Thursday, May 22, 2008

Little Shop of Horrors

The Little Shop of Horrors musical has do-wopped its way onto the North Coast Repertory Theatre stage. With fine singing, comic performances, clever set and costumes, and an impressive puppet-monster, it’s a diverting evening of live entertainment.

 With music tied to its early sixties origins in a cult Roger Corman film, a combination Motown trio/Greek chorus (Kathleen Marshall, Jenner Cohune and Chyna Dale) sets the scene: a failing flower shop on Skid Row, where the owner, Mr. Mushnik (Gene Cole) is about to go out of business. But Seymour, the shy but smart shop assistant with a crush on Audrey, the shy but beautiful receptionist, comes up with a solution: an unusual plant to attract customers. He just has to figure out what will make it grow.

 The answer provides the creepy comedy that moves the story forward. Christopher Hatcher as Seymour and Brandy Rose as Audrey are the charming stars, and Erik Rhea steals the show as the sadistic dentist who rides a motorcycle, affects an Elvis image and causes his girlfriend Audrey to show up at work with various injuries. Exactly how he sings through a gas mask has to be one of the show’s technical wonders.

There are a number of supporting players, several of whom double as puppeteers when the plant (dubbed Audrey II) grows to major proportions, including Silas Knight, Rigel Schmitt, Alison Ehrstrom and Monica Schallert. Anders Carlson does a tour de force series of bit characters, one after the other.

 Emily Blanche created the monster (with John Blanche and Delayne Medoff), and NCRT Technical Director Calder Johnson designed the appropriately tawdry flower shop set. Darcy Daughtry designed a witty array of costumes. My favorite little touches were Audrey’s matching skirt and arm sling, and the auto detailing flames on the dentist’s smock.

 Xande Zublin-Meyer directed the show, with Dianne Zuleger as music director, and a live back-up band. In characterizations and style, the production tends to mimic the 1986 film version of the musical, including some half-hearted “ethnic” humor that has grown creepier over the years.

 The Corman non-musical original was partly playing off a decade of creature features which included the ambiguous political message and genuine horror of the 1956 classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (its 1978 remake was also pretty scary.) This musical’s Broadway production tried to inject some of the residual horror of that film’s ending, but even that was a kind of joke.

By now there’s not much left of either horror or a message, although there is an undercurrent of “greed doesn’t pay” in this story’s sentimental shuffling of stereotypes. It’s best to just go along for the romp and the tunes.

 NCRT’s Artistic Director Michael Thomas tells me that an HSU technical theatre class built this set as a special project, under the direction of stage design teacher Jody Sekas. This is one example of cooperation among local theatres and institutions that seems to be increasing. It’s a good idea: sharing resources so each can concentrate on its particular contribution to the life of North Coast theatre.

NCRT is also just $10,000 shy of its goal for funding renovations that could begin this month, and perhaps even be completed to celebrate its 25th anniversary season in September. Including a new restroom, and a real marquee! The theatre is eagerly accepting donations to make it happen.

QED: A One Genius Show About Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman was one of the foremost physicists of recent decades. His biography by James Gleick is simply titled, Genius.

He was also an eccentric individualist in various theatrical ways. British writer C. P. Snow said it was “as though Groucho Marx was suddenly standing in for a great scientist.”

 Feynman played a role in developing the atomic bomb during World War II, and in discovering why the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986. He became a public figure through television interviews and popular books which expressed his unique approach to science, and to life.

Several of those books were the basis for a (mostly) one-genius play, QED, written by Peter Parnell with the active participation of actor Alan Alda, who came up with the idea and played Feynman in its Broadway run in 2001 and 2002.

 Randy Wayne is playing the fascinating Feynman, directed by James Read in the Redwood Curtain production, on stage at the Arcata Playhouse Thursday through Saturday for its second and final weekend.

Wayne, featured in many Redwood Curtain productions as well as other local theatres, holds the stage alone, as we see Feynman in his Cal Tech office, dealing with a physics lecture he has to write, taking phone calls concerning some visiting Russians and crucial personal matters, on an evening he plays a drumming Polynesian in a local production of South Pacific. The only other person to appear is a pretty physics student, played by Melanie A. Quillen.

 Wayne confidently explains and even illustrates a few physics concepts, while hitting the emotional notes that suggest other colors in this character. Though he doesn’t look or sound like Feynman, he does reproduce Feynman’s four-syllable pronunciation of his signature word: “interesting.”

 In my view the play tries to do too much, but audiences are in for an entertaining and thought-provoking experience, thanks to the clarity of Wayne’s performance. For those inspired to learn more about Feynman, several of the play’s anecdotes are even better in the fuller versions contained in his in-ter-est-ing book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, and in the TV interviews in “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,” which can be found on YouTube, along with other Feynman appearances.

This North Coast Weekend

North Coast Rep continues the musical Little Shop of Horrors, and Redwood Curtain's production of QED has its final performances Thursday through Saturday at the Arcata Playhouse. I reviewed both in my Journal column. "Horrors" is a well-done confection and QED seems directionless but its subject, Richard Feynman ("as though Groucho Marx was suddenly standing in for a great scientist") is a fascinating figure whose point of view on science and life is well worth knowing. This play offers only a taste, dressed up in a dramatic moment, but if it introduces Feynman to those who haven't read his books (especially Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman) or seen him on video, then it's well worth it. Plus Randy Wayne holds the stage impressively. Barry Blake reviews "Horrors" at the T-S, a good complement to my review. Betti Trauth reviews QED there, too.

Also up this weekend, the annual "The Finals" at Dell'Arte: this year, five ten minute plays by D.A. students, Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM in the Carlo Theatre.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

North Coast Repertory opens Little Shop of Horrors tonight (Thursday, May 15) at 8PM.

Redwood Curtain presents QED, a mostly one-genius play about the brilliant and eccentric physicist Richard Feynman at the Arcata Playhouse for two weekends, Thursday through Saturday, beginning tonight at 8 PM.

I'll be writing about both shows in the Journal next week.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fences at OSF

Even before Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom made his name on Broadway, playwright August Wilson was intent on avoiding the all-too-common fate of a one-play career. For that second play he also gave himself a specific challenge: to follow the eccentric structure and multiple focus of “Ma Rainey” with a more conventional narrative centered on a single complex character.

 So from experiences and characteristics of his step-father and a near neighbor, and from his own home-run-hitting prowess as a teenager, Wilson created Troy Maxson, a baseball legend in the Negro League kept out of the segregated major leagues until he was too old, so that at the age of 53 in 1957, he works for the city of Pittsburgh collecting garbage.

 The resulting play is Fences, which earned Wilson his first Pulitzer, Tony award and other prizes in 1987, and has been his most popular play ever since (though it was never his favorite.) It’s scheduled for a Broadway revival in the fall, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production is on stage in Ashland now.

 From that first production, this story of a husband and father, his wife, his sons and brother, and their relationships to each other and to their own individuality, was recognized for its universal themes. But the universal is best expressed in the particular—which is one of those truisms that’s often true.

 Certainly Troy Maxson’s story as it is gradually revealed expresses aspects of the African American experience. Yet there are other specifics that resonated for me when I saw the OSF production. I recognized the 1950s, especially among the working/lower middle class, and specifically in Pittsburgh. I grew up some 30 miles from where August Wilson did, at about the same time (we were both pre-teens in 1957.) So when Troy talks about hitting a home run and says, “you can kiss it goodbye,” I recognized the locution of a particular Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster of that era.

 Yet despite our proximities, the worlds of Wilson’s plays were mostly foreign to me—except this one. The terms of the respect Troy demands from his son are specifically familiar from the black family next door, and a boy I grew up with. I heard Troy’s speeches about not wasting time on anything other than preparing to make a living from fathers of many ethnicities, including my own.

 Charles Robinson as Troy Maxson accentuated this familiarity. His relentless insistence on dominating by having the answer for everything, combined with his compact, wiry frame, reminded me of many 1950s fathers. Yet casting him as Troy was risky. Wilson describes the character as “a large man,” and from James Earl Jones on, large men have played him in the first generation of productions while Wilson was alive. This can be important to Troy’s character and the play’s most dramatic moments: the contrast between Troy’s largeness of body and need, and the constrictions he rebels against, while in other ways he continues to bear the fate and the heavy responsibilities that define him.

 It’s also important to the white societal fear and other images associated with big black men. So some of those dramatic moments and motivations seem less than they could be, and while the efficient naturalism of this production has its virtues, there are mythic qualities of Troy that go missing.

 Still, it’s certainly worth taking some trouble to see. Director Leah Gardiner makes full use of the stage to keep the eye involved, as the ear is entranced by Wilson’s trademark stage poetry. Robinson performs very well, as do the other actors (Shona Tucker as his wife, Rose; Josiah Phillips as his friend, Bono; Kevin Kenerly and Cameron Knight as his sons, Lyons and Cory; G. Valmont Thomas as his brother, Gabriel; and Catiana Graham and Dominique Moore alternating as his daughter, Raynell.)

 They speak the rhythms of Wilson’s words, which together with the backyard set by Scott Bradley and lighting by Dawn Chiang—naturalistic and mythic at the same time—create stage magic.

More on "Fences"

Before I saw August Wilson's play, Fences at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival earlier this month, I hadn't seen a production of it nor read it for around a decade. So with other Wilson plays I'd seen and read in recent years more in the forefront of my mind, I experienced this production with a certain innocence. I remembered some parts of the story, but not others. But in most ways, it was a first-time kind of experience. That turned out to be a big part of the experience for me.

So in my review I wrote about it without giving away much of the story, so others could also experience it that way. Deciding how much of the play's story to tell is always a problem. Some people read reviews before they see a play--perhaps to help them decide whether to see it or not. But a lot of people who won't see the play (or at least this production) read the review anyway. So how do you not spoil the story for those who are going, while telling enough of the story to make it an interesting reading experience for those who aren't going? The answer varies according to circumstances, but it's almost always a problem.

A couple of other comments about that column. Doing a cost-benefit analysis on writing columns and reviews is always depressing, but sometimes more than others. Getting review tickets for Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions is one of the perks of this job, and a necessary one, because it offers some perspective on the North Coast theatre I usually see. But otherwise, it's a long (and increasingly costly) drive, it's a couple of nights in a motel, meals and four plays in three days (we usually arrive Thursday for the evening show, see two on Friday and one on Saturday before driving back.) And for all that, the paper pays zilch.

For many columns (which may include reviews/previews of two plays or more) there's time-consuming research. And then of course the job of writing, which often involves being as concise as possible. I thought of all this when I re-read the first paragraph of the Fences review, and realized that it alone represented at least eight hours of reading. There were three facts from three separate sources in one sentence.

In that review, I write about the muscular but not physically large lead actor, and how Wilson noted that Troy Maxson (the lead character) is a large man, and then I speculate on the importance of that largeness. But it was only after I wrote that, that this piece from NPR was brought to my attention. It makes a big point out of the character's largeness. It also contains the one video clip of James Earl Jones' performance that I recall seeing before.

I wish I'd seen him do this play, as well as a subsequent touring production with John Henry Redwood as Troy Maxson. I met John Henry and saw him in other roles (and he was a big man, and a very generous and lovely man, who, like August, died way before his time), as I saw the great Mary Alice, who originated the role of Rose in Fences, in a different play with John Henry. (Courtney Vance, who was the first Cory, is now familiar to just about everybody from his television roles, particularly as the D.A. on Law and Order: Criminal Intent.)

I suppose it's not too much of a tip-off to say that this play is about "love, honor, duty, betrayal," especially since August Wilson said that's what all his plays are about. But from here on, there are SPOILERS, so if you haven't seen Fences and you intend to, maybe this is the place to stop reading.

Troy Maxson reveals a major element of his biography late in the first act, including a crime he committed and the fact that he was imprisoned for it. It's said that August Wilson based this character partly on his stepfather, David Bedford, who married his mother in 1957, the year this play takes place.

It was only after Bedford's death that Wilson learned he had been a high school football star, but black players didn't get scholarships in 1930s Pittsburgh, so he tried to rob a store to get money to go to school. But during the robbery he killed a man, and spent 23 years in prison. The only job he could get when he got out was with the Pittsburgh sewage department. Troy Maxson's story is similar.

August Wilson's relationship with Bedford was difficult, and one area of conflict, as in the play, was over high school football. But while in the play, Troy's conflict with his son Cory is over Cory playing football (and being recruited by a North Carolina college), Wilson's was that he quit his high school team. (I'm not sure his Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School team played my Greensburg Central Catholic High School team when we were both in high school, but if so we might have passed in the night way back then.)

Troy Maxson goes off on the Pittsburgh Pirates for not playing Roberto Clemente because he was Puerto Rican, and this was August's view as well, as he expressed it when we talked about the Pirates of that era. It's true that the now revered Clemente had a tough time his first several years in the 1950s. He complained of various injuries and got a reputation as lazy, which was clearly a racial byproduct. Ironically or not, the Pittsburgh Pirates--in a city that always had a complex attitude towards its black athletes--in 1971 became the first to field an all-black team (including the pitcher) in a World Series. The star of that team and that Series was Roberto Clemente.

Troy Maxson was a Negro League player, and Pittsburgh had two of the best Negro League teams, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, with Satchel Paige pitching.

Wilson said this play began with an image, of a black man holding a baby, in a collage by the black Pittsburgh artist whose work inspired several of his plays, Romare Bearden. Wilson wanted to portray a black man who felt the responsibility to stay with his family, and who did. He wanted to provide a counter-image to the prevalent stereotype of black men who are absent from their families, and black families without fathers.

The play demonstrates the cost of that, and the personal cost of thwarted ambition and self-expression, not only in Troy but in his wife, Rose, and both of his sons. Troy attributes his infidelity to the need to get beyond his fences of family and failure, though he is otherwise clueless about his projections onto his sons and the costs of thwarting the sports and college ambitions of Cory, or not supporting the musical ambitions of his eldest son, Lyons.

When he began writing Fences, Wilson hadn't quite conceived the idea of writing a cycle of plays set in all the decades of the 20th century. But in what is probably his most personal play in that it reflects his own childhood, he was already being true to the history of the African American family. Troy Maxson stands at the midpoint of the century, and in the middle of so much else.

But though this was August Wilson's most popular play--and the one that assured his career as a playwright--it was not his favorite. As he said in interviews and as he told me, his favorite was the next one he wrote, Joe Turner's Come and Gone. I'm still searching for the interview later in his life when he talked about all his plays. I seem to recall he ranked Gem of the Ocean pretty highly, too.

I haven't mentioned Troy's brother, Gabriel, and I don't say much about him in my review. He is certainly a key figure in the play, as the wounded and addled often are in Wilson's plays. G. Valmont Thomas does a fine job portraying him. But his size and big voice make me wonder what this production might have been like if he had played Troy and Robinson had played Gabriel. That might not have fit the director's vision (or the actors' schedules), but I would have liked to see it.

Robinson was quite compelling in the role, and he fit with other stylistic elements of this production. His interactions with Cory in particular felt real and nuanced, though contemporary audiences might have been more disturbed by the way that James Earl Jones seemed to deliberately humiliate Cory. But his key speech explaining his infidelity didn't have the visceral power it might have had. Nor really did the scene announcing the death of his mistress, or his bringing the baby to Rose. They worked for that audience--including me--mostly because of Wilson's words, I think. But as I wrote in my review, it was an emotional theatrical experience anyway, and I certainly recommend it.

"Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter" at OSF

Gwendolyn Mulamba as Jenny Sutter at OSFPosted by Picasa

Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter Reviewed

My Journal column this week contains a review written by playwright, director, teacher and now drama critic (and also my partner) Margaret Thomas Kelso, of the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter. I had to edit it for space in print, but not for cyberspace. So here is her full review:

Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, written by Julie Marie Myatt and directed by Jessica Thebus, joins a long line of stories about soldiers returning from war that date back to Homer’s Odyssey. And like Ulysses, Jenny Sutter does not take a direct path home. But instead of Calypso’s island, Iraq war veteran Jenny detours by way of Slab City, California, in her own odyssey to find herself before reconnecting with her family. Unlike Ulysses, she is coming home injured: she suffers from PTSD, survivor’s guilt and an amputated leg. And as a woman, she faces greater expectations to emotionally reunite with her children. The play asks can she heal herself enough to be able to face the rest of the journey home?

Approximately 200,000 women have served in the Iraq so far and more of them have faced hostile fire and resulting injuries than women in the military ever before. How the ravages of war will impact servicewomen (in contrast to civilian women who suffer collateral damage) is still unknown.

The director Jessica Thebus has discovered the perfect tone for the piece: amusing, gritty and without a trace of sentimentality. The performances are all strong with Gwendolyn Mulamba playing an acerbic and ironic Jenny, who grounds the play with her pain and dignity. The rest of the cast are mostly odd ball inhabitants of Slab City, a real location, the remnants of a WWII Marine base at the foot of the Chocolate Mountains where a community of retirees and misfits squat in domiciles ranging from tarps to classic Airstreams. It’s a perfect location for the likes of Jenny and offers the playwright plenty of material for a supporting cast of quirky characters who infuse humor and warmth into the play and Jenny’s life.

Lou, a professional itinerant trying to give up her many addictions , calls Slab City her home base. Kate Mulligan plays Lou with energy and sizzle, becoming an upbeat foil for the laconic Jenny. Other residents of the slabs are Buddy, Lou’s sometimes boyfriend/preacher, skillfully played by David Kelly; Cheryl, Lou’s hairdresser/therapist, believably performed by K.T. Vogt; and Donald, an emotionally damaged cipher whose deft performance by Gregory Linington prevents these characters from sliding into romanticism. Cameron Knight plays Hugo, the bus station’s night shift employee who is the first civilian Jenny meets after discharge.

Richard Hay created a simple set that serves flawlessly while maintaining a bit of magic in the scene transitions that Oregon Shakespeare does so well.. Lynn Jeffries designed costumes that anchor the realistic tone of the play while supporting the character development of the actors. Allen Lee Hughes’s lighting not only supports the action and mood of the play but creates locales, especially the hospital setting at the opening of the play.

The only shortcoming of the production were several extended lifeless scenes. The first was very early in the play when Jenny changes from her marine fatigues into civilian clothes, an important sequence which reveals to the audience not only her transition out of military life, but also her struggle with her artificial leg. Important but lasting far too long without suspense or other drama. Another lifeless scene is when Jenny collapses and “Oh, Happy Days,” plays ironically in the background for many minutes too long.

Other than these moments, the direction was skillful and sensitive, honoring the pain, celebrating survival, and finding the humor in a challenging situation. The performance tells a story we all need to consider in an engaging hour thirty-five minutes (without intermission.)

Note: This play runs at OSF in Ashland, Oregon through June 20.