Thursday, April 30, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

The annual HSU Ten Minute Play Festival begins tonight at 7:30 in the Gist Hall Theatre, and continues Thursdays through Saturdays this weekend and next. Check HSU Stage for more. Also opening this weekend, the Ferndale Rep annual All-Teen production--this year they are doing two Christopher Durang plays: the classic Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You, with its traditional curtain-raiser, Actor's Nightmare. It's Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 at the Rep theatre. The Dell'Arte School presents its clown show Thursday through Saturday at 8 in the Carlo. And The Misunderstood Badger plays its second and final weekend at the Arcata Playhouse, Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 7. I review it in this week's North Coast Journal.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Misunderstood Badger

The mascot of the University of Wisconsin’s Big Ten football team is (like the state of Wisconsin’s) the badger. There’s a costumed Bucky Badger on the sideline, and thousands of screaming fans identifying themselves as badgers. But Professor Harold Burroughs of that university takes this badger thing even further.

 As portrayed by David Ferney in this solo show The Misunderstood Badger currently at the Arcata Playhouse, the fictional professor is obsessed by this “noble but misunderstood” animal, and begins to identify with it.

 We see the professor act out scenes in the wild (some in photo projections), recount the childhood origins of his fixation and a dream encounter with a giant badger who has a taste for Scotch and cigars. We hear portions of his badger research lectures, delivered in a faintly Southern, faintly 1930’s accent that reminded me at times of actor Charles Ruggles, the fussy big game hunter in the Cary Grant-Katherine Hepburn comedy, Bringing Up Baby.

 But in this piece the humor flashes with surreal discovery, and hints of dread. Burroughs digs out some badger lore, like early American badger-baiting (sending dogs to harass badgers for entertainment), from which comes the verb “to badger,” describing human behavior towards the animal, not the other way around. Human-badger transference is a theme played in various ways, including Burrough’s elaborate attempt to learn one badger’s true name.

 David Ferney’s wrote this solo show with fellow Four on the Floor member Nick Trotter. Trotter also contributes slide guitar interludes, Greg Lojko handles sound and lights, and Bruce Marrs did the painting and construction of the evocative badger hat-mask, which Ferney deploys with comic magic.

 In its first official performance of what I presume is still a work in progress, Ferney brought his considerable physical and vocal skills to this character. I experienced the show as entertaining but uncertain. I was intrigued, but never sure where it wanted to go. For example, the program quotes from Jack London’s Call of the Wild, and it’s clear enough that Burroughs feels that call. If this show’s intent was only to portray a befuddled professor gripped by badgermania, then it could be clearer.

 Tone determines our attitude. The mad scholar is a comic type that must go back before the Romans, and was in the repertoire of vaudeville-trained comedians, so it’s familiar from movies. Even though this piece seemed to at least nod in that direction (as with the professor’s name of Burroughs, you know, the badger burrows…you dig?) Ferney wasn’t broad or frenetic enough to push this into madcap sketch territory.

 Instead, his more deliberate pace suggested the intent to offer a dimensional character, and certainly the professor’s clueless projection and identification with the badger had autobiographical back story, as well as those surreal but also obvious dreams. But that went only so far. For example, apart from his clich├ęd professor appearance, we don’t learn much about any contrast between his wild yearnings and any academic and civilized life. And why of all animals the badger? Is it accidental, so essentially his obsession could be any geeky frenzy?

 There’s a mother lode of connections between the badger as a digger and the scholar who digs for facts, (Wisconsin is reputedly the Badger State not because of the animal, but because of its miners who dig like badgers) but while this possibility is mimed, it seems otherwise unmined.

Digging into the unconscious is another theme that seemed partially realized. There were hints of a mythic realm, of Native American stories in which animals and humans transform into each other, but this also came and went. Maybe the intent was to remain ambiguous in that ol’ postmodern portmanteau way. In any case, it’s got a lot of absorbing and entertaining moments. I guess we can identify with an awkward guy possessed of a helpless obsession and no self-awareness. But I left wanting more meat on this badger’s bones. The Misunderstood Badger continues at the Arcata Playhouse this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 7.

 Coming Up:  There’s a new Great Recession pricing policy for all the Dell’Arte School shows in May: pay what you will. You can still make reservations, then name your admission price when you arrive. That goes for the Clown show this weekend (Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Carlo) and also the Thesis Festival and the Finals on the remaining May weekends.

 The annual HSU Ten Minute Play Festival begins Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Gist Hall Theatre, playing this weekend and next, Thursdays through Saturdays.

 Next weekend, Humboldt Light Opera and College of the Redwoods open a musical version of Little Women, beginning Friday, May 8 in the CR Forum Theatre at 7:30.


The 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to Lynn Nottage (top photo) for her play, Ruined (bottom photo, from the Manhattan Theatre Club production), a play about the brutalizing of women during a decade of war in the Congo, modeled on Brecht's Mother Courage. Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey visited refugee camps in Uganda, Rwanda and other parts of Africa to base this play on reality. In an article in the March American Theatre magazine by Randy Gener, Nottage said, "You can't reconcile the incredible beauty and gentleness of the culture with the horror and the suffering. The play is about how they coexist." Among her other plays, Nottage wrote Intimate Apparel which was produced a few seasons ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Here's my brief review:

Intimate Apparel by contemporary playwright Lynn Nottage is set in early twentieth century New York, and concerns a modest young African American seamstress (played by Gwendolyn Mulamba) whose correspondence with a man from Barbados while he is laboring on the Panama Canal (Erik LaRay Harvey) leads to marriage. Their lives intersect with a wealthy and lonely white socialite (Terri McMahon), a ragtime piano-playing prostitute (Tiffany Adams), a Jewish cloth merchant (Gregory Linington,) and a maternal landlady (Perri Gaffney.)

 This drama (directed by Timothy Bond) uses graceful language, generous acting and expressive staging (with scenic design by Richard Hay) to portray complicated and often warm relationships, in an historical context in which we see class, race, ethnicity, gender roles, economics and even technology influencing the fates of these characters. The audience in the 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre were spellbound, and audibly got the main character’s final secret, expressed in a single gesture.

 Lynn Nottage is a fast-rising playwright, and Intimate Apparel is a solidly built and subtle play. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

Humboldt Light Opera presents the childrens show Seussical Jr. the Musical this weekend at College of the Redwoods. A one woman show from Portland, The Last Show You'll Ever See, is on stage at the Arcata Playhouse on Saturday. The HSU Opera Workshop presents a children's opera and other theatrical offerings on Friday and Saturday at the Fulkerson Recital Hall. The HSU spring dance concert, From Floor to Flight, has its last weekend at the Van Duzer Theatre, with the annual Silent Auction on Saturday (photo above). And Ferndale Rep continues The Secret Garden (top photo above.) For specific information, click on the appropriate organizations in the links list to your right at you go out.

Friday, April 10, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

Opening this weekend is the annual HSU spring dance concert, From Floor to Flight, at the Van Duzer Theatre. I don't have the vocabulary to write about dance, but I can say I was really moved by three of the dances presented on opening night, and admired other dances and dancers in them as well. In the finale, dancers interact with the 60 member Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir. It was a good theatrical evening. The shows start at 7:30, this Friday and Saturday, and next Thursday through Saturday. More information at HSU Stage.

This North Coast Weekend: Continuing

Continuing this weekend are: the musical The Secret Garden at Ferndale Rep, the drama Painting Churches at North Coast Rep, and in its last weekend, the comedy Bad Dates at the Arcata Playhouse.

In case you missed it, here is my review of Bad Dates from last week's Journal.

I had my doubts. I was going to a show called Bad Dates, written while Sex in the City was hot, by a New York playwright who made her living in television: a monologue about romantic misadventures by a woman surrounded by her several hundred pairs of shoes. When I could be at home witnessing the meaningful drama of the NCAA basketball tournaments (M and W.)

But what could have been trendy triviality—and judging from some reviews online, has been played that way—became something different in the Redwood Curtain production at the Arcata Playhouse, because actor Tinamarie Ivey created a dimensional character you come to care about, and director Dan Stone found and told a compelling story.

That’s not to say that Theresa Rebeck’s script is lacking. In fact, part of this triumph is finding and using the potential that’s in it.

From the first moment—even in the preview I saw—Tinamarie Ivey instilled complete confidence and belief, partly because she was totally committed to inhabiting this character. Her honesty supported the character’s vulnerability, her ease on the stage nurtured credibility, and her physical and vocal skills suggested the shades of this character, from irony, anxiety and denial to pride and bravery.

The character she plays is Haley, who came to New York City from Texas. Divorced, she’s old enough to have a 13 year old daughter, and has become successful as the manager of a dubious but trendy restaurant, but she’s starting to look for romance again.

Ivey doesn’t do an obvious Texas accent (although she can mimic one to hilarious effect with just one word: “law.”) But she does have the undertones, and especially the occasional deep, throaty resonance (she kept reminding me vocally of Mary Kay Place of The Big Chill and Big Love fame, although Place is from Oklahoma.) This propels the raucous humor.

Though we see only Haley, and never leave her apartment, there’s a story threaded through her accounts of dates she remembers, has just been on, or is just about to begin. It eventually involves a visit to a police station (which is all just like we see on TV cop shows, she assures us—kind of an in-joke since Rebeck was a writer and co-producer for NYPD Blue and Law and Order: Criminal Intent.) In fact, if this story had been a TV show, the twist at the end would have been predictable, but as a play it works quite well on several levels.

I don’t want to give away too much, but there is a startling moment towards the end of such raw emotion that our presence as an audience feels intrusive, and the convention we’ve accepted—that this woman is simultaneously in her living room and addressing us as an audience—suddenly seems on the verge of shattering. The whole play could have fallen apart here, but it doesn’t, and this directorial gamble pays off because Ivey is in complete control of the stage.

At a certain point, Haley apologizes for male-bashing. Frankly, that’s the tone I had more or less expected but didn’t really hear, so the apology came as a surprise. I expect that men have similar dating stories anyway, including being absurdly influenced by friends and an old movie.

Even though Dan Stone (as scenic, lighting and sound designer as well as director) made very good use of the limited possibilities at the Playhouse, this is an intimate theatrical experience that such an intimate space affords. I doubt that it could work so well without that intimacy.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Studio Theatre

Just the words give me a rush--Studio Theatre. When I was in college it was where the action really was. We had big main stage productions (even a rotating stage) but the shows conceived and directed by students were in the Studio--that's where I did most of my acting, all my directing, and where the plays I wrote were mounted. Plus it was where I saw my first Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Genet, etc. Some of those productions still stay with me. When I think of Krapp's Last Tape, I get an image from the production I saw there, not from the one I saw in New York.

Studio Theatre isn't just a college phenomenon--I remember going to a big showy and not very interesting production of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford, Ontario but I stuck around for a play in their studio theatre that night, mounted by the actors on their own, and it was thrilling.

But the studio theatre is where university student work is usually done, often in the spring, as for-credit projects. I remember going to several such productions at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, especially when it was a play I wanted to see but hadn't seen yet. That's where I saw Joe Orton's farce, What the Butler Saw, and it was one of the most enjoyable shows I can remember seeing anywhere.

Anyway, it's been a few years since I've been back to the HSU Studio Theatre but I did see two student shows in the past week that reminded me of how bracing and fun this kind of theatre can be.

On March 27, Megan Hughes directed two short plays by David Ives (in a program she titled "The Ives of March,") both with the same cast: Kelly Whittaker, Ethan Heintz and Clayton Cook. The first one, "Time Flies," is a terrific very short play, about the very short lives of a couple of Mayflies, with a guest appearance by nature documentarian David Attenborough. It's funny, poignant, imaginative and beautifully constructed, and the cast hit all the right notes. The second play, not sure of the title, is about 3 workers on a highrise beam who aren't what they seem. This didn't have quite the same sure rhythm, but it was still an effective presentation. I'm glad I saw them both. Thanks to Megan Hughes and her actors, my afternoon was considerably brightened.

Yesterday evening I saw the first performance of another project, the first act of Patrick Marber's Closer, directed by Steven Robert King, featuring Jamie Banister, Johanna Hembry, Omari Howard and Jessi Walters. This is an edgy contemporary play, witty and provocative. The actors were all very good, very sharp. They also all had a lot of presence, and that's something you can't necessarily teach. Through instruction, experience and directing, performances can improve and styles can develop. But if you start with presence, you are way ahead.

I was particularly impressed with Jamie Banister (who I haven't seen act before) and Omari Howard (who I recall seeing just once.) Jessi Walters did well with her character, which was a difficult one. (Omari's character was also difficult in that he went through a big unexplained change, and was basically mercurial anyway.) I've seen Johanna Hembry a number of times, and this seemed to me like one of her best performances, particularly in relation to the other actors. They all worked together well, which was necessary in this piece, particularly in selling the quirky dialogue. That's also a compliment to the director, who staged the play well, given the limitations of these very basic studio theatre productions. It's crisply paced, a bit rough or unsure in places, but I've certainly seen more formal productions that have deeper flaws and less energy. I enjoyed it.

Closer continues in the HSU Studio Theatre (entrance is to the left of the Van Duzer doors) on Friday and Saturday (May 3 & 4) at 7:30 and on Sunday at 2. Admission is free. It's one hour--just the first act--so on the way home, you can try to imagine what happens to these people in the second act. Be forewarned that sex is the subject and though the behavior on stage isn't very graphic, the talk is.

Both of these productions reminded me of what studio theatre can do, especially when participants are engaged by the material, and have chosen to do it. That feeling of risk and commitment is part of what makes the studio theatre still whisper possibilities.

Johanna Hembry also designed this poster--she designed most of the HSU theatre posters over the past few years. Johanna impresses me in a number of ways, including how well she has used her time at HSU, as a theatre and art student. Now she has all these posters, which for the last year or two at least are professional level work. And she's been in all kinds of plays. She's been an enthusiastic participant in the publicity photo shoots for those plays--apart from being photogenic, she understands what these photos are about. When the photographer, director and I ran out of ideas for the shoot of the staged reading earlier this year (The Fire-Bringer), she staged what became the central image for the production. She's made the most of her opportunities, and that's heartening.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

Ferndale Repertory Theatre opens The Secret Garden tonight (Thursday, April 2.) This 1991 musical is probably the best known of the many adaptations and extensions of the 1911 children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who also wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy. With book by playwright Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother), and staged around the time of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, this musical originally dealt with complex themes often inhabiting children’s stories, and even Burnett’s novel was said to be influenced by Theosophical ideas.

But basically there’s Lucy Simon’s music, the beguiling if repeated story of a displaced orphan (which in this case somewhat mirrors Burnett’s own life) confronting sinister and colorful figures, and the perennially enchanting image of the secret garden (or wardrobe, looking-glass, Pepperland…)

The Ferndale Rep production appears very promising, with young Brianna Schatz as the heroine, Brad Curtis as the aptly named Alexander Craven, and a cast of supporting players that mixes skilled local veterans with fresh faces and voices. The production team is also impressive: The Rep’s Executive Director Ginger Gene directs, with musical direction by Dianne Zuleger and choreography by Linda Maxwell.

In their press release, Brad Curtis suggests the musical’s themes will resonate emotionally in these troubled times, and Ginger Gene affirms that there “are layers of meaning for audience members of all ages. Ultimately, this play is about courage and the willingness to search for the magic in life and the joy that awaits all who open their hearts.”
This weekend and next at the Arcata Playhouse is the outstanding Redwood Curtain production of Bad Dates, which I review in the Journal here.