Sunday, June 26, 2011

Mary Jane: The Musical

Back in the day, there were long-haired heads and crewcut straights. Out of their separate habitats and in the same public space, they still experienced different worlds. Even the same words meant different things.

 I’m not so conversant with the current status (or vocabulary) but it seems fair to say that the Dell’Arte summer show, Mary Jane: The Musical, is another recent landmark in open integration, if only because its official sponsor is the Humboldt Growers Association, formed to address issues involving medical cannabis. Maybe secret wads of cash that have aided various artistic enterprises need be secret no longer.

 Regardless of opinions on NORML, the crowd that came to opening night looked very (Humboldt) normal. Perhaps fewer young families with kids sprawled on blankets but otherwise there was the usual age mix, the same local establishment figures, and even less of that weedy aroma around than on an ordinary afternoon in Arcata.

 Though the event was something of a coming out party for “the Industry,” the show itself suggested issues and complexities on cultural and personal levels without a unified political stand. It was a “normal” Dell’Arte summer show: music, laughs, spectacle and fun, with lots of local references and ironies.

 But the topic was, as Mary Jane says, “our morality tale, our telenovela, a romantic myth, a foreign invasion, a black market, a daily headline, a medical movement, the reason we still got anything resembling an economy.”

 The pre-show music recognized the pre-60s history of marijuana in America with tunes from the 20s and 30s black music culture, like “Smoking Reefers” about puffing misery away, which includes the lines: “It’s the kind of stuff dreams are made of/it’s the thing that white folks are afraid of.”

Then after tunes from the 60s onward, the show stayed local and contemporary with the appearance of Mary Jane, a 60s refugee and original Humboldt grower, the “Duchess of Dope, the Princess Pioneer,” who is being crowned Queen of the Emerald Ball.

 Joan Schirle, in a long dress and bright lipstick as Mary Jane, starts off with a buoyant, dazzling Broadway-style production number that would be a complete show stopper except that it’s the opening song. Schirle’s command of the stage and our attention carries through the evening, even as she becomes pretty much an m.c. for a dozen more songs by as many local composers.

The tunes include Lila Nelson’s tale of doomed love between an indoor and an outdoor plant, Jeff DeMark’s narrative around discovering a Gin & Chronic drink on a Christmas vacation in Hilo (with a Hawaiian dance backing) and Tim Randles’ bluesy “Why is Whiskey Legal and Pot is Not,” with its nods to those 30s musical roots. Other tunes are by Curtis Thompson, Eldin Green, Zuzka Sabata, two by Joani Rose, and one each by Fred Neighbor and Joyce Hough, who also anchor the show with their priceless performances.  The evening ends with a flamboyant, expertly executed Bollywood number, written by Tim Gray and starring Dell’Arte International student Pratik Motwani.

The humor could be light and sweet, as in the early dialogue between two Humboldt Honeys on the Plaza: Crazy Jeannie (Meredith Anne Baldwin), who believes her new Russian Concussion drink will end war, and Chanterelle (Janessa Johnsrude), a vegan who makes cream cheese from tofu and mayonnaise, because (in my candidate for the funniest line in the show, which was either an improv or late addition to the script) “Cream cheese is murder!”

 But there’s also bad vibes in “The Industry” by Scott Menzies, staged as second-generation cynicism and rebellion in heavy metal and hip hop: “I hide in your neighborhood, hide behind closed doors/ Hear the lamps buzz as mold spreads on the floors/Jacked up housing prices skewed economy/ I am The Industry, it's all about me!” There’s also angry accusation: “All who share in Humboldt County's prosperity/Share culpability.”

Those are just some of the, ah, high points. This is less a play than last year’sBlue Lake: The Opera and more like sprawling shows of previous summers. Though the script’s content is substantial and threads of relationship suggest a story, what holds the evening’s meaning and madness together is Joan Schirle’s star power. We’re always with her, and we’ll follow her anywhere. Surely Schirle should eschew shamus shows and choose chanteusing. I know, easy for me to say.

David Powell and Ryan Musil are among this troupe of pleasing singers, dancers and actors. Michael Fields’ direction was able and imaginative, as were the contributions of Tim Randles (music), Daniel Spencer (scene), Michael Foster (lighting), Lydia Foreman (costumes), Laura Munoz (choreography), Zuzka Sabata and David Powell (vocal arranging.) The necessarily versatile band was Tim Randles, Marla Joy and Mike LaBolle, with Scott Menzies’ guitar on “The Industry.”

 Mary Jane: The Musical continues outdoors in the Dell’Arte Rooney Amphitheatre Thursday through Sunday, July 3.

Muse: July Preview

First on the July agenda for North Coast Repertory Theatre is keeping the lights on. In an already challenging economy for local theatres, NCRT urgently needs to replace lighting equipment that’s 40 years old. So the first of two fundraisers this month is Keepin’ the Lights On, a musical revue featuring show tunes performed by lights-out singers Katy Curtis, Evan Needham, Nanette Voss, Craig Waldvogel and Andrea Zvaleko, with musical accompaniment by Laura Welch. It’s on for two nights, Friday and Saturday, July 1 and 2 at 8 p.m. in the North Coast Rep theatre. Suggested donation is five bucks.

Next up at Redwood Curtain is Kimberly Akimbo by David Lindsay-Abaire, a play that puts the ultimate spin on growing up fast. It’s centered on a New Jersey teenager with a suspect family and a rare condition that causes her to speed rapidly to old age.

It’s Redwood Curtain’ s third Lindsay-Abaire play. “This playwright’s works are a perfect match for our uniquely twisted sense of humor,” said Artistic Director Clint Rebik. Adina Lawson plays Kimberly, with James Hitchcock, Elisa Abelleira, Peggy Metzger and Kody Dennis. Cassandra Hesseltine directs.

 One reviewer wrote that this play “buzzes along” like a balloon “tied to a firecracker”--which may make it perfect for an early July opening. Kimberly Akimbo previews at Redwood Curtain on Thursday and Friday July 7 and 8, with the official opening (and reception) on Saturday July 9 at 8 p.m. Performances continue Thursdays to Saturdays through July 30. Thursdays are cheap date nights. There’s one Sunday matinee, on July 24 at 2 p.m. Information at

 The Mad River Festival in Blue Lake continues in July with A Suicide Note from a Cockroach, a circus theatre spectacle performed by Pelu’ Theatre, a company based in Portland but rooted in Puerto Rico. Billed as putting a comic twist on being an immigrant in a U.S. city, it’s presented in Dell’Arte’s Carlo Theatre July 7-10 at 8 p.m.

Also as part of this year’s Fest, the Dell’Arte production of Three Trees (with Joe Krienke, Stephanie Thompson and Lauren Wilson as wartime clowns) first staged in January, returns for four performances, July 14-17 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo. Information for both shows at, with reservations at 668-5663 ext. 20.

 Near month’s end, North Coast Rep opens The Kitchen Wives, a comedy by Caroline Smith that follows cable-access cooking co-hostesses who are old enough to know better, but hate each other anyway. Directed by Carol Escobar, it features Kathleen Marshall, Laura Rose, Daniel Kennedy and George Szabo. Opening night is Thursday, July 28, with weekend performances through August 20.

 NCRT’s second fundraiser is a few nights earlier, at the Blue Lake Casino’s Sapphire Palace on Saturday, July 23: cocktails at 6 p.m., dinner at 7, a variety show at 8, plus $10 in Casino Blue Bucks for a $40 donation, with proceeds again going to new lighting equipment.  For reservations to the play (The Kitchen Wives) and/or the fundraiser (Let There Be Light) call 442-NCRT (6278).

 And what would summer be without summer camp? (Personally I’m looking for a Hogwarts camp that takes so-called adults.) But for actual children, Redwood Curtain Conservatory runs a youth summer day camp at the theatre, Mondays through Fridays, July 25-August 5. There are sessions for ages 6-10 (“Imagination and Play, an Introduction to Theatre”), and 11 to 14 (“Stage Presence, Performing from the Start.”) The instructor is Molly Armstrong.

 Up in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, To Kill A Mockingbird closes on July 2, but opening on July 20 in the Bowmer Theatre is The African Company Presents Richard III, an historical drama about a company of free black actors in 1820s Manhattan who rehearse Richard III at night, for an opening that clashes with an established theatre’s production. Check for all the month’s choices.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Lynne & Bob Wells: All's Wells

Lynne & Bob in Glorious!
At Dell’Arte this weekend Bob and Lynne Wells are being honored for their acting achievements and contributions to local theatre over a generation. But the thread that ran through our conversation at the Plaza Grill in Arcata last Friday did not concern the past. It was all about the next show. Especially since that would be their Lifetime Achievement dinner this coming Saturday (June 25).

 Lynne had assembled video and photos from past performances, but Dell’Arte Producing Artistic Director Michael Fields wanted something live. So they had to decide “What do we want to say at this point?” Lynne said. “Who are we still?”
 Both professed to be frightened by the prospect. “We’re being honored so we want it to be good. It’s kind of like, are we really worth it?”

 In just the past year North Coast audiences have seen the Wells in performances that would be on anybody’s highlight reel: Lynne’s bravura star turn as Florence Foster Jenkins in the Redwood Curtain production of Glorious! (with Bob’s comic support) and Bob Wells singing and busting some dance moves as Eliza Doolittle’s father in NCRT’s My Fair Lady.

 But these are just the latest occasions of more than twenty years onstage in Humboldt County. For in 1984 Bob Wells was “a furrowed-brow actor” when he wasn’t being music director and drive-time DJ at KINS in Eureka, and Lynne was a mother of three on an organic farm in Petrolia.

 Thanks to an acting class at College of the Redwoods, she was seeing a new world open up to her, and she got a part at Ferndale Rep in Neil Simon’s I Ought to Be in Pictures. Bob, who swore he’d never be in a Neil Simon play, didn’t want to audition and didn’t want to do a play right then, auditioned anyway and got the role. Within a year, he and Lynne were a couple.

 “It was cosmic,” he said. “It was supposed to happen.” “Warm water!” Lynn exclaimed, hearing this. “That’s what’s missing! In the opening piece we’re doing at the dinner—there’s something missing, and that’s it—warm water! We always used to say, we’re in warm water together.”

 They talked about that, in a combination of couples and actors shorthand. They’re planning a kind of physical theatre piece (Lynne won’t call it a clown piece—“I flunked clown!”) to reflect their Dell’Arte background.

 Together they attended a year at the Dell’Arte School in 1988, and Bob returned for another year, appearing in both the student and company productions of Joan Schirle’s Punch that traveled all over the state. Bob also did Out of the Frying Pan, which toured for two years, including a month at Park City, Utah, home of Sundance.  Both have performed in Dell’Arte shows since. But they seem unusual for Dell’Arte grads in returning to conventional theatre.

 Bob’s favorite acting role was as Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Lynne’s was in an all-woman production of the musical Quilters. Both productions were at the late lamented Pacific Arts Center Theatre.

 They’ve acted together, notably as George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Asked to do something from this play at the dinner, they demurred—they just didn’t want to go to that intense and unpleasant place again. But what they remember about performing it is the surprise of hearing the audience laugh. They hadn’t quite realized its comic aspect.

 “How people respond—it’s always unknown but it’s always what we as actors live for,” Lynne said. “The breathing, living relationship that happens.” “That’s the best time,” Bob agreed. “When the audience is right there with you, and you get the back and forth. It doesn’t always happen but it’s great when it does.”

 “That’s what’s so scary about doing this one-time thing, “ Lynne said, returning to the dinner performance. “It’s beyond my comfort zone,” Bob admitted.

 But along with anxiety, there’s gratitude. Even though he doesn’t consider himself a singer, he’s planning to sing “A Song For You,” as done by Leon Russell. “I love that song so much,” he said. “It fits what I’m trying to say.”

 The song begins: “I've been so many places in my life and time I've sung a lot of songs/ I've made some bad rhyme I've acted out my love in stages/ With ten thousand people watching/ But we're alone now and I'm singing this song for you.”

 The Lifetime Achievement Awards dinner for Lynne and Bob Wells is at Dell’Arte on Saturday at 5 p.m. The $75 admission includes that night’s performance of Mary Jane: The Musical. For reservations call (707) 668-5663.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Government Inspector at NCRT

NCRT production

I review the North Coast Rep production of Gogol's The Government Inspector (also known as The Inspector General) in the North Coast Journal this week.  I'm reproducing that review below--unchanged from the print version, except for these photos--because I want to add something about the process, that may (or may not) reveal something about the process applicable to other plays.

As I've written here more than once, my approach to reviewing is the Stoppard system of expressing my response to the performance I see.  I add to this my belief that information about the play and other productions are of interest to readers, both those who have seen or will see this production, and those who won't.  Also because that information is of interest to me, and part of my experience of the play.

There are some reviews that are relatively easy to write: I responded to this in this way, and to that in that way, etc.  Most often it's not that easy, and sometimes it's really difficult.  This was one of those times.

I went to opening night: Thursday, June 2.  In many respects the production went very well.  The performers accomplished the physical and verbal humor with efficiency and style.  I laughed (even when no one else did--at some of Hatcher's more obscure jokes, apparently.)  So much slapstick can get wearying, and it seemed some of the audience felt that way as well as me. But there was a lot to like.  So why didn't I like it more than I did?  There just seemed something empty about it.  It seemed like some postmodern pastiche, yet this was a greatly praised play.

And so I spent the entire weekend trying to figure that out.  I couldn't put my finger on a reason, except maybe a mood I brought with me to the theatre that the show couldn't entirely shake.

I was pretty much in despair about this, as in the middle of the night I was barely keeping my eyes open as I scanned reviews of other productions of this play, especially of this particular adaptation, on the Internet.  That's where I got my clue.  I noticed that several reviews singled out two characters for praise: the Postmaster (a choice role, and a standout in the NCRT production, too) and the Mayor.  Rather, I absorbed this without particularly noticing it.

But then, moments after I'd left the computer it came to me.  The character they didn't name was the supposed government inspector.  That seemed odd, because the NCRT production really featured this character.  Then I realized why I felt that sense of emptiness.  The play I saw was the story of the faux inspector--how this rogue used this opportunity.  But the Gogol satire wasn't about him, it was about how the town leaders behaved.  It was the Mayor's story, and apparently other productions had emphasized this, probably through casting, staging, costuming, etc.  And with that small difference, it becomes a different play. 

That may or may not be a correct perception of this production---but at least now I understood how I had experienced it, and why it left me feeling the way I felt.  Apart from any other moods.  This idea allowed me to write the review.  The whole review was made possible by this idea.  But it is stated in one sentence, at the end of the review.  I didn't need to say anything more about it.  

The process of experiencing the play goes on after the performance, and in this case, after the review deadline.  Another bit of my research was about how to characterize the comedy.  The playbill and actors' statements called it a farce, and it certainly had some of the characteristics of farces.  But strictly speaking, it probably isn't a farce.  The style is farcical, but there can be differences between farce and satire.  Anyway, this led me to read Eric Bentley, who in his The Life of the Drama has separate chapters for Farce and Comedy, and points out various differences.  It's a bit abstruse, and a little too Freudian for me to follow completely.  Plus he gets pretty elliptical.  At one point he lists playwrights who write comedy rather than farce, and Gogol is on that list.  But he doesn't say specifically why he is on that list.

It was Monday by the time I thought of one possible reason.  The various town leaders--not just the Mayor but his wife and daughter, a teacher, head of the hospital, merchants, etc.--sometimes speak mournfully about the position they're in.  It's all part of the general high hilarity on stage, but people who feel they are stuck in provincial Russia and long for the city and nobility--those are characters in Chekhov, too.  So it is this Chekovian humanity in these otherwise absurdly small-minded and corrupt characters that might be why this is comedy rather than mechanical farce.  Fortunately, that possibility is implied in the review's final sentence--an elaboration of the comic complexity.

So with too much introduction, here's the review....

Meyerhold production 1926
 The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol’s mid-19th century surreal satire, has been called the greatest play in the Russian language by no less than mid-20th century prose stylist Vladimir Nabokov. Over the decades it’s been translated and adapted many times in many countries, but it seems particularly popular right now. A version that’s just opening in London is the second new adaptation in the UK in just the past few years. In 2008 American playwright Jeffrey Hatcher adapted it for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and Milwaukee Rep. Perhaps reflecting current attitudes towards government, the style of all these recent versions tilts decidedly towards farce.

premiere of Hatcher adaptation, Guthrie Theatre, MN 

Even before the current North Coast Repertory Theatre staging of the Hatcher version, there have been other productions here this year, sort of. Just last month, Northcoast Preparatory Academy used the Gogol play as the framework for their pastiche, Russian Promenade, at the Bayside Grange. Dan Sullivan’s play Inspecting Carol borrows from the framing story of The Government Inspector, as presented last December at the Arcata Playhouse by the Rialto Theater Company in a production that included no fewer than six participants in this North Coast Rep show, including four cast members.

current London production of a different adaptation

The play’s premise is simple: the Postmaster of a Russian village, who reads everyone’s mail in advance (which is why the mail is often late—he falls behind in his reading) tells the Mayor that a government inspector from the capital is secretly visiting towns in this region. But the news is months old, so the stranger from the city who has been staying at the inn is quickly identified as the government inspector.

Of course he isn’t—he’s a minor bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur and a gambling problem. But the Mayor and other officials ply him with bribes, while the Mayor’s wife simultaneously offers him her daughter and herself.

Groucho sings 'Lydia' in "At the Circus"

Mistaken identity is only the beginning. There is ample opportunity for slapstick, pratfalls and other shtick, and in this production, no such opportunity goes begging. The resulting mayhem is like a collision of classical Greek and Roman satire, French bedroom farce, absurdist commedia and American vaudeville. Meanwhile, Hatcher supplies verbal wit, both gross and subtle, with echoes of Jonathan Swift and anticipations of Stephen Colbert. But even though it’s no Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers as reining spirits are made explicit in the faux inspector’s improvised love song to the Mayor’s daughter—with nearly identical lyrics and the same melody as Groucho’s second-most-famous tune, “Lydia, The Tatooed Lady.”

The cast performs with unflagging energy and style: David Hamilton is the pretend inspector, Scott Malcolm the Mayor, Rae Robison the Mayor’s wife; Anders Carlson and JM Wilkerson are the Russian Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum. Also essential and entertaining in other roles are Daniel Amaral, Rebecca Caswell, Dave Fuller, Brittany Gonzales, Lexus Landry, Scott Malcolm, Scott Osborn, David Schlosser, David Simms, Jennifer Trustem, Brian Walker, James Wright and Andrea Zvaleko. Samuel Clemens Cord struck a notable balance as the comic Postmaster—a sunny, believable person, yet a few stops past eccentricity.

As North Coast Rep actors, director Adina Lawson and assistant director Evan Needham are both acquainted with what’s possible on this particular stage, so the orchestration of the action is flawless. Calder Johnson provides a handsome open set as well as lighting, Lauren Wieland and Rae Robison the costumes, Brittany Gonzales and Michael Thomas the sound. Together they present a funny and theatrical evening. I did feel that the production emphasized the phony inspector’s story: how a rogue improvises advantages from the mistaken identity. But it’s the Mayor’s story that’s the soul of the play, and through it the complexities of small town pretension, corruption and selfish ambition are satirically exposed and elaborated.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

This North Coast Weekend

Jeffrey Hatcher

Jeffrey Hatcher looks eminently professorial in photos these days, and when I met him some years ago he already exhibited an impressive theatrical intelligence. But he also seemed a Noel Coward kind of guy, meant to greet you with a cocktail in hand.

So it’s not surprising that his version of The Government Inspector, Gogol’s comedy involving greed, corruption and mistaken identity, is noted for its wit. According to an interview in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Hatcher had his eyes on this play since he acted in it in college. He thought: “Good construction. Could be funnier.” His approach was to keep the situation in historical period but update the dialogue. “A hundred and forty years ago in Russia, saying ‘That fish has three eyes, my friend’ was hysterical. And now it’s like, ‘What the hell?’”

Hatcher’s adaptation of The Government Inspector opens at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka on Thursday June 2, and plays weekends through June 25 at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on June 12 and 19. Reservations: 442-NCRT.

Tinamarie Ivey is back in town from Oregon with The Logger Project: Bringing to Life Logger Stories of the Pacific Northwest. A combined effort involving Ivey and hubbie Dan Stone’s Sanctuary Stage, the Ink People and Arcata’s Four on the Floor (among others), it’s a script by Jacqueline Dandeneau based on interviews with local loggers and their families as well as historical research, that focuses on the lives and hardships of early loggers and subsequent generations. It’s the northern California edition of a planned three-part project, eventually encompassing Oregon and Washington. “This project is not meant to be a platform for political bantering about ethical logging nor the effects of logging on our northern forests,” the press release sternly warns. “It is meant to capture a glimpse of the history, day-to-day lives and experiences of the men and women who call themselves loggers.”

Following up on the successful collaboration with L.A.’s Cornerstone Theatre in 2009, this production (which includes music) will be at the Blue Ox Millworks and Historic Park in Eureka, Friday through Sunday, June 3-5. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m. Admission is $10 or pay-what-you-can. More information at