Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Year of Staging Dangerously

Theatre isn’t easy anywhere. But it’s particularly hard here, for both participants and audiences. Is there a well-equipped facility with comfortable seats and good sightlines, let alone adequate ventilation and amenities, on the North Coast? North Coast Rep is raising money to replace lighting equipment that is so old that parts aren’t made for it anymore, but it’s hardly the only local theatre with that kind of problem.

 Of course other local entertainment venues have their drawbacks, including the self-inflicted, as I experienced recently while trying to watch the dim and insultingly underpowered projection of the latest Harry Potter movie in an ice-cold cinema. But hereabouts theatre creators and audience are partners in what might be described as frontier theatre.

Add to this a depleted media environment. A few years ago a show might get three or even four reviews. But the loss of papers and pages (and the Times-Standard’s virtual abdication of local performing arts coverage) means two reviews at most, but more typically one or none while the show is running. The Lumberjack remains useless. At least this paper still makes room for this column about twice a month, though it is the one regular feature that the Journal doesn’t promote.

 Theatre may not get priority because its audiences are older (and though more likely to still read newspapers, are perceived as not attractive to advertisers) and the theatregoers aren’t very vocal, except when they don’t like a review. Given all the problems, plus the conflicts and emotional overloads common to theatre, it remains amazing that theatre gets done at all. These days I regard it as a residual minor miracle, like the continuing existence of libraries with actual books in them.

 What keeps theatre alive here? The dedication, perspicacity and effort of the people who run the theatres, community support, a cadre of actors and other theatre people who’ve found a niche here, and the talent and energy of young people from local schools who stick around long enough to renew North Coast stages—not just from HSU, CR and the Dell’Arte School, but from theatre programs at (for example) Eureka High, Arcata High and Northcoast Prep.

 This year has also seen an increasing cross-fertilization and cooperation among theatres and schools. Though InterAct seems largely moribund, perhaps other efforts to strengthen theatre as a whole may result.

 Another vitalizing factor is the at least occasional willingness to take more than the usual chances. Some theatre folk call it “stretching”: choosing to do a more challenging, more ambitious work, or to do a production in a more ambitious way, or both.

 That kind of ambition is crucial to the vitality—the lifeblood—of live theatre. It pushes theatre beyond pleasant entertainment to become startling, troubling, inspiring, thought-provoking, feeling-evoking—and, in a word, important. Even life-changing.  Yet it may also increase the chance of failure—or at least of raising more expectations than it fulfills. That’s the risk.

 In a year when nothing I saw on the North Coast failed to entertain to some degree, there were also efforts of particular ambition. Such ambitions may get short shrift in a review, which is largely about execution. For example, though I didn’t feel all the science-inspired ideas cohered in Charlotte Jones’ Humble Boy, the attempt to relate these concepts to how we might live our lives was admirable, as was Redwood Curtain for presenting them. Rent at Ferndale Rep, Michael Thomas’ direction of M Butterfly at HSU, the group creation of An Evening With Rumi at HSU, Doubt at North Coast Rep, all explored beneath the surface of topical concerns and difficult terrains. North Coast Rep took its brave annual Shakespeare challenge.

 Dell’Arte and the Arcata Playhouse continued to host intriguing visitors, including the nearby artists of Independent Eye and Human Nature. But the most conspicuous example of successful ambition was Dell’Arte’s original production last summer, Blue Lake: The Opera. Though it’s rumored that not everyone at Dell’Arte initially wanted to do it, people who saw it are literally still talking about this show.

 It was creatively ambitious.  Everyone involved rose to the occasion, opening a lot of eyes to the potential of local talent, and changing at least the life of one of its singing stars, David Powell, who subsequently enrolled in the Dell’Arte School.

 For Humboldt Light Opera Company, the challenge and ambition of producing the very familiar The Pirates of Penzance was to make it new. Apart from its usual musical excellence, HLOC did this with humor that didn’t displace feeling, and showmanship that combined taste with boldness (defying purists but adding color and spirit by increasing the number of “daughters” to absurd proportions.) Director Carol Ryder paid careful attention to the basics of audibility and intelligibility, in a memorable production.

 As my reviews reflect, I’m not always crazy about the plays local theatres choose to do. And I miss the plays nobody seems to do. I’ve become resigned to seeing Shaw only on DVD, and only imagining Stoppard outside of Rosencrantz and Gilderstern Are Dead, which CR will do soon. Or (just one example) of seeing any Thornton Wilder except Our Town, though with the popularity of apocalyptic plays, The Skin of Our Teeth could be fascinating. Still, a necessary ingredient in the alchemy of excellent theatre is surprise.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Stage Matters?

Stage Matters from Theatre Communications Group on Vimeo.

I was on the road when "Dell'Arte" left a comment on this blog pointing me to this video, and I've only now gotten around to checking it out. It's a nice TCG piece and an appropriate video to post while I contemplate my end of the year entry in my column, which is called...wait, I know it, it's...oh yeah, Stage Matters.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Second years at Dell'Arte International School present their Character Projects this weekend, 8 pm in the Carlo on Thursday (Dec. 9), Friday and Saturday.

Meanwhile, Dell'Arte's Christmas Show, The Musicians of Bremen continues on the road (Thursday at 7:30 in Scotia's Winema Theater, Friday at Orick Elementary at 6pm, Saturday in Port Orford at the Community Center at 7:30, and Sunday at Trinidad Elementary at 7:30.) Permission to revise and extend my remarks? Furthering the cartoon style theme, the old Comicolor cartoon version of the Town Musicans of Bremen has a musical score by Carl Stalling, who also did the music for the classic Warner Brothers cartoons (Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.) This cartoon--as many Warner ones do for decades--begins a scene in the country with a bit of the beginning of Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite. In fact the Morning section of the suite is familiar to several generations mostly from these cartoons. And sure enough, the Dell'Arte show begins with this music...Coincidentally enough, this weekend (Friday and Sunday nights at 8pm in Fulkerson Recital Hall on the HSU campus), the Humboldt Symphony is playing the entire Peer Gynt Suite. Later they're joined by the Humboldt Chorale and University Singers for some bang-up orchestral and choral Christmas carols.

Also at HSU, An Evening with Rumi completes its two-weekend run (photo above) on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm in the Gist Hall Theatre. I saw it last weekend and apart from serving up more profundity per minute than any other show of the past year, it features some excellent individual performances from both familiar and unfamiliar faces. Two of the best come from the veteran Bernadette Cheyne and the youngest cast member, Erin Harris. But they aren't the only ones. There's some fine ensemble work as well. I had moments of illumination and appreciation, and I'm sure in savoring these I missed others. This is a show that would repay more than one visit. There is music, though why this play got dumped into the Music listings in the Journal I don't understand.

Also continuing this weekend: Amahl and the Night Visitors at Ferndale Rep (Thurs-Sat at 8, Sun. at 2), Charley's Aunt at North Coast Rep (Thurs-Sat at 8) and the Rialto Theatre's Inspecting Carol at the Arcata Playhouse (Fri-Sun at 8.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

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 Thursday 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 HSU Stage and Screen.

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. Info:

Humboldt Light Opera's youth Production Workshop (ages 11-18) presents A Frank Loesser Review (with music from Guys and Dolls, Most Happy Fella and other Loesser musicals) at 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 3rd and 2 p.m. Saturday, December 4th, at the Redwood Curtain Theatre in Eureka.

Then Saturday night, HLO’s female ensemble, the Babes, will perform holiday songs at the Morris Graves Museum as part of Eureka Arts Alive, 6-9 pm. Joining them will be The Babe Magnets quartet as well as featured HLOC singers Kevin Richards, Katherine Kinley and James Gadd.

And somewhere near you (if you're in Humboldt County) there will be a performance of Dell'Arte's Christmas Show, the Musicians of Bremen. I review it in this week's NC Journal, and there are lists of where the free shows will be performed at the Dell'Arte site and the Journal. Donations of canned food are accepted for distribution to local food banks.