Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Critical Thinking

The new American Theatre magazine has several articles on theatre critics and criticism. "Should You Take A Critic To Lunch?" interviews critics in several cities that aren't New York (including Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle) and "Notes on Heart and Mind" is an essay on the current state of theatre criticism and critical training. The image that emerges is of a dwindling number of newspapers and magazines with full-time critics or just about any theatre reviewing, resulting in badly paid part-time critics with dubious qualifications and little opportunity for education as critics (there are few academic programs, courses of study or even workshops specifically for critics.)

Badly paid part-time critic sounds familiar--oh yeah, that's me. Another elements of the state of coverage rings a bell, such as the observation that New York newspapers have recently hired younger first-string critics, which "Heart and Mind" author Randy Gener says "presumably, could attract young readers. (A related irony: Nobody ever argued that hiring a female theatre critic could equally attract female theatregoers and readers.)"

Actually, I would broaden or reorient that observation. The problem I see isn't younger critics--it's the bias in coverage towards youth-oriented entertainment. Theatres attract, include and depend on older audience members as part of the mix. While a production of Hamlet could attract an audience varying widely in age more readily than a hip hop concert might, advertisers are more interested in the hip hop concert precisely because it attracts the young demographic they desire. Their theory being that young people are more susceptible to advertising and trend-oriented marketing. So the coverage follows that demographic's interests. This is a trend I see here in North Coast newspapers, even though theatre, dance and classical music are actually amazingly strong for such a small "market." But then, it's an older population. The newspapers are actually orienting themselves to fewer readers in their arts and entertainment coverage.

The magazine also includes an edited version of a symposium with three of the giants in theatre criticism of this era: Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein and Stanley Kaufmann. It's an entertaining if not terribly substantive article, but it does contain Bentley's advice to young people: don't be a critic, be a playwright! There are certainly more academic opportunities for that, although I tend to think that the educational value of very specific "training" in any form of writing (including criticism) is overvalued. None of the above named trinity, for example, got a degree in theatre criticism. The institutes and workshops for critics the magazine lists, however, are probably very useful.

They do discuss some of the perennial issues of theatre criticism and reviewing, such as the conflicts between the "consumer guide" aspect and more integral criticism, and also the effect of criticism on the people putting on the plays, as well as the proper relationship of critics to those who create theatre. (This discussion and the other articles I mention all strongly favor a closer relationship and continuing dialogue, which I also endorse. I also believe that critics should have experience participating at some level in whatever they're critiquing.)

There are the problems of the critic as writer as well as thinker, and other issues that may be of little interest to non-critics. However, Brustein did talk about what kept him from going crazy, writing about show after show:

So the task I set for myself was to put theatre into a context and try to see how this or that play fit into our particular time, our particular society, our particular culture, our particular political life, and how it reflected on that. I don’t think anyone can write a word without somehow creating that kind of reflection. You just have to find it. Then I began to get happier about my criticism.

Oh, to have the paid time and newsprint to do more of that!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

Claire Smith as Fire Ant in
Insectia at HSU
Posted by Picasa

This North Coast Weekend

Apart from the ongoing political theatre, there's one new show opening and several one-weekend presentations.

Opening tonight at HSU is Insectia...the ant war, an HSU Theatre, Film & Dance production which runs this weekend and next, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 in the Van Duzer Theatre, with a 2pm matinee this Sunday. It's a physical theatre show for families and school children, though the live band (led by Gregg Moore), the effects and stage fighting, and especially the cool anime-inspired costumes, might appeal to kids of all ages. It's short, so it's priced to move. More info here.

The much-discussed production of The Vagina Monologues found a home at the Eureka Theatre, and will be performed on Friday and Saturday beginning at 6:30 PM. Proceeds from the door and a silent auction go to local community service organizations. There's an info website.

The Arcata Playhouse hosts another traveling troupe, the Carpetbag Brigade Physical Theater Company, which presents You Don't Know Jack on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at 8. It's subtitled "An Akashic Fairytale Shipwrecked Between Myth and Reality" and is described as a post-modern fairy tale about a dysfunctional family recovering from war. The company has it's own website, too.

Around We Go Again is an evening of three works by second-year students of the Dell’Arte International MFA program. Up Is To My Left is inspired by Tim O’Brien’s short story "The Things They Carried", about the Vietnam War. Dreams of Iron Beams is inspired by the story "Mrs. Ferris" by Paul LaFarge. It's about George Washington Gale Ferris of Galesburg, Illinois, who designed something special for the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago. (Oh come on, you can guess!) An Ingenious Experiment is a dark comedy inspired by Roald Dahl’s story "Georgie Porgy," exploring the effects of a traumatic childhood incident. You get all three for the price of one at the Carlo Theatre, tonight, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, with a Sunday matinee at 2. Info at Dell'Arte.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

North Coast Prep: Twelfth Night

The juniors and seniors of North Coast Prep elected to do two different plays instead of double-casting one, as they usually do. They played over two recent weekends in the Gist Theatre at HSU.

The second play to be seen was something of a departure from modern dramas of the past several productions--this time, a comedy by Shakespeare: Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night probably premiered in wintry London exactly 406 years before North Coast Prep presented their shorter version, when on the North Coast, too, “… the rain it raineth everyday.” It's a somewhat controversial comedy. Some see it as witty and rambunctious, others as bitter and troublesome, especially in the treatment of Malvolio. Auden called it an unpleasant comedy, a precursor to Shakespeare's dark dramas which soon followed.

There's a quite good movie version from 1996, with Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Kingsley and Nigel Hawthorne. As that film suggests, the play is known for the number of good roles that allow the actors to shine, and so several talented North Coast Prep students did. Though the words were not always intelligible (at least to me), the direction was so clear and the actors so prepared that the audience was able to follow the action. Special credit therefore goes to director Jeanne Bazemore, who may have set a North Coast record with three shows in three weeks, and to assistant director Gretha Omey.

The program notes emphasize the play as an entertainment for the Twelfth Night celebrations in early 17th century London (it's the play that the Judi Dench version of Queen Elizabeth commissions Shakespeare to do, just after she'd seen Romeo and Juliet, in Shakespeare in Love. Though this is fictional, one of the many subtle touches of this movie--probably due to Tom Stoppard's co-authorship--is that as we see Shakespeare imagining Twelfth Night, the character Viola's shipwreck referred to in the play is cleverly transposed to the actual shipwreck of Jamestown colonists, with the Viola of the movie--Shakespeare's fictional beloved played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who was off to America--as its survivor.)

This view of the play as an entertainment for that celebration is an interesting and valid approach, since the tradition of the festivals in which peasants became the Lords of Misrule for a day, and tradition of the jester or "allowed Fool" which lasted for centuries, are important historically as well as artistically.
And confusions of the brother and sister in the play, as well as one of the more famous Shakespearian uses of the Fool, does reflect those traditions.

But while this version told the story with fluidity across the expansive set, it was more a simplified entertainment than an illuminating exploration of the play. But of course a school play has other purposes, with the resulting limitations, such as casting. Still, a number of these students clearly could be quite successful as performers as they move on from high school.

Once more, Gerald Beck's set was wonderfully evocative, but instead of heaping the usual praise, I will quarrel slightly with his choices as lighting designer. As no less a theatre mind than Laurence Olivier knew, in a play with a lot of words, brighter is better. People hear better when they see better.

North Coast Prep: The Crucible

The previous weekend, North Coast Prep’s Young Actors Guild presented Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible. This play about the Witch Trials in colonial New England is famous as an allegory of 1950s McCarthyism, but as the audience for this production learned in 2008, it has equally relevant resonance.

There were some possibly anachronistic elements, such as John Proctor's willingness to give up his soul but not his good name. This was very important in the Blacklist and McCarthy era, when people were asked to "name names." But it may have less power in this age of Internet anonimity and the media relativism of reputation. But otherwise, Miller's play holds up very well, both in craftsmanship and in perennial relevance. For example, it was hard not to see the entire Bush era in the arc from fear hyped up for political and economic reasons, and abetted by religious extremism, to a society falling apart.

Miller deftly layers the practical reasons why Salem townspeople want to demonize each other, and later why they need to pull back from a community in chaos. But Miller’s emphasis is on that particular hormone-fueled mixture of fear and ecstasy known as hysteria.

Hysteria in this sense knows no gender, but it certainly is expressed with chilling power by a set of screaming adolescent girls, who mesmerize the court with their “ability” to see Satan. Though the play suggests the role of Puritanical repression, it doesn’t depend on it—there are all kinds of repressions in our “permissive” society. We can even see a template for this kind of hysteria in the national response to terrorism, and a similar exploitation of it by authorities.

After laying the groundwork in the first act, this production gathered force for a superior second act. Overall the presentation (directed by Jean Bazemore) was clear and thoughtful, with many fine performances. Chisa Hughes was daunting as Abigail Williams, the leader of the witch-finding girls; Elena Tessler was a convincing Tituba, and Dominick Roney fully conveyed the transformation of investigator Reverend Hale from self-righteous to conscience-stricken. While Elijah Singer capably portrayed the moral anguish of John Proctor, Fiona Ryder played Elizabeth Proctor with such depth and nuance that this relatively static character became the still center of the drama.

But what made this show particularly vital for the opening night audience was the evident emotion of this diverse young cast, and their deep involvement in the play—a power to communicate that leapt across the stage.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy perform
Parallel Lives at the Accident Gallery
in Eureka this Friday and Saturday. Posted by Picasa

This North Coast Weekend

Tonight (Thursday) at the Van Duzer, CenterArts presents several huge semis worth of Hairspray. Maybe because I made fun of "JS Superstar," they didn't bother sending me a press release on this one. Or an invitation. Very unclassy and mucho gauche.

On Friday, the Four on the Floor folks will celebrate the first anniversary of the Arcata Playhouse with another Club Shampoo, a "hair-raising" revue. Hosted by David Ferney and Jacqueline Dandeneau, it features special guests Lila Nelson, Jeff Demark, Joyce Hough & Fred Neighbor, Glasnost Gypsy Band, The Brendas and "many more." I wonder who the non-special guests will be. It was a fun community event last year, so they recommend reservations. (822-1575.) Doors (and bar) open at 8:30, with the show scheduled to start at 9.

Mo Gaffney and Kathy Najimy play over 50 parts in the comedy they also wrote, Parallel Lives, which begins tomorrow (Friday the 8th) at the Accidental Gallery in Eureka, presented by Shake the Bard Theatre. It continues Saturday, and next Friday and Saturday as well. Topics considered include Disney movies, country and western bars and teenage dating, not necessarily in that order.

Marat/Sade continues at North Coast Rep and 12 Angry Men at Ferndale Rep.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Dell'Arte's The Golden State in L.A.

“It was a performance in Los Angeles in 1981 that kind of put Dell’Arte on the map,” Michael Field, the Company’s Producing Artistic Director recalled last week. We did Intrigue at Ah-Pah at the Odyssey Theatre.” After the first weekend, when Fields was sleeping on a floor somewhere, somebody handed him a copy of the Los Angeles Times. Dell’Arte was on the cover of the calendar section with a rave.

 After that, “the show sold out six weekends of performances—in three hours.  I looked out in the audience one night and there in the front row was Milton Berle.”

 “So we developed a relationship with Los Angeles,” Fields explained. “We used to go there every year or two, and we had a following down there. But due to a lot of factors, like economics and relations with theatres that changed hands, we stopped going, except for an occasional university one night stand.”

 But starting February 7, the romance may be re-ignited. After warming up with performances at Occidental College, the Dell’Arte Company begins a three week run of The Golden State at the 24th Street Theatre in Los Angeles.

 New to L.A., the show was first seen on the North Coast in 2004, and local audiences got a one-weekend preview of the new production at the Carlo Theatre. Right after a sold-out Saturday performance, the show was packed up and on the road the next day.

 The new production reprised the performances of the southern California family-- Joan Schirle as the miserly lead (Gertrude Hopper), Barbara Geary as her despondently randy daughter, Tyler Rich as her generously confused son (Cubby)—as well as Keight Gleason as Ursula, the Russian √©migr√© executive maid.

 New additions include Adrian Meija as the fabulously fey Federico, Laurabeth Greenwald as the sassy, sexy Latina maid and John Achorn as the matron-ex-machina, Bunny Schimpf.

 The role of Luis, the Latino gardener (the closest this show has to a hero), was originally written for Guillermo Calderon, but this is the first time he has been available to perform it. A 1999 Dell’Arte graduate, he teaches and acts primarily in Chile.

Michael Fields directed, with set, costume and design by Guillo Cesare Perrone. But most notable about The Golden State is the script by Lauren Wilson, a Dell’Arte graduate who was a member of the company when she was commissioned to do a contemporary adaptation of Moliere’s The Miser. Her comic tragedy (in which everyone dies happily ever after) provides original, dimensional characters, an ironic, absorbing narrative and witty dialogue that supports and inspires the physical performances.

 Wilson now lives in New York, where, according to Fields, “she’s doing quite well. She’s been published an anthology of short plays with Steve Martin, among others. She’s kind of an emerging playwright in this country, so we were lucky to get her when she was part of our group.”

 “The Golden State is perfect for Los Angeles,” Fields said, “because it’s funny, it’s something in the physical style you don’t often see there, and it happens to be about a number of hot topics in southern California, like the wildfires and the immigration issue. Part of our impetus for commissioning this was because of what we saw then of the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. And that’s only gotten worse.”

 But why the return to L.A. now? It started this summer with the Occidental College booking. “ That was a pretty good anchor gig, so we thought, why not run again? We talked with the people at the 24th Street Theatre, and we just really hit it off.”

 The theatre is a former carriage house located near USC and the convergence of highway 110 with “the 10.” “It’s a gorgeous space in a beautiful neighborhood,” Fields said. “Not big—about 100 seats—but a big stage area, especially for L.A. These small houses there are often tiny all around. That was a big problem in the old days—we couldn’t fit our sets in half the houses.”

 Dell’Arte was able to return partly because of changes in technology that make it more affordable, and partly because it’s the shared risk of a co-production with a real partner. “Each city has its peculiarities. In L.A. the preponderance of promotion is done by radio, because everybody sits in their cars. It’s a whole different way of looking at how you get audience there. And the fact that in L.A. now many people will not come out on week nights because of the traffic. So a lot of places aren’t even doing Friday shows anymore.”

 “The nature of touring has changed so much,” Fields said. “Now it’s really about establishing ongoing relationships with theatres, especially in big cities. We’ve started doing that in San Francisco and now L.A. We’re already talking with the 24th Street Theatre about another production in 2009.”

 Dell’Arte also needs to return, or at least to get out on the road. “We are touring more,” Fields confirmed. “ It’s also about keeping the profile of the company up. The students we get for our school, the funding bases of the company—they don’t all exist here in Humboldt County. So we have to put our work into the theatrical marketplace.”

 “And it also helps us,” Fields added. “It’s a reality check on our own work—to put it into a critical environment like a big city.”

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Twelve Angry Men at Ferndale Rep

Two things occurred to me before I saw 12 Angry Men at the Ferndale Repertory theatre. First, that once you find yourself in the jury pool in Humboldt County, you can pretty much count on getting called to the Court House every damn year. That doesn’t happen everywhere. So some sizeable proportion of those seeing this play--which dramatizes a jury’s deliberation—may be in position to compare it to their own experiences.

Second, I thought about this play’s author, Reginald Rose, one of TV’s first serious writers. Though its most famous incarnation was the 1957 feature film starring Henry Fonda, this story started out as a television play in 1954 for the classic showcase, Studio One. Rose also created and wrote for the television series The Defenders in the early 1960s, with defense attorneys as heroes. There were other dramas on TV then (The Law and Mr. Jones was my other favorite) that championed constitutional protections and the rights of the accused, but that point of view has largely been absent from TV for decades.

The cop shows, the Law and Order-style dramas all demonize defendants and defense attorneys, as do the crime obsessed non-fiction series, the cops and prisons “reality” shows and “documentaries.” Except for Alan Shore’s closing arguments on Boston Legal, we never see defendant’s rights defended, and since many of his clients are pretty odd, today’s TV audiences seldom see themselves in the accused.

So that’s some of what audiences might bring to this stage version of 12 Angry Men, in which a jury deals with what seems like an open and shut murder case, except for a lone juror who doesn’t agree. The movement of jurors back and forth on a question that, when answered, decides the freedom or the execution of another human being is the potent dramatic material. The lives and psychologies of the jurors become as important as the facts of the case.

Director Gene Cole has assembled a worthy cast, all of whom fully inhabit their roles even when they don’t have a lot to do. That’s important because, unlike television and film, a stage play doesn’t have a lot of close-ups. Bill Cose has the unenviable task of the Henry Fonda role (for which the American Film Institute named Fonda as the greatest movie hero of the 20th century). He approaches it with Fondaesque modesty, and though his later assertiveness isn’t quite as convincing, he is perhaps a more believable juror.

Victor Howard as the juror most intent on a guilty verdict is inspired casting—he is younger and more physical than has been usual in the various screen and stage productions. He brings an energy and conviction that maintain the tension, though his motives are less clear than this character expressed in the movie.

Ellsworth Pence as the affluent rationalist stockbroker keeps the play in balance. Albert Martinez and Bob Clark are especially watchable—and recognizable—in their roles, but everyone is credible, keeping you in the story. Those who know the movie version will recall the growing claustrophobic feeling induced by tight camera shots. Perhaps Rose depended on that, and that’s why the second act loses some of the dramatic shape of the first act. But it might be even more realistic this way.

This Ferndale production makes for an absorbing evening of theatre for any audience, but I suspect ex-jurors will be especially taken by its durable realism. As many times as I’ve endured long mornings of jury selection (and once, long afternoons as well--mostly listening to everyone being questioned about every encounter with a hostile dog in their entire lives), I’ve been on a jury only once. (My record of advocacy against the recall of D.A. Gallegos usually got me excused.) It wasn't much of a case--the judge commended us for spending more time in our deliberations than the prosecutor and defense attorney had in making their cases at trial. Which was partly why we deliberated so long--just as the deficiencies of the defense counsel was a problem for the jury in this play.

But as a result, I can testify that opinions can indeed swing back and forth, and emotions can run high in the jury room, even when the stakes are relatively minor, as in my one trial. Still, I will remember the man next to me pounding his fist on the jury room table and shouting into my face, impressing me with the fact that he was a head taller and 100 pounds heavier. (Channeling my inner Fonda, I was unmoved.) Imagine my surprise when I saw him again on a local stage, as an actor with a small role (though not in this play.) I wonder, should I have recused myself from reviewing that show?

Here's an interesting tidbit/coincidence: 12 Angry Men apparently didn't make it to Broadway as a play until 2004. The production went on tour after that, and for part of it, actor Robert Foxworth played juror #3. Foxworth was married to Ferndale Rep Exec Director Marilyn MCormick and is the father of their actor son, Bo Foxworth.

Note on the photo: It's seven angry men there. Almost half the cast is missing for this publicity shot--I know the problem well-- but it's worth mentioning that among those missing are most of the younger guys.