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.