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

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