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DiPietro’s script included some historical references worth making, even in a comedy, such as the prejudices Italians faced.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. 

Playwright Lauren Wilson

I spoke with Lauren Wilson on the phone a few days before the opening of Dell'Arte's production of Blue Lake: The Opera, which she wrote and co-directed. She described researching the history of Blue Lake, and some of the fruits of that research are included in the production program as well as the opera itself.

I asked Lauren Wilson if she was Dell’Arte’s “playwright in residence.”

LW: They don’t usually start with a script. The training and the company are often based around the actor-creator, so the actors as an ensemble members create a piece and perform it. But once in awhile, like for the festival, for the outdoor stage, they opt to use a script as a starting point. There’s not really a playwright in residence. I just get to write plays once in awhile.

She described how playwriting figures into the Dell'Arte International school curriculum.

I teach acting and what I call writing for performance or dramatic writing, so it’s not so much sitting down and writing a play as it is thinking about how plays are structured, and helping people to write freely. Many people who come for actor training aren't necessarily drawn to writing, but because Dell'Arte asks of its students and performers that they be creative contributors to the piece, sometimes writing is a good avenue for discovery. So I teach a class in how to write as an exercise in group writing—--how to create a show together and use writing as part of that, but not all of that.

I asked what the particular challenges were in writing Blue Lake: The Opera.

The challenge is to not have the magic and real power of theatre be destroyed by too much text. One thing that Dell'Arte does that few other theatres or training programs do is to create a theatre that is physically and viscerally very alive in the space of the stage. Partly that comes from starting with the body, and starting with the actors body as the source of the theatre, rather than starting with the writing on the page as the source of the theatre. So when you start with a script, the challenge is to make that actually live.

It’s really hard, because words have such a paralyzing effect on us. Even really well-trained physical actors, really imaginative people, tend to just stand and deliver text as if it were enough to say the words. its a real hurdle to get over, to have the text serve the theatre rather than just all of us standing around serving the text. So when you write something at a computer it always has too many words, you forget the power of the body to tell a story, or to create an atmosphere or a feeling in the audience. Cause it's impossible to do that at the desk.

So at Dell'Arte I think we’re still figuring out what the relationship of the playwright is to this type of ensemble theatre that we are interested in creating. For me as a playwright it’s really about being able to write things and then let go of them. When the director and I see that we’re just serving the text right now, what would happen if we threw this text out, is there any other possibility?

For an opera—this classical form—it's very conventional,—it's a conventional narrative that tells a story set in Blue Lake in 1910. There’s a plot that is set in motion—there’s nothing abstract or avante garde about it. The fun of it was to take this conventional, classical type of theatre, and place it in Blue Lake, a rural—and in 1910, extremely rural place, where one wouldn’t expect to set an opera.