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."