Sunday, December 29, 2013

R.I.P. 2013

Among the losses to international stages are these, the famous and the lesser known, who represent others not named here:

Like many British actors--particularly of his generation and before--Peter O'Toole was a star on the stage before he made his first film.  His Hamlet, using the full text (which is rare), was much praised.

Richard Griffiths was primarily known as Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter films, but he was mostly a stage actor, costarring recently with Harry himself, Daniel Radcliffe.

American actor Julie Harris was renowned as much for her stage work as for her movies, though her performance in East of Eden opposite James Dean is indelible.  Other American actors known primarily for film and television are Eileen Brennan, Jean Stapleton, Eleanor Parker, Deanna Durbin and Esther Williams.  Lesser known American actors whose loss will be felt on stages are Ruth Maleczech, Martha Greenhouse, Kevin Gray, Patricia Blair, Jane Connell.  American stages also lost director and actor Arthur Storch, and director and author Herbert Blau.

British actors lost this year also include Lewis Collins, Jean Kent, Paul Rogers, Nigel Davenport, Pat Keen, Barbara Hicks, Bill Wallis, David Lyon and Keith March.  Canadian, South American, European and Asian stages lost important figures as well.

Nobel Laureate Seamus Heany was a playwright as well as poet, and Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing wrote plays and libreti for opera as well as fiction and essays.  She was also a keen theatre-goer.

  Poland lost one of its foremost international playwrights, Slawomir Mrozek.  Franca Rane was a prominent Italian playwright and actor.   Ostad Mohammad was a playwright and director.  Walter Muparutsa was an important playwright and actor in Zimbabwe.

Cuban-born Dolores Prida was known primarily as a columnist for the New York Daily News but also found success as an Off-Broadway playwright. Pittsburgh lost an important playwright in its vibrant theatre scene with the death of Mary Virginia Whipple.  Donald Bevan began as a Broadway playwright and later became a Broadway caricaturist. Playwright John Davidson also founded the Children's Theatre.  A former reporter, Thomas Tafero was a young playwright and actor in New York.

Many of these playwrights were also actors, directors, producers and teachers.  But their focus remained foremost on theatre and film.  There are others however who include the stage in an even larger scope of endeavors.  Philip Slater had that kind of life.  Known primarily as the author of nonfiction books such as The Pursuit of Loneliness, or the fiction/nonfiction hybrid Earthwalk, his livelihood was provided mostly by university teaching.  Yet he also had a life as an actor and playwright.  While his death at age 86 is to be mourned, his books remain alive, and his plays exist to be brought to life by future generations.  It seems like an honorable and fulfilling life.

Update 1/4/2014: Here's what playwright and actor Alan Bennett wrote about the death of Richard Griffiths in journal excerpts from 2013 just published (and posted) in the London Review of Books. Bennett wrote the play and screenplay The History Boys, one of Griffiths' better known performances.  He won many awards for his performance in it on stage, including a Tony.

29 March. Richard Griffiths dies. We’ve been away for a couple of days so are spared the unctuous telephone calls that always come from the tabloids on such occasions, ‘We’re sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings’ or ‘We hope we’re not intruding on your grief.’ Outside his family the person who would have known him best as an actor at the National and who would have been most acquainted with the logistic difficulties caused by his bulk was his dresser. No one will think to ask him, and I’ve never known him gossip about the actors he’s dressed (myself included), but he would have an angle on Richard and how he coped with his life that is unshared by any of the obituary writers.

Richard had an unending repertoire of anecdotes and an enviable spontaneous wit besides. I was working with him at the time when Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose was being laboriously raised from the depths of the Solent. This was being done by means of a cradle when suddenly a cable snapped and the wreck slipped back into the water.

‘Ah,’ said Richard. ‘A slight hiccup on the atypical journey from grave to cradle.’

Here's a story on Griffith's funeral, which brought out the Brit acting elite, including Daniel Radcliffe.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Year Not in Reviews: Plenty of Fields, Backstage Drama

Michael Fields.  Photo by Kellie Brown
This is a slightly different version of my year end Stage Matters column in NCJ published during Christmas week.  So in the likely event you missed it, it's my annual opportunity to write about something--or some things--that didn't get into my reviews and columns over the year, which in this case is (or was) 2013.

North Coast stages depend on a relatively small number of producers, directors, designers and actors who often work on several shows in a given year, before moving on or staying for decades. But even within this context, Michael Fields had a remarkable 2013.

 Fields directed four major productions and was responsible for the final script of at least two. This was in addition to his normal duties as Producing Artistic Director of the Dell’Arte Company and as chair of the entire California State Summer School for the Arts Theatre Program. But more than quantity it’s the newsworthy and innovative nature of these productions for the North Coast that requires more notice.

 In February Fields directed a contemporary translation of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, called Hater. But this wasn’t at Dell’Arte—it was at HSU, with a cast of mostly HSU students. It was a fast-paced yet heartfelt production, visually bold and with lively and subtle performances, notably by Johani Guerrero.

 It was also the first production of this translation outside of New York—which doesn’t happen here very often. Fields had met translator Samuel Buggeln (who is also a New York-based director) and brought him to the North Coast for a week—also an unusual event.

Even while he was adhering to a script in staging Hater, Fields was teaching one of the two classes that helped create Humboldt Unbound from scratch. HSU students and faculty collaborated on shaping ideas for a theatre piece on Alexander von Humboldt for HSU’s centennial year. Fields guided this unprecedented process at HSU (which required political as well as creative skills), wrote the final script, directed the show and tapped Dell’Arte colleagues to help create the sights and sounds of this singular production, which appeared on the Van Duzer stage in November.

And even while Humboldt Unbound was aborning, Fields was working with Dell’Arte International School students on their collaborative adaptation of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, which returns the Dell’Arte holiday show to a family-friendly narrative as a comprehensible and emotionally satisfying framework for the dazzle within it.

 In between he directed (and in part adapted) The Comedy of Errors for the Mad River Festival, the first play by Shakespeare that Dell’Arte produced in 38 years (and he was in that one.) I wrote at the time that it was one of his best directorial efforts.

 I have reservations about Dell’Arte-style “devised theatre” and aspects of the school’s pedagogy, but two mainstays of the Dell’Arte philosophy are practically personified in Fields’ work: his attention to process and his commitment to community. This was not his easiest year offstage, but the care in his work never wavered.

 Fields included two quotes in this year’s Dell’Arte holiday greeting: "Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." (Teddy Roosevelt) “Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place.” (Rumi) These are words he lives by.

 So what else about North Coast stages didn’t make it into the reviews and previews this year? Well, just like every year, a lot of the drama, most of which has nothing to do with the play that’s presented. It’s supplied within the production itself.

 For instance: The leading man who leaves a happy musical a few weeks before opening because his girlfriend doesn’t like how he looks at the leading lady. The actors who can’t make eye contact onstage because of what’s happened offstage. The actors who hate their director, the director who can’t stand the actors.

 The musical director and the stage director of a musical comedy who are barely speaking. The set that remains the designer’s fantasy until there’s no longer time to do much more than throw some flats together. Rehearsals suddenly turn into group therapy; illnesses or bad behavior turn them to chaos. Passionate liaisons begin and end within the run of a show, so that two strangers at first rehearsals are estranged lovers by the final performance. (Not all of this happened this particular year... at least not necessarily.)

 Participants tell these stories, sometimes even to me (though some actors just look at me with a frozen expression that suggests they’re fighting the impulse to back away while holding up a cross.) Besides backstage gossip, I occasionally hear their critiques of their own shows that can be more bluntly devastating than anything I’ve written. Well, anything I’ve published.

 While creating a production doesn’t only (or always) involve backstage drama, this should remind us that it’s done by people. And while participants want to produce a good show for audiences, the process itself is often the reason they show up. Applause is nice and necessary, but the process is the point.

It's the journey they take together: they talk about the play, put it on its feet, create its world, solve problems, think about characters, work with each other and see what they can do. Doing it is the chief reward, especially in community and education-based theatre, which is most of what the North Coast offers. Even more than elsewhere, our theatre is subsidized by the work of the people presenting it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

This North Coast Holiday Season

 Apart from the deeper meanings, it comes down to: Christmas R toys, right? And not just for children (or do I have to give back my Enterprise com badge and Doctor Who sonic screwdriver?) And what’s better than toys that come alive?

 Among the many shows that play with this idea was Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta Babes in Toyland. It’s been reworked many times for stage, film and TV, and even though the original script in the Library of Congress reads like one of their own shows, Dell’Arte has reworked it again for their 2013 holiday production.

 “We’re guided by the essentials of the Victor Herbert story,” said director Michael Fields. In the Dell’Arte version, the villainous Barnaby has taken over Toyland and is mass-producing terrible toys. The original Toymaster has disappeared. The various characters (including the Toymaster and a few Mother Goose figures) wind up in the Forgotten Forest, where people don’t remember who they are and have to figure it out. “It’s very funny, it has a happy ending,” Fields said, “ and there’s square-dancing.”

 As always the Dell’Arte holiday show is made to travel, from its compact playing time to the set. “We have to create a visual world that supports the show, but with sets and lights that can be loaded in and out of a truck 17 or 18 times,” Fields noted. This year’s set, which transforms from various structures into the Forgotten Forest, is designed by Lynnie Horrigan, with lighting by Michael Foster and costumes by Lydia Foreman. Tim Gray composed the music and designed sound.

 Cast members are Andrew Eldrege, Darci Fulcher, Billy Higgins, Ariel Lauryn, Allie Menzimer, Lucy Shelby, Jerome Yorke and Emily Newton. “Some years we gone a little dark with our holiday shows,” Fields said. “But this year it’s very upbeat, energetic and bright to look at, with vivid costumes and a vibrant world. It’s in the genre of family theatre, which for me is a kind of European concept of theatre that isn’t just for children but is certainly family-friendly.”

 Or as Fields summed up: “It’s fun. It’s free.” And yes, “certain toys come alive.”

 Babes in Toyland opens at Dell’Arte’s Carlo Theatre on Friday and Saturday, November 29 and 30 at 7:30 p.m., then tours up and down the North Coast before returning to the Carlo for the weekend of Dec. 19. All shows until final weekend are free. You can find the full schedule online at, where there’s also ticket information for the various venues.

 More on other versions...The script of the Victor Herbert original Babes in Toyland at the Library of Congress (and online here) satirizes consumer culture to a remarkable degree, including that new phenomenon, the department store. If this is really the 1903 script (which it may not be—it apparently changed several times), it seems  consumerism (along with advertising, etc.) was already going strong at the turn of the 20th century. The earliest indictment of the consumer economy I’ve read is H.G. Wells trenchant novel Tono-Bungay, first published in 1908.

 As an ordinary part of their creative process, the Dell’Arte troupe researched available movie and TV versions, beginning with the 1934 Laurel & Hardy film. This is the only version I recall, renamed March of the Wooden Soldiers, which I saw on TV a couple of times as a child. Although I was impatient with the singing, I was fascinated and excited by the life-size toy soldiers coming alive to defend the good guys.

 “That movie was directly influenced by the film version of The Wizard of Oz,” Michael Fields pointed out. It's not the first time. Apparently a lot was shared by the stage version of The Wizard of Oz and Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, which premiered the same year.  Which show took from the other is an open question.

 There was a 1961 Disney movie, and TV versions in 1986 and 1997, but before all of these there was a one hour version that was part of a series of dramatized fairy tales hosted by Shirley Temple. She had a series of specials in 1958-59 called Shirley Temple’s Storybook that became a weekly series in 1960, The Shirley Temple Show. It’s unclear whether this was broadcast earlier, but officially Babes in Toyland was seen on December 25, 1960, on a Sunday evening opposite Disneyland. It’s notable for being in color (a year before Disneyland.)

 Shirley Temple hosts it, surrounded by three of her own children, and talking slowly in that goody-goody voice that weirdly reflects her childhood persona. But she also acts and sings in the piece, as a heavily made-up ugly, evil witch. And she’s excellent.

 It also stars Jonathan Winters as the evil Barnaby, comedians Jerry Colonna and Joe Besser (of late Three Stooges) and the young Danny Thomas-era Angela Cartwright. Like most versions after the first, the Toymaster is no longer a villain, but it does preserve some of the baddies with names straight out of Othello, for some reason.  There's one or two jokes about advertising but greed is mostly expressed in other ways. (The DVD suggests where the TV commercial breaks were.)

 Of this version Fields said “It’s really fun and quite a good inspiration for us. You got the tail end of vaudeville with those comedians.”

 Another annual family-friendly holiday show happens at the Arcata Playhouse with a comedy at the center and different guest musicians for each performance. This year it’s Bigfoot Lodge Holiday Jamboree, directed by Jackie Dandeneau. It features Amy Tetzlaff and Ryan Musil as refugees from Wisconsin who come to the North Coast with their strange ways to take over the Bigfoot Lodge, and Bob Wells as the resident Bigfoot expert. Meredith Anne Baldwin and real Wisconsinite David Ferney also perform, with live music by Tim Randles.

 Set and lobby design is by local artists Lush Newton and Malia Penhall, with recycled holiday pieces from Scrap Humboldt. A shadow play by James Hildebrandt is also featured. This year’s guest performances include the Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir, Art Jones, Steven Weven, Trish Riel and pooch, Damiian Lange, Julie and Curtis Thompson, Shoshanna, and Pacific Union School Choir.

 Beginning Dec. 5, Bigfoot Lodge Holiday Jamboree runs for two weekends at the Arcata Playhouse, Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday Dec. 8. Tickets are available at Wildberries Marketplace or call (707) 822-1575. You can find more information including a schedule of guest appearances at

 The Music Man by Meredith Wilson (script and songs) is the Ferndale Repertory Theatre’s holiday show, though probably not because Wilson also wrote “It’s Beginning To Look A lot Like Christmas.” It’s a big, bright musical from Broadway’s Golden Age, with a love story, children, marching bands, a happy ending, and songs you sing on your way home.

 It’s about a con man, and there’s nothing more American than that. Take the tricksters of folk tales around the world, add capitalism and the con man appears. “Con” stands for “confidence,” which is what the con man has to inspire to be successful. In this story as in many others, the con man is the city slicker who fools the country bumpkins (“clowns” were originally countryfied figures of ridicule.) This theme was clearer when there was a sharper distinction between urban and rural.

 Directed by Dianne Zuleger, the cast of 30 is led by Jaison Chand as the con man Professor Harold Hill who comes to River City, and Caitlin McMurtry as his love interest, Marian the Librarian, and includes Gino Bloomberg, Greta Stockwell, Anders Carlson, Laura Rose and Tyler Egerer. Linda Maxwell is choreographer, Elisabeth Harrington and Nanette Voss are vocal directors, Karen Kenfeld Fuller is costume coordinator, Bruce Keller scenic artist, with sound by Ian Schatz and lighting by Telfer Reynolds.

 The Music Man opens at Ferndale Rep on Friday November 29, and plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2 through December 22, with Thursday night performances on Dec. 12 (benefit for cast and crew) and Dec. 19. For tickets call 707-786-5483 or on line at

The original production of The Music Man took forever to develop but once on Broadway in 1957 it ran forever. It became a national legacy with the 1962 technicolor movie. It was Robert Preston’s defining role, on stage and on screen.

 On Broadway it was one of the last of the classic Golden Age musicals. The writing was on the wall with the show that was its greatest rival for the Tony that year: West Side Story. The notoriously conservative award went to The Music Man, but that’s not the judgment of history.  It might even be said that one of the last and best of the classic musicals came up against one of the first and best modern musicals.

 While “(Ya Got) Trouble” (“right here in River City”) and “Seventy-six Trombones” are probably the songs most associated with the show, the tuneful score also includes “Till There Was You,” most famously recorded by the Beatles in the early 60s. They didn’t know it came from The Music Man, but Paul McCartney (who sang it solo) found out—and eventually bought the rights to all of Meredith Wilson’s songs. So it seems that some royalties will go from Ferndale right on over to Sir Paul. Merry Christmas to him, and to all, and good night.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


"To one side of society lies the academy, the university, with all the attendant dangers of aridity and isolation.  To the other lies what is now called the media, with all its potential for stupidity.  In the middle you find the theatre, the place where, traditionally, through a distinctive mixture of practicality and highmindedness, people (again, like Shakespeare) have been able to develop their own education.  The theatre is what the British have always been good at.  It's worth fighting for, precisely because it's auto-didactic.  It puts things under the microscope and people can learn for themselves.  Art teaches in a way instruction never can."

David Hare
Acting Up

Monday, November 18, 2013

Is Theatre A Luxury?

News from the LA Times:

 "Bloomberg, the New York-based financial news giant, is shutting down its Muse brand of cultural journalism and has laid off its theater critic. The shake-up was part of a company-wide reorganization that came down on Monday and resulted in layoffs around the newsroom. Bloomberg plans to continue to cover the arts, but with an emphasis on luxury. In an email sent to employees on Monday, Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matt Winkler said that the company has decided "to scale back arts coverage and no longer use the Muse brand." He said Bloomberg will align its leisure reporting with its luxury channel on its website, and with Pursuits, its magazine for wealthy readers."

Decreasing arts coverage and dumping the theatre critic has been going on for a decade or more in major magazines (some of which no longer exist) and newspapers. Perhaps not cheerful news (unless your show has been recently panned.)  But also not much new in it either.

But here's what caught my eye:  "Bloomberg plans to continue to cover the arts, but with an emphasis on luxury...  He said Bloomberg will align its leisure reporting with its luxury channel on its website, and with Pursuits, its magazine for wealthy readers."

This is first of all a clear acknowledgement that New York City has become an enclave for the rich, the only ones apart from tourists who can afford theatre tickets.  But Bloomberg's reach is far beyond New York City or even Washington,.D.C., another city that is pushing out its middle class. (In New York as in San Francisco, tech money has filled the space vacated by financial sector downsizing after the unpleasantness of 2008, while in Washington it's big money politics.)

Apart then from the national trend of the disappearing middle class, there's the reality living up to the cliche of the arts as only for the wealthy.  It is not generally true, especially when your definition moves away from arts events that are more glitz than substance much of the time anyway.

But it's a stubborn cliche, even here on the North Coast.  A North Coast Journal music column used the dubious mechanism of noting different kinds of music events by the footwear that characterizes their supposed audiences. For an event sponsored by the HSU Music Department, the footwear described were expensive loafers.

I'm not sure the writer ever attended an HSU Music event, where the audience is usually students, faculty, other musicians and a scattering of others, none of them wearing expensive loafers. This may be the audience that used to go to the Arkley Center (though not often enough apparently), I wouldn't know, I've never been there.  But anyone who has been to any theatre event on the North Coast must know that you are far more likely to see some pricey footwear in Wildberries than anywhere plays are produced.

Money and the arts don't go together like a horse and carriage.  They are more naturally enemies than allies, as a lot of bad art suggests.  While having a rich family helps young people survive long enough to establish a career in the arts, the arts themselves attract audiences and passionate devotees from all income classes.  They fascinate and inspire a self-selected audience and set of practitioners.

But it's also a product of our cultural insistence that theatre is nothing but entertainment, and entertainment is a luxury.  Theatre can be and should be a lot more central and important in people's lives and to the community.        

Saturday, November 16, 2013

You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown

After Nancy and Sluggo and before there was Doonesbury, the bright spot on the comics page was Peanuts. Named after the “peanut gallery” on Howdy Doody in the 1950s, the increasingly popular daily and Sunday strips broke out of newsprint to become best-selling books (Happiness Is A Warm Puppy), animated films and a couple of stage musicals, which along with much merchanise made creator Charles Schulz a billionaire.

 You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, was the first of the stage musicals. A modest Off-Broadway production had a good run in 1967 but neither the 1971 or 1999 version was a Broadway hit (though actors won awards.) It prospered instead in national tours and many amateur productions over the years. Lately it’s also been revived by financially pressed professional theatres (including Canada’s Stratford Festival) in their efforts to produce more remunerative musicals.

 The script, music and lyrics were all written by Clark Gesner (with additional music in the 1999 version by Andrew Lippa) but it quotes liberally from the original Schulz comic strips. The show attempts to transfer the strips to the stage, resulting in a few sustained scenes and a lot of short bits, like a vaudeville show or Laugh-In about kids.

 Danielle Cichon’s bright choreography adds to this vaudeville quality. As musical director, Molly Severdia gave the cast some fetching harmonies. Calder Johnson’s set and lighting and Jenneveve Hood’s costumes favor bright primary colors, with Schulz’s very characteristic white clouds painted on the backdrop. The stage is often as empty as a backyard, with Snoopy’s red doghouse ever-present.

 Though some productions try to make this world more contemporary with video games and so on, director David Moore wisely chooses to stick with the vague 20th century timeframe of the comics. Evan Needham is Charlie Brown, Jessi Shieman is his younger sister Sally. Amy Chalfant plays Lucy, and Tyler Elwell is her little brother Linus. Jordan Dobbs is the Beethoven-obsessed Schroeder, and Megan Johnson is Snoopy.

 The actors all embody their characters nicely—there’s no problem believing in them as their cartoon counterparts. On opening night their songs and dances were enthusiastic, and their dialogue in the major scenes was engaging. There seemed less energy and focus in the comic bits. With better timing and vocal emphasis, some of the bits could be funnier.

 Staging some of the comic strip’s greatest hits may be a pleasant reminder of its original effects, and seeing how these iconic characters are realized on stage is part of the fun. But the presence of live actors seems to cry out for more of a story—that is, more of a play. The framework of a day in their lives seems wobbly and unsatisfying.

 Actually replicating the effects of the comic strips is a different question. There seems some cognitive dissonance in seeing live adult people pretending to be children, who enact the classic Schulz maneuver of children who talk like adults.

 Though there are moments of feeling that reach back to childhood, some of the angst expressed on stage seems more appropriate for adolescents rather than young children, at least before the age of the hyper-scheduled, media-saturated grade schooler. Somehow this isn’t a problem in the self-contained yet richer world of the comics.

 For ardent fans of the Peanuts characters and other audience members, none of this may matter. In his program notes, director Moore makes the case that Schulz’s stories “showed us ourselves, with all our flaws, and made it funny. He helped us see the poetic beauty in our sadness and misery. The Good Grief.”

 The show should provide the holiday season entertainment this scheduling proclaims it to be. Thanks in part to television reruns at this time of year, the Peanuts gang is already associated with the Christmas season.

 The backstage orchestra consists of Laura Welch, Matt Craghead, Chelsea Rothchild, Ken Burton and Molly Severdia. This family-friendly show is a brisk two hours in length. You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown plays weekends at NCRT through December 14.

 Coming Up: When Black Friday comes (Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving), Ferndale Repertory Theatre will open the Meredith Wilson musical The Music Man. It’s directed by Dianne Zuleger, with music direction by Elisabeth Harrington, Nan Voss and Bill Edmondson, and choreography by Linda Maxwell.

 Also on Nov. 29, Dell’Arte opens its annual holiday show, which this year is a re-invented version of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland. It’s directed by Michael Fields with music by Tim Gray, including his hits from past Dell’Arte shows such as Blue Lake: The Opera and The Comedy of Errors. It starts in Dell’Arte’s Carlo Theatre for the first weekend and then travels up and down the North Coast with free shows until it returns for a final weekend in Blue Lake.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

Humboldt County and HSU are named after him, but almost nobody knows who he was. Yet the 100th anniversary of his birth was celebrated with public ceremonies from New York to San Francisco. Alexander von Humboldt—explorer, best-selling author, visionary of ecology and human rights—was one of the most famous and influential figures of the 19th century.

 Now during the 100th anniversary year of its birth, HSU is presenting Humboldt Unbound  for two weekends, starting Thursday November 7.

 After a calendar year of collaboration involving faculty and students in several disciplines, Dell’Arte’s Michael Fields worked with a student ensemble to create what he says is not a standard biography but a quick and highly theatrical blend of live action, music and dance that explores the spirit of Humboldt’s life.

 Fields is assisted by key Dell’Arte colleagues: scenic designer Giulio Cesare Perrone, lighting by Michael Foster, and songs and other music by Tim Gray. HSU’s Catherine Brown designed costumes. HSU student Mark Teeter plays Humboldt as the young explorer, and Geography professor Stephen Cunha plays him in his later years. Luke Tooker portrays Siefert, his last companion. The ensemble cast includes Giovanni Alva, Ina Loaiza, Samantha Herbert, Kate Haley, Charlie Heinberg, Johani Guerrero, Gaelen Poultan, Chris Joe and Rilo Wage. They play multiple roles, not all of them human.

 Humboldt Unbound is performed in the Van Duzer Theatre Thursdays through Saturdays, November 7-9 and 14-16 at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday Nov. 17. Tickets:  826-3928.  Lots more information on the play and on von Humboldt:  HSU Stage and Screen.

Continuing: Far East at Redwood Curtain, reviewed below.

Far East: People in Changing Times

The immense and brutal warfare between the United States and Japan raged from the surprise attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor in 1941 to the atomic incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. American forces occupied Japan after its surrender.

The Occupation brought close to a million Americans to Japan at its height, and even after it was officially over in 1951, a sizeable U.S. military presence remained. By 1954 new U.S. military officers were too young to have served in World War II, and perhaps even the Korean conflict, which ended the year before. Wallace W. “Sparky” Watts is one of them, in A.R. Gurney’s 1998 play Far East, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka.

 His arrival for duty in Japan begins the story but not the play. Playwright Gurney (who served in Japan at about this time) provides the framing device of a Japanese drama. It’s a combination of Kabuki (stylized dance and music to depict historical events involving codes of morality) and Bunraku (puppet theatre, with a single Reader off to the side saying the lines.)

 At Redwood Curtain, director Craig Benson modifies some elements and expands on others. In particular, he and scenic designer Daniel C. Nyiri create a stunning entrance for the Americans with the best physically realized metaphor I’ve seen on a local stage.

 I won’t spoil the surprise of it. But even with no prior knowledge of Japanese drama, it’s pretty clear what happens: the drama is now about Americans, with the Japanese in decidedly supporting roles.

 The basic story of a young officer who falls in love with a Japanese woman in an era of comprehensive racial prejudice, and a parallel story of another young officer dealing with another kind of prejudice, suggest it will be much like some familiar and turgid predecessors. It’s tempting then to assume that the Japanese elements are there as arty distraction.

 But neither is true.  The well known stories of Americans in Japan were told closer to the period--Gurney has the advantage of time gone by to reconsider the common situation with a contemporary perspective.   As for the Japanese elements, the entire play can be seen as the Japanese drama as taken over (for awhile) by Americans and their problems.  That adds an intriguing layer to the evening, but it still works most obviously as a framework for the central story: the young officers avid for their unfolding lives in a world remade and still changing, the Captain dealing with the weight of the past, and the Captain's wife, dealing with the effects of both on her attitudes, behaviors and ultimately her own life.

  Director Benson’s deft moments of humor and the subtle physical commentary of the Japanese characters aside, this is most overtly an absorbing character drama with elements of comedy, and strong cultural and historical undertones. It reveals the living weight of the past and the first signs of the future, but through the lives of these characters in their changing present.

 What makes the play most admirable —and in a way very American—is that without histrionics the characters exhibit and act on self-examination and self-knowledge as well as particular drives and traits. None of the Americans are the same at the end of the play as they were at the beginning, and their decisions about themselves are involved in the changes. Nor are their fates yet decided.

 Potential theatregoers shouldn’t fear heavy weather onstage. There is a kind of buoyancy to this production. It’s a skillful and substantial play with various shades of comic wit by a veteran American playwright that is likely to keep an audience musing about it long after its end.

Thanks to the Japanese drama framework, the small touches added by the production or in the script (the American siren song of "You Belong To Me" linked to the acknowledged appropriateness of Julie Anderson having worked for the Voice of America, for example), all suggest that this play rewards repeated viewings.

 Apart from Benson’s directorial touches, Nyiri’s set and Karen Kenfield’s cinematically vivid costumes, what makes it riveting and real is the cast. Josh Kelly as Watts, Valerie Buxbaum as Julie Anderson, Cody Miranda as Ensign Bob Munger and Lincoln Mitchell as Captain James Anderson are both emblematic and completely convincing as their individual characters.  They look their parts, which works so well because they act so well.

 Theirs are the naturalistic roles. Denise Truong, Craig Kuramada and Jeremy Webb must negotiate roles as both traditional Japanese actors and everybody else, which they do with grace and nuance. This is a play and a production that is a highlight of Redwood Curtain’s season, and of the North Coast season so far.

 Michael Burkhart designed the lighting and Ian Schatz the sound. Far East plays weekends (Thurs.-Sat. evenings at 8, with a Sunday matinee at 2p.m. on Nov. 17) through November 23.

A.R. Gurney is in some ways the American equivalent of the British playwrights like Alan Ayckborne or Michael Frayn among others, who regularly turn out plays--often comedies-- of theatrical inventiveness and social moment. Born in 1930, his plays seemed to be everywhere especially in the 1980s.  Gurney's best known plays are  Love Letters, The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour but there are so many more, like Sylvia, in which the title character is a dog (played originally by Sarah Jessica Parker.)  He's literate, witty and theatrical.  Though his characters tend to be upper middle class whites, there's enough cultural universality for recognition and laughter beyond that demographic.  I'm frankly surprised his work isn't done more on the North Coast.  Here's an interesting interview with him, by another playwright, Romulus Linney.

Friday, November 1, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

Redwood Curtain in Eureka opens Far East by A.R. Gurney this weekend, with previews Thursday and Friday and official opening on Saturday Nov. 2.  It concerns Americans in postwar Japan in the 1950s, with what is described as a part Kabuki theatre approach.  Craig Benson directs a cast that includes Josh Kelly, Lincoln Mitchell, Valerie Buxbaum, Denise Truong, Cody Miranda, Craig Kuramada and Jeremy Webb.  Daniel C. Nyiri designed the set, Michael Burkhart the lighting, Ian Schatz the sound and Karen Kenfield the costumes.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

HSU opens Young Frankenstein: The Musical  tonight (Thursday) for two weekends. As he did with the stage version of The Producers, Mel Brooks wrote the script, music and lyrics, slightly parodying past Broadway songs. This 2007 musical comedy version doesn’t require familiarity with the classic 1974 Young Frankenstein movie, but key comic moments recur, with some variation and embellishment. Director Rae Robison and designer Derek Lane are applying an industrial “steam punk” (or Frankensteam) approach to the set and the Monster. But the Monster’s specific look (and the identity of the well-known local actor who plays him) are secrets for audiences to discover.

 Erik Standifird plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of the original monster-maker. He played the lead in last year’s NCRT production of Anything Goes, the Cole Porter show that inspired Mel Brooks’ musical approach to this one. A large ensemble features Anna Duchi, Ashley Adams, Christopher Moreno, Sasha Shay and Keith Brown. Elisabeth Harrington is music director, Paul Cummings conducts the band, and Lizzie Chapman is dance choreographer. Marissa Menezes designed costumes, Telfer Reynolds the lighting, Charles Thompson the sound.  This is the HSU Theatre, Film & Dance department and HSU Music department co-production that typically happens every other year.

 This comedy about a man, his monster and the women who loved them contains verbal and visible PG humor of a sexual nature—no surprise, it’s Mel Brooks. Because it’s in the relatively small Gist Hall Theatre, two Saturday matinees are added to the usual schedule of Thurs.-Sat. at 7:30 and Sunday at 2. Young Frankenstein opens Oct. 17 and plays weekends through Oct. 27.  There's more information at HSU Stage & Screen, where you can be the first to read the strange story of how Frankenstein and Dracula were born on the same dark and stormy night!

Meanwhile, Our Town continues at Ferndale Rep.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

This North Coast Weekend: Our Town

Ferndale Repertory Theatre opens Our Town with a preview on Thursday and opening night Friday.  

A year after Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, Thornton Wilder won it for Our Town. You Can’t Take It With You ends its run at North Coast Rep this weekend, while Our Town opens at Ferndale Repertory Theatre.

 Both plays emerged from the 1930s, when bad economic times encouraged evaluating life in terms other than dollars.  But if the plays had some ideas in common, the playwrights were very different.  Kaufman and Hart knew Thornton Wilder socially, but his background and life were worlds apart from these Broadway playwrights.

With a classical education (including Latin) and degrees from Yale and Princeton, Wilder was a teacher and successful novelist who felt drawn to the stage. He called theatre “the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being...We live in what is, but we find a thousand ways not to face it. Great theatre strengthens our faculty to face it.”

 Legendary director Tyrone Guthie described him as a “ceaseless traveler,” “a savant, a notable wit” who has “been everywhere and knows everyone,” sprinkling his conversation with anecdotes that might begin “Ernest Lubitsch leaned over my plate and whispered to His Holiness...”  But he also said Wilder's work expresses “between the lines of story or play, one human soul speaking to another.”

Wilder playing the Stage Manager in Our Town in a
Wellsley, Mass. production

 Wilder’s wanderlust began in childhood, as he rarely lived in one place for more than a year or two. He was born in Wisconsin, lived in China and Europe, but also attended high school down the coast in Berkeley, and during some of the early 20th century years Our Town takes place, he attended the Thatcher School in Ojai, California, which described the surrounding towns as having "the moral and intellectual atmosphere of a New England community." He acted and wrote for the stage in both places. By the time he started college at Oberlin, he had the reputation of being “worldly yet somehow ‘small town.’”

Thornton Wilder had been born a twin, but his brother did not survive the birth.  This other half haunted him and his writing for the rest of his life.

After writing one act plays and translations, Wilder embarked on writing two full length plays.  One would eventually become a comedy that failed until Tyrone Guthrie revived it, though it would become world famous mostly as the basis for the musical Hello Dolly!  The other was a drama, at first titled Our Village and later Our Town.

Inspired partly by the Spoon River Anthology book of poems by Edgar Lee Masters, and partly by Gertrude Stein and her writings about America, Wilder also applied various classical models.  He wanted it to be a play of "recollection" in Plato's sense.  "Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death (that element I merely took from Dante's Purgatory)" he wrote. " It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life."

 As his first staged original full-length play, Our Town had a rough beginning. After a well-received tryout at Princeton, it bombed in Boston. By then the director and the playwright were no longer speaking. It went to Broadway for one performance and was saved by enthusiastic reviews, but its 10-month run lost money despite the Pulitzer Prize.

 It quickly got new life in revivals around the country—a number of them featuring Thornton Wilder playing the key role of the narrator, known as the Stage Manager. He did so again in 1946 at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, where Paul Newman would play that part in 2002.

 Today it’s said that Our Town is performed every day of the year somewhere in the world. Partly because of its simple staging, it’s become a high school staple. But a 2009 off-Broadway production directed by David Cromer became the longest running Our Town in history. Cromer stripped the play of the nostalgia and sentimentality that had upset Wilder in the original production.

Cromer as Stage Manager in his production
 In Cromer’s configuration, the audience was seated on the same level as the actors, almost within the playing area. I saw a professional production at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 1991 (directed by Robert Allan Ackerman, now a lauded TV movie director) that also did this. It especially made the key scene of the play (you’ll know it when you see it) very powerful, one of those unforgettable theatrical moments.  (Coincidentally, Pittsburgh Public Theatre is mounting a new production of Our Town this very month.)

 But the play has endured because audiences connect to the words as spoken, whatever the staging. Specific lives are portrayed, governed by the universal truths of life and death. In his Harvard lectures on American Characteristics, Wilder said that poet Emily Dickinson solved the American problem of loneliness “by loving the particular while living in the universal.”

 Audiences can now enter into this unique American classic at Ferndale Repertory Theatre. Directed by Patrick Porter, it features Tina Marie Harris as Stage Manager, with Brandi Lacy, Gino Bloombery, Willi and Bill Welton, Charles Beck, Stephen Avis, Carol Martinez, Scott Monadnoick, Dana Zurasky, Shelley Harris, Laureen Savage, Michael and James Swiker. Sets are by Les Izmore, lights by Liz Uhazy, sound by Peter Zuleger, costumes by Denise Ryles and Rosemary Smith.
   Our Town previews on Thursday October 9 and opens on Oct. 10. It continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2 through November 3. Tickets:, 707-786-5483.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

You Can't Take It With You

Evan Needham, Molly Harvis
The 1937 Pulitzer Prize winning play You Can’t Take It With You, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, is a madcap comedy about an eccentric extended American family.  If there was doubt this is an American classic, a production like this proves it.

 David Simms as grandfather Vanderhof serves as the calm eye of this modest hurricane, but everybody provides comic moments while grounding this group in earnest eccentricity: Ken Klima as the fireworks-making father, Lora Canzoneri as the amateur playwright mother, Sarah Traywick as the dancing daughter and Jon Edwards as her xylophone-playing husband.

 Recently I quoted an interview I did with Jason Robards Jr. backstage on Broadway. The play he was doing was the 1983 revival of You Can’t Take It With You. I later spent a pleasant hour with other members of the cast, including the great character actors Elizabeth Wilson and Bill McCutcheon. Every version of this play depends on a talented ensemble working together, even with a star like Robards. That’s no less true of the North Coast Rep production.

Characters played by Arnold Waddell, Taylen Winters and Saul Tellez round out the household. The love story that drives the conflict involves the rich boy (Evan Needham) whose parents (Sam Clauder and Shullie Steinfeld) don’t approve of the poor girl (Molly Harvis as Martin’s granddaughter) and especially her unconventional family. Anders Carlson as the Russian dance teacher jolts the energy into another gear whenever he appears, and small but essential moments are played by Jacqui Cain, Robert Garner and Tony Martinez.

 On opening night the clarity of both Mack Owen’s direction and the performances proved that the play itself is a solid wonder, an unlikely delight transcending its time.

 North Coast Rep honors the play’s three-act form (with two intermissions), standard for the 1930s though a novelty these days. But it works really well in three acts and does not seem long. The conflict of valuing the pursuit of money over living other dreams also furnished the theme of such plays as Philip Barry’s Holiday (most famous as the 1938 Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn movie) and Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns (with Jason Robards, who also starred in the 1965 film.) But it’s interesting that I can’t think of recent examples.

 Calder Johnson is scenic and lighting director, Jenneveve Hood did the subtly striking costumes, Michael Thomas did the sound. You Can’t Take It With You plays weekends at NCRT through October 12.

 You Can't Make This Up: How You Can't Take It With You Happened

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  This is an accurate rendition of how
they worked--except that while Kaufman typed, Hart paced.
The craziness on stage in You Can't Take It With You is at least matched by the bizarre process of how the play was written.

George S. Kaufman was one of the most successful Broadway playwrights in history, and the younger Moss Hart (by 15 years) was not far behind. They had collaborated on two successful plays, and became friends.

 In 1936 they carved out time in their busy Broadway and Hollywood careers (Hart had just been nominated for an Oscar as a screenwriter) to work on a project that they soon realized wasn’t going to work. Hart, known for his emotional highs and lows, was in despair. Kaufman, who famed critic Brooks Atkinson called “the gloomy dean of Broadway wits,” remembered a Hart idea from two years before, about a mad but loveable family.

 They talked it out, figuring out the eccentric characters. With their excitement mounting, Kaufman contacted his producer to book a theatre and hire a specific list of actors to play these characters—all before they had a story or anything written.  Then Kaufman and Hart wrote frantically, with the particular talents of these actors to guide them.

They started in a way no playwriting teacher would ever advise: with a peripheral character, not even a member of the family.  But Kaufman wanted and got Frank Conlan, a comic skilled in pantomine.  He signed him up to play Mr. De Pinna, a guy who had delivered ice to the house seven years before and never left.  Kaufman and Hart designed a pantomime for him--posing in a toga as the Discus Thrower for the family painter (and playwright.)  Once they knew they had Conlan, they pretty much wrote the play to lead up to this scene, providing its structure.
The classic film of "Stage Door," though very different
from the Kaufman play.

Then the two writers drew from everything around them. Hart recalled a word association game he’d played with Richard Rodgers and Barbara Stanwyck (among other show business luminaries of the time), and used it in the play to reveal character. Kaufman got a pretentious invitation from a former Russian nobleman now in the fur business, and this inspired the Russian émigrés who are so essential to the story. The exile of a Russian grand duchess who is pretty happily working as a New York waitress is a neat variation on this family nobly falling into humble fates that fulfill them.

 Kaufman had just done a large ensemble comedy (Stage Door) and the movie he’d been writing may have influenced this play’s zany moments—it was the Marx Brothers’A Night at the Opera. Meanwhile he was literally hiding out to escape a court subpoena in a Hollywood sex scandal, so he placed two of his characters in legal jeopardy.

 Kaufman emerged from hiding to direct the play with a title he and Hart didn’t like: You Can’t Take It With You.  Author Geoffrey Whitworth (who G.B. Shaw credited as one of the most important figures in British theatre) described Kaufman's directing style: "the director has rehearsed his players as though they were an orchestra and this mad family played a lunatic symphony against a background which served as a staccato accompaniment."

There was one casting problem that took awhile to overcome: they couldn't find the right young woman to play the only "sane" person in the family, the ingenue/love interest Alice. Out of town tryouts weren't encouraging. It was only solved  at the last minute with the hiring of a new actor right before the play was scheduled to open on Broadway.
1936 Broadway. One or more of these actors were also in the Capra film.

By then Hart was near hysteria, certain the play would fail. It opened on Broadway on Dec. 14, 1936 and was an immediate and enduring hit, the most honored of the Kaufman and Hart collaborations.

the Capra version
The play tells a very American tale, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that the Oscar-nominated film version got the Frank Capra treatment. The play is better.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Spoiler Problem

Some weeks ago when reviewing a show at NCRT in my Stage Matters column I mentioned something that some people regarded as a serious spoiler, on the order of telling the true meaning of "I see dead people."  In fact, it was about somebody who saw a dead person.  I thought it was obvious early in the first act, and at least one summary of the play backs me up on that.  But there were audience members who didn't think so, and apparently it was not fully revealed until near the end of the play.  For me, the main character's interaction with this dead son was the main interest of the story.

I did hesitate before mentioning it in my review, but without it there wasn't much to write about except the usual responses to the performances and music.  I found the same problem with Becky's New Car, which recently closed at Redwood Curtain.  In the NCJ review I went on vaguely about its contrivances and coincidences that were both predictable and fantastic.  But I couldn't say what they were.  Because: spoilers.

Now it can be told. Here's what they were: Becky has a husband and a son.  Early in the play she starts an affair with a man who has a daughter.  Her son is wooing a mysterious new girlfriend, and guess who she turns out to be?  The daughter, of course.  Later Becky's husband is hired to do roofing work for the man she is having the affair with, I think by the daughter.  These two families don't live close to each other and they are from vastly different socioeconomic worlds.  And yet, all those coincidences.  Except for the members of these two families there are two other characters, a man and a woman, themselves from different worlds.  They wind up together in the end.  All fantastic, and yet completely predictable, since these are all the people on stage.

If this were a blatant farce, it might get by.  But the level of realism is such that we're asked to think of these people as real, to appreciate and even identify with them.  Yet even on the purely comic level, the story of a Marx Brothers movie makes more real sense, however surrounded by wildness.

Further, the implications of what is going on are blithely ignored.  It doesn't have to be Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, but an affair has more moral and emotional weight than this, in some direction.  And if Becky had in fact dumped her husband for this new guy, and the son and daughter decide to get married (the first didn't happen, the second did), Becky's son would be marrying his sister-in-law.  We're entering Greek tragedy territory there.  But the play cheerfully ignores the implications.

The performances were entertaining and believable as usual at Redwood Curtain.  But the set was so nondescript that there wasn't even a set designer named in the program.  Normally I don't mind a minimal set and costuming.  In this case however the play makes little even metaphorical sense without the guiding metaphor of the title: the car.  The lure of the road.  Careening down the highway of life.  Etc.  But there was one conspicuous absence on the set.  There was no car, no representation of a car, no photo or painting or any sort of imagery (not even in the car dealership) that said "cars" in a way that the audience would absorb.  (There's at least a steering wheel in the publicity photo and poster, though not in the production.  Becky is depicted driving with other characters present and freaked out, but nothing like this ever happens in the play.)

The most dramatic events in the play are simply narrated very quickly at the end: a suicide and Becky's pretending she's dead for some significant period, and they all happen without much consequence.  Becky shows up again, her husband is a little pissed off but not for long, and Becky and Joe live happily ever after, driving down the highway in her new car.

So the full degree of this play's insipidity could not be noted without spoilers. In my darker moments (especially while writing a review) I think sometimes that's what some playwrights count on.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

Opening Thursday at North Coast Rep is the 1930s  comedy You Can't Take It With You by two of the titans of American theatre, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  Directed by Mack Owen, it features David Simms, Evan Needham, Ken Klima, Lora Canzoneri and Molly Harvis.  Opening night is a benefit for cast and crew.  Shows continue Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2.

Becky's New Car continues for two more weekends at Redwood Curtain.  My Stage Matters review is here.  Yes, you need the link because apparently the Journal is doing its best to hide the column from online browsers.  I'll have more to say about this show after it closes, and all the annoying "spoilers" are moot, as well as mute.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

States of Plays: Where North Coast Shows Come From

As we pause after the traditional end of last season and before the start of the next, here’s a retrospective question: where do the plays we see on the North Coast come from?

 For many decades the answer to that would have been easy: New York. After tryouts in select northeastern cities, a show would play Broadway, then go on tour until years later community players would get their chance. Musicals, comedies, dramas—New York generated pretty much everything. But that’s no longer true.

Back in the mid-1980s I interviewed Jason Robards, Jr. backstage at Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre during a revival run of the 1930s classic You Can't Take It With You (soon to be seen at NCRT). He was the second generation of three (so far) to be New York stage actors. His father performed on Broadway in the 1920s.  One of his sons, Jason III, was in this production.

 “When I was starting out just after World War II,” Robards, Jr. said, “my father came to see me and he told me ‘This is terrible! When I was an actor there were 700 road shows out, and two hundred some-odd theatres on Broadway.’ But even when I was starting out we still had 134 theatres in New York, and many road shows and stock jobs and resident theatre jobs.”

 New York City dominated largely through size. Even in 1940 it had a bigger population than the entire state of California, or any other state. But war industries spread out across the country in World War II,  the population boomed and so did suburbia in the 1950s. Robards believed the new highways that sliced through city neighborhoods and led to the suburbs depleted New York City audiences. “Now I think the theatre in New York is going to become like the opera, if it isn’t already becoming that: a small, specialized thing.”

 Robards didn’t reckon with the rise of tourist-oriented blockbusters in a Disneyfied Broadway. That trend continues, as movie companies invest more in huge stage productions. The Off-Broadway and then Off-Off Broadway stages rose in the 60s and 70s, then settled to a sustainable level as “a small, specialized thing.” So now Broadway produces bigger but fewer shows, and non-Broadway houses have become incubators for shows that will live most of their lives in independent regional and community-based theatres across the country.

 So last season on the North Coast for instance, we saw products of traditional Broadway, from one of the earliest musicals (Anything Goes at North Coast Rep) to one of the last of its kind (Victor/Victoria at Ferndale Rep.)  The new blockbuster Broadway was represented by Shrek The Musical (Humboldt Light Opera) while Circle Mirror Transformation (seen at Redwood Curtain) had a modest Off-Broadway run before productions by Seattle Rep and the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and stages in Marin County and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Some shows used to be developed outside New York, but became successful when they transferred to Broadway.  David Mamet's Chicago-born American Buffalo (NCRT) is that example.  The New York run still lends a reassuring patina, but more and more shows developed outside New York don’t even bother with the legitimizing New York showcase. The Fox on the Fairway (seen at NCRT) started in Arlington, Virginia before productions in New Brunswick, New Jersey and Naples, Florida. These shows are typically designed for export. Even prize-winning shows with decent Broadway runs (like the musical Next to Normal at NCRT or the drama Proof at HSU) have the small casts and modest staging to be done almost anywhere.

 Prolific American playwright Steven Dietz is a prime example of this new decentralized situation. His work is seldom performed in New York, but appears so often in regional and community venues that he’s in the top ten of produced playwrights in America. His comedy Becky’s New Car is currently onstage at Redwood Curtain.

Except for local group-generated shows and classics, the North Coast is primarily dependent on this new circuit of shows built for quick and relatively easy replication. Some may have virtues and perspectives a New York-generated show might not. But at worst they approach a stereotypical script that’s clever and a little odd but safe and small, with a slick first act and a slack second (that nevertheless includes a thesis statement.) The script too often shows signs of too many hands that got tired before the end.

 More generally, what are we missing on local stages? Due mostly to the demographics of our performers as well as our audiences, we seldom get shows centered on non-white characters or communities. On the other hand we get plays written about southerners, New Englanders and even New Yorkers, but not about North Coast characters. Fortunately, our live actors are surprisingly adept at bringing out the universal (or the North Coast) in any play.

 We also rarely get political plays in the larger sense, apart from gender politics. But hardly anyone in America does. We don’t have a David Hare (one of several British playwrights who look outward) or even a Robert Sherwood, who wrote three Pulitzer Prize winners in the 1930s and a book about FDR and World War II. Wallace Shawn and Tony Kushner are the closest. We’re unlikely to see a play as complex and provocative as Hare’s A Map of the World, for instance. For whatever reasons it’s not a time for singular playwrights with big voices.

 Our North Coast stage institutions do include variety, often at some risk. We're going to see that in the coming season, as well as examples of the kinds of plays I've described.  But our local stages operate in a particular theatrical environment, in a particular national context of this time.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Becky's New Car

Prolific American playwright Steven Dietz is a prime example of this new decentralized situation I described in my end of season column. His work is seldom performed in New York, but appears so often in regional and community venues that he’s in the top ten of produced playwrights.

In writing specific plays, Deitz has been inspired by Chekhov, Ibsen, P.G. Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle. For his 2008 play Becky’s New Car, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, he appears to have been inspired by Oprah.

 Or is it a coincidence that one character gives away lots of cars, another spouts Dr. Phil-like psychology, and the main character is a woman who talks to the audience, and occasionally brings audience members up on stage? Maybe it is, and it can join the cluster of coincidences that drives the action (and no, I’m not beginning a series of car puns.)

 Here’s as much of the story as seems safe to tell: Living in a Seattle-like city, Becky Foster (played by Peggy Metzger) is a vaguely restless middle-aged woman who has been married for 27 years to Joe (Randy Wayne), who runs a roofing business. One night while Becky is catching up on paperwork at her desk job in a car dealership, a wealthy billboard magnate named Walter Flood (Gary Sommers) bursts in to buy nine cars as gifts for his employees, because he can’t think of anything else to get them.

Articulate and apparently guileless, Walter is a widower who for some unexplained reason thinks Becky is a widow. In their evolving relationship (which includes trips to his island estate), Becky keeps neglecting to tell him otherwise.

 Becky and Joe have a 26 year-old son named Chris (Luke Tooker), an unattached psychology student (and budding Dr. Phil) who lives in their basement. Walter has a daughter, Kensington (Jessi Shieman) who is fed up with her rich boyfriend. The secondary characters are Steve (Steven J. Carter), a car salesman who can’t get past his wife’s death, and Ginger (Shelley Stewart), a formerly rich neighbor and friend of the Floods.

 Almost exactly two years ago Redwood Curtain staged an earlier Dietz play, Yankee Tavern, a drama that depended on extraordinary coincidences. This time the coincidences are played for laughs, and along with the conventions of the happy ending they are so obvious that even my brief description of the characters practically gives away the rest of the plot.

 So on one level this is a skillfully fluffy domestic comedy, a middle class American farce, a blithe foray into contemporary self-absorption, an arty sitcom that alternates irony with sentimentality. As such, it’s an enjoyable romp. Peggy Metzger commands the stage with charm and believability, and Gary Sommers infuses Walter with an appealing innocence. All the actors perform well, with Wayne and Tooker in particular perfectly delivering their characters’ deadpan humor.

 Relationship traumas and tribulations among older people is a welcome and viable subject for the stage-- especially for the usual audience demographic. (The playwright is 55.) For at least some people, troubling issues may arise from Becky’s actions, and perhaps this breezy style frees the audience to debate them later.

 Dietz’s smart dialogue has the characters saying intelligent and provocative things, while events (plus sudden audience involvements) happen fast to surprise and mesmerize. But beyond the distracting razzle-dazzle I felt a certain emptiness.

 For instance, Becky delivers the guiding metaphor of the play in her first monologue. Quoting someone unnamed, she recites something like: When a woman says she needs new shoes, what she really wants is a new job. When she says she needs a new house, she wants a new husband. And when she says she wants a new car, she wants a new life. Becky has just told us she wants a new house and a new car (which doesn’t arrive until near the play’s end.) But she does not appear to really want anything very much.

 Maybe her drift into an affair is supposed to be “realistic” or at least comic. But this is too earnest to be bedroom farce, and too flatly and fantastically contrived to be emotionally effective. The script does hint at other metaphors that might be realized onstage (the car as vehicle for life’s journey, etc.) but aren’t. At least, not in the preview performance I saw.

 The actors get you to like these gently and helplessly self-absorbed people. But as characters, none seem to have a truly defining moment onstage. (Several tell us what they decided offstage.) Except for flashes of danger in Randy Wayne’s eyes as the regular Joe, there’s little beyond cascades of contrivances on the busy surface. Some may find this liberating. To me it felt like emotional cheating. Becky’s New Car is directed by Gail Holbrook, with lighting by Michael Burkhart, costumes by Jenneveve Hood and sound by Kristin Mack. It continues weekends through Sept. 28.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Shrek The Musical

Shrek was a multi-million dollar animated movie that spawned a multi-million dollar Broadway show. Humboldt Light Opera Company doesn’t have access to that level of support. Nevertheless its production of Shrek The Musical now on the Van Duzer Theatre stage at HSU in Arcata is big, bold, fast and assured. It’s also ogre-sized fun.

 It’s not just that a cast of seemingly thousands fills the stage for the opening number. Before the first act is over we’ve met a Pinocchio whose nose really grows longer when he lies, a Gingerbread Man imprisoned on a baking pan and most spectacularly, a huge dazzling lady dragon who sings like disco queen Donna Summer.  There are tap-dancing rats in top hats and tails, three blind mice from Motown and an evil lord who sings his song of woe and ambition while taking a bubble bath.

 With one wonder after another, the high-energy first act is especially exhilarating. The romantic tensions and complications of the second act slow the pace and color the mood, but there’s still plenty to hold the attention of children as well as adults.

 The story of the musical is pretty much the same as the movie: a fairy tale about an ogre and his donkey sidekick, an evil lord and a princess in a tower that takes several twists and turns before its happily ever after. Most fairy tales work on several levels, and the best shows for children (from Bugs Bunny and Fractured Fairy Tales through Sesame Street and Mathnet) provide nuggets of satire and knowing humor for adults.

 Shrek on screen was practically a genial deconstruction of the fairy tale princess monomyth as well as a contemporary moral reconstruction and redefinition. The musical adds to this with the sly satire of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s book and lyrics, and the collision of bright and evocative musical styles composed by Jeanine Tesori.

 In addition to the story, even the main voices will seem familiar to young fans of the movie. As Shrek, Tristin Roberts adopts Mike Myers slightly Scottish accent, and James Gadd does a credible Eddie Murphy as the Donkey. Roberts as Shrek acts the part convincingly, carries the action and sings with authority. But even without animated close-ups, stage Shrek is quickly lovable and never threatening—sympathy for the ogre is easy.

 For me the revelation of the evening is Gadd as Donkey. Liberated from the constraints of his usual romantic hero roles, he’s fully committed to silliness. He writhes and dances wildly, is infectiously funny and still sings better than ever.

 Hannah Jones is a delightfully complete Princess Fiona, with the traditional virtues of a fairytale heroine while embodying an anxious contemporary girl whose dreams for the perfect love match include “our pre-nup will be binding.”

 As the evil Lord Farquaad, Craig Waldvogel plays his physically difficult role with aplomb and sings it with conviction, so he’s comically intimidating. HLOC productions are known for the quality of singing, but in this show the singing is as uniformly thrilling as in any show I can recall. That’s true of all the singers, notably Cindy Cress as the voice of the dragon, and the two younger versions of Princess Fiona: Haley Cress and Kayla Kossow.

 The dancers amplify the bright show-biz energy. As choreographed by Ciara Cheli-Colando (who also dances), they include Daphne Endert, Katie Kitchen, Shelly Harris, Katri Pitts, Fiona Ryder, Lily Ryman and Jake Smith.

 This production also has the great advantage of a skilled 15 piece orchestra (conducted by Justin Sousa) that’s out front in a real orchestra pit, providing the volume and dynamics of a big musical wave that the voices and movement on stage can ride with confident enthusiasm.

 The magnificent 27 foot tall dragon created by Roger Cyr is a North Coast stage wonder. Set and lighting design by Jayson Mohatt, costume design by Kathryn Masson and Carol Ryder, makeup and hair design by Carli McFarland, ogre makeup by Carlene and Rachel Cogliati are all excellent contributions. Even more than usual, director Carol Ryder has orchestrated magic.

 I’m guessing this production would be an exciting experience for children, and a marvelous introduction for first timers to the particular excitement of live theatre. This is the most ambitious HLOC production I’ve seen, and easily among the best. Even at dress rehearsal it was the most fun I’ve had at a musical since HLOC’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

 Shrek the Musical continues at the Van Duzer Theatre for just two more weekends, through August 18.

 Coming Up: Nothing new is opening but it’s a remarkable few weeks for the number of shows running simultaneously on the North Coast. Apart from Shrek the Musical, the musical Victor/Victoria completes its run this weekend (on August 11) at Ferndale Rep, and the comedy The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife plays weekends at North Coast Rep until August 17. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Sarah Ruhl’s Late: A Cowboy Song alternate at Redwood Park in Arcata through September 1, produced by Plays in the Park.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hesse Fit: The Tale of the Allergist's Wife

Suppose you’re an edgy but also starving New York performer, concocting scripts allowing you to impersonate various movie divas but in genre B-movie stories with vibrant titles like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party (which then actually becomes a B-movie.)

But after writing the book for a failed musical, you are told by the artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club—the place where scruffy downtown (the Village, etc.) meets Broadway—that she’ll produce your next play, sight unseen.

 So with your downtown dues paid, you write about uptown characters—an Upper West Side Jewish family—for an actress with Broadway cred, and show it to an audience that gets every comic New York nuance that skilled pros Linda Lavin and Tony Roberts can produce. 

It’s a hit, it’s Broadway bound—but here’s the twist. The play is so well constructed, the characters so weirdly interesting and the lines so funny that for more than a decade audiences without a New York clue love it at the Bucks County (PA) Playhouse, the Bowie Community Theatre (MD) and community playhouses from Oklahoma City to Rutland, Vermont and Boca Raton, Florida.

 The technical theatrical name for this kind of play is gold mine. The play is The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife by Charles Busch, currently onstage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka.

 In a spacious apartment (nicely designed by Calder Johnson, with properties by Laura Rhinehart), the middle-aged Marjorie (Cynthia Kosiak) is discussing a Nadine Gordimer novel with Mohammed, the doorman (Pryncz Lotoj.)

 Marjorie, we soon learn, is in existential crisis, afraid her love of literature (Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse) is meaningless intellectual pretension. Her husband Ira (Arnold Waddell) is a recently retired allergist, cluelessly wallowing in his own saintliness. But he brings her good news: the Disney Store won’t press charges.  Marjorie’s crisis was also expressed in a ceramic figure-breaking rampage.

 The family circle is completed by her mother Frieda (Denise Ryles) who lives down the hall, and spends a lot of time comically complaining at their kitchen table—a Jewish Estelle Getty from The Golden Girls. But their world is invaded by Lee (Gloria Montgomery), Marjorie’s long-lost childhood friend who is now a glamorous and dangerous woman, a worldly name-dropper (she gave Warhol the idea of painting soup cans etc.) who may have more than one agenda. That is, if she’s real.

 Busch’s starting point was to write a Pinter or Albee play about Jewish characters. The result is midway between the plays of Wallace Shawn and Woody Allen movies, with some Neil Simon snappiness and structure. Family memories provided reality (some lines are so outrageous that they could only have come from life) but Busch also plays with concepts like the golem, a figure derived from Jewish stories and used here as a projection of hidden desires. The resemblance of the play’s title to Boccaccio’s tales is probably not coincidental. It has the quality of a naturalistic fable.

 Director Scott Malcolm’s aim seems to be clarity, with a bright stage and actors moving downstage center for key speeches. That often works for comedy, and it does for this one. The actors create convincing characters with individual styles, and they work well together. The early scenes are masterful in showing us the characters and situation, and though there’s a grab-bag sitcom quality to much of what follows, the provocative and mysterious Lee animates the stage.

 Possible caveats: there’s some scatological and other potentially offensive humor, and topical references are more than a decade old (the play premiered in 2000.) Still, it’s an intriguing, funny play and a lively evening. Jenneveve Hood’s eye-catching costumes serve the play well. The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife plays weekends at North Coast Rep through August 17.