Thursday, September 29, 2011

This North Coast Weekend

At Dell’Arte for two weekends beginning Thursday (Sept. 29), the physical comedy ensemble Under the Table presents The Hunchbacks of Notre Dame. Yes, that’s “hunchbacks” plural (three to be precise.) It’s an adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic created in Blue Lake with Dell’Arte’s Ronlin Foreman. It’s performed in the Carlo, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., through October 8.

Into the Woods continues at North Coast Rep.  My review is in the Journal, along with an unattractively presented October preview.

For the record, Beti Trauth reviewed HSU's Fat Pig in the Humboldt Beacon.  (A rave.) 

Friday, September 23, 2011

This North Coast Weekend

Into the Woods continues at North Coast Rep, while Fat Pig is in its final weekend at HSU's Gist Hall Theatre.

There were two reviews of Fat Pig this week: in the Lumberjack (a rave) and the Journal (a pan.)  I saw it opening night and for me it was definitely worthwhile.  I don't know any of Neil LaBute's other work, and from what I've read about it, I likely won't be seeking it out.  But I read this play several times and the writing is intriguing.  A very sparse and realistic-seeming style--it's no accident that it's dedicated to David Mamet, who early in his career wrote about people of about this age (in their 20s.) So the sound of it from this cast was interesting to me, and something of a revelation.  The actors made it their own, and made it contemporary in a way that I didn't imagine, so I learned something.

In terms of acting and production, I always discount for opening weekend a little, as a play is finding its feet and the actors are learning more about their characters and how to play them.  But from the first beat, Colleen Lacy brought her character alive, which makes the other characters possible. Kyle Ryan has the most difficult part, I thought when reading the play, and he's a gamer. He's up to the challenge. He has to keep this guy on the edge without getting shrill.  He had already found some interesting spaces and ways to explore them.  His performance is alive, and I like being there for that, even when it isn't perfect.  They all have to find a rhythm with this unusual dialogue and play.  That's intriguing. And they put the play across clearly enough to communicate it to the audience, which is their basic task.          

There was a talkback opening night, and the responses were often more about the lives of the people (mostly students) who talked, than about the play.  So they got themselves into the play and its issues, which confirmed my feeling that students are the main audience for this play.  That makes the Lumberjack review (a very rare event) especially appropriate.     

My review of Into the Woods will appear in the Journal next week.  If you like Sondheim and specifically this play, you'll probably go see it, and you should.  It seems an especially good production for children and older kids.  The performances, the basic clarity of the direction and the production, all praiseworthy.  So if you're inclined to see it, don't wait until next week for any review.  But, you know, read it afterwards. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Into the Woods: Fractured Fairy Tales

 Another opening, another Sondheim musical. For the current North Coast Repertory Theatre production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Calder Johnson’s wide and mostly open set, festooned with woodsy red leaves, signals an airy difference from the cramped and dark London of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, as produced last month at Ferndale Rep. This is a brighter sort of show, with more motion and humor, and even some dancing.

Nevertheless there is darkness in these woods, and in the fates and hearts of these characters. Fairytales are the starting point for Into the Woods. There is a linking story—of a baker (played by Evan Needham) and his wife (Megan Johnson) whose desire for a child is being thwarted by a witch (Andrea Zvaleko.)

 The witch’s demands send the couple on a quest that conveniently involves archetypal fairytale characters: Little Red Riding Hood (Katy Curtis), Cinderella (Molly Severdia), Rapunzel (Caitlin McMurtry) and Jack, of Beanstalk fame (Riley McFarland.) Leave it to Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) to restore the grimmer aspects to the often-sanitized Grimm fairytales.

 There’s also some wicked humor in how they update the characters. Little Red Riding Hood is shyly and then slyly attracted to wolfishness. Though Cinderella easily wins her Prince Charming, she is blankly disenchanted with her happily ever after.

 But the ironies have a light touch, even when suggesting some moral confusion in the supposed morals of the fairytales. The old tales wind up more or less where we remember them as the first act ends, but things become unhinged with further developments in Act II. Morals are even harder to come by, and when the Giant’s giant mate comes seeking revenge for Jack’s pillaging and the Giant’s death, the characters argue over whose fault it all is.

 A society collapsing from the consequences of its unthinking actions is probably the show’s most relevant and unsettling suggestion.

 Director Adina Lawson keeps a crisp pace and a large cast in motion, without sacrificing clarity. Some of the complex lyrics get lost in ensemble numbers, but the major moments are front and center.

 Megan Johnson in particular takes command of the stage for her big second act number. Molly Severdia and Katy Curtis make the most of their roles, young Riley McFarland is an appealing new presence, and Caitlin McMurtry showcases another of her mesmerizing talents—a bloodcurdling scream. Keili Marble (who also handled the neat choreography) does wonders with her silent role as Milky White, while Andrea Zvaleko effects a memorable transformation.

 The entire cast performs well, individually and as a unit, including the so far unmentioned Anders Carlson, Antonio Waller, Luke Sikora, Chyna Dale, Laureen Savage, Emily Chand and Jason Chand (among others.) Craig Klapman plays a genial narrator that gets offed by the characters—one of many suggestions that postmodern deconstruction was as much an influence on this play as Bruno Bettleheim’s psychological study of fairytales, The Uses of Enchantment.

 Nanette Voss-Herlihy is the music director, Marcia Hutson designed the inventive costumes, Lauren Wieland designed hair and makeup. The orchestra is excellent: skillful, tasteful musicians who support the singing and fill the action perfectly. Its members are Justin Ross, Gary Ross, Caitlin Denning, Hilson Parker, Amber Grimes and Aaron Lopez.

 As in much of Sondheim, the lyrics are clever and the music fitfully attractive. The character moments in this production are mostly the musical comedy kind, and in general the treatment is efficient and superficial. I’ve seen this script done with more emotional impact.

 The story as presented has the peculiar logic of fairy tales, with events that would otherwise seem arbitrary but may be symbolic or otherwise meaningful. That approach combined with writer Lapine’s purposeful jumble of incident and accident results in a spectacle of moments, a collage of fairytale tweets.

 I saw this with a young audience, and this production does seem particularly appropriate for children who may enjoy seeing the fairytale characters, as well as grade school and high school students ready to revisit them on a different level. These audiences—and others—may also thrill to a big live musical done with such enthusiasm and skill.

 Into the Woods continues at North Coast Rep in Eureka through October 15.

 Coming Up: At Dell’Arte for two weekends beginning Thursday (Sept. 28), the physical comedy ensemble Under the Table presents The Hunchbacks of Notre Dame. Yes, that’s “hunchbacks” plural (three to be precise.) It’s an adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic created in Blue Lake with Dell’Arte’s Ronlin Foreman. It’s performed in the Carlo, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., through October 8.

 Also on Oct. 8, Arcata Playhouse presents Elemental, an “outdoor community theatre spectacle” that features giant puppets, stilt walkers, a paper lantern procession, a giant shadow play and a fire performance. It starts at 7 p.m. at the Mad River in Blue Lake.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Cloak & Brew: Yankee Tavern a 9-11 Conspiracy Drama

The tenth anniversary of 9-11 got the media’s full attention this past weekend. News outlets offered new information and new surmises concerning those terrible events. Also last weekend, a play that centers on 9-11 opened at Redwood Curtain in Eureka.

 Yankee Tavern by Steven Dietz is set in a New York City bar five years later, and the characters all have memories of that day. Adam is the young owner of the bar, which he inherited from his father. Because of the derelict hotel on the floors above it, the bar’s future is doubtful.

 Janet is his fiancĂ©e, who urges him to complete his doctoral thesis so he can leave the bar behind. Ray is the vagabond conspiracy theorist who has been coming to the tavern for so long that he has his own key, and is squatting in a room upstairs, where the rats and ghosts (he claims) keep him company.

 Palmer is the mysterious stranger who orders two Rolling Rocks, but drinks only one. It soon turns out that several of them have more than memories. They have theories and perhaps facts that question the official accounts, and they are still involved in pursuing the truth. Their conversations reveal bits of personal history but also threads of a possible conspiracy involving 9-11.

 Though a few details of their assertions were new to me (or were made up), most have been around for awhile on the Internet, and the general idea has been out there for years. Some audience members may be surprised and shocked by these allegations, some may take them seriously, some may react with disgust or anger.

 But I’m not reviewing a conspiracy theory. I’m reviewing a play. Stage mysteries involving crimes, clues, spies, intrigue, etc. aren’t as plentiful as they used to be. But of course there are many such dramas on television, and a fair number at the movies. So audiences have standards by which to judge them.

 Believing in the reality of the story, at least provisionally, is crucial. The stage offers the intensity of live actors in real time. This places a particular burden on the actors, who have to maintain your belief and sustain your interest, particularly in a play that has a lot of fairly complicated talk, as this one does. In this regard, the Redwood Curtain production succeeded for me, at least through the first act.

 Nathan Emmons is always a formidable stage presence, and as Adam he finally he has a local role as the prime mover of a play. Victor Howard is another local actor who demands attention in comedy or drama, and as Palmer, his performance is appropriately taut and focused.

 Jenner Cohune steps forward from ensemble roles to creditably play Janet, the character at the fulcrum of the drama (director Jyl Hewston keeps her firmly at the center of the stage.) While Steven J. Carter as Ray is in danger of being typecast as the crazy guy, he propels his mercurial character through all his apparent changes.

 Director Hewston efficiently navigates the characters across Liz Uhazy’s comfortably detailed set—no small feat in a first act with almost no action. With some eloquence and laughs, this first act tosses numerous balls in the air.

 Unfortunately, too many dropped out of sight in the second act. Perhaps other audience members caught them, but I didn’t. Plot and character points vanished or failed to pay off. Not much that did happen in the second act worked for me either—not the halfhearted gunplay, not the script’s clunky misdirection and awkward ambiguity of the final scenes.

 Probably there are themes to ponder, concerning coincidence and conspiracy, or the price of public and private secrets. That a play that casts a skeptical eye on coincidences seems to dramatically depend on them may be the droll point.

 Maybe the characters are more archetypes than stereotypes. But this much-praised play did not work for me either in basic dramatic terms (finish what you start), or in respecting the expectations of the genre (details matter.) There seemed so many gaps and flaws that the ending—which some may find provocative--just left me feeling cheated.

 Whether or not you’d agree, the acting and stagecraft is enjoyable. Yankee Tavern continues at Redwood Curtain on weekends through October 1.

 Coming Up: Two plays open Thursday, September 15. HSU presents Fat Pig by playwright and film director Neil LaBute for two weekends in the Gist Hall Theatre on the HSU campus. Michael Thomas directs.

 North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka opens the Stephen Sondheim musical, Into the Woods, which continues weekends through October 15. Adina Lawson directs.

 On Friday and Saturday (Sept. 16 and 17), the award-winning physical comedy troupe from San Francisco called Pi presents its clown show, Slices for All, at the Arcata Playhouse.

 On Saturday, Jeff DeMark performs a “loose work-in progress” called That Train Has Sailed, with a cadre of local musicians at Redwood Yogurt in Arcata. Check this week’s Calendar for details.