragedy in King Lear. A conspicuous one is the court vs. country dilemma, usually weighted towards nature being superior, as in As You Like It. It's somewhat the opposite in Lear, though the court is just as full of snakes. But I think Mack is on to something here, because I feel the theme of shelter is an important one in this play. It is set in a more primitive time than Shakespeare's, and the secure world of the castle seems set against the wilderness, where the exiles are naked in the storm and go mad.

[continued after photos]

A new generation of Hamlet-to-Lear actors: American Kevin Kline, his Hamlet in the 80s (I saw this one at the Public Theatre in NYC) and recent Lear; British actor David Warner, in what Patrick Stewart calls the Hamlet of his generation in the 60s, and a recent Lear.
The updated edition of the New Cambridge Shakespeare volume on Lear is a treasure trove of information on past productions and interpretations, as well as textual analysis and the text itself, with those annotations that enrich a reading beyond price.

The history of the text is crazed and convoluted, especially since several versions from Shakespeare's time exist (the Quarto and the Folio versions, plus variations), so that there seems to be no definitive text--just combinations that are more or less accepted for publication and performance.

And then there was the now infamous Tate version, cobbled together from Shakespeare versions plus additional verses, scenes and even characters, with that happy ending. That Lear lives to reign again, followed after his death by Cordelia, was actually how the old story went, the one that Shakespeare adapted and was known to the audiences of his time. That he kills them both was a rude if very theatrical shock to them, just in terms of what they expected.

In its summary of notable productions, the Cambridge volume (edited by Jay L. Halio) devotes a paragraph to the 2004 King Lear at OSF in Ashland, directed by James Edmondson, who had played the role at OSF in 1997. Kenneth Albers played Lear in 2004. Quoting liberally from Bill Varble's review in the Medford Mail Tribune, it says: "Together they decided to examine the 'personal' tragedy of King Lear--'Lear as a noble and gifted ruler who in his old age has become so self-righteous, imperious and obstinate that he creates the weapons of his own destruction.' Albers performed Lear's descent into madness as a 'portrayal of the tricks an aging mind plays, a Shakespearean examination of early Alzheimer's disease within the context of political and familial disaster.' As the storm echoes his descent into madness, Lear becomes increasingly sane and humane. The ending of the play was uncompromising--no redemption but 'splendor in the ashes...the kind of Shakespeare we need. It has its effect honestly, sans tricks or flash, and so is deeply satisfying.'"

I personally didn't see this OSF production. And I'm not sure from this description whether I would have liked it. I'm a bit leery of a Lear that gets all Alzheimery--it could be a little too easy and pop culturish. I'm not sure about splendor in the ashes either, but as I say, I didn't see it.

[continued after photos]

The New Cambridge Shakespeare introduction praised these Lears: (top to bottom) Christopher Plummer, Donald Wolfit (in the 1940s) and Robert Stephens. Wolfit was the model for the actor in the Ronald Harwood play, The Dresser. The film version starring Albert Finney showed parts of a couple of touring productions of King Lear. (Like the Slings and Arrows story, the actor dies shortly after dying as Lear. Wolfit didn't, though.) Robert Stephens RSC performance was called the greatest of his life. Oddly, he was in David Warner's first film, Morgan! It was also Vanessa Redgrave's first film. As far as I know she's never played Lear, though her brother Colin and her father Michael did. But with Stephens and Warner, this 60s comedy had two future Lears.

Lear by Young Actors Guild

Though the play invites it, the laying on of theory is not always useful to those who must act it. A couple of famous 1960s productions (Herbert Blau’s in San Francisco, Peter Brook’s in England) took an existential tack, emphasizing the march towards nullity. But when Brook explained this approach to Paul Scofield, his lead actor who became the most praised Lear of his generation, Scofield replied that this might be true but it didn’t help him. “I can’t play negative actions.” He had to be “fully active, moment after moment, even in loss, even in defeat.”

Undaunted by any of this, the Young Actors Guild of the Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy presented King Lear in the Gist Theatre recently, directed by Jean Bazemore. The audience was greeted with only a crown on the edge of Gerald Beck’s otherwise empty set, inviting us to consider kingship, which could suggest mastery of the self as well as others, and the ideal of completeness in the fullness of years. Whether Lear attains this through the coming trials is a central question.

The set remains mostly bare throughout the play, which is probably how Shakespeare’s troupe first staged it. In the choice of where they stand, the actors could use the many platform levels to express the shifting power relationships.

Bazemore also chose minimalist effects, particularly in the troublesome storm scene and the blinding of one character. The storm had some cheesy lighting effects but I admired the sound choice: an unseen drummer on a trap set played a kind of thunder solo, punctuating Lear's ravings, sometimes emphasizing them, sometimes cutting against them. It didn't always work, but when it did it was impressively musical.

The acting style seemed modest as well: brisk and presentational, giving us the words and actions to interpret ourselves. Though probably also borne of necessity, this was a wise choice. A teenager trying to mimic the infirmities of age, for example, could easily become comic.

Instead there was emphasis on making the words clear—both their poetry and what they mean within the play. Except for some uncertain and cell phone-sounding diction, this was largely successful. Several of the actors I saw were particularly good vocally, with moments of eloquence: for example, Caleb McIlraith as Lear, Alexander Johnson as Kent and Keenan Hilton as Edmund.

Hilton also managed to alternate obsequiousness with a sneer to give us the character of Edmund in a glance. (Maybe he’s worked in fast food?) Jules Eubanks played the good brother Edgar with quiet assurance, while Nick Roney portrayed his alter-ego Tom O’Bedlam with a slithery physicality. Samantha Biasca was instantly sympathetic as Cordelia, and in their better moments Navarra Carr trembled with rage as the bad Goneril while Hayley Connors-Keith was an insinuatingly evil Regan. Jesse Drucker as Glouchester, Izzy Samuels as Albany, Keli Rael Floyd as the Fool, Evan Mahoney-Moyer as Cornwall and Patrick Roberts as Oswald acquitted themselves well.

The other actors I saw included Dawut Sassanapitax, Nicholas Mundy, Elena Hernandez, Shantal Polit, Gisela Bueno, Galina Schroder, Serena Sprater, Vasin Pasda, and Yagmur Khan. Many major roles were double-cast, so I didn’t see Sylvan Arevalo as Lear, or Miriam Cook, Kaylee Wennerholm, Genay Pilarowski, Rachel Scherer, Rosie O’Leary, Reed Benoit, Camden Bruner, Aimee Talmadge and Zoe Huber. Chris Sutter and Kaela Sutter designed excellent costumes.

Of the many themes and elements of this capacious play, I thought in watching this production not only of the personal journey of age but a societal journey of the moment, from the sheltered wealth of Lear’s court to his mad stumble through the storm of loss and naked need, eventually warmed by the brief candle of compassion.

The quality of Northcoast Prep productions often make you forget that these are high school students. This wasn’t always the case with King Lear, but the beauty of an un-actable play (as Shakespearean actor and Slings and Arrows star Paul Gross points out) is the freedom to try things when failure is inevitable. And some of the beauty of Shakespeare involves the worlds his plays open up to participants and audience alike, redefining the perfect production that can never be attained.

I suppose my own perfect production would begin with distant thunder, and the conversation among Kent, Glouchester and Edmund just outside the castle--out of the wind but not entirely inside. The throne room however would be bright and warm, with all the comforts--food and fire, well-clothed courtiers.

Lear's daughters, Regan and Goneril would be particularly well-dressed, in a provocative, almost lascivious way. Their dialogue with Lear--their flattering professions of love-- would involve physical touching. I imagine Lear as having little to do with his daughters beyond these court displays, except perhaps for Cordelia. I think I buy the idea that part of what's going on in this scene is Lear trying to marry Cordelia off.

In any case I would emphasize the comfort of the court and the shelter of the entitled King. I can see his desire to retire and "put off care" as reaching for more comfort as well as enjoying the honor of his reign. He might see retirement as endless feasts and hunting expeditions with his knights, interspersed with testimonial dinners--if that's not too modern an idea of retirement. Cordelia and Kent mar his picture of a perfect retirement and are banished.

Things change, when he realizes his powerlessness, and he becomes an exile and outcast. He loses his life's security and literally he loses his shelter. At this point I can see Lear not as suffering from a disease or even becoming infirm--he seems feisty enough throughout. But he is dealing with humiliation and limitation, which is part of what aging is about. He goes in and out of madness, and the wisdom he is acquiring is at first the dislocated wisdom of the fool (the Fool) and the lowest of the outcasts (Tom.) His journey is mirrored in its way by Glouchester, as he begins to see realities he missed before he was blind: that revisiting of the worst of the past, particularly regrets and their causes, is another familiar aspect of aging, at least for men.

What happens when security is gone--including the world order you felt entitled to--right down to your shelter: that's a theme for today. That Lear reaches certain insights and perhaps wisdom, and yet there is no immediate happy ending--this too is the natural course of aging, since it ends in only one way. The unsettled state of the state at the end of the play also may remind us that transformation doesn't always lead instantly to happily ever after. Maybe it takes a younger generation, learning enough from the hard-earned insights of the older not to make all the same mistakes.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lear to Leer

Although I started my Journal column on the North Coast Prep production of King Lear by observing that it is not among the most produced of Shakespeare's major plays, that doesn't mean there aren't both regional and high profile productions--particularly recently, it seems. Ian McKellen headlined a much praised production in England, directed by Trevor Nunn (top photo.) According to the Internet Movie Database, a TV version will be released on DVD. It probably will also be shown on PBS.
But now in the works is a feature film treatment starring Anthony Hopkins as Lear (the photo is from one of his stage productions), with Keira Knightley as Cordelia (terrific actress, and not too heavy to carry!), and Gwyneth Paltrow and Naomi Watts as the evil sisters. It's scheduled for release in 2010.
In the meantime, King Lear is the play at the center of season 3 of Slings and Arrows, probably the most thematic of its 3 seasons. As usual, there are some great scenes from Shakespeare, including some amazing Lear from veteran Canadian actor William Hutt. His character does one last Lear while fighting off cancer, and dies shortly after the performance. In real life, Hutt died about a year after these episodes first aired, of leukemia at age 87. This series is available on DVD right now.

Friday, December 19, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

A student production by the Laurel Tree Learning Center of two original plays, directed by Jabari Morgan is onstage at the North Coast Rep theatre in Eureka this weekend, Thursday through Saturday (Dec. 18-20) at 7 pm. The plays are Don't Fear the Reaper by Eddie Zipperer and A Long Bridge Over Deep Water by James Still. Info: 822-5626. (Wish I'd known about this earlier.)

The Dell'Arte show, The Glasnost Family Holiday, returns to the Carlo this weekend, Fri. to Sunday at 7:30, but this time, be prepared to pay. And A Very Playhouse Christmas finishes at the Arcata Playhouse this weekend as well, Thurs to Saturday at 8.

Friday, December 12, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

The annual A Very Playhouse Christmas variety show plays this weekend (Dec. 12-14 at 8 pm, with a 2 pm matinee as well on Sunday) and next at the Arcata Playhouse. The North Coast Prep production of Shakespeare's King Lear plays at Gist Hall Theatre, Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 pm, with a Saturday matinee at 2. Dell'Arte presents "Missing Persons: Plays for One Character," 11 playlets by the International School's second year students, Dec. 11-13 in the Carlo, while the Glasnost Family continues touring.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Dell'Arte Christmas Show: Glasnost Family Holiday

If you’ve ever been mooned by gypsies in the Les Halles shopping mall in Paris, as I was, you’d know how much fun they can be. In Dell’Arte’s Christmas show, the Glasnost family first appears pulling a gypsy cart, which contains, among other things, the set. As the family members decorate the bare stage, they introduce themselves and explain their purpose: they’re strangers in America, and they’d like to stay. So they’re putting on a show.

 That’s about as straightforward as The Glasnost Family Holiday gets. The rest is music, storytelling (both with Christmas themes) and comic family brawls. The Glasnosts appear to have learned how Americans like their entertainment from TV reruns of 1950s variety shows, Rose Bowl Parades and 1980s music videos. The younger family members also adopt rapper poses.

 The result is reminiscent of everything from musical Borat and those Two Wild and Crazy Guys from the old Saturday Night Live, to an eastern European Fellini movie about a demented Lawrence Welk Christmas special.

 This hour show was created by the ensemble with director Joan Schirle, plus choral director Tyler Olsen and music director G.A. Moore. The actors all create and maintain individually defined characters, and they are all musically accomplished. The comic fights are more sophisticated and acrobatic versions of the Three Stooges, suitable for children.

 In this style of holiday entertainment, any subtext may be mostly in the eye of the beholder, but I especially noted those moments in which the weirdness of American customs and customary entertainments are revealed by these earnest but off-kilter outsiders, “maximizing their minimum skills.”

 For example, the family is enthusiastic but perhaps not always clear on the appropriate effect, as when they push the rhythm of a particular Christmas song to make it sound more threatening than festive.

 The ethnic stereotypes are relatively gentle, although the accents are sometimes impenetrable. The onstage narrative is more a pastiche than a story, but it all adds up to a good time, particularly for children--though there didn’t seem to be many in the opening night audience at the Carlo, that’s very likely to be remedied when the show hits the road this week.

 On a recent Saturday night, Jeff DeMark brought his particular brand of storytelling to an overflow crowd at the Muddy Cup in Arcata. He told some new stories along with selections from his fully-formed shows, accompanied by the UKExperience ukulele band. The combination was often magical.

 DeMark’s stories are funny, and they seem to touch a chord with the local audience as shared experience and nostalgia. But they also penetrate with a poetic humanity, and this versatile ensemble of two ukes, electric bass and drums added to all these effects, but particularly the warmth. Some of the stories were a little rough in presentation but the final one perfectly summed up the potential of this combination.

 DeMark’s story about giving his mother her first marijuana high (at her request) was hilarious, backed at one point by the marching chords of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Then the images of his mother the day after, relaxed and liberated into a youthful freedom, dancing to her favorite recording of Patsy Cline, got just the right accent from the band playing “I Fall To Pieces” as DeMark remarked that he never saw her happier than on that day.
Nothing new this week until Wednesday, when the brave students of North Coast Prep open Shakespeare's King Lear Wednesday. It plays through Saturday, Dec. 10-13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gist Hall Theatre on the HSU campus in Arcata, with a Saturday matinee at 2. Tickets at Arcata Plaza Design or call 822-1670.

Continuing this weekend however is Dell'Arte's Glasnost Family Holiday, the subject of the cover story (by both Hank Sims and Bob Doran) in this week's North Coast Journal. I also review it briefly in the same issue. (If you're wondering, I had no part in the decision to do this story, and didn't see it in advance. I probably only found out about it before publication because I'd committed to reviewing the performance.)

Anyway, it will be in Orick Friday and Fortuna on Saturday before it hits the Arkley Center on Sunday. Find the full schedule and ticket info (all free until the last weekend back at the Carlo) here.

Dell'Arte has also announced a new marketing director. Maybe he can fix their web site, probably the least useful on the North Coast.

Also continuing: The Christmas Story at Ferndale Rep and She Loves Me at North Coast Rep. The Christmas Story is based on the cult movie of the same name, celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. People who love it presumably will love the stage version. I suppose it's possible that people who loathe it (like me) will still like the stage version, although that seems very unlikely.

As for She Loves Me, I noted in my review that this play was also the first production at North Coast Rep, also 25 years ago, but that there's a dearth of documentation concerning that production. (NCRT exec director Michael Thomas recalls seeing a program at some point, but doesn't have anything now.) I invited those who remembered the 1983 production to contact me, and one of the principals did:

"I was one of the leads in the NCRT premiere, directed by Roby Agnew," writes Lisa Monet of Bayside. "My husband Rick St. Charles and I had recently moved here from San Luis Obispo, where we'd been active in community theater ... During the period of rehearsals, (which took place in the remodeled Eagle House) I learned I was expecting our first child, Matt St. Charles. After that production, my musical focus turned to albums for children. We now have two children, and two national award-winning CDs, Circle Time, songs and rhymes for the very young, and Tingaleyo, a bilingual treasure trove of songs in Spanish and English, and plans for the upcoming release of four more titles."
More information can be found at http://www.lisamonetmusic.com/.

Friday, November 28, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

A Christmas Story--the stage version of the cult movie--begins this weekend at Ferndale Rep. Dell'Arte kicks off its series of free Christmas shows this weekend at the Carlo. It's The Glasnost Family Holiday, a comic romp with a musical gypsy family. Then the show moves to various community locations--the schedule is posted at the Dell'Arte web site. She Loves You continues at North Coast Rep.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Little Shop of Ardors: She Loves Me

She Loves Me at the North Coast Repertory Theatre is a delight not because the show features classic songs, or the story has major surprises. It’s because NCRT, which usually does these nostalgic musicals well, has put together a polished production with an accomplished ensemble cast to express the show’s musical and character charms.

 This show by stage veterans Joe Masteroff (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) was an old-fashioned musical comedy even at its premiere. She Loves Me opened on Broadway in April 1963. “She Loves You” was released by the Beatles that August. That pretty much tells the tale: though there were a few classic shows to come, changing musical tastes and other factors meant this particular golden age of the Broadway musical was coming to an end.

 That first production was considered a flop, but the double album of its music kept the show alive. It became a staple of regional and community theatre, leading also to a somewhat more successful Broadway (and especially London) revival in the mid-1990s.

 In 1983 She Loves You was the first production of the brand new North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.  It’s now back on stage at NCRT to celebrate the theatre’s 25th anniversary year.

 Based on a play set in Hungary (which accounts for character names like “Arpad” and “Ladislav”), She Loves Me is set in a shop that sells perfumes, beauty creams and trinkets in an unnamed 1930s European city where unseen economic and political woes have no impact on sales or romance. Ignoring the Depression was common in 1930s film musicals, too, and crucial to their success.

 The romantic plot—two people fall in love through the mail with someone they’ve never seen, then unknowingly become involved in an antagonistic relationship with each other in real life—has been done so many times (as in Nora Ephron’s movie, You’ve Got Mail, which adds elements of the Tracy-Hepburn comedy penned by her parents, Desk Set) that it’s obvious from the first moments what’s going to happen, and to whom.

 So no surprises there, and no hit songs or rescued gems in the score. But the tunes are pleasant, and the lyrics deft and witty. (I envy these songwriters. “What did you did at the office today, dear?” “Oh, I rhymed ‘adolescent’ with ‘incandescent.’”)

 Most of the principal actors get at least one spotlight number, and they all shine. In the romantic leads, Caitlin McMurtry as Amalia is particularly winning, and Rigel Schmitt as Georg capably leads us through the story with his character’s ups and downs.

Phil Zastrow hits the character notes of shopkeeper Mr. Maraczek, from blustery authority to wistful retirement. Patrick Carlisle is convincingly reptilian as Kodaly, the perfume store Lothario.  Kimberlee Brown’s fine costuming is especially apt for this character: his polka dot bow tie and checked jacket are the definition of what once was called “snazzy.”

 Xande Zublin-Meyer entertains as the fetching Ilona, more a bemused modern than working class floozie. Ethan Needham is an appealing Ladislav, the timid clerk with a cosmic perspective, and Ethan Vaughan as the young Arpad is especially winsome, with his ability to express emotion in his postures. As usual, Anders Carlson makes the most of his one big scene, as the headwaiter who enforces his café’s “romantic atmosphere” with Prussian insistence. The café scene is also notable for some accomplished comic acrobatics.

 The unseen “orchestra” was economical and tasteful: Wally Cooper on synthesizer provided elegant variety, Laura Welch was admirable on piano (especially picking up her music box cues), and Bobby Amirkhan kept the pulse on bass. This instrumentation was very effective.

Directors Dianne Zuleger and Tom Phillips put together a show that flows and works as a whole, while constructing solid individual scenes with variety in staging, movement and acting. In addition to the musical solos, the harmonies and group numbers are crisp and affecting.

 The first act is about 90 minutes and feels long, perhaps due to the number of songs without a memorable hit (although Caitlin McMurtry can stop the show more than once.) But there are few if any slack moments in this production. The subplots and romantic byplay keep the story interesting, and the setting of the shop (with Cindy Brown’s serviceable set) is used well. Who could not be charmed by a store where the clerks sing sweet farewells to the customers? The Christmas shopping theme and an evocative Christmas number might help to brighten an otherwise anxious holiday season.

 As for that first production of She Loves Me at NCRT, there seems to be a dearth of documentation. So if anyone who was there—or was part of it—would like to share your memories, we’d love to hear from you.

Postscript: A week later, I was able to relay this response from one of the principals in that 1983 production:

“I was one of the leads in the NCRT premiere, directed by Roby Agnew,” writes Lisa Monet of Bayside. “My husband Rick St. Charles and I had recently moved here from San Luis Obispo where we'd been active in community theater…. During the period of rehearsals, (which took place in the remodeled Eagle House) I learned I was expecting our first child, Matt St. Charles. After that production, my musical focus turned to albums for children. We now have two children, and two national award-winning CDs, Circle Time, songs and rhymes for the very young, and Tingaleyo, a bilingual treasure trove of songs in Spanish and English, and plans for the upcoming release of four more titles.” 

 More information can be found at www.lisamonetmusic.com. Meanwhile the current production of She Loves Me continues at NCRT in Eureka.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Elegance Made Casual

A new book on Fred Astaire and recent airings of Fred and Ginger musicals on TCM occasion the musings below on musicals and the magic of Astaire.

The Man for All Musicals

Generally speaking I'm not a fan of stage musicals, or their movie versions. The music of some of the old and much loved composers just makes me cringe, and I can't stand the excess and mostly phony sentimentality of the stories. The technical bombast and bizarre themes as well as the music of many newer musical don't thrill me either. As a reviewer, I try to avoid the ones I know I loathe, when I can. Why burden readers and be preemptively unfair to the production by clouding things with my own bad mood?

Yet there are some movie musicals I greatly admire, and musical movies that are among my absolute favorite films to watch repeatedly. I love the Beatles movies, and I'm an absolute sucker for The Glenn Miller Story. I caught it on TCM the other night and fell for it again--as phony a biography as it is. The previous night I caught the last half of The Gay Divorcee, one of the first Astaire-Rogers movies. Fred Astaire movie musicals are my Great Exceptions. They always provide delight, and at times they've been enthralling.

Joseph Epstein's new book on Fred Astaire (Yale University Press) suggests why it's possible for me to admire the Astaire musicals so much, while remaining unmoved by most other musicals. It's because these movies are together a singular phenomenon, in that they brought together talents that were each exceptional. "Nobody has ever been able to explain the clustering of talent that shows up at certain points in history," Epstein writes, but it happened with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, especially because of the composers who wrote especially for them (or really, for him): Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern. Together they did some of their best work. The list of classic songs that Astaire introduced is astonishingly long--"Night and Day," "The Way You Look Tonight," "They All Laughed," "Top Hat," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," etc as well as lesser songs that are still brilliant, like "I'd Rather Lead a Band." And then it was over--"bang!, pretty much vanishing forever."

Clustering is one thing, synergy is another. Porter and the Gershwins in particular recognized that Astaire's voice and singing style were perfect for their songs, and they wrote--wrote better, in fact--with that in mind. There were other fruitful coincidences: movie technology was finally up to the task of creating sparkling worlds of song and dance; Astaire and Rogers, whatever their difficulties, were a perfect screen pair, and in their best movies, they were surrounded by great comic role players, like Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore.

Much has already been written about the particular magic of Fred Astaire. Epstein calls it his charm, which he defines as "elegance made casual." The challenge for each film was to sustain and spread that charm to the entire movie--the scripts, cinematography, sets and performances--for its entire length. There were several near-total successes--Top Hat being the closest to perfection-- but Astaire's charm and his dancing could overcome weaker elements, even weak songs, to a greater or lesser extent. Some of his signature dances occur in lesser films, mostly without Rogers. While Epstein gives short shrift to these, I happen to like The Sky's the Limit, Blue Skies, etc.

But such is the delicate balance of this magic that it's hard to pin down exactly what went wrong in some of the films that failed even for me, such as the two Astaire did with the actress he considered his best dance partner, Rita Hayworth. Epstein is not much help here. In fact, this book seemed generally badly written to me, and sloppily edited. I prefer the earlier Astaire and Rogers by Edward Gallafent (Columbia University Press), which is more complete, more factual and less interpretive, with lots more evocative photos.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Jane Hill Returns with Getting It

After rescuing Opera Omaha and growing the Sacramento Philharmonic as executive director, Dell’Arte cofounder Jane Hill has returned to the North Coast, where she’s also known as a stage performer, dramatist and director.

 When she first presented her monologues collected in Getting It, she performed all four characters herself, making her costume changes on stage. In revisiting the piece for the Redwood Curtain production currently on stage at the Arcata Playhouse, she added a new character (as well as other changes to the text) and directs five actors, one per monologue.

 Margaret (played by Lynne Horrigan) is a middle-aged married career woman who has a memorably defining moment in a pole-dancing workout session. Lola (Susan Abbey) is a middle-aged divorced woman who describes her post-marriage journey, carrying forward the theme of sexuality and physical identity, but she also moves on to the theory and practice of service as a life commitment. Linda (the new character, played by Siena Nelson) is a singer-songwriter in her late 20s who describes events leading up to her divorce—as it happens, from the same man as Lola—which includes some satisfying tables-turning. It also includes a song by this Nelson sister.

 Agnes (Christina Jioras) is the self-justifying nursing supervisor at a convalescent care home, and Shirley (Tinamarie Ivey) is one of the patients, a wily 110 year old (well, 92 really, “but nobody's interested in any old woman unless she's over a hundred.”) She’s also “the world’s oldest living tap dancer,” who performs with a walker, living the philosophy of another patient who discovered the reason she’s still alive by studying the flowerbed outside her window: because she’s “still blooming.”

 I saw the show in its preview performance, when (ironically perhaps) it returned to being a four- character evening, due to a rehearsal accident that sidelined Christina Jioras, off getting treatment at curtain time. (She returned to perform Saturday, accompanied by a cane to compensate for a torn hamstring. Once again, evidence that theatre ain’t for the faint-hearted.)

 On a relatively bare set with a backdrop of four attractive screens suggesting the seasons, each character makes a public presentation—at a conference, an award ceremony (for Divorce Recovery Woman of the Year), a support group, a media tour of the convalescent home, and entertaining a local service club.

 The current phrase “getting it” signals the acquiring of an important and perhaps life-changing understanding. Something clicks, which usually involves recognizing facts in the outside world as well as internal insights. For four of these characters, “getting it” may be sudden, even violent, or the result of a series of experiences or insights, leading to action, usually related to marriage, identity and life purpose. (On the page, the exception is Agnes, the nursing supervisor, who seemingly doesn’t “get it” at all. But that’s the performance I didn’t see.)

 All five women have a connection (or two) to at least one of the others, and there’s a sixth woman we never meet who is important to what several of them “get.” Since the issues are mostly feminist, with a couple of the women taking decisive (even homicidal) action against unfaithful spouses, there is a built-in identity politics appeal to the evening. But it’s also replete with theatrical moments, humor and human insight.

 All the actors bring personality and dimension to the characters with their assured performances. Through the writing as well as the performances, we also recognize the characters we don’t actually see. With Jane Hill’s script and deft direction, this production of Getting It pleases and holds the audience’s interest, while offering insights and memorable moments to take home.

 I have some quibbles. It’s a brisk, economical evening, that may exact a cost in clarity and missed opportunities. The light touch that helps to keep it all positive may be too consistent. Themes remain contemporary, but some of the references seem dated. It’s awkward to comment on the part I didn’t see, but at least in the text, the character of the supervising nurse seems completely different from the others, jarringly one-dimensional and unsympathetic. How it plays in performance may be another matter.

 That said, it’s an illuminating and entertaining evening of theatre. The performances in particular are impressive and winning—and it’s a special pleasure to see Siena Nelson return to the stage.

 Getting It plays this weekend (Nov. 13-15) and next (Nov. 20-22.) This is another Redwood Curtain production at the Arcata Playhouse, and there are three more scheduled next season. Meanwhile the search for a permanent RC home goes on—including a plea in the program and on their website for anyone with “a spare warehouse? A barn? An extended garage that seats at least 75?” The enticement is “rent money we don’t know what to do with!” Given the current realities of real estate, this might be an attractive offer, so the number to call is 443-7688, or www.redwoodcurtain.com.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

As part of the Campus Dialogue on Race week, a production of The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe is being presented at Gist Hall Theatre on the HSU campus Thursday and Friday at 8 pm.

Redwood Curtain presents Getting It, written and directed by Jane Hill, at the Arcata Playhouse Friday and Saturday at 8. The production continues a Thursday-Saturday run through November 22. Jane Hill was a co-founder of the Dell'Arte Players and Dell'Arte School. This play, about five women at mid-life "and beyond," is performed by Susan Abbey, Lynnie Horrigan, Tinamarie Ivey, Siena Nelson and Christina Jioras. I'll be writing about it for the Journal next week.

Speaking of next week, next Thursday North Coast Rep opens the musical comedy She Loves Me, which was NCRT's first play 25 years ago.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Arcata Host Elektra

Besides showcasing local performers in the 20 months since it opened its doors at the old Creamery, the Arcata Playhouse has hosted a number of visiting productions. These not only provide opportunities for North Coast audiences, but also for local theatre artists to see interesting work developed elsewhere, especially from larger theatre centers. And thanks to the California Ensemble Touring Initiative funded by the Irvine Foundation, there may be more such opportunities coming along.

The most recent visitors were the Ghost Road Company of Los Angeles, presenting their new version of a play from the dawn of western drama: “Elektra,” the re-titled and reconceived middle play in the trilogy by Aeschylus known as the Oresteia.

“Aeschylus was the first towering figure of the theatre, the first highly individualized voice,” writes Ronald Harwood, playwright and theatre historian. Aeschylus fought in at least one of the major battles that ensured Greek independence from Persia, and he wrote as Athenian democracy was inventing itself. He competed in the contest for tragedy at the annual Dionysian festival for 15 years before he won. His innovations were remarkable. By reducing the chorus and adding a second actor who talks to the first, he invented what we think of as dialogue, or for that matter, a play. He transformed tragic poetry into tragic drama.

Aeschylus is believed to have written some 90 plays (he won that contest at least 12 times), though only seven plays survive, and scholars don’t agree that even all of these are his. But his greatest achievement—and still one of the great epics of theatre—is the Oresteia.

A 1991 production in New York is described by critic Frank Rich as meticulous, elaborate and very controlled, expressing the vision of its director, Ariane Mnouchkline. Ghost Road’s approach, as members of the company discussed it after their opening performance in Arcata, is pretty much the opposite.

Aeschylus was only the starting point. Though director Katharine Noon also adapted the text, this version was created by the ensemble. They sought to make the story accessible, stripping it down to its “nuts and bolts” and viewing it as basically the story of a family, although a very bloody one. In the first play, King Agamemnon kills his youngest daughter so the gods will grant him fair winds to make war on Troy. When he returns victorious, his wife Clytemnestra retaliates by murdering him. In the second play—the one Ghost Road brought to Arcata—their son Orestes murders his mother.

To re-imagine this in contemporary terms, the ensemble collected photographs and articles, did “free- writing” and improvised scenes, switching characters so that eventually every member of the company had played every part. These workshop sessions were videotaped and transcripts were made, that Noon would incorporate in versions of the script as it evolved.

This version centers on Elektra (played by Alina Phelan), who worships her dead father, Agamemnon, and campaigns for the return of her lost brother, Orestes. She lives in a tent festooned with hand-scrawled signs (“Have you seen Orestes?” “Where’s My Brother?”), and rants on her perpetual radio show, suggesting the hysteria of the Dionysian rites that only slightly predate Greek drama, as well as Rush Limbaugh.

The characters of Clytemnestra and Orestes are more ambiguous and familiar: the career woman mother, the assassin with doubts (Orestes may have been a prototype for Hamlet.) The gorgeous language of Aeschylus (in some English translations at least) is entirely gone, replaced by contemporary dialogue and ritual telegrams, like “Waiting—then things start happening all at once, and all the time.”

The Oresteia is famous for depicting the transition from revenge to justice, and there is a hint of it in Orestes’ brief misgivings in this play, but most of it occurs in the third play. So while the Ghost Road version of the middle play is always involving as theatre, it is incomplete: more intriguing than tragic or transcendent.

The real interest is the stagecraft and the high level of acting by everyone in the company. Phelan and Brian Weir as Hermione had the most lines and were the most memorable, but the other actors also deftly created defined characters. The traveling set emphasized a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, although Clytemnestra and her cocktail-sipping lady friends seemed affluent enough to remain haughty. There was a generational tension that also made Elektra seem young and rebellious. It could all be taking place in a contemporary city, which is both a strength (contemporary relevance) and a weakness (contemporary cliche.)

Many of the Ghost Road ensemble studied at Cal Arts but one member with them in Arcata was Ronnie Clark, an HSU Theatre graduate, who played Orestes. Ghost Road is adapting all three plays for performance together in L.A. in the spring.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Winter's Tale

Johanna Hembry and Calder Johnson in HSU's
The Winter's Tale
Tonight at the Van Duzer Theatre on the HSU campus in Arcata, the HSU Theatre, Film and Dance Department opens its production of The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare. I wrote the stuff about it at HSU Stage, and there's an interview with director Rae Robison there that I also conducted and wrote up.

I'll just add some more personal observations about the play. There's a lot about the play that reflects the changing fashions in theatre after the reign of Elizabeth. The court fashion was for the "masque," as created by Indigo Jones, which were elaborate set-pieces in several senses of the word, since the emphasis was on elaborate sets and visual illusions, often with some act of magic or stage trickery involved. In the popular theatre, there was a fashion for more music, and a kind of forerunner to romantic musical comedy. Both fashions are reflected in this play. The final scene with the "statue"--which had already been done as a set piece--is like a masque but for the popular theatre. And there's more music in this play that probably any other Shakespeare.

The show is also typical of Shakespeare in that it takes advantage of the company's actors and the situation. There's a major character who is a trickster and something of a clown, because he had a very good clown in the company. Some theatres were now completely enclosed, and this play was originally shown at both outdoor and indoor venues. Perhaps that has something to do with it starting indoors at a royal court, but in having many scenes in the middle of the play set outdoors, including the famous sheep-shearing scene.

But this was also the next to last play for which Shakespeare claimed sole authorship. Although The Winter's Tale was based on an existing story (and using it was a nice act of revenge against the popular writer who once called Shakespeare an "upstart crow" and accused him of plagiarism--Shakespeare waited until the fellow was dead to steal this story), it also has a quality of Shakespeare's Greatest Hits: there's the jealousy of Othello and the madness of Lear early in the play, and a lot of As You Like It in the middle, with some star-crossed lovers action as in Romeo and Juliet. This play starts as a tragedy, becomes a comedy and ends up with romance and magic. There's mistaken identity as in many plays and even a shipwreck that presages the play he hadn't written yet, The Tempest.

The story is in some ways the journey of Leontes, the king whose jealous violence starts the action--and the conviction he displays when everyone around him is warning him that he's wrong might seem incredible if we hadn't just lived through the presidency of G.W. Bush. But he and his queen, Hermione, disappear for much of the play, and the really central character becomes Perdita, their daughter who we first meet when she is already a young woman. In some ways she's Rosalind (from As You Like It) without the device of being a woman pretending to be a man and therefore permitted to have strong views. She does have strong views--she's got the skepticism of the "working class" shepherds among whom she was raised, and the grace of innate nobility. She's really the most important and most fascinating character. She may also be the voice closest to the playwright's. She deserves a place among Shakespeare's most important female characters.

The differences and relative merits and the places where the either/or break down of court versus countryside, rich versus poor, nature versus artifice, which are present in much of Shakespeare but with particular strength in As You Like It and The Tempest are major concerns in this play.

The Winter's Tale is not much performed these days (though I saw a very good production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival three seasons ago) but it was a very popular play in the performance repertoire in London during and immediately after Shakespeare's lifetime. But I do get the feeling that Shakespeare was seeing theatrical fashion slipping away from the kind of plays he wanted to do, and though he was more than up to adapting in some pretty daring ways with this play, he was getting ready to retire. But not before he revisited some of the key themes and ongoing concerns of his previous work. I think he probably does this more elaborately in The Winter's Tale, before compressing it all in the magic of The Tempest.

The Winter's Tale is legendary also for one stage direction (Exit, pursued by a bear) and for an extreme example of Shakespeare's often shaky references to geography: in this case he gives a seacoast to the landlocked Bohemia. This has led some to feel that the two nations named in the text, Sicilia and Bohemia, are entirely mythical.

Well, mostly maybe, but not entirely. The names of characters in The Winter's Tale are a kind of mishmash, but several are Greek. Leontes, the king of Sicilia, at one point sends to the oracle at Delphi to request Apollo's wisdom on the matter of his wife's alleged infidelity. In fact, there were Greek colonies on Sicilia at the time of the Athenian democracy. The great dramatist Aeschylus made several trips to Sicily, and wrote and produced plays there. In fact, these Greek allusions also suggest the period the play is meant to be set in: the classical Greek age.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Winter's Tale, More on

1. The HSU production of The Winter's Tale was reviewed--astoundingly--in the Lumberjack, the HSU student newspaper that usually does its best to ignore all theatre, dance and musical events involving HSU students. "Just like in high school, Shakespeare's language got in the way of a good time," the Jack review begins, and soon refers to its "nearly foreign words."  So much for the moron in "more on."  Of course, there are now-obscure words in Shakespeare, but the language in this play is not especially difficult.  There's just a lot of it,  which is one problem modern audiences are likely to have in following it.  It's a good reason to see and hear these plays as many times as possible, for each production can yield a greater appreciation for the words and the language, as well as the plays.

2. Here's my brief review from 2006 of that season's Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, directed by OSF artistic director, Libby Appel:

 It begins with a burst of color, music and motion—that (thanks to the excellent sound system as well as the staging) creates the mood in the audience that’s the mood of the characters as we first see them. The court of the mythical Sicilia is joyful at the reunion of its King with his childhood friend, now King of the equally mythical Bohemia.

 Yet in the midst of revelry a single light flashes on the face of the King as he reveals his paranoid fantasies about his friend and his wife, Queen Hermione. A tragic course is set, with murderous plots, betrayals and death. But this course is broken and even reversed, in part by intervention of the gods, and in part by love.

 This late play has some of the earth-magical qualities of The Tempest, references to the tradition of Greek tragedy, and echoes of many of Shakespeare’s previous plays. This production features powerful performances by Miriam A. Laube as Hermione and William Langan as King Leontes, and performances by the entire cast that make this story crystal clear as well as affecting and funny, played against the apparently simple but highly evocative scenery of Rachel Hauck.

 Also featured is Mark Murphey as the trickster god Autolycus, whose performance delightfully proves that physical comedy can serve a substantive text, both as relief and as integral to the story.

Shakespeare’s plays are timeless partly because they speak in different ways to every time, and in this one I was struck by how those who served this king felt honor-bound to dissuade him from his disastrous course. Too bad they aren’t serving in the non-mythical Washington.

3.  Background on The Winter's Tale that I wrote and posted at HSU Stage:

“All roads lead to Shakespeare… He is the very center of a literary education in our language. When we say drama, we mean Shakespeare and the rest.”
Eric Bentley
In Search of Theater

In 1592, a hack writer called Robert Greene complained in print about a young playwright named Shakespeare. Greene called him an “upstart crow,” and accused him of plagiarism.

Some eighteen years later, with Greene safely dead, Shakespeare appropriated the plot of Greene’s most popular prose romance (“Pandosto”) and transformed it into the stage romance, The Winter’s Tale.

Shakespeare’s title meant a kind of “old wives tale,” a made-up story. Perhaps the country folk of England had a tradition like some Native American tribes, of telling stories around the fire in the winter—stories with fantastic elements, that might be fables and teaching stories as well.

The Winter’s Tale was the last play that claims Shakespeare as sole author, except for one more: The Tempest. Though this play is not frequently performed, it contains some of Shakespeare’s most theatrical moments, including spectacles, song and dance, and the very theatrical ending.

Like The Tempest and the earlier As You Like It, this play examines the contrasts of court and countryside, rich nobles and poor country folk, as well as art and nature, magic and real life. Shakespeare suggests ways in which these opposites can be reconciled, as in the character of Perdita, the daughter of noble birth who is raised by shepherds, and who observes that the same sun shines on palace and cottage alike.

“In this play the human and the natural come together," writes Shakespeare biographer Peter Ackroyd, "in the great ongoing rhythm of life itself.”

“The Winter’s Tale conveys more persuasively than any previous work the sustained illusion that the world of dramatic romance is directly related to the world in which we live. Thus in Leontes Shakespeare embodies a new Everyman figure, the tragic king who can be redeemed in this life through penitence and love and the renewal that time brings.” --Norman Rabkin, "Shakespeare and the Common Understanding"

“The Winter’s Tale communicates a joy new in Shakespeare by suggesting the possibility of grace and innocence in a world which presents every appearance of being able to overthrow them.”--Norman Rabkin: "Shakespeare and the Common Understanding."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Elsewhere: August Wilson in SF

Radio Golf, August Wilson's last play in his 20th century cycle has opened in the Bay Area, produced by TheatreWorks at Mountain View Center of the Performing Arts in Mountain View, through Nov. 2. Some details and a Bay Area chronology of Wilson plays in the SF Chronicle. Hat tip to Jeff D. who spotted this and passed it on.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Noises Off at Ferndale Rep

Michael Frayn is an unusual playwright. He began as a reporter and columnist, and has written several novels and books of philosophy, such as the nearly 500-page tome, The Human Touch, which I’ve actually read (encouraged by the San Francisco Chronicle, which paid me to do so.) Probably his most famous play is Copenhagen, a drama concerning two founders of quantum physics. His most recent plays are biographical and political, and he’s a well-regarded translator of Anton Chekhov.

 Then there are his comedies, one of which was so subtle that lead actor Ian McKellan didn’t realize it was supposed to be funny until opening night, when he heard the audience laughing. Noises Off however is anything but subtle, although Frayn maintains it is philosophical: he writes that it concerns the actors’ fear of facing the unrehearsed world outside the theatre.

 But like another British philosophical playwright—Tom Stoppard—Frayn found that philosophy goes over best on stage when it is expressed by people dashing frantically about, with at least one young lady in her underwear.

Noises Off is generally acknowledged to be his comic masterpiece, and one of the funniest plays in contemporary theatre. I saw the original Broadway version in the 80s, from the back of the 1100 seat Brooks Atkinson Theatre (the last rush ticket I ever bought), which at that distance was like watching a circus of comical ants. So I made sure to sit close to the stage at Ferndale Rep.

 In the first act we see a theatre company in a rushed final rehearsal of a farce called Nothing On. The set—part of a country house replete with the many doors required by farce—is turned around for the second act so the backstage is visible, and the relationships and romantic misalliances set up in the first act result in riotous physical comedy. (It was probably this act that Frayn kept rewriting, to include new business invented by various casts.)

 The stage is turned around again for the third act, for a performance at the end of the tour when the actors’ relationships have devolved further, and the chaos has spilled onto the stage.

 The first act is usually the set-up for the next two, but in the Ferndale production it was genuinely funny. The cast performed the physical comedy of the second act flawlessly, producing the most hilarious moments. The third act had lots of payoffs and comic business but seemed less coherent, which is an odd word to use about chaos.

 Besides accomplishing the physical bits at break-neck speed, the actors also had to quickly sketch characters in the first act, aided by Frayn’s skill in providing most with attitudes and catch phrases to capture their characters. 

The entire cast--Adina Lawson, Bryeon Earle, Sam Cord, Brittany Gonzales, Bill and Gerri Cose, Jim Berry and Daniel Amaral—performed both jobs with skill and conviction. Sam Cord deserves special mention for the most acrobatic stunts. All in all, it’s a high quality production, with a solidly handsome set designed by Gary Franklin (during the two unavoidable but draining intermissions, audience members seemed to like watching it be turned around), and 1980s period costumes (complete with leisure suit) by Christen Condry Whisenhunt.

 Director Renee Grinnell, who did Lend Me A Tenor at NCRT last season, again demonstrates her facility for fast-paced farce. Some of the physical humor involves a telephone cord, a lost contact lens and a plate of sardines. It’s fascinating that in the age of cell phones, disposable lenses and microwaved snacks that this comedy still works.

Also the story involves a style of theatre and a theatrical tradition unfamiliar to most of us here, and largely gone. Even the titles (“Noises Off,” “Nothing On”) are British and theatrical puns. But even without the depth of reference, the basic structure and theatricality of  Noises Off can delight audiences in Humboldt County.  Plus the style of Frayn’s language is familiar—he shares a comedic (and philosophical) lineage with Monty Python, Douglas Adams and Beyond the Fringe.

 Besides, theatre stories have their own charm and wide attraction. People who have participated in theatre may have encountered actors like the earnest Frederick, the pompous but vague Garry, etc., or they recognize the stage culture of endearments and entanglements, and this knockabout will have additional resonance, and even sweetness.

Friday, October 3, 2008

This North Coast Weekend and Coming Attractions

Sanctuary Stage presents its second annual 10 Minute Play-in-a-Day event on Saturday at 7 pm at the Eureka Theater. Beginning Friday night, six playwrights, six directors and up to 18 actors will create a ten minute play from scratch, and these six resulting efforts will hit the stage Saturday.

I participated last year, and wrote about it here. Bob Doran writes about it in the Journal this week--including writing about me writing about it; and Beti Trauth previews the process at the T-S. I'm not involved in it this year--for all the reasons I hinted at at the end of my piece on last year's--but I wish everyone well who is doing it. I still recall it as a good experience, something to do once, although in my case one that hasn't seemed to lead anywhere.

I also note in the Journal a review of the San Francisco production of Tom Stoppard's Rock & Roll; review by Jay Herzog. Lucky he got to see it, is all I've got to say.

Otherwise, The Merry Wives of Windsor continues at North Coast Rep. In the wings: The Michael Frayn comedy Noises Off opens at Ferndale Rep next weekend, and the HSU production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale opens the following week.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

R.I.P. Paul Newman

Paul Newman has died at the age of 83. Known
of course for his film roles (my favorites are actually
his later ones, like Absense of Malice, The Verdict
and Nobody's Fool) and his amazing philanthopy,
he was also a stalwart of the American theatre,
notably for taking over the historic Westport Theatre
with his wife, Joanne Woodward. His contributions
to our time in all three areas were exemplary. A life
well lived.

I note also that last month, the English playwright Simon Gray died at the age of 72. Probably best known for Butley,his work was generally so well respected that his frequent director was Harold Pinter.

Elizabethan Sitcom: Merry Wives of Windsor

First the good news: The Merry Wives of Windsor at North Coast Repertory Theatre is skillfully comic.

 With David Hamilton’s fluid direction, an accomplished cast excels at comic invention, and the evening features at least a few moments of comic brilliance.

 Old Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters from the “Henry” plays, writes love letters to two wealthy wives, who trick him three times. There’s a suspicious husband and other comic and slightly romantic subplots. Nearly everyone in this large cast shines, particularly JM Wilkerson as Falstaff. Janet Waddell as the horny housekeeper is especially memorable, as is Jim Buschmann as the French physician by way of Inspector Clouseau. Pat Hamilton’s costumes are pleasing, and scenic designer Tony Leitch’s set helps make the action believable, even as locations change.

 The only problem—and it’s unlikely to be a problem for everyone—is that it’s one of Shakespeare’s weakest and least characteristic plays. When poet W.H. Auden lectured on all the Shakespeare plays at the New School in New York, he devoted just four sentences to this one, calling it “very dull indeed,” and spent the rest of the class playing a recording of Verdi’s opera based on it. Critic Harold Bloom denies that this is even the same character as in the Henry plays; he calls this version “False Falstaff.”

 Even the legend that Shakespeare wrote this play at the special request of Queen Elizabeth is questionable, although it may have been a good excuse. That it is mostly prose is said to make it more understandable to modern audiences, but the words are actually less comprehensible than in many more “poetic” plays, with lots of topical allusions and jokes that you had to be there to get. (Shakespeare was apparently settling scores with people that this play’s first audience might know.)

The actors speed you through this pretty well, so mostly what remains of the language is pretty dull: apart from puns there’s little verbal wit, and even less depth. So what can a production do? Some have underlined the class differences in the characters, or emphasized Falstaff as a man out of his time as well as past his prime. Or you might do as Hamilton did: assemble an impressive cast, give them plenty of individualized comic business, and turn them loose. He does avoid the cruelty possible in some of the “make fun of the fat guy” bits. Basically this is an Elizabethan sitcom, with some burlesque house emphasis on double entendres and even odd remnants of ethnic humor.

 There were some problems opening night: a few uncertain and inconsistent accents, a few comic bits repeated a few too many times, and a few fine voices too indistinct. At two and a half hours, it’s also pretty long for an episode of “I Love Falstaff.”

But if you accept that the usual depth and levels of Shakespeare are largely missing, and that it’s all pretty predictable, you are likely to enjoy this production for its admirable comic dexterity. And for the laughs: even if it’s mostly sketch humor, a lot of it still works. The best moments were full of subtle actions and reactions between two characters, and those were real treats. There could be even more of them by the time you see it.

This North Coast Weekend

I'm remiss this weekend, what with the drama of the presidential debate, but you still have tonight to see "Elektra" at the Arcata Playhouse. You'll see at minimum some very fine acting by the Ghost Road Company of L.A. I'll be writing about it in my next Journal column, which is scheduled for the week after next. (I'm apparently on a strict every-other-week schedule now, alternating with Art Beat.)

Meanwhile North Coast Rep presents The Merry Wives of Windsor. I review it in the Journal, and both the T-S and ER review it as well.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Elsewhere: Stoppard by the Bay

ACT in SF has opened their production
of Tom Stoppard's play, "Rock & Roll."
The Chronicle reviews it here.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Merry Wives of Windsor

First the good news: The Merry Wives of Windsor at North Coast Repertory Theatre is skillfully comic. With David Hamilton’s fluid direction, an accomplished cast excels at comic invention, and the evening features at least a few moments of comic brilliance.

 Old Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters from the “Henry” plays, writes love letters to two wealthy wives, who trick him three times. There’s a suspicious husband and other comic and slightly romantic subplots. Nearly everyone in this large cast shines, particularly JM Wilkerson as Falstaff. Janet Waddell as the horny housekeeper is especially notable, as is Jim Buschmann as the French physician by way of Inspector Clouseau.

 Pat Hamilton’s costumes are pleasing, and scenic designer Tony Leitch’s set helps make the action believable, even as locations change.

 The only problem—and it’s unlikely to be a problem for everyone—is that it’s one of Shakespeare’s weakest and least characteristic plays. When poet W.H. Auden lectured on all the Shakespeare plays at the New School in New York, he devoted just four sentences to this one, calling it “very dull indeed,” and spent the rest of the class playing a recording of Verdi’s opera based on it. Critic Harold Bloom denies that this is even the same character as in the Henry plays; he calls this version “False Falstaff.”

 Even the legend that Shakespeare wrote this play at the special request of Queen Elizabeth is questionable, although it may have been a good excuse. That it is mostly prose is said to make it more understandable to modern audiences, but the words are actually less comprehensible than in many more “poetic” plays, with lots of topical allusions and jokes that you had to be there to get. (Shakespeare was apparently settling scores with people that this play’s first audience might know.)

The actors speed you through this pretty well, so mostly what remains of the language is pretty dull: apart from puns there’s little verbal wit, and even less depth. So what can a production do? Some have underlined the class differences in the characters, or emphasized Falstaff as a man out of his time as well as past his prime. Or you might do as Hamilton did: assemble an impressive cast, give them plenty of individualized comic business, and turn them loose. He does avoid the cruelty possible in some of the “make fun of the fat guy” bits.

 Basically this is an Elizabethan sitcom, with some burlesque house emphasis on double entendres and even odd remnants of ethnic humor. There were some problems opening night: a few uncertain and inconsistent accents, a few comic bits repeated a few too many times, and a few fine voices too indistinct. At two and a half hours, it’s also pretty long for an episode of “I Love Falstaff.”

 But if you accept that the usual depth and levels of Shakespeare are largely missing, and that it’s all pretty predictable, you are likely to enjoy this production for its admirable comic dexterity. And for the laughs: even if it’s mostly sketch humor, a lot of it still works. The best moments were full of subtle actions and reactions between two characters, and those were real treats. There could be even more of them by the time you see it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Fire-Bringer

HSU does a staged reading of a new play, The Fire-Bringer, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM in the Gist Hall Theatre. Beti Trauth also previews this in Northern Lights.

I emphasize that this is a staged reading, which basically means the cast will carry scripts as they move around the stage. There's also minimal staging, lighting and costumes. This is usually how plays in development are first presented, and though staged readings are rare hereabouts, some of the best theatre I've seen has been in this form. It really emphasizes the script and the interactions of characters. In my past experiences with staged readings, I've often gotten so absorbed in it that I stopped noticing the actors were carrying scripts.

The play is about characters in a small timber town dealing with a forest fire, set in 1942. (Since the Journal's cover story this week was about the fires, you'd think they'd mention this play, but they didn't. I mentioned it in my column, which is all I'm permitted to do, since I do publicity for HSU theatre.)

I'm actually writing this after the first performance, which I understand was SRO. (I was at NCRT; I'll be at Gist on Friday.) There was a lively talk-back in which audience members told their own stories about forest fires, especially from this year. There's another talk-back Friday, and perhaps Saturday.

A sidelight: When Judy GeBauer, playwright of The Fire-Bringer, was in Arcata from Denver last week, she stayed with HSU Theatre, Film & Dance chair Bernadette Cheyne and her husband, scenic designer Ivan Hess. Eventually GeBauer and Hess realized they’d both grown up in Oakland at around the same time, let’s say more than a few years ago. Then that they had gone to the same high school, with the same drama teacher. Then that they were there at the same time. Finally, when Ivan found his high school yearbook, there they were: literally on the same page.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The North Coast News

Arcata Playhouse hosts its periodic local All-Star show, "Club Shampoo" on Friday at 9pm: lots of comedy, music, various forms of theatricals, including Jeff DeMark. 822-1575.

Then there are the events on Saturday celebrating, or at least marking, the 150th anniversary of Arcata's founding. The 9th annual Storytelling by the Sea happens Saturday at Patrick's Point.

This note comes from Ferndale Rep:
The Ferndale Repertory Theatre will hold auditions for Jean Shepherd’s family favorite A Christmas Story on Saturday, Sept. 13 at 3 pm and Sunday, Sept. 14 at 2 pm at the Ferndale Repertory Theatre, 447 Main Street in Ferndale.

Director Vikki Young seeks: 2 men, ages 35-45; 2 women, ages 30-50; 5 boys, ages 6-13; 2 girls, aged 9-13. Prepared auditions pieces are not required. Auditioners will read from the script. Adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian from the popular motion picture, we meet the Parker family and 9-year old Ralphie who receives the ever-present warning, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” when he asks for an official 200-shot Red Ryder Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas.

Production dates are November 29 through December 21 and all rehearsals will be held in Ferndale. For further information, call 786-5483 x 203.

North Coast Rep begins its season next Thursday with The Merry Wives of Windsor. and HSU has a staged reading of a new play, Fire-Bringer, Thursday through Saturday. We're going to have quite a Shakespearian year, with HSU doing The Winter's Tale in October and North Coast Prep planning King Lear.

My Journal column on Donald Lacy's show got bumped for space, and is promised for next week's issue. I may post an expanded version here before then.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Color Struck Strikes The Right Notes

On August 28, 1963 I was one of more than a quarter of a million people in the now-famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I was 17, and as magical as that day was, I recall that it was very controversial.

 On August 28, 2008, I watched an African American accepting the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States. But as hopeful and personally satisfying as this historic moment is, the presidential campaign of Barack Obama also exposes undercurrents of residual racism that most white people don’t normally notice.

 Race has been a topic on stage for these 40 years and more, in lots of different ways, employing different styles with different effects. The Lorraine Hansberry family drama of the 1950s stressed universality, evoking empathy. The in-your-face, up-against-the -wall confrontations of the 60s were shocking, which opened eyes but also provoked some defensive white anger. These styles exposed the problem of how to deal honestly with the facts of racism without driving the wedge deeper between the races.

 New strategies emerged in the comedy of Richard Pryor and the plays of August Wilson: using comfortable forms (traditional theatre, stand-up comedy) and showcasing cultural style (music, humor, ways of talking, etc.) but with clear evocation of the costs and realities of racism.

 But over the years, as racial discrimination became less overt and less visible to whites, and pious lip service as well as sincere commitment to color blindness became standard, the realities of racism have receded from public dialogue. The racism playing out in this campaign for instance, is at the “dog whistle” level: frequencies heard and understood only by racists and their victims.

 All of these pose problems and possible strategies for an on-stage attempt to deal with race in 2008, such as Color Struck, a one-person show by Donald Lacy, up from Oakland for a couple of performances last weekend at the Arcata Playhouse (though the show may return to Humboldt in the spring.)

 Lacy has a formidable resume. He’s acted in films by Francis Ford Coppola and Taylor Bickford, and in plays by August Wilson, Brecht and Octavio Solis. He’s directed and written plays, including “The Loudest Scream You’ll Never Hear,” about the Atlanta child murders. He’s written for TV, and he’s a stand-up comic, with appearances on HBO and BET. He’s a radio broadcaster—you can hear him on the web at KPO.com. He’s received accolades for his humanitarian work in the Bay Area, and he’s had what I consider a major dream job: the Voice of the Harlem Globetrotters for a 75-city tour.

 He brings all this experience and all these skills to bear in “Color Struck.” Lacy uses music, dance and projected images to evoke style (hairstyles from the conked 40s, the processed 50s, through the Afro-Sheen 70s to today’s dreds) and shared experience (TV shows, family life) along with his own discoveries of racism and theories about it.  He had the additional problem of being a light-skinned African American, in a black Oakland neighborhood that abutted white San Leandro.

 This personal review touches upon topics like the Black Panthers, Rodney King, OJ and Katrina, as well as black grandmothers, the symbolism of King Kong and the images of black lynchings in the not too distant past.

 The show (directed by Michael Torres, with music and sound by Tommy Shepherd) uses radio to organize the content in a couple of ways. Lacy is introduced at the radio microphone in silhouette, and he seems to change subjects in his monologue according to songs we all hear as if randomly from the radio.

 The strategies of humorous recollection up against pathos and tragedy deftly evoke the human costs of racism, with that quick dose of shock that makes the moment memorable, although (if I understood one person in the Q and A after the show I saw) some white people can still feel attacked.

But older audiences of any race could relate to aspects of common culture now gone (including the kind of middle class factory jobs his parents had: his father at RCA, his mother at Western Electric.) Younger audiences learn history they may never have heard.

 It’s worth celebrating that while our society is getting more diverse, race matters less to young people. But this may also augment an embarrassed but damaging silence on racism that still does exist. Lacy’s show is one of the few opportunities to bring these realities to light, and it does so effectively, while being an entertaining piece of theatre.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

This Insubstantial Pageant

That's what Shakespeare called it, but his texts
have remained pretty substantial. The text and
the moment, as in Tony Kushner's "Angels in
America" and its various performances on stage
and screen, demonstrate that the tension between
text and performance is theatre, and is a lot of its
enduring value. See post below. Posted by Picasa