Monday, February 28, 2011


In the 1980s Amadeus — both play and movie — caused a sensation. When British playwright Peter Shaffer portrayed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in his 20s as an “obscene child,” and the forgotten composer Antonio Salieri as his murderer — either literally (in the movie) or figuratively (in the play) — many splashy media debates ensued. (The cause of Mozart’s death at age 35 is uncertain. Shaffer’s play takes many liberties with known facts.)

But mostly Amadeus put a human face on this classical composer and both provided and inspired new exposure to his music. I don’t think it goes too far to say that Mozart’s standing with the general public today would not be as high without Amadeus in the ‘80s.

I saw the play in 1982 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, with original cast members Simon Callow and Felicity Kendal joined by Frank Finlay as Salieri. Such early productions and certainly the movie were memorable for their spectacle.

The Ferndale Repertory production, entering its final weekend, does not have that luxury — even with Daniel Nyiri’s handsome set and Lori Knowles’ sumptuous costumes. But guided by visiting director Karma Ibsen, it has the virtue of being clear. Craig Benson as Salieri and Kyle Ryan as Mozart speak and act so that every word can be understood. The rest of the cast does likewise (with the unfortunate exception of Kyra Gardner’s final speech as Constanze, Mozart’s wife. But Gardner is otherwise a convincing and audible Constanze.)

The play itself is very straightforward in form. It begins with a lot of exposition, and alternates explanation and illustration with little suspense while it hammers at its themes: the infantile genius Mozart who turns the mundane into legend, and the conniving and conventional Salieri who turns legends into the mundane, paralleled by their imagined relationships with God.

There are subtle layers, and the play does attempt the difficult combination of comedy and melodrama. But it is remarkably static, with little visible character development, at least when I saw it. (That was on Sunday — and with a 90-minute round trip and a nearly three-hour play, it pretty much was Sunday.) The production includes some recorded Mozart but especially in comparison to the movie, too few notes. There are also important plot elements that screenwriter Peter Shaffer turned into major movers of the movie’s considerable drama that playwright Peter Shaffer left ambiguous or oddly vague.

The play remains informative, with three wonderful speeches about Mozart’s music that still sing. This production provides an enjoyable community theater experience, with impressive presentations by Craig Benson, Kyle Ryan and the entire cast. But its particular impression on me was in confirming what I suspected in 1982, more obvious now that it is stripped of its initial shock value. At play’s end, Salieri describes himself as the patron saint of mediocrity. He therefore may also be the patron saint of this play.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

This North Coast Weekend

The Dell’Arte Cabaret is Friday through Sunday (Feb. 25-27) at 8 pm in the Carlo Theatre. This evening of favorite scenes and new stuff includes a sneak preview of Mary Jane: A Musical, being developed for this summer’s Mad River Festival. The cabaret is especially notable for featuring a veteran Dell’Arte lineup not often seen together these days, including Joan Schirle (that's her in the photo--a piece she did at HSU for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival), Michael Fields, Tim Gray, Barbara Geary, Joe Krienke, Lauren Wilson and Ronlin and Donlin Foreman. There may be few opportunities like this again.

Mama Juggs: Three Generations Healing Negative Body Images, a one-person show by 'rie Shontel plays Thursday and Friday at 8 in the Studio Theatre at HSU.

Amadeus plays its final weekend at Ferndale Rep Friday and Saturday at 8, Sunday at 2. I review it in this week's Journal. Craig Benson's performance as Salieri is interesting--his Italian is excellent. He seems to play him as a jolly bureaucrat sort of mediocrity, without the darkness or the appreciation that Murray Abraham brought to the character in the movie--but then the movie offers so much more opportunity for those colors, and for drama, than the play. Kyle Ryan has perfected the Tom Hulce/Mozart giggle.

The Lawn continues at Redwood Curtain, My Fair Lady at North Coast Rep. Quite a few choices this weekend.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

This North Coast Weekend

Dell'Arte International school second years present Adaptations Thursday through Sunday, Feb. 17 -20 at 8 p.m. Amadeus continues at Ferndale Rep, The Lawn at Redwood Curtain and My Fair Lady at North Coast Rep.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

This North Coast Weekend

This is one of the few plays I wonder if I misjudged.  I wonder if the dissonance could be made to work, or I missed how it did work.  But it did not do well at Redwood Curtain, and it apparently has not been produced elsewhere since.

Redwood Curtain in Eureka is the first theatre anywhere to present a full production of The Lawn, a new play by Cody Henderson, a young playwright from Los Angeles. It’s getting an all-star treatment, with direction by Dell Arte’s Michael Fields and a cast of RC and Dell’Arte veterans.

 I notice that the program doesn’t bill it as a “World Premiere,” as the press release did. That’s wise. It seems very much a work in progress. So theatre-goers should be forewarned to approach it in a spirit of participation as it continues to change.

Though it’s a skilled production with good acting and splashy theatricality, at first preview this play wasn’t ready for prime time, not even here in the hinterlands. It seems intent on satirizing early suburban lawn obsession and its relationship to bad attitudes about non-human life and non-white humans, which I suppose is worth doing once again. But there is also much that’s at best mystifying.

 The central character (almost always holding center stage) is Donald Peterson (played by Donald Forrest), the sententious and increasingly creepy uber-dad, a military vet who is making his grandiloquent stand on his perfect American lawn.

Clint Rebik plays his neighbor Reggie, another man of his generation who may have started at the same place, but is changing. Grace (Lynnie Horrigan) is Donald’s decorous wife who longs for the Paris of yesterday. Philomena (Christina Jioras) is married to Reggie but is clearly Donald’s absurd soul mate.

 Donald’s majorette daughter Betty (Molly Armstrong) is pursued by Reggie’s son Bruce (Barney Baggett), newly blooded into manhood by an elephant kill on safari. Daniel Mariscal plays George, the foreigner who lives on the other side of the Petersons.

 Despite lively and fully engaged performances, there were jarring problems of coherence. While the characters of wife Grace and neighbor Reggie are written and played as real people, Donald, daughter Betty, neighbor Philomena and (to a somewhat lesser extent) teenage Bruce are caricatures. They didn’t mesh. Even on their own, the caricatures were too weak and muddied for myth, and the naturalism too sketchy for drama (though Lynnie Horrigan with an especially impressive Clint Rebik had some convincing romantic comedy moments.)

 That’s symptomatic of the whole: a mash-up of styles, a cacophony of approximated themes, incoherent even in time and place, which tries to be both historical and caricatured, with enough anachronisms to discredit the history and not enough fresh meaning to make the caricatures soar.

 The parade of phallic jokes (some involving elephant tusks) led to a ribald set piece of sexual innuendo with hot dogs and cheese. Funny in itself perhaps (or in a Dell’Arte summer show) it fuels the suggestion that this is all supposed to be postmodern parody. But too much of the play gives other signals. There are affecting glimmers and promising possibilities, and it’s impossible to predict what courageous pruning, re-conceiving and rewriting may produce. But at first preview the action seemed predictable or contrived, the ideas and issues awkwardly presented.

 Maybe some or all of this will change during its four-week run, or has changed by the time you see it. Or maybe you’ll experience it very differently. Scenic design is by Daniel Spencer, lighting by Michael Burkhart, costumes by Amy Echeverria and sound by Tim Gray. The Lawn plays weekends at Redwood Curtain through March 5.

 By the time you read this, the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival regionals at HSU will be almost over. There are productions on Wednesday, Feb. 16 (The Time Machine or Love Among the Eloi from Ohlone College of CA) and Thursday (UP from the University of Idaho), both at 7:30 pm in the Van Duzer.

 Dell’Arte presents excerpts from four of its past productions as the keynote event on Friday at 1:30 pm in the Van Duzer. Anyone can buy a day pass for $20 at the Van Duzer box office to attend a production and anything else that day—workshops, play readings, tech expo, etc.

 Among the more than a thousand students and faculty expected from the nine-state region are student critics, who will write reviews of these productions. As a VIP Guest critic at the festival (a title apparently designed to compensate for the lack of other payment), I will be talking to them about the actual practice of reviewing and writing about theatre for periodical publication.

 Among my topics will no doubt be the critical dance required in a small community with an even smaller theatre community, balancing integrity and support, accumulated standards and community standards, while producing columns that entertain and inform readers without needlessly hurting the feelings of people you’re going to run into everywhere you go. This particular column may not be a great example.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

This North Coast Weekend

Dell’Arte International first year students present their evening of Commedia with “lovers, thieves, irate fathers, non-stop talkers, posers, zanies and charlatans” this weekend, Thursday through Saturday (Feb. 3-5) at 8 pm in the Carlo.

My Fair Lady continues at North Coast Rep in Eureka through February 26.

Classy Lady

The 1956 Broadway production of My Fair Lady, written by Lerner and Loewe, with legendary director Moss Hart and costumes by Cecil Beaton, won lots of theatre awards. But it was a national phenomenon in ways that that can never happen anymore, regardless of how much money Broadway blockbusters now collect. Its stars (especially Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews) became staples on the three television networks’ variety shows, its songs became radio hits. The original cast album was the second biggest seller of 1956, and #1 in 1957. A cover version of “On the Street Where You Live” was a top- forty single when “Hound Dog” led the charts. In subsequent years when Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Nat King Cole, Dinah Shore and Rosemary Clooney each had TV shows, they all sang and recorded songs from My Fair Lady.

So it was that these songs (“I Could Have Danced All Night,” “I’ve Become Accustomed to Her Face,” etc.) were imprinted on my childhood, even if I was impatiently enduring them, waiting for the next comedian on Steve Allen or Ed Sullivan. Such American as well as Broadway standards are probably still at least vaguely familiar melodies, but today’s audiences have the opportunity to experience My Fair Lady afresh.

There are hints of their recorded forbearers in the current North Coast Repertory Theatre production: a little Rex Harrison in some of Michael Thomas’ Henry Higgins scenes, a touch of Julie Andrews in Caitlin McMurtry’s Eliza Doolittle, even some Jeremy Brett tremolo in Kristopher Buihner’s young Freddy, Eliza’s callow suitor. But mostly they make this show their own. Thomas brings out Higgins’ irony, and McMurtry has such glowing energy that she seemed ready to burst the confines of the set as she brings new life and reality to “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

In the story, lightly adapted from G. B. Shaw’s play Pygmalion, professor Henry Higgins and his friend Colonel Pickering pick up a lower class flower seller, and through linguistic training convince upper class Europeans that she’s one of them. As Pickering, Jim Berry has the delightful advantage of being English, as well as an amusing and convincing actor. His wife Isobel Berry did wonderful work as dialect coach, especially with Catlin McMurtry who had to learn two classes of British accents. This was just one aspect of her scintillating vocal and acting performance.
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The style and care in the set (Daniel Lawrence) and the costumes (designer Marcia Hutson and a host of milliners responsible for those fantastic hats) are remarkable. Sitting closer to the stage than usual, I couldn't help noticing how even the painted cobblestones were carefully and even artistically done.

With musical direction by Molly Severdia and David Powell, there’s fine ensemble singing. Director Rene Grinnell pulled it all together. But attention must be paid to that fabulous song and dance man, Bob Wells. From his opening number (“With A Little Bit of Luck”) his performance as Eliza’s father was astonishing. It did better than stop the show—it energized it forward.

Given that this North Coast Rep stage limits any production, and has unfortunate if inevitable consequences, such as wasted downstage space and confined upstage sets in this show. And it won't be mistaken for a professional production, with some obvious musical problems. Nor is it the best musical I've seen there. But...My Fair Lady is a solid NCRT production, with the kind of shining moments that make live theatre unique and necessary.

There’s more Shaw in My Fair Lady than you might expect in a musical adaptation. A lot of lines—especially in the early scenes--are straight out of Pygmalion, together with what Shaw wrote for the 1938 movie version. Apart from the still-infectious songs, the chief difference is the ending, which is left open in the musical, favoring the idea that Eliza remains with Higgins. Shaw opposed this. He wrote a prose coda for the play in which Eliza stays friends with Higgins and Pickering, but she marries Freddy and they open a flower shop together, which prospers in part because of an encounter with H.G. Wells. Very Shavian.

There's a BBC film production of the actual play Pygmalion from the 60s or 70s with a delightful Lynn Redgrave. It includes a photo montage at the end that gives the outlines of Shaw's prose ending--principally Eliza's wedding to Freddy and their flower shop. The 1938 movie produced by Gabriel Pascal dropped some scenes and Shaw added others, plus (as I mentioned) an ending he didn't like. However he did get an Academy Award for the adaptation, and the film was nominated for several other main Oscars. I haven't seen it in awhile but I recall Wendy Hiller (who had done the role on stage) as a striking Eliza, partly because of her unique looks--she's not Hollywood pretty, and can look pretty severe. Anyway she produced a relationship with Higgins with a very different feel, especially at the end, which was also influenced by Leslie Howard as Higgins.

However at the moment I'm watching the 1941 film of Shaw's Major Barbara, also produced by Pascal and also starring Wendy Hiller. Her costar is Rex Harrison (who would star in My Fair Lady on screen as well as on stage), and this time Pascal also directs.. But what a production! Music by William Walton, David Lean as an assistant director, Ronald Neame as cinematographer, Vincent Korda art director, Cecil Beaton costumes, with Robert Morley, Sybil Thorndike and a very young Deborah Kerr. And written as no one else could write it, by Bernard Shaw. And it was shot in London during the Blitz. Amazing!

Shaw was quite serious about the importance of standard spoken English. "German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners," he wrote in the preface to Pygmalion, "English is not even accessible to Englishmen." He thought the problem was non-standard spelling, and the solution was phonetics. Perhaps he hadn't realized how influential mass media would be in standardizing both spelling and pronunciation. Class differences in speech persist, perhaps in England more than in other countries, but dialects are everywhere.

One more thing: about dramatic structure and time. Pygmalion is in five acts (which in classic dramatic structure means one act each for exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.) My Fair Lady, it seems to me, has a natural three act structure: the bet and the education of Eliza, ending with the "Rain in Spain;" the second act is the testing of her success, especially in the party; the third act is the resolution (or lack of it) between Eliza and Higgins. But these days everything gets poured into two acts, and My Fair Lady--like a lot of plays--is awkwardly divided.

NCRT has the additional problem of long intermissions when it has a full house, because of limited rest rooms. (It's certainly not unique in this regard locally.) So the second act also suffers from all this, as the evening starts to drag. In this situation there's no reason for the second overture at the start of the second act. Suffering through one is enough.