Friday, June 28, 2013

More Comedy of Errors and This North Coast Weekend

The Comedy of Errors continues Friday-Sunday nights out back at Dell'Arte, sans super moon but with everything else.  My review is here at the North Coast Journal.  I have more to say about it at the end of this post.

One scheduled show for this weekend has been cancelled: At North Coast Rep, the Second Stage production of About Time will not be performed, due to actor's illness.  It was scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.  Executive Director Michael Thomas says it might be re-scheduled in the future.

Also at Dell'Arte this weekend: the children’s noontime show, IN-Tents, on June 29 and 30, and the Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony and dinner on June 29, honoring Jane Hill.  IN-Tents: A Conservation Comedy is created and performed by Dell’Arte’s Pratik Motwani, Meghan Frank and Janessa Johnsrude. It's out in "the backyard."  The Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony and dinner begins at 4 p.m. on Saturday, honoring Dell’Arte International co-founder Jane Hill. Since securing the building that still houses Dell’Arte and directing the International School, she went on to rescue the Omaha Opera and expand the activities of the Sacramento Philharmonic as executive director.

About The Comedy of Errors at Dell'Arte:  We attended opening night and brought along several (paying) friends.  We all sat in chairs in the back, and their problems understanding the story and who was who helped inform my review (though they all enjoyed it, and one made a point of telling me it was "hilarious.")

  But in reviewing my review, I wasn't very happy with the writing.  Describing performances as "outstanding" and "excellent" is pretty bland.  Thinking about it, I realized my own response was affected by experiencing the performance far in the back.  That's really where you have to be if you don't want to sit on the ground, especially with a group of not very young people.  The audibility and intelligibility problems I noted were noticeable in the back, and there were enough people back there to mention them--I don't know if they were better or worse closer up (you never do, really.)  But I do sense my emotional response was muted by being so distant.  The subtleties, the interplay of audience and performers, the connections--are much harder to experience.  So in a way I suppose those general adjectives are a result.

About The Comedy of Errors in general: It's an early comedy, and the only Shakespeare that plays in one place in something like real time. The closest other is his last play, The Tempest, seen earlier this season at North Coast Rep. The action is on the same island but different parts of it,  Still, there can be separate sets in this comedy, so the difference is arguable.

 The only film of it that seems to be available is the Royal Shakespeare Company 1983 production for their Complete Shakespeare collection (it's viewable on YouTube.)  The casting is really interesting: playing the Antipholus twins is Michael Kitchen, who is best known now for his World War II police procedural Foyle's War, and as the Dromio twins, Roger Daltrey.  Yes, that Roger Daltrey--lead singer for The Who.  And he does a fine job, too.  I recognized Michael Kitchen right away--some of his speech and behavioral mannerisms in Foyle are there, though not as pronounced, and the quality of his voice.  (I recognized him in an even earlier role, playing the tragic brother of the Bronte sisters in a biographical film.)  As Antipholus of Syracuse, he adopted a speech pattern that sounds a lot like the one Kenneth Branagh used in the later movie of Much Ado About Nothing.

When I was watching this film I fantasized about a contemporary television production, and wondered what actor did I know of who could individualize each of the Antipholus twins, while maximizing the comedy?  My first thought: David Tennant.  It turns out that he has played one of the A's in a more recent RSC production--it looks as if it might have played in repertory with his Hamlet.  So he's halfway to playing both parts on screen.

 Though basically a stage version, this 1983 version did take advantage of film (or video) to allow the twins of both sets to appear in the same scenes, and of course, to permit one actor to play both twins. (Joan Schirle play the Antiphola twins at Dell'Arte, though some scenes are cut.) Seeing this version, I also understood the importance of the opening scene, that the Dell'Arte production eliminates in favor of a song.  The comic, even farcical events of most of the play are bookended by scenes of high sentiment: the resurrections and reconciliations of the last scene, but also the pathos of the first scene, when the old father tells the story of the shipwreck and the lost children, as well as his lost wife.  He has already been condemned to death by law at this point, but the sympathy of the crowd and even of the duke, set up a tension of hope for something that will change things, as indeed the events of the ending do.  Though the ending is surprisingly emotional at Dell'Arte, it is probably not as powerful without that first scene.

This play is usually said to be derived principally from Menaechmi, a comedy by the Roman Plautus, with the twin servants perhaps borrowed from another Plautus play, Amphitryo.  But scholar A.N. Nuttall notes that the Plautus play is itself derived from an earlier Greek play by Menander.  Though this play has been lost (as has a lot of Menander's work, which is probably why he isn't so famous), the Greeks often used the "children-lost-and-found" theme.  So those bookending scenes may well come from that lost play.

Menander wrote about a century after the great period of Greek tragedy and comedy, but he seems to have been a link from them to more modern approaches.  He wrote comedies that involved the lost and found, love and coincidence.  He was much respected and admired--more survives about him than of his work.  It wasn't until the 1950s that an entire play of his was discovered, along with fragments of others.

In All The World's A Stage, a book and BBC TV series by Ronald Harwood about the history of theatre that seems to have disappeared as thoroughly as Menander, refers to his "bitter-sweet genius," and quotes the following lines, which grabbed me immediately and which I recorded for myself.  I can't say it reflects my entire feelings, but as I approach another birthday, it's worth repeating.

I count it happiness,
Ere we go quickly thither whence we came,
To gaze ungrieving on these majesties,
The world-wide sun, the stars, water and clouds,
and fire.  Live, Parmeno, a hundred years
Or a few months, these you will always see
and never, never, any greater things.

Think of this life-time as a festival
Or visit to a strange city, full of noise,
Buying and selling, thieving, dicing stalls
And joy parks.  If you leave it early, friend,
Why, think you have gone to find a better inn:
 You have paid your fare and leave no enemies.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Comedy of Errors

If you go to the brisk, high-spirited, physically witty and generally funny Dell’Arte production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors and you aren’t familiar with the play, here’s the premise you need to know: An old man shows up in the marketplace of Ephesus, which is remarkably like the Arcata Plaza. Because he is from a hostile state he is by law condemned to death.

 But he tells a sad story about twins—his twin daughters and the twin boys he bought as servants for them, all infants. In a shipwreck years ago, his wife, one daughter and one of the boys were swept away. The survivors who recently set out to search for their twins are now themselves missing, so he came here to look for them. The Ephesians are moved, but can’t disobey the law. The Duchess allows him until sundown to try to raise the considerable fine and save his life.

 The rest of the play revolves around the fact that both sets of twins are now in Ephesus: the daughters, both the traveling Antipholia who has just arrived, and the Antipholia who has lived here for years (both played by Joan Schirle) and their twin servants named Dromio (Andrew Eldredge and Jerome Yorke.) Multiple mistaken identities result in the mayhem that ensues.

 You don’t have to memorize this--it’s summarized in the program so you can review. But it may aid your enjoyment if you know, especially if the otherwise terrific opening song that sets up the premise is not completely clear. (It’s an original piece that substitutes for the play’s opening scene.)

Aside from this (and maybe some audibility and intelligibility issues on opening night), it’s all good. With roots in earlier Greek and Roman plays, The Comedy of Errors was one of Shakespeare’s first comedies, and perhaps the only one that flourishes when played so broadly and at times ironically. Some scenes are missing but much of Shakespeare’s language remains.

 Michael Fields’ imaginative direction (it has to be one of his best efforts) and the skillful enthusiasm of a fully committed cast of performers provide both the sense and a style to the lines and the action.

 Daniel Spencer’s set is dominated by doors, which enable as well as signal a farcical treatment. There’s servant-beating in the script, which is successfully treated as clown business. When Antiphola and Dromio as well as other characters are trading witticisms, they play it as vaudeville comics.

 Yet for all the hilarity, the play deals with issues of identity, and it has real feeling in a surprisingly joyful and not entirely predictable ending of resurrection and reunion. This is probably the most disciplined as well as structured Dell’Arte summer production I’ve seen, revealing familiar skills in a different way, and new possibilities.

Joan Schirle is outstanding as the red-headed Antiphola twins. Andrew Eldredge and Jerome Yorke are convincing twin sprites. Chase McNeill as the husband of Antiphola of Ephesus worked with such visible energy to get across one of his speeches on opening night that the audience applauded.

 With physical and vocal clarity, Lynnie Horrigan is his sister who becomes the sudden love interest of the visiting Antiphola. MacNeil and Horrigan gamely and gracefully create characters different from the originals, as a result of Shakespeare’s Antipholus becoming Dell’Arte’s Antiphola, and so they augment the scripted humor with more 2013 comic accents.

 Zuzka Sabata is the blues-singing old man, and Janessa Johnsrude is the Duchess on a bicycle (inspired by a certain ex-mayor of Arcata who showed up at a Farmers Market in spandex bike togs.)  There are other reminders of the Plaza ambience as well.

 The rest of the excellent cast (often in multiple roles) are Pratik Motwani, Anna Gettles, Ruxy Cantir, Emily Newton, Meghan Frank, Moses Norton and Drew Pannebecker, with a comic cameo by Michael Fields.

Tim Gray composed the music, with songs also by Zuzka Sabata, Joan Schirle and Lyndsey Battle, plus lyrical assists from William Shakespeare. The always- excellent band is Tim Randles, Marla Joy and Mike LaBolle. Michael Foster designed lighting, Lydia Foreman the eye-catching costumes. The Comedy of Errors plays for two more weekends in the outdoor Rooney Amphitheatre, ending July 7. It runs about two hours.

More on the play and other versions here.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mad River Festival Preview and This North Coast Weekend

Even the high priestess Mary Jane of the past two summers might think this is pretty far out: Dell’Arte opens this year’s Mad River Festival on June 20 with its production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.

 “It’s a little daunting,” director Michael Fields admitted. “But it’s good for us to push into new territory.” It’s the first Shakespeare in Blue Lake since 1975, when Fields and Joan Schirle co-starred in As You Like It.

 Not that Dell’Arte is abandoning its “theatre of place.” This Shakespearian comedy is set in a mythical but recognizable version of a Farmers Market on the Arcata Plaza.

 Shakespeare’s story involves two sets of identical male twins separated not long after birth: two are nobles, both named Antipholus (don’t ask) and two are their servants, both named Dromio. Only in the Dell’Arte version the noble twins are Antiphola—two women who are both played by Mary Jane herself, Joan Schirle. The servants remain men but some other characters are also gender-flipped, so their relationships run almost the Humboldt gamut.

 The traditional band is on hand, and part of the story is told in song, but Fields suggests that some proportion of Shakespeare’s words will survive. He also promises an elaborate set and lots of visual appeal, as well as the usual mayhem.

 But why Shakespeare? The idea came from KEET, responding to a push by PBS for local Shakespeare productions. That project didn’t materialize here, but the idea intrigued Dell’Arte. “We looked at the plays to see what we liked,” Fields said, “and The Comedy of Errors is certainly the most adaptable. There’s some weight to it too, with those questions of identity. So it’s not just a knockabout, which is how people usually choose to do it.”

 The Comedy of Errors plays for three weekends in the outdoor amphitheatre at Dell’Arte, beginning June 20. Then this year’s Mad River Festival continues with more theatrics than usual, beginning with Between the Lines, a 45-minute acrobatic show that plays after Shakespeare on Friday and Saturday, June 21 and 22, but inside on the Carlo Theatre stage (and the walls, etc.) It’s created and performed by Dell’ Arte School’s Andrea M. Martinez, Audrey Leclair, Juliana Frick, Moses Morton, Alyssa Huglett, Nicholette Routhier and Joe Krienke. If you’re really hip, you can call it “sexy acro.”

 The second weekend (June 29 and 30) features a noontime show out in “the back yard” especially for children called IN-Tents (A Conservation Comedy), created and performed by Dell’Arte’s Pratik Motwani, Meghan Frank and Janessa Johnsrude.

 Also on June 29 is the Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony and dinner, honoring Dell’Arte International co-founder Jane Hill. Since securing the building that still houses Dell’Arte and directing the International School, she went on to rescue the Omaha Opera and expand the activities of the Sacramento Philharmonic as executive director.

 Michael Fields suggests he may interview Jane at the event in the manner of Inside the Actors Studio’s James Lipton. (Including perhaps the ostentatious French accent when mentioning the questionnaire developed by Bernard Pivot.) It all begins at 4 p.m.

 The third weekend features not one but two nights of the notorious Red Light in Blue Lake: Adult Cabaret, this year with special guests, the Va-Va Voom Burlesque Vixens. “It sells out immediately,” Fields noted, “so we’re doing two this year.” “It gets the weirdest audience,” he added unnecessarily.  Shows begin at 10:30 p.m. on July 5 and 6.

 The fourth weekend—just before the Humboldt Folklife Festival takes over—Dell’Arte brings The Submarine Show to Blue Lake for four performances. Created and performed by Dell’Arte School alums Slater Penney (an Emmy winner) and Jaron Hollander (formerly of Cirque Du Soleil), this family-oriented comedy employing both pantomime and vocal sound effects was a popular and critical hit in San Francisco and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. (There’s a short YouTube video to give you the flavor.)

 Supported by the Nancy Lafrenz Memorial Scholarship, The Submarine Show plays Thursday through Saturday, July 11-13 at 8 p.m. and Sunday July 14 at 4 p.m.

 Though bigger than in recent years, the Mad River Festival may be substantially larger next summer. That’s because Dell’Arte just received a $350,000 grant from ArtPlace America to develop the Mad River Industrial Art Park. In addition to funding arts programs and projects that link the arts and economic development, part of the grant will be devoted to expanding the Mad River Festival into the Industrial Art Park.

Also Coming Up: On Saturday, the latest Murder By Dessert interactive play, Black Tie Murder Mystery is performed at the Arcata Hotel.  Reservations are required., (707) 223-4172.

Announced last week: Ferndale Repertory Theatre is adding a “Stage Two” program to its previously announced “MainStage” lineup. These shows will still be on the Ferndale stage and integrated into the season, but with lower admission prices. The idea is to present newer and more cutting-edge work in less elaborate productions. Added so far are Backwards in High Heels by Chicago playwright Jim Henry (which is not the musical about Ginger Rogers with that title) that will run in April, and the musical The Spitfire Grill by James Valcq and Fred Alley, which will play next July.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Resurrection Tonys

It's hard not to see an extraordinary theme in this year's Tony Awards, and it's one of the favorite themes of show biz bios: after the rise and the fall there's the resurrection.

It's not really that dramatic in these three instances, but there is something interesting in figures whose names were much more prominent decades ago, suddenly reemerging with arguably the highest honors of their careers.

I'm talking about the 1980's pop star Cyndi Lauper, whose legacy was "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and several other hits, at least one of the iconic videos of MTV's first years, and some less celebrated but pretty solid songs on several LPs, as we called them then.  Then she pretty much disappeared for decades, media-wise.  But somebody didn't forget her, because she got the call to write the lyrics and music for Kinky Boots, the current Broadway hit the NY Times describes as being "about a drag queen who helps save a struggling shoe factory."  Not only did this show win the Best Musical Tony, but Cyndi Lauper won for her songwriting--moreover she's the first woman to win for both music and lyrics who didn't have a male composing partner.

Christopher Durang became about as big a star as a young playwright could be with his Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You in 1979 and 1980.  Other comedies of the 80s, such as Beyond Therapy and The Marriage of Bette and Boo (which was staged a couple of years ago at HSU) entered the contemporary canon and are still produced across the country.  But though he's continued to write plays that got produced at various places (he had a work commissioned in Pittsburgh a few years ago, I seem to recall), his public profile seemed to be more as a teacher and mentor to younger playwrights.

But on Sunday, it was Christopher Durang standing up on the stage accepting the Tony for Best Play for his comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike--his first Tony Award ever.

The most amazing win however belonged to Cicely Tyson, who burst onto the scene with her Academy Award nominated performance in Sounder in 1972, and Emmy Award-winning performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1974.  Her career had actually begun earlier, in the 1950s. She was in Jean Genet's The Blacks in 1961, the longest running non-musical on Broadway in the 60s, with a cast that included James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou.  I used to watch her every week in my favorite (and short-lived) TV series, East Side/West Side, which starred George C. Scott and also featured another now-veteran Broadway actress, Elizabeth Wilson.  That was 1963-64.

Cicely Tyson never entirely disappeared from television, theatre and the movies, but the fact is that she is 88 years old--and at this age, she won the Tony for Best Actress in a play, portraying Lady Bountiful in a revival of  The Trip to Bountiful.  She'd already won the Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics Award for the same role. (And yes, that's her in the photo at the top from last Sunday.)

So what does this all mean?  The 2013 success of  Lauper and Durang aren't unprecedented--Broadway often calls the controversial young artists of a previous generation while ignoring the current controversial young artists. That Cicely Tyson is not even better known, given her long career of notable work, may be partly due to her consistent portrayal of somewhat controversial black characters.

Actually none of them truly "disappeared."  Cyndi Lauper kept making music, won awards, became an LGBT activist, wrote a best-selling book, and bam, she's suddenly "resurrected."  But the return to the biggest stage is fairly rare.

Still, there are stereotypes here to be broken.  These awards also reveal a little to us about the enduring mystery of what happens to people who have been very successful, especially those identified with a particular character or show, and then seem to disappear.  The short answer is that if they are persistent, they simply keep working, wherever and whenever they get good opportunities, and make themselves available.

Actors know (and writers learn) that there are rhythms without rhyme or reason in the level of opportunities available over time.  Actors keep on acting, even if it is playing a role in the reading of a new script in somebody's living room.  Writers do what they must to keep creative, and to get through periods of rest and gestation. And of course they all must make a living, cope with relationships and family responsibilities, etc.  Perhaps the crucial move is to stay in touch with the power centers of Hollywood and New York, while pursuing those other opportunities elsewhere.

Still, there are so many pitfalls along the way, and so much depends on chance and being ready for it, that resurrections such as these three really must be celebrated, even as we view them with awe.

This North Coast Weekend & Audition Notice

The only theatrical game in town remains Next to Normal at North Coast Rep this weekend.

My preview of Dell'Arte's Mad River Festival theatricals appears in this week's NC Journal.

Meanwhile, NCRT has released this Audition Notice:

The North Coast Repertory Theatre announces open auditions for the comedy You Can’t Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, directed by Mack Owen. There are roles for 9 men aged 20 to 70, and 6 women aged 20 to 55 years old. Auditions will consist of cold readings from the script. Monologues are welcome. Please bring a headshot and resume if available. Auditions will take place on Saturday, June 22 at 2 p.m. and Sunday, June 23 at 5 p.m. at NCRT, 300 Fifth Street in Eureka. Production dates are September 19 through October 12, 2013. A copy of the script is available in the Eureka Public Library. Please call NCRT at 268-0175 if you have any questions.