Wednesday, March 31, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

On Thursday, HSU Theatre, Film & Dance opens Stefanie Hero by Mark Medoff, a witty fairy tale for all ages directed by Jyl Hewston. It plays two weekends, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 in the Gist Hall Theatre, with a 2 pm matinee on Sunday, April 11. HSUStage.

Also on Thursday, Ferndale Rep opens the classic musical Man of La Mancha, starring Humboldt County’s leading leading man, Brad Curtis, who plays the dual role of author Miguel Cervantes and his iconic creation, Don Quixote. It continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 until April 25.

On Saturday at 8 pm, the chaotic comedy of The Cody Rivers Show returns to the Arcata Playhouse with Right Back Where We Finished. This is a one-night- only stop on the duo’s national tour.

Continuing at North Coast Rep is Doubt: A Parable, reviewed below.

Doubt: A Haunting Parable at NCRT

The following review was scheduled for my Stage Matters column in the North Coast Journal this week (April 1 issue.) While I was writing it this weekend, I was informed that it wouldn't run--apparently a space issue. When the paper comes out tomorrow, perhaps we'll know why.

Some version of this review will now appear in the Journal in the April 8 issue (I hope.) But given the short run of the play reviewed, I thought I could at least publish the review here, at the time it was supposed to appear.

Live theatre happens in a particular time in the real world. No one associated with the North Coast Repertory Theatre production of Doubt: A Parable—a 2004 play that concerns allegations of a priest’s sexual misconduct—could have known that it would open as the Catholic Church is facing accusations over its handling of child abuse by clergy---and this time the charges are so serious that some observers suggest it is the gravest crisis the Church hierarchy has faced in modern times.

Some of the cases in the news are from the 1960s, and this play is set in a Bronx parish in 1964. But even though it is pertinent in some respects, it will probably disappoint those looking for complete answers on this issue. As written by John Patrick Shanley, this play has some of the qualities of the topical debate plays that were popular in that era, like Inherit the Wind or Twelve Angry Men. But the word “parable” is in the title for a reason. The play concerns such philosophical issues as the nature of knowledge, doubt and certainty, and the turmoil in the human heart.

The Oscar-nominated 2008 movie version (which Shanley wrote and directed) added incidents and characters, as well as the specific atmosphere of the Bronx. This stage version however has only four characters—all adults-- and takes place in just a few locations.

The story pits Sister Aloysius, the stern veteran principal of St. Nicholas grade school, against Father Flynn, a progressive priest who advocates a gentler approach. Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of improper behavior involving an eighth grade boy, who is also the only black child in the school. Sister James, whose observation sparked this suspicion, is a young nun caught in the middle—trying to live up to the senior nun’s standards, but sympathetic to the priest’s apparent openness and enthusiasm. The fourth character is the boy’s mother (Mrs. Muller), who adds more complications. Sister Aloysius makes her accusation, and the consequences comprise the rest of the play.

Since I attended Catholic schools in this era, taught by this same order of nuns (Sisters of Charity), certain details reminded me of what I’d forgotten I knew. The principal’s office at the center of William Nevins’ efficient set had the right photos on the wall—Popes John and Paul (Popes George and Ringo came later—ha ha, Catholic schoolboy humor), but the crucifix seemed way too small. I was unexpectedly scandalized when Sister Aloysius crossed her legs. The nuns in my school would have considered that provocative, almost lewd.

Janet Waddell as Sister Aloysius was convincingly scary but also complicated, and Josh Kelly as Father Flynn conveyed a more youthful spirit, but also a troubled nature. Wanda Stapp effectively portrayed Sister James’ anguish in trying to reconcile the conflicting influence of the two alphas. Though Michelle Renee Kegan has only one scene as Mrs. Muller, she evoked powerful emotion.

Michael Thomas directed with intelligence and intriguing effects, especially in the riveting climactic scene. Sister Aloysius seemed to get hypnotically demonic, emphasized by Katie Pratt’s dramatic lighting. But when I pried my eyes away from her to look at Father Flynn, his anger was just as dark—and seemed just as emphasized by the lighting.

Though most of the play consists of dialogues between two people, it seemed to be more a set of monologues, in which the actors—perhaps intentionally-- didn’t engage each other. They talked past and over each other, and rarely made eye contact.

Catholics in the audience may be more attuned to the issues of religious faith and doubt, and those who remember this era know that it was a time of major transition: in just a few years, such traditions as the Latin Mass would be gone, and that young nun could kick her habit for more contemporary clothes.

But doubt and certainty have political and judicial consequences, and it’s on the central matter of the priest’s guilt or innocence that the play is often a Rorschach test, apparently by Shanley’s design. As a parable, it doesn't seem to have a clear moral. The play both illustrates how dangerous allegations of such crimes can be, and suggests the shadowy machinations of cover-up.

But I think it’s fair to say the play takes no firm position on even the facts of the priest’s behavior, so for some it may feel more like too clever a vagueness rather than a mind-opening ambiguity. Perhaps it works in the territory between the unsettling and the unsatisfying. But for whatever reasons, or from whatever point of view, this is apt to be a haunting 90 minutes of theatre.

But you have to see it to decide. Doubt: A Parable continues weekends at NCRT until April 17.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

North Coast Rep opens Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley tonight for a weekend run through April 17. All performances will be Friday and Saturday at 8, with another Thursday show on April 15, and two Sunday matinees at 2, on March 28 and April 11. Michael Thomas directs.

There's a free staged reading of an original script at HSU this weekend: On Death and Living by Alex Gradine, directed by Steven Robert King. It's Friday at 4 and 7 pm, and Saturday at 7 in HSU’s Theatre Arts building 117. Talk backs will follow the show.

Friday, March 19, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Did you miss me? Don't answer that. But with the car and the computer both in the shop this week, it's been quiet hereabouts. Elsewhere however, there are shows up and running: Antigone at the College of the Redwoods Forum Theatre at 8 pm Friday and Saturday, with a 2 pm matinee on Sunday (photo above.)
Dell'Arte School's first years present their annual melodrama, titled On the Wings of A Dove, in the Carlo at 8 pm, Friday and Saturday. Arcata High School presents A Midsummer Night's Dream at 7:30 pm Friday and Saturday.
Random People Monologues: SoHum Tales happens on Sunday at 2 pm at the Mateel.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

HSU Going Dark

If stage matters on the North Coast, then this matters: the graduate programs of the Humboldt State University Theatre, Film & Dance department are on the list for elimination. The undergraduate programs may be right behind them.

It's getting to be decision time at HSU, in the latest budget crisis. The Academic Senate has formally listed those graduate programs for elimination, and the department has to defend them--has to say why they shouldn't be scrapped.

The evaluation has nothing to do with their value. It has to do with numerical criteria devised to look like a relevant objective measure. It looks to me like the usual bureaucratic smokescreen, but what do I know.

What I do know is that virtually every production of every theatre organization here depends in part on students--graduate and undergraduate--of HSU, as well as faculty and long-ago graduates of the Theatre department. HSU students starred in, designed and worked on the latest North Coast Rep show. An HSU student directed the latest Ferndale Rep show. Even though Dell'Arte has its own fine school, its productions often use HSU faculty and grads. Humboldt Light Opera, North Coast Prep, and the other groups that come and go...none of it would be the same, and some of it wouldn't exist, without HSU theatre.

And then there's what HSU theatre produces--that no one else locally does. That too, is threatened. But it's even worse than that. Part of the reason that the HSU Theatre department looks so expensive is that it is responsible for running the Van Duzer and other performance spaces. Those costs get figured as department costs. So will those venues also close? And will the other theatre organizations who use those spaces need to go elsewhere?

It gets even worse than that. Also on the list for program elimination is the Music department. Another group of students, graduates and faculty that are essential to musical theatre as well as the musical vitality of Humboldt County. I can't imagine musical theatre at North Coast Rep over the past several years, for example, without the talents who came through HSU. Similiar arguments could be made about dance and film.

Part of the horror of the budget process is the zero sum game--if this isn't cut, then another worthy program--and its faculty and students--must go. I don't happen to think it has to be that way, but I'll stay with just this point: the local community has a stake in the decisions being made at HSU. In particular, the local theatre community has a stake in the fate of the HSU Theatre, Film and Dance department.

A particular irony now is that HSU is set to host next year's regional festival of the Kennedy Center American Theatre Festival. That's 800 to 1200 students, along with hundreds of faculty, etc., from colleges and universities in Northern California (San Francisco/Sacramento and north), Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Northern Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. They'll be in Arcata for a week, going to shows, spending money. I stood in the lobby of the Arcata Playhouse a few weeks ago, and listened to stories from several prominent local theatre figures who participated in past regionals here, including one who got his start in North Coast theatre because of it.

But next spring, it could be a wake instead of a validation and celebration. Depending on what HSU does this year.

I've got a few obvious self-interests here. I do part-time work for both HSU Theatre, Film & Dance and the Music department. My partner is probably going to be the next chair of TFD. But it seems to me that everybody in the theatre community here has a self-interest to some degree--that's my point.

Maybe that self-interest ought to be declared to those making the decisions--like the Academic Senate and the Provost. Before it's too late.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

I comment in the post below on the HSU production of Pinter's The Homecoming at the HSU Studio Theatre, and my review of Kopit's Sing to Me Through Open Windows (photo above), a Sanctuary Stage production at the Arcata Playhouse, is in this week's Journal. This is the final weekend for both productions: the Kopit is Thurs-through-Sat at 8, and the Pinter is Thurs-through-Sat at 7:30, and Sunday at 2.
For this weekend only, North Coast Rep presents Hidden in This Picture, a one act comedy about theatre people making a movie by Aaron Sorkin (of The West Wing fame) on Friday and Saturday at 8, and Sunday at 2 p.m.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8, The Dell'Arte Company Cabaret features your favorite Dell'Artesans plus special guests and a sneak preview of their epic work-in-progress: Blue Lake: The Opera. Then on Monday, Dell'Arte hosts visiting Le Cabaret Noir's Sin on Heels, advertised as "a tawdry blend of burlesque and gender-bending performances."

The Homecoming

The HSU production of The Homecoming is notable for the clarity of the acting. Every word is clear, and in this play (as in Pinter generally) every word matters. That's despite the English accents, which on the whole are good, or good enough.

The story is deceptively simple: thirty-something Teddy, now a philosophy professor at an American college, returns to his working class London family home with his early-30s wife, Ruth, where she meets his father, Max, and his brothers, Lenny and Joey, and his uncle, Sam. And let the subtext begin, and the darkness be unleashed.

Anthony De Page as Sam and Brandon McDaniel as Joey seem to have an attitude in mind, and play it fully. So in a way does Emily Ruebl as Ruth, though the text makes her character more mysterious. Colin Trevino-Odell is impressively subtle as Teddy. Arnold Waddell plays Max the straightest of all, letting his contradictions emerge from what he says and does. Jabari Morgan plays the key character of Lenny with a disarming combination of languid charm and menace. He also has the best voice and the best accent--it sounded to me a lot like Ian Holm in the original production, as preserved in the American Film Theatre DVD.

The actors also played it straight in that production, directed by Peter Hall, that began in London and conquered Broadway, earning multiple Tony Awards. Personally I'd like to see it played more sharply, with characters getting in each other's faces. Seeing this play for the first time since college, I noted the importance of Max, which I felt when reading the play. His speeches are full of such blatant contradictions and outrageous bullshit, as when he describes a dress he would buy for his wife with language lifted from fashion advertising that no actual person would use. I'd love to see Patrick Stewart play that role.

The Studio Theatre does offer an intimacy that other HSU venues don't, as does the three-quarter round staging. Unfortunately I sat in the worst spot, especially to see much of Jabari Morgan. I did hear him, though, and that was reason enough to attend this play. I admired his playing of Othello a few years ago--it's still the best single performance I've seen hereabouts in a Shakespeare play. Here he was playing a brother and son in a white family, and I wondered how the production would handle this. They essentially ignored the racial difference completely, and played it in "color blind casting" mode. And it worked--mostly because Jabari Morgan made it work. Maybe it was the accents that made everyone equally "foreign" to our ears, or maybe it was simply that he created a character that simply belonged within the world of the play.

With an assured pace on opening night (along with a few more Pinter pauses that director Heckel found), and with its transparency and clarity, this production fairly represents Pinter's play, and therefore is worth seeing. As for what it all means, let the debates begin (I discuss some elements of interpretation here and generally in other posts at HSU Stage & Screen.