Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Stage: Review

When the play calls for an enchanted forest, why try to fake it on a stage, when you can take the stage to the forest? That’s the solution in the Plays in the Park production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, now at Redwood Park in Arcata.

 Down the grassy hill from the Arcata Community Forest, tucked in a corner bowered by real redwoods, a few stump-like platforms dot the uneven ground that is strewn with feathery wood shavings to pillow a stage. Bleachers hug its fringes. Behind them is a canvas-covered concession stand with hot drinks, cookies and popcorn. There’s a restroom in a lighted building nearby.

 The play begins at 7 p.m., in the last clear light of a midsummer evening. We first meet the nobles: Theseus, a duke of Athens, and his betrothed, Hippolyta, as they discuss their upcoming nuptials. Some productions obscure the fact that Theseus has won her in battle, for she is queen of the Amazons. This production suggests it in an intriguing way, by staging their first conversation during a friendly fencing match.

 The other nobles include an irate father and two young couples in a complex love tangle. Then we meet a group of commoners rehearsing a play they hope to perform as part of the duke’s wedding celebration. Then the spirit king (Oberon) and fairy queen (Titania) of the forest appear, continuing their ongoing argument that’s causing weird weather and unnatural events. Among the other creatures of the night is the magical prankster Puck, also called Robin Goodfellow. All three of these worlds will intersect in a comedy of confused enchantments.

 Much of the action and the beginning of the resolutions occur in this production’s first act. Dominating the second act is the commoners’ performance of a “merry and tragical” story about the star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare wrote his midsummer play within a year or two of Romeo and Juliet, and this playlet is its comically absurd version. Children in the audience on opening night led the laughter.

 The final scene, in which the magical creatures greet another night and address the audience, takes place near 9:30 p.m., surrounded by the real night’s first deep darkness. It is a living midsummer night’s dream.

 In many ways, this charming production could have been mounted any night in the past four centuries. Some features of it probably were part of the original: fairies played by children, a dog (Elizabethans loved a dog), and actors playing more than one part. In Arcata, Kenneth Wigley is appropriately imperious as both the duke and the spirit king, with comic notes of irony and vexation. Kim Haile creates a real character for the Amazon queen—sensuous, strong and thoughtful—and varies these qualities for the fairy queen.

 The most spectacular doubling is accomplished by Chyna Leigh who changes from a bespeckled commoner to the sprightly Puck before our eyes. Megan Johnson portrays Bottom, the commoner who is transformed into an animal particularly apt for the name, and who becomes the love object of the bewitched fairy queen. Leigh’s lithe, mesmerizing Puck and Megan Johnson’s buoyant, open-hearted performance as a gender-bent Bottom propel the action, the comedy and the magic.

 Yet for all its classic elements, this production is also subtly contemporary, without making a big point of shifting period or place. This is most evident with the thwarted lovers, who dress like North Coast students and make Shakespeare’s words seem natural expressions of their feelings. Eva Brena especially incorporates the hint of a familiar teenage whine in her character’s timeless complaints.

 The other lovers—played by Thsnat Berhe, Ethan Frank and Julia Hjerpe—are spirited and convincing. Ken Klima plays the irate father Egeus with authority.

 Especially important to audiences of Shakespeare in an outdoor setting: almost all of the time the actors speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard. The play’s bright surface is emphasized but Shakespeare’s psychologically acute explorations of conscious and unconscious, dream and reality are readily available in the words.

 Director Evan Needham makes some apt and inventive theatrical choices for troublesome moments while providing seamless entertainment. Calder Johnson designed scene and lighting, Marissa Menezes the costumes, Chyna Leigh makeup and hair. Performing as fairies are Sydnee Stanton, Emily Martinez, Zoe Osborn and Melina Ledwith. A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. through August 30 in Redwood Park.  822-7091, www.playsinthepark.net.

This summer Plays in the Park also presents Scheherazade: Legend of the Arabian Nights, a family show by Susan Pargman, a former arts director for the Cross Sound Church who currently runs Drama Kids International. It is directed by Charlie Heinberg, with choreography by Shoshanna, sound and music by Christopher Joe, scenic design by Mark Dupre and Calder Johnson, and costumes by Megan Johnson.

 The performers are Alexis Perez, Mia Gonzalez, Chris Joe, Tristan Ford, Caleb Haley, Alyssa Rempel, Jenn Trustem, Christine Johnson, Anaiyah Bird, Cara Pierleoni, Keryl Lopez, Anthony Fleck, Dylan Wilkerson, Mia Rasmussen and Benjamin Smith. Scheherazade is performed (with no admission charge) Sundays at 2 p.m. through August 31.

A Midsummer Night's Stage: Additional Notes

For the sake of brevity (and word count) in the review I refer to the folks who play the Pyramus and Thisbe interlude as “commoners” but they are more specific than that. They are workers (the Plays in the Park production shows them in overalls; this photo is from an Old Vic production) of a specific kind: a weaver, a joiner, etc. In other words, craftsmen or skilled workers. In Shakespeare’s time they were called “mechanicals.”

 Shakespeare wrote his midsummer play within a year or two of Romeo and Juliet, and this playlet is its comically absurd version.

Commentator Harold Bloom writes that this play was composed in the winter of 1595-96, and that Romeo and Juliet was written in 1595. Scholar A.D. Nuttall agrees that both plays were written in roughly these years but concedes that it can’t be proven that “either play preceded the other.” But he feels it is unlikely that Shakespeare would have parodied Romeo and Juliet in The Pyramus and Thisbe interlude before he had written it.  He considers other resemblances--and direct opposites--of the two plays.  The Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe of course predates A Midsummer Night's Dream, which in other respects seems to have no prior play or story as a model, a rarity in Shakespeare.

 Director Evan Needham makes some apt and inventive theatrical choices for troublesome moments...

 For instance, in an early scene the duke speaks a line that suggests his betrothed is not happy about how he handled the conflict involving the irate father and his daughter. Often this is performed as a throwaway, or her displeasure is muted. Needham had Kim Haile stalk out of the scene in anger. So the duke’s “What cheer?” not only made sense, it got a laugh.

 Some features of it probably were part of the original: fairies played by children, a dog (Elizabethans loved a dog)...

A dog act of some kind was a frequent feature of stage plays, including Shakespeare, although Elizabethan tastes in animal acts was also less benign: various cruel forms of bear-baiting and fighting were very popular shows. (Not to worry--the dog in the Plays in the Park is cute and may even get his tummy tickled.)

 But fondness for a dog on stage continued in subsequent centuries to the point that there was an actual version called “Dog’s Hamlet,” in which Hamlet spoke his soliloquies to his dog. This probably is a punning reference in Tom Stoppard’s short play “Dogg’s Hamlet,” in which players speak in an artificial language called “dogg.” Stoppard also made fun of the Elizabethan taste for dogs in Shakespeare’s plays several times in his script for Shakespeare in Love.

 ...Shakespeare’s psychologically acute explorations of conscious and unconscious, dream and reality are readily available in the words. 

Several commentators on this play point out how remarkably well Shakespeare anticipated Freud and Jung. I noticed a couple of examples at Plays in the Park. When Puck douses the eyes of one of the sleeping male lovers with a potion that causes him to fall in love with the first woman he sees when he awakes, and that is not the woman he actually loves but another, he immediately begins to argue in terms of reason why he’s suddenly changed his mind and now loves another. This is precisely how the unconscious works, according to Jung (and maybe Freud, I don’t know, I’ve read much more Jung.) We immediately rationalize impulses from the unconscious, and often actually believe we’ve made a reasoned choice when we’re operating from denial, projection, etc.

 I noticed also an example of the interpenetrating worlds of dream and reality is reflected in Bottom’s mixing of the senses. Awaking from his spell—his dream—he speaks of eyes hearing and ears seeing. But he does so again, in character during the Pyramus and Thisbe playlet.

The opposites that interpenetrate include spirits and mortals (there’s suggestion of a sexual interpenetration among the royals of each world), day and night, light and dark. The place where light and dark meet is the moon, and where reality and dream meet is the imagination. (The moon as a symbol of the imagination runs throughout literature, notably in the 20th century poet Wallace Stevens.)

 In this play there is a lot of moon imagery (noted in detail by literary critic Northrop Frye), including luna-tic. Late in the play, the duke makes a speech about the imagination in relation to madness and poetry that apart from the instant quotations (“What fools these mortals be,” “The course of true love never did run smooth,” etc.) is the play’s most famous speech. Unfortunately, in the Plays in the Park performance, that speech is mostly eliminated, as is at least one earlier reference to the moon as cold and lifeless.

The key lines in the play that unite the theme of love with the psychological and other oppositions belongs to Bottom, responding to the fairy queen when she first professes her love.  "Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that: And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays: The more the pity, that some honest neighbors will not make them friends." 

On Plays in the Park...

This is just the second year for Arcata Plays in the Park in the current incarnation.  There are lots of ways to do plays in parks in the summer, and mindful of this, especially for those unfamiliar with attending plays in these circumstances, I included more description than usual of the premises and conditions, so potential audience members have a better idea of what to expect.  I could have added a few more details: prepare for nighttime chill, bring something to cushion the metal bleacher seats and most particularly to this venue, bring a flashlight to get back to your car.  When it's dark in Redwood Park, it's really dark.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Other Versions

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which literary critic Harold Bloom asserted is among Shakespeare’s best plays, if not the very best, has been interpreted in many ways and forms. It’s been done as an opera by Benjamin Britten and a ballet by Balanchine. Felix Mendelssohn wrote music for it that has become so associated with the play that for centuries it was rarely performed without this musical accompaniment.

On the stage, Bloom called Peter Brook’s 1970 production an abomination, but Frank Rich is among those critics who considered it a masterpiece.  It became known for the use of trapezes and acrobatics.  Brook wrote about it in his book The Shifting Point in terms of themes (it is thoroughly about love, he maintains) and it seems from these pages that this was an interpretation very much influenced by the 1960s, including the gap between the generations.  Brook wrote about it again in the more autobiographical Threads of Time, concentrating on the process of creating it.  The cast worked on gymnastics and other exercises, and then when they were tired and ready to relax, they read the play aloud.  Gradually as they became more physically fit and familiar with each other, they ended the day discussing the play.  Brook felt this worked much better that starting with a table reading.  It's an interesting chapter.

Subsequent stage productions include some that saw a darker side to themes and characters in the play.  Some productions used the opportunities provided by the play to emphasize sex, sometimes in unconventional interpretations.  Some of this is theatrical overkill (the musicalization of Shakespeare) and intellectual laziness.  But there are darker areas in this play than are explored in most productions, especially of the Shakespeare-in-the-Park "family viewing" kind.  These themes and even speeches (noted by commentators like those mentioned in the above post) are part of Shakespeare's exploration of the unconscious, of the worlds of waking conventions and the "fierce vexations of a dream."

There are several versions of the play on film. The 1935 Hollywood version is notable for film stars in classical roles (James Cagney as Bottom, a young Mickey Rooney as Puck), for using Mendelsson’s music and for utilizing the play’s opportunities for visual effects possible only on film.

 Peter Hall reconceived his stage version for a 1968 film (Bloom’s favorite.) Paul Rogers plays Bottom, Ian Richardson plays Oberon and Ian Holm is a brilliant Puck.  Among the lovers are young actors Helen Mirren, Diana Rigg and David Warner (whose 1965 stage Hamlet is now legendary, though it wasn’t preserved on film.) The setting is supposedly Athens but it is noticeably influenced by the Carnaby Street fashions of the swinging sixties. In the 60s and 70s films, nudity in serious films was much more common than now, and the costume of Titania—played by the young Judi Dench—leaves little to the imagination. (Several Dench children play fairies.)  This is a pretty complete version of the play, that seems to have fewer cuts than these other film versions. And it's not bad as a film, though recognizably a '60s- style movie (not '60s zooms so much as jump cuts.)

There’s a 1998 film version of the popular Royal Shakespeare Company stage production directed by Adrian Noble. The play is re-conceived and stylized with some success (maybe not a lot) though Lindsay Duncan’s performance as Titania is itself reason to seek it out.

A 1999 Hollywood movie version is more interesting and satisfying. It moves the action to late 19th century Italy, which allows it to make droll use of new “magical” technologies like bicycles and the phonograph. The cast is composed mainly of experienced American and English film actors. It is very cinematic, with many dialogues in close-up and speeches almost whispered (particularly Rupert Everett as Oberon) which play remarkably well for a play originally meant to be shouted from the Elizabethan stage.

Dominic West (star of TV’s The Wire), Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart and Sam Rockwell are among today’s more recognizable names in this 1999 film—they acquit themselves well. (There’s a supply of bare skin in this version too, a lot of it Dominic West’s. Still, the mud wrestling sequence was a bit much.)

Stanley Tucci is a terrific Puck, Michelle Pfeiffer is a surprisingly good Titania, and Kevin Kline is a memorable Bottom.

There’s some wonderful invention in this version, and the Pyramus and Thisbe playlet is the best I’ve seen—very funny and then moving. And you see how much was at stake for the craftsmen who performed it. (There’s a performance of just this playlet by the Beatles viewable on youtube: not a musical version but an actual if somewhat improvised performance.)

 This 1999 film is notable also for using the well-known Wedding March in its original context—it was written by Mendelssohn for this marriage scene. Like the Redwood Park version I saw, it shortens the duke’s famous speech about the imagination. Perhaps they used the same script?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Arcata Plays in the Park begin this weekend. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Evan Needham, premieres on Friday August 8 at 7 p.m, and runs Friday and Saturday evenings through Aug. 30 at Arcata’s Redwood Park. Scheherazade, a retelling of Arabian Nights tales appropriate for families (genies, magic carpets, etc), directed by Charlie Heinberg, opens Sunday August 10 at 2 p.m. and plays every Sunday through August 31. There’s an admission charge for Shakespeare but Scheherazade is free. 822-7091, www.playsinthepark.net.

Continuing: HLOC's Roaring Twenties musical comedy Thoroughly Modern Millie (reviewed below), the melodrama The Poor of New York at North Coast Rep and the musical comedy The Wedding Singer at Ferndale Rep.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Humboldt Light Opera's Thoroughly Postmodern Millie

From the opening tableau of a 1920s Manhattan street scene that fills the Van Duzer Theatre stage, the Humboldt Light Opera Company production of Thoroughly Modern Millie has the look, the pace and the pizzazz of Broadway. It has all the elements of a big classic musical: vibrant costumes (by Caroline Allander, Madeline Myers and director Carol Ryder) sparkling choreography with sly Busby Berkeley touches (by Melissa Hinz, assisted by Hannah Mullen Jones), an 18-piece pit orchestra (conducted by Justin Sousa) plus the painted backdrops falling and rising while clever set and prop pieces whiz on and off the stage in Jayson Mohatt’s inventive scenic design.

 Like 1920s Broadway shows in particular, this early 21st century musical has more to do with stars than story. Melissa Hinz as Millie, the Kansas girl who quickly becomes a worldly New Yorker, plays the part with personality, assurance and happy feet. She has the ‘20s look, while delivering her lines with the wisecrack intonations of ‘30s screwball comedies.

 Gino Bloomberg is steady and appealing as her leading man, Katherine Johnson has a couple of show-stopping songs, and Linnea Hill, Kevin Richards, Kathleen Ely, Madeline Myers and Alissa Morey are among those who provide nicely comic characterizations as well as musical moments.

 The songs span more than a century of music. If “The Speed Test” sounds a lot like Gilbert and Sullivan, that’s because new lyrics are grafted onto an Arthur Sullivan tune. There are a couple of other operetta melodies by Victor Herbert as well as the title song by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen for the 1967 Julie Andrews film that’s the source material for this stage musical. (Musicals that started as movies seem quite the North Coast trend these days.)

 The new songs are by Dick Scanlon (lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music.) Tesori wrote the music for HLOC’s hit of last summer, Shrek The Musical. The songs are pleasant and forgettable but the underscoring (presumably by Tesori and whoever did the orchestration) brilliantly evokes the jazz age as well as old movie soundtracks.  This may be a difference from the 1920s Broadway musicals, which were often showcases for composers and popular songs as well as popular performers.

 The biggest weakness is plot. The main story is predictable and the secondary story is incoherent. Millie is thoroughly modern because her goal is to marry for money and not for love. So it’s not real hard to figure out how that will go, complete with fairy tale touches and last minute revelations.

As for the secondary story, in the movie it involved—of all things in a musical comedy—a white slave ring targeting orphaned young women, run by sinister Chinese villains. Responding to the racism in this version, the 21st century stage musical kept the Chinese villains but made one of them sympathetic—he falls in love with a victim.  The HLOC version completely removes the once common stereotype of funny-talking Chinese by making the villains Italians with heavy accents.

 Thanks perhaps to The Godfather and those collections of Italian love songs marketed as “Mob Hits,” Italians appear to be contemporary culture’s acceptable group to be stereotyped as criminals, however pathetic or buffoonish. The North Coast may be sensitive to its notorious history regarding Chinese residents, but others experienced prejudice here as well. In World War II, Italian Americans in Arcata and Eureka were placed under curfew and their movements were restricted.  If I recall correctly from an Arcata Eye article I read some years ago, in Arcata they weren't permitted closer to Humboldt Bay than the present location of Wildberries Marketplace.

 Mostly unacceptable now, stereotyped ethnic humor and ethnic villains were standard elements in American entertainment well into the 20th century. This production goes even further to lower the temperature by dodging the white slavery aspect and suggesting it’s more of a kidnapping plot. Why kidnappers would target orphans with no one to pay ransom for them isn’t explained.

 Still, audiences are more likely to leave with impressions of dazzling dancing stenographers and the dramatic skyscraper-ledge set than with many memories of the story or the songs. Thoroughly Modern Millie is a thoroughly postmodern pastiche meant to revive Roaring Twenties style and evoke the classic singing-and-dancing musical comedy. Except for its more currently fashionable lighting (often dim compared to the tried and true standard of brightly lit musicals), this production pretty much delivers.

 Directed with her usual panache by Carol McWhorter Ryder, with musical direction by Katri Pitts and Amy Chalfant, and with an additional cast too large to name individually, Thoroughly Modern Millie continues for two more weekends (Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.) 822-1318, hloc.org.

Additional Notes

The Broadway production won the 2002 Tony for Best Musical, and its star Sutton Foster won for Best Performance.  Her story is better (and more like a 1920s musical) than the story she played.  When the production wobbled out- of-town, Sutton Foster was suddenly promoted from a mere chorus member to the lead, something she'd never done before. With her performance the production jelled and became a Broadway hit.  From chorus girl to superstar!

Locally we've been having something of a Sutton Foster Festival without knowing it.  She went on to star in Shrek the Musical, HLOC's previous show, and Little Women, which HLOC did several years ago.  She also played in Young Frankenstein, which HSU produced this past fall, and a revival of Anything Goes, which North Coast Rep produced in 2012.