Friday, January 23, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

James Read and Shelley Stewart in Edward Albee's The Goat, opening Friday with Beware the Man Eating Chicken by Henry Meyerson at North Coast Rep, both one act plays directed by NCRT Artistic Director Michael Thomas. Redwood Curtain combines dinner theatre with a live radio show on Saturday (January 24) at the Sapphire Palace in Blue Lake. Info: 443-7688.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Freaks Don't Need No Greeks

[a slightly different--and of course longer-- version of my Journal column as it appeared this week...]

Last April, Crawdaddy: A Freak Tragedy, produced by the Canadian mask and puppet group, the Calgary Animated Objects Society (CAOS) in conjunction with Dell’Arte and Four on the Floor Productions, came to the Arcata Playhouse for two weekends of workshop performances.

In the performances I saw of that show, Crawdaddy (played by James Griffiths of the San Francisco Mime Troupe) was a dominant and sometimes threatening personality, despite being barely ambulatory due to his grotesque crab tail and feet. His marriage with Veronica, the Fat Lady (Jacqueline Dandeneau) was interdependent with their attempts to take and then keep control of their freak show, which often involved murdering other freaks, including Crawdaddy’s father.

But there was surprising tenderness in their relationship, and in Veronica’s struggle to have children (stillborns that she justified keeping in jars as part of the show), and then in their family feeling when Veronica gave birth to Siamese twins, Lily (Esther Haddad) and Heather (Zuzka Sabata.) The two girls, writhing in each other’s permanent embrace, were lively and real, and of course part of the show, playing odd and haunting melodies on saxophone and violin.

Through dialogue and Crawdaddy’s monologues, and particularly the stories told by the vaguely sinister puppet, LV Willikers (the voice of David Ferney), more of the family drama was revealed, always returning to the particular culture of freaks in freak shows, as well as the permeable definitions yet ironclad realities of freakishness and normality. So when one of the girls fell in love with the dim but otherwise “normal” janitor, Val (Tyler Olsen), the mood alternated quickly between acceptance and menace.

The mood was captured by a story the puppet told with pride and nostalgia about his father’s job testing out the wringers of washing machines by getting wrung through them, and popping back to normal size afterwards. The assembly line as freak show suggested another riff on economic dependence at the edge of existence.

The essence of a freak show—of the need to satisfy the entertainment desires of normal folk with freakishness and freakish behavior—was a unifying theme, and just how this affected the family was often demonstrated in how many coins and bills showered the stage from the darkness around it. When survival was again threatened, Crawdaddy devised a one-time-only showstopper, the chainsaw separation of his daughters, which ended predictably in their deaths. In his last soliloquy, Crawdaddy refused to be judged, judging instead his audience and the darkness within human nature which he shared and reflected.

Together with the music and bizarre comedy, this was an edgy evening, and with themes shared with Shakespeare and especially Greek drama, it certainly was in the neighborhood of the tragedy in its title.

When this show returned to the Arcata Playhouse last weekend, it had a new director (Bob Rosen) and though it had many of the same elements and most of the same actors, it was vastly different. Crawdaddy (now played by Christopher Hunt) was at times vaguely threatening, but up and about on his not very freakish feet. Val was now a comical wannabe freak, and LV Willikers (with David Ferney clearly visible, part of what I presume was some often repeated, possibly postmodern joke about showing how the tricks are done) was now just a corny performer. His grotesque narration was gone.

The performances were still good, but gone also was much of the text and all but hints of the subtext. There was more music (by Tim Gray), fancier scenery and more stage tricks, which a woman seated behind me aptly but repeatedly called “clever.”

The show is now called Crawdaddy’s Astounding Odditorium, and dropping the “tragedy” from the title is fully justified. The family history and drama, and particularly the drama of the freak show and its relationship to money and customers, is mostly gone. Though that’s suggested when one of the separated sisters survives but makes her ventilator part of the show, there is comparatively little emotional consequence to the separation, and the moment is without clear motive or outcome.

Some residual suggestions or fragmentary outlines of a story remain, but the storytelling is ineffective, lost in a furor of attempted effects, too many of which fell flat. The show now seems to want to be a kind of musical comedy, but it’s not that funny, and the music—while impressive, with some dazzling choral singing—just doesn’t have the wattage to carry a show.

Having dumped the tragedy and actual storytelling, it had nowhere to go but as a collection of sportive bits and tricks. Some work, but are they really worth it? It’s odd but not unprecedented to see a show in the process of development go backwards. I can’t totally dissociate what I saw this weekend from the show I saw last spring, but I experienced it as meandering, meaningless and soulless.

There was some criticism last spring over the whole issue of dramatizing a freak show, which might have been avoided had the historical context been made stronger: the program said the play took place in the 1930s but there wasn't much to support that on stage. Freak shows were common then, and still existed at least into the early 60s when I passed by their remnants at traveling carnivals.

The idea of focusing on the culture of the freak show performers--very strong in the first version, still present to a degree in the new version--remains a powerful idea, if used to explore issues such as what constitutes entertainment and what it requires of entertainers (are they all freaks to a degree?) and especially the relationship of money to this enforced identity. If my memory is accurate, there was a strong suggestion in the first version that Crawdaddy had been born into a freak show family but was normal at birth, and deliberately deformed. There was a story told of cruelity to get him to perform.

In any case, the new version treads towards treating freaks with the Barat sensibility--by overtly making fun of them it means you aren't really making fun of them, although everybody's laughing. It's a little uncomfortable without being edgy--and though the freaks are more cartoonish than freakish, it's still a question whether this is derisive. It's worth noting as well that much of the tradition of satire and clowning can be traced to the court jesters, and their origin in the "fools" who were kept as entertainment in homes of the rich as well as royal courts. Early on, these fools were mentally deranged or deficient and physically abnormal: they were freaks.

There's something else about the original Crawdaddy show that upset people. The first version was definitely darker, without any trace the of a happy ending. This disturbed some people, and it was meant to be disturbing--that's what gave dealing with these issues their edge. Could it be that a lighter tone was adopted to please audiences? For a century or more, the death of Lear and his daughter were considered too shocking for audiences, so Shakespeare's King Lear was rewritten with a happy ending. More than the ending was changed in this show, and it wasn't Lear to begin with, although to my mind it had more potential than a lot of new shows I've seen. I hope this isn't why it was changed.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

Crawdaddy’s Odditorium is billed as "a musical theatrical performance that tells the fictional story of a sideshow family. Incorporating sideshow techniques, musical theatre, puppetry and physical performance, Crawdaddy takes the audiences on a wild ride, using comedy and black humor to confront what is 'normal.'” Featuring original music by Humboldt County’s own Tim Gray, the international cast (a Canadian) includes local artists Jacqueline Dandeneau, David Ferney, Tyler Olsen and Jerry Lee Wallace. It's at the Arcata Playhouse this weekend--more info in the post below.
Opening Thursday for this weekend only at the Arcata Playhouse, Crawdaddy’s Odditorium, a new and reconceived production of the show seen here as an ongoing experiment last spring, co-produced by Four on the Floor Productions, CAOS and Dell'Arte. A big opening night Thursday at 8, and performances on Friday and Saturday. Reservations are recommended: 822-1575.

Dell'Arte is combining a fundraiser with Humboldt's own Inaugural Ball on Inauguration Night (next Tuesday). Food, drink, foolery and a reprise of President (yes!) Obama's Inaugural Address on big screen TV. For tickets and information call 668-5663 ext. 5.

Auditions for Ferndale Repertory Theatre’s production of The Secret Garden: Director, Ginger Gene, Music Director, Dianne Zuleger, Choreographer, Linda Maxwell. All auditions will be held at the Carson Block Building, 341 “F” Street, Eureka. Be prepared to sing a song that best represents your voice. Piano accompanist will be provided. Casting roles: Mary Lennox a 10-year old girl (casting 10-14, maybe?) Strong singer needed. Colin Craven - Archie’s 10-year-old son.(10-14) Thin and bedridden. Treble, high voice needed. Ensemble/Chorus roles, some with lines. Children (10 – 18 years of age) Audition Times:Jan 17th at 2:00pm – Open Auditions;Jan 18th at 2:00pm – Call Backs. For more information please visit

The CR Drama Production Class will have auditions for the Spring 2009 presentation of Moliere’s classic comedy The Misanthrope” from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., Wednesday, January 21, and Thursday, January 22 in the CR Forum Theatre (FM 103). Now in its 6th season, the critically acclaimed Drama Production class offers 2 units of credit for all participants, but acting roles are offered only by audition. For further information, contact the Director, Kjeld Lyth at (707) 441-1592.

Sanctuary Stage announces that it will host a V-Day benefit production of the Vagina Monologues "to raise money and awareness for local organizations that work to stop violence against women and girls. We will be donating all profits from our event to our own local organizations - North Coast Rape Crisis Center, W.I.S.H., and the Wiyot Domestic Violence Program "Vachurr Wimouthwilh".

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Year Not in Reviews

Darcy Daughtry and Erik Rhea in Helen, one of HSU's productions this past calendar year--part of the ecology of North Coast theatre, explored in the post below.

The Year Not in Reviews: Exploring the Ecology of North Coast Theatre

[An extended version of my Journal column last week, without the part I already cannibalized for the previous post...]

By way of a year-end summing up, this column is about what doesn’t normally get into reviews.

The plays we see may have several purposes. Many—including productions by Humboldt State, CR, Dell’Arte International School, local high schools and organizations like the Laurel Tree Learning Center—are part of the participants’ education. Community theatres like North Coast Rep and Ferndale Rep provide talented community members opportunities to participate in making as well as seeing theatre. Both provide opportunities that participants wouldn't otherwise have to strut their stuff, and since there are many more talented people than ever get to work in theatre as a career, audiences benefit as well.

I seldom mention this in reviews, because what these and other theatres have in common is that they charge audiences money to see them, and I review their shows from that standpoint. But I do take their other missions into account, and I expect audiences do, too.

Something else I don’t mention in reviews but which productions have in common is the achievement: of a group of people preparing and then presenting a play from beginning to end for two or three hours, and then doing it again, over and over. This is an accomplishment by any definition. It’s also one of the great benefits to participants: to commit their energies from the beginning of the process, weeks or months before opening, to the end of it. For some, simply sticking with it from first to last actually changes their lives. When audiences applaud, it seems to me it’s partly for the accomplishment, regardless of the outcome.

We don’t have professional theatre hereabouts in the same sense as in San Francisco or Ashland, but audiences here benefit from our particular theatrical ecosystem in ways they might not realize. For example, both educational and community theatres emphasize participation, which often means large casts. Elsewhere there is tremendous financial pressure on commercial theatres to do nothing but small cast shows.

But we have these community and school theatres doing large cast shows, together with the small cast or one-person shows produced or imported by the Arcata Playhouse, Sanctuary Stage and Redwood Curtain (for instance), as well as Jeff DeMark’s unique solo work. So we have a pretty rich variety.

Another way our North Coast theatrical ecology is unusual is the predominance of a theatrical style that is relatively obscure in most other places: commedia dell’arte. This is due mostly of course to the Dell’Arte theatre and school, and those associated with Dell’Arte who remain or return here to form other theatrical enterprises. Jacky Dandeneau and David Ferney, impresarios of the Arcata Playhouse, are good examples. But there’s also Dan Stone, co-founder of Sanctuary Stage, who has brought commedia from entirely different sources.

The commedia emphasis on improvisational satires, often on standard themes, with acrobatics and clowning, may be a pronounced local characteristic, but a healthy theatrical ecosystem requires other approaches, too.

So other theatres here (including the companies that wax and wane) bring the balance of classic and newer plays; musicals (including the sterling work of the Humboldt Light Opera), drama and other kinds of comedy. We have theatre for (and by) children, for (and by) adolescents, and for (and by) elders. We need them all, and as fortunate as we are to have this much theatre, there are gaps in the ecosystem, too. Other things being equal (which they never are), we could use more.

Because of my very part-time job doing press for HSU plays, I don’t write about those productions in my part-time piecework columns here. But I’m dismayed that HSU productions aren’t covered much elsewhere in the Journal either. There was more copy in one recent issue about Dell’Arte (including in my column) than there has been cumulatively concerning HSU theatre for the past couple of years, at least. So in this context let me speak up for the role of HSU theatre in the local ecosystem, particularly when the university is taking a hard look at its priorities, and from time to time there have been rumors of threats to HSU theatre’s existence.

Besides benefiting the university as a much-needed public interface with the community, HSU theatre brings particular strengths and important contributions in the kinds of plays it does and how it does them. Its recent commitment to doing new plays, often by North Coast playwrights, is pretty much unique here right now. In general, HSU provides training and people essential to North Coast stages, with participation both by students who enliven local theatre while here, and by faculty and former students who remain active in the community. Just how much theatre would survive here without HSU is a real question.

Lastly, this fall was unusual for offering three productions of Shakespeare. That this theatrical community was able to mount two large cast productions pretty much simultaneously (The Merry Wives of Windsor at NCRT and The Winter’s Tale at HSU), while overlapping with the large cast of Noises Off at Ferndale Rep, is astonishing. That's one indication that there's a lot of interest in theatre here, with lots of participants and audiences.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


The first season of The West Wing created symphonies of dialogue that stirred television and led to multiple Emmy awards--and it all began with a kid who watched plays just to hear the people talk.

We've been watching The West Wing on DVD, beginning from the beginning. What a treat to re-watch this truly great series--one of the three or four best ever--without commercials, and with subtitles (they talk so fast that I often had to tape episodes just so I could watch them later and catch what I missed.)

For the uninitiated, The West Wing aired for 7 seasons beginning in 2000, and centered on the West Wing of the White House. I'll leave the political commentary it inspires for another blog. Here I want to mention something about the series that was said on one of the "special feature" featurettes on the final DVD of season 1. (The special features are terrific, the episode commentaries not so much. Producer/director Tommy Schlame and writer Aaron Sorkin do the commentaries but don't actually say much, except how neat it is to see an episode they hadn't seen in awhile. Sorkin especially wants people to shut up and listen to the dialogue.)

The series had fine acting by Martin Sheen as President Bartlet and an ensemble cast, but it got its spark and notoriety from the writing of Aaron Sorkin, who wrote all but one of the show's first 88 episodes, to the end of its fourth season. As cast members in one of the featurettes note, they soon learned to speak Sorkin's scripts word for word, because everything was in the language. The words were not only precise for comedic and dramatic moments, but in weaving the episodes together.

Now here's the comment that jumped out at me. Sorkin said that his parents started taking him to the theatre at an early age, and even before he understood the stories, he loved the dialogue, and how they created symphonies of words. It was the dialogue he heard in plays that inspired him to write.

If you know The West Wing, you know it is dialogue-driven. It's people in rooms--and famously, walking between rooms--talking. Talk became the music that made a multiple Emmy-award winning television series.

A couple of days after I first saw this featurette, I happened to read a review of a volume of Gore Vidal's essays in the New York Review of Books. The review writer, Jonathan Raban, noted that Vidal began as a playwright, and that his experience writing dramatic (and comedic) dialogue became the distinctive voice of his essays. "His best essays are aural performances," Raban writes. "...I can think of no other modern writer, with the possible exception of the playwright Alan Bennett, in his published diaries, who has succeeded as well as Vidal in transforming lines of cold print into an instantly audible speaking voice."

So having been hit over the head with this point twice, I got it: dialogue--words, talk--on stage can become the essence of an individual and successful voice in other media, like television and print.

But this point tends to reinforce another that I also read this week, which gently suggests that talk is as important--possibly more important--in theatre than the visual and conceptual elements that tend to dominate these days. Shakespeare was the specific case in point, and the matter of assigning some priority in staging and direction to making it easier for audiences to hear those words.

Now where did I read that bit...? Oh yes, in my column in the Journal. So here's the relevant passage, with a few more words...

Northcoast Prep doing King Lear got me thinking about Ronald Harwood’s play, The Dresser (also a movie with Albert Finney), which was about a small Shakespeare company playing the English provinces during World War II, based loosely on Donald Wolfit, reputedly one of the great Lears of the century. He was a last exemplar of the “actor/manager” school, and the theatrical style emphasizing the star, declaiming the great Shakespeare parts.

That rejected style had its excesses, but as a general comment, today’s emphasis on concepts and creating “stage pictures” may have gone too far in other directions. Those old-style actors knew how to make sure they were seen and heard clearly. They created the stage equivalent of close-ups. It’s really not that Shakespeare’s language is so difficult; just that there’s a lot of it. Instead of devising distractions, I’m in favor of making it easier to see and hear the words spoken.

That's partly a matter of projection and diction, but it is also a matter of making sure the speaker is seen. That's something those old actors of the classics knew in their very experienced bones: in order to be heard, the words must be seen. Not in phony hand gestures, but in the faces of the speaker.