Sunday, May 31, 2009

Broadway Revived

The Lincoln Center revival of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone--besides being Barack's choice for the show to take Michelle to see--is one representative of an exceptionally strong Broadway season, especially for plays. See post below.

That Championship Season

The New York theatre season began with a sense of catastrophe--with empty streets and empty seats, as the Wall Street financial crisis morphed into the Great Recession, and tourism threatened to dry up completely.

But it will end--officially with the Tonys--in triumph, and more high quality plays and musical revivals than in recent memory, including The Seagull, Exit the King, God of Carnage, Hair, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Mary Stuart, Next to Normal, The Norman Conquests, reasons to be pretty, Billy Elliot, West Side Story and Waiting for Godot.

New York Times critic Ben Brantley was effusive as well as descriptive in his summary piece. So why did it happen? Brantley offers several reasons, noting that when tourists deserted Times Square, the New York theatre audience returned, and fortunately found the quality that kept them coming. While a lot about this season has to be coincidence, the return of that audience is fascinating in itself--or rather, the existence of a new New York audience.

Years ago, I interviewed Jason Robards, Jr. about New York theatre, since he was the second of three generations of actors who were part of it. He dated the decline to the rise of suburbia, which took the traditional New York audience away. "When I was starting out just after World War II," he told me, "my father came to see me and he told me---'this is terrible! When I was an actor, there were 700 road shows out, and two hundred some-odd theatres on Broadway!'"Even when I was starting out we still had 134 theatres in New York, and many road shows and stock jobs and resident theatre jobs...Now I think theatre in New York is going to become like the opera, if it isn't already becoming that: a small, specialized thing."

But lacking that local audience base, for the past decade or so Broadway concentrated on spectacles for tourists. The Disneyfied Times Square more than symbolized that idea.

Somehow, New York City itself seems to have grown a new theatre audience, made up of residents and those who may commute but consider themselves New Yorkers. This is a trend that bears watching.

Of course, not everything about this season screams theatre Renaissance. Many if not most of those shows were revivals. Broadway and New York theatre won't return to the vibrancy of former days until new plays are the talk of the town.

Friday, May 29, 2009

This North Coast Weekend


North Coast Rep continues the musical The Producers, reviewed below. Ferndale Rep opens the classic comedy Arsenic and Old Lace for a three weekend run, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2. Members of the Dell'Arte School Class of 2009 present their "Finals" in the form of six short plays, Thursday through Saturday at 8 in the Carlo.

The Producers and Quixote at North Coast Rep & Prep

As a teenager, Mel Brooks' summer job at a resort hotel was insulting guests, parodying popular singers and improvising outrageous acts as a kind of court jester called a tummler. Entertainment was a major attraction for the mostly Jewish patrons of mountain resorts in New York and Massachusetts. The stage shows were directly in the vaudeville tradition, cross-fertilized with burlesque, variety theatre and early Broadway musicals.

Vaudeville trained the first stars of radio and television, and provided an early staple: the comedy and variety program. Before his famous films, Mel Brooks wrote for one of the best of these: Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows.

Vaudevillians were versatile: Comedians like Bob Hope sang and danced; singers and dancers like Donald O'Connor did comedy. But after adapting for a final burst of glory in ’70s TV (The Carol Burnett Show, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and even The Electric Company) the vaudeville tradition faded. It is alive again in Mel Brooks' musical, The Producers, now on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.

It's all there: the structure of jokes, and of running jokes (sometimes just a word, like "Elizabeth"), and of ethnic humor that Brooks broadened to religious and sexual preference identities. The play's first act in particular is an extended vaudeville sketch, satirizing institutions (the Broadway theatre and its producers, and "unhappy" accountants) with contrasting connivers and their sexy blonde assistant. Brooks finds new ways to be outrageous and vulgar, with bizarre comic invention but without meanness. This, and the 1940s-flavored music (also by Brooks), is why The Producers is so different from most new musicals.

The NCRT ensemble performs that first act with hilarious effect. David Powell as the boisterous producer Max Bialystock and Ethan Vaughan as the meek yet larcenous accountant Leo Bloom confidently deliver character and comedy, along with excellent singing. Bloom realizes that by raising much more money than the show costs (which Bialystock does by wooing lots of little old ladies), the producers can make a fortune if they don't have to pay these investors any profits because the show flops. Rigel Schmitt as the baby-faced Nazi playwright of the "worst play ever written," which guarantees failure, is so right that the opening night audience laughed as soon as he appeared. His backup-singing pigeons were a bonus. The act ends with a show-stopping, walker-stomping production number that's just amazing. Kudos to choreographer Anthony J. Hughes.

The second act is more conventional musical than comedy, perhaps because its centerpiece is the premiere of the flop -- which of course is a hit -- Springtime for Hitler. If you've seen either of the movies or the touring show CenterArts brought to the Van Duzer, you know how much this scene depends for its comic frenzy on the big Broadway trimmings. This production does its best, and though it's funny it doesn't quite rise to that first act finale. Still, John Ludington is memorably zany as director-turned-star Roger De Bris playing Hitler as a cross between a gay Al Jolson, David Bowie and a schnauzer.

Excellent costumes (by Marcia Hudson), ingenious staging, glittering dancing girls and a versatile ensemble (especially Adina Lawson and Danielle Cicon), fine performances by Keilli Marble as the Swedish bombshell Ulla and Gabriel Holman as De Bris' swishy assistant, and a backstage band all combine to make this a delightful evening. Tom Phillips directed, with musical direction by Dianne Zuleger. Enjoy the controversial wit of Mel Brooks (this 2001 play is only now premiering in Germany) and the solid echoes of vaudeville.

The Producers continues at North Coast Rep Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 until June 20.

Don Quijote de la Mancha

In its own way, Cervantes' The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha is also parody, of knight-errants and the chivalric romances. But like Brooks and Broadway, it also supports what it parodies. The first and second year students of Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy began their stage version presented in Gist Hall last weekend by reciting the virtues of chivalry.

This generative classic of fiction by an aging unsuccessful playwright was adapted for this production by its director, Gretha Omey, who acted and was an artistic director in Spain. In addition to theatre, she teaches Spanish at Northcoast Prep, and students performed partly in that language (plus a little French and Italian). It was an intriguing adaptation and a sparkling production, with stage-filling ensemble dances, mood-setting music, brilliant costumes, a giant puppet and a steed for Quixote that looked like it had momentarily escaped from the Kinetic Sculpture Race.

Silas McIlraith as Don Quijote (the production's preferred spelling) heroically kept the play moving through moods of drama, comedy, pathos and action, with the delightful assistance of Gina Montagna as Sancho Panza. Sandra Gbeintor, Larkin O'Shea and Kirra Moon were particularly impressive, but the whole huge cast performed well. Add the remarkable musicians and other participants too numerous to mention, and this talented cohort bears watching.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

The first and second year students of Northcoast Prep present Cervantes’ comic classic, Don Quijote de la Mancha, adapted and directed by Gretha Omey, on Wednesday and Thursday, May 20 and 21, and Saturday and Sunday, May 23 and 24, in the Gist Hall Theatre at HSU at 7:30.

North Coast Repertory Theatre opens Mel Brooks musical comedy, The Producers on Thursday, May 21 at 8.
On Friday and Saturday (May 22-3) the Arcata Playhouse hosts a circus adaptation of Alice in Wonderland by the San Francisco Circus, at the kid-friendly time of 7 pm.
The Arcata Arts Institute will be performing Jean Paul Satre's one act play, No Exit, and monologues from the works of Christopher Durang on Thursday and Friday at 7:30 pm in the Arcata High School Multi-Purpose Room.
The second group of thesis plays by Dell'Arte School students is performed May 21-24, at 8 p.m. in the Carlo. As noted below, the HLO/CR production of the musical Little Women concludes Friday and Saturday at 7:30.

Little Women

I feel pretty good about my review of Little Women, produced by the Humboldt Light Opera and College of the Redwoods, so I'm reproducing it below. I'm not happy with all my reviews, for one reason or another, but this one is okay.

A couple of additions to the historical background: The humorous newspaper article by Louisa May Alcott I refer to, was in the form of a letter she submitted under the name Tribulation Periwinkle to the Springfield MA Republican. It's described and excerpted in the introduction to the new book, American Trancendentalism: A History by Philip Gura (Hill and Wang.) Referring to Concord, MA, she writes: "No gossip concerning this immortal town seems to be considered too trivial for the public." She writes of a new hotel for visitors to "this modern Mecca," eager to see Emerson (who "will walk by at 4 pm") or hear her father, Bronson Alcott, (who will "converse from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m.")

Later in this book, it's mentioned that Bronson Alcott's own book was an account of the education he provided for his daughters. Apparently Emerson was hard put to say anything in its favor.

As it happens, there's a review of several books about Margaret Fuller (mentioned below) in the May 24 issue of the New York Review of Books. Fuller was also educated by her father, and her achievements were substantial. She had read Virgil and Cicero by the age of ten, and Horace, Livy and Tacitus in her teens--all in the original Latin. This level of achievement was unusual, especially for a girl, but not entirely unknown among these New England families. Josiah Quincy, son of the president of Harvard, was reading Virgil by age six. Thomas Wentworth Higginson entered Harvard at 13.


In 1868, Louisa May Alcott created a classic American story that enthralled and inspired generations of (mostly) girls, by writing about aspects of her own life and family—and also by ignoring other aspects.

In Little Women, a mother and four sisters are isolated in a small New England town, dreaming their dreams despite an absent father and poverty that contrasts with the better off characters around them. Actually, Alcott’s family was fairly famous (though comparatively poor). Her father, Bronson Alcott, began and ran a well-known school, and was associated with the liberal thinkers known as Transcendentalists. He took particular pride in educating his daughters, and among Louisa May’s personal teachers were Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. Their presence made Concord (and her own house) a magnet for reporters and tourists, which she herself noted in a satiric newspaper account.

She had strong and accomplished women models as well, including her own mother, an activist for womens’ voting rights and abolition of slavery. Perhaps the most brilliant and independent women of the era, Margaret Fuller, taught for awhile at her father’s school.

But when the publisher of her romance novels (much like Jo’s in Little Women) requested something in another genre—an uplifting book for girls—Louisa May Alcott concentrated a story that transcended its time and place, and elevated creativity from Puritan disrepute to a natural element in moral development. In some of the many stage, screen, etc. versions since, bits of her background were added back. A little got into the 2005 Broadway musical version, currently performed by the Humboldt Light Opera at the College of the Redwoods.

Even more than the novel, the musical emphasizes the quest of second-oldest daughter Jo March to become a writer. Some of her swashbuckling fantasies are acted out on stage (with spirited performances, particularly by Coral Bourne), but her success comes from writing the home truths, and by her devotion to others. Essie Bertain as Jo capably unites the show, maturing before our eyes from the petulant bravado of adolescence to a centered young woman.

The script dramatizes the novel’s most cherished moments, but with so many characters, the other players must make the best use of their brief time on stage. Shaelan Salas is sweet and then steady as the eldest daughter, Meg. As Amy (the youngest), Rachael Fales breaks through with her energy and commitment. Jessica Malone is so perfectly pretty and angelic as Beth, that even if you didn’t know the story and only the conventions of melodrama, you’d be sure she’s doomed. But she’s affecting anyway, with an especially attractive voice. Her duets with Bill Ryder (as the wealthy Mr. Lawrence) and especially her second act duet with Bertain felt to me like the show’s most emotionally effective moments. The final Bertain-Sharkey duet was another high point.

Tyler Rich (Laurie), Tandy Floyd (Marmee), Valerie Bourne (Aunt March) and especially Kevin Sharkey as Professor Bhaer played their important supporting roles well. Since this is an HLO production, directed by Carol McWhorter Ryder, with musical direction (and piano accompaniment) by Sharon Welton, the singing is superior.

Some of the songs are charming, some are Broadway- bombastic, and with so many characters and so much to do (and sing about), plus frequent clamorous scene changes (though the crew was very efficient), the play feels choppy, without dramatic momentum. The costumes, designed by Kevin Sharkey, are dazzling, though I’m not sure how well they support the impression of poverty.

With comic moments in the mix, Little Women is reasonably entertaining for those not already devoted to the story. I can’t speak for devotees—mostly what I recall from watching the 1949 movie on TV with my sisters was getting a little buzz from June Allyson. But maybe all that devotees need to know is that the characters are more contemporary interpretations but still the same March girls, and their favorite scenes are given life, ready to evoke memories and tantalize another generation.

Little Women concludes its run this Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 in the CR Forum Theatre.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Does This Explain It All?

I'm fascinated with a dialogue in the March/April issue of the Dramatist, in which playwrights Marsha Norman ('Night, Mother, and--among other works, the book and for the musical The Secret Garden, seen recently at Ferndale Rep) and Christopher Durang (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, which coincidentally was also on stage at the Rep recently, performed by the teen ensemble.)

They were talking about a playwrighting class they taught together at the Julliard School in New York. The students, described as a year or two out of college (grad students then?), numbered only four in the beginning, though the next year another class of four was added to the four who remained for a second year.

After describing how they came to teach the class together, the playwrights talked about their approach and how things worked out. Early on, Marsha Norman described the effect of the second year students on the first years': "They're also very good about helping the first year writers learn to talk in the Julliard way. We really do speak about plays in a very particular language, to the point that when they leave us they go out and start writers' groups and still kind of travel in this pack. Which is great, because what you need as a writer is to feel that you're in some kind of group that's going to help you. You can't make it if you're out there by yourself."

There is no denying the truth of those words I've put in bold. But the spectre of a pre-elite is pretty stark, as is the danger of groupthink. Going to "the right schools" is pretty much defined by the advantage those schools provide, not just in excellent teaching but in excellent connections. Theatre is susceptible to this, especially since it requires that people work together. Actors need producers need playwrights need directors need each other. Right now the road to success in American theatre (as well as TV and movies) often runs through Julliard, Yale Drama, Carnegie Mellon and no more than a half dozen other programs. (Here on the North Coast, it runs through Dell'Arte, and in design and technical areas, HSU. )

Those eight students are likely to be among the most serious and most talented, but they are also most likely to be from upper middle class big city families. Now they are being formed into packs, which will hurt them a little (if they come up against other gangs) but will help them much, much more.

There are other ways to form and become part of groups that support and advise each other. The young black playwright from HSU, John ADEkoje, is now plugged into a couple of strong support groups: Boston University, which has a production arm in the Boston Playwrights Theatre, and an informal but very involved group of black playwrights on the East Coast.

The summer Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Center in Connecticut also was an institutional support mechanism, which re-generated and broadened itself every summer with a dozen or so new playwrights from various backgrounds and parts of the country. That's much less the case there now, and it's more of a pre-elite situation. O'Neill participants never forgot each other, or what they learned there: not only how to approach plays, but how to support each other.


This isn't all that interests me in this dialogue. Norman and Durang have interesting things to say about how they approach the class, which also suggest what playwrighting and theatre are like these days. The playwrights are encouraging, positive and supportive, but they try to get the student to focus on some practical matters. Norman suggests that "On page eight you have to tell the audience when they can go home," meaning that early in play, the audience should know what the question is that the play is asking, so when it is answered, the play is over.

"Rules" like this are distillations of experience, and I especially like suggestions that get writers (and others involved) to think about what they're doing from the audience perspective. August Wilson told me that one of the most useful pieces of advice he got at the O'Neill was to make sure that at the beginning of the play, the audience knows where the action is, and when. It's very simple, but it's smart, because if the audience is trying to figure that out, they miss what else is going on. And we all make sense of things based on time and place.

Something else that emerged from this class I learned at the O'Neill and elsewhere: it is very useful for a playwright to see the play read by actors, and to get actor feedback, because it is usually specific to their character, or to how that character might or might not say something. That's another major advantage of a place like Julliard, which attracts excellent acting students.

Another "tool" that Marsha Norman uses also suggests that not everything works for every play. To test the attraction or power of a play idea, she has everyone write five sentences about their play ("This is a play about___. It takes place___. The main character wants___. It begins when___. It ends when___. ) Then after each 5 sentence summary is read, students are asked which ones they remember (other than their own.) Norman says that out of 20, the most that are remembered is usually five. And then she asks, which would you pay to see? The money question, in both senses. Usually it's one, or two.

Two would be about right. It's the ten percent rule which governs the arts, and possibly a lot more. When he was director of the O'Neill, Lloyd Richards told me that it's uncannily consistent: of the plays that come in, 10% are passed on by the first readers. Then 10% of those are considered worthy by the judges. And so on.

But I wonder if this exercise doesn't have some pitfalls. I'd like to see added to the mix those five sentence descriptions of a few other plays, like say Waiting for Godot. It would be interesting to see if it makes the cut. (Maybe it's worth mentioning in this regard that Christopher Durang told me that the reason he stopped sending plays to the O'Neill was that he was afraid the first readers would screen him out and he'd be crushed.)

But this isn't to criticize their teaching techniques. I'm frankly in awe of the whole thing--of the attention and care they give, the discussions they have about every student's work. But I'm also very aware of the many of us who never got and never will get that kind of attention and support.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

This North Coast Weekend


Humboldt Light Opera and College of the Redwoods presents the musical version of Louisa May Alcott's classic story, Little Women, Fridays and Saturdays through May 23, starting at 7:30, with a 2 p.m. matinee this Sunday (the 17th), in the CR Forum Theatre. My review in the NC Journal is here. Photo: Essie Bertain as Jo and Jessica Malone as Beth.

The Dell'Arte School students who created the Glasnost Family show last Christmas present original short plays as their individual thesis projects. The first set is this weekend, Thursday through Saturday and the second May 21-24, at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.
Jeff DeMark performs a selection of his stories together with music by UKExperience at the Westhaven Center for the Arts on Saturday night.

At the Arcata Playhouse, this is the final weekend for Third Base, a comic presentation by Nick Trotter and Jerry Lee Wallace Thursday May 14 through Sunday at 8.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

This North Coast Weekend

Jeff DeMark does his 200th North Coast solo performance Friday night (May 8) at Muddy's Hot Cup in Arcata. He's presenting his Writing My Way Out of Adolescence for the first time in two years--and the Great Recession price is right: just $3.89.
The Humboldt Light Opera and College of the Redwoods opens the musical version of the classic Little Women on Friday (through May 23) at 8 in the CR Forum Theatre.
Third Base, the Jerry Lee Wallace and Nick Trotter clown show, is at the Arcata Playhouse Thursday through Sunday at 8, and again next weekend.
The HSU Ten Minute Play Festival concludes this weekend, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 in the Gist Hall Theatre.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Tainted Muse

A new book by Robert Brustein explores prejudices in Shakespeare, reviewed below.

Shakespeare With Prejudice

The Tainted Muse: Prejudice and Presumption in Shakespeare's Works and Times
by Robert Brustein
280 Pages
Yale University Press

Robert Brustein is one of the most familiar names of authority in American theatre. He is perhaps most widely known as a critic and a public speaker, but within theatre he is recognized as the founding director of the Yale Repertory Theatre at Yale and the American Repertory Theatre near Harvard. He has also written and adapted plays, and is now officially enshrined in the Theatre Hall of Fame.

This book focuses on an uncomfortable area of surmise: the evidence for various gender, racial and ethnic prejudices in the plays of William Shakespeare. Some are obvious and often discussed: the Jewish Shylock, the Blackamoor Othello, the shrew that is tamed. Others that Brustein emphasizes are not so widely held: he considers Hamlet as drenched in misogyny, for example.

Brustein focuses on six prejudices: misogyny (or the hatred women), dislike of womanish men ("effemiphobia"), the correlative prejudice in favor of macho men, a political prejudice against "mobocracy" and for monarchy, racial prejudice and religious prejudice.

Though Brustein recognizes that prejudices and how they are seen to be expressed is a matter of interpretation that changes according to the times, he is using current standards, especially as applied by today's cultural/political theorists. (He is however, mercifully a better writer.) He traces Shakespeare's exploration of these themes through various characters, and finds (at least to his satisfaction) lines of development in the playwright's attitudes.

All in all, the salient effect of this book may be to counteract the too easy enthusiasm for Shakespeare as a mirror of whatever the current attitudes are. On the other hand, since we are such an either/or society, such sweeping charges of prejudices could taint readings and discourage productions--particularly by producers sensitive to political pressure groups and the various loudmouths who can get pretty vicious.

In fact this does seem the book of a scholar but mostly a producer, who has faced such controversies when mounting these plays. Less obvious is the approach of the playwright, who does things for any number of reasons having more to do with the internal dynamics of the play--as well as the players, the playhouse, the public and so on.

So while I can take Brustein's interpretations into account (though I don't agree with them all by any means) I see them as interpretations from a particular point of view, at a particular time. I haven't lived quite as long as Brustein, but even I have seen the meaning imputed to various words and actions change over the years. Still, a contemporary production should face these issues without becoming overwhelmed or especially defined by them. This book can be a useful tool to that end.

But it's only one point of view. Brustein is mostly pretty literal. He doesn't deal with the symbolisms and mechanisms of the Elizabethan theatre in the way that, say, Northrop Frye does. He acknowledges that in his terms, Shakespeare infused characters like Othello and Shylock with a humanity than other authors of his time did not. But my guess is that Shakespeare the playwright also likely had other considerations beyond such statements.

So this book goes on my Shakespeare shelf, to be consulted when I'm seeing one of these plays, along with studies that take quite different approaches.