Sunday, April 29, 2012

Wedding Ring Tone: For Better, A Cellular Comedy at Redwood Curtain

Classic farce involves people running in and out of a lot of doors. There are multiple deceptions and discoveries, and a frantic frenzy to manage a situation that is obviously and hilariously already out of control.

 But a large chunk of today’s reality is virtual, and the opening and closing of doors often involves key strokes, touch screens and tiny buttons on cell phones that are too smart for their own good.

 That’s the brilliant theatrical insight behind the farce by playwright Eric Coble called For Better, now onstage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka. Coble ups the ante by placing his characters in the virtually virtual habitats of the new service class, for whom identical airports and cloned hotels are the ground of their physical being.

 The satire practically writes itself but Coble adds verisimilitude and poignancy to the instant portraits of these characters and their insecure connections, when “can you hear me now?” is not just a funny ad line but a momentous question, if not a plaintive cry.

 Karen Baedeker (played by Kyra Gardner) has met her true love—she thinks, maybe—at a Sheraton Buffet Breakfast during the International Food Conference (they’re both in food service) and has decided to marry him. He’s Max Aphelion, a location scout for Starbucks (Karen Baedeker, Max Aphelion of Starbucks—there’s enough in those names for a PhD thesis already.) We never meet him, but then Karen herself has only seen him three times. They talk on the phone and text a lot, though.

 First she must tell her tech-challenged father, Wally (Ken Klima) who is happy about it, and then on the phone to her sister Francine (Colleen Lacy), who is not. Francine pauses outside the marketing focus group she’s running to call her husband Michael (Anthony Mankins), who is off selling more insurance for satellite TV dishes. Francine suggests getting their friend Lizzie (Sarah McKinney) to google this Max guy, so Michael calls her.

 Free-spirited Lizzie works from home, monitoring seller ratings for E-Bay. She is also Michael’s former girlfriend. Meanwhile, their friend Stuart (Kyle Handziak) is off in Asia being the personification of the nerdy guy in the now nearly ancient commercials who goes everywhere to test cell coverage. He is devastated by the news, since he’s been carrying a crush for Karen he’s never quite acted on.

They all carry on multiple conversations at the same time, and when the wrong call-waiting door opens...

 As per the playwright’s instructions the action is spread out on nearly bare platforms, and for once the neck-challenging width of the Redwood Curtain stage has a purpose. Our gaze is as separated and fragmented as the conversations. (Despite the required bareness, Elizabeth Uhazy’s set design with the geometric color-coded lines in the floor is elegant and suggestive.)

 The actors are convincing as their characters, and even at second preview their comic timing was already sharp. Kyra Gardner has the range of Karen’s moods, her sweet self-conscious shallowness, her anxieties and her bravery. Anthony Mankin plays Michael with a frazzled dexterity, and while Colleen Lacy ably manages Francine’s relationship crises, my favorite moments in her performance were with her father-- she treats him as if he were deaf and addled as well as simply in his sixties.

 As that father, Ken Klima brings the necessary credibility and feeling to his key role. Kyle Handziak as Stuart has to work not to be the forgotten character, and he succeeds with a gentle dignity. Sarah McKinney has arguably the showiest role as Lizzie, and she runs with it, revealing great comic instincts, taste and expression in a very impressive performance.

 All this is made possible by Kristin Mack’s sure-handed and pitch-perfect direction, as well as the skill of the playwright who provided a theatrically smart structure along with funny and playable writing. It’s just right for this young cast—you’re in good hands from start to finish.

 Playwright Eric Coble is known for plays that apply different comic styles to various contemporary cultural phenomena: for example, a black comedy about competition for a child’s admission to a high-powered school, and an apocalyptic comedy about a theme park looking to restock the Native American Pavilion with a real Indian. (Coble spent much of his youth on Indian reservations.)

 It’s a treat to see a well-written play that has some thoughtful dimension. Though this play is five years old (which is about a century in cyberyears) and doesn’t tweet or like anybody, its world is ruefully recognizable. But it also quickly sketches the requisite family and relationship dynamics. As a blend of farce, satire and romantic comedy with a high quality sitcom sensibility, For Better is a fast-paced delight you can relax into as you laugh.

 The music selection and Jon Turney’s sound design seemed just right. Jessica Charles designed the evocative costumes, Michael Burkhart the appropriate lighting. For Better is on stage at Redwood Curtain Thursdays to Saturdays through May 19, with a Mother’s Day matinee on May 13. This is Redwood Curtain’s 50th production.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

Opening on Wednesday April 25 for five performances is the 14th annual 10 Minute Play Festival at HSU. There are seven plays this year by five student playwrights. Though the plays are the usual mix of comedy, drama and fantasy, there’s a linking format. The playwrights are Keosha Chambers, Jessica Charles, Christin Hunter, Sarah McKinney and Alan La Police. All but one (directed by Liz Uhazy) are directed by this year’s coordinator John Heckel. Though this is a perennially popular show, changes in class offerings largely forced by budgets mean this is probably the last 10 Minute Play Festival on the HSU schedule. It plays Wed.-Sat. at 7:30 and Sunday at 2 in Gist Hall Theatre. 826-3928.

Speaking of HSU, it’s practically an alumni and current student reunion—including participants in the 10 Minute Play Festival on the same weekend—at the Redwood Curtain play which begins previews on Thursday, April 26. For Better is a comedy by Eric Coble about a wedding and the defining roles of gadgets in contemporary life. HSU grads and students involved include director Kristin Mack, scenic designer Liz Uhazy, costume designer Jessica Charles and cast members Kyra Gardner, Ken Klima, Colleen Lacy, Sarah McKinney and Kyle Handziak. How did Anthony Mankins get in there? (Ooops--he's from HSU, too.)  Official opening night is April 28, and performances continue weekends through May 19. 443-7688.

Dell'Arte International's First Years also present one of the more popular shows on their annual calendar: their clown show.  The Clowns Are Here this weekend, Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.  Admission is pay-what-you-will and a sellout is expected. 668-5663 ext. 20 for tickets.

This week's Tri-City Weekly features a neat piece by Pam Service, who makes use of her years of service to North Coast Rep in particular with fascinating profiles of several notable North Coast theatre figures: actors Bob and Lynn Wells; actors Nathan Emmons, Kim Haile and David Hamilton (all in NCRT's just concluded Much Ado About Nothing) and current reviewer Beti Trauth (whose review of HLOC's Damn Yankees is also in that issue.)

One of Pam Service's observations is likely to focus some comments in this space, and possibly elsewhere, in the near future, along with several other items in this post.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

Dell’Arte School second-years present the results of their investigation into tragedy: The Night Mare, Thursday-Saturday April 19-21 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo. It’s a full-length work about a couple that relentlessly—and one assumes, tragically—pursues their dream of having children. 668-5663,

Just weeks after the 1979 hit musical Evita officially returns to Broadway, it opens at Ferndale Repertory Theatre, which is a lot closer. It begins there April 20, starring Elena Tessler as Eva Peron, Jaison Chand as Juan Peron and Steve Nobles as Che. Directed by Ferndale Rep Executive Director Ginger Gene, it’s the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical about the rise of Eva Peron to become the idolized wife of the dictator of Peru, and what her ascension suggests about the interaction of celebrity and power. The cast of 35 also features Craig Waldvogel and Jessie Shieman. Dianne Zuleger is musical director and Linda Maxwell the choreographer. Dan Stockwell is scenic designer, Lydia Foreman designed costumes, Greta Stockwell the lighting. It plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 13. (707) 786-5483.

Correction: Evita Peron was the wife of the dictator of Argentina, not Peru.  Which is why the song isn't, don't cry for me, Peru.  I think my general attitude about this musical has been found out.  And a note to commenters: these comments are screened and so the fact that a comment doesn't appear immediately doesn't mean it wasn't received.  

Damn Yankees at HLOC

Walking home from Little League practice I would sometimes stop at the public library to select my three-book limit—usually science fiction (the Winston series) or sports biographies (Jackie Robinson) and sports novels, mostly by Joe Archibald and John R. Tunis, with titles like Young Razzle and The Kid Comes Back. A title outside the kids section once caught my eye: The Year The Yankees Lost the Pennant. I got the title’s meaning. It was the 1950s and with players like Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, the Yankees always won the American League and usually the World Series.

My home team—the Pittsburgh Pirates—would soon be the little guys from nowhere that toppled the mighty Yankees in the real life 1960 World Series. (Okay, maybe Milwaukee did it a few years earlier.)  But the novel was about a frustrated fan for the Washington Senators-- next to the Kansas City A’s (virtually a Yankee farm team) the most hapless American League team. That middle-aged fan named Joe Boyd makes a deal with the devil (who calls himself Mr. Applegate) to become the young home run hitter Joe Hardy, destined to elevate the Senators. His transformation (as I remember it) happened while he ran—he started with labored breath, slow, creaky and awkward, and felt himself become fleet and fluid and easy. It was my first scary lesson in the meaning of getting old.

  Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (Pajama Game) added music to the story based on Douglas Wallop‘s novel for the Broadway musical Damn Yankees, which swept the major Tony Awards in 1956. This show (rather than the 1994 revival) seems the basis for the version now being performed by the Humboldt Light Opera Company at the College of the Redwoods Forum Theater in Eureka.

Once Applegate (played with suave irony and sonorous glee by Brad Curtis) gets Joe Hardy in his clutches (James Gadd, looking the part of the innocent baseball star) he moves to control him further with the professional temptress known as Lola. This showy role made Gwen Verdon a Broadway star. Verdon was a dancer who’d never sung a role before, and coincidentally that’s also true of HLOC’s Lola, Lela Annotto-Pemberton. Dancers must make every movement mean something, and Lela seems to bring that approach to Lola’s songs, particularly the first one (“A Little Brains, A Little Talent”), honing every phrase as she belts out one of the show’s highlights. She follows that with the song that emerged from this show: “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets.)” Quite a debut.

Also debuting on a North Coast stage but with plenty of experience in New York and nationally-touring musicals is Melissa Trauth as Gloria, a tough sports reporter who can suddenly dance up a leggy storm. Besides her flashy solo, when she and Lela/Lola do a dancing duet it’s a sparkling Broadway moment.

  The story involves Joe’s trials and his attempt to invoke his escape clause (a little Faust, a little Samson and Cinderella—this show’s got it all) but plot twists are less important than the quiet credibility brought to the central love story, which is perhaps surprisingly about the middle-aged couple. In this, Carol Escobar (as Joe’s wife Meg) is crucial, both with James Gadd and Robert Keiber as the elder Joe.

  The singing by both male and female ensembles is another highlight: the fans (Patty Andreise, Jennifer Callen, Bonnie Cyr, Katherine Matheson, Mary Severdia, Alana McConnell and Liz Souza) and the team (Gino Bloomberg, Jesse Chaves, Dylan Karl, Rigel Schmitt, Andrew Sible, Levi Simmons, led by manager Bill Ryder, with Howard Lang and Ralph Nelson.) Rookie of the year honors go to young Jake Smith for especially fine singing.

  Carol Ryder directs creatively and effectively as usual (she also designed the handsome modular set, built by technical director Peter Johnson.) Molly Severdia and piano accompanist Sharon Welton are musical directors, Melissa Trauth did choreography, Kevin Sharkey the costumes, Justin Takata the lighting. Not a big summer show or a great play but it’s fun: to miss Damn Yankees would be a damn shame. It plays weekends through April 28.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

Humboldt Light Opera Company opens the baseball romance musical Damn Yankees on Friday (April 13) at 7:30 p.m. at the College of the Redwoods Forum Theater.  It stars James Gadd, Carol Escobar, Lela Annotto-Pemberton, Robert Keiber, Melissa Trauth, Bill Ryder, and Brad Curtis as the devil.  The show plays weekends (Sunday matinees at 2) until April 28.

At HSU, Of Time and Rhythm, this year's spring dance concert, opened Wednesday and plays Thursday-Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 2 in the Van Duzer Theatre. (One weekend only.)  I don't know enough to write about dance so I usually don't, but I saw this show opening night and enjoyed all the dances and the music.  But I was really knocked out by one dancer.  Her name is Kara Ajetunmobi.  She first attracted my attention last year, for a typically goofy reason.  In editing publicity photos for the HSU Stage blog and to send out, I was struck by her resemblance in the photos to the British actor Freema Agyeman (TV's Bleak House, the David Tennant Doctor Who, and most recently on the UK version of Law & Order.).  I enjoyed her dancing last spring, but this year I was simply mesmerized.  Strong, graceful but economical, not a gesture wasted or less than impressive.  I noticed her especially in two dances in the second half of the program: "Follow" (and I wasn't the only one--when it finished I heard a gasp and a "wow" not coming from me) and "O'numinous." (She's first in the photo.) 

The student choregraphed dances, the big show pieces by faculty members Erin McKeever ("Constellations") and Sharon Butcher ("No Ecosystems...") were terrific, but I was anticipating Linda Maxwell's Broadway/Hollywood show dance, which I knew (and publicized) by its working title, "Slap That Bass."  That song, and another in this dance ("You Can't Take That Away From Me") are originally from the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rodgers movie, Shall We Dance, with music by George Gershwin.  I just watched it again recently on DVD, and a featurette that revealed that at one point, George Balanchine was asked to choreograph a dance for the film.  He was interested but scheduling didn't work.  He admired Fred Astaire tremendously.  Just months afterward, George Gershwin was dead at the age of 38.  But imagine what history might have been made with Gershwin, Astaire and Balanchine! 

In any case, this dance didn't use the Astaire versions of these songs.  I was unfamiliar with the shows excerpted, but it was all fun, and the dancing was like musical theatre dancing at its best--big, energetic, winsome, enthusiastic (Dani Gutierrez especially sparkled, and some great dancing guys really added to the energy.)  But it made me wonder: why don't we ever see dancing like this at HSU in an actual musical?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

More Ado About Nothing

The production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka is light on its feet. The action and the language move swiftly and intelligibly.

 There are basically two stories to tell: the melodramatic tale of false accusations made against a noble’s daughter that disrupts one love affair, and the more comic battle of wits of another couple, who are nevertheless destined for each other. It is the interplay of this latter couple—Beatrice and Benedick—that gives this play its enduring fame.

 The mixture of these stories makes this play unique. Both stories begin lightly, with the return of soldiers after a war. A wealthy landowner, Leonato (played by James Read), his daughter, Hero (Jennifer Trustem), niece Beatrice (Kimberly Haile) and brother Antonio (Scott Osborn) greet these soldiers, who evidently had been stationed there before: the prince Don Pedro (Bobby Bennett), the young Claudio (Evan Needham) and Benedick (Ethan Edmonds.) Lurking in the background is Don John (David Hamilton), the surly villain of the piece.

 As Beatrice and Benedick continue their “merry war” of witticisms aimed at each other, Claudio falls in love with Hero. When this match seems assured, the others set about tricking Beatrice and Benedick (in a couple of madcap scenes) into realizing they love each other.

 But both stories turn serious at the aborted wedding of Claudio and Hero, after Claudio and Don Pedro have been deceived by agents of Don John into believing Hero is unfaithful. It is to the particular credit of veteran actors Bob Service and especially James Read that this scene is credibly powerful. Evan Needham is also notably effective in this scene.

 This crisis brings Beatrice and Benedick together, and after much more ado, the play ends happily with promises of several repetitions of “I do.”

 The roles of Beatrice and Benedick (who W.H. Auden called Shakespeare’s most likeable characters) have attracted many famous actors through the centuries, most recently including Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in what for my money is among the best movies made from a Shakespeare play, and the former Doctor Who tandem of Catherine Tate and David Tennant in a British stage version last year.

 In this production, Kimberly Haile’s performance as Beatrice is bold, quick, vivid and broad. With light movements and line readings that are natural and nuanced, Ethan Emmons is a superior Benedick. Though very different in style from his recent role in Look Back in Anger at Ferndale Rep, his performance here is again reason enough to see this show.

 Among the generally solid supporting cast, Charlie Heinberg as the drunken conspirator Borachio had an especially affecting scene. Other cast members not named so far are Katy Curtis, Wesley Fuller, Marin Griffin, Zoe Helton, Megan Johnson, Ed Munn, Alex Service, Pam Service, Keili Simmons Marble and George Szabo.

 The production is uneven, and the Benedick and Beatrice relationship didn’t seem to me to quite find its heart until very late. But apart from some lapses of taste that might spoil this soufflĂ© for some viewers, it is inventive and enjoyable. Director Calder Johnson creates a credible world and mostly equips his actors to succeed.

 Though the period is awkwardly but not fatally changed to the 1940s, Shakespeare’s location of Sicily is retained, by which the Bard basically signals that the characters are more passionate than the English. The set by Jody Sekas suggests a Latin village timelessness, and David Kenworthy’s lighting keeps it sunny. Keili Simmons Marble choreographed the handsome dances, though the recorded music is woefully inadequate. JM Wilkerson designed sound, and costumes are by Megan Johnson, Calder Johnson and Jennifer Trustem.

 Much Ado About Nothing plays weekends at NCRT through April 21.

Additional Notes:

I found this photo labeled Peggy Ashcroft as Beatrice, John Geilgud as Benedick. That looks like it could be Peggy but probably is not John. It looks more like Anthony Quayle, in a prior production that Gielgud directed.

Much Ado About Nothing was apparently written at about the time of Shakespeare's best comedies, including my fave, As You Like It.  The play wasn't performed all that much at first, yet the characters of Beatrice and Benedick caught on immediately, and remain the major source of interest in this play.  W.H. Auden thought the play is not one of Shakespeare's best, "but Benedick and Beatrice are the most lovable, amusing, and good people--the best of combinations--he ever created.  They are the characters of Shakespeare we'd most like to sit next to at dinner."

So it's not surprising that these parts have been popular with actors for centuries.  In the mid eighteenth century, the legendary David Garrick rehearsed the part of Benedick for two months, and then performed it nearly 200 times.  Over the years, Benedick was played to great acclaim by Charles Kean, Henry Irving and John Gielgud, and Beatrice by Ellen Terry and Peggy Ashcroft.  Christopher Plummer's Benedick at Stratford, Ontario in the 50s was a liberating experience for this prominent veteran actor. He writes in his autobiography: "it was playing Benedick that freed me from all outward influence and for the first time I was able to trust in myself."
Oddly, it was not filmed in England or America until the 1993 movie directed by Kenneth Branagh in his Shakespearean cinema prime (between his Henry V and Hamlet), in which he played Benedick to Emma Thompson (his wife at the time) as Beatrice.  People are divided on this film.  Harold Bloom criticizes it for dwelling on the Italian landscape and not on the language.  Others don't like the mix of English stage actors and American film actors.

I loved this movie when it came out, and I still love it.  It is a great introduction to Shakespeare for students, I've found, because it is so clear, and the language is spoken so naturally.  It is a real movie, with one of the most joyfully cinematic openings of any movie, Shakespeare or no.  A great score for the movie and just as music (like another of my maligned favorites, Shakespeare in Love.)  The Hollywood actors were a little jarring at first, but on a recent re-viewing, I saw more clearly how much they bring to the film, especially Denzel Washington.

 Michael Keaton as the comic lawman Dogsberry is the most scorned.  Shakespeare apparently wrote Dogsberry partly from life (a character he met) and mostly as a turn for his company's clown, Will Kemp.  In doing so, he is credited with creating the comical lawman type that figures in so many comedies, including the paradigmatic Keystone Kops.  Keaton, and how he was directed, did seem over the top on my first viewing, but again, I like it much more now.  Branagh's directorial flourishes can seem excessive, but given all the energy and heart in this movie, they are easy to forgive--if even that is necessary.  As Auden (or somebody) points out, the boring parts in a Shakespeare play are essential to their overall success, and probably the same can be said of Branagh's exuberances, including some of the business that Keaton and his cohorts engage in.

I also defend the movie's excisions.  Theatre directors cut from the plays, and because so much can be told by visuals in a movie, Branagh could cut even more.  He cut a few redundant scenes--but also filmed what was offstage in one scene--and he cut lines out of speeches that mostly had obsolete references, intelligible to Shakespeare's audiences but not to us.  That requires skill and taste, and for the small portion  of the script I compared with the play, I thought he did a good job.  (He did cut one funny speech that I was happy to hear at NCRT, though.)

Branagh's Benedick is a contemporary classic portrayal, and I saw not a little of it in Ethan Emmon's reading at North Coast Rep, though Emmons has the better voice. That was very impressive when the movie came out--Branagh's way of making the lines contemporary.  But on repeated viewing, it is Emma Thompson's Beatrice I found most enchanting.  She found the perfect balance between the ways the character is usually played--either as a witty lady, or a shrewish malcontent.  She did not put on airs, but she was innately noble, both happily ironic and a little wounded.  And very lovable.

The play was performed on the London stage last year by another crossover media couple: David Tennant (who also played Hamlet a few years ago) and Catherine Tate (a stage novice but veteran TV comedienne) were paired for a wonderful year on Doctor Who, one of the most popular and iconic series in the UK.  Their lauded 2011 production transposed the action to 1980s Gibraltar, which makes more sense in the UK than it would here.  Transposing the location of any Shakespeare has been trendy for some years now, but especially this play. Reviewing a 1970s production that sets the play in India, critic Michael Billington of the Guardian mused that he'd seen this play also set in "Pancho Villa's Mexico, and even, in one experimental version, Elizabethan England."  Still, Billington liked the Tennant version.  Having seen only the YouTube preview of a much too expensive and apparently unreliable Internet download, I can't comment (except to say that Tennant and Tate clearly can make it funny).  But for me, the very thing that Harold Bloom disdains about the Branagh movie is an aspect I love about it.  The Tuscan landscape is as important a character as any other.

Now a few stray thoughts about the NCRT production.  It was an interesting choice to make the villain's henchman Borachio a drunk, since my annotated version of the play points out that the name comes from the Spanish for drunkard, and was apparently a tip-off to Shakespeare's audiences and for some time after...

The cast was generally good to excellent (at least at times), but while I know casting is a perennial community theatre problem, there was some unfortunate miscasting in this one, compounded by weak direction. The lovely and talented Kim Haile was a great choice for Beatrice, but even though the choice for the interpretation of her character can be justified, it was too broad to move me, and it was too different from Emmons more subtle rendering of Benedick to make an effective match.  But maybe that's changing as the run of the show continues.

 I wrote in my review that in the NCRT production, the Beatrice and Benedick relationship doesn't quite find its heart until near the end.  Some would retort that this is kind of the point, but...I don't really think so.  There has to be something there--some heat, some sexual tension or simply (as in the Branagh/Thompson version) some history of feeling--from the beginning, to make the swift resolution credible.  In that version, the others are clearly tricking them into admitting the attraction that everyone else sees.

 There were also some decisions in this NCRT production that seemed needlessly and unhelpfully vulgar.  I see no virtue into going into all of them, but  beyond the usual need to mime every real and imagined sexual reference in the text, I remain annoyed with the apparent decision to have Beatrice repeatedly emphasize the last syllable of Benedick.  It doesn't work with the character of Beatrice nor with the time period--vaguely the 1940s--of this production.

 As for the 1940s, I don't see what it did for the play, except create costume headaches.  John Gielgud used to judge the period for the play by whether it was credible (for example, he thought you couldn't set this one in the 19th century, given the constricted sexual mores) or--just as importantly--whether the costumes of the period helped or hindered the actors in moving as they should.  High heels etc. didn't seem to help in this one.    

Thursday, April 5, 2012

This North Coast Weekend

Toronto’s internationally acclaimed Faustwork Mask Theater presents The Mask Messengers, a set of comic and dramatic vignettes inspired by the assembled masks, at the Arcata Playhouse on Friday and Saturday (Apr. 6,7) at 7 p.m., and 2 p.m. also on Saturday, as part of the Playhouse Family Fun series.

The Dell’Arte Company presents a New Works Cabaret, Friday through Sunday (Apr. 6-8) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. A variety of brand new work will feature Stephanie Thompson, Joe Krienke, Lauren Wilson, Joan Schirle, Zuzka Sabata, Barney Baggett and more.