Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fatal Attraction: Romeo & Juliet

One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, Romeo and Juliet is deceptively difficult to stage. One production I saw at Stratford, Ontario presented a sparkling surface. The most recent Oregon Shakespeare Festival version illuminated the story. The 1968 Zeffirelli film best portrayed the violent context, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie used post-modern wit to focus the star-crossed stars, Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio.

 In decades past, the lovers’ passionate speeches were often the principal emphasis, and their power can still be felt in scenes acted in the Slings and Arrows TV series, or in the film, Shakespeare in Love.

 The current production at North Coast Repertory Theatre presents an appealing stage set: a timeless Italian street scene angling away in perspective, with a set of marble columns on one side balanced by the famous balcony on the other. The rose hues of the street painting are matched by the warm lighting. (Both scenic and lighting design are by Calder Johnson.) Then the street disappears behind a simple black curtain for the indoor scenes.  Scene transitions are unobtrusive, covered by the recorded music of Gabriel Groom’s economical and almost filmic original score.

 The first act of this production emphasizes action, with Ethan Edmonds establishing a dangerous Tybalt and Victor Howard performing several tour de force scenes as Mercutio. The tinderbox of menace from these feuding families is suggested, though the emphasis on acting out every possible sexual innuendo detracts from the danger. The fight sequences here and later are well designed (by Jasper Anderton) and executed.

 The second act is more focused on story, as the previously colorful costumes (by Pat Hamilton and Jennifer Trustem) become somber. Juliet’s parents (Ken Klima, Delcie Moon) schedule her wedding to Paris (Neal Schoonmaker), setting in motion the final fatal happenings.

 Director David Hamilton continues to move the actors energetically, and works with the set design to solve problems inherent in this limited space. As for the words, at best the actors conveyed a meaning with a colloquial ease that matched the fluid physicality of their movements. Lonnie Blankenchip as Friar Laurence and Carol Escobar as the Nurse in particular projected and paced their words well.

 But there were also plenty of examples from the Mime-and-Mumble School of Shakespearian acting. This is not just a point-keeping quibble. While the momentum of a three hour play is important, when Juliet and especially Romeo are speaking too fast and too softly to be heard and understood, it has consequences.

 As the audience sees it, a play is a combination of the script (shaped by textual cuts), the interpretation by director and designers, and the relative strengths of performances. So the Romeo and Juliet I saw was about a monk and a nurse trying to deal with two confused and inarticulate teenagers.

 The principal focus is on Juliet—especially her emotional scenes played with full present-tense commitment by Megan Hughes-- and her fatal attraction to the cute, dashing but feckless Romeo, played by Michael Roscoe.

 Though other dramas before and after this one use its mythic story, this is the play that is considered a poetic masterpiece. Why is this a tragedy, as opposed to a soap opera series of unfortunate events? It’s in the language, as it enables the expression of a passion that pushes Romeo and Juliet beyond the bounds of their world.

 By the standards of local Shakepeare productions, this one is reasonably successful. Missing are some fascinating complications and meaningful themes in the text, but today’s fashion is to concentrate on making the story contemporary, either with modern contrivances, or—as I’m guessing is the intent in this production—by making the teenagers contemporary. That’s a valid and potentially entertaining strategy. The flaw for me was too much of the language swallowed in breathless cell-phone-speak. I suppose for some, however, this could be its appeal.

 Romeo and Juliet plays at NCRT Thursdays through Saturdays until Feb. 20, with Sunday matinees on Feb. 7 and Feb. 14—Valentine’s Day.

For about a year Jeff DeMark has been experimenting with adding more music to his story-telling evenings. Last Saturday at the Arcata Playhouse, the balance was about half-and-half music to talk, with musicians Paul DeMark (brother), Jesse DeMark (son), Damon Brooks, Ross Rowley, Jackie Dandeneau and Jim Silva. It all might be headed towards the North Coast Home Companion, but when the stories and the songs illuminate each other (from radio hits to songs his mother loved), we’re reminded how music adheres to memory, carrying the feeling into the present.

 Redwood Curtain officially announced that productions begin in April in its new home on First Street in Old Town, Eureka.

 Coming Up: Quake: A Closet Love Story, a musical by Tyler Olson has its world premiere at the Arcata Playhouse this weekend (Feb. 5-7)—check listings for times, or the Playhouse at 822-1575. HSU’s The Marriage of Bette and Boo presents two benefit productions in the Van Duzer Theatre on Tuesday (Feb. 9) and Thursday (Feb. 11) at 7:30, to help send this production to the regional Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Reno.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Starting tonight, North Coast Repertory Theatre presents Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. On Saturday night, Jeff DeMark performs with the musical ensemble La Patinas at the Arcata Playhouse. The performance features special guests, as well as Jeff's brother Paul and his son Jesse. I don't know if his web site is new, but it's new to me. More info is there.
Friday night the latest edition of Chicago's fabled Second City comedy improv group appears in the Van Duzer at HSU via CenterArts. Beginning Friday at Redbud Theatre (Camp Kimtu, Willow Creek) is a philosophical two-hander called The Harry and Sam Dialogues.
In local theatre news, Redwood Curtain announced they've finally found a new home, at 220 First Street in Old Town, Eureka. A season of four plays begins there in April. Congratulations to Clint and Peggy!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

From There to Here

A few items from elsewhere that have some relevance to North Coast theatre...

In the December American Theatre magazine, there's an article on how race and racial issues are reflected on Broadway, in a number of current or recent plays that reflect racial realities or comment on the subject. A number of plays are discussed, though not including the one seen here recently on PBS, as filmed by Spike Lee: Passing Strange. This was the best new musical, and among the best new plays of any kind, that I've seen in years.

North Coast theatre is notoriously white, as are its audiences, in an overwhelmingly white area. I've seen some of this change but not consistently. Last year's HSU production of Jagun Fly, a play about African Americans by John ADEkoje, a young up and coming black playwright who began writing at HSU, suggested that there are enough black actors around to stage such a play. The audiences were more racially mixed than usual. But all of this didn't seem to cause much excitement locally.

As these things are measured, the North Coast was unusual for its largest "minority" being Native American. The Native relationship to theatre is complicated, but we've had some successes--especially Salmon Is Everything at HSU a few years ago, which had more local tribal members on stage than anything I've seen here, in a work they (and non-Native cast members, etc.) created together. The largest minority today is probably Latino, and very little theatre here has reflected those cultures or that experience.

Also in December's American Theatre was a play by a young Korean American playwright, Lloyd Suh, called American Hwangap. Maybe a little limited in its ambitions, this was a fun play to read, and probably better than a lot of contemporary plays we do see here. But we're unlikely to see this one hereabouts. We probably don't have the actors, for one thing.

Voices from groups previously unheard infuse a lot of the energy in new plays these days. But according to a recent study by the Play Development Fund, new playwrights of any description are having a tough time getting produced, even in non-profit theatres. "Many of the playwrights see the nation’s major nonprofit theater companies as impediments to their work, favoring plays that have few characters to save money on actors’ salaries, for instance, or that have themes appealing to large audiences," according to a New York Times article on the study. “We heard from artistic directors who admitted that they’re all going after the same 10 playwrights to produce their work, which is largely about getting prestige in their field,” said Todd London, the chief author of the study..." The story quotes a few others talking about the "cynicism and mistrust" between playwrights and theatres.

This is not real new news, reflected in discontent over "development hell" and the shrinking and distorting of the O'Neill's new plays program, for example. But it does suggest that the kind of considerations that governed Broadway, and led to Off, and then Off-Off, as well as regional theatres, has spread throughout the theatre world.

Here on the North Coast, there is little or no support for new plays. What little there was a decade ago is mostly gone, except for work by students and folks who have their own theatres. The new model seems to be collaborative development by small theatres in different locations, such as the new musical coming to the Arcata Playhouse in a few weeks. Some new work is going to find a way to be born. Still, I'm sure we're missing voices it might be entertaining and enlightening to hear.

Monday, January 4, 2010


How do you make an old play new again? Moving the era of a Shakespeare play, especially closer to our own time, has become a strategy so common that it now seems reflexive, as predictable as the movement of a knee tapped with a hammer. Following the screen success of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of a few years ago featured teens in prep school uniforms carrying cell phones. But such elements depend on surprise and especially wit, as well as relevance, and their effects wear off quickly. Some work better on screen, but not always even there (Almereyda's postmodern Hamlet with Ethan Hawke was less successful.)

Sometimes, changing the period can be illuminating, but this depends on an original, relevant and brilliantly applied vision. However, there are a couple of other ways to revive older plays and make them more relevant to contemporary audiences.

One way--which is the essential way--is to play it honestly. The most difficult task for actors in Shakespeare and other well-known plays is to convince the audience that the characters are experiencing these events for the first time--that they don't know what happens next. Actors enact emotion, and this is the core of both the performance and the audience response. If the production, and particularly the actors, can make it real, the audience will experience it as new and relevant.

In general, a production that finds the vitality in the play can't help but to make it relevant to the times, because it will engage an audience living in these times. Playwright Terrence McNally spoke recently about the process of creating Ragtime, The Musical (he wrote the script), first produced on Broadway in 1998 and revived there last year, just nine years after the original production closed. He made this perceptive comment (published in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of The Dramatist) about the revival: " Everything will be the same as before but everything will be different, too. That's because we have a different country than when Ragtime [the novel by E.L. Doctorow] was published and Ragtime, The Musical premiered. If Ragtime seems different to you this time around it's not because we've re-written it. It's because this is a society that has re-written itself."