Sunday, March 30, 2008

Let the Sunshine Back In: Hair in 2008

Unlike any shows before and few since, the musical Hair was produced in several U.S. cities at the same time it was still on Broadway. I saw it in San Francisco in 1969. I had a friend in the cast, who’d been the lead in the play I wrote and directed at college a year before, a similar 60s-spirited extravaganza called What’s Happening, Baby Jesus? (So we were pre-J.S. Superstar as well.)

 We were a bit snobbish about Hair—it seemed so 1966. A year seemed like a decade then.

 But now everything old is new again, especially as there’s so much linking 2008 with 1968, when Hair premiered on Broadway. That symmetry surprised director Vikki Young when Ferndale Rep decided to do a 40th anniversary production of the original American tribal love-rock musical.

Hair's original Broadway cast include Diane Keaton
 “Forty years ago we were embroiled in an unpopular war, there were racial issues, economic, environmental issues, and it was an election year,” she said. “Here we are forty years later, and nothing has changed. As a matter of fact, we’ve probably stepped slightly backward.”

“When I started this I had no idea that I would be so affected by this play. It is so timely—the images, the songs, the message that it delivers probably is more valid today than it was back then.”

The process of developing the production with a large, integrated cast whose ages range from 18 to 60 was particularly powerful, Young said. She found herself explaining a lot to the younger actors, like who LBJ and Margaret Mead were.

On the other hand, one of the older actors is “just getting to the point where she can do the final number without bursting into tears.”

Ferndale Rep’s production begins this weekend with a preview on Thursday, April 3. It feature’s a five piece band with musical direction by Tom Phillips, and choreography by Linda Maxwell.

There will, however, be no nudity, as there famously was in the original. “At first I was going to do it, but then I thought –why?” Young said. “Back then it was done as a message—today you see nudity on national television. It’s not shocking. This is something we didn’t need to do.”

But there’s no avoiding the political themes, and the Ferndale production won’t even try. That’s certainly in the spirit of the original—it played nationally while it was still on Broadway because the producers wanted to spread its anti-Vietnam war message.

 “I don’t think any of us have ever seen such excitement about a show coming to our stage,” Young said, the anticipation primarily coming from those who remember the show from its LBJ/MLK/RFK-era past. But a young, energetic cast and the show’s eerie relevance today may make it a hot ticket for the Obama generation, too.

 Also beginning this weekend, College of the Redwoods presents La Bete, a comedy in verse by contemporary playwright David Hirson. CR drama instructor Kjeld Lyth directs. This play about a 17th century theatre company was Hirson’s first, and received an elaborate Broadway production in 1991 that resulted in several Tony nominations. New York Times critic Frank Rich praised its ambition to create “a mock-Moliere comedy of manners and ideas as refracted through (or deconstructed by) a post-modern sensibility,” though he didn’t think it succeeded.
 But it was a hit later in London, winning a Laurence Olivier Award for best comedy. It’s since been done by regional theatres.

This production of La Bete will be “performed at breakneck speed in an absurdly high-comic style,” according to the CR description. In this play and his subsequent comedy, Wrong Mountain, playwright Hirson satirizes the contemporary theatre for its high art pretensions and low standards. Critics and audiences have argued over whether he does so successfully.

 Your chance to experience the play and join the argument comes this weekend and next, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm in the CR Forum Theater. There’s also a matinee this Sunday (April 6) at 2 pm.

 Also this weekend, an experiment begins at the Arcata Playhouse where Dell’ Arte, Four on the Floor Theatre and a Canadian company collaborate on a work-in-progress about a Depression-era freak show, called “Crawdaddy: A Freak Tragedy.” It also runs two weekends, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8. Watch this space for more.

 Finally, Helen, a contemporary comedy about Helen of Troy, has its final three performances this weekend in the Gist Hall Theatre, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm. I am involved to a more than usual degree in this HSU production, so use that information in judging my integrity, but I feel readers who usually agree with my observations will want to know about this intelligent, theatrical comedy, and its uniformly fine performances. In particular, Darcy Daughtry, who has appeared in smaller roles in various community productions, is wonderful as Helen.

 One bit of old business: last week I found myself in the odd position of writing a letter to the editor about my own column, objecting to the term “trailer trash” that appeared in a sub-head (that I didn’t write.) The letter was printed under a clever headline I still don’t understand, so I thought I’d better explain here why I find the term objectionable---with an appropriately theatrical anecdote.

 In an American Theatre magazine interview, playwright Lucy Thurber recalled a conversation she had with August Wilson (a great American playwright who wrote about the African-American experience) at a playwrights conference several years ago. Explaining her own plays, Thurber told him, “I write about poor white trash.”

 Wilson asked her, “Are you trash?” “No,” she said, “I’m just using it as a descriptive term to explain that part of the population.” “Again, I ask you,” Wilson said, “are you trash? Are the people that you grew up with trash? Are the people you love trash?”

 "That was a huge, emotional moment for me," Thurber said in the interview. "The language we use about ourselves is important. There is something about having the courage to talk with dignity and trust and faith about these parts of America that are us."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

Darcy Daughtry and Erik Rhea in HELEN, a comedy
about Helen of Troy, at HSU's Gist Theatre, Thursday
through Saturday at 7:30 PM. HSUStage for details.
Posted by Picasa

HELEN Wheels at HSU

I'm even more involved than usual in the next HSU production, which begins Thursday. Not only did I handle the media releases and material on the HSU Stage web page for Helen, but I did some dramaturgical research for the director, who also is my partner, Margaret Thomas Kelso. So consider this more of an insider account, if you wish.

Helen is a comedy about Helen of Troy adapted by contemporary American playwright Ellen McLaughlin from a play by Euripides. Years ago, Eric Bentley suggested that university theatre should mount four kinds of plays: the great classics of the past, new plays, modern classics, and forgotten plays. This play is a fairly new, very modern forgotten play that adapts an ancient forgotten classic. (Although, by some cosmic coincidence, the rarely performed Euripides version of Helen was done at UC Santa Cruz earlier this month. )

Ellen McLaughlin has done closer adaptations of other Greek plays, but this is more her own. She's also an actor--in fact, she was the original Angel in Angels in America, from its first workshops through Broadway. Her working relationship with Tony Kushner continued when he directed the New York production of Helen at the Public Theatre. But I only found a few productions of it since. So this is a rare opportunity to see it.

I saw a run-through a couple of weeks ago, before the tech stuff was added. I've heard film directors say that the biggest part of their job is done in casting the movie. When I saw the run-through, I felt that way about this cast: they're at least half the battle. There are only five actors, and only two of them have more than one big scene. But they all look right for their roles and they all bring something interesting to their characters, and perhaps most importantly as a starting point, they all have a strong stage presence. Stage presence is really a mostly intangible combination of factors that adds up to someone your eyes and ears are drawn to, someone you just have to watch when they're on stage.

The casting coup was Darcy Daughtry, who plays Helen. Helen is on stage for all but a moment of the play, and it turns out that Darcy can hold that stage with ease. She's been in North Coast theatre since she was a child, I'm told. I've seen her in several North Coast Rep productions, and in last season's Othello. But not in a role this major. Judging from what I've seen, and what I've heard Margaret say about the work she's been doing on the part, I think this could be a breakout role for her. She's got an immense charm and assurance. She holds the stage, and she takes you with her.

This is Margaret's first full length play as a director here. She directed several plays at her last job, including one with a very large cast. (I ran a follow spot for that one, and did some sound, as I recall. ) In fact, shortly after we met in Pittsburgh, she directed a short play I wrote. Directing can be exhausting and thankless, but she's really been thriving on this experience. She's already looking for another play to direct, for the HSU season after next. She seems happier doing this than working on the play she wrote (Relative Captivity) while it was being done last term. I attribute a lot of that to working with Darcy, but directing as a practical matter, as an activity even apart from the outcome, is about relationships as much as anything else. I can't say for sure, but she seems to have "a happy set" (borrowing from movie lore again.)

(Of course, these are human beings--and besides that, college students. And it's spring. So with all the people involved--cast, crew, etc.-- a romance beginning, a romance ending can both wreak their little havoc on efficiency. It happens.)

Directing in an academic setting has its particular challenges as well as opportunities. Mounting the best show is just part of it; the learning experience for students is another. Seeing how that works in previous college productions I've observed has certainly fed back into how I review plays in any academic setting. But as far as what becomes visible, the opportunity is for all of us to discover something fresh and new. Sometimes that leads to surprisingly new ways into a play. That's very likely with Helen, partly because it's been done so few times.

But there are other complications in an academic setting, like the calendar. Between the run-through I saw and the dress rehearsals this week, there was spring break. That certainly complicated the publicity, and it seems to have made this week more frantic. But all theatre is like that--as in that famous, favorite quotation from Shakespeare in Love:"Let me explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to immense disaster…" " So what do we do?" "Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well." "How?" "I don’t know. It’s a mystery."

Of course, it's not all mysterious. There's a lot of planning, vision, care, effort and sacrifice as well as last-minute creativity and sudden concentration. I've heard about some new tech stuff being added to Helen, as well as sound and light problems on the way to being solved. So I'm wondering if I should sneak into the last dress rehearsal tonight, or wait for opening night Thursday. I guess it will depend on how late I am putting up more posters.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Some news notes from the past week or two...

August Wilson's play Fences, which is being produced at the Oregon Shakespeare festival right now, is also headed back to Broadway. This would be the second Broadway revival of a Wilson play, and is being directed by another playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks. Wilson himself came up with the idea, in a conversation with the producer on his 60th birthday.

Meanwhile, American Theatre reports on the ongoing marathon of all ten Wilson plays at the Kennedy Center in Washington: a core company of 25 actors plus some special guests, and a small cadre of directors (all with "a personal connection with August"), is mounting them in limited form over several weeks. They'll be done with minimal production values and script-in-hand. "The most important thing is to hear the purity and beauty of August's words," says project director Kenny Leon. The purpose of doing all of them in a short time is to hear "each play talking to the other plays." Wish I were there!

But sad news also last week: the death of Anthony Minghella, known as the director of major motion pictures like The English Patient (for which he won the Oscar), Cold Mountain, and his first movie which is one of my personal favorities (and which makes me a member of yet another cult): Truly, Madly, Deeply. But Minghella was also an accomplished playwright (an evening of his short plays was done in Washington last year) and recently directed stage opera. He was a prodiguously talented man, who was only 54.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

All's Diverse Anyway

I'd be surprised these days if many places with the relatively sparse population of the North Coast has even three publications publishing theatre reviews. We have more than that sometimes, but this week it's a three-way diversity of opinion on the North Coast Rep production of All's Well That Ends Well. Contrary to my experience (as described below and in the NC Journal), Melody Stone in the Eureka Reporter got over her initial dissonance to accept the trailer park world. In the Eureka Times Standard's Northern Lights, Betti Trauth came down somewhere between Stone and me, calling the production "innovative but uneven." Pretty cool.

Friday, March 21, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

From All's Well That Ends Well at North Coast
Rep (review below). The Wiz is at Eureka High
and there's a Clowns Without Borders benefit
in Arcata Saturday, at Redwood Raks, 824 L
Street at 4 and 8pm. Info at 845-5842.
Posted by Picasa

All's Not Well

Well, so far the Journal has not honored my request to take the offending sub-title off my column online, so I won't link to it from here. Besides, there were a few editorial changes I don't agree with, so since it's my blog, I can print what I want to--including the text as I wrote it. It includes observations I wrote more about here.

The Journal also did something else very odd--they advertised an email address for me that they created at the paper. They did so without asking me if I wanted such an address, nor did anyone tell me they were going to do it. Isn't that close to identity theft? They claim I'll get the mail directly through my current email address, but I don't see how. So I strongly urge you not to use it.

A couple of other preliminary comments. Though I refer to "parody" I wind up calling the treatment of the play a "travesty." These have pretty precise meanings, at least according to my prized reference, English Synonyms, Antonyms and Prepositions by James C. Fernald, which I believe is long out of print--I picked up my worn copy in a free pile at the recycling center. It's far more precise that the disappointing references online and even those I paid too much to buy.

Anyway, Fernald writes about both in the category of caricature ("a grotesque exaggeration of striking features or peculiarities, generally of a person.") I used "caricature" twice in the piece, as in caricature rather than character, though Fernald points out the word usually refers to a sketch or picture. In performance, the better word is burlesque: "treats any subject matter in an absurd or incongruous manner." But for us it also carries other connotations from American theatre and culture.

But within this category, parody and travesty describe different kinds of changes to something that already exists, like a play. "A parody changes the subject, but keeps the style; a travesty keeps the subject, but changes the style." So with that in's the review:

With great playwrights and great plays, comes great responsibility. “All’s Well That Ends Well” may not be Shakespeare’s greatest comedy, but it is at least as great as some of his plays that are performed more often. It’s full of ideas and ironies (which may well include the title.)

The story is rooted in ancient fable. Helena is the orphaned daughter of the deceased physician to the late Count of Rosillion in France. Helena was taken in by the Countess and lives alongside her son, Bertram. As the play begins Helena is helplessly in love with Bertram, and when he goes to the King’s court, she follows. She uses one of her father’s remedies to cure the King of an ailment. In gratitude, the King allows her to pick a husband from among his courtiers, and she chooses Bertram.

Bertram refuses to consummate the marriage and goes off to war (accompanied by Parolles, a scamp and center of subplots), telling Helena in a letter that he won’t be her husband until she takes the ring from his finger and has a child by him. While at war in Italy, Bertram arranges to bed a local woman but Helena substitutes herself for the assignation, and eventually fulfills Bertram’s conditions, so he accept her as his wife.

The current production at North Coast Rep is fluidly and energetically staged by director Cassandra Hesseltine, the scenic design by Daniel Nyiri is creative, and there are fine performances: for example, Gloria Montgomery as the Countess (though the character is meant to be older--George Bernard Shaw called this role Shakespeare’s most beautiful for an older woman), and Carrie Hudson as her clown. Lincoln Mitchell as the King had impressive moments. A.J. Stewart has the makings of an exciting Shakespearian actor, but the showy excesses that threatened his outstanding Iago in the recent Shake the Bard “Othello” pretty much swamped his portrayal of Parolles in this play on opening night. Others, like Kaitie Sutter as Helena, bravely soldier through.

But it’s difficult to really say much about the acting when there’s more caricature than characterization. That seems part of the director’s approach in setting this production in a contemporary trailer park. There’s no reason why great or even pretty good plays can’t be set in trailer parks. But the reasons this one doesn’t work are many, and they start becoming evident very quickly.

The first test for the audience is whether the world on stage makes sense. Here we’re presented with a trailer park where the manager is a King who for some reason has an army. Some of the residents apparently have servants. These and similar incongruities are a lot to swallow, or to understand in terms of the crucial relationships, which meanwhile go flying obscurely by.

In her program notes, the director writes that the play is about honor. This is a view shared with W.H. Auden, who explains in one of his famous lectures how the concept is worked out within the class and status system in the play. Class and power relationships are important in Shakespeare, and they are crucial in this play. But the popular notion of the trailer park is that it harbors one class. Maybe that’s the director’s joke, but instead of illuminating those relationships, this setting muddles them to the point of incoherence.

Instead of relationships we get interacting caricatures, especially of the central characters: a love-struck girl with a crush on a moronic jock. Those characters never seem more dimensional than that, and if you’re wondering how Shakespeare could hang an entire play on it: he didn’t. Theatregoers have argued over the enigma of Helena, and Bertram’s true nature, for centuries.

One sign of a badly imposed concept is how much it works against Shakespeare’s words rather than with them. At times in this production there are heroic attempts to use the language, but mostly it’s a losing fight. Soon the desperation to escape from the lines and the play within them leads to one cheap trick after another—from cell phone photography to simulated vomiting.

In our time, there’ve been sincere attempts to re-invigorate familiar Shakespeare plays by changing or mixing milieus and time periods. Some have succeeded, and the best have provided new insights and interpretations as well as being highly entertaining. Others have been honorable failures.

But relocating Shakespeare’s plays to ever more bizarre times and places has also become a virulent fad. In some hands, it expresses mostly the feverish need to reduce the plays to spectacle, more from a peevish impatience with their complexity than as an opportunity to explore their depths of emotion and meaning. Shakespeare has become an exploitable if resented brand name.

Giving the benefit of the doubt to this production—that it is a sincere effort—didn’t improve my experience of it. For me it was more travesty than problem comedy. Even as an interpretation, it seemed to me to reduce Shakespeare to a wordy sitcom: the worst of both worlds.

People go to Shakespeare productions for various reasons. Those who go for a cute concept, costumes and clowning may enjoy this one. Personally, if I’m going to sit still for several hours, trying to maintain my concentration on all those words, I want some illumination and emotion that comes from the playwright generally regarded as the greatest who ever lived. I’ve enjoyed Shakespeare parodies—I’ve written and been in a few—but parody is parody. The play is the play. If that’s what was presented at NCRT, I’m truly sorry, I didn’t see it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Letter to Readers

I thought my column in the NC Journal dated today (March 20) might provoke a letter to the editor, but I didn't think it would be from me.

Here's the letter I just emailed:

A subtitle to my Stage Matters column used the term "Trailer-trash." I did not write these words, and I find the term offensive. I never refer to any group of people as trash.

Readers of this site may remember an anecdote I quoted in December. Here it is again, with the operative words emphasized:

In the new issue of American Theatre, there's an interview with playwright Lucy Thurber, whose play, Scarcity, dealing with an American working class family, is printed in the issue. Thurber recalls a conversation with [playwright August] Wilson at the O'Neill summer playwrights conference. "I write about poor white trash," she told him. "Are you trash?" he asked her. "No," she said, "I'm just using it as a descriptive term to explain that part of the population." But Wilson said, "Again, I ask you, are you trash? Are the people that you grew up with trash? Are the people that you love trash?"

"That was a huge, emotional moment for me," Thurber said. "Where it cracked, this play was born. The language we use about ourselves is important. There is something about having the courage to talk with dignity and trust and faith about these parts of America that are us."

The column reviewed a production of All's Well That Ends Well that sets the play in a trailer park. I wrote that the setting didn't work, and I amplified some of the points in my post here yesterday.

I've asked that the subtitle be changed in the online version. If it is changed, I'll link to it from here. If not, I'll post the review later.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Posted by Picasa

On Shaking the Bard

This is some explanation of my views that support commentary here and elsewhere--including in this week's NCJ--about staging Shakespeare in times and places that are different from those stipulated in the play itself.

First of all, a director's duty is to bring the text of a play to life for the audience of the time and place in which the play is performed. That's an essential duty, but not the only one.

Let's assume for the moment that we're talking about a sincere attempt to re-enliven Shakespeare’s plays by changing or mixing milieus and time periods. (There are other possible motives that may contribute or dominate, which I'll describe later.) Some such have succeeded, and the best have provided new insights and interpretations as well as being highly entertaining. Others have been honorable failures. What makes the difference?

The most obvious is whether the time and place selected can support the action of the play without straining the credulity of the audience, or puzzling it so much that they are taken out of the play completely, or at least for so long that by the time they get back to it, they've missed so much that now it really doesn't make any sense.

There is one fairly recent example that a lot of people know that succeeded extremely well--in fact, maybe too well, in that it inspired a lot of imitators who didn't figure out what made it work. It was the 1996 film version of Romeo and Juliet, called Romeo + Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Clare Danes. It is a contemporary setting--in the city of Verona Beach--and uses modern technology (cars, guns) to tell the story, while editing the text but using Shakespeare's words.

The director was very clever in making the story and the words work--the message that arrives too late is botched by a Fedex type delivery, etc. But the essential dynamic of the play is maintained by making the Montagues and Capulets two rival big business/crime families. That's both clever and easy to understand, because it provides a contemporary analogue to the powerful rival families of the nobility in the play.

On a more modest scale--and with less spectacular results--was a production last year of As You Like It at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I wrote about what worked about the concept here: the 1930's America era gave an edge to the difference between rich and poor, and the power relationship between the two brothers was made crystal clear when Orlando was shown working at a loading dock run by the Boss, his thugish, possibly criminal older brother, Oliver.

But things were also lost by setting the play at that time and place, which I discussed here: for instance, some of the nuances of the essential differences between the court and the wilderness, the forest where the exiles are gathered. So the change was partially successful.

In fact, in this play as in a lot of Shakespeare's plays, the locales (both in place and time), have little actual parallel in a real time and place. They mostly exist within the play itself, so setting them in specific, recognizeable places--known worlds with their particular rules--can distort them or, as bad or worse, sink them--the rules simply don't work in the world of the play.

The locales Shakespeare stipulated may have been fanciful, but the world on the stage assumed the understanding of life and reality of Shakespeare's original audiences. So locale is more than an historical period or geographical place. It includes sets of ideas. Any specific locale must support and express those ideas.

These days Shakespeare's plays also come to us with a long history in performance and discussion. And here is a possible point of contention. The tradition that I know of how a director approaches Shakespeare says that the director researches the play's past--what are the most celebrated interpretations, what are the controversies over the play and the characters, etc.? Actors know stories of the great performances, and now they can see some of them recorded. They use the past to help them decide how they will approach the production or the role.

Some directors and actors today may differ on this point. They may want to come at the play without any baggage, without any preconceptions or the need to respond to how it's been done before, or elsewhere. Perhaps also because the audience they foresee will approach the play that way.

While honoring one's own personal responses to the play is important for a director, and coming up with a creative, fresh approach in some way is often necessary to produce something for audiences that will engage them--both something that will spark the imaginations of people new to the play, and that will provoke those who think they know the play all too well to sit up and see something new in it.

But that doesn't absolve the director from taking the history of the play into account. That history doesn't have to be limiting, but it should be a consideration, partly because members of the audience are going to bring some piece of it with them, and partly because that history has enriched the play with questions and ideas connected to emotions, so when it is performed now, it can be richer still. Besides, why not take advantage of all that study and opinion, all those experiences?

Some who stage Shakespeare in a different time or place may justify it solely by pointing to what Shakespeare himself did. They may say that he freely adapted the stories of others in his plays, and based some on old plots that he also took out of their original times and places. And that's true. As Shakespearian actor Paul Gross says in his excellent interview included in the DVD of the Canadian TV series, Slings and Arrows (he's the star of it), Shakespeare was a popular artist, who took from everywhere in order to put on a great, entertaining show. So he endorses the idea of staging Shakespeare in different ways, including in alternate settings--if it works. "But if it's stupid," he says, "it's stupid."

That's because these plays exist: they are texts by the playwright who is generally regarded as the greatest who ever lived. If you are going to do Shakespeare, you should do Shakespeare. Now maybe you want to do the story of Romeo and Juliet, and you want to set it in Manhattan between rival gangs of whites and Puerto Ricans, but you also want to add a lot of songs and dancing, and you want to pretty much keep the older people out of it. And you'd rather not have to use all those words.

Or maybe you want to do the story of The Tempest, only you want to set it in the future and on another planet in another star system, but you also want to have a really cool monster and a robot. And you don't want to be limited by all that damn verse.

Well, then you do what Shakespeare did: you write something new using whatever parts of the story, and whatever characters you want. And so you call it West Side Story. You call it Forbidden Planet.

What you don't do is call it Shakespeare. Or try to get his words to serve your concept.

Why more people don't do that, instead of trying to bend Shakespeare and his plays to their will, has to do with the root of a less noble motive for changing locales than to re-energize the plays. That reason is that Shakespeare is a powerful brand name. People go to see Shakespeare plays when they might not go to see your play or mine. Directors get jobs directing his plays, while they or their producers can't find financing for a production of an original play.

This may not be as they like it, but they want to work, and maybe all's well that ends well. But it ain't necessarily so. It's my suspicion that some directors allow their resentment of the brand name, and of the complexity of the plays themselves, to influence and even shape their productions. What passes for creativity is sometimes peevishness.

Sometimes they simply may not trust the play's ability to communicate, or they don't trust the audience's ability to deal with it, unless it is made as close to pure spectacle as possible. Shakespeare, of course, was a showman--he wrote parts for clowns and comic relief, as well as writing blood and thunder--to keep everybody interested. And some translation of that impulse may be necessary in these quite different times. But trashing the plays with sensational effects and cheap tricks that violate the text, or even fail to do it some rough justice, is another thing entirely.

Which brings me to the third possible motive for changing the time and place of the action: it's the fashion. It certainly is virulently fashionable now to do so, just as it was a generation or so ago to mount the plays in "modern dress" with bare stages and minimal sets. Now directors seem to be competing to set their productions in the most extreme and outlandish settings they can imagine.

They may try to justify it as a way to make the play more accessible. But is it the play they are making accessible? Where is the play? In the nineteenth century it was fashionable to provide new happy endings for some of Shakespeare's tragedies, so Lear and Cordelia walk arm and arm into the sunset, and Hamlet and Ophelia live happily ever after.

In the end, figuring out some sensational locale for the play is the easy way out. So is loading it with tricks, like verse-spouting characters clutching cell phones. It's harder to go into the depths of the play, to come up with an interpretation for a character or characters--even an extreme one--and to stage the actors and even shape the text (somewhat) to support it. Or to imagine a new way of staging a scene, a moment, that will better express the feelings and the ideas discovered in the play.

I understand how difficult any of that can be, especially in productions that don't have the resources of major regional theatres. It's hard enough just to get one of these plays on its feet, and for the actors to learn all the damn lines and to speak them clearly, communicating what these sometimes strange words mean.

But time and energy may be better spent in these endeavors than in creating an attention-getting setting, that gets attention only for a few minutes, and providing a surprising visual world, with the surprise wearing off very quickly, and adding a lot of business that gets a brief laugh here and there. For if all you've ultimately done is create an onstage world that doesn't make sense to the audience, and/or that doesn't serve the play, what often happens is the actors are condemned to struggle for two or three hours trying to reconcile setting and play. And that doesn't serve anybody.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

Melodrama reigns (rains?) at Dell' Arte
this weekend.
Posted by Picasa

Drama--and Melodrama

North Coast Rep opens its production of All's Well That Ends Well tonight at 8 pm, directed by Cassandra Hesseltine.

First years at the Dell'Arte school, having been sorted by the Sorting Hat, are now engaged in their version of quidditch--the annual festival of Melodrama: six plays they create and perform, fifteen minutes each, this year entitled I Live Suddenly. Themes are "moral dilemmas, neurosis, obsession and struggle."
It's at the Carlo tonight (March 13), Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Info at

So it's also time to re-present my annual treatise on the subject of Melodrama. This is an old lecture from a couple of years back, so some of the names may have changed, but the point is basically the same.

Ahem. Cough cough. Here goes:

Blood and thunder, Sturm und Drang, cheap thrills, sentimental tearjerker, not to mention a major source of overacting and inflated visual effects: Melodrama can't get no respect.

Yet while analysts of dramatic forms can't even agree on a definition, even in outline melodrama describes most of the drama we've seen for the past 200 years. With outcast heroes and suffering heroines overcoming apparently impossible odds and immovable obstacles, or solving seemingly insoluble problems and mysteries, melodrama defines nearly every dramatic television series in existence, and most movies -- not only the obvious tearjerkers and "chick flicks," but also most "guy flicks": sports movies, space operas and comic book adventures. While "melodramatic" definitely describes soap operas or Plan Nine From Outer Space, it also can reasonably be applied to Lord of the Rings, Rocky, CSI and ER.

Historically, melodrama developed in festivals and popular (rather than "high art") theaters, associated with spectacle and with roots in pantomime. (So silent films were often quintessential melodramas, including their use of musical accompaniment. The "melo" in melodrama is the same one as in "melody"; the word simply means drama with music.)

Those roots in the same tradition as comedia del arte make melodrama a natural component of the curriculum at the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre. Ronlin Foreman, the school's Director of Pedagogical Research ("a teacher of teaching," he explains) describes the theory and process of the five-week program of study that leads up to this performance, which he taught along with Dell'Arte co-Artistic Director Joan Schirle.

Foreman delineates the four themes in melodrama: the love triangle, the neurotic obsession (his example is the Bette Davis movie, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), family melodramas and the theme of oppression in society.

The social theme may be the least familiar as melodrama, but historically it is among the most consistent and important. Stage melodramas were popular and powerful in the French Revolution, served to expose the ills of industrial society in 19th century England and 20th century America, and were put to use by the Communist government in China. But probably the most telling example was Uncle Tom's Cabin, seen in various stage versions by some 3 million Americans. Some historians say that the stage melodrama, more than the novel, turned popular sentiment in the North against slavery in the decade before the Civil War.

These themes, Foreman explains, are often combined. "There's the family drama of trying to better themselves in an oppressive society, or the love triangle combined with a neurotic obsession. These themes help us to understand the larger dimensions of human experience."

Melodrama, Foreman continues, also consists of grand emotions (love, duty, honor, justice, deceit, vengeance, virtue, vice) pushed to the moment of the irreversible change ("Someone is driven from their home forever") but ending with the triumph of virtue.

In portraying the circumstances of these rewarded virtues, suffering is inflicted from outside, while in tragedy the heroes takes responsibility for their fate. When oversimplified into stock characters representing the innocent good versus the evildoers, melodrama versus the complexities of the real world invites parody.

But there will be no Dudley Do-Right moments in the Dell'Arte show. Though melodramas often contain comedy (or vice versa -- think of Charlie Chaplin's great features, like City Lights) Foreman insists it must basically be played straight.

"In this exercise we ask students not to play with parody or satire," he said. "We're coming out of a time of irony, when society doesn't hold to very many strong absolutes." In order to understand the role of melodrama in theatre, students need to represent these absolutes with conviction. "Otherwise we don't have a context for understanding honor or duty or justice. We don't have clear virtues, or a way to understand deceit, or the play for justice and revenge unless we have loyalty."

Audiences will see how grand emotions "live in an extreme of physical action."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

The Oompahs in Willy Wonka Jr. at
the Arcata Playhouse.
Posted by Picasa

Youth Will Be Served

Youth will be served, several times a night this weekend. McKinleyville Union School District with Shake the Bard Company presents Willy Wonka, Jr., a musical adaptation of the Roald Dahl tale, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It's at the Arcata Playhouse Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM, with a matinee Sunday at 2, and again next weekend. Information at 496-4056 or from Shake the Bard.

Arcata High presents the spoof, It Was A Dark and Stormy Night in the Multipurpose Room on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30. 825-2400.

Last but not least, Ferndale Rep presents its teen show this weekend only, called Bang, Bang, You're Dead, a play concerning school violence. It's at the Rep on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, and Sunday at 2 PM. More info at the Rep.

Here's an essay on the production written by one of the participants, Brooke Marino:

Bang, Bang! Just like that, and you’re dead, all the life you haven’t lived flowering with petals of red from your chest. What do you think about? What is it like to die? It is a difficult question; I know because it is this question my fellow cast members and I have spent the past weeks exploring as we prepared for the Ferndale Repertory Theatre Teen Production, Bang, Bang, You’re Dead.

Bang, Bang tells the story of Josh, a troubled young boy who decides to solve his problems with a rifle and a box of bullets, but who is haunted by the ghosts and memories of those he killed. The play was written by William Mastrosimone in the wake of school massacres that occurred in Paducah, Jonesboro, and Springfield to raise awareness about school violence and is loosely based on the shooting in Springfield, Oregon in 1998 when fifteen year old Kip Kinkel shot both his parents before going to Thurston High School and murdering two of his classmates. It was first performed April 9, 1999, just 11 days prior to the shooting at Columbine High School.

Bang, Bang is very much and ensemble piece. The cast of 11 actors consists of Josh, the five deceased classmates, and a chorus of five actors who play various roles throughout the show. In addition to the small cast, the show is short, approximately 45 minutes, and utilizes few props. Instead, the production relies on the actors’ movements and tones to create the mood.

For me, the experience of working on this production has been both challenging and rewarding. In the first act, my character, Emily, has a dramatic death scene. To be so uninhibited was a challenge for me as an actor. At home, alone in my room with the music cranked high, I practiced screaming and groaning, staggering and falling, until I lay panting on my back on the carpet. In rehearsals too, under the direction of directors Nan Voss and Victor Howard, we practiced prolonged deaths for my benefit, drawing them out until they bordered on the ridiculous. It has been hard for me to be so bold, so loud, but it has been good for me too, given me a voice I didn’t know I had. It has also been enjoyable; I could not have picked a nicer group of people to die with.

Yet more challenging even than the physical aspect of death was to really get a grip on what it would be like to be shot. What would be going through my head? How would I respond to the sight of blood on my hands, my own blood? My answer surprised me, because when I was really able to place myself in that moment, what I felt was more than fear. I felt anguish and a feverish desire to live, to rebel against death. And again it was the group death session which helped me realize this, because it infuriated me, though I knew it was all pretend, to see the others, my friends, writhe on the ground, their faces etched with pain from imaginary wounds. It infuriated me as would the ruin of anything beautiful or in its prime, like new blooms plucked only to wither in vases in dark rooms. I believe it is this which makes school shootings so tragic, not just the needless violence, but the death of youth. Working on Bang Bang has made school shootings real for me in a way news articles never could.

In this production we deal with a heavy subject. There are many layers of emotion involved: anger, hurt, disgust, guilt. As actors, our job is to capture these emotions and deliver our lines in a way which will impact the audience. It is easy, when reading an article in a newspaper or magazine, to be removed, not to allow the stories to affect you. Indeed, there is so much negative media today that if we did let it all in, we would be a nation of clinically depressed. And yet, it is important, nay imperative, that people understand, feel, are impacted, because how else will anything change?

School violence is still very much a problem in today’s society. Since Bang Bang was written, ten years ago, two of the deadliest school shootings in history have occurred in our country - one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and last year’s massacre at Virginia Tech. In just the past month, there have been five incidences of gun-related school violence including the shooting at Northern Illinois University which left five dead. Obviously, this is a problem which needs to be addressed, not dismissed, needs to be thought about and faced. In the words of the play write William Mastrosimone, Bang Bang You're Dead" is a resource for dealing with a broken world that's violent, unhealthy, unfair, and beyond the power of anyone to fix except today's generation.

Bang Bang has given us a lot of freedom to personalize our characters, thereby giving their story and fate added reality and meaning. Many of our own memories and dreams have been inserted into a series of “I’ll misses” and “I’ll nevers” during which the deceased reminisce and berate Josh with the lists of things they will never get to experience. This makes it real for us actors (I really would miss my sister’s calls and the smell of rain on pavement) and also connects us to the larger story and whispers to us all that we are not so removed. This could happen anywhere, and by inserting ourselves into the story, we are, in a way, bringing the message of Springfield and Columbine, Virginia Tech and NIU, to the schools and theatres of Humboldt County.