Sunday, May 30, 2010

That 70s Play: Same Time Next Year

 In some ways, Same Time Next Year is the quintessential 70s play. The 70s were when the 60s made it to suburbia, and to Middle America generally. Vietnam protest, the generation gap, sexual revolution, women’s liberation, encounter groups, Open Marriage and a skyrocketing divorce rate—all of it really happened in the decade that began with Kent State and ended with the Eagles doing disco.

 It’s unlikely that this play’s premise could have been accepted as fit for comedy before the 70s: a New Jersey accountant and an Italian Catholic housewife meet in northern California and have a passionate night together—and then they continue their affair for decades, but only for one weekend every year.

 But the 70s were more than ready. To suggest how avant garde this wasn’t, the play is by Bernard Slade, whose previous work included a Neil Simon knock-off and episodes of Bewitched. He went on to create The Flying Nun and The Partridge Family.

 But it was provocative enough, in a 70s way, for some observers to find it offensive, while others thought it was superficial. I suspect there are some in both camps today as well. Though the 1975 Broadway production was a long-running hit, probably more people saw the 1978 movie version starring Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda.

 But given its parentage, it may be surprising that Same Time Next Year works much better as a stage play than a movie. At least it did for me in 2010, in the current Ferndale Repertory Theatre production.

 The play follows an affair that begins in 1951, with the final scene in 1975. Admitting that ordinary people actually had extramarital affairs in the 50s was already a 70s innovation. Novelists could tell you in the privacy of your reading experience, but not plays, with all those people around you who know you’re watching it—and laughing. Now there’s a certain nostalgia to it all, though the slides projected during scene changes depicting events of those decades—including wars and assassinations as well as sex, drugs and rock & roll—also can evoke the pain of the period (even when some events seem shown slightly out of order.)

 Though Slade’s chronology also seems doubtful in places, he had the benefit of those years being recent, and he had the ear to suggest each period’s particular vocabulary. Technologies may be changing faster at the moment, but each year of the 60s and early 70s seemed almost like its own decade.

 Alexandra Gellner as Doris and Ilan Ben-Yehuda as George bring the likeable characters to life. They do the physical comedy well, but don’t overdo it. Especially at the beginning, this starts the audience laughing. But the play doesn’t dwell on the sex comedy aspect. It doesn’t become a farce.

 The emphasis is on the separate lives of Doris and George, and how their relationship supports each of them, and even each of their marriages. There’s a certain quality of a fable about it all, which comes across even as the actors create a convincing relationship on stage with believable charm. They both avoid the temptation of being too whiny. All of this encourages the confidence the audience needs to identify and to laugh.

 Director Marilyn McCormick (former exec director of Ferndale Rep) brings out the skilled structure and deft writing of Bernard Slade’s script, as well as adding some brilliant business. She also keeps the pace from flagging, and so each of the six individual scenes pays off as it should.

 There’s a certain formula to how each of the characters changes in opposite ways from the other, and in how they relate to external events, but the craftsmanship is solid, the actors are winning, and the resulting comedy carries it along.

 I happened to see this on Donor Appreciation Night, and some considerable portion of the audience appeared to recall the 60s and 70s. Their surprisingly randy laughter suggested, among other things, a certain authenticity in the script. They roared at the mention of Berkeley in 1965, and caught Slade’s pitch-perfect Encounter Group psychobabble of the 70s.

 But I suspect that there is enough universal human comedy (and drama) to involve and please those for whom the 70s are known mostly from a retro sitcom. There aren’t that many laugh-out-loud comedies, even in the summer theatre repertoire. This production provides one of them.

 Seth Stone designed the warmly California set, with an assist from Nick Trotter’s lighting design. Vikki Young assembled the slide shows, and designed costumes with director Marilyn McCormick. Same Time Next Year plays two more weekends at Ferndale Rep, ending on June 13.

Coming Up:  Dell'Arte School grad and now teacher Gale McNeeley returns to the Arcata Playhouse after 30 years (when it housed the Pacific Arts Center) to present his one-person play, archy and mehitabel, based on the Don Marquis characters, on Saturday June 12 at 8 p.m.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Script Tease: Gypsy

The musical Gypsy, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, is the story of Rose, often called the “ultimate stage mother,” and her daughters, June and Louise. Rose sets her sights on making June a child star in Vaudeville during its waning days in the 1920s and 30s, and when June rebels, Rose turns to the lesser talent, Louise. Louise eventually becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque queen and show business legend whose memoirs formed the basis for the musical’s story.

 Gypsy is one of the most acclaimed American musicals, with rabid fans and distinguished critics who call it the best ever. It was specifically developed for Ethel (“There’s No Business Like Show Business”) Merman in 1959, and she was followed by other powerhouse actresses in the part of Rose, including Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Tyne Daley.

 The show was created by a one-time combination of Broadway legends: music by Julie Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Larents (West Side Story), who also directed two of its subsequent Broadway productions.  The original and revivals were showered with awards. Several of its songs became standards. 

Apart from hearing Ethel Merman sing its best-known tune, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” on every conceivable TV variety show (the natural heir to Vaudeville) as a child in the early 60s, I knew nothing about this play. I suspect Merman played Rose more heroically than Dianne Zuleger does in this North Coast Rep production, and to her credit and that of director Xande Zublin-Meyer, neither softens the edges of the character or the story.

 Rose is relentless and hard-driving, with a selfless dedication to her children that is ultimately selfish, and the product of her own frustrated dreams. She has moments of appearing admirable, as when she complains to a producer that he interrupted her in the middle of a sentence. “You’re always in the middle of a sentence,” he retorts.

 But the costs paid by her children are also on view. While Rose is a character that remains relevant—check out those child beauty pageant videos, or just go to a Little League game—I couldn’t respond to this treatment, which by now felt familiar, mawkish and tediously extended.

 The production does try to give a sense of vaudeville, that classic American amalgamation of song and dance, comedy teams, novelty and animal acts. There’s even an old fashioned theatrical curtain across the North Coast Rep stage. 

Zublin-Meyer and everyone concerned get extra credit just for managing the logistics of it all, with a large cast of children, seniors and all ages in between, plus a dog, a very large cow with very large eyes, and a duck (I loved the duck—the best vaudeville trick trotted out in the often entertaining but sometimes baffling set pieces between scenes.)

 But for all the show biz, the play seemed a creaky and tenuous platform. There’s a joke in Rose sending her daughters out with basically the same cheesy act for years, but that doesn’t make it easier to sit through variations of it several times, even with different charming performers.

 The 90 minute first act feels very long, and it doesn’t create any real musical sparks until Louise (Christina Comer) and June (Nanette Voss) sing “If Momma Was Married,” which for me was the single musically thrilling moment of the evening—the kind of moment that’s unique to live musicals.

 There are some fine voices in the cast, so it was frustrating that Comer and David Powell as Rose’s long-suffering partner Herbie didn’t have more to sing. Comer’s Louise transforming from supposed ugly duckling to teasing swan was a highlight, though I would have appreciated it more if it had occurred about an hour sooner.

 North Coast Rep regulars like Adina Lawson, Anders Carlson, Evan Needham were solid, and Kyle Ryan’s dance number with Comer was gracefully executed. The opening night crowd was enthusiastic, but I didn’t feel the show itself generating much energy. The live band had flashes of adequacy. Perhaps a faster pace and tighter production will evolve during the run.

 Tom Phillips is musical director (with effective attempts to suggest the 20s and 30s), and Heather Sorter the choreographer. Daniel Lawrence designed scenery and lights. Gypsy runs weekends until June 19.

 For the curious: In reality, Gypsy Rose Lee had a singular career. After beguiling international audiences with her sophisticated strip-teases, she appeared in a few movies and became a Hollywood celebrity, mystery novelist, humanitarian activist and San Francisco TV talk show host. She died in 1970.

 Her sister, the actual runaway daughter June of Gypsy, became June Havoc, movie (My Sister Eileen, Gentlemen’s Agreement) and TV actress (a regular on “Search for Tomorrow” and briefly on “General Hospital”) as well as an author, playwright and Tony-nominated director. She died in 1991.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Not a lot of activity this weekend, but certainly a variety. North Coast Rep opens the musical Gypsy tonight (Thursday) at 8 (bottom photo). Directed by Xande Zublin-Meyer, it features Dianne Zuleger, David Powell, Christina Comer and Nanette Voss, with musical direction by Tom Phillips. Performances continue on Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 pm Sunday matinees on May 30, June 6 and June 13.

Now in its second and final weekend,the Dell’Arte International School MFA’s present their Thesis Festival (top photo.) There are four original works, all presented at each performance: an “investigation into the rhythm of tension and the nature of fear,” a surrealistic comedy, a comic meta-operetta, and a day in the life of three eccentric clowns. All performances are at 8, Thursday through Sunday in the Carlo: May 20-23.

At the Arcata Playhouse, the final Playhouse Family Fun Series presentation is Monkey King: A Circus Adventure by the San Francisco Circus Center's Clown Conservatory. This is the same group that brought an Alice in Wonderland circus adaptation to the Playhouse last year. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7pm, Sunday at 2.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Marking the Twains

The Twains Meet! Never the Twains shall meet, you say? I beg to differ, for here they are: left to right top row, that's a portrait of Mark Twain, then the Cal Pritner version. Bottom left is the most famous Twain impersonator, Hal Holbrook, who won a Tony and an Emmy, and revived his Broadway show just a few years back. Finally, Jarry Hardin, as Twain with Counsellor Troi aboard the Enterprise. This role for Star Trek: The Next Generation inspired him to create and tour his own one-Twain show.  He appeared at Center Arts/HSU a few years back in a play about the Scopes trial that also featured Ed Asner and John deLancie.

Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain, was born in 1835 in the tiny town of Florida, Missouri, then numbering 100 citizens, and now down to 9. Cal Pritner, who pretends to be Mark Twain, was born 100 years later in 1935, nearby in the somewhat larger Kansas City. In this centennial year of Twain’s death, Pritner brought one of his one-Twain shows, Mark Twain: Traveling, to a sellout crowd at the Arcata Playhouse recently, for his third appearance there.

In addition to his work as an actor (including a featured role in Robert Altman’s movie about his home town, Kansas City), Pritner has a distinguished career as a teacher, administrator and mentor to various theatre notables, such as our own Dell’Artisan, Michael Fields. He started the theatre program at the University of Illinois, out of which came many of the stalwarts of the now legendary Chicago troupe, Steppenwolf.

Even with unfamiliar tales, this show fulfills expectations of Twain as a wry humorist and observer of the textures of earlier times. One reason that Twain adapts well to one performer stage shows is that he created and performed them himself, in several tours around the world. Pritner’s show pretends to be one of Twain’s lectures, though Pritner also took stories from Twain’s travel writing as well as his lectures. Pritner’s other Twain show is about race and racism.

Among the books Pritner has authored is How to Speak Shakespeare, and while Twain’s prose presents fewer difficulties (no couplets or anything), his rich 19th century vocabulary requires clarity and interpretation. Pritner did that so well that eventually he had the crowd audibly responding to his every sentence. That he looks the part also helped.

In important ways, Twain was the first authentic literary voice of the American West, and even with the pleasing but unfamiliar vocabulary, it’s clear that voice still connects with an audience that’s about as far west as you can get. With his irony, mixture of sharp description and fantasy, his moral sense that related the usually ignored ordinary people to the cosmos, as well as his narrative voice, Twain influenced a lot of American literature of the past century. That especially includes our twentieth-to-twenty-first century Twain, Kurt Vonnegut.

Pritner is nevertheless not the only Twain you might meet. The most famous is Hal Holbrook, who did the whole Twain: the funny yarns, the sometimes harsh social and political commentary, and the insightful stories from childhood. Jarry Hardin played Twain in a Star Trek: Next Generation story, and liked it so much he created his own traveling one-Twain show. Hardin performed at HSU several years ago (though not as Twain) in a play about the Scopes “Monkey Trial” that featured Ed Asner and another Star Trek alumnus, John (“Q”) de Lancie.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Modest Tutorial

I don't have advanced degrees in any aspect of theatre, and scant experience in productions. But neither does William Goldman, who got his education and experience in writing. I have long admired his book on Hollywood and screenwriting, Adventures in the Screen Trade, but I had never read his book on a year of Broadway theatre (1967-68) called The Season. Until about a month ago.

Like Adventures, it's fun to read, well-crafted and opinionated. And again, I don't agree with all his opinions, but there was one observation that jumped out at me that I agreed with completely--because I had said exactly the same thing in this 2009-10 season on the North Coast.

Goldman was writing about the staging of a musical that failed, directed by a famous name with major credentials. Goldman complained that "he had the bulk of the action taking place on stage at a distance far removed from the audience, making the show, in a musical-comedy sense, all but invisible."

I said something like that, but here's the part that's nearly word-for-word: "Most musicals need to be brightly lit and played as close to the footlights as possible so that the audience can see and hear them."

That just makes sense, it's just extrapolation, as well as (I would guess) veteran lore. When I said it, I was just stared at as if speaking an alien language. Goldman got a different response, or at least he made one up, with the story about an encounter with three theatregoers after the show, that follows the above observation:

"Well, it's not as bad as they say," the first said. The second said, "I liked that patriotic number a lot." A man walking out ahead of them turned and said, "May I tell you why you liked that number?" The ladies nodded.

"Because it was done down by the footlights. You could see it."

"Yes!" all three ladies said, and they all but jumped up in the air on the word.

Since I was the man walking out ahead of them, I can swear to the veracity of the anecdote.

I suspect that part of why such observations seem alien is that they basically come from the experience of being in the audience, a point of view that both academics and professionals can too easily forget.

There are other such simple rules, violated at the peril of everything else that goes into a production. For example, the David Letterman rule: if you want the audience to laugh, keep the theatre temperature cool. People don't laugh when they're too warm and drowsy. (However, after attending an outdoor performance one cold clear night last week I would add the corollary, but not too cold. It's hard for people to laugh when their teeth are clenched.)

People stare at me when I mention this as well. But all the hard work, the actors' sweat, the creative blocking, the expensive scenery, the ads and the opening night buffet--they all depend on people laughing, and ventilation is dangerous to ignore.

Here's another Old School comedy rule: make sure there's a Laugher in the audience. Somebody who laughs out loud. It's not just that laughter is infectious, but that the audience needs permission to laugh. Especially these days, when the appropriate response to plays isn't always clear, and life is complicated--people may worry if they laugh at the wrong stuff, they will either embarass themselves or offend someone. So whenever possible, don't leave it to chance. Get a Laugher.

There was a great Laugher behind me at the preview of Glorious! at Redwood Curtain. In fact she was so loud that she nearly deafened me. That she was an actress, and the vocal coach of the leading lady, doesn't matter. The time to be embarrassed is after the show is a success, because people laughed. Assuming of course that it's funny (something else that was missing at that outdoor show.)

Of course, you don't have to listen to me. Or Bill Goldman. But don't say we didn't warn you.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Doom Boom: Don't Waste My Aocalypse

Pig Tree: a post-apocalyptic comedy in two acts played last weekend at the Arcata Playhouse—or rather, outside of it. Theatregoers were led from the Playhouse lobby into the cold night, to bleachers facing a set (a bench, steel desk and a few other pieces), in front of a few stylized bare trees and the cement wall of a real building.

 It gradually emerged that the actors in tattered clothes (Sarah Peters and Adam Curvin) were playing former servants who remained at the aristocratic house they served, even after some unspecified apocalypse. Their employer (“the Laird”) is missing, apparently along with almost everyone--except for two thugs on bikes (Scott Simmons, Eric Puttre), a self-appointed boss called Potts (James Peck, also the playwright) and Pap (Ben Clifton), his minion with the convenient hunchback he beats.

 All the actors performed admirably—especially Peters and Curvin-- and the outdoor arena allowed for some effects less likely indoors, including tall shadows created by Michael Foster’s lighting.

But the setting, the style, the story screamed meanderingly of attempted Samuel Beckett, plus minor acrobatics. For me, a determined imitation of Waiting for Godot needed more than some poetic dialogue and a familiar rendering of power relationships to justify freezing for art.

 After the one hour first act, I joined the 20 or so hardy souls who returned for the remaining 45 minutes, but when Pozzo reappeared beating Lucky—sorry, Potts beating Pep—I headed for warmer pastures, perhaps missing the moral of the story.

 I don’t want to fall into the trap of praising the pleasing execution of basically lightweight fare like Glorious! or Man of La Mancha, while dwelling on perceived flaws of plays that attempt something different. In some ways, Pig Tree was textbook “theatre of the absurd”, but audiences don’t come from textbooks, and this needed to do more than illustrate the form. Though well-executed, for me this experiment raised more expectations than it met.

 That partly had to do with the premise. Several plays done locally over the past few years involved doomsday, often as a starting point, including more than one at the Arcata Playhouse. Maybe there should be a festival of them—“The Apocalypse Playhouse: Where the world ends, and the fun begins!” It has built-in drama, but I wonder if it’s getting too easy.

 Some 20th century literature saw partly in the blasted landscapes of two world wars the evidence of civilization as frenzied wasteland, piling up its own doom. But there were also elements of the cautionary tale—of warning—that implied there was still time to prevent apocalypse.

 These days, particularly in books about climate cataclysm I’ve been reviewing elsewhere, some kind of apocalyptic future is seen as probable, if not inevitable, and not far away. People may deny it, but they feel it. It may not happen, but it seems to be gradually getting real. It is something people may have to make a life within. I think this raises the bar for apocalyptic stories on stage. Not that they can’t employ humor, but we need them to say something new, something useful.

 Humboldt Light Opera Company presents the musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the CR Forum Theatre Friday at 7:30, continuing Fridays and Saturdays through May 15, with Sunday matinees at 2 on May 9 and 16. I received no advance information on this show as NC Journal theatre columnist either from HLOC or the Journal. Apparently (from what I read in the paper) the show includes some celebrity ringers as spelling bee contestants. I wasn't asked for that either. I pretty much knew where I stood in North Coast celebrity terms--apart from how funny I find that idea to begin with--but when I don't get information, let alone an invitation to review, repeatedly, it kind of discourages the attempt. It certainly has discouraged this one.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Glorious Debut for New Redwood Curtain Theatre

Lynne Wells plays Florence Foster Jenkins, the operatic singer who was so bad she was great, in Glorious!, the comedy that inaugurates Redwood Curtain’s new theatre in Eureka.

 Jenkins, who died in 1944, was a real if forgotten footnote to the New York City musical and society scene, until she became the subject of three plays in this decade based on her life, or at least her legend. The North Coast has now hosted two of the three.

 In 2008, Humboldt Light Opera did Souvenir by Stephen Temperley, with Carol Ryder as Florence and Kevin Richards as her longtime piano accompanist, Cosme McMoon. As I recall, it was told mostly from McMoon’s perspective, and accented by Jean Bazemore’s direction and Gerald Beck’s moody set, it maintained a sense of wonder about this woman and her effect, and explored what I suspect most musicians fear: that what they hear in their head is not what comes out of their mouths or their instrument.

 Glorious! is different—it is completely a comedy, adding three comic characters to the mix. Bob Wells plays St. Clair, a British-born itinerant actor who is Florence’s companion. When he learns the young McMoon grew up in Chicago during Prohibition, he exclaims “You must be thirsty.” That pretty much sums up this character, and Bob Wells performs it with judicious hilarity.

 Dorothy is a middle-aged friend with her own artistic pretences (and a dog), played by Bonnie Halverson with an oblivious bright-eyed enthusiasm that’s mesmerizing. Maria is the Spanish-speaking maid no one understands, and while this is hardly original or even very funny in itself anymore, it’s amazing how the old bits can still work, and Elisa Abelleria skillfully plays them with the attitude and timing to earn the laughs. Pamela Lyall has an effective scene as the comic villain, Mrs. Verrinder-Gedge.

 Directors Peggy Metzger and Clint Rebik have nicely balanced the comic tones of the characters. This script (by Peter Quilter) gets around the mystery of why Jenkins was such a sensation by suggesting her biggest fans (like Cole Porter) were gay, so she was camp. He accents this by emphasizing that pianist Cosme McMoon is gay and that Florence has no idea that he or anybody is, or what it means. Again the jokes aren’t original, and Larry Pitts as McMoon plays them pretty broadly, but the general comic energy seems to propel them well enough.

 So with the Manhattan society version of the cast from You Can’t Take It With You for support, Lynne Wells is free to build the central character as clueless but not really guileless. The comic moments of the exposition-laden first act, and even a well-managed big comic twist, are all just preliminaries to the musical numbers.

 Since Carol Ryder is principally a singer, Souvenirs provided a certain substance to exploring the musical mystery of Florence. But Lynne Wells is principally an actor, and appropriately so for Glorious!, she goes full out for comedy in these numbers, accentuating Florence’s dramatic seriousness and determination, as she not only sings expansively but acts out operatic scenes in astounding costumes.

 She has the audience rooting for her. These scenes are well supported by the direction and Amy Echeverria’s costumes, but basically they are Lynne Wells unleashed. Particularly in the Carnegie Hall concert scene, she careens across the wide stage, singing with full-throated sincerity and outrageous awfulness. Florence’s triumph is doubled by that of Lynne Wells, in a stellar performance.

 Scenic design is by Daniel C. Nyri, lighting by Michael Burkhart, sound by Jon Turney. And if you haven’t figured out the play’s meaning, not to worry, the author spells it out for you at the end.

 As for the new theatre, it’s been a long time coming, but Redwood Curtain finally is in its new theatrical home down on the waterfront in Eureka, between C and D on First Street. There’s parking on the side and nearby, with the walk-in entrance in the back, from Snug Alley. Because the building is long and narrow, the stage configuration is unusual—very wide, not very deep, facing the eighty or so seats on the other wide side.

 I still remember the first Redwood Curtain production I saw, which I believe was also their first: Terrence McNally’s provocative, dour yet oddly exciting A Perfect Ganesh, in the Eagle House. I was new to the North Coast then, and so much seemed possible.

 Glorious! at Redwood Curtain continues Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through May 15.

 Coming Up: Pig Tree, an apocalyptic comedy by Dell'Arte International faculty member James Peck, plays May 6, 7 & 8 outdoors behind the Humboldt Creamery Building, in conjunction with the Arcata Playhouse.

 The HSU 10 Minute Play Festival does its final weekend, Thursday through Saturday, at Gist. Humboldt Light Opera Company continues The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee in the College of the Redwoods Forum Theater Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, and Sundays at 2, until May 16.