Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wincing with The Kitchen Witches

Back before widespread air conditioning, people left the cities for the cooler countryside in summer. So when the Connecticut town of Westport saw its population increase by half in the summer months, a couple of entrepreneurial members of the Theatre Guild found a big old barn where they could produce shows, and enticed New York actors as well as audiences to join them.

 This venture that began in the 1930s (described in the admirable An American Theatre by Richard Somerset-Ward) became the template for rustic summer playhouses all over America. Eventually a kind of summer style developed favoring light comedies, especially as vehicles for available or local stars. That’s the context that places The Kitchen Witches, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, in the best possible light.

 In this contemporary comedy by Caroline Smith, Dolly Biddle (played by Laura Rose) is careening through her last show as a Russian baker on a cable access channel, complete with faux accent. Her son Stephen (Daniel Kennedy) is its awkward producer/director. When the show is invaded by Dolly’s erstwhile best friend and now worst enemy and cooking show rival, Isobel Lomax (Kathleen Marshall), the insults fly.

 It seems like a disastrous finale, but the unseen boss of the station sees its entertainment potential as a crass combination of Jerry Springer and Julia Child (or maybe it was Martha Stewart.) So the two women find themselves yoked together as co-hosts of “The Kitchen Witches.” The more they fight and reveal, the more popular they become.

 The plot exposes their history and the source of their conflict, which involved their respective relationships with the late Larry Biddle, who Dolly married but who died in Isobel’s bed. Stephen turns out to be implicated in ways you can probably guess.

 The script apparently calls for local references to be sprinkled in for comic effect, and a lot of energy is devoted to as much audience participation as this production can manage. I saw the show with a non-opening night audience, and they mostly seemed to enjoy it. They also played their part as a cheerfully manipulated TV studio audience with alarming alacrity.

 Laura Rose and Kathleen Marshall charmed the audience with their performances, and worked them hard. Daniel Kennedy gained their sympathy. The show’s production values are faultless. But only by the loosest of summer comedy standards can this play compete.

 Cooking and the kitchen environment have inspired numerous classic comedy moments, from vaudeville to I Love Lucy and beyond. But there are only a few timid and perfunctory attempts at physical humor in this show. The verbal humor is trite and tasteless, although fans of toilet jokes and first grade-level puns (you know, why did the moron throw the clock out the window?) may get a few chuckles. I didn’t find an ounce of actual wit. And does having one character refer to a sight gag as offensive somehow excuse a joke that depends entirely on racism?
That neither of the cooks ever assembles a credible dish (except perhaps for a deeply symbolic sandwich) suggests the play’s fidgety construction. While there are ample opportunities for the characters to fight and upstage each other (including George Szabo as the mostly silent “Rob, the Camera Guy”), the actual plot is awkward and predictable. This is less a play than a recipe for one. The way the interpersonal story is told has the combination of tawdriness, sentimentality and mundane cliche that might well qualify it for Jerry Springer.

 Summer comedies may not be meant to be experienced with ordinary expectations, but by the standards of other comedies I’ve seen staged on the North Coast this summer and recent summers past, this one doesn’t measure up. Of course, people don’t necessarily go to all the plays, and again, when I saw it the audience seemed to have a good time (except I assume for the few who left at intermission.)

 The Kitchen Witches is directed by Carol Escobar. Scenic design is by Daniel Lawrence, lighting by Calder Johnson, costumes by Wanda Stapp, sound and music by Howard Lang. It continues weekends at North Coast Repertory Theatre through August 20.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Muse August Preview: Musicals and Makeovers

Opening Friday, August 5 at the Ferndale Repertory Theatre is the Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler musical, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. With its implications of cannibalism, this groundbreaking tale of a murderous barber and complicit purveyor of meat pies was controversial when it opened on Broadway in 1979. But it won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, and accolades for its stars, Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury.

 After numerous revivals, touring versions and other productions since, this musical thriller has become a Sondheim classic. The Ferndale production is directed by Diane Zuleger and stars Craig Benson as Sweeney Todd and Elisabeth Harrington as Mrs. Lovett. Also featuring Steve Nobles, Philip DeRoulet, Brandy Rose, Kyle Ryan, Luke Sikora and Elena Tessler, it runs weekends through August 28: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Friday August 12 is Date Night—couples get a complimentary Sweeney Toddy. For reservations: 1-800-838-3006 or

 Among August premieres, the results of significant renovations to two North Coast theatrical venues will be on view. The John Van Duzer Theatre at Humboldt State will debut its major makeover, which includes a refurbished lobby, new lighting instruments and all new seats in the auditorium for the first time since the facility was dedicated (as the Sequoia Theatre) in 1960. First to experience these renovations will be audiences for the Humboldt Light Opera Company summer show opening there on August 5: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a jazzy musical comedy about two con men on the Riviera is based on the 1988 film comedy that starred Steve Martin and Michael Caine.

 Its music—said to spoof Henry Mancini and other espionage movie composers—is by David Yazbek, who also wrote the music and lyrics for The Full Monty, another Broadway musical based on a movie. Jeffrey Lane wrote the lyrics for this show, which ran on Broadway from January 2005 to September 2006.

 The HLOC show stars Casey Vaughn, Bill Ryder, Hannah Jones, Jim Buschmann, Cindy Cress and Shaelan Salas. It’s directed by Carol Ryder, with musical direction by Molly Severdia, choreography by Lela Annotto-Pemberton, Ciara Cheli-Colando and Shaelan Salas. Justin Sousa conducts the orchestra. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels romps on the Van Duzer Theatre stage Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through August 20, beginning with an opening night gala on August 5. Due to subject matter, this production is not recommended for children under 11. More information: 445-4310 or

 Meanwhile, the “extreme makeover” of the Arcata Playhouse, courtesy of the Arcata Sunrise Rotary Club, will be partially complete when it pauses on Saturday, August 6 for a fundraiser to help finish the job. It’s a “Country Cabarette,” an evening of music featuring Cadillac Ranch and the Lonesome Roses, plus guests that include Jacqueline Dandeneau, Rose Armin-Hoiliand, Halimah Collingwood and Steve Irwin. It all starts at 7 p.m., and includes raffles and a chili contest.

 The Wizard of Oz, Yip Harburg, who also wrote the lyrics to “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” and so the North Coast will hear the original version performed just weeks after Jeffrey Hatcher’s parody in NCRT’s The Government Inspector.

Before that, the Arcata Playhouse will host Broadway musical performer and Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre grad Gale McNeeley, for two performances of his show, Over the Rainbow, at 8 p.m. on July 30 and 2 p.m. on July 31. The show is a tribute to the lyricist and writer on

 For all Arcata Playhouse events (and to volunteer to help with the makeover): 822-1575 or Continuing on stage in August: North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of the comedy, The Kitchen Witches, weekends through August 20. 442-NCRT (6278).

 Also in August, Humboldt Light Opera Company’s KidCo runs a “Write Your Own Musical” workshop for children ages 7 to 18, August 1-12, with the resulting musical performed on Saturday, August 13. KidCo will also hold auditions for its November production of Alice in Wonderland on Saturday, August 20 at the Arcata United Methodist Church. Kids from K-12 should be there at 1 p.m. and expect to stay until 3 p.m. There’s also an audition workshop on August 6. Complete information on both workshops and auditions at

 North Coast Repertory Theatre will hold open auditions for its November-December mystery, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, on August 21 and 22 at 7 p.m. at NCRT. There are roles for 3 women and 5 men, ages 20s to 60s. For more information call 268-0175 or email the director at

North Coast Journal's War on Theatre

My Stage Matters column in the North Coast Journal appeared this week with one repeated editorial change: every time I wrote "theatre," the Journal changed it to "theater."

This was done without consulting with me or notifying me in advance.  I did receive some forwarded emails debating the matter, apparently forwarded by my editor, but these arrived when the column was already being printed.  (In fact, I had no prior knowledge that the column was running at all in this issue.  Nor have I had responses to recent emails to my editor asking specific questions, in particular about a shortfall on my last check.  These forwards were my first indication in over a week that my editor still existed.)

One of the emails contained the response I believe came from Ryan Burns, recent interim editor and feature writer, who was apparently a party to this discussion.  Here's that statement:

"For some time now, Journal style has been to use theatre to describe the art of theatre, which is what every theatre company in Humboldt County does, and to use theater to describe a building - unless of course the theatre company uses the traditional British spelling, which pretty much all of them do. We went through all this years ago when our theatre columnist Bill Kowinski insisted that he prefers to use theatre. Does the Humboldt State Department of Theatre, Film and Dance teach theater or theatre? Do we really need to open up the debate again?"

I can answer one question: the HSU Department of Theatre, Film and Dance teaches theatre.   The statement is correct about  "every theatre company in Humboldt County"-at least every active theatre company uses "theatre."  So what's this all about?

The justification for "theater" is the Associated Press Stylebook, something of a Bible for newspapers, which decrees the use of "theater" except if contradicted by an official name, as in "Van Duzer Theatre."  It's become common practice in newspapers, including the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle.  So it could reasonably be a move towards standard practice.

On the other hand, in the theatre world, it's still mostly theatre. It certainly is on the North Coast.  Even the rule previously followed at the Journal, which is also widely accepted--that "theatre" is the art form, and "theater" is the building--runs into the complications mentioned--that many buildings have "theatre" in their names.

At the Journal, my sense when this topic has come up before--and all I really recall is the sarcasm involved--is the conviction on the part of some of the NCJ hierarchy that using "theatre" is pretentious, snooty and arty--and I suppose by extension, so are the people who prefer it.

The "theatre" spelling comes from British practice, and "theater" from Noah Webster's crusade for American English forms.  Movie theaters have been theaters pretty much from the beginning.  But theatre has a different history.

Given the consequences of global warming or of the current march of the morons on Capitol Hill dragging us all into the abyss, the reverse of these two letters is not a compelling issue.  It is perhaps a ludicrous one and seemingly a needless one, and I question why it was raised, and certainly how it was handled.

This was also imposed for the first time on a column in which I used the word "theatre" many more times than usual.  It was also rare in that I didn't use the full names of local theatres and theatre organizations, which left untested the principle that the Journal doesn't have the right to change the names that others give to their organizations or venues.

What it did was to change every instance of "theatre" in my signed column to another spelling, without discussing it and without even telling me in advance. What the Journal does in its news columns or listings is not my affair.  My column is.  So at the very least, I announce to readers of this blog, including those members of the North Coast theatrical community and readers of the North Coast Journal--that I did not approve of the changes in my column.  Maybe I could have been persuaded, but I wasn't given that opportunity.

 So it's still theatre with me.  And it will continue to be.  So every time you read "theater" in my column, you may rest assured that I did not write it that way.

And so I post here my column as I wrote it.  I've added one sort of change, though--I use the full names of local theatres, to emphasize the petulant absurdity of this editorial and dictatorial change. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stage Presence: the Official Stage Matters column

As the current theatre season winds down, announcements of next season’s offerings on North Coast stages are beginning. Before some of those are revealed later in this column, a few words on the wider context, and a reminder.

The reminder is this: all theatre is local. It’s true that the plays we see here are often done at many regional and community theatres around the country and even the world, for years and even centuries before we see them. It’s also true that some theatrical creations are more local than others—such as Dell’Arte International Theatre Company's Mary Jane: the Musical or The Loggers Project by Sanctuary Stage Theatre, and other “theatre of place” productions created out of local experiences.

But all productions are local in the sense that they are created on stage only by people of the here and now, and experienced by audiences exclusively here and now. That includes the experience of a play from elsewhere, its history and its meaning to us, here, now.

To suggest another meaning of “all theatre is local” consider a play that we won’t see this season or next, or probably ever: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. This current Broadway musical cost $75 million to produce (including $2 million for harnesses and flying rigs), enough to finance all of North Coast theatre possibly until the end of time. Most local theatres would be happy with an annual budget matching the $1.2 million it costs to stage this show each week.

Yet after more than 180 previews, a fired director and a rewrite, it opened to reviews that would likely get a North Coast critic a shove off Trinidad Head: “This singing comic book is no longer the ungodly, indecipherable mess it was in February. It’s just a bore,” wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times.

Other critics wrote: “This effects-driven musical is still situated a wide canyon’s distance from good. “A sad, stilted event that crashes consistently and rarely flies.” “Deteriorated from mindblowingly misbegotten carnival-of-the-damned to merely embarrassing dud.” Entertainment Weekly noted that the common complaints were incoherent storytelling and mediocre songs.

Tickets to see it on Broadway range from $69 to $362 (with broker fee.) In an era when even regional theatre tickets can flirt with or exceed $100, most North Coast theatres tickets are under $20. Obviously a Broadway show or a regional theatre production will be different in many respects. Some will be better—occasionally even the more than the ten times better suggested by the difference in ticket price. But not always. Theatre is an uncertain thing everywhere, all the time.

Even apart from cost, shows will always have different virtues and weaknesses, rewards and disappointments. Because all theatre is local. For instance, one of the repeated rewards of North Coast productions is the person on stage who lifts you out of your seat. It may be a well-known local veteran in a particularly revelatory role. Or it may be a young talent passing through, from local high schools to distant universities, from local colleges to destiny elsewhere, maybe on a bigger stage.

Stage presence is perhaps the most mysterious and most indispensible quality. It express itself as dramatic talent, of power and timing, or a comedic talent, of movement and personality. It may be a speaking voice that commands attention and expresses unexpected emotion, or a singing voice that thrills and touches the heart. Or it can be moments, or an entire production that’s illuminating or moving. But you have to be there. Because all theatre is local.

As for what North Coast audiences can see on stage beginning this fall, here are the next season productions announced by three local theatres.

North Coast Repertory Theatre begins with the Sondheim musical Into the Woods, followed by Agatha Christie’s stage mystery The Mousetrap. Neil Simon has been good to NCRT, so next year features his Laughter on the 23rd Floor. The annual Shakespeare is the comedy Much Ado About Nothing. Next spring the 2003 musical Avenue Q is followed by the comedy The Red Velvet Cake War.

Ferndale Repertory Theatre's season begins in October with a farce in which four actors reenact the Hitchcock film, 39 Steps. A stage adaptation of the viral TV classic A Christmas Story is followed in February by the first Shakespeare at Ferndale in awhile: The Taming of the Shrew. Then three musical productions complete the season: Evita, Cabaret and Woody Guthrie American Song.

HSU Department of Theatre, Film and Dance has announced its most ambitious season in years: Neil Labute’s Fat Pig (directed by Michael Thomas) in September, the musical Brigadoon in October, followed by Eugene Stickland’s Christmas comedy, Some Assembly Required. Venus by Suzan Lori-Parks is in February, the Noel Coward comedy Blithe Spirit in March, before the spring dance show and 10 Minute Play Festival.

Coming Up: But there are more shows before this season is over. Opening at North Coast Repertory Theatre on July 28 is The Kitchen Witches, a comedy by Caroline Smith, directed by Carol Escobar and featuring Kathleen Marshall, Laura Rose, Daniel Kennedy and George Szabo.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Kimberly Akimbo at Redwood Curtain

This is a longer version of my review in the North Coast Journal.

Healthy families are all alike, but every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way. Which for playwrights from the Greeks to Eugene O’Neill onwards has been money in the bank. David Lindsay-Abaire studied playwriting at Julliard with Christopher Durang and Marsha (‘Night, Mother) Norman. He wrote the dysfunctional family of Kimberly Akimbo as if he was their love child, combining innocence and addictions, whimsy and noisy desperation in the wilds of working class New Jersey.

The production now on the Redwood Curtain stage in Eureka is introduced by theme songs from 50s and 60s family sitcoms, but this is more like the 1990s Married...With Children meeting the solemn surrealism of 2011 reality TV.

Kimberly Lavaco (played by Adina Lawson) is turning 16, which is the average life expectancy for her rare genetic disorder that causes her to age more than four times faster than normal. Her dad is Buddy (James Hitchcock), an alcoholic gas station booth attendant who promises to take the family to a Six Flags amusement park with a new African safari attraction, but never does. Her mother is Pattie (Elisa Abelleira), who is very pregnant and has both arms in casts from a purported carpel tunnel syndrome surgery. She says she’s dying of cancer (she isn’t) and so must spill her thoughts into a tape recorder for her unborn daughter.

Pattie’s sister Debra (Peggy Metzger) is a homeless petty criminal who has lived in their basement, and is the moving force both in their past and in the crime that is planned and committed during the play. She’s also the closest to Kimberly.

We learn of Kimberly’s condition thanks to the cluelessly sincere interest of her high school classmate Jeff, whose own unseen family includes a criminal brother and neglectful father. He stays afloat with enthusiasms for Dungeons and Dragons and anagrams (the play was written in 2000, before similar teens moved on to newer obsessions.)

Adina Lawson brings Kimberly to life with an adept performance that centers the play. But this is really an ensemble production, and all the actors define specific characters that create both comic and dramatic moments, sometimes simultaneously. Peggy Metzger’s performance is so physically expressive that Debra is wholly convincing from the start. In a contrasting low-keyed style, Kody Dennis brings to Jeff a desperate warmth, a youthful enthusiasm in quiet war with anxiety. He and Lawson play believable age-crossed lovers.

Buddy is the one character who changes surprisingly if modestly, and James Hitchcock ably plays his various colors. Although she changes little, Pattie does have dimensions to reveal, and Elisa Abelleira makes an impression in a difficult role. This emphasis on acting is getting to be a hallmark of Redwood Curtain productions. I suspect a lot of credit goes to director Cassandra Hesseltine.

There’s lots of comedy, even in the talky first act, but this world is so profoundly sad. Amidst all the self-justifying struggle and denial, the family’s happiest moments are playing a nostalgic board game. The best liberation any of them can imagine is Six Flags and Florida.

Playwright Lindsay-Abaire takes a lot of liberties with his stage world. (Maybe that’s what everyone means when they call him “quirky,” a word I’d dearly like to see retired.) But as audience investing belief we have to know the rules of this world, and lack of clarity, plus a certain slipshod relationship to reality, tends to take you out of the play.

Among the problems I had was understanding the rules of Kimberly’s disease (which resembles the rare but real condition of Progeria, but is different in important respects.) It was hard for me to see just what the effects of this rapid aging were supposed to be, since this Kimberly moved like a teenager. If anything, Adina Lawson is too convincing--a living advertisement for her yoga regimen. There seemed to be no visible progression in the disease or other physical effects during the play.

There are reasons why the playwright didn't just use classic Progeria as his protagonist's disease.  For one it involves dwarfism.  For another it is genetic but not hereditary--that is, it is caused by a genetic malfunction, but not by a gene that is passed down from  parent to child or to succeeding generations.  This is a common misunderstanding of some "genetic" diseases.  This is important here because one of the key questions of the play involves whether the child Kimberly's mother is carrying risks being born with her disease (the disorder in the play is passed on 20% of the time, according to the text.)

There are smaller but suggestive alterations to reality.  That Pattie would have casts on both arms for the entire period of the play doesn't pass the smell test, especially since surgery to correct carpal tunnel syndrome is a much more local operation.  My point here is that there's always this risk when exaggerating for comic or even dramatic effect: that the suspension of disbelief necessary to make the effect work requires an automatic acceptance of the premise, and if doubts occur to you, or you're thinking about what the rules are, you're not going to be open to the disbelief or the effect.

Does that mean everything onstage has to make sense?  Only within the world that's being created.  Nobody expects the Marx Brothers world to make literal sense.  And while there may be a story (does the opera succeed?  Does the boy get the girl?) it's low stakes storytelling, though how that plot meshes with the comedy is the art of it.  For me, it works awkwardly in this play.           

The virtues of the play are encapsulated in one directorial touch: when Buddy talks into the tape recorder about the disappointments of his life, of having a family before he’s seen the world, he does so with snow falling on him alone in a volume that almost chokes him. The play’s co-dependence of poignancy and absurdity is expressed in this theatrical gesture.

The problems with the play are suggested by another gesture: Kimberly persuades her parents to drop nickels into a can whenever they use foul language. On this stage, the tin periodically pops out the nickels like popcorn. It’s a funny bit, but it is ignored by the characters and seems to have no reality or function other than as a funny bit that takes us out of the play. Maybe I'm not sufficiently postmodern to accept this.

I saw this at first preview and I also felt a lack of pacing, which may emerge as the cast feels the rhythms of performance.  But that's fairly common onstage hereabouts--there is this sense of just getting through it, as quickly as possible.  Pacing is a tool for emphasis, for directing the audience's attention.  So is staging.  The wide and shallow Redwood Curtain stage presents particular challenges. Generally the way to direct the audience's attention is to stage the most significant scenes as close to downstage center as possible.  To me the pivotal scenes took place in Kimberly bedroom, which was upstage and stage right.  I felt it was too remote.

Jody Sekas designed the inventive set that creates an appropriate crowdedness for this claustrophobic family world. Meeka Day and Jayson Mohatt designed the lighting, Gail Holbrook the costumes, John Turney the sound. Kimberly Akimbo continues at Redwood Curtain Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. until July 30, with one Sunday matinee on July 24 at 2 p.m.

Friday, July 8, 2011

This North Coast Weekend

A little late this weekend, but--At Redwood Curtain, Saturday is the official opening night of Kimberly Akimbo, a comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire.  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. (Photo at left.) Cassandra Hesseltine directs.  The show continues Thursdays to Saturdays through July 30. Thursdays are cheap date nights. There’s one Sunday matinee, on July 24 at 2 p.m.

The Mad River Festival in Blue Lake continues this weekend 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.