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.

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