Sunday, May 27, 2012

Avenue Q

Avenue Q, a much-praised 2003 musical that’s still running in Manhattan, is currently onstage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka with a superior production. The individual singing and acting is flawless. The group singing, thanks to musical director Molly Severdia, is excellent. Kudos as well to director, costume, video and puppet designer Rae Robison, to Calder Johnson’s set, and to Jennifer Trustem and Megan Johnson for the construction of the elaborate puppets. The packed opening night house (which appeared to be younger on average than the usual audience) cheered and laughed frequently.

 The story is set on Avenue Q in New York City, a version of Sesame Street but populated largely by former college students in their early 20s who can’t find good jobs, purpose or partners. Some of them are puppets, and some of those look suspiciously like familiar Muppet characters.

 Principal roles are played by Alex Moore, Keili Simmons Marble, Luke Sikora, Tina Toomata, Clayton Cook, Evan Needham, Lindsay G. Reiss, Dmitry Tokarsky and Megan Johnson, with supporting roles played by JuanCarlos Contreras, Tyler Elwell, Shea King, Reen Kay Savage and Sara Parsons Scibetta.

 The orchestrations and arrangements by Stephen Oremus, and the orchestra of Laura Welch, Jonathan Webster, Michael Lewis, Riley McFarland and Amber Grimes supported unobtrusively and well.

 Avenue Q is a High Concept musical, and the concept is this: filthy muppets. Muppets who curse, proclaim “politically incorrect” sentiments and have sex on stage. The simple pop music and lyrics (by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) also mimic the Sesame Street style, though more in the direction of South Park.

Despite being in their 20s, few of the good-hearted sit-comical characters seem much beyond a pre-school level of maturity. How funny you find this depends on whether it seems funny to you at all, or whether it seems funny to you for more than two hours.

 Some potential audience members might be offended by the language and the goings-on. I wasn’t. (There is a sanitized version for high schools. This isn’t it.) The insistently saccharine music and obvious lyrics did eventually threaten my sanity, but Andrew Lloyd Webber fans may find them bracing.

 The book by Jeff Whitty is a whit witty, a fast-paced mashup of the corny with almost-in-your-face aggressiveness, but without the integrity of a fable. Beyond the joke of the concept, its function is forming the story into something like “Revenge of the Sesame Street Generation.” Because apparently, adult life is not actually like Sesame Street. Who would have guessed?

 The themes that may resonate with generations of college graduates are there in the song titles: “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” “It Sucks to Be Me,” “Purpose.” The identity crisis of a gay character in New York seems a bit historical now, but otherwise the referents remain ruefully relevant. (Portions of the previous sentence were brought to you by the letter “R.”)

 The sense of dislocation after college, of not seeing a path to a place in society commensurate with your dreams, and the resulting pain and confusion, are real, repeated and important. But there is a line between satirizing and trivializing.

 Even given the illusions we may all absorb from popular culture, you might wonder what anybody is actually learning or teaching in college if graduates are as devoid of inner resources as these characters. They muddle winsomely through romantic, identity and vocational problems, with the obligatory crisis at the first act curtain, and a quickly contrived happy ending. And a message in a final song, the wisdom of which by then may seem as cynically sentimental as much of what preceded it.

The actual irony might be that much of Sesame Street itself is funnier, smarter, more sophisticated and more musical than the raw material of this show.

 Again, the actors make these characters likeable, the puppets are cute, and the show zips along. Some—probably many--may find Avenue Q to be a delightfully ironic and insightful musical cartoon, which in its own perversely silly way is daringly realistic. Nothing wrong with that. Others may find it to be funny, charming or perceptive here and there, but so carelessly cynical and manipulative, so confidently, numbingly and soul-crushingly shallow that despite (or because of) such talent and heartfelt effort, the cumulative effect over hours is alienating and depressing. I am one—maybe the only one--of those others.

 Avenue Q plays at NCRT on Fridays and Saturdays through June 23, with Sunday matinees on June 3, 10, 17, and a Thursday evening performance on June 21. “This production contains adult language,” not to mention “adult situations” involving puppets.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dell'Arte Thesis Projects 2012: Beyond Belief

I remember my mother standing at an ironing board in the motel room where our family was staying on a vacation trip in the summer of 1960, as we heard the radio report of what came to be called “the miracle at Niagara”: a 7 year old boy had been swept over the titanic Horseshoe Falls and survived. He was picked up at the bottom by the tourist boat, “Maid of the Mist.” We had visited the Falls just hours before it happened. It was a wonder just hearing about it.

 The first person to intentionally go over those falls and survive was Annie Edson Taylor, a down on her luck teacher who said she was 43, but was actually 63. She did it in a specially built barrel in 1901. Her story is the basis of one of the two original pieces on the Carlo Theatre stage at Dell’Arte for its second and final weekend, under the umbrella title of Beyond Belief. They are the thesis projects of third year students in the MFA program at the Dell’Arte International School.

 The story of this remarkable woman is preceded by The Most Remarkable Man of the Age, although he’s fictional. MFA candidate Myque Franz adapted a story (“The Man That Was Used Up”) and a poem (“The Conqueror Worm”) by Edgar Allen Poe, and created this piece with three former Dell’Arte students: Eric Hoffman, Zita Nyarady and Brandon J. Wilson.

 It has the satiric mood of the Poe story but owes as least as much to his macabre side, as well as perhaps to melodrama, morality tales, German Expressionism and those beloved (by some) cheap horror flicks. An Everyman named Thompson seeks the secret of the rumored immortality of the elusive figure, General Doctor John A.B.C. Smith, PhD. Thompson meets various bizarre characters (Pompeygirl, Dr. Guru Stretchmout, the Cognoscenti Twins, Sinivate the Worm etc.) before learning the secret the hard way, in a kind of Alfred Hitchcock Presents twist.

 At least that’s what happened when I saw it. The nature of these projects is that they change, especially from one weekend to the next. It was an entertaining and skillfully presented piece, with all the expected physical flourishes on, behind and even under the stage. It managed to incorporate a variation on the Actor’s Nightmare: finding yourself onstage—maybe in your underwear—with no idea of what the play is, or the words of your next line. This helped give this entire piece the quality of a nightmare.

 Heroine of Horseshoe Falls is the work of the three third-year participants: Rachel Brown, Meghan Frank and Pratik Motwani. It follows the general biography of Annie Edson Taylor, though it shapes it for affecting and artful effect. But it also adds much texture and detail. It begins with a striking theatrical image, which I won’t spoil except to say that it, like some other images, postures and dance movements reminded me of photos and films of Agnes de Mille’s early work.

 When Taylor’s husband is killed in the Civil War she is left to her own devices. After her wanderings and struggles as a teacher, she gets the idea of plunging down the Horseshoe Falls to make her fortune. The real Annie Taylor’s desperation seems softened by a delusion well-known in our time, of self-affirmation and immorality through a famous accomplishment.

 Pratik Motwani (who rocketed to local stardom in last year’s Mary Jane: The Musical—and yes, he’s back this summer!) plays her carney-eyed manager who siphons off what little money she makes. He sees Annie as a freak attraction, while she sees herself as an inspiring story.

 Meghan Frank, who is excellent as Annie throughout, is especially riveting as her elder self: the former “Queen of the Mist” selling penny postcards memorializing her exploits. Her rueful sweetness in defeat feels true. Meghan Frank is an actor with range.

 Rachel Brown plays the “inner Annie” and a half-dozen other parts with efficiency and charm. Spoken exposition got confusing at times, but some of the writing was especially evocative—the remembered scene of Annie getting the news of her husband’s death, for instance.

 There were bursts of comedy, as in the old “Niagara Falls! Slowly I turn...” bit I first saw in a Three Stooges film—barely integrated but fun. Michael Foster designed lighting and Lydia Foreman the costumes. Daniel Spencer is Technical Director and Kristin Shumaker the Production Stage Manager—all for both shows. The lighting for each was especially effective in setting the mood from the start. Beyond Belief continues this weekend at Dell’Arte in Blue Lake, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Any North Coast Weekend

This North Coast weekend, stuff continues: Evita at Ferndale Rep, For Better (which I reviewed in the NC Journal this week) at Redwood Curtain.   And there's Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Eureka High.

So there's time for a little comment.  Last week I mentioned an article in the Tri-City Weekly on North Coast theatre by Pam Service.  It begins with the assertion "Humboldt County is theatrically rich," and suggests that this success is not due to facilities (that's for sure!) but "the wealth of theatrical talent. There's something about Humboldt that breeds, attracts and retains that talent. Maybe it's the gorgeous natural environment, maybe it's the more leisurely pace of life, maybe it's the atmosphere of intellectual and artistic creativity. But whatever it is, talented actors are here in abundance. And all of us are the richer for it."

While she's right about the talent, the "something about Humboldt that breeds, attracts and retains that talent" isn't completely so mystical or mysterious.  One of the prime somethings is Humboldt State University, and in a somewhat different way, Dell'Arte and its School. 

Look no further than the current Redwood Curtain production.  Nearly everyone involved in it is a student or graduate of the Humboldt State theatre program. In fact, several were involved in the HSU 10 Minute Play Festival that was on stage during For Better's opening weekend.  Director Kristin L. Mack is a recent recipient of an M.A. in Theatre Arts.  She directed for a previous 10 Minute Play Festival.

Of course not every play at every theatre features an entire cast from HSU, plus the director, scenic and costume designer.  But almost every production at every theatre does involve one or more creative participants who is studying theatre at HSU or got one or another degrees there.  There is also cross-fertilization, with directors from other theatres directing a show at HSU (and earning some money doing it) and HSU faculty directing at other theatres.  The importance of HSU extends to high schools and specialized theatre groups.

The HSU role goes beyond the theatre program (for example, both principal founders of Redwood Curtain earn their livings there) but the theatre program has been the most crucial element, certainly in the breeding and even retention of talent.  Young people studying at HSU (perhaps in Music or some unrelated field, but generally in or including Theatre) enliven theatrical productions here, and they are missed when they leave. But some remain, and some who came here by another route got advanced degrees there, or operate and work for community and other theatres while teaching part-time at HSU (and also at College of the Redwoods, which shouldn't be forgotten either.)  

But there is perhaps a sad ending to this story, and certainly a cautionary tale.  But first let me clear away the disclosures.  I myself can review theatre here, not because I am paid a living wage by the North Coast Journal, but because I am paid something a little bit closer to a living wage by HSU to write and disseminate publicity for HSU Theatre, Film & Dance and HSU Music Department shows.  Those are two part-time jobs that sometimes get in the way of each other, but awkwardly putting together jobs like that isn't exactly rare on the North Coast. 

And in such a small community, here's another common complication.  My partner is a tenured faculty member and current chair of Theatre, Film & Dance at HSU.  This certainly may color my feelings on these matters, but you can judge the facts.  There is also the drawback that I can't say all that I know.  So to complete this disclaimer: nothing I say here should be construed as coming from HSU or any of its departments.  And I certainly am not being paid by HSU to say any of this. 

But I can point out a few things relevant to my topic here.  There have been a lot of changes at HSU, and many affecting the theatre program, mostly due to budget pressures from Sacramento. They haven't been expansions. 

  For one thing, Kristin Mack is one of the last M.A.s in theatre arts that HSU will produce for the forseeable future.  Some of the graduate programs have been axed, and some "suspended" with the possibility of parole.  But no new candidates for graduate work are being accepted. 

One of the consequences of the loss of graduate students is the end of the graduate courses in dramatic writing, which were the rationale for the 10 Minute Play Festival.  Without that course, it became clear this year that the Festival couldn't continue.  The Festival had become an incubator for directing and acting talent as well as writing.  But then there is no graduate level directing or acting anymore either.  

All of these changes are now happening and whatever they mean to HSU and its students,  I feel sure their consequences will soon be felt in the rest of North Coast theatre.  

Dell'Arte's influence is also important, both stylistically and in terms of the talent pool.  Graduates of various Dell'Arte programs and participants in Dell'Arte productions can be found throughout North Coast theatre.  But the Dell'Arte School teaches a particular kind of theatre, and its students are international---they don't usually participate in local theatre while they are here, and they typically leave soon after.  Still, Dell'Arte in total is a rich resource, and the formal ties between Dell'Arte and HSU that are just beginning seem a positive for North Coast theatre in general.    

How this economic mess has played out hasn't been good to local theatre in a number of ways.  And adapting to change is a key to flourishing.  But my point here is that the importance of HSU to North Coast theatre can't realistically be overlooked.  Apart from what resentment there might be (or how justified), it's easy to take it for granted.   That might be a mistake.