Monday, November 28, 2011

Yule Tales

Some Assembly Required
What’s behind the coincidences of Christmas shows? There are perennial themes such as family and Christmas itself, as exemplified this year by A Christmas Story at Ferndale Rep, and Eugene Stickland’s Some Assembly Required at HSU, which could be considered a slightly askew sequel. (I wonder if audiences anywhere else in North America have the opportunity to see these two shows in this same season.)

Opening Thursday at HSU was the contemporary holiday comedy, Some Assembly Required by Canadian playwright Eugene Stickland. The opening night audience rocked Gist Hall Theatre with laughter, and audience members noted resemblances to their own crazy families at the holidays. The HSU Theatre, Film & Dance production features Evan Needham (familiar from NCRT roles), Romy Clugston (an exchange student from Australia), and HSU students Kyle Handziak, Karianne Nelson and Shea King. Stars were born! The show continues Friday and Saturday this weekend at 7:30, then one more weekend, Thurs-Sat. with a 2 p.m. matinee on December 11. Much more at HSU Stage & Screen.

As for the two shows reviewed here today, the common economic theme is expressed in the title of one of them: A Playhouse Recessionary Christmas, currently at the Arcata Playhouse. That’s pretty clear, but it also suggests to me that the economy might have been a subtle factor in the shows of Christmas past.

 Back in 2007, when the economy was seemingly riding high, fueled mostly by the fantasy of making money by moving money around with no visible means of support, we had our fantasy-laden Lewis Carroll Christmas at Dell’Arte and Ferndale Rep. But in 2009, after it was all exposed as illusion and the Great Recession was underway, we had our Dickensian Christmas at NCRT as well as Dell’Arte and Ferndale, with children in rags ignored by the 19th century 1%.

 As do the first two shows mentioned, A Playhouse Recessionary Christmas portrays a family preparing for the holidays. This time the parents, Esther and Frank Happy (played with sweet hilarity by Lynne and Bob Wells) are taking in adult daughter Violet (Jackie Dandeneau) because her house is in foreclosure. Her wild younger sister Rose (Amy Tetzlaff) is already there, and Violet brings her two children, Lily (Amelia David) and Daisy (Cora Dandeneau.)

 But the script by Tyler Olsen doesn’t dwell on the foreclosure situation directly, though the payoff at the end concerns recessionary gifts. The story goes off in other twisted sitcom directions, including Rose’s green wax obsession and Frank’s campaign to unmask Santa as an alien in league with corporations. It’s all also a pretext for music, including a unique “Twelve Days of Christmas” by Lynne and Bob, songs by Jacky and by the band of Tim Randles, Tim Gray and Marla Joy (“Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” is one) and by different guest artists at each performance. The kids (Amelia and Cora) are delightful troupers already.

 The show is directed by Lydia Foreman (who also designed the costumes), with set by Lush Newton and lighting by David Ferney. There are surprises and silliness for the whole family, for one more weekend at the Arcata Playhouse.

 Meanwhile, the Dell’Arte holiday show is on the road. This year the textual victim is The Nutcracker, as three poor mice turn to crime and learn who their real oppressor is (the dirty rat) in The Nutcaper.

 With the comic ballets to that familiar Tchaikovsky music, this has the gentle charm of shows that kids put on for themselves. Performed with Dell’Arte School skill, it’s probably the most child-oriented of the Dell’Arte holiday shows I’ve seen, though there are of course a few class warfare jokes for grownups.

 Meredith Anne Baldwin, Rachel Brown and Meghan Frank are the lovable mouse trio. Myque Franz is the Nutcracker (who turns out to be another exploited worker) and Pratik Motwani is the suitably sinister Rat King who might remind older kids (really older) of the Blue Meanies. Joan Schirle directs, with choreography by Laura Munoz. Daniel Spencer designed the sets, Lydia Foreman the costumes, Michael Foster the lighting, Tim Gray the sound.

Meanwhile, back at Ferndale Repertory Theatre by popular demand is A Christmas Story. It’s the same story as the movie which has been seen in 24-hour marathons on various Turner cable stations since the 90s, but with Ralphie, the young hero, recalling his Depression era Indiana childhood as an adult. It’s also the same play that Ferndale presented in 2008, and not the musical version that’s been touring with Peter Billingsley, the actor who played Ralphie in the movie, as producer.

The story by radio raconteur Jean Shepherd is gentle nostalgic comedy with icons from the movie that fans worship, like the leg lamp, or the kid whose tongue is frozen to a flagpole. Philip Grecian’s stage adaptation of course preserves them all.

 Ginger Gene directs a cast that includes Nathan Emmons, Kristi Peifer, Brian Morrison, Aiden Vergen, Megan Walsh, Keelan Franklin, Andrew Cutler, Hailey Benbow, Brianna Schatz, Kate Haley, Charlie Beck, and Steve Vergen as young Ralphie. Costumes are by Lori Knowles, lighting by Greta Stockwell, sound by Ian Schatz, and Scenic Charge Artist is Daniel C. Niyiri. The Ferndale Repertory Theatre’s 40th Anniversary holiday production of A Christmas Story runs on weekends including Sunday matinees through Dec. 18.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Illustrated Mousetrap

Anders Carlson and Shannan Dailey in The Mousetrap at NCRT

Joan Hickson 
Though Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time, I suspect most of us now know her stories principally from the many television and movie versions. Christie herself adapted a dozen or so of her stories for the stage, sometimes ruthlessly. She staged three stories starring her famous detective, Hercule Poirot, but eliminated Poirot. In Appointment with Death she outfoxed her readers by reproducing the novel’s plot and characters but she chose a different murderer. This play premiered in 1945 with a young Joan Hickson in the cast. Christie wrote to her, hoping she would one day play her other famous detective, Miss Marple. Hickson did—in the 1970s BBC series that’s arguably the best of the available DVD sets.

Agatha Christie

Marlene D. in 1957 Witness movie
 Aficionados rank three of her plays among the best of the genre: Witness for the Prosecution (which was successfully filmed at least twice), Ten Little Indians, and by far her most celebrated play, The Mousetrap, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka. The Mousetrap premiered in London in November 1952, where its record as the longest running play in history is unlikely to be broken, especially since to this day it is still running at the St. Martin’s Theatre.

Albert Finney as Poirot

"The Unicorn and the Wasp" on Doctor Who: David
Tennant, Catherine Tate and Fenella Woolgar
as Agatha Christie
With their relatively slow pace and reliance on plot mechanics, stage mysteries aren’t done much anymore. Christie’s plots in particular inspired parody, from the self-consciousness of the all-star movies in the 1970s based on Christie novels (with Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov each portraying Poirot) to the hilarious burlesque of Tom Stoppard’s play, The Real Inspector Hound, and an affectionately funny episode of Doctor Who a few years ago.

The Mousetrap is handsomely mounted at NCRT, as directed by Tom Phillips, with set by Calder Johnson, costumes by Shelley Stewart and lighting by David Tyndall. The cast capably provides the required shades of sympathy and suspicion for each character. Shannan Dailey and Anders Carlson are Mollie and Giles Ralston, welcoming a group of strangers into their old Guest House in suburban London during a snowstorm. The guests are Mrs. Boyle, a demanding older woman (played by Toodie SueAnn Boll); Major Metcalf, a retired soldier (Scott Malcolm); Christopher Wren, a fey young man (Selavy Skaggs); Miss Casewell, a mannish woman (Gloria Montgomery, with the best British accent.) David R. Simms plays Mr. Paravicini, a mysterious foreigner who arrives unexpectedly. (Christie hoped audiences would think he might be Poirot.) Jasper Anderton plays Detective Sergeant Trotter, who shows up to investigate a murder.

The characters are recognizable types, and while some of the portrayals might seem over the top, the main task of keeping the mystery alive is accomplished. The first act ends with another murder. By the end, the murderer among them is revealed, but there are enough clues (and enough loose ends left dangling) to lead plausibly to several other suspects.

The Mousetrap includes the sly social commentary that enlivens some of Christie’s stories, and it preserves a sense of the dislocations in British society being felt in the years immediately following World War II. Absent the expectation that it will rival the televised stories, it may provide fun for an entertaining night out.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

This North Coast Weekend

Opening Thursday at North Coast Repertory in Eureka is The Mousetrap, a stage mystery by Agatha Christie.  The longest running play by the best-selling author in history, it's a whodunit without Poirot or Miss Marple.  Actors Benefit and champagne reception Thursday, continuing Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through December 10.For reservations, group rates, or more information, please all 442-NCRT (6278).

 For one weekend only at the Arcata Playhouse, the award-winning Human Nature troupe from Petrolia presents its latest climate crisis comedy, Two Old Birds or Tripping on the Tipping Point.  It runs Thursday through Saturday (Nov. 17-19) at 8 p.m. For reservations: the Playhouse at 822-1575.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

North Coast Auditions

Auditions for Redwood Curtain's 2012 acting company will be held Saturday November 19.  Details:

College of the Redwoods will be holding auditions for their tenth annual spring comedy, The Miser by Moliere on Dec. 1 and 2. Auditions will take place at the CR Forum, room FM103, from 7 to 10 p.m. both nights. No preparation will be required.

HSU Theatre, Film & Dance will audition for its Feb.29-March 4 production of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit on Sunday December 4 (4pm-6:30) and Monday December 5 (8-10pm) in Gist Hall 2.  Cast is 5 women and two men.  Script available at TFD office.  Contact:

Looks like I missed posting auditions for Ferndale Rep's upcoming musicals and NCRT's Shakespeare production, Much Ado About Nothing earlier this month.  Apologies.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Couldn't Resist

A second comment has appeared at the NC Journal site to my review of The Last Five Years at Redwood Curtain by someone who signs himself as Jonathan.  He refers to the program note cited by the previous commenter, "Dianne" (presumably the show's director):

“the action moves simultaneously between the present and the past” is definitely a confusing way of describing what’s going on.

i think what the show needs is a preamble describing exactly how Cathy became stuck in the temporal paradox in the first place. was it a highly localized wormhole creating a parallel universe? a massive breech in the anti-matter containment system that fractured the time-space continuum? the audience is left in the dark."

Photo: The Enterprise-D enters a temporal rift in the classic episode, "Yesterday's Enterprise."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

This North Coast Weekend

At the Arcata Playhouse, Bay Area actor and Celtic harpist Patrick Ball performs his musical tribute to Irish legend Turlough O’Carolan in O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music for one night only on Friday November 4 at 7 p.m.

Opening on Friday (November 4) at the College of the Redwoods Forum Theater is the Humboldt Light Opera Company KidCo production of Alice in Wonderland, Jr. Directed by Cindy Cress, with musical direction by Amy Chalfant, this family musical with familiar characters and scenes from the Lewis Carroll Alice books features children from ages 5 to 17, including Ciara Cheli-Colando, Camille Asbill, Kyra Dart, Rachel Post, Isabella Loch, Lily Buschmann, Kayla Kossow, Gabby Fell, Leah Selcer, James Zwiker, Kalex Sweetfire-Spoon, Allie Sanchez, Estelle Fuller, Anna Vodopals, Erin Casper and Kaylie Doebel. It runs Fridays and Saturdays, Nov. 4-5 and 11-12 at 7 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on November 6.

At the Redbud Theatre in Willow Creek, the comedy Academia Nuts by Gregg Kreutz is performed November 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. The cast includes Brian Bottemiller (who also directs,) Roland Grubb, Libby Pinto and Vicki Kurtz.

Continuing at Redwood Curtain, the musical The Last Five Years.  See post below.

The Last Five Years

The Last Five Years, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, is the fifth musical produced on the North Coast since August, and the 11th since last September (if you count the two Mozart operas along with the three Sondheims and the two Lerner and Loewes.) It’s even the second time in that period for The Last Five Years, which Humboldt Light Opera performed (in part) in April.

 Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, this show is almost entirely sung. There are only two characters: Jamie, a young novelist on the rise in Manhattan, and Catherine, a struggling actress. The story is about their relationship as a couple. However, they are together on stage for just one scene. The rest of the time each sings alone.

 On the level of the music and the performances, this is an enjoyable show. Ably supported by the band of Justin Ross, Amber Grimes and Pete Zuleger, the music is pop-oriented in various styles, with literate lyrics. There’s a definite imbalance: Jamie gets the big numbers and Cathy gets a lot of slow songs that are bittersweet at best. At times it’s like Billy Joel versus Alanis Morisette (two songwriters from Brown’s formative years.)

Nanette Voss-Herlihy is heroic in finding and expressing Cathy’s essence, and Kyle Ryan is confidently dazzling as Jamie, both as a singer and an actor. His every moment felt true. Out of his many recent appearances on various local stages, this is Ryan’s most complete performance.

 But regarding the story, if (like me) you haven’t seen this show before, I have some information you will probably find useful: Jamie’s story is told from the beginning to the end of the relationship, but Cathy’s story is sung from the end to the beginning. I learned this later from Wikipedia. I certainly didn’t learn it from seeing the show (or even from the enigmatic program note.)

 Starting at the end of a relationship and going back to the beginning has worked on the stage, notably in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Deconstructing a relationship from each person’s perspective, going in different directions in time, is a provocative postmodern idea, and it could even work if the procedure was made clear to the audience. Playing with relative time has its moments, but you shouldn’t have to be Einstein to figure out what’s going on. There is so much ambiguity in this text, helped not at all by the staging, that much of its emotion and possible meaning are lost.

 Apart from the universals of relationship, this story about the perils of success (first produced in 2002) has an almost nostalgic, 1990s Bright Lights, Big City, Masters of the Universe feel. However, the problems of two-career couples in the arts are particular and perennial.

 The Last Five Years is directed by Dianne Zuleger, with scenic and lighting design by Michael Burkhart, and costumes by Kevin Sharkey. It is on stage at Redwood Curtain Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Nov. 17, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Nov. 13,

 So what about this run of musicals since summer? Qualitatively, I’d suggest Mary Jane: The Musical as the most relevant, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as the most fun, Into the Woods as the most family-friendly. Sweeney Todd was the best play and Brigadoon had the best music.

 Generally speaking, North Coast companies do musicals well, and this run kept people busy but stretched the talent base thin, not to mention the audience. It also suggests that communication among these institutions could still be a lot better.

 Coming Up: At the Arcata Playhouse, Bay Area actor and Celtic harpist Patrick Ball performs his musical tribute to Irish legend Turlough O’Carolan in O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music for one night only on Friday November 4 at 7 p.m.

 Opening on Friday (November 4) at the College of the Redwoods Forum Theater is the Humboldt Light Opera Company KidCo production of Alice in Wonderland, Jr. Directed by Cindy Cress, with musical direction by Amy Chalfant, this family musical with familiar characters and scenes from the Lewis Carroll Alice books features children from ages 5 to 17, including Ciara Cheli-Colando, Camille Asbill, Kyra Dart, Rachel Post, Isabella Loch, Lily Buschmann, Kayla Kossow, Gabby Fell, Leah Selcer, James Zwiker, Kalex Sweetfire-Spoon, Allie Sanchez, Estelle Fuller, Anna Vodopals, Erin Casper and Kaylie Doebel. It runs Fridays and Saturdays, Nov. 4-5 and 11-12 at 7 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on November 6.

 At the Redbud Theatre in Willow Creek, the comedy Academia Nuts by Gregg Kreutz is performed November 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. The cast includes Brian Bottemiller (who also directs,) Roland Grubb, Libby Pinto and Vicki Kurtz.

Additional Notes on The Last Five Years

My review of the current Redwood Curtain show, The Last Five Years, is in the current NC Journal and here online.  If you check the online review at the Journal site, you can also see a "rebuttal" that seems to be from the show's director.

I'll skip over the dismissive tone of her comments to get to the substance.  I stand by my experience of the show, both of the outstanding performances (I don't know who she's arguing with there) and the failure of the play.  On that I feel even more strongly than I expressed in the review.  On the matter of intelligibility, she seems to think the program statement ("The action moves simultaneously between the present and the past”) clarifies the matter. In my review I said it was enigmatic, and that's being kind.  It's meaningless nonsense.  It's unintelligible just as a sentence let alone as a description that clarifies the narrative procedure.

 She notes that the songs are listed with dates in the program.  There is no indication however of what the dates mean (usually it would be date of composition), and they are phonied up anyway for this production.  As I suggested in my review, setting this in 2011 has doubtful credibility( based on references within the songs as well as the cultural realities.)  Anyway, should we have to be reading the program during the show to understand what's going on?  Let alone the theatre website.

As for the implication that this is just the misjudgment of one cranky reviewer, it isn't.  There are other cranky reviewers of other productions who had the same problem.  When I'm baffled by something I've experienced, I try to find out if it's something I missed that is clear to everyone else.  That's not the case with this play, beginning with the New York Times review of the original production. 

It is the experience of the play that strips it of emotional force, except within the context of each song.  There is no way to match the perceptions of the two characters in time.  Mostly they seem to be singing about a completely different person from the one we just heard sing--which may be part of the point, but as an experience it is simply incoherent.  There is no reference point, no ground to stand on. At the beginning of the show it's not at all clear they are even singing about each other--there are no clear indications in the text or the staging.

(See also this relevant temporal mechanics note.)

 Basically, the device (of one character starting from the beginning of the relationship while the other character starts from the end) may be clever but in practice, it just doesn't work as a play.  Presented in a concert setting perhaps, with titles of some kind to set the time, or people rustling through their programs to find the date, it minimally might.  Even blocking the play so that the character moving forward in time moves left to right like a clock might help, though in the digital age this may also be less psychologically suggestive.  

There are other problems I didn't get into.  The characters are barely credible.  Jamie is supposed to be a suddenly successful novelist. The playwright might have known about New York theatre from experience (he's writing about himself apparently, and his relationship at the time) but he's questionable about how things work in the literary world, or even did work in the 90s.  In this production, as wonderful as Kyle Ryan's performance is, his stage persona is a bit too likeable for the character of Jamie.  It makes many of Cathy's complaints and characterizations seem delusional. 

I'm glad to hear that audiences are enjoying the show. There's plenty in the songs themselves and certainly the performances to enjoy (as the review said.)

Theatre of Meaning

This is a variation of an original 1936 poster
The reading of It Can't Happen Here at Dell'Arte on October 24 went very well. It was a great experience being part of the reading with such good actors. I was most impressed however by the attentiveness of the audience. There was no scenery, no costumes, no music, not even a microphone, and nothing much was happening on the stage--just fifteen people sitting at tables across the stage, reading the play and interacting as much as they could, but sometimes conducting dialogues at a distance. And people were listening to every word, for 2 and a half hours total, including one 15 minute intermission. I noted in my introduction that the original Federal Theatre showed there was a popular audience for a "theatre of meaning," and this evening indicated that is still true.

Not only the audience but the people on that stage were also attentive to my brief summary of the Federal Theatre Project.  Since that evening, I've spoken with Darryl Henriques, formerly of the SF Mime Troupe, who started this national event marking the 75th anniversary of the original Federal Theatre production.  He also had been struck by how few theatre people as well as others knew anything about the Federal Theatre.  It was a remarkable chapter that has virtually disappeared from American theatre history.

According to Joan Schirle (who Henriques credited with making the event a success, as well as Dell'Arte by lending its institutional name and credibility to the project), there were 24 readings that week.  Henriques said there were 3 in Los Angeles alone.  He said the one in Seattle was elaborate, with over 300 people attending.  And someone brought it in the actual poster that had been in the lobby for the 1936 production there.

Henriques feels that this isn't the end of it either.  He's encouraging other readings throughout this year, and he sees growing interest in the subject of the Federal Theatre Project.  I feel the same way.  Its endlessly fascinating historically and has a great deal to say to us today, in ways we've just begun to explore.