Thursday, March 31, 2011

Stoppard's Start

[This is an expanded version of my North Coast Journal review of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead at the College of the Redwoods, where it completes its run this weekend, April 1-3.]

Celebrated for his erudition and wit, British playwright Tom Stoppard never went to college. Admired for his stagecraft, his only experience in theatre was as a newspaper drama critic. His “overnight success,” Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, took years before an Oxford student group did it in 1966. It nearly failed, until rescued by praise in a newspaper column. Audiences, tipped off that it’s a comedy, came and laughed. Then Kenneth Tynan (another drama critic) got Laurence Olivier and the National Theatre interested, and Stoppard has been a major playwright ever since.
Stoppard’s m.o. is as a clever wordsmith, but it’s not just the vocabulary or even the ideas—it’s the rhythms.  They make his plays appealing to actors (for the movie version of R&G, Gary Oldman and Tim Roth kept exuberantly running scenes even after they’d been filmed) and especially appealing to read.  That’s fortunate, because Stoppard’s plays aren’t often available to see.

Above left--the original National Theatre production.
Above right, the New York premiere program. John Wood
played Guildenstern in New York, and he would become
the lead that Stoppard preferred for subsequent plays.

But there were new dimensions suggested by seeing the current College of the Redwoods production of R&G. As on the page, it’s still an “elsewhere in Elsinore” story while Hamlet is center stage. It’s still Samuel Beckett meets Beyond the Fringe (or perhaps Firesign Theatre—Stoppard was writing its prototype while in a traveling fellowship program with Firesign’s Peter Bergman.)

But on the stage it’s also Laurel and Hardy as scripted by Oscar Wilde. There’s the same fabled existential situation of two lost souls swept along in an indifferent world. But it occurred to me that there’s also a class aspect: they are powerless middle class gentlemen caught in the struggles of royals.

Not that this is necessarily the CR version’s viewpoint—it’s just a product of seeing live actors perform it. The mesmerizing words reveal structure and metaphor. These two characters are so gripped in the logic of fate, of formal tragedy, that time itself is disappearing, like an episode of Doctor Who (already a BBC hit in the 60s when Stoppard started writing for that TV network, around the time that R&G was first produced.)

In particular, the correspondences and refractions with the Players who entertain at Elsinore are more robust on stage than on the page. Rosencrantz and Gilderstern find themselves as trapped in their roles at court as actors in a play—which of course, they also are. They speculate that they could have refused the summons from the King, and they ruminate on decisions they could make, but in the end they are exactly like the Players—they have some latitude in what they play, but they are fated to be players at the beck and call of their patrons.

Except for some edited (or dropped) speeches, some funny physical business and the larger crowd scene for the ending eliminated, CR honors us with the whole play.  The physical comedy written into the play but not played is a real loss, though.  Stoppard’s theatricality is not just verbal: his early plays are full of physical humor. Sometimes he employs variations on tried and true gags (there's even a pants falling down scene in R&G) but often the visual and physical jokes are outrageous and completely integrated into the plot.

He added even more to R&G in the movie version, which he directed, including a running gag of Rosencrantz offhandedly inventing all kinds of things, including the Big Mac.  (The movie DVD, by the way, is well worth obtaining, especially for the extensive interviews with Stoppard, Roth, Oldman and Richard Dreyfuss, whose performance as the Player is terrific.) 
At CR, Daniel Lawrence provides a simple set and Kjeld Lyth directs a straightforward production. Lexus Landry as Rosencrantz and Charlie Heinberg as Guildenstern are a physical contrast, and they use this for character as well as comedy. Landry, like Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy) is a big person who moves delicately, and that’s on view in his many tip-toe strides to see and report what’s happening elsewhere in Elsinore.

The two keep up with the relentless dialogue for the most part, and make its humor and rhythms sing at certain moments—even in the third act, remarkably, for this play takes stamina to perform.

The other key character is Dmitry Tokarsky as The Player, who provides crucial connections. Tokarsky is a seasoned actor, so he communicates what’s needed from this character, though he didn’t look entirely comfortable on that stage. Aaron Thiele as Hamlet and Jesse Chavez as Polonius make the best of their fewer moments. Other roles are played by Jonathan LaValley, Levi Goldin, Morgan Johnson, Raylene Henderson, George Thorpe, Laurene Thorpe and Amanda Wood. Many of the supporting players are CR students in their first post-high school shows. Denise Ryles and Rosemary Smith provide the theatrical costumes.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead completes its run this weekend, April 1-3 in the College of the Redwoods Forum Theater.
Stoppard by now has an impressive body of work.  A rough count of his original plays still available for performance plus his adaptations that have supplanted the originals in performance comes to about 30.   Some of his 1970s plays require large casts and elaborate staging (one calls for a symphony orchestra onstage), and so are done rarely (though ACT in San Francisco did Travesties in 2006. See photo at right. They also did Stoppard's Rock & Roll in 2008.)

But beginning with The Real Thing in 1982,  even his full-lengths--which sometimes received elaborate staging in London or New York--were contained enough and with small enough casts that smaller theatres could do them.  But (except perhaps for The Real Thing), theatres seldom do.  Hereabouts, not even the Oregon Shakespeare Festival does them--one in 1997 (Rough Crossing, an adaptation--it was my first summer here and I was tremendously jealous of people I knew who could afford to go up to see it)  and another adaptation, On the Razzle in 2007, which I happily did see.  So I guess we can expect another in 2017?

I'm not aware of another North Coast production in the past decade.  Not even one of Stoppard's outrageously funny short plays.  The Real Inspector Hound, for example, is perfect for community or college theatre.  I saw it only once, a student production in western Pennsylvania, and I don't know why it isn't done more often. (This is from a production in the Boston area.)

Addendum for Stoppard Scholars

Another factor in Tom Stoppard success--or at least a big part of his reputation from the beginning--was that he gave good interview.  There are filmed or videoed examples on youtube, though most are recent, but the influential and substantive interviews were for print.  The University of Michigan Press collected about 40 of them from 1967 to 1993 (though some are quite short) in Tom Stoppard in Conversation.  This volume includes 3 interviews by Mel Gussow of the New York Times.  Gussow published a separate book,  Conversations with Tom Stoppard (Limelight Editions, 1995) that includes four more, plus Gussow's introductions and afterword.  Gussow was always the Times second string critic, and really prospered in that position.  Without the pressure of the Times lead reviews, he could pursue enthusiasms and delve in depth.  He put together similar volumes of conversations with Harold Pinter, and with (and about) Samuel Beckett.  I consider his career exemplary. (Apparently this book is out of print now--I see on Amazon it's alarmingly expensive.)

There's a good biography: Tom Stoppard, A Life by Ira Nadel (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2002.)  The biographical chat at the beginning of this piece is based largely on this book.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

This North Coast Weekend

College of the Redwoods presents Tom Stoppard's first hit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, about what's happening elsewhere in Elsinore during Hamlet, in the CR Forum Theater on March 24-26, March 31-April 2 at 8 pm, with Sunday matinees at 2 pm on March 27 and April 3. Info: 707-476-4558.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


It's time for me to answer the comments of Janet Waddell on my review in the North Coast Journal of the Ferndale Rep production of Amadeus. Those comments appeared first here at this site, then on the North Coast Journal site, and this week in the print edition. Apparently as a matter of Journal policy, I am not given an opportunity to respond along with the letter itself.

First I'll reproduce her comments in full, as they appear here and on the Journal site. The editors evidently cleaned up the misspellings for the print edition:

It makes me sad to see actors who go to work, school, and travel on a shoe- string budget trying hard to contribute to high quality productions only to be upstaged by a mediocre review. Mr. Kowinski's review of Ferndale Rep's "Amedeus" was mainly devoted to a detailed account of Kowinski's discomforture and annoyance at having to drive to Ferndale to review a show. It makes one wonder why others can drive to Ashland to review plays with out a feeling of martyerdom.

Then Mr Kowinski felt the need to tell us that he had seen the show years earlier in London and therefore there were no longer any surprises. The on-going ontological debate (Salieri vs Mozart) has ended by local proclamation. Has the rest of the world been informed? Should the MLA Abstracts be revised?

Kowinski should devote more time to writing plays. I've been in one of his and his his skill is in writing more than reviewing.

Janet R. Waddell

Janet Waddell does not disclose that she acted in this production. My review doesn't mention her. She had a leading role in Doubt at North Coast Rep last spring, a performance I complimented in my review.

I want to respond to the factual claims only. Here's the first one: "Mr. Kowinski's review of Ferndale Rep's "Amedeus" was mainly devoted to a detailed account of Kowinski's discomforture and annoyance at having to drive to Ferndale to review a show."

Here in total is the portion of my review, in which I name the day I saw the play: "(That was on Sunday — and with a 90-minute round trip and a nearly three-hour play, it pretty much was Sunday.)" This parenthetical expression in a review of some 490 words is what she refers to as a "detailed account" that the review was "mainly devoted" to. Her description is longer than this sentence.

She devotes a paragraph of comment on this assertion: "Then Mr Kowinski felt the need to tell us that he had seen the show years earlier in London and therefore there were no longer any surprises."

Here is the relevant part of my review: "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."

My judgment on the production was this: "This production provides an enjoyable community theater experience, with impressive presentations by Craig Benson, Kyle Ryan and the entire cast." I suggested that the play itself is mediocre.

She ends her letter with this: "Kowinski should devote more time to writing plays." On this we totally agree. She finishes with the opinion that "his skill is in writing more than reviewing." I can only hope this is true.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Race and the North Coast, & the KC 4, An Introduction

photo: CSU--East Bay cast of Xtigone

From my latest Stage Matters column about the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival productions at HSU, the North Coast Journal cut a paragraph that had to do with race.

The paragraph followed the description and review of Xtigone, produced by CSU—East Bay. Here is the paragraph:

At the standing ovation the cast seemed relieved as much as elated. The journey from East Bay to Arcata was in some respects a long one. Those involved in the production were a diverse but largely black and Latino group, so they made sure all of their vans had at least one white passenger. Even so, one van was stopped by police.

The editorial objection was to the implication that the van was stopped as racial profiling, without providing evidence that this was the case. The objection was communicated to me in a couple of emails and a phone message. I responded by asking whether this editor knew of a case in which the police admitted to racial profiling. But I added that I could confirm nothing beyond what I wrote, so if the last sentence was objectionable, they might drop it. I assume it was then felt that the rest of the paragraph didn’t make much sense without it, so the whole graph was cut.

The paragraph doesn’t in my view assert any fact about racial profiling, one way or the other. It is about the expectations and experience of the people from East Bay who came here.

I was told by an East Bay faculty member about making sure every van had a white person in it, and that a van was stopped by police, much closer to Arcata than to Oakland. She also said that students were upset by seeing a Confederate flag in a store window in another town along 101.

Xtigone is a play about urban gun violence, brought to HSU and presented by a highly diverse cast from another CSU school in a very different part of California, the East Bay or Oakland area. By all accounts, the cast and other members of the production were very committed to what the play had to say. It took courage for them to bring it to this festival audience—which included a lot of schools in non-urban areas, and which looked largely white. And though it may surprise people on the North Coast to know this, it took courage to bring it to this part of California.

That idea, however, and trepidations based on race may surprise people here, and even offend them. But apart from the well-known fact that even well-heeled African Americans have been pulled over at least once for driving while black, perhaps I can illustrate my limited understanding of their point of view with this anecdote that happens to also involve theatre.

I was at the Eugene O’Neill Center during a summer National Playwrights Conference, one of four people who piled into a station wagon one afternoon to go into the nearest town of Waterford, Connecticut. Three of us were white, one of us was not, and he was August Wilson, the double Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. (By the way, I've embarrassed myself by referring to this summer as "ten years ago." It was 20. That's hard for me to fathom.)

We all had various errands, and eventually we all had to find cash machines. In those days not every bank card worked in every machine, so this involved several stops. Finally only August and I hadn’t gotten cash, and we searched with increasing urgency for another bank before they all closed. We found a small one, just at closing time. There was no bank machine outside, so we all rushed in the building, looking around frantically for one inside.

The people inside looked startled, and for a moment it crossed my mind that we might be giving the impression we were up to no good. After seeing there was no machine I was ready to dash out to the car and continue our search, but I saw August talking earnestly to one of the bank employees. He was patiently explaining what we were doing. He even introduced himself. The employee smiled, and said something to the effect that I know who you are, Mr. Wilson. If for no other reason, I realized, than we were all still wearing our name badges, which everyone was required to wear every day at the O’Neill.

Back in the car, August and I confirmed that we had the same thought simultaneously—that we may have looked a little like bank robbers for a moment. I thought it was very funny. August Wilson did not. It was not an impression that a black man could take lightly, he more or less said.

Sometimes you can imagine what things look like from another’s perspective. Sometimes you can’t. You just have to listen.

Of course it doesn’t take being black to see that racism is still real. Since some people woke up to understand that the President of the United States is black, it’s arguably gotten worse, or at least more overt. You can argue that the police have lots of reasons to stop a vehicle, and that the Confederate flag is a novelty item. I think you can also argue that the Old South does not have to rise again. In significant respects, it never left.

I will say that even this hearsay evidence is enough to concern some people at HSU, who see this with the perspective of a school that is trying to encourage diversity.

Now I’ll wind up these posts on the KCACTF productions by clarifying how they came to HSU. Throughout the year, schools (from community colleges to large universities) invite “respondents” from KCACTF to visit at least some of their productions. The respondents (who used to be called adjudicators) view the production one night and talk to the members of the production afterwards. I’ve been to several of these at HSU, and they are always interesting and valuable. In fact, I suggested to the student critics at our first session that they would find it helpful to attend such a session. The respondents, who are usually theatre faculty from various member schools, describe their responses in great detail. (And as a sidelight, the two respondents who came to HSU most recently to see An Evening With Rumi were Joseph Gilg and Bill Wolack. These two veterans of KCACTF were also the only two awardees of this year’s District 7 Golden Medallions, which I gather is the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award.)

Then before the regional festival, a committee of respondents selects four productions out of all they’ve seen to be “invited productions,” which means they are brought in to the festival. This year, the four plays I write about in the following posts were selected. Often this happens weeks or months after the play was originally produced, so everybody has to be gathered together again. Then they have to figure out how to re-mount their production to fit the host theatre, and to fit into the available trucks. At the festival they have a set number of hours to “load in” and set up the production, set their lights and sound, their projections and so on. And then they have a certain time to tear down and “load out” after the show.

This is quite a task under any conditions, but additional problems do arise. There were some lighting glitches for the second show (Xtigone) which I heard were at least partly due to a burnt-out circuit. Whatever it was, it seemed to also affect the third show (The Time Machine), which was still getting ready at show time. It began late, which in addition to further frustrating the crowd that in some cases stood for an hour outside or in the corridors, it probably penalized the production.

For after all the shows, another festival committee decides which of them should be “held,” or made eligible for selection to go to the national festival at the Kennedy Center in April. That doesn’t mean it will go—only four or five productions from all 8 regions are invited. But it seems that everything counts in determining the production to be “held,” including efficiency. That makes a certain amount of sense—because efficiency will be even more important to successfully mounting a show way back East at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

But it’s also worth noting in terms of this year’s festival productions. While Up was the production that was held—perhaps for the reasons I suggest in my post on it below—I wouldn’t call it the most significant production at the festival. In my view, that was Xtigone. This was a new production of a new play, ambitious and intriguing in both form and content, that’s clearly the first step for a play with a bigger future. More about that in the following post.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The K.C. Four: Xtigone

This post and the following post are about the two original plays seen at HSU in mid-February as part of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. They are slightly longer versions than published in my Stage Matters column last week in the North Coast Journal. One of them is in fact shorter in the Journal than I’d planned. I will publish here the paragraph that was cut, and an explanation, early next week. Also a kind of introduction, explaining how these four plays came to the Van Duzer stage as part of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
It was not the production selected to be considered for presentation at the Kennedy Center in April. But in my view it was the most significant of the four productions, and one of the most significant to be produced on the North Coast in years: Xtigone, a re-telling of the Antigone myth (and the Sophocles play) to address urban gun violence, by Chicago playwright and actor Nambi E. Kelley, presented here by California State University—East Bay.

“This play is my response to the gunshots I hear outside my window,” Kelley wrote to me in an email, “and is for the children I see hanging in the streets with guns in their back pockets with no one stopping them from hurting themselves and each other.”

At the same time that Kelley was confronting such issues in Chicago, East Bay director Darryl V. Jones wanted to address gun violence against youth in the Bay Area. L. Peter Callendar, Artistic Director of the African American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco, brought the two together, resulting in this production of Xtigone.

The play’s future already includes a staged reading at LaMaMa in New York (with the playwright playing Xtigone), and a full production in the fall by the African American Shakespeare Company. Though essentially a workshop production, the East Bay staging was finished enough to be judged as one of the four best college shows in the 9-state region this year.

I understood the story to be this: Marcellus (Ray Holston III) is the new mayor of Chicago, but his two nephews, each the head of a rival gang, are gunned down just as they were ending their violence at his behest. It turns out that Marcellus himself arranged the hit. His financial support comes from those who profit from guns. Tigs--the Antigone figure (Chalia La Tour)-- sister to one of the nephews, defies Marcellus and causes a community uproar. Marcellus condemns her to a living death, but when his reign and his family is threatened he relents, though too late to prevent a series of tragic consequences. The chorus implores him to “Listen to the people.”

Why address this topic using Antigone? “Because to me it is a play about a single voice affecting change, and about how revolution comes at the hands of the young,” Kelley responded. “I believe our children in this country, certainly in my city, are in a war, and the people who are supposed to protect them, don't.”

The rapid first act of the East Bay production revealed an idea whose time has come—the natural affinity of classical verse with hip hop rhythms and rap rhyming. Even when the words went by me, students around me were responding to them. (Tommy Shepherd contributed original music and sound.) Another impressive element was the integration of dance into the drama, choreographed by Laura Elaine Ellis.

There was a central set that suggested Greek theatre, with tall, narrow screens behind it that effectively projected images of the city. Three tall platforms in the back were home to the singers and dancers of a Greek chorus. After the gun murders there was a particularly haunting moment when the female chorus voices became sirens, wailing like the approaching police and emergency vehicles, while retaining the weary sound of repeated human pain.

The pace slowed in the second act, as the tragic story unwound. Bay Area star Donald Lacy as the seer had one of several tasty acting moments. Apart from technical mishaps, there were issues of clarity in presentation and story. But the energy and focus on stage was electric. It was an exciting event, with great potential.

The KC Four: The Time Machine

The other first production of a play was The Time Machine or Love Among the Eloi by Seattle playwright Edward Mast, presented by Ohlone College of suburban San Francisco. I was told that this re-imagining of the H.G. Wells novel was written years ago but revised for this first staging.

The basic Wells’ story is there: an Edwardian era inventor travels to the far future and finds a beautiful but simple race, the Eloi, only later to discover a separate race of Morlocks for whom the Eloi are literally their lunchmeat. This play focuses mostly on the Eloi, giving them an invented language that’s chiefly about sex.

This imaginative production directed by Tom Blank had a sprawling set that encouraged a very acrobatic young cast. While their physical performances and the invented language itself were mesmerizing for a time, it all got repetitive. This may have been part of the point, but several of the student critics couldn’t get beyond their reaction to the one dimensional nature of this invented world, and how long the illustration of it went on.

The Eloi section was bookended by scenes in the inventor's home, somewhat as in the Wells novel. (It’s moved forward in time a couple of decades into the early 20th century, and the Traveller—as he was known in the novel—is given a name.) The time travel lighting effect itself was dazzling. It was probably a fairly simple computer program but unlike any I’d seen before.

In his re-telling, Mast seems to be playing mostly with ideas about Eden and the Fall, and only someone who already knows Wells’ intent to take the severe class divide of the industrial age to its logical future conclusion is likely to pick up its subtle presence in this production. One such correspondence is interesting—Mast makes the Morlocks literally the mealtime servants of the Eloi, though they are seemingly invisible to the Eloi. Back in his own time and house afterwards, the time traveler is startled when his own “invisible” servant speaks, and he looks at him with a bit of alarm.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The KC Four: Angels in America

from the St. Mary College of California production of Angels in America

Under different circumstances, the four plays that HSU hosted during the mid-February Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival would be major theatrical events on the North Coast. In addition to attending the plays, I had the benefit of reading a dozen or so opinions of each from students who reviewed them as part of the festival (I was their guest critic) and also of asking questions and picking up stray facts during the week.

Of the four plays, two were first productions: Xtigone by Nambi E. Kelley, presented by California State University—East Bay, and The Time Machine or Love Among the Eloi by Edward Mast, presented by Ohlone College of suburban San Francisco. I wrote about those two in my North Coast Journal column that comes out this week.

The other two productions were of plays that some readers may have seen: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Bridget Carpenter’s Up. I’m posting here about those two. Once the column comes out about the first two, I’ll post it here with additional observations I couldn’t include within my word count.

Several years ago HSU presented both parts of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in the intimacy of Gist Hall Theatre, directed by John Heckel. It was a great way to experience the intensity of these plays and the richness of Kushner’s language. St. Mary College of California’s production of the first play, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches in the 800-seat Van Duzer Theatre emphasized its epic quality, with a staging that was probably more like its most prominent U.S. productions.

The large but light and quickly shifted sets with the American flag motif, and especially the use of music made it dynamic as well as big. Apart from some issues with articulation, and within the age constraints of college actors, the performances were convincing enough to make the characters and their relationships credible. But it was the overall scope of the show, directed by Reid Davis, that helped to relate these characters to the larger world and the times.

This was a 20th anniversary production. While faculty members at the festival expressed wonder that the play and what prompted it was that long ago, it meant their students hadn’t lived through the time when AIDS was a plague killing thousands and threatening everyone. The St. Mary’s cast and other production members learned about it by working on this play, meeting doctors and nurses who served in AIDS wards, and finally in an hour’s discussion with playwright Tony Kushner. Through seeing the play, many other students at the festival learned about it as well.

As a play reflecting an era, but also as a work of theatre and dramatic literature, Angels in America remains powerful—a great American play.

The KC Four: Up

This is the closest I can come to a relevant photo. It's from the 2009 Syracuse Stage production of Up, in which Christopher DuVal appeared (though not in this photo.) DuVal directed the University of Idaho production, featured at the region 7 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

The other play that some readers may have seen before was Up, by American playwright and TV writer Bridget Carpenter, presented at HSU by the University of Idaho. It is one of several works inspired by the true story of Larry Walters, who soared to 15,000 feet in the air in a lawn chair tethered to weather balloons. To further confuse matters, its subtitle--“The Man in the Flying Lawn Chair--” is the title of an apparently different play. (It also has nothing directly to do with the recent Pixar film called Up.) This play takes place 15 years after that flight, when “Walter” is searching vainly for his second act, while life goes on for his wife (a postal worker and chief breadwinner) and teenage son.

It’s been produced several times, including at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2006, where I saw it. It’s likely where the Idaho director, Christopher DuVal also saw it. He was acting at OSF that year—I saw him play Aytolycus in The Winter's Tale. He later acted in the 2009 Syracuse Stage production of Up.

As the play opens, Walter is working on a new invention, desperately seeking inspiration and support from another dreamer—Philippe Petite, then in the news for walking a tightrope between the Manhattan Twin Towers. Meanwhile his wife Helen supports the family by walking a postal route. Their teenage son Mikey meets the new girl in school, a smart and sunny outsider with a dark past, glorying in her pregnancy. She lives with her Aunt Chris, who involves Mikey in her home-based sales business.

Maybe because I’ve been seeing a lot of older multi-act plays forced into today’s two-act structure, I found myself especially impressed by how Carpenter ends the first act, with a promising moment of bliss: Mikey had made a lot of money from Aunt Chris, he and Maria are in love and he’s volunteered to be a father to her child. Even Walter is cheerfully going off to work each day and bringing home the bacon.

It’s not how you’re supposed to end the first act, which is with some crisis to entice the audience back to see the resolution. But this works in the odd way the whole play works. Emotionally, you are thrilled because everything is coming up roses, so you start intermission with good feeling. Yet there’s also nowhere to go but down, and you have to know that there’s an entire act to come, and probably lots of trouble ahead. So the expectation of the crisis that needs to be resolved is there, even if the crisis is just potential, just implied in the fact that this is a two act play.

And of course the second act reveals that little is as it seems, and every character hurts another. But by now, we care for these characters—or at least one of them. The teenage son (Mikey) changes more visibly than any other character (to Michael). This is a great acting role, and the actors in both productions I saw (Phoenix Tage for Idaho) made the most of it, winning audience affection with the gangly teen of the first scenes, through his transformations and trials.

If memory serves (and by now it’s mostly feeling memory), affection for the other characters was mixed at OSF. Audience loyalties divided on Walter the dreamer vs. Helen the responsible if disillusioned and perhaps distant wife. There was similar ambivalence about Maria, the unwed mother-to-be. But in the Idaho production, all of these characters were sympathetic.

That’s how they were played, aided by the rest of the production. The sets at OSF were more detailed and realistic—a fully equipped kitchen, a realistic living room for Aunt Chris. The portrayals also seemed to go deeper into drama, into character and relationship flaws, particularly in the wife Helen, and her seemingly quirky habit of referring to her “real husband” and “real family” when her actual husband and son weren’t living up to her expectations. There was more pain and portent in this production.

The Idaho set was simpler, more symbolic, and dominated by a luminous sky blue backdrop. The characterizations were equally luminous, seemingly bathed in sunlight. As Maria, Brittany Brook was especially ethereal, almost saintly. But this otherworldly, lit-from-within quality was in all the characters, with the exception of Aunt Chris. The fall for the family was violent, but this transcendent quality seemed to reappear immediately.

As the director’s notes indicate, the Idaho production explores the act of dreaming—a spiritual act that gives meaning to a person’s life—within the context of everyday demands and relationships. The metaphor of flight, of transcendence, is inherent in Walter’s great ascending moment, just as the metaphor of balance is suggested by the tightrope walker, who appears now and then in imagined dialogue with Walter. (This was the part that director DuVal played in Syracuse, played here by Nicholas Witham.)

But one of the student reviewers suggested another idea: drifting. Walter went up in his balloon-tethered lawn chair, but he also drifted through the air, and his life since then has been a kind of drifting, in search of another defining act. Drifting of that kind is often an essential part of creativity, and the one that causes the most trouble.

Almost everything the family had at the beginning of the play was lost by the end, including their home and their illusions. Their re-starting point was Walter’s original dream, by now a memory. In the OSF production, the function of saving the scene of his triumph for the end seemed mixed: nostalgia, lost youth and faith, as well as possible renewal. The Idaho production, especially through the luminous portrayals, was clearly focused on renewal. But it still can’t be called a happy ending.

Seeing it for the second time, I admired Up more as a play. It presents compelling characters and narratives, and for the most part interweaves them effectively. The characters and situations are recognizable—even archetypal-- and yet not predictable. They are believable even when a bit fantastic. It's a big enough play to allow these different interpretations, with their respective rewards. It’s one of those plays that raises more questions than it answers.

As several of the student reviewers noted, the Idaho production had some timing and audibility problems related to this new staging in a larger space. This was a common problem. Xtigone was originally designed for a thrust stage, not the proscenium of the Van Duzer. The Time Machine probably had the most radical change—born in a 100 seat theatre, where the audience was immersed in the action, it made the transition to a larger space and only then to the much larger Van Duzer stage.

Still, in terms of technical and scenic demands, Up was by far the simplest of the four productions. While the actors were very good, they also had very good characters to play. Combined with a play that’s been refined and tested, it’s no surprise that Up was the production that got “held”: sent on to the national judges who will consider it as one of the four or five plays out of the eight regions that will be produced at the Kennedy Center in April.

Here's my brief review of the OSF production of this play:

Up, by Bridget Carpenter, is being produced for only the second time anywhere. Set in today’s San Pedro, its central character is a man (played by Richard Howard) who once became famous for attaching weather balloons to a lawn chair and soaring to airliner height (based on a true incident), but is still searching for something as fulfilling for his life’s work. He adopts as his inspiration the Frenchman (played by U. Jonathan Toppo) who walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974 (also a real incident.)

 But the play is as much about his wife (a letter-carrier whose faith in him is waning under financial pressure, played by Terri McMahon) and teenage son (John Tufts), who befriends a pregnant teenage girl (Christine Albright) new in town, and her deep-drawling, tarot-reading, entrepreneurial aunt (Robin Goodrin Nordli.)

 Crisply directed by Michael Barakiva, with energetic and pitch-perfect performances, the play is very funny, so you might not realize until later that every character did something very cruel to another. Playwright Carpenter worked on the play specifically for this production and it takes wonderful advantage of the capabilities of the 300-seat New Theatre, with panels flying open and the tight-wire over the suburban kitchen. The ending is a problem, but it’s an involving and provocative play throughout.