Thursday, May 27, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Ferndale Rep opens the 1970s romantic comedy Same Time Next Year tonight at 8. Dell'Arte School students present eight ten minute plays in The Finals in the Carlo this weekend.

The musical Gypsy continues at North Coast Rep. I review it in this week's NC Journal. (The photos above are the real Gypsy Rose Lee in black and white, and Christina Comer in her second act transformation from the ugly duckling Louise to the teasing swan, Gypsy Rose Lee.)
My review of Gypsy appropriately focuses on my experience of the production, my response to the play, plus journalistic information for both potential theatregoers and simply readers of reviews. It's not possible to mention every time the goals of different kinds of theatres, beyond putting on a quality show. College theatres do things to educate students and give them experience in acting and design, for example. Community theatres place a certain emphasis on community participation. There are a lot of people in this production, including a number of children. This not only satisfies the goal of community participation in making theatre, but gives the audience another reason to see the show. Children in particular have lots of adults who will come to see them perform.
I am aware that my point of view in seeing and reviewing a show is probably a minority one, and in some ways a unique one. I try to remind my readers of this now and again, as I'm doing here now, and as I will in print again when the opportunity presents itself.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Not a lot of activity this weekend, but certainly a variety. North Coast Rep opens the musical Gypsy tonight (Thursday) at 8 (bottom photo). Directed by Xande Zublin-Meyer, it features Dianne Zuleger, David Powell, Christina Comer and Nanette Voss, with musical direction by Tom Phillips. Performances continue on Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 pm Sunday matinees on May 30, June 6 and June 13.

Now in its second and final weekend,the Dell’Arte International School MFA’s present their Thesis Festival (top photo.) There are four original works, all presented at each performance: an “investigation into the rhythm of tension and the nature of fear,” a surrealistic comedy, a comic meta-operetta, and a day in the life of three eccentric clowns. All performances are at 8, Thursday through Sunday in the Carlo: May 20-23.

At the Arcata Playhouse, the final Playhouse Family Fun Series presentation is Monkey King: A Circus Adventure by the San Francisco Circus Center's Clown Conservatory. This is the same group that brought an Alice in Wonderland circus adaptation to the Playhouse last year. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7pm, Sunday at 2.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Twains Meet

Never the Twains shall meet, you say? I beg to differ, for here they are: left to right top row, that's a portrait of Mark Twain, then the Cal Pritner version. Bottom left is the most famous Twain impersonator, Hal Holbrook, who won a Tony and an Emmy, and revived his Broadway show just a few years back. Finally, Jarry Hardin, as Twain with Counsellor Troi aboard the Enterprise. This role for Star Trek: The Next Generation inspired him to create and tour his own one-Twain show.

Marking the Twains

It comes up on you suddenly, but in the middle of my Journal column this week are a few paragraphs about Cal Pritner's appearance as Mark Twain recently at the Arcata Playhouse. The last paragraph was edited out--the one below that starts:"Pritner is nevertheless not the only Twain you might meet." So I thought I'd restore it here, and while I was at it, I went back to earlier drafts to pick up some information I myself cut for space. So here it is...

Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain, was born in 1835 in the tiny town of Florida, Missouri, then numbering 100 citizens, and now down to 9. Cal Pritner, who pretends to be Mark Twain, was born 100 years later in 1935, nearby in the somewhat larger Kansas City. In this centennial year of Twain’s death, Pritner brought one of his one-Twain shows, Mark Twain: Traveling, to a sellout crowd at the Arcata Playhouse recently, for his third appearance there.

In addition to his work as an actor (including a featured role in Robert Altman’s movie about his home town, Kansas City), Pritner has a distinguished career as a teacher, administrator and mentor to various theatre notables, such as our own Dell’Artisan, Michael Fields. He started the theatre program at the University of Illinois, out of which came many of the stalwarts of the now legendary Chicago troupe, Steppenwolf.

Even with unfamiliar tales, this show fulfills expectations of Twain as a wry humorist and observer of the textures of earlier times. One reason that Twain adapts well to one performer stage shows is that he created and performed them himself, in several tours around the world. Pritner’s show pretends to be one of Twain’s lectures, though Pritner also took stories from Twain’s travel writing as well as his lectures. Pritner’s other Twain show is about race and racism.

Among the books Pritner has authored is How to Speak Shakespeare, and while Twain’s prose presents fewer difficulties (no couplets or anything), his rich 19th century vocabulary requires clarity and interpretation. Pritner did that so well that eventually he had the crowd audibly responding to his every sentence. That he looks the part also helped.

In important ways, Twain was the first authentic literary voice of the American West, and even with the pleasing but unfamiliar vocabulary, it’s clear that voice still connects with an audience that’s about as far west as you can get. With his irony, mixture of sharp description and fantasy, his moral sense that related the usually ignored ordinary people to the cosmos, as well as his narrative voice, Twain influenced a lot of American literature of the past century. That especially includes our twentieth-to-twenty-first century Twain, Kurt Vonnegut.

Pritner is nevertheless not the only Twain you might meet. The most famous is Hal Holbrook, who did the whole Twain: the funny yarns, the sometimes harsh social and political commentary, and the insightful stories from childhood. Jarry Hardin played Twain in a Star Trek: Next Generation story, and liked it so much he created his own traveling one-Twain show. Hardin performed at HSU several years ago (though not as Twain) in a play about the Scopes “Monkey Trial” that featured Ed Asner and another Star Trek alumnus, John (“Q”) de Lancie.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Modest Tutorial

I don't have advanced degrees in any aspect of theatre, and scant experience in productions. But neither does William Goldman, who got his education and experience in writing. I have long admired his book on Hollywood and screenwriting, Adventures in the Screen Trade, but I had never read his book on a year of Broadway theatre (1967-68) called The Season. Until about a month ago.

Like Adventures, it's fun to read, well-crafted and opinionated. And again, I don't agree with all his opinions, but there was one observation that jumped out at me that I agreed with completely--because I had said exactly the same thing in this 2009-10 season on the North Coast.

Goldman was writing about the staging of a musical that failed, directed by a famous name with major credentials. Goldman complained that "he had the bulk of the action taking place on stage at a distance far removed from the audience, making the show, in a musical-comedy sense, all but invisible."

I said something like that, but here's the part that's nearly word-for-word: "Most musicals need to be brightly lit and played as close to the footlights as possible so that the audience can see and hear them."

That just makes sense, it's just extrapolation, as well as (I would guess) veteran lore. When I said it, I was just stared at as if speaking an alien language. Goldman got a different response, or at least he made one up, with the story about an encounter with three theatregoers after the show, that follows the above observation:

"Well, it's not as bad as they say," the first said. The second said, "I liked that patriotic number a lot." A man walking out ahead of them turned and said, "May I tell you why you liked that number?" The ladies nodded.

"Because it was done down by the footlights. You could see it."

"Yes!" all three ladies said, and they all but jumped up in the air on the word.

Since I was the man walking out ahead of them, I can swear to the veracity of the anecdote.

I suspect that part of why such observations seem alien is that they basically come from the experience of being in the audience, a point of view that both academics and professionals can too easily forget.

There are other such simple rules, violated at the peril of everything else that goes into a production. For example, the David Letterman rule: if you want the audience to laugh, keep the theatre temperature cool. People don't laugh when they're too warm and drowsy. (However, after attending an outdoor performance one cold clear night last week I would add the corollary, but not too cold. It's hard for people to laugh when their teeth are clenched.)

People stare at me when I mention this as well. But all the hard work, the actors' sweat, the creative blocking, the expensive scenery, the ads and the opening night buffet--they all depend on people laughing, and ventilation is dangerous to ignore.

Here's another Old School comedy rule: make sure there's a Laugher in the audience. Somebody who laughs out loud. It's not just that laughter is infectious, but that the audience needs permission to laugh. Especially these days, when the appropriate response to plays isn't always clear, and life is complicated--people may worry if they laugh at the wrong stuff, they will either embarass themselves or offend someone. So whenever possible, don't leave it to chance. Get a Laugher.

There was a great Laugher behind me at the preview of Glorious! at Redwood Curtain. In fact she was so loud that she nearly deafened me. That she was an actress, and the vocal coach of the leading lady, doesn't matter. The time to be embarrassed is after the show is a success, because people laughed. Assuming of course that it's funny (something else that was missing at that outdoor show.)

Of course, you don't have to listen to me. Or Bill Goldman. But don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

This North Coast Weekend

Just one new show: Pig Tree, an apocalyptic comedy by Dell'Arte International faculty member James Peck, plays Thursday through Saturday at 8, outdoors behind the Humboldt Creamery Building, in conjunction with the Arcata Playhouse. It's an hour first act, 45 minute second act, and it's pretty cold out there this weekend, so be prepared.

Continuing: Glorious! at Redwood Curtain, a comedy starring Lynn Wells and with Bob Wells (as in photo above) continues Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through May 15. I review it in the Journal.

The HSU 10 Minute Play Festival does its final weekend, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 in the Gist Hall Theatre at HSU.
Humboldt Light Opera Company continues The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee in the College of the Redwoods Forum Theater Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, and Sundays at 2, until May 16.