Thursday, May 30, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

Next to Normal continues this Friday and Saturday at NCRT.  My review is in the NC Journal and online here, where you can also read a lively debate on whether I should have revealed in the review that the teenage son (Gabe) is a delusion of his mother (Diana.)  While differences of opinion on this are reasonable, I didn't do it without forethought.  As a plot device, showing Gabe as presumably a real character, only to reveal he isn't, would seem way too familiar a contrivance, except that the revelation takes place pretty early in the play, and knowing that Gabe is an illusion--or a delusion--is important to understanding the grip of Diana's illness.

I actually thought that not realizing pretty early that Gabe (played by Gino Bloomberg, photo above) is her delusion would be to miss the point of a lot that followed. (Diana is played by Andrea Zvaleko, also pictured.) So even though it counts as a spoiler I suppose--well, play reviews do that all the time, including reviews of this play. Generally I refrain from such a revelation if the surprise seems important.  My apologies to anyone who feels their experience is lessened by knowing this.

I think the only thing I would add to the review is an explicit declaration that there is humor in some of the songs and action, particularly involving the (real) teen characters, Natalie (Brandy Rose) and Henry (Luke Sikora), but also some moments between Diana and her doctor(s) played by Alex Moore.

Elsewhere, the youth troupe Spare Change performs at the Arcata Playhouse on Saturday at 8 p.m.  Their self-created skits deal with issues of special concern to teens.

On Sunday, the Super Mario Musical by Eureka High student Madeira Seaman is performed at Eureka High School twice, at 1 and 5 p.m. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Next to Normal

I got in enormous trouble with some readers for "giving away" a plot point--that one of the characters was real only in another's imagination.  Apparently this was less clear to others than to me very early in the play.  (Someone compared it to giving away the "I see dead people" secret in The Sixth Sense movie.)

First of all, I genuinely thought this device was obvious very early, and in this the Wikipedia synopsis of the play agrees with me.  But it did bring up the new morality of "spoilers."  It's an interesting problem for dealing with a play that is (a) five or so years old but (b) hasn't been mounted before on the North Coast.  However, it became impossible to talk about the performance of the actor in question without referring to it.  But if I had it to do over again, I guess I'd find a way around it.  I suppose this reaction did tell me that at least some people were reading the review before they saw the show.

In the musical Next to Normal, now onstage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, Diana is a wife and mother who is being treated for mental illness. The story follows her treatment and how it affects her husband Dan and her teenage daughter Natalie, and Natalie’s relationship with her boyfriend Henry. Then there’s Gabe, the son she sees as a teenager but who in fact died as an infant.

 So you should know going in that this is not exactly Anything Goes.

 Next to Normal (music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) was probably the most celebrated new musical in New York since Rent. It began in 2002 with workshops and eventually opened on Broadway in 2009, where it ran for almost two years. It won multiple Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize, a rare honor for a musical.

 Though the play is billed as a rock musical, in this production especially it’s more of a pop music opera. The script is mostly sung, with the arias and various vocal combinations of an opera. With a small instrumental ensemble backstage, no body microphones for the singers and low-keyed lighting, this NCRT production takes a subdued approach. Without the raucous qualities of rock, there’s a contemporary pop feel, with catchy melodies and incisive lyrics (plus some bathetic ones.)

 So the emphasis falls on the singers, who were remarkably accomplished already on opening night. Their voices soared and blended with apparently effortless dexterity. Music director Dianne Zuleger prepared them well, especially since director Tom Phillips set a brisk pace for the action. Andrea Zvaleko plays Diana with a strong voice and understated passion. Her mercurial moments meet the solid guardedness of Kevin Sharkey’s Dan, until his feelings quietly erupt.

 Brandy Rose is the teenage daughter Natalie, who moves swiftly through adolescent responses, at times mirroring what her mother is going through. Gino Bloomberg plays a dangerously charismatic Gabe, an illusion who insists he is real, and in terms of being a crucial character to his mother and in this story, he is.

 In smaller but still important and well sung roles, Luke Sikora is the sweet stoner who becomes a rock of stability for Natalie, and Alex Moore plays the two doctors who apply modern medicine and psychotherapy with mixed results.

 As a story, this play is mindful of predecessors both in depicting a family under stress (suggesting that society is itself insane), and in addressing mental illness. Nailing Diana’s illness to a specific precipitating event is dramatically efficient though it may also be oversimplifying. It’s a delicate dance between touching the typical bases and portraying an individual family, but that seems inherent in the subject.

 The play ends with decisions but refuses easy resolution. Even in terms of what came before, not everyone will find the ending satisfying, though it does include affirmation (the last song promises “there will be light”) with the determination to live “close enough to normal to get by.”

 The subject of mental illnesses and treatment in the family are probably resonant for many members of an average audience. Those who take the emotional journey of this play will probably have a lot to talk about.

 The excellent backing instrumentalists are Jonathan Webster (piano), Charlie Sleep (guitar), Bobby Amirkhan (electric bass) and Melissa Gussin (percussion.) Kyle Handziak designed the effective set, Calder Johnson the lighting, Jenneveve Hood the costumes. Next to Normal plays at North Coast Rep Fridays and Saturdays through June 22.

Brad Hills, the new executive director of Ferndale Repertory Theatre, has announced that its new season will have a common theme: “Family, Friends, Ferndale!” First there’s a trio of classics with a small town setting: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in October, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man in November, and another Kaufman and Hart comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner in January. Then the musical Monty Python’s Spamalot opens in March, and the comedy The Dixie Swim Club in June. With these selections, Hills is reportedly responding to dissatisfaction among longtime Ferndale Rep financial supporters. These “MainStage” shows may be augmented by smaller-scaled productions, though how that might work has not yet been announced.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

This North Coast Weekend

This is the second and final weekend of The Mothership: Thesis Festival 2013, three plays devised and performed by graduating MFAs at Dell'Arte International School, Thursday through Saturday at 8 in the Carlo. I reviewed the shows as they were on opening night, but they're likely to be different this weekend.  To what I wrote in this week's NC Journal I'd add just a few words of further context.  Some readers may wonder why I seem to be taking two of the shows so seriously (Potato and Because I Love You Most of All.)  It is because these shows are not comedies nor primarily comic.  There are elements that are probably supposed to be darkly funny--and the opening night audience seemed to laugh at almost everything--but in various ways the shows themselves make claims as something more serious.The acrobatic violence in particular seems meant to be more than funny or clownish.

It's true that they both flirt with the ironic or comic aspect of horror and the grotesque, which some audiences (particularly younger ones) may find more interesting (or newer) than I did.  But in any case they didn't work for me as narratives, at least not when I saw them.  Finally, I tried to place this in the academic context in my column, and it may seem churlish to review them in the ordinary way.  But these performances invite the general public, and these students are training to perform before whatever audience pays its money.  They are very good performers.  But the "plays" they put together in a few weeks just weren't worthy of their performance skills.  So the bottom line for me is this: student work is student work.  But a show is a show.

Also completing its run this weekend is Skin Deep at Redwood Curtain, Friday through Sunday at 8.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Dell'Arte School Thesis Festival 2013

This coming weekend (May 16-18), graduating MFA students at Dell’Arte International School present the culmination of their thesis projects: the second and final weekend of three plays which they devised and perform.

 It’s the end of a process that involved weekly presentations to their academic advisors, writing a statement of purpose and a script to carry it out, and last weekend’s first performances in front of audiences. Then earlier this week they faced the faculty for critiques, followed by a few days to revise and refine their pieces.

 So elements of these shows, billed as The Mothership: Thesis Festival 2013, are probably going to be different this weekend from what I saw on opening night. These pieces are also different in kind from last spring’s thesis shows, one of which was based on a story and poem by Edgar Allen Poe, and the other on a real if obscure historical person (Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to intentionally tumble down Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.) In contrast, none of the shows this year have an identified source.

 The first piece is Potato, devised and played by Janessa Johnsrude, Anson Smith and Kolleen Kintz. It began with a projected star field, and legendary astronomer Carl Sagan’s voice talking about the multitude of discrete worlds in the universe. We were then presented with three human characters confined (for some reason) to a seedy motel room. Two of them are carnival performers, who eventually reveal their knife-throwing act.

 Their relationships seemed more improvised than explored, but that’s as solid as the story gets. It was ambitious and inventive, edgy at times, with skillful physical movement and stagecraft. Actors of one gender playing stereotypical characters of the other oscillated between being marginally meaningful and an amusing if pointless display of virtuosity. While incidents were clear enough even if uninteresting beyond their execution, I found the piece as a whole incoherent. If there was more than a trivial relationship to what Sagan was saying (in several ghostly phone calls as well as the introduction), it eluded me. So did the significance—or humor—of a giant potato.

 In Summit Fever, three clowns (played by Ruxy Cantir, Anthony Arnista and Amelia Van Brunt) were making their 78th and 79th attempts to climb Mount Everest. Since clowns naturally have an adversarial relationship with the world (an insight I owe to Dell’Arte’s Lauren Wilson), the struggles with wind, snow and clashing personalities were well conceived and played. With the exceptions of a misplaced sight gag (made famous by Groucho and Harpo on either side of a mirror) and a deft physical joke repeated too many times without variation, this was the simplest and most successful piece.

 Because I Love You Most of All is another creepy sex and violence mashup, with a sheriff, a young woman, an enigmatic old lady and her sinister henchman, all in a David Lynch country-and-western dreamscape. Again, the performances by Jacob Trillo, Meridith Anne Baldwin, Ryan Musil and Lisa McNeely were skillful, but again it seemed like disembodied bits and characters, as if churned up by late night channel surfing. It’s certainly not the fault of the students who worked on these pieces for weeks, but because of the ugly revelations coming out of Cleveland and Shasta, I found the acts of man-on-woman violence of this and the first piece especially disturbing.

 Michael Foster designed the lighting, Daniel Spencer is technical director and Lydia Foreman the costume coordinator for all three shows. The Mothership: Thesis Festival 2013 is onstage at Dell’Arte Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.

 Meanwhile, as the school year ends at College of the Redwoods, there is mixed news. As noted here (in “40 Years of Astonishment,” Stage Matters on March 14), the Humboldt Light Opera Company’s anniversary concert featured a plea and a petition to save CR’s music courses, most of which were slated to end this spring.

 Recently CR announced that these classes are back on their schedule, open to CR students for credit, but also to community members. However, there are no drama courses on the fall schedule for the main Eureka campus. A new performing arts center will open, although it’s being criticized as inadequate for theatrical productions.

Coming Up: To complete their first year’s work, Dell’Arte International students present The Finals, a set of ten minute plays that audience members can “grade,” May 23-25 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre.

 Next up at North Coast Repertory Theatre is Next to Normal, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, with mental illness as its subject and a rock score driving its style. Directed by Tom Phillips with musical direction by Dianne Zuleger, it features Andrea Zvaleko, Gino Bloomberg, Kevin Sharkey, Brandy Rose, Luke Sikora and Alex Moore. It opens May 23.

 Not opening in July is the previously announced musical Boeing, Boeing at Ferndale Repertory Theatre. However, the musical Victor/Victoria will open there as scheduled on July 19.