Thursday, January 30, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

The Arcata Playhouse Family Fun series gets off to an early start with Scotland’s award-winning Puppet State Theatre Company performing The Man Who Planted Trees on Friday January 31 at 7 p.m. and Saturday Feb. 1 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. The play employs comedy and puppetry to tell a tale based on Jean Gioni’s classic novel about a man and his dog who transform a barren wasteland by planting a forest. Tickets at Bubbles, Wildberries and Redwood Yogurt in Arcata and through (707) 822-1575,

Continuing: North Coast Rep presents Oedipus the King and Women in Congress (see post below.)

 Heads Up: Dell’Arte School first years present Charivari!, a bawdy and boisterous commedia dell’arte show on Thursday Feb. 6 through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. Redwood Curtain opens the comedy Making God Laugh on Feb. 13, and HSU Theatre opens the drama Spinning Into Butter on Feb. 20, directed by Cassandra Hesseltine.

Greeks to Us


Oedipus the King by Sophocles is probably the most famous of the Greek classics. But if it isn’t performed (as it apparently hasn’t been for a long time on North Coast stages) it can become just a bad academic memory, or a remote and daunting rumor. We may forget it is first and foremost a play to be experienced live on stage.

 That’s one reason Michael Thomas decided to direct it at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, along with Aristophanes’ Women in Congress, a satirical comedy with sly contemporary relevance. Each play is about an hour long, separated by an intermission. They open this week.

 Another reason is that Thomas really likes these plays. “Oedipus is one of the greatest mystery stories ever told,” he said. “We get all these pieces of the puzzle as we inch towards the horrifying truth.” He finds Women in Congress hilarious and “eerily apt for today. It’s about how women take over a ‘do-nothing’ Congress because the men have been such failures.” He selected modern translations that eliminate arcane references and concentrate on story and character.

 “There are a lot of parallels to today in the comedy, and the tragedy deals with ageless issues. I want the community to have the opportunity to see them.” This daring double bill opens at NCRT on Thursday January 23, and plays weekends through February 15.

Review: All the Stage’s A World 
Greek revival at North Coast Rep

 In ancient Greece, Athenians of all classes and in great number attended the tragedies and comedies of the spring festival. Much of what we know today as theatre began there, including a profound purpose.

 Through the vision and artistry of one playwright combined with the performances of skilled actors, society could examine itself: its rational and irrational powers, its strengths and weaknesses, good and evil in complex human combination. The plays evoked thought and debate as well as tears and laughter. In simple and mysterious ways, the theatre was essential to the health of their society.

 Now some 2500 years later, two plays from the Greek golden age are on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka: the tragedy of Oedipus the King by Sophocles and the comedy Women in Congress by Aristophanes. They are each played on a simple set, with largely the same group of actors.

 There is plague in Thebes as Oedipus the King begins, and citizens appeal to their king Oedipus to heal the city, as he has before. Oedipus is told that to do so he must find and banish the killer of his predecessor.

 Calder Johnson is a regal but impulsive Oedipus—sincere and determined but arrogant and impatient, whose good heart battles with his hot head. Shelley Stewart is an impressive queen Jocasta, Dmitry Tokarsky is her inscrutable brother Creon, and Bob Service is the blind prophet Teiresias.

 Director Michael Thomas approaches this tragedy fairly realistically, as a kind of murder mystery. Without the ritual and special effects of some productions, the emphasis is on clarity. The actors speak clearly and directly.

 This approach is also served by the modern adaptation by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay. It lacks the poetry of some translations but preserves the important imagery of health and sickness, light and dark, sight and blindness, as well as the basic story that has reverberated through the ages.

 The opening night audience responded audibly to revelations (especially when they got the implications before the characters did.) They left the theatre with enough of what they needed to ponder and debate the questions of fate and free will, morality and destiny that this play has always inspired.

Comedy can be a funhouse mirror reflecting human weaknesses and excesses in daily life. Aristophanes is the original comedian of sex and politics, and in Women in Congress, of sexual politics.

 The women of Athens don their husbands’ cloaks to take over Congress and start a revolution. While in disguise they hear what men say to each other about them. The roots of commedia dell’arte are especially discernable in this modernized version by Jules Tasca. Playing in masks as the Greeks did, Shelley Stewart is the vibrant leader Praxagora and Arnold Waddell is her befuddled husband Blepyrus.

The comic cast includes Taylen Winters, Toodie SueAnn Boyle, Jon Edwards, Alyssa Rempel, Pam Service, and Jennifer Trustem. Scenic design is by Calder Johnson, costumes by Caroline Allendar, lighting by David Tyndall. Oedipus the King and Women in Congress (each about an hour long) play weekends at NCRT through February 15.

  Additional Notes

My NCJ Stage Matters column this week covers three plays: the Sophocles/Aristophanes double bill at North Coast Rep, and one of the two plays done this past weekend by North Coast Prep, within a theme about an important purpose of theatre.  All in 850 words, and for the same low, low price.

So there's a bunch of stuff that didn't make the cut.  The classical Greek era is always fascinating to contemplate--a mere century in human history, which seemingly invented theatre as we know it from a variety of sources, and then pretty quickly disappeared.  The roots include religious ritual and the oratory of a democracy, along with other less definable traditions--but the combination is unique.
Christopher Plummer & Irene Pappas in 1968 film Oedipus

Then there is the legacy, based on the small number of plays that survived, and essentially one source on how it was all done: from Aristotle, known chiefly as a philosopher, but we in the biz know him as the first theatre critic and journalist.

The few plays we have versus the number we know were written and performed is a daunting problem. Aeschylus is thought to have written 90 plays--there are titles of 79 preserved.  Only seven plays survived.  Euripides wrote at least 88 plays.  Eighteen survived, with another of contested authorship.  Aristophanes wrote 40; we have 11.

Then there's Sophocles, whose long life and career almost span the entire classical period.  He wrote more than 123 plays, of which we have the titles of 114.  He won at least 72 first prizes. Yet only seven of his plays survive in complete form.

I recall a teacher in college musing that we should have faith that the right plays survived, that the best always survives.  That is of course an untestable hypothesis, and I confess I felt it mysteriously apt at the time, though now I wonder if that's not just wishful thinking.  Some notable theatre experts believe Oedipus the King is the best play ever written.  But who is to say there wasn't an even better one among the lost?

The plays were performed in the annual spring festival, perhaps the first combined religious, civic and artistic event.  The audience (limited to men, but attendance was a civic and religious duty) arrived at daybreak to see a full day of theatre--usually 3 tragedies capped by a comedy. This may not have been as grim as it sounds--not all of the tragedies ended unhappily.  In Athens the government paid the production costs, and the actors were paid year round.  They underwent extensive training and were highly skilled. There were cash prizes for the top three playwrights, as awarded by a five judge panel.  However, the judges were probably strongly influenced by the audience reception.

These were plays in our sense, broadly speaking.  But they had a relationship to societal beliefs about the Greek gods that are difficult for us to fully appreciate.  From where we are we can perhaps see it as a combination of religion and archetypal psychology. But it does seem that religious ceremonies were an early model. At first the plays were done with one actor and the chorus.  Aeschylus introduced a second actor (which meant there could be dramatic dialogue between individuals), and Sophocles a third.  The actors wore masks (NCRT uses them for the Aristophanes, but not for Oedipus.  In Oedipus the chorus represents the people of Thebes, but there are speaking roles for specific members.)

 The Theban plays of Sophocles were written over several decades.  Scholarship suggests he wrote them out of order: Antigone when he was 54 and Oedipus the King maybe 15 years later.  The middle play, Oedipus at Colonus, wasn't performed until after his death at the age of 90.

Oedipus the King has been more popular on stage than it seems to be now.  In 1946 it was one of Laurence Olivier's most fabled triumphs.  When Christopher Plummer played Oedipus in the 1968 film (viewable on YouTube), it was his third performance as the character.  The filming took place in an ancient isolated amphitheatre in Greece, during the first days of a repressive military dictatorship.  All Greek artists in every field were in danger of arrest.  The great Irene Pappas was to play Jocasta, but she had to flee the country. (Lili Palmer took the role.)  The production actually harbored a number of Greek artists, poets and intellectuals who escaped Athens and were hiding out as extras.    

There are plenty of translations, adaptations and modernizations of classic Greek plays.  Most of what I can recall seeing here on the North Coast falls into that third category.  In 2011 HSU hosted the CSU East Bay production of Xtigone, a retelling of Antigone by Chicago playwright Nambi E. Kelley.  In 2008--back when Arcata Playhouse hosted adult plays--the Ghost Road Company of Los Angeles presented a modernized Elektra based on Aeschylus.  Also in 2008, HSU produced Helen, a play by Ellen McLaughlin based on Euripides, directed by Margaret Thomas Kelso.
Darcy Daughtry in Helen 

Of the translations of Oedipus the King I have at hand in my Fortress of Solitude, the one with the most poetic language is by Richard C. Jebb. Olivier performed with a translation by the great 20th century poet W.B. Yeats; Christopher Plummer's film used a translation by poet Paul Roche.

  But none I've seen is as plain and streamlined as the adaptation by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay, the script used in the NCRT production.  This has the virtue of clarity in the basic action of the play, and it does preserve the important imagery of light and dark, sight and blindness, health and sickness that emphasize the play's profound ironies.  But a lot of Sophocles the poet is lost, and at times the plainness of the language got inadvertent laughs on opening night.  (Speaking of opening night, it almost got off to a disastrous start when after an ill-advised snatch of the Supremes and unnecessary short opening scene, the lights came up too quickly on the King struggling into his too-short costume, and we saw Oedipus in his underpants.)

As for the Aristophanes, the comedy now at NCRT is based on his play Ecclesiazuase.  Appearing as the Greek classical period was ending, it bears marked resemblances to his Lysistrata.  British translations naturally enough called it Women in Parliament.  There are however several new versions calling it Women in Congress, especially by women.  (It's a nice pun that way as well, since political and sexual congress are its topics.)  The version at North Coast Rep is by Jules Tasca, a journeyman regional playwright ( this site says he's written 102 published plays: 12 full length and 92 one acts; the math is off somewhere, but one assumes all have survived so far.)

Tasca's experience acting in a commedia dell'arte troupe shows in this version.  But it is not only a simplified version--the utopian changes wrought by the women who take over Athens are played pretty straight.  While appealing to us (especially in the nation state of Arcata), at least some commentators believe Aristophanes was satirizing Plato's utopian Republic, so his view was more jaundiced.
from a production using this translation by Amanda
Krauss and Jess Miner 

The NCRT production is pleasantly comic, with witty lines and energetic performances.  As she recites the utopian changes, Shelley Stewart makes you want to believe again. The rest of the cast performed well, savoring their comic bits. But from the beginning the show was underlit for a comedy, and though I noticed it immediately and then forgot about it, it may have had a depressing effect.  Comedies need to be bright. Seeing them shouldn't be work.  But given the lighting limitations at NCRT, and the difficulty of resetting lights from the moodier first play during the intermission , there's probably little they could have done about it.

  I guess I don't mind these tinker toy adaptations because these plays are so rarely seen, and they should be seen and experienced on stage. And as remote as they are in time, they probably do need streamlining and reorienting. On the other hand, Tasca has written new versions of Hamlet and Macbeth --and on Shakespeare I lean the other way.  You better be better than the Bard if you mess with him, and that's unlikely.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Spring Awakening By Northcoast Prep

NCPA Cast of Spring Awakening
Northcoast Prepatory and Performing Arts Academy performed two plays last weekend: an original musical approach to Shaw's Pygmalion (directed by Gretha Omey Stenger) at 5:30 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 23) through Sunday plus a Sunday matinee at 1, and Spring Awakening, a drama with music and dance for mature audiences, directed by Jean Bazemore.

 Juniors and seniors at Northcoast Prep wanted to do Spring’s Awakening, a play by Frank Wedekind that has been controversial for a century but has also been made into films, television and a musical.

 With the most graphic scenes softened or eliminated, the version they performed last weekend in Gist Hall Theatre emphasized universal adolescent experience within a repressive late 19th century German context: awakening bodies and minds, compelling feelings, parental pressures and the onrushing of adulthood amidst keenly felt golden woodland days and brilliant spring nights.

 Yet especially for today’s audience, the play may organize itself around the topic of teen suicide. Director Jean Bazemore and designer Jerry Beck developed a poetic stagecraft that imbued this evening with an efficient beauty. The play ended with unexpectedly powerful emotion.

Actors of roughly the same age as the adolescent characters provided this play with a unique immediacy, while their characterizations of adult characters was revelatory in other ways.  That these actors were also skilled and committed made this a memorable production.

 The acting company was uniformly believable: Jesse Mackinney, Lily Drabkin, Nico Krell, Ellen Thompson, Chris McIltraith, Annajane Murphy, Danny Davis, Ethan Frank and Myel Gilkerson. But an extra word must be said about Nico Krell, whose performance and stage presence were more assured and compelling than that of any young actor I can remember.

Coming Up:

 The comic duo Third Base (Nick Trotter and Jerry Lee Wallace) present their latest sequel, Son of Myths of the Plastic Age II at the Arcata Playhouse on Friday and Saturday, January 24 and 25 at 8 p.m. Their combination of word play and physical comedy also includes original music in collaboration with the New York group Bonejesters.

 Redwood Curtain presents its seventh annual radio variety show fundraiser, The Seven Deadly Zounds! on Saturday January 25 at Blue Lake Casino’s Sapphire Palace. Dinner begins at 6:30 p.m. and the show combining comedy sketches and music starts at 8. It features Pamela Lyall, James Floss, Randy Wayne, Lynne Wells, Bob Wells, Terry Desch and Christina Jioras. It’s also broadcast live on KHUM. Tickets and information for this popular event:

 As part of Mad River Steelhead Days in Blue Lake, Dell’Arte presents Fish Tales, a family-friendly variety show, on Saturday Jan. 25 at 7 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. It features local string band Kingfoot and local storytellers Jeff DeMark, Thomas Dunklin and Kit Mann, and a song by Janessa Johnsrude and Ruxy Cantir. Tickets are pay-what-you-can or free with Steelhead Days registration, but reservations are highly recommended: (707) 668-5663 ext. 5.

The Man Who Didn't Come to Dinner

My NCJ column is out, which includes a section with the above title.  In this space I will include portions of it together with some additional material I couldn't go into for reasons of space.

First, though a little Ferndale Rep timeline for the past three executive directors:

Marilyn McCormick
Marilyn McCormick, an actress and refugee from Hollywood who got involved in the Rep in 1982 or so and became president of the Board of Directors, was named Executive Director in 1996.  She served in that capacity through 2007.  She announced her retirement early that year, and so she completed the season while the search for a new exec was underway.

As the result of a national search, Ginger Gene became the exec in 2008.  Coincidentally she was, like McCormick, originally from western Pennsylvania.  She had worked in various capacities mostly in the southern states, and came directly from Washington, D.C. where she completed her Master of Arts in Arts Management degree at George Mason University and worked with the Washington Stage Guild.
FRT's production of Cabaret--Ginger Gene's last as director

All was still smiles in public as late as August 2012, with the announcement of the new season. Beti Trauth's story in the Times-Standard quoted Dianne Zuleger (though not GG) who noted that Gene's play selection for the season was approved by the FRT board of directors.  

But just a few weeks later, Trauth was writing "It's curtains for Ferndale Rep's producing executive director."  Ginger Gene's contract was not renewed, after (the story said) a period of discussion with the board.  The board would not give reasons for the curtain falling so abruptly and unceremoniously.  Ginger Gene was gone.

Her season however remained intact except for the final show scheduled: the Sondheim musical Assassins was dropped, and Victor/Victoria was added.  Ironically, it would be the only show the new exec director would direct.

For that last GG-designed season Dianne Zuleger and Greta Stockwell took over as interim directors.  A search (perhaps national, certainly regional) with a quick turnaround was launched, with Zuleger as the point person receiving the applications, with a deadline of November 2012.

In May 2013 Brad Hills was announced as the new FRT exec. He came from Bend, Oregon where he had been the executive artistic director of Innovation Theatre Works for about five years until it folded.

 In an interview with Beti Trauth, he said that he found that FRT "had separated itself from the community" and many former supporters had turned away. He felt that  FRT should be "a reflection of this community."  To that end, he said he was instituting thematic seasons, and the first theme was to be "Family, Friends, Ferndale!"  This was to be the 2013-14 season, beginning with Our Town, The Music Man and The Man Who Came to Dinner--a drama, a musical and a comedy all dealing in some way with small towns.  

Victor/Victoria was Brad Hills' directorial debut at FRT--
and his swan song.

Hills directed the last show of the 2012-13 season, Victor/Victoria.  He was scheduled to direct the musical Spamalot in March.  The new season started with Thornton Wilder's Our Town.  But even before the second show, The Music Man opened in late November 2013, the FRT board of directors fired Hills.

 Beti Trauth again had the story, in the Tri-City Weekly.  Again, the board would not comment on the reasons for this even more abrupt end. It's usually implied that legal entanglements are why personnel decisions aren't discussed in public.

Hills however wasn't so reticent.  In a post on the Humboldt Theater Community Facebook page he touted accomplishments that included improving season ticket and sponsorship revenues, beginning new programs,creating a fundraising campaign and that he had "uncovered vast bookkeeping errors and restored credibility to our financial systems."

In a recent email interview, board member Dianne Zuleger repeated that they could not comment on either the board's reasons or Hills' assertions. "I CAN say that we have several board members with advanced degrees, executive management experience and/or experience running a business, so the decision was not made without some intelligent consideration..."

Matching up those two statements, and without suggesting wrongdoing, I don't know that I need to meet a shadowy figure in a parking lot to suggest that "follow the money" in some form or another might be a fruitful approach in ascertaining what happened and why.

However, changes to the Hills-designed season suggest that play selection was also involved.  As noted in the previous post, The Man Who Came To Dinner was the first casualty, though the exact relationship of that cancellation to the Hills' firing is uncertain.  But the rest of the season seems currently in flux.  Hills had originally scheduled Spamalot to open March 7 and run through March 30.   Now directed by Carol Escobar (with Dianne Zuleger remaining as music director) it is slated to open March 14 and run through April 6.

Hills had added two plays under his "Stage Two" programming--same stage actually, but shorter runs and cheaper prices.  They were Backwards in High Heels opening April 17 and Spitfire Grill opening July 17.  The last "mainstage" show was to be Dixie Swim opening June 5.  All three of these plays are likely gone.  Spitfire Grill has already been replaced by a musical version of The Wedding Singer.

According to Zuleger: “The board is in the process of mapping out a sustainable business plan to ensure that FRT continues to produce quality, worthwhile live entertainment that appeals to older and younger generations alike.” Technical repairs to the theatre are underway, and the duties of executive director are being divided among board members and volunteers for now, and maybe for longer. (For example, Greta Stockwell is acting as Producer for Spamalot, doing what the exec director normally would do.)

"Once we determine the best option that allows the theater to remain financially viable, we'll be recruiting locally for at least one position," Zuleger said.  No new national search of the kind that brought Gene from Washington, D.C. and Hills from Oregon is contemplated. Given what happened to the last two people who pulled up stakes and moved to Ferndale, the attraction to applicants might be questionable anyway.

Some folks who have been around here longer than I have allude to FRT's historic habit of chewing through executive directors and unceremoniously throwing them away.  I happened to hit a period of stability, during Marilyn McCormick's 11 year run.  That she'd already been involved at FRT for more than a decade when she was hired as exec is something that has probably occurred to the current board.  But will staying local be the answer?  Stay tuned.  Once again, the real drama in North Coast theatre is offstage.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Not This North Coast Weekend

A show was scheduled to open this weekend: the 1939 Kaufman and Hart comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner was supposed to be on stage at Ferndale Repertory Theatre.  It was very quietly cancelled little more than a week ago.

Beti Trauth broke the story in the Tri-City Weekly, writing:  "Due to a number of undisclosed casting and production problems resulting, in part, from the recent dismissal of Ferndale Repertory Theatre's former executive director Brad Hills, the board of directors has decided to cancel the opening show of 2014, “The Man Who Came To Dinner.”"

The production had almost been cancelled earlier, according to contemporaneous posts on the Humboldt Theater Community Facebook page.  The problem was casting--several auditions didn't yield enough actors, particularly men.  But then it seemed the production was proceeding, until this unusually late cancellation (sudden health problems to key cast members excepted.)  Another oddity: the cancellation was not really announced--no posting on Ferndale's web page or Facebook page, not a word on the Humboldt Theater Community page, and no official email.

The play certainly has a large cast--the original production had more than 30 actors, even with some doubling for minor roles.  It also seems like a tough play to produce well, with a large and somewhat complicated set and a lot of movement in several scenes that depends on quick timing.  Would it have been worth the effort?  I wonder.  Though it won a Pulitzer, the play doesn't read as well as Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You, successfully produced at North Coast Rep in September.  Its characters and humor seem dated.  Under the best conditions it seems like it would be a challenge to mount successfully, but that's part of why we go to theatre--to be surprised.

The play centers on an unpleasant and tyrannical but famous and witty radio commentator, who was lecturing in a small Ohio town when he broke his leg and had to stay in a wheel chair in this house for months.  It was written for and based on the New York drama critic Alexander Woollcott (though playwright Robert Sherwood impishly suggested that it could have been about FDR aide Harry Hopkins, who went to dinner at the White House one evening and moved in for several years.)  It was made into a 1942 film in which Monty Woolley reprised his starring role, supported by some Hollywood greats like Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan and Jimmy Durante.  (It's set at Christmas, so it's sometimes on TV in December.)

How The Man Who Came to Dinner got scheduled at Ferndale Rep in the first place is part of a larger drama.  In 2012, the Ferndale Rep Board of Directors did not renew the contract of then executive director Ginger Gene.  This termination was described variously as "mutual" and "amicable," but it sure was sudden.  The board doesn't comment officially on personnel decision--I gather there are legal restraints.  But the word (or the gossip) going around was that the board felt she had lost touch with the Ferndale community.  There was some suggestion that her choices of plays were part of the problem.

Whatever the truth of it, the first season scheduled by the new executive director, Brad Hills, seemed to support that contention, for it had the fairly transparent theme of "Family, Friends, Ferndale!" The first plays of this season in particular had very definite small town themes: Wilder's Our Town, and The Music Man.  Since The Man Who Came To Dinner is set in a small town, and to an extent pits small town innocence against cosmopolitan cynicism and chicanery, it seemed to further the theme.

Now Hills has been fired, just two plays into what would have been his first full season. After the musical now in preparation (Spamalot!) there will likely be other cancellations and substitutions to the rest of Hill's season.

But there's more to this story which I intend to tell in my Stage Matters column in the Journal this week.  However, due to other topics I must cover, I'm facing space constraints, so it's likely there will be an expanded version here soon after.

Otherwise, the new year in theatre really gets started next weekend, with the Redwood Curtain radio show, and stage shows at North Coast Rep, Arcata Playhouse, Dell'Arte and what looks like a student show at HSU (I only work there occasionally, nobody tells me anything.)  Check my column or check back here next North Coast weekend.