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.