Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

On Thursday at 7:30 in the Gist Hall Theatre, HSU opens Spinning Into Butter by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Cassandra Hesseltine.  Of Gilman, British drama critic Michael Billington wrote, “It is rare to find an American playwright dealing with ideas as well as emotions.” Gilman’s latest play, about a social worker deciding who gets custody of a drug addict’s baby, is currently in its premiere production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. But Spinning Into Butter is the play that first made Gilman’s reputation.

At first with humor but then very directly, it tackles the twin themes of unconscious racial bias and political correctness on a college campus. After a highly successful premiere in 1999, it became the third most produced play across the U.S. through the following year. How pertinent it is today will probably be a subject of the discussion held after the play next Thursday (March 6.) led by Ramona Bell from the HSU Department of Critical Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Director Cassandra Hesseltine (actor, teacher, director for North Coast theatre and elsewhere) is currently Humboldt-Del Norte Film Commissioner. “Being half Mexican has given me certain experiences while being half white has given me others,” Hesseltine said. “I’ve drawn on both for this play.”

 The actors are Mary May, Giovanni Alva, Cody Miranda, Nadia Adame, Keith Brown, Galen Poulton and Indiana Steinkamp. Scenic design is by Jared Sorensen, lighting by Andrew Buderi, sound by Christopher Joe, makeup by Anna Duchi and Erin Henry. Spinning Into Butter is performed at HSU for two weekends: Thursdays-Saturdays Feb. 27-March 1, March 6-8 at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on March 9. 826-3928,

At Dell’Arte, Ronlin Foreman brings back his acclaimed solo comedy Pigeon Show (A Play of Fools), February 27-March 1 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.  Ronlin, a teacher at the Dell’Arte School, portrays five characters in a physical theatre presentation that’s been called amusing and disturbing.

“Foreman has brilliantly conceived and masterfully portrays five characters who play (some tragically) with themes of fear, anguish, and the uncertainties of being hysterical,” says Dell’Arte Founding Artistic Director Joan Schirle. “He’s been called an ‘Infectious Fool’, and ‘Inspired Lunatic’, and a ‘Clown Extraordinaire.’ This original piece of theatre by one of the most gifted performers of the generation of Movement Artists should not be missed.” Appropriate for all ages, but most suitable for adult audiences. (707) 668-5663,

The comedy Making God Laugh continues at Redwood Curtain.  Beti Trauth reviews it at Tri-City Weekly.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Dell’Arte School second years present their adaptation of Italo Calvino’s wonder tale, The Distance of the Moon Friday-Sunday, February 20-23 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. “Appropriate for all ages, but most suitable for adult audiences.” This tale of a time when the earth and the moon were much closer is probably the most popular piece in Calvino’s Cosmicomics, a set of stories that form a sweetly fantastical alternative history of the universe. (707) 668-5663,

Making God Laugh continues at Redwood Curtain (see review and discussion below.)

Making God Laugh

My review of Redwood Curtain's current show, Making God Laugh, is in this week's North Coast Papa Murphy's Pizza Journal.  I wanted to get beyond the review headlines here, but first let's review the review, or actually, repeat it:

The structure of Making God Laugh, now onstage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, is straightforward. A nuclear family of five is presented in four scenes: Thanksgiving 1980, Christmas 1990, New Year’s Eve becoming New Year’s 2000, and Easter 2010. It’s like Same Time Next Year, the family edition.

 With a crucifix on the wall, the Ten Commandments above the door and a statue of the Virgin Mary, it’s a very Catholic household. This adds some edge to the saying that one of the characters quotes, the title references, and the play illustrates: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Variously attributed to Woody Allen and “Old Proverb,” it’s quoted in a number of sermons on the Internet counseling humility rather than questioning divine benevolence.

 In 1980 the three grown children have left the nest and are returning for the holiday. Maddie (Sasha Shay) is the misunderstood daughter, an aspiring actor continually belittled by her mother for not being thin enough to capture a husband. Richard (Rigel Schmitt) is the troubled son, the former high school football star, now tending bar, bathed in Brut and hair spray. Thomas (Luke Sikora) is the good son, studying for the priesthood but not taking himself too seriously.

 Ruthie (Teresa L. Desch) is the mother who wants everything about the holiday to be perfect (as she tells us repeatedly), and pushes her children to be her idea of perfect. Bill (Randy Wayne) is the quiet and affectionate dad, the peacemaker.

 Written by regional theatre journeyman playwright and actor Sean Grennan, the play often seems assembled from a “heartwarming comedy” kit, with predictable character twists and payoffs to every repeated theme. Both despite and because of that, it is frequently funny and delivers emotional moments, especially in the final scene. The humor is mostly gentle, especially in resurrecting illusions of the past (remember Y2K?) Though this comedy skates quickly over the surface of many contemporary issues, some profound and even tragic implications may linger. Still, if this were dinner theatre you probably wouldn’t need dessert.

 Desch and Wayne are solid and subtle as the parents, though I felt I’d seen them play these characters before. Redwood Curtain first-timers Schmitt, Shay and Sikora are appealing and mostly convincing, and they all handled their set-piece moments well. It’s efficiently directed by Kristen Mack, with a handsome set by Daniel C. Nyiri, lighting by Liz Uhazy, costumes by Marissa Menezes, sound by Mack and Tim Ward. Making God Laugh is onstage at Redwood Curtain weekends through March 8.

 Okay.  What more is there to say?  (And as odd as it seems to have to say this while reviewing a play, the following contains "spoilers.")

I saw this at first preview and the acting was a bit tentative.  I couldn't tell if some of the repetitions were in the play or blown lines.  However I extrapolated the next more polished performance.  Usually I go to the second preview of an RC show, but this time it was February 14, and nobody wants to see a critic on Valentines Day.

I hope I communicated my twin feelings about the play--that it is without much in the way of surprise or depth of treatment, yet it is admirable in what it does.  The structure is simple but beyond the surface, it's also pretty clever.

In this production at least, it's not really a realistic play.  Although it takes place over 30 years, only the five principals ever appear on stage.  By the end, two of the children have life partners, but they're not included.  No friends of anyone ever appear for the holidays.  Even more telling, the house--that is, the set--never changes in those 30 years.  The living room looks exactly the same, right down to the same books on the coffee table.  Symbolic certainly, but realistic, not very.

An additional tip-off might be the set's double front door.  It looks like the entrance to a church.  I don't think I've ever seen anything like that as the front door of a suburban house, at least before they started being the size of small cathedrals.

There's also the family itself.  The program calls this "a suburban living room in the United States."  So is this Every Family?  No, it's a Catholic family, and from repeated references to da Bears, it's probably in a Chicago suburb.  There are highly Catholic suburbs of Chicago, but they are also ethnically specific. That ethnicity makes a difference in how Catholicism is expressed.  But the ethnic dimension is ignored.

What about class? We learn that Bill (the father) works for the Post Office.  Without much more direct evidence, this seems a lower middle class household that depends on one steady salary and a probably decent union pension. (This as well as other features makes this seem more of a 1950s family, though the ages of the children suggest the oldest was born in the late 50s.)  But money is never discussed except in terms of one of the son's comically bad investments (which allow the audience to laugh because they know how those investments must have turned out.)

Even the device of a different holiday every ten years is artificial, sort of.  Why would they choose Thanksgiving one year, and Christmas another?  Maybe everybody is close enough geographically in 1980 to be there for both, and later it's the Christmas biggie that draws them?

New Years 2000 is inspired however, and not necessarily a reach.  The audience can laugh at the wonder over 8-track tapes, the choice of Enron stock over Google, etc.  But  many of us must know someone who was in panic over Y2K.  At this point it may be impolite to remind them.  This scene contributes some physical comedy as well, though it seemed a bit over the top in preview.  Maybe a bigger and more laughing audience helps it.

The play deals overtly and specifically with time, but at least in this production, only the mother and father visibly age.  Again, a kind of abstraction.

As for the plot, doesn't everybody guess from the beginning that the priest is not going to be a priest by the end, and that somebody is going to come out ? The only thing in this play I hadn't seen in another play is the portrayal of "happy dementia," although I read an account of it--by a playwright actually (Alan Bennett, in his autobiographical book about his mother,  A Life Like Other People's.)

 The mother's sweet present-centeredness in this scene is the device by which all the plot points and themes are resolved "in a sleep," though the appropriate speech from The Tempest is maybe too much.   Sasha Shay was so present and expressive in her role throughout,  but I'm not sure the direction served her well in this recitation.  It looked too contrived.

This scene takes place on Easter, the Catholic feast of the Resurrection, but it's not really Easter, so it's a false resurrection?  In any case it's spring, the season of hope, yet it's the ending.  If the playwright meant all that, this is possibly more profound than it seems.

So on the surface, the play is a long illustration of the quote, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans," and of this insubstantial pageant (though not really the seven ages.)  But within it, never really explored, are potential tragedies. Though I was never quite convinced that the mother was really a lesbian and simply repressed it, this could be a tragic fate.  The daughter's failure to have an acting career, one son's near-continuous failures in life.  The particular balances involved in figuring out whether these constitute tragic fates or just the vagaries of life are outside this play, but the fact that people may think about them, according to some, would make this a successful night of theatre.

Friday, February 14, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Redwood Curtain opens Making God Laugh, a comedy by Sean Grennan this weekend.  Directed by Kristen Mack, it features Teresa Desch, Randy Wayne, Rigel Schmitt, Sasha Shay and Luke Sikora.  Previews are Thursday and Friday, with official opening and reception on Saturday February 15 at 8 p.m.

This is the final weekend for Oedipus the King and Women in Congress at North Coast Rep.  Last performance is Saturday.

This past week we lost two legendary performers.  Sid Caesar transformed vaudeville comedy for television in the 1950s, linking past and the future he helped to create.  He nurtured an equally influential set of writers, including Neil Simon, whose play about the Caesar team, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, was produced at North Coast Rep in 2012.   Here's the background on Sid Caesar I wrote at the time of that production.

Shirley Temple's reign as the shining child star of the Depression years is known today mostly by reputation, though the boomer generation will remember some of those movies on TV.  Some of her tap-dancing routines with the great Bill Robinson are preserved in video compilations like That's Dancing.  In her autobiography, she noted that when she held his hand after one of their dances, it was the first time a white female and a black male had touched on the silver screen.

As an adult, Shirley Temple produced a series of fairy tale films for television, including Babes in Toyland.  That production influenced the version that Dell'Arte performed this past Christmas.  As I noted, in her introduction to this show she seemed almost a parody of the sweet child she had worked hard to portray.  But in the show itself she was almost unrecognizable in her marvelous performance as a wicked witch.  There was more to Shirley Temple than the image.

May they rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Contact Information

Those of you in the North Coast theatre community who want to email me about coming events or anything else concerning this blog or my North Coast Journal Stage Matters column, please use the following address: stage matters at sbc global dot net.  Don't use the stage matters at the NCJ address, as apparently emails addressed to me there are considered public property.

To clarify further: send your calendar announcements and press releases to the appropriate addresses at the Journal, and copy me at the address above.  For actual communication between you and me, use only that address.  I realize that it is a reasonable assumption that because I write the Stage Matters column published in the Journal, that I work there.  I don't.  In fact I've never actually been to their Eureka offices.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

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. May not be suitable for children. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. 707 668-5663,

Oedipus and Women in Congress continue at North Coast Rep.

Speaking of Dell'Arte, congrats on receiving a grant from the Theatre Communications Group to further an international collaboration with French designer/director Alain Schons.  The grant will support development of Elisabeth's Book, a new work by Joan Schirle in collaboration with Laura Munoz and Schons.  It's about three Hungarian women enslaved in a German munitions factory in 1944.  After some work-in-progress showings in April, the work will premiere at the Mad River Festival in July.  Schons was a North Coast resident in the late 70s and early 80s and served as director of the Dell'Arte School.  He will direct Elisabeth's Book.

In other North Coast stage news, Beti Trauth reports that Greta Stockwell has been elected president of the Ferndale Rep Board of Directors.

On the auditions front, this from Humboldt Light Opera Company:

"Auditions for HLOC's Thoroughly Modern Millie will be held on Saturday, February 15 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the sanctuary of the Arcata United Methodist Church (1761 11th Street). Auditionees should prepare a song, and bring sheet music for the accompanist. Visit to register for an audition slot, and for detailed information on available parts. Thoroughly Modern Millie is based on the film of the same name, and features music by Shrek composer Jeanine Tesori. The show will be held for three weekends, August 1-16, at the HSU Van Duzer Theatre. Questions? Email"