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.