Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Love List: Perfect Summer Comedy at NCRT

Kimberly Haile (formerly known as Kim Hodel) has had featured roles with the North Coast Repertory Theatre, including Roxy in Chicago and Carlotte Corday in Marat/Sade, but this time she’s central to the success of The Love List, the buoyant comedy now earning laughs at NCRT in Eureka.

It’s not that she carries it by herself. Edward Olson as Bill (a solitary statistician) and Victor Howard as Leon (a married but philandering novelist) have more dialogue and stage time in this tale about two middle aged men who draw up a list defining Bill’s perfect woman. They establish the believable reality: Olson with his beguiling voice and early line readings that suggest an active acting intelligence, and Howard with his confidence and crisp delivery (as the writer, he gets more of the witty lines.)

The script is itself a solid foundation, with built-in laughs and defined characters that still provide room for actors to add crucial colors. That it’s perfect for community theatre makes perfect sense, because playwright Norm Foster (author of some 40 plays) started in community theatre in Canada.

But Haile’s role of Justine, the “perfect woman” who suddenly appears, defines the direction that a production takes. When the guys change the qualities that define Justine, Haile ably and delightfully demonstrates more range than she’s been called upon to produce before. But most important is how Justine is portrayed from the start. Since her fantasy perfection is defined by two men, she must be beautiful, but a tick towards the wrong kind of beautiful—too vulgar or too innocent— would throw off the feeling that in this context she’s real and magic at the same time.

With her particular natural beauty, an ingénue enthusiasm channeled into relaxed and economical gestures, and the conviction she brings to the reality of Justine, Haile makes the magic work. She brings a quality of guileless sincerity that is breathtaking, and makes Justine not just a vain dream but the personification of perfection. No wonder Bill is so besotted that he’s willing to forget that her existence is completely inexplicable: this perfect-for-him woman conjured by words and (its broadly hinted) spare skin cells adhering to the household dust.

But of course there are multiple ironies ahead as well as a version of the old switcheroo, plus the lesson that perfection is impossible and the trick is to see “imperfection perfectly.” (Unfortunately the script’s dismissive reference to the perfect game in baseball got additional irony on opening night, because Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle had pitched the 18th perfect game in Major League history that afternoon.)

Most reviews of other productions parade innumerable clichés to make the point that this play is funny, with some adding that it’s profound, and others that it’s shallow. In at least one interview, playwright Foster glories in insisting that he’s shallow (as he has Justine call Leon’s novels) but for me, the truth lies somewhere in between. There are facile contrivances and conventional and bluntly stated insights, but Foster hides structural subtlety within a strong framework. He’s dealing with both a pop culture phenomenon (“real” mates conjured by a love list, as recounted in the pages of Oprah’s magazine) but also powerful archetypes from Galatea to Pinocchio. So: a fun summer comedy, plus.

Among her accomplishments, director Carol Escobar provides pace and motion, and probably was responsible for making the male characters younger than called for in the script—something else that likely adds to the sweetness and gentle ironies. Edward Olson designed the impressive set, Calder Johnson the effective lighting, and Genneveve Hood the expressive costumes. Howard Lang designed sound, and Olson also designed the poster, which doesn’t look as if it caused him much pain. Kelsey Larson runs the light and sound, and William Nevins provided scenic art.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Without Shakespeare Without Tears

It's been a remarkably Shakespeareless summer here. I haven't noticed any local productions and we haven't made it up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There was nothing on my recent visit to Pittsburgh, where I used to enjoy attending the Shakespeare festival at the University of Pittsburgh, now abandoned.

But going to Shakespeare is more dangerous these days anyway. The fashion to transpose the plays to dubious times and places shows no signs of waning. Jorge Luis Borges (in his story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote") called such transpositions "useless carnivals" yielding only "the plebeian pleasure of anachronism or (what is worse) to enthrall us with the elementary idea that all epochs are the same or are different."

The postmodern fetish for literary mashups goes on unabated, along with the attempt to extend and exploit classic works to take advantage of their brand names. Even poor Jane Austen has generated stories that cannibalize hers, some that overtly mock the author's writing while sucking its blood.

And that's the problem. The richness and power of Austen's or especially Shakespeare's works can inspire fascinating new works. Shakespeare after all was so inspired by his predecessors. But so many are simultaneously acts of cannibalism and oversimplification, exploiting an audience anxiety that they should know these texts but haven't bothered to explore them. They want the plays made simple enough so that they can feel superior to them.

What I did see this summer was an article in Bookmark Magazine called "Reviving the Bard" which begins: "We're certain that all of you haven't read Charles Dickens or Leo Tolstoy or Jane Austen or Ayn Rand. But we're sure that, sometime in your life, you have sampled William Shakespeare."

There are so many things wrong with that first sentence that it's hard to know where to begin. It's obviously false as stated, because it isn't true that "all of you" haven't read these authors. Some of us have. I'm guessing she meant something on the order of "not everyone has read..." Then she caps her short list of three classic novelists with Ayn Rand (to balance male and female writers, I suppose) who has at best a cult following, and no one else would put her in the same league as the others.

The article describes several novels and a play that use themes from various Shakespeare plays to various extents. Some sound interesting, some depressingly banal. But they have nothing to do with "reviving" Shakespeare. There are ways of doing the plays that offer new meanings and experiences, which revive the contemporary audience. But essentially it's not Shakespeare who needs revived. I'm reminded of something Gabriel Garcia Marquez said in an interview: Some say the novel is dead. But it is not the novel. It is they who are dead.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jason Coming to Eureka

Cornerstone Theater Company, the Los Angeles group famous for its collaborations with communities it visits, is preparing a production in Eureka which will be performed August 6-8.

The process began about eight months ago, with visits by the playwright, Peter Howard and others from the company, making contacts and gathering information. Howard worked out a story that combines the myth of Jason and the Argonauts with Eureka history and present day reality. Last week, the rest of the Cornerstone people involved in the production arrived, headquartered at St. Bernard's School, hosted by Sanctuary Stage.

The Cornerstone process involves participation by local people in most facets of the production, including on stage, so auditions are being held this week. The last scheduled audition is today, July 14, between 1:30 and 4:30 pm at St. Bernard's Elementary School. The first auditions were held at the Ink People.

"No experience is necessary to participate" their statements say, but professional actors from Cornerstone will be on hand to help everyone out. There are no age, gender or other restrictions for potential participants, as long as they can take direction. The final script will reflect who shows up and participates.

So if you're interested and can't make it to St. Bernard's this afternoon, call 1-800-385-7791 and you can probably arrange for a suitable time. Rehearsals will be at the Blue Ox Millworks, which is also where the production will be.

Saturday we met some of the people already working on the production at St. Bernard's. Everyone from Cornerstone was open and engaged, and they seem to have a well worked out process for combining professional theatre with community participation. An early script looks promising. Playwright Peter Howard seems sensitive to the possible pitfalls of outsiders coming in--he used the word "presumptuous" several times, as something they don't want to be. On the other hand, an outside point of view can see patterns and hear music that it's harder for people who live here to see and hear.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

A big weekend at Dell'Arte: the final performances (Thurs-Sun) of Intrigue at Ah-Pah (reviewed below) at 8pm in the outdoor (chilly) amphitheatre, plus the annual cabaret, Red Light in Blue Lake--a burlesquixotic mix of novelty acts, music and "adult" material--on Friday after "Intrigue" at about 10:30 pm (in the indoor Carlo), plus a salmon bake to benefit the Carlson and Frye Families' Blue Creek/Ah-Pah Village on Saturday at 6pm before the show, plus The Body Remembers, featuring Humboldt women recalling the Great Depression, on Sunday afternoon at 2 in the Carlo.
David Ferney presents a new version of his The Misunderstood Badger at the Arcata Playhouse on Thursday July 9 only, before taking it to a festival in Amherst, Massachusetts. .. Finally, a tip of the hat to the Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy, recently named in a Newsweek magazine survey as the third best high school in California, and #31 in the U.S.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Dell'Arte's Origins: Fishy Business

Intrigue at Ah-Pah is playing its final weekend at Dell'Arte. This is my review, more or less as it appeared in the North Coast Journal. I note that I stop just short of suggesting theatregoers ought to see it. I try not to cross that line. I'm not interested in writing a consumer guide, partly because I won't presume to tell people how to spend their money, and partly because my columns reflect my response--or more specifically, how I saw it on the night I saw it. Everyone is entitled to their own response, so my general recommendation is to see what you'd like to see, and make up your own mind.

Dell’Arte was basically a mime and comedy school with a summer festival when its fledgling company of players developed their first full-length ensemble work: a script gleaned from fishing trip experiences at a volatile time, plus community input and an obsession with Raymond Chandler novels, called Intrigue at Ah-Pah. After outdoor premieres in Humboldt, the actors went to L.A. in 1981 to sleep on borrowed floors and perform the show at the small Odyssey Theatre. One morning they awoke to a rave on the front page of the L.A. Times arts section (“a happy marriage of humor and concern, intelligence and discipline…Extremely funny, don’t miss a moment of it.”) Their six-week run sold out in three hours, and they looked out from the stage to see the likes of legendary comedian Milton Berle in the front row.

That was the show that got Dell’Arte on the map in Humboldt as well as the rest of the world. Now it’s back for this year’s Mad River Festival, with an entirely new cast, all young graduates of the Dell’Arte school. Call it “Dell’Arte: The Next Generation.” Or like the new Star Trek movie: new Kirk, new Spock, so why not a new Scar Tissue, Wildflower, Woody, Deep Trout and The Man in White?

For those unfamiliar with this show or its sequels, Scar Tissue is a female detective in Eureka, up in the Yurok village of Ah Pah to fish the Klamath River, but she’s quickly implicated in murder and nefarious plots concerning land grabs and water rights, involving hilarious characters. Shannon MacMillan as Scar Tissue leads an ensemble cast that uniformly shines. Brian Moore, Andrew Phoenix, Tyler Olsen and particularly Kate Braidwood in multiple roles all bring an attractive energy and presence in crisp, confident comic performances. Though this version is inevitably different, this cast is fresh, capable and exciting.

Michael Fields’ direction, the scenic design by Jody Sekas, the special effects and the other elements of the production all combine invention and efficiency. Propelled by the cast’s energy, timing and interplay, this is a tighter than usual production for these outdoor festival shows. Even the music of the Dell’Arte band (Tim Gray, Maria Joy, Mike LaBolle and Tyler Olsen) and songs sung by members of the cast, seem more integrated with the bluesy, film noir mood. The result is fast-moving and funny, full of the elements and surprises expected of a Dell’Arte summer show, but with a delightful and satisfying wholeness.

After all this time, the still all-too-topical script is taut and tasty. Deep Trout still warns that “what you let happen today, your children must live with tomorrow.” But there are updates from the ongoing realities of dams and salmon kills, exploitation and misunderstanding—as well as a Sarah Palin joke. The comedy reveals important issues but by design doesn’t deal with them deeply. Salmon is Everything, a production developed a few years ago at HSU, would make an intriguing companion piece.

This production is an important historical moment in several ways. It reminds us of what the Dell’Arte founders pioneered: not just their unique applications of comedia dell’arte and physical theatre, but their approach to “theatre of place” (which they defined in 1991 as “theater about where you are, for the people where you are, based on an observation of the patterns of human and natural life where you live…”) and to what’s becoming known as “ecodrama.” From New Wave film directors Godard and Truffaut in the 50s to the Firesign Theatre’s Nick Danger in the 60s, the hardboiled detective genre was adapted for existential and satirical purposes, but Joan Schirle’s creation of a female private eye was new. And even though Native American characters seldom appear in Dell’Arte shows, this began their commitment to presenting a Native perspective, which is only a little less rare today than it was then.

This show is also historically important for what it portends. To go forward as a living institution, Dell’Arte has to eventually make the transition from its founders. This production of the show that started it all is the best evidence so far that Dell’Arte has a vibrant future. Both for that reason, and because it’s great fun and an excellent show, this Intrigue at Ah-Pah will itself be remembered. But the only way to remember it is to first go see it.