Saturday, December 29, 2012

R.I.P. 2012

These days actors become famous for their work in movies and on television.  But many of the famous who died in 2012 were also stage actors, and not only at the beginning of their careers.  British actor Joyce Redmond was nominated for an Oscar for her film performance as Desdemona opposite Laurence Olivier in his Othello, though she was later most famous for the notorious eating scene with Albert Finney in the film Tom Jones.  But she maintained a classical theatre career, as is typical in England.

What's less organized (and less known) is that American actors can do the same.  Celeste Holm made her stage debut opposite Leslie Howard in Hamlet. One of her last performances was in the comedy I Hate Hamlet.  Charles Durning won his acting stripes in Tennessee Williams, as did Ben Gazzara (photo directly below Durning.)  He was the original Brick in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.  Gazzara played in O'Neill and Odets, and probably did more stage work than was good for his screen career.

Lupe Ontiveros used her visibility as a TV and film actor to further stage possibilities for others as a founding board member of the Latino Theatre Company in Los Angeles. Someone else who wanted to expand the theatre community was British playwright John Arden, who Michael Billington notes was probably "ahead of his time." But texts last, and the work can be revived.  Stage performances disappear however, so it's a further irony that these actors will live on through their movie and TV performances.   

Other theatrical personages who died in 2012 include actor Ernest Borgnine (another actor who started out in Tennessee Williams), playwright and musical adapter Mark O'Donnell (I saw one of his plays in New York many years ago, and had a long funny interview with him), composers Marvin Hamlisch and Richard Adler, designer Eiko Ishioka, playwright Jack Richardson, director Gunnar Eide, actors Jack Klugman, Joan Roberts, Jerome Kitty, Patricia Kennedy.  May they rest in peace, and their work live on. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Year That Was: Topical and Timeless on North Coast Stages

A version of this year-end retrospective appears in the North Coast Journal "Top 10" issue.  I didn't do a top ten, though.  It's not practical.  Though I see a lot of shows, I don't see everything, so it wouldn't be fair.  And I've got multiple conflicts of interest when it comes to HSU shows.  But it's not fair to ignore those shows either.  So this is my compromise.

Drama is a mansion with an almost infinite number of rooms,” wrote Michael Billington, the great drama critic for the Guardian. “I see no point in shutting off any of them.” As I’ve noted on other occasions, there are gaps in the North Coast theatrical ecology. But it’s worth noticing the variety that does exist, and that this past year’s productions supported and altered that ecology, however subtly.

Dell’Arte pioneered “theatre of place” on the North Coast, and this year saw a unique example in the second version of Mary Jane: The Musical. It’s unique precisely because it’s the second version. Dell’Arte has brought shows back before, updating their topical and local references. But this time they re-conceived a show from just the summer before, and so the 2012 version was actually the product of two successive years, which resulted in a deeper (and darker) show. I still recall their Blue Lake: The Opera as the more successful production (a coincidence of talent, music and story), but certainly Mary Jane is more relevant to local identity and its future.

Another successful “theatre of place” show was Women of the Northwest at the Arcata Playhouse. It also was a group effort, part of the national fascination with “devised theatre” that worked in these two productions, with adequate time and thorough process.

  It wasn’t so successful in the Dell’Arte holiday show, The Fish in My Head— well-performed and produced, but so disjointed that it’s the first show I can recall that got me to root for the villain: the guy who wanted it to make more sense.

  This year also brought an unusual number of topically relevant dramas written by actual playwrights: Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room at Ferndale, Justin Lance Black’s 8 and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus at HSU, for example. HSU and College of the Redwoods also contribute classics (Moliere at CR, Noel Coward at HSU) and a glimpse of a different cultural approach in HSU’s version of the Sanskrit drama Shakuntala. A theatrical ecology is sustained by educational inquiry for both participants and audience.

   Humboldt Light Opera Company added to its high quality contributions with Damn Yankees and Cinderella. Redwood Curtain continued to concentrate on small cast contemporary American comedies, but took a few more chances this year with plays of challenging form and content, such as Circle Mirror Transformation, Dusty and the Big Bad World, For Better and The Language Archive.  These forays work largely because Redwood Curtain nurtures a high level of acting.

  Our two community theatres (Ferndale and North Coast in Eureka) have the words “repertory” in their names, which refers to producing shows from “the repertoire,” or the roster of successful plays (artistically, commercially or both) of the accessible past. There are a lot of judgments involved: some shows are too big (and expensive) or too small, too new (rights are unavailable) or too old.

But how old is too old? Looking back at this year yields a rule of thumb. Dramas can be quite old, though Shakespeare is about the limit. This year we got a searing drama from the 1950s (Look Back in Anger at Ferndale Rep) and a mystery from the 1940s (Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at North Coast Rep.) Comedies and musicals are usually more recent. Which is another reason that North Coast Rep’s production of the pioneer musical comedy Anything Goes was so fascinating.

There are few if any Broadway musicals older than Anything Goes that get produced anymore. In fact, only 3 previous shows are generally classified as modern musicals (Show Boat in 1927, The Band Wagon in 1930 and Of Thee I Sing! in 1931.)

Songs have since been stolen from other Cole Porter shows for this version of Anything Goes, and the script is not exactly the same as the show that premiered in 1934. That script began with legendary Brits P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton but the Broadway version was quickly assembled by its director Howard Lindsay with a press agent named Russel Crouse.  They were so successful at it that they themselves became a legendary Broadway writing team.  The script was revised for the 1987 revival by John Weidman and Timothy Crouse, Russel's son and the author of one of the great books on U.S. presidential campaigns and the press, The Boys on the Bus (1972).  I knew him for a few years around then.

Anyway, the changes in the latest, the Tony-winning 2011 version that’s on tour into 2013 seem to be in musical arrangements, etc.  So I don't actually know who is responsible for my favorite bit of dialogue.  Asked by a ship's officer if he'd seen infamous racketeer Snakeyes Johnson somewhere on the ship, one of the characters says he saw him at the mizenmast. “ But this ship doesn’t have a mizenmast.” “Oh. It must have been somebody else.” 

The constant in all this is Cole Porter.  His songs have not changed. His music is timeless, but his lyrics are very topical—particularly in one of this show’s most famous songs, “You’re the Top.”  They haven't been revised, so the lyrics are still a kind of mini-tour of 1934. While some of the places and the famous people named in the song are still well known, others mostly aren’t. Quite a few clever references go right by a lot of the audience nearly 80 years later.

 So how does the song still work? It was interesting to watch how Molly Severdia and Erik Standifird relieved anxieties by acting out contemporary reactions to some references in their performance of the song, a highlight of the North Coast Rep production. For instance, they gave the line “You’re broccoli!” the icky vegetable look, but in 1934, broccoli was new to the U.S. and quite fashionable.

They simply ignored other references, like Jimmy Durante, a showman who was often parodied into the 1960s. In fact some lyrics are now so obscure that there are several online attempts to track down their meaning. There was a long and involved theory about “you’re a drumstick lipstick” (which involved ice cream and kissing) until somebody uncovered an old ad that showed that Drumstick lipstick was a 1934 brand name.

 Still, it isn’t necessary to know that moisture-proof cellophane was a modern miracle in the 30s to laugh at the exuberant brilliance of “You’re the National Gallery/You’re Garbo’s salary/You’re cellophane!” The strange alchemy of the topical and the timeless in a play that lasts is one of the wonders of theatre, as it is in other arts. So it’s a vital part of our theatrical ecology.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

This North Coast Weekend (or Two)

Only new show this week is the Dell'Arte School's MFA second years performing their Character Projects ("some comic, some tragic, all unique")  Thursday-Sunday (Dec. 6-9) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo. Pay-what-you-will, reservations and information 707-668-5663,

For a second and final weekend at Gist Hall Theatre, Shakuntala, presented by HSU Theatre, Film & Dance.  Thurs-Sat (Dec. 6-8) at 7:30 p.m., Sunday Dec. 9 at 2. HSU Stage.

Also continuing: Anything Goes at NCRT.  Last performance is Dec.

The Dell'Arte holiday show A Fish in My Head returns to the Carlo for its last performances Thurs.-Sun Dec. 13-16 at 7:30.  $10/8.

And at Ferndale Rep (sorry, I never got a photo), Annie, which closes Dec. 16.

In a holiday event associated with Humboldt Light Opera Company, their Women's Chorus (known officially as The Babes) presents their annual Christmas concert on December 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the Arcata United Methodist Church (1761 Eleventh Street.)  "Donations accepted at the door."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

Opening on Thursday November 29 for two weekends, HSU Department of Theatre, Film & Dance presents the magical love story from India, Shakuntala.  Though this epic fairy tale (with gods, demons and heroes) is a cultural icon in India,  it’s seldom seen on stage in the U.S.  Playwright and HSU department chair Margaret Thomas Kelso adapted it for the contemporary American stage. Directed by Rae Robison, it also includes original music by Brian Post. Rose Gutierrez and Mark Teeter head a cast of 20. Brian Post composed the original music.

“This is a family-oriented show,” Kelso said, “so we’ve scheduled it for the holiday season. There’s singing, dancing and masks in an exotic, romantic and fanciful story.” Shakuntala is performed in the Gist Hall Theatre at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays Nov. 29-Dec. 1 and Dec. 6-8, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Dec. 2 and 9. 826-3928.

Also opening on Thursday, last year's Happy Family returns to the Arcata Playhouse for The Larry Welcome Happy Holiday Extravaganza.  This year another family member appears, Frank Happy’s twin brother, Larry Welcome.  It's their now-traditional combination of comedy, music, mistaken identity and holiday tips (and elves, don’t forget the elves.)

  Lynne and Bob Wells are back, along with Jacqueline Dandeneau, David Ferney, Amy Tetzlaff, Amelia Davide, Cora Dandeneau and Jeremy Santos. Tim Randles, Tim Gray and Marla Joy provide the music, and in another tradition, there are a couple of different special guests for each performance. The Arcata Playhouse holiday show runs two weekends: Thursday-Saturday Nov. 29-December 1, and Friday and Saturday Dec. 7 & 8 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday December 9. 822-1575.

Meanwhile, the musical Annie continues at Ferndale Rep, and the musical comedy Anything Goes continues at North Coast Rep.  Dell Arte's holiday show, The Fish in My Head, is on the road (see schedule in post below.)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

When Black Friday comes, so will two stage openings. The 1977 musical Annie opens at Ferndale Repertory Theatre on Friday (November 23.)   With a story based on the popular 1930s comic strip, it’s set in the Great Depression, featuring an 11 year-old orphan heroine, a mean orphanage director, a beneficent millionaire and a singing-and-dancing President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And it ends on Christmas.

With music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin, Annie was an immediate sensation and has been a theatrical staple ever since. The latest Broadway revival just opened in early November, providing New York critics with opportunities to muse on optimism after the hurricane and the politics of rich and poor. But basically it’s a big, very child-friendly musical that Ferndale produces with a cast of 24, featuring Craig Benson as Daddy Warbucks, Andrea Zvaleko as the evil Miss Hannigan, Kristi Peifer as Daddy’s faithful personal assistant and Jeff Kieser as the comic villain, Rooster. Ariel Vergen and Marina Benson will play Annie. Kate Haley directs, with choreography by Linda Maxwell, scenic design by Calder Johnson, costumes by Taylor Depew, lighting by Greta Stockwell and music direction by Justin Ross, who also conducts the live band.

The NY Times review of the new production there (which led with the audience response to the cute dog) noted the number of little girls in the audience.  Of course, there are a number of little girls in the cast as well, and this play has incubated a number of child stars.  Among those who appeared over the years were Sarah Jessica Parker, Molly Ringwald and Alyssa Milano.

  Annie runs Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons from November 23 through December 16. 1-800-838-3006.

Also opening November 23 is the North Coast traditional Dell’Arte holiday show for all ages, that begins in Blue Lake and travels up and down 101 from Scotia to Cave Junction, Oregon for mostly free shows. This year it’s an original fantasy called The Fish In My Head, created by the ensemble of seven actor/musician/acrobats: Janessa Johnsrude, Ryan Musil, Jacob Trillo, Meridith Ann Baldwin (all seen in last summer’s Mary Jane: The Musical), Rux Cantir, Anson Kalani Smith and Anthony Arnista. Directed and designed by Ronlin Foreman, it’s a fish story about transformations and adventure that starts out in the humdrum but escapes to the bottom of the sea and off to the moon, and back.

Opening weekend performances at the Carlo Theatre in Blue Lake (Friday and Saturday, Nov. 23 & 24 at 7:30 p.m.) are free, though audiences are asked to contribute non-perishable food items to be donated to local food banks. That goes for the touring shows, too, which reach an estimated seven-to-ten thousand people, many of them school children.  Then The Fish in My Head returns to Blue Lake Dec. 13-16, with tickets priced at $10 and $8. Ticket outlets include Wildberries Marketplace, Pierson Building Center and Moore’s Sleep World. Also: 707-668-5663, ext. 20.

Meanwhile, the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes continues at North Coast Rep.  My review is in this week's NC Journal.

Fish in My Head Full Schedule

Nov. 23, 24 Blue Lake, CA DAI’s Carlo Theatre 7:30 PM FREE
Nov. 26 Klamath, CA Yurok Tribal Headquarters 6:00 PM FREE
Nov. 27 McKinleyville, CA McKinleyville High School 7:30 PM FREE
Nov. 28 Arcata, CA Van Duzer at HSU 7:30 PM FREE
Nov. 30 Trinidad, CA Trinidad School 7:00 PM FREE
Dec. 2 Point Arena, CA Arena Theater 4:00 PM $10/8
Dec. 4 Redway, CA Mateel Community Center 6:30 PM $10/5
  Dec. 5 Scotia, CA Winema Theater 7:30 PM FREE
Dec. 6 Orick, CA Orick Community Center 5:00 PM FREE
Dec. 7 Burnt Ranch Burnt Ranch School 12:30PM FREE
Dec. 8 Eureka, CA Eureka Theater 7:30 PM FREE
Dec. 10 Cave Junction, OR Lorna Byrne Middle School 7:00 PM FREE
Dec. 13- 16 Blue Lake, CA DAI’s Carlo Theatre 7:30PM $10/8

Thursday, November 15, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

Tonight (Thursday Nov. 15) North Coast Rep opens the classic Cole Porter musical, Anything Goes.   Like many movies of the period, this 1934 show is an escapist comedy involving love and high jinks among the hilariously wealthy. This time some romantic criminals are added to the mix-ups aboard an ocean liner, with Cole Porter tunes that are simultaneously topical and timeless. Its latest Tony Award-winning Broadway revival was in 2011. Lauren Wieland directs the NCRT production featuring Eric Standifird, Keili Simmons Marble (also the dance director), Clayton Cook, Molly Severdia (also the music director) and David Simms. Anything Goes plays for a solid month of weekends, November 15-December 15. Tickets and information: 442-6278.

This is the last weekend for Dusty and the Big, Bad World at Redwood Curtain.

Monday, November 5, 2012

It's Not Easy ReLiving Bush

I do my best each time in my reviews, though I'm not always crazy about the result.  Some pieces I do particularly like, and this is one of them--it appears in this weeks NC Journal.  I've probably mucked it up with some additions, but it has a proper Election Day theme.  I did bury the lead, however, which is VOTE!

Dusty and the Big Bad World, now on stage at Redwood Curtain, is loosely based on real events: the 2005 decision by PBS not to air a segment of a children’s program (Postcards From Buster) dealing with lesbian parents, under pressure from the Bush administration. Playwright Cusi Cram, who worked for an associated program (Arthur) then, engages in some score-settling, puts words of one actual participant in another’s mouth, and inaccurately impugns the motive of the PBS president at the time (who admittedly is an old acquaintance of mine.) But on the whole, Cram uses the situation to create an independent, thoughtful and lively work of theatre that entertains ideas as well as the audience.

  First we meet 11-year-old Lizzie Goldberg-Jones (played by Alissa Barthel) who talks into her video camera about why she should win the contest to be on the animated PBS children’s show Dusty, along with her family: because her little brother really likes it, and “TV is important.” It might distract him from being teased about their “two dads.”  (The TV is important line turns out to be a major theme--not an unexpected one from a writer who is still involved in television.  Another biographical tell: Cusi Cram was herself a precocious and cute child TV star.)

Next there’s Marianne Fitzgibbons (Dianne Zuleger,) a sunny but formidable presence who tells us at length how much she loves her new job, which turns out to be Secretary of Education. Her cheery demeanor towards her troubled secretary Karen (Carrie Hudson) is edged with menace, but the doubleness of her response to Karen--apparently real feeling along with shrewd coldness--goes a long way towards making the character of Marianne more than caricature.   

Marianne—whose zealous fundamentalism becomes increasingly clear-- already has her sights on the Dusty episode resulting from Lizzie winning the contest. She means to squelch it, and to cancel the series entirely. This puts the show’s producer and self-described paranoid liberal Nathan Friedman (Nathan Emmons) on the bubble, along with the show’s protective creator, Jessica Fields (Tisha Sloan.)

Playwright Cram gives these characters dimension and individuality, and this superb group of actors gives them even more. Dianne Zuleger inhabits her role to a truly scary extent. Nathan Emmons and Tisha Sloan are immediately convincing, and Alissa Barthel provides the not entirely innocent burst of light that redeems the adult-made muddle. But it’s Karen who becomes the moral center of the play (as a troubled child she wore green socks everyday to remind her of Kermit the Frog and his song, It's Not Easy Being Green.)   Carrie Hudson’s compelling performance takes us on that journey.

    How all this is a comedy with a partially happy ending is hard to describe. Some invented aspects of the plot are weak, but the script is witty and emotional, with lots of ideas flashing amidst the politics, confessions and intrigue. The characters are believable and memorable.  Marianne is an especially impressive character, especially as Zuleger plays her.  She's almost archetypal at times, and also very much like some of the political and religious fundamentalists in and around the Bush administration I've met--that combination of ingredients that people like me find unfathomable.

Reliving that Bush atmosphere wasn't easy, even for the length of this play.  But it is well-timed to motivate the one action we can take to prevent its second coming.  (Hint: vote! Save Big Bird!)

This play had its premiere performance in Denver, where the director apparently hyped it up with elements of farce. However,  I felt Redwood Curtain director Jyl Hewston made the right choice of tone—subtle and straightforward, letting the play and the actors carry the evening.

Scenic design is by Daniel Nyiri, lighting by Michael Burkhart, costumes by Laura Rhinehart, sound by Jon Tunney. Dusty and the Big Bad World plays weekends at Redwood Curtain through November 17.

   Dusty and the Big Bad World is one of three plays on North Coast stages this fall based on real events, involving similar issues. Eureka High just closed The Laramie Project, about the 1998 torture and death of a gay student that led to the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009. The third play was 8, about Proposition 8 and marriage equality, presented by HSU Theatre, Film & Dance to a big crowd at the Van Duzer on Thursday.  There was a lengthy discussion afterwards as well. These plays have at least one real world message in common: vote.

Apropos of Dusty and this message, a real world girl very much in the same situation as Lizzie's little brother in the play--bullied by classmates because of her "two dads"-- wrote a letter to President Obama asking what she should do.  This is President Obama's reply ( and recall that he was raised by a single mother along with grandparents):

"In America, no two families look the same. We celebrate this diversity. And we recognize that whether you have two dads or one mom what matters above all is the love we show one another. You are very fortunate to have two parents who care deeply for you. They are lucky to have such an exceptional daughter in you. Our differences unite us. You and I are blessed to live in a country where we are born equal no matter what we look like on the outside, where we grow up, or who our parents are. A good rule is to treat others the way you hope they will treat you. Remind your friends at school about this rule if they say something that hurts your feelings."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

8, the marriage equality play, gets its one and only North Coast staged reading at HSU tonight, Thursday, November 1.

In a 2010 trial, the federal court judge found that California Proposition 8 (passed in 2008) could not amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages, because it violates provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Though the Supreme Court is yet to weigh in, this case made same-sex marriage a Constitutional right.

That trial is the subject of 8, a play by Dustin Lance Black, whose script for Milk—the movie starring Sean Penn about San Francisco’s Harvey Milk--won the Academy Award. After celebrity-rich readings on Broadway and in Los Angeles, the Foundation for Equal Rights granted permission for staged readings throughout North America (and beyond.) The HSU Department of Theatre, Film & Dance pursued and got the opportunity to produce it for the North Coast. Each local theatre gets the spotlight for one night. In the week just before Arcata’s turn, there were readings scheduled in Des Moines, Baltimore, Anchorage, Austin and Minneapolis.

  As in readings elsewhere, the emphasis is on involving the whole community, beginning with the actors. So at HSU participants include Michael Fields, James Floss, James Hitchcock, Christina Jioras, Susan Abbey, Michael Thomas, JM Wilkerson, Elisa Abelleira, James McHugh, Catherine L. Brown, Sam Machado, Juan Carlos Contreras and Shea King. Clint Rebik directs, with set and lighting by Katie Dawson.

“People need to witness what happened in the Proposition 8 trial,” said playwright Black, “if for no other reason than to see inequality and discrimination unequivocally rejected in a court of law where truth and facts matter.” This staged reading is a benefit for the Foundation for Equal Rights. It’s followed by a panel that will lead audience discussion. 8 is on the Van Duzer Theatre stage at HSU on Thursday, November 1, at 7:30 p.m. Donation is $5. Box Office: 826-3928. More information: HSU Stage and Screen.

Also this weekend, Humboldt Light Opera Company's KidCo opens the musical Once Upon a Mattress on Friday at 7 p.m. in the Forum Theatre at College of the Redwoods.  It's also onstage Saturday.

On Sunday the road company for A Chorus Line comes to the Van Duzer at HSU for two shows, at 3 p.m.. and 8 p.m., through CenterArts. 

Dusty and the Big Bad World continues at Redwood Curtain.  I review it this week in the NC Journal.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

Just in time to motivate votes for Big Bird, Redwood Curtain presents a satirical comedy about a PBS children's show based on a true story.  Dusty and the Big Bad World is by Cusi Cram, and is directed by Jyl Hewston.  Featured players are Dianne Zuleger, Tisha Sloan, Nathan Emmons and Carrie Hudson, and introducing Alissa Barthel playing the 11-year old Lizzie Goldberg-Jones.

Previews are Thursday and Friday (Oct. 25-6) and official opening night is Saturday, all starting at 8 p.m.  Performances continue Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights through November 17, with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on Nov. 11.

Dell'Arte presents its Macabre Cabaret Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights (Oct. 26-8) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.  It features Michael Fields, Ronlin and Lydia Foreman, Laura Munoz, Nicholette Routhier, Lynnie Horrigan, Pratik Motwani and special guest Debbie MacMahon, "along with some folks who came back to life just for this occasion."

Dell'Arte invites the audience to come in costume and be entered in a raffle.  "A full bar, with drinks served at your seat," should suggest the appropriate mood.

In other news, the big fat Centennial edition of The Dramatist, the Dramatist Guild magazine, is out. In addition to a number of known playwrights recalling the plays that first inspired them, there's a cartoon by Mark Krause that says quite a lot about the state of playwriting today.  It purports to display Future Playwriting Awards.  They are the awards for Smallest Cast, Simplest Technical Needs and Highest Theatrical Subsidiary Rights.  The awards may be in the future, but that's the rueful reality now. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

Women of the Northwest continues with its second and final weekend at the Arcata Playhouse.  I'll add one point to my generally expository and laudatory review: I felt at the time, and that impression has returned, that the section on prostitutes was the one place where the history was overromanticized.  This group scene made it sound like these were empowered women running the equivalent of a restaurant.  The reality was likely a lot more complicated, and unhealthy.

Also continuing (and ending) this weekend: In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play)  at Ferndale Rep, and The Laramie Project at Eureka High.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Women of the Northwest

Women of the Northwest, on stage at the Arcata Playhouse, celebrates 14 or so individual women in local history. But in performance, the lively, inventive, and relatively brief vignettes about them do something more: they shine a different light on that history itself.

 Many of these women are appropriately remembered for individual accomplishments. Elta Cartwright, a track star at Eureka High (which itself made history by becoming the first high school to allow girls to run races in shorts) became the first woman in America to qualify for the 1928 Olympics.

 As Mayor of Eureka from 1926 to 1931, Emily Jones was the first female mayor west of the Mississippi. After Martella Cone Lane moved to Fortuna with her husband in 1899, she revealed the redwoods to the world in her paintings.

 Emma Freeman was a prominent photographer who chronicled Eureka and Humboldt scenes from 1907 to 1920. Known as “The Lady of the Hills,” Margaret Smith Cobb lived in the wilderness near Garberville in those years, and wrote poems and romantic novels that were championed by Jack London.

 Susie Baker Fountain, columnist for the Arcata Union and the Blue Lake Advocate through the 1950s, collected a century of Humboldt County history. Humboldt State claims her as its first graduate in 1915, and houses her historical records in its library.

Stella Patterson, who came north after the San Francisco earthquake, had a full life but found herself alone in 1946 at age 80. She decided to live in an isolated cabin in the mountains on the Klamath River west of Happy Camp, where the two miners who were her nearest neighbors called her simply “Dear Mad’m.” That became the title of her book about the experience, which is still available.
 “I have lived the life I wanted,” she says in this play, “and the life I’ve loved.”

 The core cast of 12 actors presented aspects of these women’s lives, and storyteller Charlene Storr honored her grandmother, Sadie Gorbet (Tolowa), who at the age of 72 was the only Native American in the California delegation to the 1972 Democratic National Convention. She counseled her family to take the good parts of their tradition and of the modern world, and throw the rest away.

 Besides historical figures, the play depicts some legendary ones as well as composite characters and representative figures (a telephone operator, prostitutes, suffragettes.) Historical material was gathered and shaped by Jackie Dandeneau, Edith Butler and Tammy Rae Scott, but the presentation was created by the actors. They came up with an entertaining, very theatrical combination of monologues, dialogues, dramatic and comedic scenes, music and movement, plus bustling and lyrical meditations on themes such as food and motherhood.

 The first act was mostly a mosaic of lives, ending with a memorable moment: members of the Native Women’s Collective sang some of the songs associated with the Flower Dance, a coming of age ceremony for girls that local tribes basically have in common. Reviving this dance has been a priority for at least 15 years, as I recall.  They also spoke of the needs it addresses to restore a sense of self-respect, support and belonging to young women.

 The second act had more thematic threads, culminating in a final evocation of childbirth and motherhood, children and the lineage of women. Though the actors typically play several roles each, there were strong individual moments.

 With that peculiar 1930s diction, Dandeneau conveyed the scary if somewhat comic authority of Mayor Jones. Laura Munoz moved easily from an American Indian woman known only as one of Emma Freeman’s favorite photographic subjects to Antoinette Chartin, a cultured French woman who became one of the first non-Native pioneers in Blue Lake of the 1870s, opening a hotel there with her husband. Ali Freedlund was a spirited Elta Cartwright.

The most amazing feature of Siena Nelson’s performance as a cowboy who was secretly female (a not uncommon subterfuge) wasn’t her perfect gait and vocal cadence: it was the hardness in her eyes. There were vivid performances by Jada Owen and Ciara Cheli Collado in the final thematic sections. Musicians Julie Froblom, Jill Petricca, Dharla Curry and Jan Bramlett joined the action as needed. Other onstage participants were Tammy Rae Scott and Rebecca Zettler.

 These roughly two hours did not offer complete portraits, nor were all ethnic groups and occupations represented. But by including themes from women’s lives that influence common events, this production as a whole evokes in dynamic fashion a dimension of experience often neglected in the usual histories.

From a rhythm of life revealed by cooks for a lumber camp to the “river of blood” of childbirth, the play suggests a perspective it is vital to include. Set design is by Siena Nelson, lighting by David Ferney, costumes by Lydia Foreman. Women of the Northwest continues at the Arcata Playhouse Friday and Saturday (Oct. 19-20) at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. before shows in Petrolia Oct. 27 and Briceland Oct. 28.

Additional Notes: A Preview

Women of the Northwest features a dozen actors portraying at least that many women who figured in local history from 1900 to the 1930s and beyond. Actor/writer Jacqueline Dandeneau, researcher Tammy Rae Scott and historian Edith Butler got the project started this summer, but the cast combined to shape the final show. The Native Women’s Collective is also involved.

 “We tell some of the stories through song and movement,” Dandeneau said, “so it’s not all talking heads, which is the danger with a history piece.”

Women involved in logging, mining, ranching and politics, as well as teachers, artists, athletes, mothers, prostitutes and even a stage coach robber are all represented. “These pieces are about women who figured out—by necessity or from some spirit within them—how to live life on their own terms, given what terms might be available,” Edith Butler said.

For background on the women’s suffrage movement in Humboldt, they brought filmmaker Martha Wheelock up from L.A. Coincidentally, her film on the subject airs on KEET next Monday (Oct. 15) at 7:30 p.m. “She told us that it was the men in rural areas like Humboldt that made the difference in voting for women’s suffrage,” Dandeneau said.

 It was in 1912, exactly 100 years ago, that women voted in their first California election (they didn’t get to vote for federal candidates until 1920.) “So we’re hoping to have the League of Women Voters registering voters in the lobby for our shows,” she said. “There are a lot of women’s issues right at the top of this year’s election—things that have been assumed, and things that have been fought for.” By Humboldt women, among others.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Women Ruhl: The Vibrator Play

Edison’s electricity was just beginning to transform middle class American life in the early 20th century. This is the setting for In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl, now on stage at Ferndale Repertory Theatre.

The fictional Dr. Givings (played convincingly by Calder Johnson) has designed what today would be known simply as a vibrator, in order to treat hysterical symptoms in women. The joke in this play is that (with one or two possible exceptions) none of the characters—male or female—has today’s understanding of the vibrator’s effects in stimulating sexually pleasurable orgasm.

 What Dr. Giving’s patients experience was described as tension released in “hysterical paroxysm.” That one idea could easily organize a kind of farce, and there are predictably comic moments. But Ruhl does more, by exploring the mores and relationships that follow from this disconnect.

 Patient Sabrina Daldry (Megan Rae Johnson) gets her first vibrator treatment while Dr. Givings relates an interesting anecdote involving Benjamin Franklin. Meanwhile, in the parlor, the lively Mrs. Catherine Givings (Kelsey MacIlvaine) wonders what’s really going on, in her life as well as in the next room.

 There are plot threads involving a wet nurse (played by Ashley Russell) for Mrs. Givings baby, Dr. Giving’s nurse assistant (Greta Joan Stockwell), Sabrina Daldry’s husband (Jeremy Webb) and a male patient and artist (Bobby Bennett) who sets up contrasts of art and science.

 This play (first produced in 2010) could be described as layered, or cluttered. It sometimes totters from the inspired to the insipid but Ruhl takes the history seriously, with inevitable contemporary resonance. There is enough originality, humor, humanity and poetry in this play and this production, directed by Rae Robison, to engage audiences and foster conversation. It’s an adult theme, but it’s treated within conventional theatrical standards.

 The first night show I saw went smoothly, and except for some vocal projection problems, the acting was at least adequate and sometimes eloquent. All the actors had good moments, with MacIlvaine and her character’s nervous energy moving the action forward.

There were particularly effective and moving scenes between Catherine (MacIlvaine) and Sabrina (Megan Johnson, who continues to add subtle new colors to her acting), and between Sabrina and nurse Annie (Greta Stockwell.)

 But the flow of it all often felt rudimentary, with performances not always accessibly related to each other and to the play as a whole. Perhaps it hadn’t quite jelled yet, or it’s the nature of the script. The play does seem to involve some difficult and dynamic balancing acts in mood and style, which this production manages pretty successfully.

 Liz Uhazy is scenic and lighting designer, Calder Johnson designed costumes, JM Wilkerson the sound. In the Next Room continues weekends at Ferndale Rep through October 21.

Friday, September 28, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

The San Francisco troupe called the Pi Clowns returns to the Arcata Playhouse with a new show, The Good the Bad and the Stupid, a Wild West romp with acrobatics, high speed horse races, dramatic duels, juggling, eccentric dance and live music. Members of the Pi Clowns include Bruce Glaseroff from Arcata and Tyler Parks from Fortuna.

Performances of this all-ages show are at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 28 and 29, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 30. Arcata Playhouse impresario David Ferney cautions that last year’s shows sold out, so better advance tickets than sorry, at Wildwood Music, Wildberries, or 822-1575.

Continuing: The Fox on the Fairway at North Coast Rep.  My Journal review is here. 
Final weekend: Circle Mirror Transformation at Redwood Curtain.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Fox on the Fairway

It was a chilly summer here on the North Coast but the early autumn is warm and sunny, so maybe it’s appropriate that the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka has begun its 29th season with a summer stock comedy about golf, The Fox on the Fairway. 

 This 2010 play by Ken Ludwig is given the full farce treatment by director David Moore, especially with lots of doors entering onto scenic designer Calder Johnson’s set. (Though the game is golf, the action is inside.) People running in and out of doors, chasing and avoiding each other, entering unexpectedly and leaving inconveniently—it’s the signature of stage farce. It’s basically the same setup as in NCRT’s 2009 production of Ludwig’s more famous Lend Me a Tenor.

In this story, Bingham (played by Anders Carlson) runs a country club that holds an annual golf tournament with a rival club run by “Dickie” (Phil Zastrow.) The two make a huge bet on the outcome. But the player Bingham was counting on has changed sides, and all seems lost until Justin (Michael Pietrelli), the callow young man Bingham has just hired as his assistant, turns out to be a golf prodigy. But of course complications ensue, involving Bingham’s business manager, Pamela (Jennifer Trustem), his wife, Muriel (Gloria Montgomery) and a club waitress and Justin’s fiancé, Louise (Kyra Gardner.)

 These descriptions soon turn out to only scratch the surface of their tangled relationships. Their pasts are prologue to the quickly unfolding events. Director Moore keeps it all moving fast whenever possible. The dialogue scenes depend on the comedic characterizations of the actors. Jennifer Trustem’s Pamela is straight out of a 1940s movie, the sweetly hard-drinking and wittily sensual woman with an innuendo for every occasion. Michael Pietrelli is the energetic movie juvenile and Kyra Gardner the winsome ingénue: Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, but with modern neuroses.

 At the center of the action and the story is Anders Carlson. He had a key role in Lend Me a Tenor but this production completely revolves around his performance. He plays Bingham with a controlled, rolling frenzy, as a man of constant outrage reminiscent of “the boss” character in TV sitcoms from the 50s onward. It’s a physical and vocal tour de force, and the wonder isn’t just that he pulls it off, but that he does it without becoming insufferable.

 This seems to be accomplished partly by his genuine interactions with the other actors. Together they manage to make something human out of a cascade of contrivances. That includes the contributions of the always believable Gloria Montgomery in her few scenes, and Phil Zastrow, who seems to play Dickie as an affected pretend Englishman breezily unaware of his malapropisms or terrible taste in sweaters.

 The pleasures of the production and the wit of the script (with contrivances from Oscar Wilde as well as I Love Lucy) must race past basic credibility problems, like everything hinging on a bet for very high stakes witnessed by nobody. (And who exactly is the fox of the title?)

 Some of the revelations are at least foreshadowed (pretty obviously), but some developments seem like a child’s improbable improvisations while inventing a story with dolls or action figures (possibly waving golf clubs.) The appeal of Pietrelli and Gardner as the young lovers, and the older four as the love springs eternal ones, mostly overcome the clichés. As a farce, this play adds nothing new except perhaps greater latitude in naughty talk. For farce that actually expands the form, something from early Tom Stoppard or Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw more nearly fit the bill. But there are enough laughs here, plus charm and skill in this production, to extend a summery mood.

 Jenneveve Hood designed the strange and striking costumes. Michael Thomas designed the inventive sound, which is crucial to the story. The Fox on the Fairway continues at North Coast Rep Fridays and Saturdays through October 13 at 8 p.m., with a Thursday evening performance on October 11 and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on September 30 and October 7.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Circle Mirror Transformation

Long ago and far away, I was party to a conversation between two multi-talented and wise women of American drama, Corinne Jacker and Patricia Cobey. Lingering by a stone wall, gazing at the Atlantic ocean in the fading light of a long summer day at the O’Neill Center playwrights conference in Connecticut, they talked casually about the importance of theatre in their lives. “Whenever someone I know is having problems,” Cobey said, “I tell them to take an acting class. It always straightens you out. That’s where you learn that you can’t lie.”
 In Circle Mirror Transformation, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, four members of a small Vermont community gather for a creative acting class. We soon learn that Theresa (Wanda Stamp) is a recently transplanted would-be New York actress trying to get over an obsessive love affair. Schultz (Dmitry Tokarsky) is a recently divorced local, a bit awkward and secretly artistic. Lauren (Mira Eagle) is a high school student buried in her hoodie who wants to try out for West Side Story. James (Gary Sommers) is the still handsome gray-haired husband of the instructor, Marty (Adina Lawson.)

 After a few classes Lauren pointedly asks Marty if they are going to learn to act in a play. Marty says probably not. It’s fair warning for the audience, too. This is not the usual stage storytelling. But during the offbeat exercises as well as encounters before and after the six classes we witness, characters are excavated and discovered, relationships change, and there are consequences to revelations and self-revelations.

 Circle Mirror Transformations is one of four plays by contemporary American playwright Annie Baker that are set in this Vermont town. Three of them were staged in the Bay Area in the past year—this one just closed at the Marin Theatre. After successful productions in New York (where it won a couple of Obies), Washington and Los Angeles, it is becoming a regional theatre favorite.

 This play invites and also requires a different kind of attention. The actual plot is fairly simple, and even predictable in TV reality show outcomes. But the story is told by every movement, every stutter and change in body language. It’s in the silences, and the odd and sometimes wildly funny exercises.

These are theatre games—the play’s title is the name of one. Some involve one character pretending to be another. Some involve creating a group story. Others look like a cross between actors’ warm-ups and group therapy.

 Director Nathan Emmons and the cast make the necessary precision of depicting this look natural. There are short fragments and sustained scenes. The dialogue is mostly banal, laced with psychobabble. Some liken Baker’s work to Chekhov because nothing apparently happens, but I see more of Mamet and Pinter in the way the characters use dull received language as masks that reveal them anyway.
 (Considering my last column it is a coincidence however that Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya was one of its New York productions this year.)

 It’s a different kind of comedy. But it is a comedy. At the end of all the accidental honesty there’s a happy conclusion of sorts. And it’s funny (despite the reluctance of the small preview audience I saw it with to join me in laughing.)

 I had problems with both the play and the production, but as long as audience members let go of conditioned expectations, this is an unusual and enjoyable two hours. The cast is skillful and endearing. I’d expect this is one that people will talk about.

 Daniel C. Nyiri designed the intentionally drab set (though maybe it didn’t have to be that drab.) Lighting is by Calder Johnson, the interesting sound design by Nathan Emmons, costumes by Laura Rhinehart.

 Circle Mirror Transformation continues at Redwood Curtain on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through September 29 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee on September 23.

 More about the upcoming season: Ferndale Rep is going through a management shakeup but early indications are that they are sticking with their season as announced.

 At HSU, students are back and preparations are underway for Theatre, Film and Dance Department productions. The first is a special one-night reading on November 1 of 8: The Play by Dustin Lance Black, about the court case that overturned California Proposition 8 and its ban on same sex marriages. That case is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Clint Rebik directs a cast from the North Coast theatre community.

 In late November, Rae Robison directs the classic Sanskrit love story Shankutala in a new adaptation by Margaret Thomas Kelso. In February, Michael Fields directs Hater, Samuel Buggeln’s adaptation for the 21st century of Moliere’s The Misanthrope. Then after the spring dance production and Humboldt Film Festival in April, Michael Thomas directs David Auburn’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning play, Proof.  Find out more about them at HSU Stage & Screen.

 Coming Up: Fox on the Fairway, a tribute to the stage and film farces of the 1930s and 40s by Ken Ludwig, opens at North Coast Rep on Thursday September 20.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Where Have You Gone, Uncle Vanya?

This is a considerably longer version of a column I wrote for the end of August, which was postponed due to space considerations until the Sept. 6 North Coast Journal.  But since the new theatre season is getting started by then, I thought I'd post this now, the traditional last weekend of summer.

As the 2011-12 theatrical season was ending, I took the opportunity to set aside the year's musicals, contemporary comedies and clown shows, for some different theatrical experiences.  Unfortunately my travel budget doesn’t even extend to Oregon, so I must bring contrasting productions home, where I can travel in time as well as space.

My interlude started when I ran across a movie version of The Seagull by Anton Chekhov on Turner Classic Movies. Featuring a young Vanessa Redgrave and David Warner, and James Mason in his prime, it is a luminous film directed in 1968 by Sidney Lumet. More famous for such movies as Dog Day AfternoonNetwork and The Verdict, Lumet also made definitive film versions of a number of plays, including O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh, as well as 12 Angry Men and Equus.  Still, he regarded this as his best film (the TCM introducer said.)  TCM seems to be the only place it's available.

This prompted a kind of longing, especially when I realized that I hadn’t seen a Chekhov play ever on the North Coast, nor given the present configurations and situations of theatres here, is it ever likely I will. I checked around, and nobody could remember one here for maybe 25 years. Director, actor and professor James Floss recalled Pacific Art Center Theatre productions of The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters (with Terry Desch, Toodie Dodgen and Bonnie Bareilles,) both decades ago.

  It doesn’t take long for conversations with veteran North Coast actors to turn to the late lamented Pacific Art Center Theatre. It’s clear now that it left a niche in the local stage ecology that’s never been filled, not just for Chekhov but an array of classic modern playwrights.

I’ve seen Three Sisters on stage at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, and two productions of The Cherry Orchard: one by Bulgarian-born director Mladen Kiselov at Carnegie Mellon University, and one at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2007, directed by Libby Appel, who did The Seagull at OSF this season.  I also was dramaturg for a production of several of Chekhov's short plays, directed by Margaret Thomas Kelso at a small college in central Pennsylvania where she taught before coming to HSU.

But the Chekhov play that grabbed me this summer was Uncle Vanya. Coincidentally (I later discovered on the Internet) there were two productions of Uncle Vanya in New York City this year, including a much-praised one at Lincoln Center featuring the film star Cate Blanchett, produced by her theatre company. Insert Chekhovian sigh here.

  My explorations were instead via DVD and VHS. I started with August, the 1996 film directed by and starring Anthony Hopkins. It transposes Uncle Vanya to Hopkins’ native Wales, pretty much intact. (It features Kate Burton, daughter of another famous Welsh actor, Richard Burton.) Outside the Russian milieu but in a corresponding context, it illuminates aspects of the play more sharply for English and American audiences. (Hopkins also composed the music.)

Next was Vanya on 42nd Street, the 1994 Louis Malle film of a production directed by Andre Gregory, starring Wallace Shawn (reuniting the trio that did the cult favorite My Dinner With Andre) and Julianne Moore, with lovely performances by Brooke Smith, Larry Pine, George Gaynes and Phoebe Brand.

The conceit here is that we’re witnessing a group of actors who’ve been exploring the play for many months in an abandoned old theatre. It starts with them arriving for a run-through, chatting with a few invited audience members, then with each other. And eventually you realize that this chat has actually become Chekhov—the play has started. Actor Peter Ustinov remarked that Chekhov’s characters are so self-absorbed that they don’t really relate to each other, and so the actors are all soloists. But in this intimate and low-keyed version, the actors and their characters do relate dramatically, even beyond a New York manner of exchanging accounts of their obsessions. It's a little like Chekhov as a Woody Allen movie.

This Vanya uses the adaptation by playwright David Mamet, as does a 1991 BBC version with Ian Holm, David Warner and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio which I’ve watched several times. Mamet gave the late 19th century dialogue a contemporary cadence, sharpening the humor and at times seemingly highlighting the relevance.  It's apparently the thing to do to use a new translation or version for a new production of any Chekhov, and a number of notable playwrights have done one or more versions, including Tom Stoppard.  Both Stoppard and Mamet have apparently done The Cherry Orchard, though I've seen or read neither.  (Stoppard's The Sea Gull is published in his collected works.)

The most startling contemporary relevance in Mamet's Uncle Vanya, is a speech by Doctor Astrov, who is passionately committed to saving the disappearing forest, partly because it moderates the climate:

“We have destroyed the forest, our rivers run dry, our wildlife is all but extinct, our climate ruined...but I pass by the woods I’ve saved from the ax. I hear the forest sighing...I planted that forest. And I think: perhaps things may be in our power. Perhaps the climate itself is in our control.”

It's startling of course because Chekhov was writing in the late 19th century, and people in our century are facing the consequences of ignoring even contemporary warnings.  But in the context of the play, it especially emphasizes for us now the themes of  dashed potential and waste throughout this play, and other Chekhov plays.  It also reflects Chekhov's including the future in the thoughts of a character in several plays.

So why multiple Vanyas, one after the other? Besides seeing and hearing how each of these great actors play these roles, there’s the experience of structure—not in the way directors may analyze it, but more like the way actors feel it. Acting in the same play multiple times in a run provides a unique sense of the play’s structure. Actors may see the play from their character’s point of view, but they experience the rhythm of it through their actions, their entrances and exits, and even where they take breaths. The structure of a Chekhov play in particular is difficult to absorb in a single performance, but it’s there. 

In 1958, the Moscow Art Theatre--originally, Stanislavsky's theatre that made Chekhov's plays famous--brought three of their latest Chekhov productions to London, where the great Kenneth Tynan reviewed them.  In considering the character of Uncle Vanya, Tynan zeroes in on his dignity.  "He clings to it even in the shooting spree, which becomes in its mad way a matter of honour, an assertion of principle rather than a display of temperament; and in tenacity like this there is a kind of heroism."  The actor's characterization in this production reminds Tynan of Don Quixote.  "This Vanya always looks capable of tragedy; his tragedy is that he is capable only of comedy."  This sense of Vanya does come out in these productions, particularly as played by Anthony Hopkins.

This Mamet version with Ian Holm is included in The Anton Chekhov Collection from the BBC, a multiple DVD set I've had on my Wish List for awhile and finally broke down and bought for myself.  There's also a 1970 production with Anthony Hopkins as Doctor Astrov, as well as a 1974 production of The Wood Demon, with Ian Holm.  This is an early version of Uncle Vanya with a lot of the same dialogue but very different structure.

There's something of a premiere here as well, of Chekhov's first known play, never produced in his lifetime.  Here it's called Platonov, starring Rex Harrison, broadcast in 1971.  It's long for Chekhov but much shorter than his original manuscript.  He wrote it in his 20s, about a kind of Russian provincial Don Juan.

There are several of Chekhov's early short comedies, including a one-act farce (The Wedding), in an English version by Eric Bentley.  Chekhov began as a writer of comic and satirical pieces for various periodicals, only gradually developing into the classic short story writer that made his literary reputation in Russia, and eventually worldwide. 

The first of Chekhov's great plays is The Seagull, represented here in a 1978 production, featuring Michael Gambon, Georgina Hale, Zoe Caldwell and Stephen Rea.  The ironies involved in Chekhov's experience with this play rival anything he wrote for the stage.  Early in this play, the son of a famous actress is staging an outdoor production of a play he's written, in revolt against the established theatre of his mother, and in favor of "new forms" for the future.  (This is a particularly effective scene in the Lumet movie, because Lumet could stage the outdoor scenes really outdoors.  This play within the play has the lake behind the country house as its backdrop, and Lumet shows us what this really looks like, with a makeshift stage in front of a real lake at sunset.)

But Chekhov's own new form of theatre had to undergo a year of struggle with official censors before it could be produced.  Then it opened with a theatre party celebrating a famous older actress who was not unlike the famous older actress in the play.  All her friends came, probably expecting to see her in the play.  But she wasn't, and it wasn't the kind of play she would have been in, or they were used to seeing.  So opening night was a disaster, and the production never recovered.  Chekhov vowed to give up the theatre forever.

But the Stanislavsky production two years later was a great success, and so Chekhov took another look at the manuscript for The Wood Demon, and quickly turned it into Uncle Vanya.

In this collection there's a 1970 production of Three Sisters with Eileen Atkins, Janet Suzman and Michele Dotrice (and I have another, an Actors Studio production, on VHS.)  There are two versions of The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov's last play. He died of tuberculosis not long after it opened in 1904, at the age of 44.  This play in particular has been interpreted in many ways.  The BBC collection has a 1962 production with John Gielgud, who also did the translation.  It also features a very young Judi Dench.  The 1981 production stars Judi Dench in a different part, and it won her several awards.

I ran across this paragraph about that 1962 production, which like several of these BBC television versions, was first done on stage.  It's about John Gielgud. " During The Cherry Orchard he became a kind of father-figure to some of the younger actors. Judi Dench had been bullied and mocked by [director] Saint-Denis in rehearsal, and was extremely nervous on the first night. As she prepared to go on again after the first act, Gielgud told her: 'If you had been doing that for me I'd be delighted.' From that moment she played it for him, and settled into the role. Dorothy Tutin also remembers his warmth: 'John was very sweet with Judi and me on stage, the way he put his arms around us, the way he looked at us, always in tears. Although he wasn't usually a physical actor, he was with us, he looked upon and treated us as children, and it was easy to nestle up to him and put your head on his shoulder.' "     The next time I watch this, I'll be thinking of this observation.

This collection also includes the dramatization of a Chekhov short story starring Patrick Stewart, and a few radio plays and short story readings.  So at least the year ahead will not lack Chekhov (or Shaw--I just got his BBC collection), if only on my screens.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Cinderella at Humboldt Light Opera

Cinderella is one of the world’s most popular stories, and among the oldest. It’s probably also the only one in which the climactic moment is somebody trying on a shoe.

 There are hundreds of versions from all over Asia as well as Europe (the idea that Cinderella’s beauty is proven by her small feet likely comes from China.) It’s the paradigm of the rags-to-riches tale (the “Cinderella story”), yet these variations include themes of abandonment, incest and matricide that show up in more tragic works from King Lear to Sweeney Todd.

 The best known version is the mildest: the 17th century telling by Charles Perrault, which is the one that Walt Disney adapted for his 1950 film, still the standard for several generations. Until Disney, however, the 19th century Brothers Grimm version was a close rival to Perrault’s. And it certainly is grimmer, with the stepsisters cutting off toes and heels to fit into the (non-glass) slipper, and getting blinded by birds at the end. But fairy tale experts prefer it: it has more of a fairy tale rhythm (everything happens three times), it is more complex (the stepsisters are beautiful outwardly and only ugly inside.) Cinderella is much more pro-active and she’s helped not by a fairy godmother but by nature spirits-- birds who are inspired by her devotions at her mother’s grave.

 Cinderella is also less passive in the musical version now on the Van Duzer Theatre stage at HSU, performed by the Humboldt Light Opera Company. It’s still basically the Perrault tale though, with variations that don’t alter the familiar central story.

Prince Christopher (played by James Gadd) is an uncomfortable royal, happy to be an anonymous guy at the village market, where he literally bumps into Cinderella (Katri Pitts). When the royal factotum Lionel (Larry Pitts) commands that all eligible young women attend the Prince’s ball, the intention to find him a bride embarrasses the Prince.

 But his understanding parents, the Queen (Katherine Kinley) and King (Bill Ryder,) urge him to see what happens, since his father (who also likes to hang out with the 99%) advises him that finding his one true love is mostly a matter of “dumb luck.”

 Back at home, Cinderella is bossed around by her stepmother (Tracey Barnes-Priestly) and her three stepsisters (Molly Severdia, Brandy Rose and Lily Buschmann), while imagining a better life. When she hears about the ball, she goes into action. The rest of the story you pretty much know.

The additional wrinkle is not one but three fairy godpersons: Fiona Ryder, Ellsworth Pence, and 5 year old Aurora Pitts, whose angelic presence and fully absorbed acting reminds us that children love to act out this story in play, perhaps because (as psychologist Bruno Bettleheim suggests) it reveals to them the possibilities of transformation and rescue.

 This is a big, colorful production, with a sumptuous set by Jayson Mohatt and dazzling costumes by Kevin Sharkey. Director Carol Ryder and choreographer Ciara Cheli-Colando orchestrate the graceful crowd scenes and other movement. Ryder positions the singers well and makes the most of the key moments: Cinderella entering the ball, and of course, the slipper revelation.  Makeup by Hannah Jones and Jayne Bauer especially transform the stepsisters.

 James Gadd is convincingly diffident, sincere and then ardent as the Prince, Katri Pitts is a vibrant Cinderella. Larry Pitts adds acerbic comedy as Lionel, and the three stepsisters each have a particular clownish talent. Tracey Barnes-Priestly plays the stepmother as more worried with ambition than evil, and Bill Ryder is a star even in a small role.

 The fine individual singing aside, for me the ensemble singing (Katrina Haeger and Molly Severida are musical directors) and the orchestra (conducted by Justin Sousa) provided the most musical emotion.

 At just under two hours, it’s not too much of a stretch for the natural audience of children, especially little girls (who can get a Cinderella makeover before the show-- by appointment only.)

 But there are levels of humor to keep adults involved, and spectacle for all. This musical Cinderella, with songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, began as a 90-minute television special in 1957 starring Julie Andrews. For later stage and TV versions, songs dropped from Oklahoma and South Pacific were added, along with a song from the Richard Rodgers show No Strings and from a movie, Main Street to Broadway, in which Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves perform “There’s Music In You,” the song that ends this version of Cinderella.

 The songs generally aren’t considered to be among the composers’ best (and the Disney songs are more memorable) but they’re pleasant and occasionally witty. The story HLOC tells also seems to be a hybrid of these various musical versions. The HLOC production of Cinderella runs two more weekends on Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 p.m., closing August 18.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Is Texas Funny? The Red Velvet Cake War

The Red Velvet Cake War is the summer comic confection now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka. The Verdeen girls--Gaynelle (played by Jacqui Cain), Peaches (Denise Ryles) and Jimmie Wyvette (Gloria Montgomery)—live in the small Texas town of Sweetgum. They chafe under the domination of the family matriarch, Aunt La Merle (Toodie SueAnn Boll) whose basic attitude is “you can agree with me, or be wrong.” Family trouble, man trouble and cake trouble ensue.

 If that sounds funny to you, it is. If it doesn’t, well, it’s still pretty funny. To be sure, these are more akin to joke-transmitting caricatures than characters. They are so deeply cliched that we know Elsa Dowdall (played with panache by Janet Waddell) is a psychologist because she speaks in a German/European accent, which in the real world hasn’t been new or particularly likely for decades. And of course she’s repressed.

 But the actors bring individual touches to these stereotypes and animate them. Gloria Montgomery is particularly deft at physically embodying the tomboy cowgirl, Jimmie Wyvette. She might be the one character you want to know more about.

Arnold Waddell as the elder Verdeen delivers several of the funniest lines with a curmudgeon’s delight, and Matt Cole as the would-be hero is outstanding in a role you can pretty much see the young Tim Robbins playing. Not that the televised familiarity of these characters matters much. Because what they do—and particularly what the say—is funny.

The Red Velvet Cake War was written by the team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope (past winner of the Texas New Playwright Award) and Jamie Wooten. Not surprisingly, they’ve all written comedy for television, including for the classic Golden Girls and shows on every cable channel from USA to Fox. As a team they specialize in stage comedies about the South, especially Texas, tailored for community theatres. According to their website, this play has been widely produced, from Plant City, Florida and Brick, New Jersey to Baraboo, Wisconsin and Blind Bay, British Columbia. It’s even spawned a sequel, Rex’s Exes.

 The dramaturgy of this play is paint-by-numbers but the playwrights know their (all white) milieu, and are admirably adept at creating humorous language without being exploitive or insulting. While the wit is even subtle at times (including some of the copious vulgarity), the physical humor is time-tested farce and slapstick.

 The plot however is an increasingly incredible and wearying mashup of reality show colliding with sitcom. The verbal humor is especially sharp and frequent in the first act, before the mayhem punctuated by exposition takes over in the second act. Catastrophes mount unbelievably and with very little at stake, and it starts to feel like you’re clicking through cable TV hell--with the comfy sitcom resolution, of course.

 So in the end there’s little to say about this show except that it’s wildly funny at times and it’s basically good-hearted fun while it’s happening.  Afterwards you might feel a little sick about indulging, like eating way too much cake.

 Director Gene Cole has apparently taken care to make sure the cast members exploit the particular music of this Texas accent while still making themselves understood. Again, this is particularly impressive in the first act, before the decibel level gets wearing. He also keeps the physical comedy pot boiling.

 The universally funny cast includes Shannan Dailey, Laurence Thorpe and David Simms. Calder Johnson designed the set and lighting, Jenneveve Hood the costumes, Michael Thomas the sound. The between-scenes music—bright Texas tunes that sound like they’re synthesized for a video game-- is especially twisted. The Red Velvet Cake War continues at North Coast Rep Fridays and Saturdays evenings through August 18, with Sunday matinees on August 5 and 12.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Two 1930s Musical Portraits: Cabaret and Woody Guthrie's American Song

Fledging American small town writer Cliff Bradshaw (played by Charlie Heinberg) comes to Berlin in 1929, and falls into a relationship with British singer Sally Bowles (Elena Tessler).  He sees her in the infamous cabaret, the Kit Kat Club, where the androgynous Emcee (Kelsey MacIlvaine) presides over a carnival of decadence.

 Meanwhile, Bradshaw’s landlady (played by Rae Robison) is courted by an equally late middle-aged fruit grocer (JM Wilkerson.) Their relationships with each other and several other characters are the principal focus of the first act of the musical Cabaret, as produced at Ferndale Repertory Theatre.

 But the realities of a country moving towards Nazi rule intrude in the much shorter Act II. Elena Tessler’s vitality, her strong and supple voice, are again evident, though the role of Sally Bowles is less prominent on stage than in the Liza Minnelli movie. MacIlvaine is energetic and magnetic, Heinberg is winsome, Robison and Wilkerson are charming and convincing. Among the capable supporting cast, Caitlin McMurtry is again incandescent. The band is especially important and especially good.

 Additional cast members are Jeremy Webb, Jessie Shieman, Linnea Hill, Julia Giardino, Zoey Berman, Dante Gelormino, Qaiel Peltier, Jeffrey Ray Kieser and Jaison Chand. The orchestra is Dianne Zuleger, Justin Ross, Tamaras Abrams, Stephanie Douglass, Michael Lewis, Gina Piazza, Amber Grimes, Monica Dekat and John Petricca.

 Director Ginger Gene, musical director Dianne Zuleger and choreographer Linda Maxwell have constructed a fluid production, while lighting by Liz Uhazy and costumes by Erica Fromdahl match the moods.

The songs are by the team of Fred Ebb and John Kander, who later wrote the songs for Chicago. The sexuality it portrayed was still scandalous when Cabaret became a Broadway sensation in 1966, and there were many who remembered the actual 1930s (in fact, the original cast included Lotte Lenya, famous for singing in Brecht and Kurt Weil productions in Berlin at the time this musical is set.)

 The original production (and the 1972 film) emphasized the grotesque elements of this Berlin with theatrical techniques new to Broadway. But today in Humboldt County, nothing much of the show’s sexuality is unfamiliar, let alone shocking. The textures of those times and that place—even as then known through media filters—are mostly remote, replaced by a few symbols and images. So this show could now be considered a cautionary tale about the peril of ignoring political dangers. Or it could be seen as sentimentalizing a complexly horrible time, while approximating a style that has lost its edge. Or you can see it as both, which is pretty much my view.

 Cabaret resumes its run at Ferndale Rep Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. July 27-28, and again on August 10-11 and 24-25, with Sunday matinees on July 29, August 12 and 26.

 In roughly the same period as Cabaret takes place, the Great Depression was taking hold in the U.S. just as an ecological disaster called the Dust Bowl was driving away thousands of already poor farmers from Oklahoma and other states, principally to California. An itinerant self-taught musician named Woody Guthrie joined their journey and wrote songs about the experience. Five of those songs, collected on Guthrie’s first commercial album, are among the 19 featured in Woody Guthrie’s American Song, the show that alternates with Cabaret on weekends this summer at Ferndale Rep.

 Woody Guthrie collected folk melodies and chronicled the 1930s and 40s, from California (as his song says) to the New York island. Some of his songs (like “This Land is Your Land”) are so ubiquitous that many listeners today probably don’t know he is their author.

Those old enough to remember the folk revival of the 60s (and the smaller 90s revival) are likely to recall songs like “Bound for Glory,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “Hard Travelin’” as done by Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger or by Woody’s son, Arlo Guthrie, or more recently by Bruce Springsteen.

 Guthrie’s songs do reflect America but not in a generic way, and their relevance recurs in our time. Just as Cabaret may remind us that beyond the repugnant noise of politics truly dangerous forces may be on the march, Guthrie’s lyrics reveal the human costs incurred by the rich exploiting the rest, masked by the smiley face of fake patriotism.  That songs like “Union Maid” and “Deportee” (both in this show) are again topical in 2012 should be the real shock.

 Members of the ensemble performing these songs at Ferndale Rep are Devin Galdieri, Jo Kuzelka, Steve Nobles, Dianne Zuleger, Jeremy Webb, KJ Jusefczyk and Roger Vernon. Pete Zuleger, Val Leone and Larry Hudspeth are the accompanying band. Woody Guthrie’s American Song is directed by Dianne Zuleger, with lighting design and technical direction by Liz Uhazy. It plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. on July 20-21, August 3-4 and 17-18, with Sunday matinees on July 22, August 5 and 19.