Thursday, December 31, 2009

R. I. P. 2009

Among the theatre and film artists we lost in 2009: Natasha Richardson (seen here in A Streetcar Named Desire), Karl Malden (who appeared with Marlon Brando in the original Broadway stage production of "Streetcar"), David Carradine, Ricardo Montalban, Paul Burke, Jennifer Jones, Ron Silver, James Whitmore (pictured here in one of his one-man shows, playing Will Rodgers), Patrick Swayze. Not pictured: actors Wendy Richards, Betsy Blair, Richard Todd, Bea Arthur, Brittany Murphy, Henry Gibson, Gene Barry, Patrick McGoohan, Farah Fawcett, Joseph Wiseman; directors John Hughes, Bud Shulberg and Howard Zieff; writer Larry Gelbart, dancer Merce Cunningham.

Last Old Business

A couple of minor matters as the year ends... A few weeks ago a cast member of Ferndale Rep's production of Oliver! wrote a well-expressed and very respectful letter to the editor published in the NC Journal, lamenting the fact that I did not review that show in that newspaper. Since I didn't see the letter until it was published--as strange as that may sound--I want to respond here to a couple of her points.

"I miss the reviews of a few years ago, when a potential audience member got a little taste of what they could expect," she writes. Unless she is missing the reviews by my predecessors, she may have completely missed my reviews of Ferndale Rep productions I've done this year: Crimes of the Heart (October), Jekyll and Hyde (Aug.), Arsenic and Old Lace (May), The Wild Guys (Feb.), which I believe is 4 out of the last 6 shows there.

She described my preview of Oliver! as "a little blurb buried underneath another show's review." It did appear second to a review of the Dell'Arte Christmas show, but the preview was five paragraphs, and the review was seven. It was also featured in the column's subhead, and was the third consecutive mention of the show in my last three columns.

Lastly, I haven't seen any credible evidence that my reviews, positive or negative, have increased or depressed attendance anywhere. Apparently the opening night for Oliver! was sold out, quite a feat for the large Ferndale Rep theatre.

On another matter, my year-end column is in this week's Journal, and online here. Bear with me, but I have to quibble about one editorial change. In an apparent effort to prevent the repetition of the word "simple," it was changed to "basic" in the following paragraph:

If you know anything about baseball, you realize (and probably relish) that it’s a fiendishly complicated game, and playing it well is difficult. But it’s also very simple. As the fictional manager of a minor league team in the classic movie Bull Durham tells his players: “This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.”

In the published version, the second sentence reads: "But it's also very basic." In this context, "basic" and "simple" simply don't mean the same thing. Something can be basic without being simple, for instance.

I realize I don't mention the editorial changes that correct my mistakes or that otherwise improve the piece, so as the year ends I'll acknowledge generally that this happens, and I'm grateful to the editors who make those corrections and improvements. Happy New Year to all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Year Not in Reviews 2009

Theatre is hard to do, in the best of times—even without economic hardships affecting box office and production decisions. There are multiple challenges and pitfalls in every show.

 There may be more drama backstage than on—as I’m told occurred at one local theatre this past year: a lead actor’s significant other got so upset by his onstage business with the leading lady that he dropped out of the show perilously close to opening.

 The interactions of producers, designers, directors, actors (and their spouses), limited resources and even more limited time, different agendas (professional, institutional and personal) and the interplay of text (its history, its contemporary expression) and its realization on stage—it’s all a complicated process.

 And yet, from the point of view of the audience, it’s very simple. If you know anything about baseball, you realize (and probably relish) that it’s a fiendishly complicated game, and playing it well is difficult. But it’s also very simple.
As the fictional manager of a minor league team in the classic movie Bull Durham tells his players: “This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.”

 For the theatre audience, there are certain simple and basic expectations: the audience wants to see the play, hear the play, and follow the story of the play. A production’s first job is to make all of that easy.

 It isn’t so easy to accomplish, but I wonder if the focus on these tasks doesn’t get lost sometimes. Several productions this year seemed to take their eye off the ball.

 Scenic design may be dazzling and expressive, and it may carry out some aesthetic related to the play, but does it help or hinder the actors in being seen and heard?

 Directors may create “stage pictures” that keep the eye moving, but does the blocking help or hinder audibility, or focus the relationships of the characters?
I know that I’ve wondered more than once why two characters who are apparently engaged in intimate conversation are doing so by shouting at each other from opposite sides of the stage.

 Theatrical magic may include spectacle, but basically the spell can only be sustained by intelligibility. Part of following the story is knowing who the characters onstage are, and who they are talking about if that character isn’t present. The audience enjoys the engagement of figuring things out, but if it is too much of a struggle, they may just give up.

 This is as true ultimately of experimental work, like the often impressive Inverted Lorca at Dell’Arte this fall, as it is of established conventional plays. While certain moments and flourishes may remain strongest in the memory, sometimes effects take spectators out of the play rather than pulling them in.

 Probably the biggest distraction generally is the agony of scene changes and transitions. These cause such time-consuming technical problems that playwright Sarah Ruhl suggests—only partly in jest—that the traditional stage curtain be revived to separate scenes by rising and falling.

 My concern is the effect on the stage illusion and the audience’s engagement. Is more gained by specific scenery than is lost by watching people move things around every few minutes?

 Effectiveness is partly a game of expectations. Approaching a drama, audiences likely expect only to be engaged by something—the story, characters, subject or setting. A powerful dramatic and emotional experience is a bonus. But audiences approaching a comedy reputed to be funny expect to laugh, and if they don’t, the show has not done its job.

 Of the last four comedies I’ve seen, only one—the Dell’Arte Christmas show—was consistently funny. The other three had funny scripts and reputedly funny prior productions. But problems of intelligibility and pace—or maybe the apparent decision to concentrate on other aspects of the play-- cut the comedy.

 Still, there were several productions this year that did the basic stuff and went beyond it to create fine theatre: among them were North Coast Rep’s Love List, The Goat and The Producers; HLO’s Light on the Piazza, Ferndale Rep’s Crimes of the Heart, Dell’Arte’s revival of Intrigue at Ah-Pah, Redwood Curtain’s Bad Dates, visiting Cornerstone Theatre’s Jason in Eureka.

 And there were intriguing beginnings, like Joan Schirle’s aforementioned Inverted Alba, Dell’Arte’s The Body Remembers, John ADEkoje’s Jagun Fly at HSU, and David Ferney’s The Misunderstood Badger at the Arcata Playhouse, plus several visiting shows at the Playhouse. And again, our own unique Jeff DeMark.

 This is probably more than an area this size that’s this isolated could reasonably expect. On the other hand, every audience reasonably expects an intelligible performance every time, on the way to being entertaining and maybe even enlightening.

 Late News Headlines: The recent production of The Marriage of Bette and Boo is the first HSU show this decade to be selected to compete in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre regional festival. And Redwood Curtain’s long search for a new venue may be over, according to Bob Doran’s reporting. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Dickens of a Christmas

Some of the actors who've played Scrooge, from top left: Jim Carrey in the current Disney film, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine (in a Muppet version), George C. Scott, and who can forget Uncle Scrooge McDuck? But in the center is perhaps the most classic film Scrooge, Alaistar Sim in 1951. More on Dickens and this North Coast Christmas in several posts below. Click collage to enlarge.

 What the Dickens is going on around here? North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka is currently staging a relatively faithful version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Dell’Arte is on the road with A Commedia Christmas Carol, while Ferndale Repertory Theatre performs Oliver!--the musical version of Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

All while a “performance capture” version of A Christmas Carol is Disney’s big holiday movie, evidently switching their Yuletide allegiance to Dickens from Lewis Carroll (who, astute theatergoers--and readers of this blog-- may remember, inspired another Christmas coincidence of shows at Dell’Arte and Ferndale in 2007.)

Of course the Dickens story has long been a part of every Christmas season, through innumerable film and TV versions as well as adorable school pageants. Mr. Scrooge and Tiny Tim, and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future are almost as familiar as Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In an odd way, Scrooge has even become one of the Great Parts by which actors test their mettle: Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier played it, and more recently George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart. But the Alistair Sim 1951 film portrayal is still considered the gold standard of Scroogery. There have also been numerous animations and musical adaptations, mostly emphasizing its sentimental aspects, and therefore a few satires.

This was not the only Christmas story or scene that Dickens wrote, and some commentators suggest that his work defined many of the elements of what we now call a traditional Christmas. He even helped institutionalize the “white Christmas” expectation, despite the allegation that London gets snow at Christmas only slightly more often than Eureka.

All this may testify to the high quality of this story, while also masking it. A Christmas Carol has the Dickens mix that made his work so popular in its time and enduring afterwards: invisible artistry, rousing entertainment, heightened characters that edge around sentimentality, social conscience, and a story of redemption.

It is perhaps the social message that should resonate strongly in this troubled year . Scrooge’s redemption is through re-balancing his attitudes: accepting joy as well as fear, and expanding the meaning of his life. As the ghost of his regretful business partner tells him, “ Business!...The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Using Romulus Linney’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol , North Coast Repertory Theatre sticks with the Dickens setting and story. Mercifully however, the actors do not attempt English accents. In the opening scenes of Scrooge in his dour office, one result is to suggest Melville’s 19th century Wall Street, with Scrooge in black as a Puritan capitalist. (Some commentators also suggest direct American connections to Dickens’ original tale, from how Americans celebrated Christmas to the conditions in a Pittsburgh prison Dickens visited.)

But all this is for my adult readers. The show itself is family entertainment. It is a brisk 90 minutes or so, with quick dialogue and a few effects to beguile children in the audience. But it’s the children on stage who infuse the show with vitality. The clear star of the evening is Dorian DeNisi as Tiny Tim, with other children and young actors providing the energy and feeling central to the most affecting scenes. These actors include Kelly Hughes, Alex Sutter, Meghan Walsh, Allyson Boltzen, Gaia DeNisi, Careyanna Adams, Alexandra Gellner and Isak Brayfindley.

I can’t predict the responses of children seeing it, but judging from opening night there were some laughs, and nothing that seemed too scary. Directed by Cynthia Brown, with a handsome open set by Daniel L. Lawrence, it seemed theatrically adequate holiday family fare. The featured actors speak their lines audibly, even when their backs are to the audience, and they present the story clearly. Dmitry Tokarsky is an imposing Scrooge who keeps the story moving ahead, but despite some tepid special effects, there is little actual drama in this production, and so not much joy in Scrooge’s second chance.

Among those featured actors is Brian Walker as Bob Cratchit, Evan Needham as Scrooge’s nephew, Bob Service as Marley’s Ghost, Wanda Stamp as Mrs. Crachit, and Savannah McCauley, Deborah Salizzoni and Jennifer Trustem as the other ghosts. Ben Rowe, David Moore and Pam Service round out the cast, which does a lot of doubling that’s sometimes confusing. Katie Pratt designed the lighting, Marcia Hutson the costumes, Cindy Brown the sound.

What did Christmas mean to Charles Dickens? Singing, dancing, feasting, games, good works and, for some reason, ghosts. He wrote at least ten ghost stories involving Christmastime, the most famous being A Christmas Carol.  Given commedia’s attraction to the grotesque, these Christmas ghosts would seem a natural focus for this year’s holiday show from Dell’Arte, A Commedia Christmas Carol. And so they are.

 Directed by Michael Fields, the Dell’Arte players mostly stick to the Dickens story, incorporating actual speeches from the original. But it wouldn’t be Dell’Arte if they didn’t provide comedic and satirical twists.

 Scrooge (played by an energetic Gabriel McKinney) is almost a classic commedia character (the miser) but there’s a daring difference to Tiny Tim (played by Adriana Chavez): he’s no longer a 19th century malnourished and crippled child but afflicted with the 21st century American childhood scourges of obesity and asthma.

Scrooge’s nephew (Brian Kuwabara) and niece (Nicholette Routhier) are sweet and spoiled Yuppies. The contemporary fetish for competitive Christmas displays is mocked, as one man promises to let homeless people sleep in his barn if they paticipate in his Nativity scene, dressed as sheep.

 But it’s the creative characterizations of the ghosts that enliven the classic laughs. Christmas Past (Emily Windler) is a literal-minded dimwit, and Christmas Present (Elizabeth Colon Nelson) is a sexy Latina. Christmas Future (Erin Crites) doesn’t speak in the Dickens story, so naturally she’s a mime in classic Marcel Marceau costume, although with extra equipment she points out.

 There seemed less music than usual, but a nice balance of physical and verbal humor. For me, this was the funniest of the Dell’Arte Christmas shows I’ve seen.

Since the surprise of comedy often depends on established expectations, the familiarity of this story works to its advantage. Though the jokes and tricks were often even older than this tale (even the comically obvious game of charades must have been an ancient bit when the Marx Brothers did something like it), the novelty of seeing them employed by these characters and in the context of this story made them as fresh as they needed to be. The jokes may be repeated beyond the taste of some, perhaps because children love repetition.

 As for true-to-Dickens, a couple of caveats: The best film versions of A Christmas Carol excel at Scrooge’s complete transformation in the end—it’s meant to be as radical as a permanent religious experience, a complete liberation of inner joy and love. The Dell’Arte version is more ironic—they make comedic hay from his reversions to type and struggle to change. That’s probably more realistic and certainly funnier, but it blunts Dickens main move.

But then, Scrooge's transformation is so subversive (ironically because it is so “Christian”) it is often ignored, mostly by being smothered in sentimentality. But in essence it’s a kind of Buddhist enlightenment, a total conversion to compassion and “loving kindness.”

 Neither local production really did justice to one of the scarier scenes, when Christmas Present reveals two children: “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both...but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased...” Those children should be truly deformed and horrifying. Though that’s hard to pull off in a family Christmas show.

 The multiple-character cast members at Dell’Arte are uniformly funny (not yet named are Julie Douglas and Genesee Spridco), and several designed the terrific masks, along with Heidi Rider. Tim Gray did the music and the very effective sound cues, Jerry Lee Wallace the scenic design, Michael Foster the lighting, Lydia Foreman the costumes.

 But what about those ghosts? I'm told that telling ghost stories at Christmas is an English tradition, which presumably predates Dickens. Still, much of how we celebrate the Christmas season--and much of how Dickens felt Christmas should be celebrated--is derived from very ancient festivals of the winter solstice.
  In some Native American traditions, the shortest day of the year signals the promise of spring, as days grow longer and the light returns. Winter is considered a pregnancy. Also in Native traditions, as probably in many others, winter is the time for storytelling. People must be inside more, gathered around the fire, so more inclined to listen to stories.

Spirits are often characters in those stories. Some of the most spiritually and culturally important stories can be told only in the winter. Even in Dickens time, people told stories around the fire in winter, and apparently like other fireside traditions, these included ghost stories. In A Christmas Carol , Dickens brilliantly uses spirits to convey a spiritual message, based on the contemplation of death. The contrast of death and life is especially heightened in the context of the ideals of Christmas: charity and the joys of life.

Scrooge was a rich man who learned nobility and empathy for the poor. Oliver Twist, the hero of just the second novel in Dickens’ long career, was himself a poor boy with a noble heart, with the choice of being worked to death or preying on the rich to survive, before fate and kind-hearted people intervene.

 The 1960s hit musical Oliver! simplifies the story, and despite the extremes of mid-19th century London, capitalizes on colorful characters and the picturesque. Since it emphasizes the heartwarming morality tale as well as colorful Dickensian characters, and especially because it presents children on stage, this family-friendly musical now at Ferndale Repertory Theatre fits into this Dickens of a Christmas season on the North Coast.

 Oliver!, with music, lyrics and book by Lionel Bart, is directed by Tom Phillips, with musical direction by Laura Welch, vocal direction by David Powell and Nanette Voss, and choreography by Linda Maxwell. Scenic design is by Elizabeth Uhazy, lighting by Nick Trotter, sound by Dylan Savage and Ian Shatz. Sammy Humphrey and Jacob Smith alternate as Oliver. The large cast includes Jim Buschman, Sarah Seidt, Denim Ohmit, Janet Waddell, Dave Powell, Lynn Kermin and Dave Fuller. Oliver! plays weekends (including Sunday matinees) at Ferndale Rep until Dec. 20. Beti Trauth reviews it here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

HSU opens The Marriage of Bette and Boo by Christopher (Sister Mary Ignatius...) Durang, for two weekends beginning Thursday (Dec. 3) in the Gist Hall Theatre. It's directed by Jody Sekas--well-known on the North Coast as scenic designer and consultant for some 80 shows at various local theatres, but this is his first time directing since his student days. There's much more at HSU Stage, but I can't resist quoting once again a little speech that indicates what an antidote this play might be to the usual holiday fare:
Matt, the scholarly son of the unfortunate title couple (and a stand-in for Durang in this obliquely autobiographical play) reads from a mock essay: “Holidays were invented in 1203 by Sir Ethelbert Holiday, a sadistic Englishman. It was Sir Ethelbert’s hope that by setting aside specific days on which to celebrate things...that the population at large would fall into a collective deep depression. Holidays would regulate joy so that anyone who didn’t feel joyful on those days would feel bad. Single people would be sad they were single. Married people would be sad they were married. Everyone would feel disappointment that their lives had fallen so far short of their expectations.”
Beginning Friday (Dec. 4) for two weekends, A Very Playhouse Christmas: A Television Special presents the fabulous Tannenbalm Sisters (Jacqueline Dandeneau, Tinamarie Ivey and Zuzka Sabata) hosting a zany fake Christmas special, with different local guest artists for each performance, including Lynne and Bob Wells, Art Jones, Joan Schirle, Sienna Nelson and the Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir. It's all at the Arcata Playhouse (see the site.)
Elsewhere in this Dickens of a Christmas on the North Coast, Ferndale Rep continues Oliver!, North Coast Rep continues A Christmas Carol and Dell'Arte takes A Commedia Christmas Carol on the road. I review that one in the Journal this week, and I'm planning to publish the whole novel here.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

This North Coast Weekend (and Week)

Ferndale Rep opened the musical Oliver! this weekend, based on Dickens' Oliver Twist. It plays weekends, including Sunday matinees, until December 20. Dell'Arte opened A Commedia Christmas Carol (photo above)- -this year's annual Christmas show-- at the Carlo Theatre, and begins its traditional local tour on Monday, Nov. 30, at HSU's Van Duzer Theatre, Tuesday at the Arkley Center in Eureka, and Wednesday at Trinity Valley Elementary in Willow Creek. Meanwhile, the North Coast Rep rendition of A Christmas Carol continues. I reviewed it at the Journal, in what will be part one of my serial novel, A Dickens of a Christmas.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Return to Olympus

In his long lifetime, Laurence Olivier was a giant among actors. In fact it became a kind of cliche, leading to lucrative parts in very bad movies, like playing Zeus (photo above) But since his death in 1989 there's been a lot of revisionism about his work and status in theatrical history. Together with the effects of absense, he's tended to be forgotten and dismissed. Meanwhile, his widow, Joan Plowright is enjoying a fine late life career in movies.
I had reason to consider all this after seeing an Olivier film performance I'd missed. Actually it was a TV production from 1978 of a post-WW II play called Daphne Laureola, on DVD. It turns out to have been one of a series of Granada Television plays, each one supposedly the "best play" of a particular year of the 20th century. Olivier produced six of these, and appeared in five.
Daphne Laureola by James Bridie was the "Best Play of 1949," so it must have been a bad year for plays because this isn't much. It might be more the case that Olivier had produced it before (in 1949) and that it was a good role for Joan Plowright. But as her older husband, Olivier has two pivotal scenes, one of which involves a monologue that is mostly exposition. I watched this scene twice because it is so mesmerizing. I'd forgotten how subtle and unique his work could be. Some of his signature TV roles were still to come: Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, Journey Round My Father and his King Lear. I don't know about anyone else, but an Olivier revival may be upon me.

Friday, November 20, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

First up with holiday fare, North Coast Repertory Theatre opens a straight adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic story, A Christmas Carol this weekend. I'll be writing about it for next week's Journal. On Sunday, Chalk Door Theatre (apparently yet another Dell'Arte spinoff) presents Grim and Fischer at the Arcata Playhouse, an original comedic masked performance described as "live action Pixar."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

She Ruhls

set for 1994 OSF production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth
The theme of the Sep/Oct issue of The Dramatist (publication of the Dramatist Guild) is a back-to-school gimmick: so a number of playwrights (as well as a musical "book" author and a lyricist) gave their versions of a Master Class. All are pretty interesting and several are especially entertaining, like David Henry Hwang's-- a little play in which he pontificates but is set straight by the ghost of his agent.

But the one I keep thinking about is by Sarah Ruhl, a smart enough playwright to have copped a MacArthur grant. Her contribution is actually 10 provocative paragraphs on different subjects. I'll mention only two, that I had reason to think about in particular.

One is "On the loss of the curtain," bemoaning all the time spent dealing with the technical aspects of marking scene changes, now that the convention of simply dropping and raising the curtain has disappeared. She suggests it be brought back, or at least a single new convention replace it ("Why not lights and no sound? Or sound and no lights? Or a monkey on a pole flipping a flip book with the titles of each scene?") so the rehearsal time lost to tech can be cut, and plays themselves will be better rehearsed.

To which I say, amen. I often wonder if so much time was devoted to technical matters, or even to elaborate staging, that the clarity of presentation has suffered, not to mention the depths explored and expressed by actors inhabiting their parts.

Another graph wonders "How it is that Thornton Wilder who radically challenged form and was an inventor and outlier was transformed by intellectual opinion into a treacly sentimentalist for the masses?" She wonders "How to reclaim the dead and enjoyed-by-many and put them back in their proper place as radicals..."

Good questions, but I also wonder if both of Wilder's reputations--as a has-been sentimentalist and a has-been experimentalist--prevents more theatres from doing his plays. Or is it just the large casts? That shouldn't stop university theatres. Though I hesitate to call for doing plays and playwrights that theatres don't do because they know they'd do them badly, I would like to experience some Wilder (The Skin of Our Teeth might be topical now), Shaw, Ibsen, Arthur Miller again--along with more fashionable plays and playwrights.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Brogue Wave: Stones In His Pocket

Movies about movies, plays about plays, movies about plays and plays about movies: they’re seductive halls of mirrors, spangled with cultural reflections and refractions, and ready-made metaphors about reality and illusion.

 There’s the fascination of what is on the screen or stage versus what goes on backstage, and the built-in theatricality of the characters: producers, directors and especially actors.  Stones In His Pockets, a comic play centering on extras during a Hollywood movie shoot in rural Ireland, plays with all these themes, and adds some of its own.

 First produced in 1999, Stones In His Pockets won Best Comedy awards during its four-year London run, succeeded by productions in all the British isles and throughout Europe. A five-month Broadway run in 2001 was followed by a U.S. touring version.

The play has one dominating feature: only two actors play 15 different characters between them. The Redwood Curtain production now on stage at the Arcata Playhouse features Gary Sommers and James Hitchcock playing Charlie and Jake, two young men past their first failures (a video store gone bust, a disappointing sojourn in America.) They’re working as extras, as most others in the town are—some of whom Sommers and Hitchcock also play. Along with various members of the film crew, its director, and its female sex symbol star.

 Hitchcock and Sommers sketch these characters in swift succession, so for the audience, keeping them sorted is a task. But when the characters become more familiar, the effect is sometimes surreal in the more frenetic sections of the second act— at times I had to remind myself there were just two actors up there.

 Simply to physically perform all this is an admirable achievement, yet the play demands more. For all the quick comic sketches of familiar types and targets, this play is not a farce, nor simply a satire. Charlie and Jake are meant to engage our sympathies as characters as they respond to events, evaluate their pasts and change to meet their futures. For the most part, Hitchcock and Sommers succeed in this as well.

 Yet there is more. By making the movie’s extras the stars of this play, a set of variations on the dream versus reality theme is engaged (some of which are spelled out in some thesis-statement speeches in Act 2.) The basic situation might resonate with local audiences: two young men in an economically dying rural community, dreaming bigger dreams, coming up against the limitations of their home town and the self-involved hypocrisy of the powerful larger world, as well as their own self-subverting feelings. Expressed geographically, culturally and financially, it’s about class in a world where fate seems to be either stardom or oblivion.

 But this play is set in Ireland, written by a Belfast playwright for Irish actors, skilled in the accents that Irish and English audiences recognize for what they say about geography and class. The play even talks about accents in that way. In this production, one of the actors has an uncertain command of accents, while the other’s brogue was so thickly authentic-sounding that it was hard to always understand.

 Since characters were rendered with few words, this blunted their effectiveness, and limited the satiric humor as well as meaning. So in several important respects, the accents are a bridge too far for both actors and audience.

 I saw this production in preview, so it’s hard to know what other problems to attribute to the shakedown cruise, the conception of the production or to the play itself. There seemed to be little dramatic shape and pace beyond the whirl of characters, and so (for example) the dramatic announcement at the end of the first act about one of many now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t characters (the one with stones in his pocket) didn’t really do its job of enticing us to want to know what would happen after intermission.

 Stones In His Pocket is by Marie Jones, who got her start with a company formed to provide more roles for women—ironically, this play for two men is her biggest hit. She’s also been an actress, and a Hollywood movie extra in Ireland. The UK touring show has its own website, which proclaims: “Universally loved by all who see it, Stones In His Pockets has a disarming simplistic charm all of its own.”

 I’m not often disarmed by simplistic charm, and I’m not sure this play deserves this Freudian slip of a judgment. But for all its complex or simple insights and its sharp observations, for me this version lacked compelling dramatic (and comic) coherence. The performances, however admirable, weren’t powerful enough to compensate.

 This Redwood Curtain production was directed by Peggy Metzger, with costumes by Kristen Gould, lighting by Michael Burkhart, sound by John Turney and choreography (yes, a Riverdance) by Katie Kitchen. It’s at the Arcata Playhouse Thursdays through Saturdays until Nov. 21, with a matinee on the 15th.

 Speaking of Ireland: Theresa Ireland is back. Though she lives in San Francisco now, theatregoers of the past few years will remember her from roles at North Coast Rep ((Jake’s Women, Pirates of Penzance) and Ferndale Rep (Bus Stop, Anatomy of a Murder) as well as local commercials and independent films.

She's returned for the premiere of a film, The Music Inside, directed by HSU prof David Scheerer.  Though shot mostly in Montana some years ago, about a third was shot recently at HSU, with a Trinidad scene opening the film. Apart from all the students and HSU Theatre, Film & Dance (as well as Music and Art) faculty who worked on it, the new scenes feature Theresa Ireland.  She was at the premiere, all dolled up and greeted with flowers, and with a big hug from Michael Thomas, impressario of North Coast Rep.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

Redwood Curtain presents Stones in His Pocket, a dark comedy by Marie Jones, about two Irish lads hired as extras for a Hollywood movie shoot. It's at the Arcata Playhouse Friday and Saturday at 8, and then the next two Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until Nov. 21. James Hitchcock and Gary Sommers are the lads (photo above), directed by Peggy Metgzer.
Eureka High School presents Cyrano de Bergerac in the high school auditorium at 7:30 on Thursday through Sunday. If you wear a fake nose on opening night you get in free. Wear it on the second night you pay double (just kidding.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Angels Are in the Details

In the difficult case of HSU's recent production of City of Angels, let's start with two transcendent moments. First, Chris Hatcher's rapturous opening song and dance, as the screenwriter Stine. Then as a soon-to-be tragic but fictional singer, Jamie Banister's torch song that was a tour de force of singing and acting.

These two moments alone suggest the potential there was in the talent assembled on that stage. Ethan Heintz (Stone), Brandy Rose, Kelly Whitaker, Anthony DePage, Kelli Simmons Marble...from top to bottom, the cast had talent to burn, and performed brilliantly at times, capably always, and when it became necessary all too often, gamely.

But while the show had many elements that worked well individually--the mixed media, the taped voiceovers, etc.--the flaws in combining them, and in some very basic production elements, were serious and obvious. Audibility was the most obvious--not only spoken lines (in a script famed for its verbal wit--hard to get laughs for inaudible jokes) but even songs could not be heard easily or completely--pretty serious for a musical. Audience members in various parts of the theatre on both opening night and two performances later remarked on the audibility problem.

Part of the problem in hearing was caused by the egregious disturbances in moving scenery on and off during the dialogue and even during the singing--sometimes distracting visually as well as aurally. On opening night, this included an unfortunate stumble in the dimness, which might have suggested intentional comedy, a riff on Noises Off! perhaps. But the overall effect was amateur hour, embarrassing enough in junior high.

Speaking of the dimness, the play was not only hard to hear, it was hard to see. The suspects might include attempted film noir lighting, and the need to keep what was projected on the screens visible. But the effect was obscurity.

Add to that a complicated double story, which this production did not uncomplicate in the way the original production did--by differentiating the Hollywood fantasy elements with strict black-and-white costumes and set, from the "real" Hollywood in color.

So what happens when you can't hear, see or understand the play? Sooner or later you give up trying, and you wait for the end.

The only published review of this show I've seen was Beti Trauth's in the Times-Standard, and though my emphases are different (I wouldn't be so hard on the musicians), I pretty much agree with her premise that the serious problems with this show were largely due to trying to do too much. But there was also perhaps a problem of point of view.

For one thing, the impact of design on the actors and musicians, and their relationship. The action was played on floor level, but also largely on platforms that made a rough U on stage, much of it off floor level and pretty far upstage--away from the audience. This likely contributed to audience problems hearing and seeing. But that singers were often so far away from the orchestra--which was literally buried under tarps in the orchestra pit-- may have been the source of other problems: I wonder just how well the singers and the musicians could hear each other, which is crucial to adjusting volume, as well as playing and singing together, or (as seemed to go awry at least once on opening night) even being in the same key.

So adjusting to the points of view of the actors, singers and musicians is necessary. But the basic point of view that I advocate for is that of the audience. Plays are produced for various institutional reasons--most particularly, educational institutions produce them primarily as educational experiences for their students. All theatrical institutions also have constraints--financial, professional, bureaucratic, etc. And artists often want to push the envelope.

Nevertheless, if an institution opens its productions to the public, and particularly if it charges admission fees, then the production has a responsibility to the audience, and the production is subject to basically the same kind of judgments as all productions are that charge admission to the general public.

So to achieve clarity and keep the emphasis on the play and the performances, if it is necessary to simplify, simplify. There are always going to be difficulties, and difficult choices. A miking system to solve the audibility problem might well have been too expensive, I don't know. And I doubt that the actors could have projected all that much better, especially from so far away upstage. But without microphones, a simpler set closer to the audience might have gone a long way. I do know that Humboldt Light Opera produced some excellent and fully audible shows on that stage (Chris Hatcher was in one--Titanic.)

Theatre is hard to do. But I think of those lines in the movie Bull Durham, defining how to play baseball: you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. In theatre, the audience wants to see the play, hear the play and follow the story of the play. The production's first job is to make that easy. It's a simple goal and probably as difficult to achieve as superior baseball, but I wonder if the focus itself doesn't get lost sometimes. In any case, the devil is in the details. But then, so are the angels.

A final note: I wrote the publicity copy for this play (it's still all there on HSU Stage), as I do for all HSU productions, so by mutual agreement of all the parties involved, I don't review these shows for the North Coast Journal. (It would be nice to make a living from one job, but after all, this is Humboldt.) So why am I writing about this HSU show now? Well, I've done that before, following the implied rule of everyone involved in a production, that if you have problems with it but aren't in a position to change things, you deal with it honestly after it closes. And then, in what is a not very well kept secret, theatre people themselves talk about a show in ways that no mere published critic would dare.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Shaw Redemption

When the plays all start to look the same--the same yo-yoing up and down and see-sawing across the stage to make "pictures", with people in intimate dialogue shouting at each other from opposite ends while dressing a turkey or undressing themselves--and all start to sound the same--the same characters distinguished by little ticks that recur in slightly different form at least twice more to provide the illusion of individuality and meaning--when sitting there becomes a matter of repressed depression followed by repressed screaming---well

it's time for something different. My travel budget (being zero) does not allow for much viewing elsewhere, let alone major stages. New York. London. Even San Francisco. So what's the answer, to escape from this brittle sameness?

Lately it's been a set of DVDs, British television productions of plays by George Bernard Shaw. First, there's Shaw: a playwright seldom done hereabouts, whose plays are more radically different than the supposedly innovative new shows. And for all their reputation as talky, walking ideas, they are well-made in a certain way, and certainly entertaining, besides entertaining ideas.

Then there's the acting. These productions seem mostly from the 1970s and 80s, so they often feature theatrical icons in their prime. Speaking of prime, the first one I saw was Maggie Smith in The Millionairess.

Maggie Smith in the early 1970s was not only a skillful actor with that indelible voice, she was beautiful. She photographs very beautifully in this play, which is basically a stage performance with some filmic inserts. And she was beautiful then, as I can attest, since I sat across the table from her at dinner for several hours. Well, she was sort of across and to the left, at the next table. (Yes, I've told this story before here. And I'm telling it again.) It was a theatre restaurant and bar in Boston, and I was accompanying another attractive woman, a TV theatre and film reviewer who later became the head of all PBS, Pat Mitchell. Pat actually had a better view of Maggie, but I was closer. (Later that evening I heard someone playing piano and singing and thought, he sounds like Joel Grey. I turned around to look. It was Joel Grey.)

For an "obscure" Shaw, The Millionairess is a treat. It also features Tom Baker in a pre-Doctor Who role. (This is a different production apparently from the BBC version, also with Maggie Smith, also available on DVD.)

Each of these DVDs actually has two plays. Mrs. Warren's Profession, a play that skewers capitalism more effectively than Michael Moore, is accompanied by You Never Can Tell, a precursor presumably of plays and film comedies with similar sorts of titles, and this one is energetic, both intelligent and happily funny. What a treat. The performances are wonderful.

The Devil's Disciple is not a very good play--the Burt Lancaster film is actually better, though it preserves only one speech, which Laurence Olivier happily delivers as General Burgoyne. But it is interesting, and has a nice pre-Picard performance by Patrick Stewart. Arms and the Man is lively, with probably the best performance I've seen by a bouyant, vibrant Helena Bonham Carter. Next I'm seeing Heartbreak House--I've seen another TV version several times, with Rex Harrison, but this one is with John Gielgud. There's a Pygmalion in the series but alas no Joan or Cleopatra.

These plays give fine actors great words, and they love it, glory in it, and show what they can really do. These plays are about something--issues of class, gender roles, politics, economics, war and peace--that we may need to mentally update and translate to our times, but are often very acute and timeless. And not just issues, but all kind of human concern illuminated by these flashing personalities that Shaw and these actors create.

The first couple of plays sent me to Shaw's prefaces, wonderful in themselves, and I found myself starting to read The Millionairess, hearing Maggie Smith say the lines all over again. I rented these DVDs from La Dolce Video (the new store on G that absorbed a lot of the Video Experience inventory.) But I think I'm going to buy the set. There are nights I need to hear some Shaw, or something. Some of those nights after an evening at the theatre.

Update 2014: I did buy the set.  And I've been enjoying them ever since.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

Opening Thursday at the Van Duzer Theatre is the musical comedy City of Angels, produced by the HSU Department of Theatre, Film & Dance and the Department of Music. Photo is of Ethan Heintz and Jamie Banister; other featured performers include Brandy Rose and Chris Hatcher. This fond send-up of Hollywood and the hard-boiled detective pictures of the 40s was written by Larry Gelbart, with music by Cy Coleman. It plays two weekends: Thursdays through Saturdays Oct. 22-24 and Oct. 29-31 at 7:30 PM, with a Sunday matinee at 2 PM on Nov. 1. Much more info (which I created) at HSU Stage and HSU Music.
Flush from the overflow success of its first “Speakeasy” Benefit, the Arcata Playhouse has scheduled another, on Friday, Oct. 23, with music etc. by Jackie Dandeneau and others. Details at
In their final weekend: Inverted Alba at Dell'Arte and Crimes of the Heart at Ferndale Rep. I review Crimes of the Heart this week in the Journal, where I also tell a Larry Gelbart joke that almost nobody has heard before.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Crimes of the Heart (and a Gelbart joke)

Playwrights Beth Henley and Marsha Norman made waves with their Pulitzer Prize-winning plays in the early 1980s. They were something new on the American theatre scene: southern women playwrights, who both got their start at the Actor’s Theatre in Louisville, and not in the Northeast. Their big plays (Norman’s ’night, Mother, Henley’s Crimes of the Heart) were classified as southern Gothic, dealing with violence involving women as perpetrators as well as victims. Both were turned into good Hollywood movies, with especially fine roles for women.

 Both plays were notable then for their shock value, and so the first question I had when I saw Crimes of the Heart at Ferndale Repertory Theatre was whether it still had that particular kind of power. For me the answer was, not really. A quarter century of sitcoms later, the daringly sympathetic woman who shot her abusive husband is pretty tame, as is the promiscuous sister.

 But that only makes Crimes of the Heart an easier fit for community theatre audiences, which is otherwise fitting, since it was the participation of Beth Henley’s mother in community theatre in Jackson, Mississippi that got the future playwright and screenwriter into show business. It’s still a decent play, based very loosely on Chekhov’s Three Sisters, with some especially affecting scenes.
 The first act is creaky with exposition, but it gathers itself after that.

 At Ferndale, Alexandra Gellner plays Lenny, the oldest of the sisters, the shy one, dolefully celebrating her 30th birthday, which almost no one else remembered. Katie Sutter is Babe, the youngest sister, who shot her husband, a powerful politician. Nancy O’Bryan is Meg, the beautiful one, who returns from Hollywood where her singing career dead-ended into a job in a dog food factory (a job Beth Henley once had.)

 Babe’s lawyer who becomes more, is played by Neal Schoonmaker. Doc Porter, Meg’s former and perhaps re-lit flame, was played by Victor Howard when I saw this, though Brian Walker is listed in the program. Gloria Montgomery plays—and perhaps overplays—Chick Boyle, a busybody relative.

 Director Ginger Gene kept everything moving, and focused the key scenes. All the actors got their characters across and told the story, to the general satisfaction of the audience. Alexandra Gellner had the toughest role as Lenny, and she made the most of some subtle shades. Katie Sutter was most impressive in the key role of Babe, as she stumbled from sweet denial to hard realization to vulnerable hope. And the birthday cake ending always works.

 But for all the words and movement, and all the events (mostly offstage), the play felt a bit distant, like a sitcom. I missed feeling the intimacy of sisters. It seemed they hardly ever touched. The action stays in the antique-laden kitchen (designed by Paula Long and Ginger Gene), partly for dramatic unity, and partly because Henley intended to produce the play herself, on a shoestring budget. But a friend sent it to the Actor’s Theatre playwriting contest, and the rest is history.

 For the Ferndale production, Carolyn Jones and Vikki Young designed costumes, Katie Pratt designed lighting, and Ian Schatz sound. Crimes of the Heart plays at Ferndale Rep one more weekend, Friday and Saturday (Oct. 23, 24) at 8 PM, and Sunday (Oct. 25) at 2.

 Coming Up:  Flush from the overflow success of its first “Speakeasy” Benefit, the Arcata Playhouse has scheduled another, on Friday, Oct. 23, with music etc. by Jackie Dandeneau and others. Details at

 The HSU production of the musical comedy City of Angels opens at the Van Duzer Theatre for two weekends, beginning Thursday (Oct. 22) at 7:30 PM. Cy Coleman composed the music, and Larry Gelbart wrote the script.

Larry Gelbart died just about a month ago, and I’ll probably never get a better opportunity to pass on one of his jokes, that few people have heard. Gelbart was a comedy writer for TV pioneer Sid Caesar, the main writer for the TV version of M*A*S*H, and co-authored the stage comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, seen at Ferndale Rep in 2006.

 Gelbart and his wife, Pat, were friends with Steve Allen and his wife, Jane Meadows. In addition to hosting and inventing The Tonight Show and other comedy shows, Steve Allen wrote a series of mystery novels, and in one of them, there’s a scene with Larry and Pat Gelbart as characters.

 I spent a week hanging out with Steve Allen in the early ‘90s, shortly after this novel came out, and he told me what happened next.

 Allen sent Gelbart a note, telling him about this scene. Gelbart wrote back to thank him, and added, “this goes a long way to making up for Pat and I being edited out of War and Peace.”

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Inverted Alba: Realizing Lorca

 Inverted Alba (A Fable and Roundelay After Images by Garcia Lorca), currently at Dell’Arte, uses elements of four Lorca plays and his poems (as well as poetry by Pablo Neruda, who addressed Lorca in several poems.) Federico Garcia Lorca achieved lasting fame with his poetry in the 1920s and 30s—first in Spain and then internationally-- but he was also a popular playwright, with major productions in Madrid.

 Joan Schirle returns to the Carlo Theatre stage in this work, which she created with director Ronlin Foreman and fellow cast members Laura Munoz and Richard Newman.

 It begins with balletic movement by the cast in flowing capes, as they speak the poetry, singly and in choral singing. (Ronlin Foreman’s twin Donlin contributed choreography.) This is echoed later in recitation accompanied by actors unfolding strips of billowing silk, to me the evening’s most moving combination of words and images.

 Also from the beginning there is a recorded soundtrack of ambient sounds and music (particularly some choice cello) that may relate to the action of that moment, or foreshadow or echo themes. But soon Joan Schirle is commanding the stage in a comic portrayal of a tight-fisted impresario dominating her two actors, who are lovers imprisoned on the stage but planning their escape. With rapid-fire accents, quick characterizations and hilarious yet sinister panache, Schirle also becomes the star of the show they’re presenting, a familiar Commedia about a slovenly rich man forcing himself on a maiden who wants to marry her young lover.

 The producer she’s been playing believes this is the kind of entertainment the public wants, but the rest of the evening will break lose from that mutual imprisonment. Unless I’m mistaken, the main texts for this early section are Lorca’s two Punch and Judy-style puppet plays and an unfinished experimental script set on a theatre stage. The “Roundelay” element—a repeated refrain—might be the opening lines of the Lorca poem “Gacela of the Dark Death”: “I want to sleep the sleep of the apples...”

 But the last section is certainly based on one of Lorca’s best-known plays, The House of Bernarda Alba, which continues the theme of lovers being separated by dominant authority, in this case an iron-willed mother and the implacable traditions of Spanish honor. She imprisons her two daughters in the house for the prescribed eight years of mourning, with an insistent lover outside.

 The mood is a good deal more serious, conjoining Lorca’s obsessive themes of love and death. Lorca told this story in a three act play, so it can only be outlined and illuminated by lightning flashes of images in this relatively brief section. 

Though evocative and even brilliant—such as part of the tale told by a dog—I found the story hard to follow, particularly who’s who.  Richard Newman (with his expressive face and stage presence) and Laura Munoz (with her poised and eloquent movements, and whose Spanish adds dimensions) are always excellent and watchable, but they play so many roles it’s sometimes difficult to tell which character is talking, or who they’re talking about.

 Along with Tim Gray’s sound design and music, Michael Foster’s lighting and Lydia Foreman’s costumes, Ronlin Foreman’s scenic design economically creates Lorca-like moods—the shuttered darkness of that house spoke volumes. But the lack of detailed social context and individuality in the characters from the longer play has its costs, as a stylized death lacks climactic impact.

 Each element of this production is excellent, and together they create atmospheres to fascinate and intrigue the audience. Fans of Schirle will want to see this, both for the skills and talents they know and the new places her explorations take her.

 So to honor this experimental spirit, here’s how Garcia Lorca concluded a speech after one of his plays: “I know that those people who say, ‘Now, now, now’ with their eyes fixed on the small jaws of the box office are not right, but those who say ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow,’ and feel the approach of the new life which is hovering over the world.”

 Inverted Alba continues Fridays through Sundays at 8 in the Carlo until October 25.

Coming Up:  Ferndale Rep opened Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley last weekend, directed by Ginger Gene. It can be seen Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 for two more weekends, also ending October 25.

 There have been several weekends of multiple openings lately, with long stretches of no openings at all. How theatres schedule productions is their business, but when several shows open on the same weekend, I can’t review all of them in the next issue. I try to anticipate by previewing in this limited space, but I want theatres and readers to know that not all reviews are going to appear as early in a play’s run as all of us would like.

 Assuming I’m not on a sequestered jury, I hope to write about Crimes of the Heart next issue. In two weeks, HSU opens its semi-annual musical, City of Angels in the Van Duzer Theatre.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Arcata Playhouse Benefit

A benefit to keep the Arcata Playhouse humming happens on Saturday at 8 PM at, oddly enough, the Arcata Playhouse. There Jackie Dandenau and her Speakeasy Trio (Tim Gray, Marla Joy and Time Randles) host an evening of music, comedy and drinks: wine from Moonstone Crossing, beer from Lost Coast Brewery, etc. It's a speakeasy, see?

Along with the 30s speakeasy style jazz, guest performers include Gregg Moore, Barb Culbertson, Jean Stach, Louis Hoilland, Curtis & Julie Thompson. Jackie will perform a new monologue, too. Tickets are $20 for singles and $99 for a table of four, which includes a bottle of Moonstone wine or beverage of choice. Tickets are available at Wildwood Music and The Works and the Playhouse. More info: or (707) 822-1575.

That seems to be pretty much what's happening this weekend, apart from Guys and Dolls continuing at North Coast Rep. But true to recent scheduling madness, two openings next weekend at Dell'Arte and Ferndale Rep.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

In its second weekend, the classic musical Guys and Dolls is at North Coast Rep in Eureka. My review is in the Journal this week. The dolls above are two of the standout performers: Andrea Zvalesko as Miss Adelaide and Melissa Smith as the Mission Lady, Sarah Brown.
On Saturday night only, Jeff DeMark performs his baseball show, Hard as Diamond, Soft as the Dirt with the Delta Nationals at 8 in the Arcata Theatre Lounge Theater, followed by the band playing several sets of dance music. Take note: this is the Arcata Theatre (the old moviehouse) on G, not the Arcata Playhouse at the Old Creamery. Besides, where else can you go to the theater in the theatre?

Guys and Dolls House

I'm posting my Journal review of Guys and Dolls because half a sentence was edited out, and since it was an appreciation of an actor's performance, I wanted to restore it, in context.

I also neglected to mention the backstage band that for the most part did solid accompaniment without drawing attention to themselves: Laura Welch, Bobby Amirkhan, Ross Welch, Hilson Parker, Nanette Voss, Dianne Zuleger, Stephanie Douglass and Fred Belanger...

Guys and Dolls is a classic American musical, derived from Damon Runyon’s stories about gamblers, hustlers and show biz characters of 1930s New York, with outstanding songs by Frank Loesser. Its Broadway premiere lasted from 1950 to 1953, and it’s been revived there five times since-- the most recent Broadway run ended this June. The 1955 film is also a classic.

In fact, it’s so classically theatrical that it is also a perennial production of high schools and junior highs. But for theatres especially, that should be as much a warning as a promise. In other words, thinking it’s a sure thing is the type of thought that a sucker may live to regret that he ever had.

Guys and Dolls follows two interrelating stories: Nathan Detroit, trying to find a location for his permanent floating crap game while fending off the matrimonial expectations of his showgirl fiancé, Miss Adelaide, while high roller Sky Masterson works on winning his bet that he can entice the strait-laced young lady from the Mission, Sarah Brown, to accompany him to Havana.

So this particular play is now on stage at North Coast Repertory in Eureka, directed by James Read, with scenic design by Lonnie Blankenchip, choreography by Heather Sorter, costumes by Marcia Hutson and musical direction by David Powell and Dianne Zuleger.

This production has many virtues: Melissa Smith’s transcendent voice as Mission lady Sarah Brown, and her winsome, wonderfully performed Havana night club high. The strong, goosebump-raising ensemble singing, particularly of Evan Needham (as Benny Southwest), Ethan Vaughan (Rusty Charlie) and David Powell (Nicely Nicely Johnson), as well as everything Powell did, especially leading the gangster revival song, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.”

Last and most consistently the best is the acting and singing of Andrea Zvalesko as Miss Adelaide. On opening night, she was funny, musical and created an appealingly real character. Daniel Kennedy had his virtues as Nathan Detroit, and Trevor Mather, evidently a late addition as Sky Masterson, played the role with a presence and a heart that conquers all, even the sometimes-elusive musical key. But it’s Zvalesko’s performance that kept the evening on track.

Aspects of the opening night performance seemed under-rehearsed, so by now the show could already be better. But some problems suggest that tapping the full magic of Guys and Dolls can be tricky. For all its high points, this production isn’t helped by some clunky and confusing staging, ragged acting, questionable choreography, unfortunate costumes and uninspiring set. Mostly missing for me was a consistent sense of time and place: what makes the New York of this era different from any Chicago or Paris (both sites of recent plays at NCRT.) The major exception was Andrea Zvalesko, who managed to keep her Betty Boopish accent even while sneezing.

North Coast Rep usually excels at these classic musicals. Though this may not be among its best, there’s potential fun and some special moments in Guys and Dolls.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


"The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it...All the argument and all the wisdom is not in the encyclopaedia, or the treatise on metaphysics, or the Body of Divinity, but in the sonnet or the play."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson. Photo: Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot in London last season.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Light Opera Light on the Piazza

Just for the record, here's my review of the Humboldt Light Opera's recent production of The Light on the Piazza." I didn't want to burden the review with a particularly idiosyncratic point of view, but having grown up in the kind of Italian American atmosphere (my mother's family, relatives and friends) that probably doesn't exist many places anymore, I cast a skeptical and sometimes wary eye on the portrayal of Italians and Italian Americans on stage and TV and the movies. It amazes me that while other ethnic group cliches cause controversy or are just avoided, Italians are still portrayed as organized criminals if they are portrayed at all. I am not amused. That's not the case with this play, of course, but I'm always attentive to how the cultural nuances are handled. In this production, most of the actors were pretty successful with accents and general body language, though only a few could "talk with their hands" convincingly in the Italian manner. And the Italian priest who presides at the marriage looked the part to a scary degree, especially for a guy named Ellsworth Pence.

The first line of the review refers to an earlier part of the column, when I discuss how Robert Louis Stevenson's novel about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was changed for the stage almost immediately after the novel was published, and how those changes were amplified in the bombastic 1990s musical version. So we now join the review which is already in progress.

Though the story is of more recent vintage, “The Light on the Piazza” is another novel that received differing interpretations, first on screen and then as the musical currently presented at HSU’s Van Duzer Theatre by the Humboldt Light Opera Company, in association with College of the Redwoods.

An American mother and her beautiful daughter are traveling in Italy when the daughter sparks a romance with a young Florentine named Fabrizio. But the daughter’s charming innocence may be the product of a childhood brain injury. Originally set in the 1950s, the 2005 musical takes a different view on the ambiguity of medical labels and the cultural shame associated with those officially pronounced as not normal.

But that’s subtext to what is otherwise a musical spectacle. Though the script by Craig Lucas and the music and lyrics by Adam Guettel delve into other complications, basically it’s a stage love story, set within a gentle contrast of cultures.

The HLO production appears to be the hot ticket of the summer. Scenic designer Gerald Beck provides a dazzling set of moving platforms and screens, and director Jean Bazemore keeps the stage filled with color and movement, assisted by costumes designed by Kevin Sharkey and Virginia Ryder, and lighting by Jayson Mohatt.

The music is somewhat unusual for a Broadway show, tending towards more modern complexity and the operetta style which plays to HLO’s strength, with music direction by Carol Ryder and John Chernoff. The live orchestra conducted by Justin Sousa provides both supple accents to the singing and memorable instrumental moments.

Carol Ryder as the mother and Bill Ryder as Fabrizio’s father are familiarly brilliant. Fiona Ryder brings charm and fine vocals to the role of the daughter, Clara. From the moment he appeared, anxious and smitten, the emotional center for me was James Gadd as Fabrizio. At first he sings mostly in Italian, in a style that reminded me of old popular recordings made by Italian opera singers. Then in the second act, when his character is more comfortable with English, his performance of the climactic love song is simple, direct and yet extraordinary: the highlight of the love story.

But this show also dramatizes the pitfalls and tragedies of relationships, especially in songs sung by Carol and Bill Ryder, but also in the songs and actions of other characters, as they view their own relationships through the romance they see unfolding in front of them. Ably presenting these characters are Kevin Richards, Molly Severdia and Paula Proctor, with briefer roles made quickly credible by Phil Zastrow and Ellsworth Pence.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Remembering the Federal Theatre Project

A poster from a play with political punch--It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, and a photo from an early New York production of Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot--both productions by the Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s, remembered in several posts below. (By the way, the prices for the Lewis play are in cents.)

Remembering the Federal Theatre Project

"The Federal Theatre of the Works Progress Administration, which, within two years, was to be described by a leading critic as 'the chief producer of works of art in the American theatre' and which came to play such a vital part in so many of our lives, was not primarily a cultural activity. It was a relief measure conceived in a time of national misery and despair. The only artistic policy it ever had was the assumption that thousands of indigent theatre people were eager to work and that millions of Americans would enjoy the results of this work if it could be offered at a price they could afford to pay.

"Within a year of its formation, the Federal Theatre had more than fifteen thousand men and women on its payroll at an average wage of approximately twenty dollars a week. During the four years of its existence its productions played to more than thirty million people in more than two hundred theatres as well as portable stages, school auditoriums and public parks the country over."

These are the words of John Housman in one of his volumes of memoirs, Run-Through (which when it was first published in 1972, was one of the first books I reviewed for a Boston weekly newspaper.) As a producer and administrator, Houseman and his collaborator, the young Orson Welles, were part of two of the most famous Federal Theatre productions during the Great Depression of the 1930s--one at the beginning of the Project, and another that has become the emblem of its end.

More on the Federal Theatre project on posts below, following photos.
The 1936 Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth in Harlem.

Voodoo Macbeth and The Cradle Will Rock

Houseman became director of the Negro Theatre Project in Harlem (in those days, "black" was the impolite term) when the black woman everyone agreed should head it insisted he be hired as her co-equal associate, but then she became too ill with cancer to continue. There were productions by black playwrights, but one of the first was a production of Macbeth directed by Orson Welles, at the beginning of his tempestuous partnership with Houseman.

Welles used the tales surrounding an actual dictator of Haiti to create what was soon dubbed the Voodoo Macbeth. And it was no idle name. The three witches were played by voodoo practitioners from Haiti. They held back on their spells but Houseman claims that when they got a hostile review, they used the real thing, and the reviewer died within weeks.

As rehearsals began, Harlem was of two minds about the project. Some felt it was a white attempt to humiliate black actors unfamiliar with the verse, and a few adherents of this view tried to beat up Orson Welles late one night after a rehearsal. But the premiere was a stellar event, and brought out an audience of 10,000. It was stunningly successful, and remains one of the most famous Federal Theatre productions. Houseman was particularly impressed with the offstage technicians and artists from Harlem, highly skilled but usually without work in the theatre. They had that work for the brief life of the Project.

That was 1936. By 1937, Houseman and Welles were running a unit in midtown Manhattan for classic productions, called Project #891. By then the economy was marginally better, and the buzzsaw of Republican criticism had increased and threatened the entire Federal Theatre Project. By early summer, retrenchments had begun, and one of the first victims was to be the political musical Houseman and Welles were preparing to mount, called The Cradle Will Rock.

The relevant scenes in Tim Robbins feature film of 2000, Cradle Will Rock, conform to Houseman's account. The production was locked out of its theatre, with all the sets, costumes, and even the scripts locked inside, under guard. Unions wouldn't permit actors to play in any wildcat production. But at the last minute an empty theatre was found, some of the audience in several groups marched through Manhattan streets to that theatre, and the place was packed.

As in the movie, the play's author, Marc Blitzstein, was prepared to sing the entire score while playing piano. But Houseman believed that the actors were not technically in violation of their union's order if they didn't take the stage. And as in the movie, it was one lone female voice, a novice actor, who began singing her part with Blitzstein, from her seat in the audience. Others began to join it, and to work out scenes and dialogue, standing in the aisles.

The movie doesn't show or mention that the event was so successful that it was repeated several times on subsequent nights, with everyone trying to remember and reproduce what had happened spontaneously the first night. Eventually Houseman and Welles detached themselves from the Federal Theatre Project, and did the musical as a full, independent production. It wound up being presented more than 100 times, and has been revived on stage at least five times over the years, in 1947, 1960, 1964, 1983 and 1985.

Top photo: Hallie Flanagan, Director of the Federal Theatre Project and one of the heroes of American Theatre. Second photo: a Living Newspaper production, Injunction Granted.

Living Newspaper

Though these were among the more famous productions, they were hardly the only ones. There were many more in New York alone, including the Living Newspaper productions.

"...the [Living Newspaper] seeks to dramatize a new struggle – the search of the average American today for knowledge about his country and his world; to dramatize his struggle to turn the great natural and economic forces of our time toward a better life for more people," said Hallie Flanagan, head of the Federal Theatre Project and one of the great heroes of American theatre.

Most Living Newspaper productions were born in New York, but there were autonomous Living Newspapers in other cities such as Chicago and Seattle. In New York, the LN brought together actual journalists with theatre people to tell original stories, in experimental form (like Injunction Granted) and as more traditional plays ( One-Third of a Nation, a title which referred to FDR's famous speech about "one-third of a nation, ill-housed and ill-clad and ill-nourished.")

Topics included poverty and power, racism, and sexually transmitted diseases. Shows could be satiric, employing puppetry, dance and acrobatics. Many were very popular with the public. Conservative opponents were predictably outraged, and the LN was an early target of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Living Newspapers under the Federal Theatre Project were shut down in 1939.
Altars of Steel, a Federal Theatre Project Production in Atlanta.

Towards An American Theatre

But there were many more Federal Theatre Project productions outside New York, and even outside big cities. This site with text by Lorraine Brown offers an excellent overview, particularly outside New York, with links to Federal Theatre Project documents online. (Stage Matters has had this site in the links list since the beginning.) Her emphasis is on what the Project did for American theatre. She also details the role of Hallie Flanagan.

Brown notes that theatre was a major victim of the Depression, with theatres closing all over the nation. The Depression also began the demise of the New York touring companies, which used to fan out through the country by the hundreds. Broadway was also much larger, with scores of theatres.

The Federal Theatre Project not only revived theatres themselves but took productions to hospitals, CCC camps and other venues. Hallie Flanagan's plan for the Project emphasized quality productions but local productions, to the point that actors and theatre artists who had migrated to big cities for work were encouraged to return to their hometowns for projects there. Flanagan was forthright about her goal: "caring for the unemployed but recreating a national theatre and building a national culture."

The Project was inaugurated not in New York or Washington, but in Iowa City, Iowa, at a National Theatre Conference. It was there that Flanagan assured theatre artists that government funding did not mean censorship. Though there were some censorship disputes, the direction was also clear. "In an age of terrific implications as to wealth and poverty, as to the function of government, as to peace and war, as to the relation of the artist to all these forces, the theatre must grow up," Flanagan insisted. "The theatre must become conscious of the implications of the changing social order, or the changing social older will ignore, and rightly, the implications of the theatre."

There were plays done outside the Living Newspaper and outside New York about social issues. Altars of Steel, stressing "the need for economic freedom in the South," was written by a Birmingham, Alabama playwright (Thomas Hall-Rogers) and first produced in Atlanta, Georgia. But there were also productions of classic plays: Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra and Androcles and the Lion in Los Angeles, for example. Plus newer plays with no overt social subject, such as one of the first productions of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral in New York and the all-black The Swing Mikado in Chicago.

But the hopes for a national American theatre ended when the Federal Theatre Project, an easy target for New Deal opponents, was cancelled on June 30, 1939. It was killed, Hallie Flanagan said, "because the powerful forces marshaled in its behalf came too late to combat other forces which apparently had been at work against Federal Theatre for a long time. Through two congressional committees these forces found a habitation and a name." The committees were HUAC and the House Appropriations Committee, which simply cut off its funding. It was, Flanagan said, "perhaps the triumph as well as the tragedy of our actors that they became indeed the abstract and brief chronicle of the time."

Another poster and a scene from Federal Theatre Project productions of It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.

The Federal Theatre Project Legacy

The Federal Theatre Project was important to the careers of many actors, directors, producers, playwrights and other theatre artists who would become prominent in American and international theatre and film for the next generation or more. Some of them would carry part of what they experienced, learned and produced into their future endeavors. Without what he did and saw in the Federal Theatre Project, Orson Welles probably would not have made what is often considered the greatest American movie, Citizen Kane, especially in the way he made it.

But after the self-censorship of the war years, and the violent suppressions of the 50s--the reign of HUAC and the Blacklist, which sent many theatre artists into exile or prison, or drove them to suicide or at least out of theatre and film-- the political theatre of the FTP has been purposely forgotten. Add to that the temporary nature of theatre, especially without extensive film documentation, and too much has been lost.

Occasionally, as in the Robbins film, an aspect of it is resurrected. A few plays have been revived: notably Big White Fog by Theodore Ward, first produced by the Negro Unit of the Chicago Federal Theatre Project in 1938, was produced in 2007--in London. A review in the Times Literary Supplement describes it as the story of a black family during the 1920s and 30s, confronting alternatives and prejudices within the black community, as they try to navigate through the "big white fog" of the dominant white society and its racism. Although there are anachronisms, the review notes, the writing remains powerful.

Sometimes, too, current situations revive some memories--and not just the threatened reenactment of a severe economic crisis. It was 2006, when the Bush administration and the Rovean politics of inflaming and exploiting the religious Right, inspired Joe Keohane to write a retro-book review in the Boston Globe of the Sinclair Lewis novel, It Can't Happen Here. His review begins:

PICTURE THIS: A folksy, self-consciously plainspoken Southern politician rises to power during a period of profound unrest in America. The nation is facing one of the half-dozen or so of its worst existential crises to date, and the people, once sunny, confident, and striving, are now scared, angry, and disillusioned.

This politician, a ''Professional Common Man,'' executes his rise by relentlessly attacking the liberal media, fancy-talking intellectuals, shiftless progressives, pinkos, promiscuity, and welfare hangers-on, all the while clamoring for a return to traditional values, to love of country...

The novel was pretty popular when it was published in 1935, but what Keohane doesn't mention that it was even more popular as a play--a play produced by the Federal Theatre Project. It played in 18 cities in October 1936, to capacity audiences. Eventually 23 companies played it for a total of 260 weeks. A few years later it was revived briefly, with Sinclair Lewis acting in it.

Look at those numbers again--18 cities, 23 companies, 260 weeks--in a country with less than half of today's population. Those desperate days were clearly different, but the Federal Theatre Project remains a model of the kinds of theatre that can be done, as well as what courage and dedication can do. It is also a model for government supported theatre with minimal censorship, and for what the U.S. still lacks---anything resembling a national theatre, and arguably, an American theatre.