Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Year of Staging Dangerously

Theatre isn’t easy anywhere. But it’s particularly hard here, for both participants and audiences. Is there a well-equipped facility with comfortable seats and good sightlines, let alone adequate ventilation and amenities, on the North Coast? North Coast Rep is raising money to replace lighting equipment that is so old that parts aren’t made for it anymore, but it’s hardly the only local theatre with that kind of problem.

 Of course other local entertainment venues have their drawbacks, including the self-inflicted, as I experienced recently while trying to watch the dim and insultingly underpowered projection of the latest Harry Potter movie in an ice-cold cinema. But hereabouts theatre creators and audience are partners in what might be described as frontier theatre.

Add to this a depleted media environment. A few years ago a show might get three or even four reviews. But the loss of papers and pages (and the Times-Standard’s virtual abdication of local performing arts coverage) means two reviews at most, but more typically one or none while the show is running. The Lumberjack remains useless. At least this paper still makes room for this column about twice a month, though it is the one regular feature that the Journal doesn’t promote.

 Theatre may not get priority because its audiences are older (and though more likely to still read newspapers, are perceived as not attractive to advertisers) and the theatregoers aren’t very vocal, except when they don’t like a review. Given all the problems, plus the conflicts and emotional overloads common to theatre, it remains amazing that theatre gets done at all. These days I regard it as a residual minor miracle, like the continuing existence of libraries with actual books in them.

 What keeps theatre alive here? The dedication, perspicacity and effort of the people who run the theatres, community support, a cadre of actors and other theatre people who’ve found a niche here, and the talent and energy of young people from local schools who stick around long enough to renew North Coast stages—not just from HSU, CR and the Dell’Arte School, but from theatre programs at (for example) Eureka High, Arcata High and Northcoast Prep.

 This year has also seen an increasing cross-fertilization and cooperation among theatres and schools. Though InterAct seems largely moribund, perhaps other efforts to strengthen theatre as a whole may result.

 Another vitalizing factor is the at least occasional willingness to take more than the usual chances. Some theatre folk call it “stretching”: choosing to do a more challenging, more ambitious work, or to do a production in a more ambitious way, or both.

 That kind of ambition is crucial to the vitality—the lifeblood—of live theatre. It pushes theatre beyond pleasant entertainment to become startling, troubling, inspiring, thought-provoking, feeling-evoking—and, in a word, important. Even life-changing.  Yet it may also increase the chance of failure—or at least of raising more expectations than it fulfills. That’s the risk.

 In a year when nothing I saw on the North Coast failed to entertain to some degree, there were also efforts of particular ambition. Such ambitions may get short shrift in a review, which is largely about execution. For example, though I didn’t feel all the science-inspired ideas cohered in Charlotte Jones’ Humble Boy, the attempt to relate these concepts to how we might live our lives was admirable, as was Redwood Curtain for presenting them. Rent at Ferndale Rep, Michael Thomas’ direction of M Butterfly at HSU, the group creation of An Evening With Rumi at HSU, Doubt at North Coast Rep, all explored beneath the surface of topical concerns and difficult terrains. North Coast Rep took its brave annual Shakespeare challenge.

 Dell’Arte and the Arcata Playhouse continued to host intriguing visitors, including the nearby artists of Independent Eye and Human Nature. But the most conspicuous example of successful ambition was Dell’Arte’s original production last summer, Blue Lake: The Opera. Though it’s rumored that not everyone at Dell’Arte initially wanted to do it, people who saw it are literally still talking about this show.

 It was creatively ambitious.  Everyone involved rose to the occasion, opening a lot of eyes to the potential of local talent, and changing at least the life of one of its singing stars, David Powell, who subsequently enrolled in the Dell’Arte School.

 For Humboldt Light Opera Company, the challenge and ambition of producing the very familiar The Pirates of Penzance was to make it new. Apart from its usual musical excellence, HLOC did this with humor that didn’t displace feeling, and showmanship that combined taste with boldness (defying purists but adding color and spirit by increasing the number of “daughters” to absurd proportions.) Director Carol Ryder paid careful attention to the basics of audibility and intelligibility, in a memorable production.

 As my reviews reflect, I’m not always crazy about the plays local theatres choose to do. And I miss the plays nobody seems to do. I’ve become resigned to seeing Shaw only on DVD, and only imagining Stoppard outside of Rosencrantz and Gilderstern Are Dead, which CR will do soon. Or (just one example) of seeing any Thornton Wilder except Our Town, though with the popularity of apocalyptic plays, The Skin of Our Teeth could be fascinating. Still, a necessary ingredient in the alchemy of excellent theatre is surprise.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Stage Matters?

Stage Matters from Theatre Communications Group on Vimeo.

I was on the road when "Dell'Arte" left a comment on this blog pointing me to this video, and I've only now gotten around to checking it out. It's a nice TCG piece and an appropriate video to post while I contemplate my end of the year entry in my column, which is called...wait, I know it, it's...oh yeah, Stage Matters.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Second years at Dell'Arte International School present their Character Projects this weekend, 8 pm in the Carlo on Thursday (Dec. 9), Friday and Saturday.

Meanwhile, Dell'Arte's Christmas Show, The Musicians of Bremen continues on the road (Thursday at 7:30 in Scotia's Winema Theater, Friday at Orick Elementary at 6pm, Saturday in Port Orford at the Community Center at 7:30, and Sunday at Trinidad Elementary at 7:30.) Permission to revise and extend my remarks? Furthering the cartoon style theme, the old Comicolor cartoon version of the Town Musicans of Bremen has a musical score by Carl Stalling, who also did the music for the classic Warner Brothers cartoons (Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.) This cartoon--as many Warner ones do for decades--begins a scene in the country with a bit of the beginning of Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite. In fact the Morning section of the suite is familiar to several generations mostly from these cartoons. And sure enough, the Dell'Arte show begins with this music...Coincidentally enough, this weekend (Friday and Sunday nights at 8pm in Fulkerson Recital Hall on the HSU campus), the Humboldt Symphony is playing the entire Peer Gynt Suite. Later they're joined by the Humboldt Chorale and University Singers for some bang-up orchestral and choral Christmas carols.

Also at HSU, An Evening with Rumi completes its two-weekend run (photo above) on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm in the Gist Hall Theatre. I saw it last weekend and apart from serving up more profundity per minute than any other show of the past year, it features some excellent individual performances from both familiar and unfamiliar faces. Two of the best come from the veteran Bernadette Cheyne and the youngest cast member, Erin Harris. But they aren't the only ones. There's some fine ensemble work as well. I had moments of illumination and appreciation, and I'm sure in savoring these I missed others. This is a show that would repay more than one visit. There is music, though why this play got dumped into the Music listings in the Journal I don't understand.

Also continuing this weekend: Amahl and the Night Visitors at Ferndale Rep (Thurs-Sat at 8, Sun. at 2), Charley's Aunt at North Coast Rep (Thurs-Sat at 8) and the Rialto Theatre's Inspecting Carol at the Arcata Playhouse (Fri-Sun at 8.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

If you wanted one word to describe the poetry of the Sufi mystic called Rumi, it might be “praise”—for the fullness of existence and the given world. But his words can be surprising and bracing, ironic as well as ecstatic. They often get to the heart and soul of things.

Beginning Thursday at HSU, a theatre piece created by North Coast actors and musicians will use only Rumi’s words, as rendered by Coleman Barks whose The Essential Rumi and other books helped make Rumi the best-selling poet in America. The cast of students, faculty and community members chose the verses most meaningful to them, and director John Heckel guided the theatrical exploration, with music by Seabury Gould and the cast.

An Evening with Rumi runs Thursday through Saturday for the next two weekends (until Dec. 11) at 7:30 pm in the Gist Theatre, with a matinee this Sunday at 2. There’s more information (which I assembled on HSU’s dime) at HSU Stage and Screen.

Also opening this weekend is Inspecting Carol, a comedy with a Christmas theme by Dan Sullivan, produced by the new North Coast outfit called Rialto Theater Company. Directed by Samantha McLaughlin, it features Rae Robison (also costumes), JM Wilkerson, Megan Johnson, Calder Johnson (also lighting), Jennifer Trustem, Victor Howard, Chris Redd, Alex Jones, Joseph Waters, David Hamilton and Shirley Santino. Beginning Thursday, it plays for three weekends at the Arcata Playhouse, ending December 19. Info:

Humboldt Light Opera's youth Production Workshop (ages 11-18) presents A Frank Loesser Review (with music from Guys and Dolls, Most Happy Fella and other Loesser musicals) at 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 3rd and 2 p.m. Saturday, December 4th, at the Redwood Curtain Theatre in Eureka.

Then Saturday night, HLO’s female ensemble, the Babes, will perform holiday songs at the Morris Graves Museum as part of Eureka Arts Alive, 6-9 pm. Joining them will be The Babe Magnets quartet as well as featured HLOC singers Kevin Richards, Katherine Kinley and James Gadd.

And somewhere near you (if you're in Humboldt County) there will be a performance of Dell'Arte's Christmas Show, the Musicians of Bremen. I review it in this week's NC Journal, and there are lists of where the free shows will be performed at the Dell'Arte site and the Journal. Donations of canned food are accepted for distribution to local food banks.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Christmas with Dell'Arte and Others

The story of “The Town Musicians of Bremen” by the Brothers Grimm inspired many international versions, especially animations: an early black and white Disney, a 1935 Comicolor, and later toons in the Soviet Union, Germany and Italy. So when the international cast from the Dell’Arte International School took on the story for Dell’Arte’s Christmas road show, they approached it with a classic cartoon style.

 In the Carlo Theatre last Friday, director Michael Fields introduced the resulting show, The Musicians of Bremen, by calling it an example of “family theatre” to enjoyed by both children and adults. That’s also been true of the best cartoons: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and other Warner toons—and generally most cartoons made for movie theatres. (It’s been less true of television, although some—like Rocky and Bullwinkle—entertained on several levels.)

 The idea is especially appropriate for the audiences of the Dell’Arte traveling holiday shows, as well as for this particular story of the travails and triumph of four barnyard animals. Canadian/American actor Alice Nelson is the farmer impatient with the animals’ failures, who banishes them from the farm one by one in a tornado of slapstick and similes, both clever and doubtful. Texan Kathryn Tabone is the strutting rooster with the Charlie Chaplin moustache who crows the farmer awake a little too early.

 Korean Jaewook Shim is the big lazy white cat who won’t mouse, Jai Lavette is the (sometimes) blind dog who loses not only the hens but the henhouse, and Brazilian William Neimar da Silva is the donkey who doesn’t much care for the beast of burden deal. All are terrific, but da Silva is a special treat, which he augments (in another role) with juggling.

 The first half of the show—as the animals misbehave and are sent into exile-- is a live cartoon, delighting children and pushing some nostalgia buttons for those who recall the classic toons. The rest of the show unwinds the plot: the animals are briefly in jeopardy but follow the example of two 80s-style punk rockers (Claire Mannie and Alice Nelson) to become a band that finds its home in making music together.

 At first performance the storytelling in the second half didn’t seem quite strong or clear enough to have an impact on children, and the musical performances (with music arranged by Tim Gray) were a little shaky. All that can improve on the road, even if the jackass plays the accordion (or “piano shirt” as one character calls it.)

 There’s nothing much about Christmas in it except a few bars of Jingle Bells, and with the animals (mostly) not talking, it doesn’t have the level or amount of verbal wit of last year’s Dickens-based show. But it’s fun, it’s a talented group with a lot of stage presence, and Lydia Foreman’s costumes are a delight in themselves. The Musicians of Bremen tours until returning to the Carlo Dec. 16-19. Full schedule is accessible at All the shows on the road are free, but contributions of canned food are collected for local food banks.

Also for this Christmas season, Ferndale Repertory Theatre presents the Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti. It was written for network television in 1951, so it’s short enough for children. The Ferndale production features soprano Elisabeth Harrington, Jacob Smith (as the boy Amahl), Luke Sikora, James Wright and Steve Nobles. Dianne Zuleger is music director, Daniel Nyiri scene designer, and Linda Maxwell choreographer. Justin Ross and Jonathan Webster accompany on keyboards.

I was a child when Amahl and the Night Visitors premiered on TV. I remember that my (Italian) grandmother loved it, and it was shown on TV every Christmastime during the 50s--sometimes called the Italian Decade in popular music, not only for crooners like Sinatra and Perry Como but for the popularity of opera music. After all, the first million selling record in America was by Enrico Caruso, and operatic voices like Mario Lanza were often heard on radio in those years.

But even in these different musical times, the Three Tenors phenomenon suggests openness to the operatic. Opera is also generally more exciting live--including the singing. Amahl and the Night Visitors is sung in English, and since the story that involves the three Magi and the Nativity is told from a child’s point of view, it remains a family Christmas classic.

Also opening this weekend is Inspecting Carol, a comedy with a Christmas theme by Dan Sullivan, produced by the new North Coast outfit called Rialto Theater Company. Directed by Samantha McLaughlin, it features Rae Robison (also costumes), JM Wilkerson, Megan Johnson, Calder Johnson (also lighting), Jennifer Trustem, Victor Howard, Chris Redd, Alex Jones, Joseph Waters, David Hamilton and Shirley Santino. Beginning Thursday, it plays for three weekends at the Arcata Playhouse, ending December 19.

An Evening With Rumi 

 If you wanted one word to describe the poetry of the Sufi mystic called Rumi, it might be “praise”—for the fullness of existence and the given world. But his words can be surprising and bracing, ironic as well as ecstatic. They often get to the heart and soul of things. Beginning tonight (Dec. 2) at HSU, a theatre piece created by North Coast actors and musicians will use only Rumi’s words, as rendered by Coleman Barks whose The Essential Rumi and other books helped make Rumi the best-selling poet in America. The cast of students, faculty and community members chose the verses most meaningful to them, and director John Heckel guided the theatrical exploration, with music by Seabury Gould and the cast.

 An Evening with Rumi runs Thursday through Saturday for the next two weekends (until Dec. 11) at 7:30 pm in the Gist Theatre, with a matinee this Sunday at 2. There’s more information (which I assembled on HSU’s dime) at

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Charley's Aunt

Two Oxford students in 1892 are in love with two young women and invite them to lunch to tell them so, but need a chaperone to maintain propriety. Charley Wykeham’s aunt (who he’s never met) is conveniently scheduled to be around, until she inconveniently cancels, and they enlist a classmate to impersonate her. Various complications ensue.

 It’s an old chestnut, a war horse of a play—or maybe a charley horse chestnut. Charley’s Aunt by ex-music hall performer Brandon Thomas was so popular for so long when it opened in England in 1892 that it spawned associated merchandise, like Star Wars or Harry Potter. In the U.S. there have been six Broadway productions of this cross-dressing farce, beginning quickly in 1893 but ending ignominiously in 1970 when it closed in a week. These days it’s seen most often in high school and college productions, and it’s now at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.

 So questions naturally arise with plays of this pedigree: does it translate? Does it still work? Is it still funny? Thanks to the NCRT actors and probably coaching by director Nathan Emmons, the British part does translate.  In particular Jasper Anderton (as one of the students) and Anders Carlson (as the cross-dressing Lord Babberly) not only nail the Brit accents, they revel in them, and use their music (especially the resonant possibilities of deeper tones) to create as well as enhance the comedy.

 The cultural differences from that age to this don’t seem much of a barrier either. The actors were mostly convincing. Anders Carlson has the central comic part and came through with his best sustained performance that I can recall. Phil Zastrow had some crazed Alistair Sims moments, while Kathleen Marshall (as Charley’s real aunt) was intriguingly understated, and the rest of the cast carried their required load: Neal Schoonmaker, Brittany Williams, Lanelle Chavez, David Moore and Jackie Bookstein.

 But does it work? It’s certainly funny some of the time. Though it isn’t pure farce (it ends up with more marriages than a Shakespeare comedy), that’s the source of its laughs. But farce is about concentrated energy, and this play sprawls, as does this production.

 Charley’s Aunt has also been made into movies in Germany, Denmark and Russia as well as the U.S. and England. Unsurprisingly none were faithful to the play, but that could be the key to reviving it. The NCRT production even keeps the old three act structure, resulting in a play that is too long and too diffuse to maintain the energy of farce. It also creaks at times, like a farce with a charley horse.

 This production also locates the action throughout the theatre, including in the aisles. I realize that diffusion in the pursuit of variety and “stage pictures” is the theatrical fashion and I’m unlikely to convince anyone that people shouting at each other from long distances bleeds both drama and comedy from the stage (or the aisles). But it may hurt particularly in farce, where in a sense the comedy comes from claustrophobia.

 So, some good jokes and good performances. Jennifer Trustem uses the period to create striking costumes, particularly the dresses. Scenic designer Daniel Lawrence and Scenic Artist Bruce Keller created a cleverly useful set. Charley’s Aunt plays at NCRT Fridays and Saturdays through December 11, with a Thursday performance on December 9.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Jeff DeMark performs his original They Ate Everything But Their Boots at Dell’Arte’s Carlo Theatre Friday through Sunday (Nov. 12-14) at 8 p.m. There will be more music than in earlier incarnations, DeMark says, this time provided by Tim Randles as well as Matt Knight. “I’ve edited parts of it, I wrote a new ending and generally just tried to find the truth and humor in it. I’ve realized it’s really about things other than the search for a house, though that is certainly in it, and the whole process and madness of rehabilitating a 100-year-old Victorian. It’s about the journey of trying to find a place to fit in, to feel home, and with that comes a lot of feeling of destiny, luck or lack of luck. There are thoughts about synchronicity and how little logic has to do with our lives as compared to chance and fortune.”

The set is by Michelle McCall Wallace, her spouse Jerry Lee Wallace appears in a cameo. DeMark has dedicated the first night as a benefit for Arcata House, which provides transitional housing to local families.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Humble Boy and the Humble Bees

 Late in Humble Boy, the play by Charlotte Jones now presented by Redwood Curtain in Eureka, one character goes on for several rapturous minutes reciting the correct Latin names for flowers surrounding him in an English garden. The names come from the science of horticulture, but the Greek name for a collection of flowers was an anthology.

This play collects its own anthology of ideas— besides horticulture, from theoretical physics, entomology (mostly apilogy, the study of bees), plus World War II British aircraft, 1940s swing, and an assortment of homonyms and puns (especially names.) Not to mention ancient comic devices (one of them unfortunately recycled in a heavily advertised new movie) and British class warfare—all with the underpinning of a modern take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet as family drama.

 The result is a long and uneven evening of fast-paced and fitfully entertaining theatre, with just enough wit, action and sparks flying from the collisions of fragmentary ideas to keep your head moving back and forth across that wide Redwood Curtain stage. The rest is carried by a talented group of actors, all of whom have their particular shining moments.

 It all takes place in the garden of the Humble home in an English country town in 1997. Biologist and beekeeper James Humble has just died, his wife Flora is recovering from a nose job, and his son Felix, a researcher in physics, is befuddled and bereft.

 Felix had escaped this house (and his girlfriend Rosie) for university seven years before, but returns for the funeral and stays the summer, getting involved in Flora’s affair with the wealthy and crassly charming George Pye, and its third wheel, a neighbor named Mercy Lott.

 On one level, a sometimes creaky and confusing but witty sort of sitcom ensues, with sudden resolutions (both simple and mystical) and at least one plot point left dangling. As for other levels—though suggestions of deeper dimensions in ordinary life are very welcome on any stage, sorting this collection of ideas and images may require chaos theory.

 Susan Abbey is outstanding as Flora. She’s on stage a lot and is consistently convincing. Dmitry Tokarsky does well with Felix (the Hamlet figure, mourning his father, upset with his mother etc.), but this character seems to be an anthology of ideas and characteristics.

At the other end of character, George Pye is all one note, but Gary Sommers plays it with conviction and comic effect. James Read (“Jim,” the apparent gardener) is glorious in that flower recitation, Christina Jioras (Mercy) has a very funny and poignant soliloquy, Theresa Ireland (Rosie) leavens her level-headed character with sudden raucous moments, as when she ravishes her young physicist: “ Just lie back and think of the Big Bang.”

 Director Cassandra Hesseltine guided these fine performances, though her characters were sometimes so far apart on that stage that they might have been in different plays. Some of the story remained unclear.

 Daniel Nyiri is listed as “scenic consultant,” so I guess the attractive garden set is at least partly his. Jon Turney provides sounds that are probably important, as the drama turns on the discovery of a new species of bumblebee. Michael Burkhart designed the lighting. Humble Boy continues Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through November 20th, with a Sunday matinee on Nov. 14.

 Last week at Dell’Arte, the young Portland ensemble Hand2Mouth presented Everyone Who Looks Like You: a show about a family, created by the ensemble mostly from their own experiences. Using song and movement as well as monologues and scenes, it was energetic and uncompromising in its expression of family dynamics, often among siblings, almost always from the (adolescent/young adult) children’s point of view. But neither the form nor the content could support it for as long as it went on, and on, and on, literally without a break. What started out as trenchant and affecting became suburban white whining and breakfast nook angst.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Independent Eye's "Hands Up!"

Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller don’t just work with puppets, they think about them. They say as much in their notes for their new Independent Eye show now on tour, Hands Up! which played two nights last week at Dell’Arte: “The show tonight is with puppets, and in a sense it’s about puppets.”

 Because puppets are dead objects that take on a life in performance and return to lifelessness afterwards, they suggest issues of mortality that become “more personal as you get older” (Independent Eye, based in Sebastopol, debuted in 1974.)

 Because puppets sometimes seem to take on a life of their own (and the puppet cannot hear the puppeteer), they suggest issues of control. This evening of nine unrelated pieces may also prompt related questions, such as the extent to which people are themselves puppets: reacting in predictable ways to repeated circumstances, neither of which they seem able to control. Who’s pulling your strings? Institutions? Lovers? Fate?

 The writing and performing by Fuller and Bishop is excellent as usual: original, inventive, layered, witty. Bishop’s puppets are exquisite, Fuller’s music is lively and haunting.

 Like the puppet plays they presented at the Arcata Playhouse about a year and a half ago, the humor in these tends towards the grim. In two pieces, confrontations (between a weed-obsessed gardener and a determined plant, and among dogs at a dish) turn to negotiations and at least temporary acceptance. But when the classic puppet Punch is required to be nice and not just beat up Judy, everybody else’s fears and aggressions get projected on him and violence ensues anyway.

 Other pieces are more wholly frightening, such as the door-to-door Messengers of Doom (though Merchants of Doom is more accurate) with the machine-gun patter of terrorist officials crossed with greed-speeded sub-prime mortgage salesmen, aimed at a woman whose plaintive refrain is “I don’t understand.”

 Then there’s the kid whose prom date is Kali, the Hindu goddess of time, change and death. This piece throws so many powerful punches so fast that it can’t be summarized, except to say that coming just before intermission, it may well increase sales at the bar.

 After the break, there’s the story of a dying man beset with guilt because he presided over the immolation of 1950s child star marionette Howdy Doody (bizarre, yes—but based on a true story) and a ghostly return to a crucial moment that nipped in the bud what might have been a life-changing relationship.

 In the last piece of the show the puppeteers emerge to speak for the audience, hoping that this is not another “downer,” but they still regard the happy ending of this apparently inane love story as sappy. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading him again lately, but this humor reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s. Every human life has value, says one of Independent Eye’s characters, and we should always pretend that’s true. That’s a Vonnegut-like formulation.

 Vonnegut (who late in his life said that if he were young and starting out now, he’d write for a small theatre company) often worked with the idea that people all too typically act like puppets or robots. But his view of life as bleak was mitigated by two things: the activity of art, and that among the sinners were some perfectly ordinary saints.

 To be honest, I admired this show more than I enjoyed it. Perhaps that says more about me. But as I started writing this I opened Victoria Nelson’s book, The Secret Life of Puppets, and the first words my eyes fell upon were these: “The grotesque, however, makes up only half—the dark half—of the complete religious experience...[and] ‘instills fear of life rather than fear of death.’ What it noticeably lacks is the experience of bliss, grace, divine joy.”

 These puppets were not entirely grotesque and neither were the stories. And even when the stories seemed simple they weren’t superficial. But I did feel a certain balance was missing, or maybe halfhearted. And the operative word is “feel.”

 Perhaps ironically, another issue of control was suggested in the Friday night performance when the computer-controlled light and sound malfunctioned, and the show ground to a halt. Who were exposed as the puppets then? But Bishop and Fuller reacted with both wit and vulnerability, leading to some of the bigger laughs of the night, as well as to the bonding that the audience so clearly wanted.

Friday, October 15, 2010

This N.C. Weekend: Brides of Dracula

Two shows open this weekend--M. Butterfly at HSU and Brides of Dracula at Ferndale Rep. I preview M. Butterfly (which I've now seen--an excellent production) in the post below. In this post I preview Brides of Dracula, expanded from my NC Journal column. It opens tonight.

The currently popular vampire genre has a long history that began in the sunny Swiss summer of 1816, with a group of young visitors: the Shelleys (Percy Bysshe and Mary, and Mary’s sister Claire), Lord Byron and his secretary, John Polidori. There was sexual tension amidst the forays into nature and the literary and scientific talk: Polidori had a crush on Mary, while Claire was pursuing Byron, and would eventually have a child by him. One night as thunderstorms broke a spate of oppressive weather, Lord Byron challenged them all to write a ghost story. The most famous outcome was eventually Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But another begun that night would result in The Vampyre, the first vampire story written in English and the first to center on a Dracula-like figure, suggested by Byron but written by Polidori.

Its more famous literary descendant at the end of the century was Dracula, by theatre business manager and pulp novelist Bram Stoker. Stoker’s hopes for a stage version starring his friend Sir Henry Irving were never realized, but various 20th century movie versions made Dracula a cultural icon ever since.

In considering the Stoker novel David Nyiri became interested in a theme that the movies ignored—the implications of immortality-- and characters that Stoker didn’t develop: namely Dracula’s three brides, who appear only briefly in the novel. “They’ve had hundreds of years of interpersonal history with Dracula,” Nyiri said. “I’m interested in how that drives everything they do.”

But Nyiri still uses the basic Bram Stoker plot. “It’s almost like two versions working simultaneously, where you have the familiar story, but you’re also seeing the offstage incidents and scenes, which are now actually propelling it forward. Also I re-imagined pretty much all the major characters in light of the themes I was trying to put forth.”

The Brides (played by Kyra Gardner, Elena Tessler and Heather Wood) represent failed attempts by Dracula (played by Charlie Heinberg) to find his perfect soulmate--and none of them are happy about it. Nyiri’s play begins when all their “dissatisfactions and disappointments and anger are coming to a head.”

A monster of evil or a master of dark sex, each time Dracula returns with a different emphasis. The current vampire craze focuses on romance, a theme Nyiri traces back to the Frank Langella version on Broadway in the 1970s, when “Dracula was re-imagined as a kind of Byronic figure—more haunted than haunting.” Though his play is in this mold, “I semi-jokingly refer to it as Twilight for intelligent adults.”

Nyiri is not interested in either Hollywood or Halloween caricature. “I’ve told my actors repeatedly, these aren’t monsters—they’re fully dimensional individuals” who are dealing with the search for the perfect partner with which to be happy literally ever after, amidst a basic conundrum: “the tradeoff for potentially an eternity of romantic bliss is that you also have to become a rampant serial killer.”

Nyiri is Ferndale Rep’s resident designer this season, so in addition to writing and directing, he’s designed sets, costumes and lights. Other cast members include Rachel Cardoza, Jeremy Webb, Craig Waldvogel, Steven Carter, Thomas Tucker, Alaina Ross, Devin Galdierie and Danielle Cichon.

Brides of Dracula opens at Ferndale Rep on Friday (Oct. 15) at 8 pm., and plays through October 31 on Friday and Saturday evenings, and Sunday afternoons at 2.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

This N.C. Weekend: M. Butterfly

Two shows open this weekend--M. Butterfly at HSU and Brides of Dracula at Ferndale Rep. I preview both of them for the NC Journal this week. Since M. Butterfly opens first (Thursday at 7:30), what follows here is slightly expanded from what that column says about it, but there's much more on the show at HSU Stage & Screen, which I wrote for HSU. Tomorrow I'll post an expanded version of the Brides of Dracula preview here. It opens Friday at 8.

M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, opening at HSU’s Van Duzer Theatre, is based loosely on a true story. In Hwang’s now-classic 1988 play, a French diplomat in China named Gallimard thinks he’s living the imperial romance of Madame Butterfly (the submissive Eastern beauty happily yields to the powerful Western man) but he’s part of quite different stories, including Cold War manipulation and intrigue. Though the powerful image of perfect love is explored along with issues of colonialism, race and gender, the first question remains: how could he not know his perfect woman was a man?

“That question carries us through the whole show: how could this be?” said Michael Thomas, otherwise known as Managing Artistic director of North Coast Rep, who is directing his first HSU play. Further complications include Gallimard’s wife, his mistress and his boss, not to mention the Vietnam war.

Gallimard’s perfect love is Song Liling, a Chinese opera performer he first sees in a production of Madame Butterfly, so the color and music of theatre are intrinsic to the story. But more questions ensue from that first one, and for Thomas this is a virtue. “If a play gives us some juicy things to think about, to ponder,” he said, “then that’s a wonderful and successful evening of theatre. I think this play does that.” That intention seems to be something else these two productions have in common.

Lincoln Mitchell plays Gallimard, and Kyle Ryan plays Song Liling. Other cast members are Chelsea Snyder, Eva Rismanforoush, Denise Truong and Matt Kirchberg. Scenic designer is Calder Johnson, costumes by Amy Echeverria, lights by Kevin Landesman and choreography by Danielle Cichon.

M. Butterfly opens on Thursday (Oct. 14) at 7:30 pm in the Van Duzer Theatre, and runs this weekend and next, Thurs. through Sat. evenings, with a Sunday matinee on Oct. 24. There is some nudity as well as adult themes, so director Thomas recommends the show for high school age and older.

One intriguing historical note about the play: M. Butterfly opened on Broadway in March 1988, just days before August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone opened at another Broadway theatre. Both were finalists for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in drama, but neither won. (M. Butterfly did win the Tony for Best Play.) Instead the Pulitzer went to The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein. All three of these plays are now recognized as classics of the 20th century, and particular classics of the American stage. Years go by, even a decade, without a single play that has the impact of any of them. Yet there they were, one after the other in 1988.

Friday, September 24, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

If it’s major league baseball playoff time, it’s time for Jeff DeMark’s baseball show, Hard as Diamond, Soft as the Dirt. It was at the Arcata Theatre Lounge last year but this time DeMark is accompanied by The Delta Nationals several blocks away at the Arcata Playhouse in the Old Creamery building, on Saturday September 25 at 7:30 p.m. And this year you can also take the show home: a DVD of the performance of three years ago will have its official release at this same event. More information:

David Powell, singing star of the summer's hit Blue Lake: The Opera, performs the music of his Boston Conservatory teacher, composer Mohammed Fairouz, at the Arkley Center on Sunday at 5 pm.

Continuing: Company at North Coast Rep and Moonlight and Magnolias, final weekend at Redwood Curtain. Both are reviewed in posts below.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sondheim's Company at NCRT

Below is a slightly different version of my review of Sondheim's Company now at North Coast Rep.

Bachelor Bobby’s 35th birthday is celebrated by his married friends at the beginning of Company, the Steven Sondheim musical now playing at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka. That makes Bobby five years younger than this musical, which had its premiere Tony Award-winning run on Broadway in 1970. Though the NCRT show seems based on the revived and apparently revised 1995 version, there are aspects of this earlier origin that still set this musical apart.

After costly late 1960s failures, Broadway musicals were open to experimentation. One prescription was to make them more contemporary in content, with subjects and treatment that reflected real issues of that tumultuous time. Another was to become more contemporary in form, acknowledging non-naturalistic trends revolutionizing non-musical theatre ( Theatre of the Absurd, Beckett, Albee, Pinter, etc.) and the related attention to earlier European influences (especially Brecht), which were coming to New York on stage but also in foreign films, not only the 60s French New Wave and British comedies but film classics made in the 50s and before, but not widely available in the U.S. until the 60s.

Finally there was the call (championed by an influential New York critic or two) for new approaches to the music in musicals, or at least new blood. It had often been said that while popular music had been transformed in the decade of the British Invasion, Motown, Dylan and folk rock, etc., the music in musicals was lost in the past.

So in 1970, Company comes. With book by George Furth, it has no single story in traditional narrative terms, and even time doesn’t progress in expected ways. For example, Bobby’s birthday is celebrated three times, each with slight variations, but they may all be that same 35th. There are other story aspects that contradicted expectations then, and still do. Critic Frank Rich later characterized the overall approach as Brechtian, presumably meaning the famous alienation effect. (Sondheim later agreed with this characterization.) It’s probably best for today’s theatregoers to understand this going in. But it's interesting that while this approach continues to influence all kinds of theatre, it hasn't become standard. People still expect linear time (or at least clearly demarcated flashbacks) and a story through-line.

Other innovations have become more familiar. By dealing with the holy cow of marriage frankly and ironically, this show opened the musical to new possibilities (and paved the way for Woody Allen.) While its observations sometimes seem time-bound, there’s a lot that’s apparently universal. Steven Sondheim’s musically sophisticated mixing of classical and popular influences is comfortably postmodern today, though back then it was just being more like Paul McCartney.

Sondheim at that point was a successful lyricist (West Side Story, Gypsy) and composer (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), but Company defined what would be forever known as Sondheim.

At NCRT, the set by Daniel Lawrence is composed of handsome marbled but monochromatic platforms of various heights, with a backdrop of a city skyline. Director Tom Phillips arranges and nimbly moves a large cast across spaces representing various apartments and other locales in Manhattan in the mid 1990s: five married couples and three of Bobby’s girlfriends.

The 1970 Broadway production was characterized by Michael Bennett’s lavish dances (he later did A Chorus Line), and the most recent 2006 version (which local Sondheim fans may have caught on PBS) by the novelty of the cast also being the orchestra. This NCRT production has neither. Nor can it match the edginess or the New York cynicism. The North Coast is just too nice. Frankly, I’m not complaining.

Even with a certain dramatic slackness, this production uses the show’s basic form—a series of scenes, with each couple having at least one—to provide notably enjoyable individual moments. Among them, there’s Bobby’s three girlfriends (played by Molly Severdia, Lisa McNeely and Katy Curtis) doing 1940s Andrew Sisters harmonies and 1920s dance steps in their song, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” There’s the well-executed coupling-by-karate, performed by Megan Caton and Jasper Anderton. There’s a funny first pot-smoking experience with Caitlin McMurtry and Frederic Belanger. There’s the dynamic performance and show-stopping voice of Katy Curtis as the youngest girlfriend Marta, singing “Another Hundred People.” Marta idolizes New York as a woman all in black at the end of the bar crying. In a subtle (perhaps Brechtian) touch, she later anonymously lives the image.

There’s Christina Comer (of NCRT’s recent Gypsy) revealing yet another talent—for screwball comedy—with a hilarious, Carole Lombardian scene in a wedding dress. Dianne Zuleger (also the show’s music director) performs the most storied of Company’s songs—“The Ladies Who Lunch”—with raw verve. Kevin Sharkey has the thankless task of playing Bobby, the supposed central character who especially in this production is mostly an uncertain cipher of sincerity, defined by the shifting expectations and projections of his married friends. His progress towards definition is at best cumulative. But when he defines his own emotions and expresses them, particularly in his final song (“Being Alive”), Sharkey delivers.

The remaining cast members--Shaelan Salas, Evan Needham, Craig Benson and Daniel Kennedy--have their character and vocal moments as well. The orchestra of Justin Ross, Joe Severdia, Julie Froblom, Hilson Parker and Molly Adams play a deft and fittingly understated accompaniment, visible just in shadows behind a half wall at the back of the stage. Lauren Wieland provided the realistic costumes, David Tyndall some tasty lighting.

Company continues at NCRT Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 16, with three Sunday matinees and one Thursday night performance.

This show opens NCRT’s 27th season, which will also include Charlie’s Aunt, My Fair Lady, Othello, Gogol’s The Government Inspector and The Kitchen Witches by Caroline Smith.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

War on Tara at Redwood Curtain

The following is a slightly extended version of my Journal review of Moonlight and Magnolias, which runs one more weekend at Redwood Curtain. The additions are mostly a little more Gone with the Wind lore. The published version contains one slight error: while U.S. standard spelling--and spell-checks--decree that "traveler" has but one "l," the title of the show based on H.G. Wells followed the 1890s British spelling, so it is indeed The Time Traveller.

Moonlight and Magnolias, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, is a play about a movie. In playwright Ron Hutchinson’s fanciful retelling, the epic 1939 film Gone With the Wind emerged from a marathon five day session of invention, fueled only by bananas and peanuts, with producer David O. Selznick acting out scenes with his new director, Victor Fleming, while his new screenwriter, Ben Hecht typed away, between complaints, fights and paeans to the wonder of the movies.

You remember the movie—Rhett Butler, Scarlet O’Hara, the plantation of Tara, Civil War, tomorrow is another day, frankly my dear... An almost accidental Hollywood classic as fabled for its tortured history as for the way it tortured history.

As the play begins, the movie is in crisis. Obsessed with the epic he’d pinned his future on, Selznick had just fired his first director (George Cukor, of The Philadephia Story, The Women, Adam’s Rib, etc.) and had a pile of scripts that weren’t working. He pulled action director Victor Fleming off the picture he was completing (a little film called The Wizard of Oz) and hired former newspaperman Ben Hecht, a versatile screenwriter (Scarface, The Front Page, Wuthering Heights) valued for speed as well as quality.

Their manic writing session in paradigmatic Hollywood practically breeds comedy, from one-liners to falling-down farce. Hecht hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s huge best-selling novel, but that was no barrier. “You’re butchering the script!” director Fleming cries. “I’m here to butcher the book,” Hecht retorts. “I’ll leave it to you to butcher the script.”

Hutchinson glues the bits with social significance: Hecht worries about the portrayal of blacks, and chides Selznick for not seeing the parallels with the treatment of Jews in Germany just before World War II as well as in the U.S. Beverley Hills, Hecht points out, was developed as a place where rich Jews could live because they were kept out of L.A.’s choice neighborhoods. Besides the gently cynical Hollywood humor, there are soliloquies on the movies, trembling—like Hollywood movies themselves—between the insightful and the sentimental.

The three main actors at Redwood Curtain are terrific. As Fleming, Ron Halverson is funny to watch, and as Hecht, Jerry Nusbaum is funny to listen to. As Selznick, James Floss looks and carries himself like a 1930s man, which produces all the period credibility the play needs. Floss, who as an actor isn’t seen enough here, gets a line about the movies being the one real time machine, a fortuitous reminder of his signature H.G. Wells portrayal in his one-person show, The Time Traveller. Halverson, also long absent, is another actor to see more often.

An actor I’ve admired in musicals, Andrea Zvaleko plays the smaller role of Selznick’s secretary, and while she performs ably, the character’s part in all this remains puzzling. At the first preview, the production directed by James Read was still finding its timing, but even then, the start of the second act suggested it could get funnier with each performance.

The production is enlivened by Daniel Nyri’s sets, Catherine Brown’s costumes, Michael Burkhart’s lighting and Jon Turney’s sound design.

Now you’ve seen the play—what was the reality? Hutchinson’s general history is pretty good, but like a Hollywood movie, he fudges for effect. In the play, the trio debate how to handle the scene in which a main (white) women character gives birth and the slave girl midwife is slapped. In fact, George Cukor had already shot this scene as it appears in the movie. The playwright squeezes some laughs out of the three stumbling towards the movie’s most famous line, but “My dear, I don’t give a damn” was already in the Margaret Mitchell novel. It’s possible if unlikely that Selznick was the one who added the “Frankly.”

Also like a Hollywood movie, the play and this production give us basically likeable characters, though their models maybe weren’t. While there were all-night sessions over two weeks (not five days), the diet of bananas and peanuts Selznick enforces in the play lacks his key ingredient: Dexadrine. Apart from reputedly being an overbearing egomaniac, Selznick was a speed freak seen licking bits of crushed Benzedrine from his own hand. Hecht feared for his sanity and fled.

The play has Fleming saying he needs this success so he doesn’t have to go back to being a limo driver. The real Fleming was a former race-car driver and veteran cameraman as well as director, also known as virulently anti-Jewish.

Hecht was a prolific and valued screenwriter, but his basic contribution to Gone With the Wind seems to have been the same as another of its contributors, Scott Fitzgerald: both told Selznick to go back to Sidney Howard’s original script, which had ballooned to 800 pages basically because Selznick insisted on adding scenes. Whatever his views on this movie, Hecht did become one of the strongest voices in America warning of the Holocaust, and a Civil Rights activist.

Fleming was also openly homophobic, as was the movie's male star, Clark Gable, though there was some rumored homosexual activity in his past. But it was Gable's rebellion against director George Cukor--essentially because he was gay--that got Cukor fired. None of this is mentioned in this play. Nor is the reputed racism (Fleming again), though it was Clark Gable who insisted that the African American cast members were treated as equals on the set. He was good friends with Hattie McDaniel, who became the first black recipient of an acting Oscar; their scene together is generally lauded as one of the best in the movie.

Among the sources for this background are Frankly, My Dear by Molly Haskell, and George Cukor: A Double Life by Patrick McGilligan. But as these books contradict each other on some points, let's just say it's Hollywood lore.

Friday, September 17, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

North Coast Rep opens the Sondheim musical Company this weekend, Thursday to Saturday at 8. Shows continue Fridays and Saturdays through Oct. 16, with Sunday matinees on Sept. 26, Oct. 3 and Oct. 10. Also a 8 pm Thursday performance on Oct. 14.

Moonlight and Magnolias continues at Redwood Curtain. My review in the Journal is here. I'll try to post a longer version here soon.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Moonlight and Magnolias, a comedy by Ron Hutchinson about a crisis in making the epic film Gone With the Wind, opens at Redwood Curtain in Eureka this weekend. Directed by James Read, it features James Floss, Jerry Nusbaum, Ron Halverson and Andrea Zvaleko. Previews are Thursday and Friday, with premiere and reception on Saturday at 8. Performances continue Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through September 25, with a 2pm Sunday matinee on September 19.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Rock & Rent

As promised, an expanded version of my review of Ferndale Rep's Rent, as it appeared in the NC Journal. There was one slight error in the published piece, which was entirely my fault: "Tiggerbouncer as the inspiring Angel" failed to capitalize Angel, for in addition to being a description of the character's function, it's also the character's name: Angel. I was probably too worried about getting the name Tiggerbouncer correct, as it appears in the program.

I begin the review with an autobiographical note. Apart from the oddity of several productions this year bearing on aspects of my own life, I've come to subscribe to the Tom Stoppard philosophy of reviewing, which is that the job essentially is to describe as truthfully as possible your own experience and response to a show, that time that you saw it. But we all bring something of our own to each of these experiences--maybe memories of previous productions, particular expectations or aspects of our lives that color the theatrical experience--and to the extent you feel any of these are important, it's best to state them...

I lived in New York briefly in the 1980s, and visited frequently throughout the decade. I knew, talked and worked with, overheard and interviewed dozens of artists (in theatre, painting, filmmaking, dance, writing, etc.), when conversations on the subject of survival (artistic and actual) centered on rent. It was when real estate prices and rents first shot into the stratosphere, and finding and affording a place to live became a much greater struggle than it had been for previous generations of aspiring artists. Rent was the defining item and the dominant topic—until overrun by the savage plague of AIDS.

This is the context for Jonathan Larson's rock musical Rent, with the East Village in the late 80s as its focus—a place of extremes, symbolized for me one afternoon by a block of derelict buildings along a street strewn with broken glass, with one parked car: a Rolls Royce in front of a new art gallery in a padlocked loft.

In the long genesis of Rent, Jonathan Larson combined the spine of Puccini’s opera La Boheme and aspects of his own life with other cultural touchstones, especially common American holidays. Though its seams sometimes show, and I find the opera style (no spoken dialogue) a little too relentless for a piece this long and frenetic, it’s an affecting theatrical adventure that has won establishment awards, popular success and a cult following.

It’s clear even from down in the audience that the cast of the Ferndale Repertory Theatre production is very committed to the material and to each other. While that's probably true of many productions (even if there's tension and enmity among some), it's particularly important to this show because of its theme. For "Rent" has another meaning, as in a fabric torn, or relationships divided, or even the tears in internal fabric pulled in opposite directions by, among other things, art and money. While this play's story is a bit thin if you simply wrote it out, or even acted as a non-musical drama, it must depend on the emotions of relationships that the cast is able to project. If there is emotional commitment, that makes projecting it easier.

It also adds an extra dimension to energetic and convincing performances. Kyle Ryan as the young songwriter, Christopher Hatcher as the aspiring filmmaker, Tiggerbouncer as the inspiring Angel, and Danielle Cichon as the troubled dancer carry much of the load, with major contributions from Joel Armin-Hoiland, Craig Waldvogel, Molly Severida and Elena Tessler (who has a tour de force number as the performance artist Maureen.)

The vocal quality varied, but considering that I saw this the Sunday afternoon after the first Saturday performance, I gave the wandering ones a pass. Considering how much and how acrobatically the singers had to move, it's a wonder they got anything out at all. I've heard Chris Hatcher before, and his trained voice is dependably strong. Elena Tessler just about blew out the microphones, in a powerful performance. Kyle Ryan sang more than I'd heard him sing before, and was impressive. The variety of vocal styles seemed to match nicely with the variety of musical styles in the songs. The plaintive quality of Danielle Cichon's singing was particularly effective in the second act.

Guest director/choreographer Millicent Johnnie (from Southern Methodist University in Dallas) keeps the cast in constant motion. With scenic design by Daniel C. Nyiri, lighting by Patrick Sullivan and costumes by Gabriel Holman, the ambiance is convincing. From my perspective, there were moments I felt I was watching ghosts.

At the same time, the tasty band (James Caton, Devin Galdieri, Justin Ross, Austin Schmalz and Jonathan Webster) and music directed by Nanette Voss served the story and the songs. The music (which mixes hip-hop and Who-style rock with a tango and some Warren Zevon howling) and the funny, trenchant and poignant lyrics make clear how large is the loss of writer Jonathan Larson, who died of a heart ailment on the eve of Rent’s off-Broadway premiere.

Larson's including phone calls from parents is interesting. At this remove it makes sense in grounding the characters, but at the time, prior lives (especially in rich suburbs) weren't part of the mythology downtown artists typically projected. The image of the Artist sprung fully grown from New York was in some ways the whole point of being there--self-created, but exportable. But the changes in some of the characters in relation to AIDS (in early versions of the show apparently all of them had it) does show in an uncertainty about how central it was to the story. The death of one character, and the she's dead--oh wait, no she isn't resurrection of another bordered on predictable. It takes a lot of taste and showmanship to pull those off. Judgments will differ on how well this production does it.

Apart from those who remember the 80s, the universal aspects of the story plus the music appeals to younger audiences as well, including those who were captivated by this show before. That's apt to be encouraged by the admirable energy, emotion and skill of this production.

Rent continues at Ferndale Rep Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2 until August 29.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Very Model of a Modern Entertainment

Nothing opened on North Coast stages two weekends ago, and nothing opens this coming weekend, or as far as I know for several more weekends. But this past weekend two shows opened, both musicals. Apart from the box office wisdom of this, it caused me particular problems. As NC Journal reviewer they presented me with two choices: choose one to review this week and one next week, which would mean that one would be unreviewed until late in its run. Or review both but--because of space/word limits--give each of them half the review they would have had separately. For me, it meant twice the work for half the money. But that's the choice I made---this time.

So in Stage Matters in this week's Journal, you'll find reviews of Humboldt Light Opera's Pirates of Penzance and Ferndale Rep's Rent. What follows right here, right now, is an expanded version of the Pirates review. In a few days I'll post an expanded version of the Rent review.

Maybe it’s the current affection for piratical affectations, or maybe just the prevailing local approach to musicals, but Humboldt Light Opera Company dispenses with the smirks and self-consciousness that can mar Gilbert and Sullivan revivals. Instead they present a buoyant, colorful and joyful Pirates of Penzance at Humboldt State’s Van Duzer Theatre.

James Gadd and Fiona Ryder reunite (from last year’s The Light in the Piazza) as the appealing skull-and-bones-crossed lovers. Gadd is as handsome as any classic matinee idol, and a capable singer. Fiona Ryder brought a youthful energy that immediately made her credible as the boldest of the innocent young ladies, and the part showed off her voice to thrilling effect. Bill Ryder as the stalwart Pirate King, the dynamic Cindy Cress as Ruth and Ellsworth Pence as the Major General (his entrance is a high point) are just the most obvious standouts in a huge and capable cast. The dances, especially those choreographed and led by Craig Benson, add another layer of delight.

Musical direction by David Powell and Katri Pitts, the orchestra conducted by Justin Sousa, choreography by Shaelan Salas and sound by Justin Takata admirably support the local gold standard of singing. Carol McWhorter Ryder’s wise direction together with Jayson Mohatt’s economical but elegant and useful set and lighting design, and everyone involved in creating the colorful costumes, filled the Van Duzer with exciting clarity.

The set was basically simple, but every piece of it was both well-executed and functional. The pirate ship was a wow, and got things off to a great start, but it left the stage for most of the evening. The backdrop for the rest of the first act was very basic, but a sun in the sky and a few rock formations for people to hide behind and climb around on were all that was needed. The second act backdrop was more dramatic--the black sky with twinkling stars, but the sets of columns--which looked like they might have been recycled from the piazza--were again both elegant visually and used very well. All of this worked very well for this particular show, in which realism is not a factor, but I suspect this general approach could work for many others.

There were two other elements to the staging. There was a platform in front of the orchestra pit where several songs were staged, notably the second act love duet. There was also action in the aisles. I'm normally not a fan of this--I believe this is the audience's space, and actors running up and down the aisles (often enough, carrying weapons) is unnecessarily dangerous to both audience and actors. But in this show the action was much more benign--the charming daughters floated by.

I might also mention that in the orchestra pit there was in fact an orchestra--without a covering, so the musicians could see the actors and the actors could see the orchestra, helping both.

Carol Ryder's direction was so impressive because she kept the stage full of color and movement, and used the depth of the stage to do so (especially for the dancing), but most of the singing was done as close to the audience as possible--usually downstage center, or on that platform that was practically in the audience. These singers generally have the most training of any in local productions, and operatic voices like Fiona Ryder's carry beautifully, but even so--director Ryder made sure by her staging that the audience was going to hear every word and every note.

Two of the singers wore body mikes, and there were floor mikes across the stage, but once again, it was the staging that guaranteed this show would be seen and heard to its best advantage, especially in the sometimes troublesome Van Duzer.

HLOC is a community theatre organization, but I doubt if you could find a professional theatre version of The Pirates of Penzance with as perfect a production and as winning a cast. They highlight all the humor, eternal and historical, with skillful song and dance, romantic and euphorical. They ply us with a plot that is at best fantastical, with certitude and grace, droll and enthusiastical. With audience in tow, they sail to this attainment: more ecstatic than dramatic, this is the very model of a modern entertainment.

HLOC’s The Pirates of Penzance continues in the Van Duzer on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm until August 21, with Sunday matinees at 2 on August 8 and 15.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Avast ye hearties! Opening Friday is the Humboldt Light Opera Company production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance at the Van Duzer Theatre on the Humboldt State campus in Arcata. It's Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm for the next three weekends, with Sunday matinees at 2 on August 8 and 15.

Opening Thursday is the Ferndale Rep production of the 1990s rock opera musical Rent. The subject is young artists in 1980s lower Manhattan. It continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2 until August 29.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

To Grandmother's House

An expanded version of my review, with personal/historical context:

North Coast Rep this season seems intent on recapitulating my life. First they disinterred the Sisters of Charity from my grade school in Doubt, although the sight of a forelock peeking out from a stage nun’s bonnet was surprisingly scandalous. We used to wonder whether nuns even had hair. It seemed possible the Sisters were generated by some primitive form of papal hydroponics.

Now North Coast Rep presents Over the River and Through the Woods, a comedy by Joe DiPietro, whose book for the musical Memphis won the Tony this year. The play is about a grandson who dutifully dines every Sunday with all four of his Italian grandparents, and has to decide whether to move 3,000 miles away to pursue his work and an independent life. Despite the last name I inherited from my father, I was nurtured by my mother’s family and relations, most of them born in mountain towns of the Abruzzi. For awhile I apparently understood and spoke Italian and English equally, though my bilingual skills declined once my vocabulary exceeded 100 words.

Given this background (though in western Pennsylvania rather than the New Jersey of the play), when approaching this play I was frankly most worried about cliché and stereotype. So in an odd way I was relieved that the only element of the set I recognized was the afghan on the stage living room sofa, similar in pattern to the one my grandmother made for me, which I can at this moment see if I turn my head to the right.

DiPietro’s script included some historical references worth making, even in a comedy, such as the prejudices Italians faced. (During World War II, Italians in Arcata were not permitted any closer to Humboldt Bay than the hill where Wildberries now stands.) But most of all I was grateful for a couple of outrageously rare hours about Italian Americans with not a single reference to the Mafia. Or to the putrid insult called Jersey Shore.

Though I don’t recall ever hearing anyone utter the play’s mantra, tengo famiglia (literally “I have a family,”) the particular ties and tensions of the Italian family are, well, familiar. Judging from the audience’s responses at Friday’s performance, much of the gentle but pointed family byplay is universal enough to be ruefully recognized and funny. I expect the grandparents’ incomprehension of just what the grandson does (he’s in marketing) is widely generational. Despite some excesses, DiPietro’s script is witty, generous and evocative.

Evan Needham plays the uneasy ambivalence of grandson Nick with skill and the necessary charm, and Brittany Morgan Williams hits the right notes in the small but important role of Caitlin, the girl the grandparents hope will tempt Nick to marry and stay. But the evening belongs to the grandparents, played with both brio and delicacy by David Simms, Laura Rose, Lou Agliolo and Linda Agliolo. Even with some wandering accents, they make it all work by creating distinct characters as well as an overall portrait of a generation that began in Italy and finished their modest and admirable lives in 1980s America. Pace, timing, movement, expression--all the elements are harmonized in Rae Robison’s direction, achieving an evening of laughter and emotion.

Jenneveve Hood designed costumes, Daniel Lawrence lighting, Rae Robison the scenery. Over opening weekend, the Assistant Director officially changed her name to Megan Johnson. Felicitations to the former Megan Hughes and to Calder Johnson, both active in a number of capacities for several local theatres, who were married on Saturday.

Over the River and Through the Woods plays at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka weekends through August 12.

Now to expand upon these themes a little... When I was growing up in the 1950s, Italians were a big part of the common culture--there were even a few hit records with at least some Italian lyrics. Joe DiMaggio was the most prominent of a number of Italian American sports stars, Frank Sinatra likewise of popular singers and movie stars. But portrayals of Italian American life were never far from stereotype, even before the Godfather, Wise Guys and The Sopranos equated Italian with the Mafia (even though the Mafia was primarily a Sicilian invention.) So I cringe a little even at one of the North Coast Rep publicity photos--unfortunately the one the Journal chose to use--with the family apparently dancing their way through dinner. Having seen it before I saw the play, I feared the worst.

As it turned out, the actual moment depicted in this photo was brief and specific to a memory. (For the record, my family wasn't particularly into dancing except at weddings, or hugging as a greeting, except children.) The play flirted with stereotypes, as with the grandmother who says very little until the end of the play except to make invitations to eat. But as the play notes, there is some kind of truth that is distorted by stereotypes. Just as while Italian Americans were victims of stereotypes and prejudice, they also had them.

So I am mindful that my experience and memories--the way Italians were in my part of the world--doesn't make them definitive. So maybe the Italians in New Jersey really have their pasta course after the meat course, a scandalous reversal of practice where I come from. Or they don't know who says grace when there's company--when clearly it's the eldest (or in this case only) grandchild.

A couple of other details rang true to my experience, though. The Mass cards--my grandmother was forever having Masses said, and we were expected to attend the ones for my mother. One of the grandfathers refuses to turn on the air conditioning before a certain date in summer--my grandparents never had air conditioning, but the marker of summer was replacing the glass in the storm doors with screens, and especially the porch furniture: the covers came off and the cushions were in place on Memorial Day, and brought in on Labor Day.

DiPietro doesn't say where in Italy these families were from, which makes me curious, because their experiences seemed more characteristic of a slightly older generation than they could have been in the 1980s or 1990s (when the play was first produced.) Immigration laws made it more difficult for Italians after 1920, although there was another wave of emigrants from certain areas right after World War II, due partly to the bombings that displaced many.

Although my grandfather came directly to western PA via New York (in 1920, on the last steamship to carry auxiliary sails), where others from his town already were, we did have relatives in New Jersey who had come earlier. When my grandmother followed him two years later with my mother (then two years old), he didn't find out what ship she was on (the America) until it was too late to get to the Port of New York in time to meet her. So one of his relatives in New Jersey pretended to be her husband so she could be released. Even after I was born there was active communication with these relatives, but it was my grandparents' generation that kept up. Now in western PA as elsewhere, the Italian traditions have mostly been lost from the suburbs.

My grandparents left Italy, their children left their hometown but stayed relatively close, and their grandchildren are all over the country now, with their own children and a few grandchildren. But like the grandson in this play, I found myself living back in my home area and spending time with my grandmother, though for me it was after years of far-flung schooling and work elsewhere. Oddly, it was in the 1980s. There was a point when I was being pulled to advance my authorial career by relocating to New York, and a friend in New York pointedly told me that it was okay to leave my grandmother. (My grandfather, who had experienced poison gas in World War I, had died in 1966, on the anniversary of his arrival in America.) That wasn't my only reason for not going but it was a factor, and at this point in my life, I'm not sorry. (Eventually I did go, but that's a story for Rent.) By being around, I heard more of my grandmother's stories, ate more of her pasta, and got to see her face when I lit 85 candles on her birthday cake.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

North Coast Rep opens the inter-generational family comedy Over The River And Through The Woods by Joe DiPietro on Thursday July 22 at 8 pm. Directed by Rae Robison, the cast features Linda and Lou Agliolo, Evan Needham, Laura Rose, David Sims and Brittany Morgan Williams.

The comedy Fortune continues at Redwood Curtain. I review it here. What I wrote reflects my experience seeing it at the first preview but in retrospect I was probably too diplomatic about the production. And I'm not sure "wondrous" and "magical" are exactly accurate descriptions of a particular acting moment, but in the context of the evening, the moments did stand out.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Fortune Favors the Farcical

The mysterious Madame Rosa, whose unveiled name is Maude, is a young fortune-teller with a phony accent and an identity crisis. Her mother and grandmother, predecessors in the divination biz, convinced her of ironclad fate. But she longs for other possibilities.

 Jeremy is a sweet but suicidal accountant, tired of being unloved and apparently unlovable, at least since his mother died when he was a child. But before ending it all he hedges his despair by consulting Madame Rosa. She foresees his bitter end, but out of fear and pity (and later other emotions), she lies to him and promises he’ll find love with a red-haired woman he will meet on the nearby Brooklyn boardwalk.

 That’s the premise of Fortune, the comedy now on stage at Redwood Curtain, and you can pretty much write the rest of it yourself. But as directed by Jyl Hewston, and performed by Clink Rebik as Jeremy and Cassandra Hesseltine as Maude, the fun is in the journey.

 Though Rebik is an accomplished director as well as Redwood Curtain’s artistic director, and Hesseltine directs RC’s acting conservatory program, they’ve rarely appeared on stage hereabouts in recent years. Which is too bad, as this show demonstrates. Rebik proves himself a magnetic comic actor from the first moment, and Hesseltine navigates the changing moods of her character with grace —as well as her red- headed variations (her Southern coquette reminded me of Irene Dunne in My Favorite Wife.)

 Between farcical boardwalk impersonations, the two build a delicate relationship back in Maude’s apartment, though she maintains her Madame Rosa disguise. But the scene on the boardwalk when Maude appears as herself to the unsuspecting Jeremy is magical, and Hesseltine especially is wondrous. It suggests what these two actors can do if given more than comic clichés and murky subtext to play.

 For Fortune, at least in this man’s eyes, is a play with its own identity crisis. Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer, a much-lauded young playwright, it is not fast enough for farce and not dimensional enough to be romantic comedy, combining predictable jokes and situations with a more serious subtext that clouds the action more than it illuminates it. Essentials about the time, place and story are revealed so slowly and obliquely that the audience must do too much thinking to be carried away laughing.

 And too much thinking about why an accountant in 2010 would put his faith in an old-fashioned fortune-teller, or why she has such a ready collection of red wigs, doesn’t help. Even one of the funnier lines (when Jeremy, playing hard to get as a hard-as-nails macho man, claims his drink is “whiskey—no ice, no glass”) is a throwaway by Minnesota Fats in The Hustler that’s been parodied before. Although Laufer does contribute an apt topper: “No straw,” Jeremy adds.

 But even though their innocent awkwardness is part of the comic effect, there is little apparent connection between the characters and their role-playing. Based on the first preview, the show must be carried by the actors’ charm, and the sitcom expectations of the comedy. These actors do their best, as does director Jyl Hewston and scenic director Dan Stockwell in using the wide Redwood Curtain stage. Dianna Thiel provides costumes for quick changes, and the effects (including sound by Jon Turney) are mostly effective. For many theatregoers this probably will be enough for a pleasant summer evening.

 Fortune continues at the Redwood Theatre in Eureka (220 First Street, between C and D) on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through July 31, with one Sunday matinee on July 25 at 2 p.m. The new Redwood Curtain theatre has only 80 seats, so reservations are recommended.

 Coming Up: The inter-generational family comedy Over The River And Through The Woods by Joe DiPietro opens at North Coast Rep in Eureka on Thursday July 22. Directed by Rae Robison, the cast features Linda and Lou Agliolo, Evan Needham, Laura Rose, David Sims and Brittany Morgan Williams.

 Out at Dell'Arte, the theatrical portion of the Mad River Festival concludes with Los Payasos Mendigos Rise Again--a reunion show of this locally beloved as well as internationally lauded clown troupe. Original members Rudi Galindo (now with a theatre company based in Brussels), Joe Dieffenbacher (based in Oxford, England), Cosmo Kuzmick (up from Hollywood) and Arcata Theatre impressario, writer and performer David Ferney, all reunite for five shows outside in the Rooney Amphitheatre: Thursday through Sunday, July 15-18 at 8 PM, with a special matinee short show on Sunday, July 18 at 4 PM for Annie & Mary Day. Musicians Tim Gray, Marla Joy and Tim Randles are part of the show, with special guests, including Jacky Dandeneau.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

People's Playwright

Howard Zinn, author of The People's History of the United States and a popular speaker on campuses, including the largest gathering I witnessed at HSU, died in January. But publishing lead-times being what they are, The Bloomsbury Review printed an interview with him in its spring issue. In the interview, Zinn talks about theatre:
"I've always been interested in theatre. I'd always been affected by theatre." One reason might be that the first play he saw was a Federal Theatre production. "I think that suggested to me how important theatre--drama--can be in heightening consciousness of any kind of issue."
Living in New York, Zinn and his wife became dedicated theatregoers, even if all they could afford were the cheap seats. Still, they saw the original Broadway productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman. Eventually Zinn tried his hand at writing plays, beginning with one about Emma Goldman, and including Marx in Soho, an attempt to portray Karl Marx "not as a caricature, not as the embodiment of evil, but as a human being with quite extraordinary and very attractive ideas...The idea of the play is to give Marx a chance to say what the difference is between his ideas and what happened in the Soviet Union." Sounds like a play still worth seeing.

This North Coast Weekend

Dell'Arte's Mad River Festival continues with Klinke, a clown show group based in Italy that includes Dell'Arte grads: Friday, July 9 at 8 pm, and Saturday and Sunday July 10 and 11 at 2pm and 7 pm. All shows inside at the Carlo.

The Arcata Playhouse’s Summer Youth Ensemble performs Wiley and the Hairy Man, a children's show directed by Bruce Marrs and Tinamarie Ivey, on Friday at 8 pm and Saturday at 2pm, at the Arcata Playhouse.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Blue Lake: The Opera concludes this weekend at Dell'Arte, Thursday through Saturday at 8. I review it below and in the Journal; excerpts of an interview with playwright Lauren Wilson are also in an earlier post below.

Dell'Arte's adults-only Red Light at Blue Lake has its one night engorgement on Friday night (July 2) after the Opera.

A one-weekend North Coast Rep production of David Mamet’s drama Oleanna with Alexandra Gellner and Gary Sommers, directed by Linnea Conway, on July 2 and 3 at 8 p.m.

Redbud Theatre presents The Money Ball, a homegrown topical comedy by Brian Bottemiller, directed by Bruce Marrs. The play, set on a fictional golf course, is presented at Willow Creek Golf and Country Club at 8:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays of three consecutive weekends beginning July 2.

Dell’Arte Creates A Classic with Blue Lake: The Opera

[This is a slightly longer version of my review appearing in the North Coast Journal. I've appended excerpts from my interview with playwright Lauren Wilson.]

It’s 1910, early days in Blue Lake. Big civic problems are hogs in the street and the lack of a fire hose. . But there’s a train station, and the train actually stops there. And there's a lake (kind of.)

Enter the woodsmen, suspicious of townies, singing manfully as they bisect a redwood. The town is run by the Odd Fellows lodge and its visionary leader Augustus "Big Gus" Lamont, whose ambition is to outdo “those hicks in Korbel.” The national lodge’s Sovereign Grand Secretary comes from Baltimore to see if the town is worthy of financial help. He falls for Lamont’s daughter--a marriage that promises prosperity, but she’s in love with the handsome town orphan.

And so the opera has begun, and by its conclusion there will have been gunfights, suicidal despair and a climatic fire as well as as a welcoming pageant, an epic party, hysterics, rescues, revelations and several new couples expressing frontier morality and (in 21st century Dell’Arte style) multiple sexual preferences.

When I first heard that Dell’Arte’s summer production, Blue Lake: The Opera was actually going to be an opera, one possibility I imagined was a send-up of grand opera excesses, complete with some Blue Lake equivalent of Brunhilde, perhaps with deer antlers instead of Viking horns on her helmet, bellowing out the final aria. But this is something else: a remarkably straightforward comic opera, which finds its wit and humanity in articulating the simplified and heightened comic reality it portrays. Forget Wagner or Verdi; think Gilbert and Sullivan.

It’s funny and fun, as befits the Dell’Arte summer outdoor show, but it is something more. Blue Lake: The Opera is outstanding and memorable, part of Dell’Arte’s festival tradition but transcending it.

This particular production has a cast without a weakness, from the youngest child and the impressive debut of Maya Fields to the adult performers, including Dell’Arte regulars (Michael “Maya’s Dad” Fields, Tyler Olsen, etc.), locally known players (Jacqueline Dandeneau, Jerry Lee Wallace, etc.) and less familiar performers—especially James Peck, who infuses the visiting Grand Secretary Leonard Bulge with essence of Simon Legree, and yet a touch of sympathetic vulnerability. He also sings the most tongue-twisting Gilbert-and-Sullivan style song with skill and relish.

But the opera absolutely soars in the voices of two trained and excellent opera singers: Emily Windler and David Powell. Windler is a revelation, but Powell is a promise fulfilled—at last he has a part that showcases his voice in several expansive songs. Credit also the music of Tim Gray and his excellent band, as well as sound designer Gregory "Fugazi" Lojko.

As directed by Michael Fields, the action flowed seamlessly. The summer festival component was clearest near the end, when Fields as “Big Gus” has one of his visions, of the new Odd Fellows Hall someday housing a theatre company. The opening night audience not only laughed but applauded—somehow they knew that the rebuilt hall was in reality the Dell’Arte theatre building, and the amphitheatre Big Gus was dreaming is the one he was addressing, where they sat or sprawled in the June night of one hundred years later. It was a magical community moment, exemplifying a Dell’Arte ideal.

Design (Daniel Spencer on Scenic, Michael Foster on lights) costumes (Lydia Foreman) and effects are equally top-notch, but in my view the principal reason that Blue Lake: The Opera transcends its occasion is the writing of Lauren Wilson, which includes the script (much of which is sung) and most notably the brilliant lyrics to the formal songs.

Also credited as the opera’s co-director (as well as Properties Construction), Lauren Wilson wrote Dell Arte’s Golden State, and teaches acting and dramatic writing at the Dell’Arte International school. In a pre-production interview she said her challenge for the opera was “to not have the magic and real power of theatre be destroyed by too much text,” especially in view of Dell’Arte’s practice of ensemble-created works.

Fair enough, but there are also benefits to starting with a script. My first forays into theatre were as playwright, so I admit my prejudice. But it seems to me that Wilson’s script provides a structure and a flow, plus words worth saying and singing, that enable participants in all elements of the production to do their best with confidence. Perhaps strengthened and expressed with new invention in rehearsal, a playwright’s vision in a fruitful script provides direction to improvisations and production, while also inspiring and liberating them. It also tends to make the resulting play more universal. For me, Blue Lake: The Opera proves that possibility.

In any case, this is a play worthy of attention here and now, and beyond.