Monday, December 15, 2014

All's Wells

Lynne & Bob 2011. Photo by Bob Doran
No North Coast retrospective could be complete without Lynne and Bob Wells.  (That by the way is how the label reads on this site-- "Lynne and Bob Wells." It links to their individual performances as well.)

I've referred to them as the North Coast Lunts (and so had to explain who the Lunts were.)  Dell'Arte honored them in 2011, and I interviewed them on that occasion.

They told me then that they met when they were both cast in a Ferndale Rep production of a Neil Simon play.  In some ways their romance was itself out of a story: the rich girl and the poor boy.  But those circumstances have their unique aspects, and became part of a unique relationship.

It's one of those things that everybody knows but nobody talks about, so I felt a little trepidation in asking them about it.  But I did, and they talked about it easily. There wasn't space in the original column, but that column is structured pretty much as the conversation was, for they kept coming back to the show they were to do when they accepted their award, even when we talked about this.

"He's a poor boy," Lynne said.  "I was very fortunate--I'm a trust fund baby."
"She's a sugar mama," Bob said.
"I'm your sugar mama," Lynne laughed.  "Maybe we should do a bit about that."
"I've never done anything for money," Bob said.  "It has to be something I love.  I worked five years in the Post Office.  But I liked it."
"I never did anything for the money either but I always felt guilty about it," Lynne said, "because it's always come to me.  Always part of me saying, how do I deserve this.  But it's been a great blessing.  It allows me to give, and that's been great."

The family fortune had its roots in, of all times, the 1930s.  "My father started the first car and truck rental business in the United States," Lynne said.  "He started with a taxi, but never got calls for the taxi, just somebody who wanted to rent the car.  He was a man who always said my goal every day is to make a buck and do something for somebody else.  If I do that every day, I feel good."

"We were raised with a very strong work ethic," she said. "But as adults we also came into quite a lot of money when the business was sold.  But it's dwindling."

Once together, Lynne and Bob made an unusual move for actors in plays: a year of study at Dell'Arte.  I also don't know of many Dell'Arte grads who returned to the conventional theatre.  Lynne admitted it took awhile before what she learned there "got incorporated."  Bob remembered being told that it might take five years for what he'd learned to sink in.  "It took me ten."  

"Thinking back on the Dell'Arte experience for me," Lynne said, "we were the oldest ones at the time.  It was a huge accomplishment.  Donald Forrest was our acrobatics teacher, and he was so kind to me--and rough on everybody else.  At the end of an entire year my big accomplishment was that I was able to do a forward roll."  She did it in one show at Ferndale--"and never again."

"Donald Forrest is one of the most excellent actors I've ever met in my life," Lynne added.  "He taught me so much."

They both agreed on their favorite directors: Michael Fields and Rene Grinnell.  Bob added some names from Pacific Arts Center Theatre days: Gordon Townsend, Jeff Peacock.  (They also volunteered their least favorite director, but I'll keep that to myself.)

"I like a director who will come in strong, with a vision and with good direction in the beginning," Lynne said, "but in the last couple of weeks they adore you, they let you go. A director who is picking on you until the last minute, I don't want.  They have to know that they chose somebody for a reason, and at some point they've got to let you go."

in Glorious!
We were talking in the Plaza Grill in the afternoon, and the combination of ambient noise on the recording and my poor notes didn't record what performance Lynne said was "Bob's Hamlet."  But I did hear Bob say that Lynne's Hamlet was Glorious!, the comedy about Florence Foster Jenkins that opened Redwood Curtain's new theatre on Snug Alley.  "Lynne Wells unleashed" was how I described her tour de force performance.

Bob was with her in that production, funny and poignant.  Their most famous performance together apparently was as George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Doing it was an intense experience they definitely did not want to revisit.  "We didn't realize it was a comedy," Bob said. "There were just four of us, rehearsing that play for six weeks.  We were so into it, it seemed intrusive to have people there to see it."

In my time as columnist, I saw them work together in Painting Churches at North Coast Rep, Glorious! and The Language Archive at Redwood Curtain, and in a couple of Christmas shows at the Arcata Playhouse.  In addition to their skills that create credibility and delight, they do have a kind of mystique that is a delight in itself.

I had the additional pleasure of being onstage with Lynne.  In fact, we played husband and wife for a couple of hours, at the anniversary reading of It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis at Dell'Arte. I got to feel a little of that energy exchange that's an essential pleasure of acting on stage, when it's good.

Among my happy memories of Bob was his singing and dancing performance in North Coast Rep's My Fair Lady.  As I wrote then: "From his opening number (“With A Little Bit of Luck”) his performance as Eliza’s father was astonishing. It did better than stop the show—it energized it forward."

But the first thing I noted about Bob Wells was his speaking voice.  I commented on it first in The Ladies of the Camellias. "Nobody could make the two syllables of 'password' funnier than Wells does."  But then I wrote a column with his vocal work as its theme, and instead of the interview column, that's what I will reproduce below.

I do it to honor both Lynne and Bob, for their approach to the art and craft of acting and performance, their respect for the text and for the audience.

Bob Wells' Vocal Magic  February 2010

According to renowned early 20th century Italian actor Tomasso Salvini, the three most potent elements of acting are: “Voice! Voice! Voice!”

 You might expect that sentiment from an old-school actor like Salvini, or even actor and director John Gielgud, who suggested that while attention is often lavished on other aspects of performance, how the words are spoken “can have more effect than anything else.”

 But open almost any book on stage directing or acting, and they proclaim the importance of voice. The purported Stanislavski “Method” may have enshrined mumbling on American stages, but director Robert Lewis quotes Stanislavski writing at length about vocal acting: “Letters, syllables, words—these are the musical notes of speech, out of which to fashion measures, arias, whole symphonies.”

Harold Clurman (another Method-influenced director) writes about it—even Jerzy Grotowski devotes some 30 pages to vocal technique in Towards a Poor Theatre.

 A revelatory object lesson in vocal acting is available this weekend at the Arcata Playhouse, where Bob Wells performs in a short play by Arthur Kopit, directed by Dan Stone.

 First of all, every word Wells says can be heard, and every word can be understood. With these foundations in place, Wells goes on to act with his voice—his intonations, pronunciations, the words he stresses hard, the syllables he lets linger and float away.

 Beginning with his surprising “entrance,” Wells captivates, even when he does almost nothing except create this character with sound. He’s masterful: both poetic and clear. We know who this man is, and we attend to what he has to say.

 The play, called Sing to Me Through Open Windows, is more problematic. Arthur Kopit is a contemporary American playwright with a long career that began with revolutionary absurdist romps like Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, but more recently has included musicals, including Nine, which reached the silver screen this year with Kopit as an executive producer.

 Whether Kopit has copped out or America has caught up to his absurdism is an open question, but this early play is at best an exercise in poetic symbolism that for me remained fairly elusive in this production. There’s the old magician (Wells), the boy who visits him (played by newcomer Zachery Davis with appropriate vulnerability) and a clown whose relationship to the others is difficult to assess (played with appropriate physicality by Craig Klapman.)

 This is the kind of challenging work that Dan Stone often chooses. Figuring out what was happening was more difficult because Bob Wells was the only one who was clearly audible all the time. Even so, a kind of ambiguity is inherent in this play.

The stage imagery, including the music (all created by Dan Stone), worked well. The lighting was especially clarifying, but other choices (like the puppets) less so. The themes of life’s transitions and mythic cycles are there when you think about it, but the impact of aging was absolutely clear as an experience.

That’s the work of Wells, playing a magician who is in the process of himself vanishing. “Fear is like regret,” he concludes, “only with fear, there’s not much time left.”

 Remarkable words to come from a 22 year-old playwright (as Kopit was when he wrote this), but very powerful when spoken by a veteran actor in conscious control of a superior vocal instrument. I particularly urge young actors to experience—and listen to--this performance.

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