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.

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