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.