Thursday, January 28, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Starting tonight, North Coast Repertory Theatre presents Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. On Saturday night, Jeff DeMark performs with the musical ensemble La Patinas at the Arcata Playhouse. The performance features special guests, as well as Jeff's brother Paul and his son Jesse. I don't know if his web site is new, but it's new to me. More info is there.
Friday night the latest edition of Chicago's fabled Second City comedy improv group appears in the Van Duzer at HSU via CenterArts. Beginning Friday at Redbud Theatre (Camp Kimtu, Willow Creek) is a philosophical two-hander called The Harry and Sam Dialogues.
In local theatre news, Redwood Curtain announced they've finally found a new home, at 220 First Street in Old Town, Eureka. A season of four plays begins there in April. Congratulations to Clint and Peggy!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

From There to Here

A few items from elsewhere that have some relevance to North Coast theatre...

In the December American Theatre magazine, there's an article on how race and racial issues are reflected on Broadway, in a number of current or recent plays that reflect racial realities or comment on the subject. A number of plays are discussed, though not including the one seen here recently on PBS, as filmed by Spike Lee: Passing Strange. This was the best new musical, and among the best new plays of any kind, that I've seen in years.

North Coast theatre is notoriously white, as are its audiences, in an overwhelmingly white area. I've seen some of this change but not consistently. Last year's HSU production of Jagun Fly, a play about African Americans by John ADEkoje, a young up and coming black playwright who began writing at HSU, suggested that there are enough black actors around to stage such a play. The audiences were more racially mixed than usual. But all of this didn't seem to cause much excitement locally.

As these things are measured, the North Coast was unusual for its largest "minority" being Native American. The Native relationship to theatre is complicated, but we've had some successes--especially Salmon Is Everything at HSU a few years ago, which had more local tribal members on stage than anything I've seen here, in a work they (and non-Native cast members, etc.) created together. The largest minority today is probably Latino, and very little theatre here has reflected those cultures or that experience.

Also in December's American Theatre was a play by a young Korean American playwright, Lloyd Suh, called American Hwangap. Maybe a little limited in its ambitions, this was a fun play to read, and probably better than a lot of contemporary plays we do see here. But we're unlikely to see this one hereabouts. We probably don't have the actors, for one thing.

Voices from groups previously unheard infuse a lot of the energy in new plays these days. But according to a recent study by the Play Development Fund, new playwrights of any description are having a tough time getting produced, even in non-profit theatres. "Many of the playwrights see the nation’s major nonprofit theater companies as impediments to their work, favoring plays that have few characters to save money on actors’ salaries, for instance, or that have themes appealing to large audiences," according to a New York Times article on the study. “We heard from artistic directors who admitted that they’re all going after the same 10 playwrights to produce their work, which is largely about getting prestige in their field,” said Todd London, the chief author of the study..." The story quotes a few others talking about the "cynicism and mistrust" between playwrights and theatres.

This is not real new news, reflected in discontent over "development hell" and the shrinking and distorting of the O'Neill's new plays program, for example. But it does suggest that the kind of considerations that governed Broadway, and led to Off, and then Off-Off, as well as regional theatres, has spread throughout the theatre world.

Here on the North Coast, there is little or no support for new plays. What little there was a decade ago is mostly gone, except for work by students and folks who have their own theatres. The new model seems to be collaborative development by small theatres in different locations, such as the new musical coming to the Arcata Playhouse in a few weeks. Some new work is going to find a way to be born. Still, I'm sure we're missing voices it might be entertaining and enlightening to hear.

Friday, January 15, 2010

This North Coast Weekend (and Month)

It's slow times around here, and on North Coast stages. This weekend at the Arcata Playhouse, the comedy/clowning team of Nick Trotter and Jerry Wallace--now constituted as Third Base--present their original piece, "Myths of the Plastic Age." Shows are at 8 pm Thursday through Sunday, with a matinee on Sunday at 2.

Then next week Redwood Curtain presents another live radio comedy, Zounding Off! along with drinking, dining and maybe dancing at the fabulous Sapphire Palace at the Blue Lake Casino on Saturday, January 23. Doors open at 5:30, and the evening also features announcements about Redwood Curtain's upcoming season, and possibly (probably) their new theatre venue. This is a hot ticket, so if you're going, reserve yours soon.

At the Arcata Playhouse on Friday January 22, the rescheduled presentation and discussion by Jane Lapiner and David Simpson about the Copenhagen climate summit, which they attended. It starts at 8 and it's free, with donations accepted.

Then on Thursday January 28, North Coast Repertory Theatre opens Romeo and Juliet. You can contact these theatres for tickets and info by clicking on the links over there to the right.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Revival

How do you make an old play new again? Moving the era of a Shakespeare play, especially closer to our own time, has become a strategy so common that it now seems reflexive, as predictable as the movement of a knee tapped with a hammer. Following the screen success of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of a few years ago featured teens in prep school uniforms carrying cell phones. But such elements depend on surprise and especially wit, as well as relevance, and their effects wear off quickly. Some work better on screen, but not always even there (Almereyda's postmodern Hamlet with Ethan Hawke was less successful.)

Sometimes, changing the period can be illuminating, but this depends on an original, relevant and brilliantly applied vision. However, there are a couple of other ways to revive older plays and make them more relevant to contemporary audiences.

One way--which is the essential way--is to play it honestly. The most difficult task for actors in Shakespeare and other well-known plays is to convince the audience that the characters are experiencing these events for the first time--that they don't know what happens next. Actors enact emotion, and this is the core of both the performance and the audience response. If the production, and particularly the actors, can make it real, the audience will experience it as new and relevant.

In general, a production that finds the vitality in the play can't help but to make it relevant to the times, because it will engage an audience living in these times. Playwright Terrence McNally spoke recently about the process of creating Ragtime, The Musical (he wrote the script), first produced on Broadway in 1998 and revived there last year, just nine years after the original production closed. He made this perceptive comment (published in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of The Dramatist) about the revival: " Everything will be the same as before but everything will be different, too. That's because we have a different country than when Ragtime [the novel by E.L. Doctorow] was published and Ragtime, The Musical premiered. If Ragtime seems different to you this time around it's not because we've re-written it. It's because this is a society that has re-written itself."