Wednesday, July 30, 2014

American Melodrama at NCRT

The Poor of New York, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, is a mid-19th century American melodrama, a classic of its kind. The story involves the machinations of an unscrupulous banker (played by David Simms) and his daughter (Brittney Sky Webber), and the effects of their manipulations on a family driven into poverty (Shirley Santino, Tim Donnelly and Kelsey Larson) and on an unfortunate young man from a prominent family (David Moore.)

 The context of a Wall Street crash and what we now decorously call “income inequality” has contemporary resonance. One character’s speech could be spoken today with few alterations: “The poor man is a clerk with a family, forced to maintain a decent suit of clothes, paid for out of the hunger of his children...These needy wretches are poorer than the poor, for they are obliged to conceal their poverty with the false mask of content...”

 Comic relief and opposite ethics come from a family that generously shares its scant resources (Wesley Fuller, Scott Osborn and especially the irrepressible Toodie SueAnn Boll.) With a crucial assist from Jenneveve Hood’s period costumes, the actors convincingly embody their characters. Jim Buschmann as the banker’s co-conspirator is especially strong, as is Kelsey Larson with a performance in a limited role that suggests greater potential. Other parts are played by Randall Larson, Lucas Hylton, Bob Service and Pam Service. Robert Keiber performs period songs.

 It’s no easy task to present a classic melodrama to a contemporary audience. Melodrama was the most popular stage form in Europe and America in the 19th century, though these plays are seldom performed now. Thanks in part to the moustache-twirling villains of the silent cinema and the tear-jerker excesses of soap operas, “melodramatic” has become a term of derision.

 Still, most conventions of the form—larger than life characters, the very good characters victorious over the very evil, with appropriate music—have migrated successfully to movies and television dramas. Today’s audience can buy into the melodrama of NCIS or Star Wars but seemingly can’t accept stage melodrama without irony.

 Irony however is pretty much the opposite of what melodrama offers, which above all is emotion. It’s no coincidence that melodrama prospered when larger-than-life 19th century actors ruled the stage. After generations dominated by naturalistic acting, it’s hard for actors and audiences alike to handle the emotions of melodrama. The opening night NCRT audience responded with genial boos for the villain and oohs and ahs for the love scenes, but as drama historian and critic Eric Bentley affirms, melodrama’s power is in evoking fear and empathy, and causing actual tears of sorrow and joy.

 But for modern actors and productions to fully commit to the emotions of melodrama is risky. It could provoke disbelieving laughter. The NCRT production seems to vacillate—playing it straight but also at times with an ironic wink. Or if not actual irony, a reserved naturalism that seems disproportionately tepid for this play, which allows the audience to see it ironically.   It might be more than interesting to go for stronger and bigger acting that tries to command the heart of the audience.

 Written by Dion (born Dionysus) Boucicault, one of the most prolific and successful playwrights of the time, The Poor of New York defies stereotypes of melodrama by presenting a villain with something of a noble motive, and another character who changes sides. Even surrounded by extraneous sing-alongs that suggest a nostalgic distance, there are scenes that can evoke real feeling, with insight into the America of today.

 Praise is due to Artistic Director Michael Thomas and the NCRT board for seeking out this exemplar of a rarely seen theatrical form, as well as the Greek tragedies earlier this season (along with the blockbuster “Les Miz”) that provided bracing variety to North Coast theatrical offerings. This is a worthy production that’s also intriguing for its potential, and for how it might play to different audiences each time.

 Directed by Alex Service with scenic and lighting design by Calder Johnson and sound by Michael Thomas, The Poor of New York is performed weekends through August 16. 442-6278,

Additional Notes

 In the era of the actor-manager, Dion Boucicault was an actor/playwright/manager of sorts.  He is credited as being the first playwright to demand royalties (rather than a single flat payment), which set the stage for American playwrights ever since.

According to the NCRT Director's Notes by Alex Service, he "lost heavily in the 1857 panic and wrote The Poor of New York in the hope of paying his bills.   It saved the author financially and become one of the era's most popular plays, performed in constant revival across America and Europe for the next 30 years."

Boucicault is also known for writing The Octoroon (1859), one of the first plays seen in New York to tell a story about African Americans. Boucicault wrote between 100 and 150 plays, most of them either melodrama or farce.  The two forms can be seen as extreme simplifications of the major forms of tragedy and comedy.  Both tend to depend on contrivances rather than character.  But the line between tragedy and melodrama is not always so defined: for example some critics suggest that Shakespeare's Richard III is a melodrama.

The excesses of melodrama earned disrepute, but there are those who feel it is still a legitimate form.  But finding a melodrama from its 19th century heyday suitable for today's audiences proved difficult.  NCRT Artistic Director Michael Thomas wrote to me in an email:  "We wanted to do a genuine melodrama so started looking for one about 3 years ago. We gave up doing one last season because I found the scripts to be so racist or irrelevant or difficult to stage for various reasons. So we kept looking and finally Alex Service (Director) found this script and we all liked it. We want to offer a melodrama as a form of theatre we rarely do at NCRT. Turns out Michael Fields works with this script every year with students at Dell’Arte. They were planning on doing a version this summer but changed their minds."

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