Friday, December 5, 2014

Bah Humboldt! Christmas 2006

This is my draft of a column from December 2006: an account of three productions I saw on one Sunday.  It's notable for the Sanctuary Stage commedia del'arte performance at Mazzotti's (what I didn't say was that, the morning I attended, I was the only person there) as well as the Dell'Arte holiday show, and the Redwood Curtain fundraiser.  Plus the Christmas party afterwards, at which I snapped the photos published here, one for the first time. When I realized the Journal wasn't going to pay me for taking pictures for them, I stopped.

 Last Sunday began with Jupiter, Mars and Mercury clustered in the pre-dawn sky -- the first time since 1925, the last until 2053. Not that I saw that particular performance -- getting to brunch for a noon "curtain time" was early enough for me. I was beginning my Christmas show marathon.

 "It's a raincoat and sunglasses day," remarked the woman behind the counter at Arcata Liquor, where I bought my Sunday newspapers (with my book review in the Chronicle) before crossing the Plaza to Mazzotti's Restaurant. There, with your choice of broccoli and pancetta quiche with fresh fruit, or eggs Benedict with prosciuto puff pastry and champagne, you got A Christmas Commedia, served piping hot by Sanctuary Stage.

 The show is itself a mercurial combination of classic commedia dell'arte -- right down to the characters from its Italian origins -- and Charles Dickens' fable, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge as the commedia's Pantalone (also a rich miser who abuses his servants, as Scrooge does Bob Cratchit) is just the starting point of the interplay. Factor in the contemporary references (like the very recognizable face on the Ghost of Christmas Past) and there's another source of unexpected energy, and laughs.

"Bah, Humboldt!" Pantalone shouts, and we're off. The cast is outstanding, led by Tinamarie Ivey in a tour de force as Pantalone. Though all the performers (including Carrie Hudson, Melissa Lawson, Dan and Zachary Stone) have physical comedy skills, and fine comic timing and presence, the intensity shoots up to the roof as soon as Heath Houghton bounds on stage. He's always one of those actors you have to watch, but he adds both an individual and a cohesive energy to this ensemble -- and he does a jump on his knees from the stage to the floor that will drop your quiche-filled jaw.

What most impressed me about this show (scenario by Dan Stone, elaborated by cast improvisation in rehearsals) is the combination of physical humor, verbal wit and a mostly efficient and forward-moving story with the major narrative virtues: You could follow it, and it kept you involved, even when you basically know what's supposed to happen next.

 There's the traditional slapstick, chases and double-takes, but also wordplay, topical asides and in-jokes (anybody who recognizes the "I'm alive" intonation from James Whales' Frankenstein gets an extra laugh) that fly by almost as fast as in a Marx Brothers movie.

Though Dickens' story retains its prominence and power on its own, this is a well-performed, well-crafted entertainment, and an intelligent companion to the Sunday papers on the table. With cleavage and toilet humor, of course.

You've got one more chance to see A Christmas Commedia -- this coming Sunday (Dec.17) at Mazzotti's. Brunch starts at 11, and the show at noon.

 There was a lot of Christmas-related theatre happening on Sunday. I saw three shows and still didn't have time to get to the matinee of Cinderella (packing them in at Ferndale Rep) or the back-by-popular-demand Humboldt Light Opera show, King Island Christmas, both beginning at 2 p.m.

 The next event I could attend was the Redwood Curtain benefit at the Bayside Grange in mid-afternoon. Co-founders Peggy Metzger and Clint Rebik seemed overcome by the impressive turnout when they took the stage to introduce a reading of David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries, performed by Edward Olson.

"You can brag to your friends you were here for our entire 2006 season," Rebik quipped. Redwood Curtain's year in the dark, and its prospective future, were on everyone's minds. But after referring to the still-ongoing search for new digs, Metzger flat-out promised: "We are going to produce a season in 2007, come hell or high water."

The Sedaris piece is an account of an actor new to New York who takes a job as a Christmas elf at Macy's department store, where an army of elves run a huge, season-long assembly line of kids and their parents past multiple Santas. Olson, having donned the gay apparel called for in the story, effectively rendered the humor and human observations of this pleasant, contemporary tale.

Then while most of the audience moved to the munchies supplied by Curley's Bar & Grill, others went up on stage to be photographed with a leering Santa (Bob Wells) and a sweet Mrs. Claus (Lynne Wells).

 Next I finally caught up with the Dell'Arte Company's holiday show, Entrances and Exits, at the Adorni Center in Eureka, where it had to compete with the entertainment value of the ballet of little birds seeming to glide along the waterline in the darkness, feeding in the shallows of the bay.

The core idea of this show is vaudeville farce, with the inherent impudence of opening, closing and skittering doors punctuating the sketches, along with music and requisite, child-pleasing clowning.

All the members of the ensemble (Tara Cariaso, Carlos Alexis Cruz, Gulshirin Dubash, Kajsa Ingemansson, Morgan Jarl, Andrew Phoenix, Helga Rosenfeldt-Olsen and Freddy Villano) are young, skilled and very appealing. The show itself seemed uneven -- tight and incisive at times, slack and virtually incomprehensible at others. The clarity of situation and form of vaudeville theatre was lacking, and while that may have been part of the experimental intention, easily grasping the premise and form allows the audience to recognize surprise and relax into the laughter.

 But there are plenty of delights anyway. I'd love to see this group do Second City-style improv, especially after a few months in front of audiences. This weekend you can see this very watchable ensemble do the Carlo Theatre version of this show, Thursday through Sunday, Dec. 14-17.

 Finally, very late last Sunday, the hemisphere premiere of the annual Geminid meteor shower began. I didn't see that either. I was writing this column.

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