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.