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.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

photo by Bob Doran
One night, Jeff DeMark had a dream: he and some friends were performing at the Mad River Festival. Though he estimates he’s done about 20 solo shows at Dell’Arte, this summer’s festival wasn’t on his radar. But the dream was compelling and he emailed Dell’ Arte’s Michael Fields to tell him about it. “Good dream,” was Fields’ reply and soon this evening was arranged: Acting on a Dream: Summer Stories, Songs and Wild Left Turns, happens in Blue Lake at the Big Hammer Tent on Thursday July 31 at 7:30 p.m., part of Dell'Arte's Mad River Festival.

Half of Dell’Arte’s motto of “from around the world and down the block” was demonstrated in Elisabeth’s Book last week, with participants from France, Spain, Moldova and the U.S. The other half is somewhat accidentally exemplified in the DeMark show, which features mostly light-hearted summer storytelling by Blue Lakers DeMark, Marvin Samuels and Lizzy Moonbeam, along with Charlie Gilbert. Music is provided by DeMark’s band The Gila Monsters, which features Blue Lake residents Rick Levin (guitar) and Ron Sharp (bass) as well as Jean Browning (keyboards) and Paul DeMark (percussion.) 668-5663, www.dellarte.com.

Opening Friday (August 1) at 7:30 p.m. on the Van Duzer Theatre stage at HSU is the Humboldt Light Opera Company production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical set in New York City during the 1920s.  It's an updated version of the 1967 movie with Julie Andrews.  HLOC shows are always a summer highlight.

Directed by Carol Ryder, it features Melissa Hinz, Gino Bloomberg, Kevin Richards, Linnea Hill, Katherine Johnson, Kathleen Ely, Carl McGahan and Jake Smith.  There's an actual orchestra, conducted by Justin Sousa.  The show runs three weekends (Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sunday matinees on August 10 and 17 at 2 p.m.)  822-1318, hloc.org.

Continuing: The Wedding Singer musical at Ferndale Rep, the melodrama The Poor of New York at North Coast Rep, reviewed below.

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, www.ncrt.net.

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."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

The Poor of New York, an 1857 melodrama about families victimized by financial corruption, opens at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka with a benefit for cast and crew on Thursday July 24 at 8 p.m. As a classic melodrama, good triumphs over evil. Performances continue through Aug. 16. Directed by Alex Service, it features David Simms, Randall Larson, Shirley Santino, Toodie SueAnn Boll, Scott Osborn, Jim Buschmann and David Moore. 442-6278, www.ncrt.net.  I'll review this for next week.

On Friday, the musical The Wedding Singer opens at Ferndale Repertory Theatre. Take a 95-minute Adam Sandler romantic comedy movie set in 1985 and inject it with an additional hour and a half of musical reminders of the 1980s’ more superficial features, add frenetic energy and period costumes and you’ve got this 2006 Broadway entertainment, which has since toured the world.

I'm not much for 80's nostalgia--having lived through the decade, I can't disentangle it from the lows (Reaganomics, Iran-Contra, privatization, decimation of the NEA, PBS and arts in schools etc.) and highs that don't quite fit the comedy stereotypes (Sting, Peter Gabriel, Mandela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Malling of America)--but I gather that it's fashionable now so there's probably a big audience for which this is the perfect summer hoot.

I don't know how funny The Wedding Singer is, but Ben Brantley's review of the Broadway production is hilarious.  A gamut of reactions to the Chicago production can be found in this collection of reviews.

The Wedding Singer was written by Tim Herlihy and Chad Beguelin (also the lyricist) with music by Matthew Sklar. Directed at Ferndale Rep by Brandi Lacy, with musical direction by Molly Severdia and choreography by Danielle Cichon, it features Erik Standifird, Sasha Shay, Tyler Rich, Megan Hensley and Cichon heading a large cast. The Wedding Singer opens Friday July 25, playing Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through August 17. There’s a special Actors Benefit performance on Thursdays Aug. 7 at 8 p.m., preceded by live music from The Attic at 7 p.m. 786-5483, www.ferndalerep.org.

A limited run of Elisabeth's Book at Dell'Arte begins Wednesday, and is previewed below.

This is the final weekend for the Durang Durang (see, an 80s joke) comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Redwood Curtain.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Elisabeth's Book at Dell'Arte: A Preview

It’s not an ordinary book, with crisp black type on slick snow-white paper.  It consists of stitched rags and metal fragments left from the grenades the women in a Nazi slave labor camp were forced to drill.  It is a book of simple domestic images with personal meaning, small enough to hide from the guards, created secretly by one Hungarian woman for another in the final and most ferocious months of the Holocaust. It is a scrapbook of survival, handmade in hell.

Dell’Arte’s Joan Schirle happened to see an art exhibit in Canada with digital blowups of these images. Both the book and the woman who received it did survive. “I experienced a profound emotional shift when I saw these images of things crudely fashioned yet powerful, that seemed both banal and sacred at the same time,” Schirle wrote later. They inspired a stage piece, Elisabeth’s Book, which previews Wednesday (July 23) and opens Thursday for a weekend run at Dell’Arte in Blue Lake.

There are three scenes in this one-act play, revised from its April “in-progress” version. Created by actors Schirle, Laura Munoz and Ruxandra Cantir and director and designer Alain Schons, Elisabeth’s Book tells the story of three women with music, dance, poetry, projections and live video.

The first scene depicts their ordinary middle class life in Hungary, emphasizing their love of books and music.  The second is set in the Nazi camps and shows the making of the book. The third scene takes place in a little-known period between the European war’s end in 1945 and the massive Marshall Plan aid from the U.S. in 1948, when in Winston Churchill’s words, Europe was “a rubble heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground of pestilence and hate.”  Like many others liberated from the Nazi camps, these stateless and penniless women wandered, sometimes finding themselves in camps again, not as prisoners but as refugees.   

For Schirle, it is a story of survival that applies beyond historical circumstances to ever-present possibilities of today.  “These women wouldn’t have made it without each other, without friendships. Creative acts like Elisabeth’s book or the recipe books they made and the actors and singers in the camps were also vital to their survival.”

“We aren’t trying to encompass the Holocaust,” Schirle said.  “Nothing can.  The danger is always the sentimentalization of the unspeakable.  But these are ordinary women and their stories deserve to be told and remembered.  It’s also important to realize that anyone’s life can be changed in the world we’re living in. There are millions of displaced people in the world right now.”  

Even apart from its physical theatre style, the play is not a documentary (Schirle points out that the character she plays would have been considered too old to work and therefore killed.)  But it is based on real characters and events, especially on Elisabeth Raab and her memoir, And Peace Never Came.  Today Raab lives in Toronto, and her son will attend a performance in Blue Lake. Though (like other Holocaust victims) Raab couldn’t find a way to write about these events until the 1990s, she kept the book made for her at the Lippstadt camp exactly 70 years ago.

Among the projections during the show are images from that book that Schirle first saw in Canada, by artist Thelma Rosner, Elisabeth’s grand-niece.  Here's the link to images from the exhibit posted on the artist's website.

Schirle traveled to Europe to meet with director Schons, who lives and works in France.  They had worked together when Schons was at Dell'Arte.  One of the things she learned was the meaning of a name on a page of Elisabeth's book: "Geraldy."  It is Paul Geraldy (photo left), a French poet who was popular in pre-war Europe.  His name was there because Elisabeth and her friends loved his poetry.  So some of his work is included in the show, as well as lines by poets Emily Dickinson, Robert Denos and others.

Elisabeth's Book is also influenced and informed by other Holocaust memoirs, notably by poet and playwright Charlotte Delbo (photo right).  Here's more information on her.

Original music for Elisabeth's Book was composed by Tim Gray, Gina Leisxman and Schirle.  Lighting is by Michael Foster, costumes by Lydia Foreman and sound design by Tim Gray.  Here's a video excerpt plus Schirle and Schons talking about the piece.

Elisabeth’s Book is performed in the Carlo Theatre at Dell’Arte, July 23-27 at 8 p.m.   668-5663, www.dellarte.com.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

It's just one of those things.  Three shows open next week but none this weekend.  But in our Thursday-to-Thursday media,  there is Elisabeth's Book opening at Dell'Arte on Wednesday, July 23.  I'll have more on this show this weekend or early next week, and a preview in the NC Journal officially on Thursday but really on the stands Wednesday.

A stage-related event does happen this weekend, part of HLOC's promotion of its early August show, Thoroughly Modern Millie. Here's their release:

Travel back to the Roaring 20s for a Speakeasy evening with Humboldt Light Opera Company, on Friday, July 18 from 7-10 p.m. at the Arcata Playhouse. Learn the Charleston, mingle with celebrities of early American cinema, enter the costume contest, and catch club performances and a sneak preview of Thoroughly Modern Millie! Everyone is invited to come in 1920s attire: awards will be given for best female, male, and couple costumes. Admission is $25 (and includes hors d'oeuvres and one drink ticket), and can be purchased at the Holly Yashi Store in Arcata, or online at hloc.org. The Speakeasy is sponsored by Holly Yashi; all proceeds go to the HLOC Costume Fund. This event is recommended for ages 14 and up. For more info, call 822-1318.

Meanwhile, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues at Redwood Curtain in its penultimate weekend.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

This weekend at the Mad River Festival, clown Mooky Cornish presents The Glories of Gloria Revue. Cornish plays an aging performer reviewing her career in a revue that includes puppetry, cabaret song, dancing and magic. Created by Cornish and director Cal McCrystal, it’s in Dell'Arte's Carlo Theatre Thursday (July 10) through Saturday at 8 p.m., with afternoon shows on Saturday at 2 (a one hour version for younger attention spans) and Sunday at 4. 668-5663, www.dellarte.com.

Continuing: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Redwood Curtain.  Review and much more below.

Trouble in Chekhovania: A Review

 Once upon a time there was a man whose parents had named Douglas Fir Tree. His sister was Mary Christmas Tree. Carolyn Clay, long-time drama critic for the Boston Phoenix, told me this. Clay and Tree were engaged. If you made this up, would anyone believe you?

 So given what parents in the so-called real world are willing to do to their children, imagine--as playwright Christopher Durang did—that two American parents who are also college professors name their three children after characters in famous plays by Anton Chekhov. The result for Durang eventually was the 2012 comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka.

 Additional inspiration came when Durang noticed that his home in the eastern Pennsylvania countryside resembled the bucolic settings of several Chekhov plays in which aging characters expressed regrets for wasted lives. Durang, whose first stage hit was Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You in 1981, was himself entering his 60s.

 Durang has written parodies and farces (including an unproduced screenplay with my favorite of his titles: The Nun Who Shot Liberty Valance.) This is different. It riffs on Chekhov but also stands alone as a contemporary take on perennial themes of regret and hope, disappointment and new beginnings, in Durang’s unique off-center comic voice.

 Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies, but he usually neglected to include a happy ending. Durang doesn’t make that mistake. In 2013 Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike became Durang’s first Tony Award winner.

 The plays opens with Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia, both in their 50s, watching for the blue heron that visits the pond outside their farm house in a Philadelphia suburb on a late summer morning. They’ve spent 15 years taking care of their dying parents, and fear their own lives are over.

 Their stasis is stirred first by their prophetic housekeeper Cassandra, whose every sentence seems to begin with “Beware!” Their sister Masha arrives—she is a rich and famous Hollywood actress (Sexy Killer, Sexy Killer 2 etc.)-- accompanied by Spike, her much younger boyfriend and aspiring actor (a finalist for a role in the reality series Entourage 2.)

 Masha organizes them all to attend a costume party (she’ll be Snow White, her siblings will be the dwarfs), and incidentally has decided to sell the house. She’s been paying the mortgage (and to support her siblings), but she’s also aging and her career isn’t what it was.

 Meanwhile Spike finds Nina, an even younger aspiring actor visiting nearby relatives. She is thrilled to meet the immediately jealous Masha, and decides to call Vanya uncle. Though several offstage characters are important in causing what ensues, the focus is on these six as they deal with the consequences of the past, the illusions of the present and the possibilities of the future.

 The Redwood Curtain production is superbly cast. Though there are elements of caricature, these characters become individuals with their own minds and emotions, so the actors are required to inhabit and express their individuality.

 Gloria Montgomery confidently navigates Masha’s alternating flashes of ego and affection, anxiety and awareness. She also credibly works towards one of those sudden moments of emotional practicality that women seem to access while men remain swamped in clueless confusion.

 Christina Jioras creates a believable and sympathetic Sonia as she breaks out of her gloom and doubts, yet can’t believe her luck. Nadia Adame brings a sharp comic energy to the household as the psychic Cassandra, who mixes the exotic and the everyday with a feather duster that doubles as a ritual instrument, and a surprisingly effective voodoo doll.

 In their important supporting roles, Geo Alva plays Spike’s casual narcissism with a California flavor while Mira Eagle embodies Nina’s youthful spirit as she innocently discovers wonders of the past.

 Masha drives the action and Sonia makes the most transformative move, but the soul of the story is Vanya. Raymond Waldo (who has played Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya) performs brilliantly as this gentle man who misses the past and worries about the future.  Vanya’s angry, rambling monologue, accompanied by aimless wandering around the stage, seldom rises above cliche but still comically conveys his heartfelt fear of a dangerously thoughtless present.

 Even with such strong characters, some of the best moments are interactions. Jioras and Montgomery perform an amazingly realistic crying scene that is simultaneously heartrending and hilarious. The last scene strains for a feel-good finish but gets there anyway.

There are lots of laughs along the way. Most of the time Durang is so unpredictable that it seems the play is being written before your eyes.

 Director Jyl Hewston ensures her actors play the human nuances as well as the comic set pieces. Scenic and sound design are by Liz Uhazy, lighting by Telfer Reynolds and costumes by Jenneveve Hood. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is onstage at Redwood Curtain Thursdays-Saturdays through July 26. 443-7688, www.redwoodcurtain.com.

More Notes From Chekhovania

These are some additional notes on Durang and the Chekhovania play--but unlike the review, there be SPOILERS here arrrgh!

Speaking of which, Durang quotes a number of other works in this play, sometimes as "quotes," sometimes not.  One of the quotes ("fame, thou glittering bauble") someone attributes to Captain Hook in Peter Pan.  It's funny, especially because it's true--this is where the quote is from.  In the play Masha says "such an interesting thing for a pirate to say."  Gloria Montgomery goes a little further and tries it out pirate style: "Fame, thou glittering bauble, arrrgh!" A funny line which is not in my copy of the script.

Why a quote from Peter Pan?  Who knows, though it's likely that someone of playwright Christopher Durang's generation would know of Peter Pan through the Disney animated movie.  The Disney animated movie of Snow White (and what various generations know about it) becomes a droll plot point.

There's another quote that's given as a quote, though the author is never identified:
"True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment."  Masha thinks maybe she remembers it from some play she's done.  Maybe, but it was originally written by William Penn.  Penn was not only the founder of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but Bucks County--where this play takes place--is one of the three oldest counties in PA, named by Penn.

There are other quotes and partial quotes, especially within the prophetic rambles of Cassandra, housekeeper and psychic, whose namesake in Greek mythology is talked about.  Some of her lines quote the Greeks, but also "The Owl and the Pussycat" by non-Greek Edward Lear.

Chekhov Echoes

Some are obvious, such as Sonia crying “I am a wild turkey!” instead of “I am a seagull!”  Or the debate on whether 11 or 12 cherry trees constitutes a cherry orchard. Or the famous actress watching an experimental play by her son (in The Seagull) or in this play, her brother.  In this play Vanya at least mentions the repeated theme of Uncle Vanya: we must work!  However this Sonia has a more contemporary and probably practical point of view.

 There are many other echoes, some quite elegant. Durang’s Vanya is concerned about climate change, as is a different character in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya--Dr. Astrov who says at one point: "We have destroyed the forest, our rivers run dry, our wildlife is all but extinct, our climate ruined...but I pass by the woods I’ve saved from the ax. I hear the forest sighing...I planted that forest. And I think: perhaps things may be in our power. Perhaps the climate itself is in our control.”

Vanya's Tirade

Nina persuades Vanya to present the play he's written to all the others. Most are attentive but Spike doesn't understand it and grows bored, texting and "multi-tasking."  This sets Vanya off on a tirade about what's been lost in a speedier world where experiences aren't shared in the same way.

But his specific examples are oddly off.  He talks of them--mostly from the 1950s--as his own childhood experiences, but the character is supposed to be 57 in 2012, and a lot of what he talks about came earlier.  The Disney version of Davy Crockett, for example, first aired in 1954.  Vanya wasn't even born until 1955.   These are memories of somebody a decade older.  And some sound wrong.  He says he watched Bishop Sheen on Sunday evenings before Ed Sullivan.  Bishop Sheen was certainly a TV phenomenon, but he was broadcast nationally on Tuesday evenings opposite Milton Berle. This show went off the air in 1957.  He came back with a syndicated version in the 60s-- individual stations picked the air time so it's possible that some stations aired it on Sundays then.

In fact, a lot of the culture clash in this play doesn't make specific sense unless the "present" indicated as the play's time is actually about ten years ago.  But maybe it's worth it just for Vanya's observation on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet": "In retrospect they seemed medicated."

The Tony Award

This play earned Durang the Tony for Best Play on Broadway in 2013, in what I dubbed the "Resurrection Tonys."  Career-wise (not that we care about such things), Durang hadn't been hot since the 80s--say around the time that Cyndi Lauper broke big in the pop charts with "Girls Just Want To Have Fun."  But in 2013 both Durang and Lauper got Tonys--as did the 88 year old Cicely Tyson, whose decade was the 70s.  It's a tribute to hanging in there, doing your work, staying visible, maintaining and expanding your friendly contacts, being open to being asked, and mostly, hanging in there.


This play profits from Durang's experiences since his early success.  He's been one of the most successful teachers of playwriting anywhere, nurturing new talent at the Julliard School.  So he's been in touch with younger people, particularly in the theatre.  Nina in this play may learn towards a cliched innocence--and at first there's a hint of All About Eve in her heroine-worship of Masha--but she winds up as an appealing and important character, even younger than Spike and also with ambition, but with a very different sensibility that is nourished by the best of the past.

When she talks about sensing a decision point in what kind of actor she will be, Nina also has some very droll lines that are (like a lot of Stoppard's in Shakespeare in Love, for example) inside the profession humor but very funny.

Style of the Play

In my review I assert that this is not one of Durang's parodies, and stands on its own.  Here's a different view on that by a critic who reviewed the pre-Broadway New York production.  He calls it a "vaudeville"--a series of sketches more or less--and suggests it is for "educated" audiences who will grasp all the Chekhov mixes and matches (he describes a bunch of them.)

Judging from original cast photos, I suspect it was in fact played more broadly in New York than it is being played in Eureka. ("If you hate exaggeration," playwright David Hare wrote, "New York is never going to be the city for you.")  I think that's probably true of most New York comedies, especially when the characters represent stereotypes or at least familiar types to New York audiences.  Conversely, North Coast productions quite often find the more universal aspects of these plays.  That's partly because the actors generally can't play (or are uncomfortable playing) stereotypes, including variations on ethnic types.  And audiences here are less familiar with the nuances of such approaches.  For example, a recognizably Jewish character may be very funny to a New York (and Jewish) audience, but here, even if it could be done well, maybe not so much.

(Another factor mandating a more fundamental approach here is the necessarily simpler set, lighting scheme, effects etc.  This is taken to an extreme at Redwood Curtain, at least since NCRT performed Les Miz on pretty much the same set as Oedipus.  The Durang play set is really generic. You'd think they could at least have the wicker chairs called for in the script.)

What's interesting about how the play is performed is what it says about the play itself: is it strong enough to entertain, or simply to hold together, when it isn't done so broadly?  The plays that succeed here are.  The ones that aren't become painfully obvious.

There's also the intimacy of Redwood Curtain, where very broad acting may not work so well--especially by those without the skill levels of the best international actors New York can access.  Still, to make it work as a kind of burlesque may requires another level than we have available here.  Durang wrote Masha for Signourney Weaver, who played the role in New York: an aging movie star who arguably short-circuited a stage career to make a series of blood-drenched movies, played by somebody with pretty much that resume.  The interplay of actress and character had to be part of the experience for the audience.

But here the actors played their parts as people North Coast audiences might well recognize from their lives rather than their media consumption.  Geo Alva's portrayal of Spike was stylized but only slightly.  His Spike might not be part of daily life here, but he probably is in certain parts of southern California.  The other rather sly bit of stylization was Raymond Waldo's portrayal of Vanya, but it was to emphasize the Chekhovian qualities, the Uncle Vanya crossed with Konstantin in The Seagull, whose play within that play he attempts to emulate.  That Vanya in this play is gay becomes a slight part of the plot, but like Durang himself, he doesn't draw attention to it, at least thematically.

Characterizations like this make it a different play perhaps, but the play is up to it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a comedy by Christopher Durang has its one and only preview at Redwood Curtain on Thursday (July 3) at 8 p.m. before skipping the fourth and opening on Saturday July 5.

This is information, by the way, that you won't get from the NCJ Calendar.

This 2013 Tony Award winner is a takeoff on Chekhov characters set in contemporary America that rewards but does not require prior knowledge of Chekhov. I’ve been looking forward to this one all year. Directed by Jyl Hewston, it features Christina Jioras, Gloria Montgomery, Mira Eagle, Nadia Adame, Giovanni Alva and Raymond Waldo. It continues Thursdays-Saturdays through July 26. 443-7688, www.redwoodcurtain.com.

At Dell'Arte it's the final weekend for Korbel V: The Secret.  After the show on Saturday, the annual Red Light in Blue Lake adult cabaret is performed in the Carlo, starting at about 10:30 p.m.  Bring a designated driver. www.dellarte.com.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Ongoing at the Mad River Festival in Blue Lake: Korbel V: The Secret continues in the Rooney Amphitheatre out back at Dell'Arte (my NCJ review is here) now followed at 10:30 or so by Taken Away: An Acrobatic Theatre Event in the Carlo. Created and performed by Alyssa Hughlett, Jerome Yorke, Moses Norton, Hannah Gaff and Dell'Arte faculty Nicholette Routhier and director Joe Krienke.  Final two performances are Thursday and Friday (June 26 & 27.)

Also this weekend at the Fest: Clowns Without Borders gets the Prize of Hope with dinner and entertainment at 4 pm on Saturday June 28, and a benefit headlined by clown Mooky Cornish on Sunday June 29 at 2 p.m. Then Cornish performs at the Blue Lake Center of the Universe party that same afternoon at 4:30 in the Big Hammer Tent.

Though it's a little past the weekend it's before the next one: on Wednesday July 2, Mad Lab consists of three works-in-progress by Dell’Arte alums: “Camel Camel,” a vaudeville review by Glitter Gizzard, Janessa Johnsrude and Meghan Frank (it's scheduled to tour US and Canada dates later this summer); “Life Lessons with Pat McKensie,” a satirical comedy by Emily Newton; and “La Fenetre,” a clown comedy by Darci Fulcher and Emily Newton. 668-5663, www.dellarte.com.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Opening Thursday June 19 and continuing for three weekends at Dell'Arte is    Korbel V: The Secret.  It's the outdoor show that opens the greatly expanded Mad River Festival (more about that in my last NCJ column), and the latest in Dell’Arte’s outrageously epic working class soap opera that has seen death, a wedding, a birth and a fateful accident amidst much local color and family angst over the years. This summer’s story finds the surly and unemployed Tommy Dugan living in a ramshackle trailer, eventually confronting the Korbel Timber Company as it evicts workers’ families from company housing.

 It’s written and directed by Lauren Wilson, who wrote the memorable 2010 summer show, Blue Lake: The Opera. Returning to Korbel are Michael Fields as Tommy and Joan Schirle as his mother Dorothy, who despite having died in the first play has appeared in all the sequels, plus the traditionally large cast.  Music is provided by Marla Joy, Tim Randles and Mike LaBolle.

 In a TV commercial for the festival, Fields as Tommy Dugan describes the show: “They say it’s a comedy but my life ain’t so funny to me.” That nails the mood of this series. It’s been satirical, melodramatic, over the top, but with heart and eyes open to the Humboldt of the moment. “It is pure ‘theatre of place’, Dell’Arte style,” Fields said (off-camera). “I don’t know of another theatre that follows characters over decades with keen attention to the times, looking at it all through the lens of place.” Dell’Arte is offering a festival pass to any four shows plus some extra benefits. (707) 668-5663, www.dellarte.com.

Dixie Swim Club continues at Ferndale Rep and Les Miserables completes its run at North Coast Rep.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

This North Coast Weekend (and Audition)

Murder By Dessert is performing another interactive mystery, and this one sounds particularly intriguing.  It's called Sherlock Holmes and the Steampunk Murder Mystery, and is described as featuring "the greatest science fiction authors of the late 1800s attempting to solve the murder of one of their own."  I don't know who that would be except H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, although it would be decades before anybody called it science fiction. But the Robert Downey Holmes movies are definitely steampunk.

  It's happening on Saturday June 14 at the Siren's Song Tavern, 325 Second St., Eureka, from 7-10 p.m. 672-5651, murderbydessert.com.  Jeremy Brett won't be appearing as Sherlock Holmes alas, but any excuse to post his photo.

If you're getting your stage information from the NCJ Calendar (print edition) you are going to be misinformed about this weekend.  (In general the Calendar, which used to be the gold standard for upcoming events, has been sliding downhill for months.)

So here's the weekend:

Thursday (June 12) at Ferndale Repertory Theatre is an Actors Benefit performance of the ongoing production, The Dixie Swim Club.  All proceeds on this night go to cast and crew. Otherwise the production continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2 through June 22.

Les Miserables continues at North Coast Rep Friday and Saturday at 8, and Sunday at 2.

North Coast Rep also announces auditions:

The North Coast Repertory Theatre announces open auditions for the musical Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, with music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice; and book by Linda Woolverton. The production will be directed by Lauren Wieland, with musical direction by Jonathan Webster and Dianne Zuleger. There are roles for 11 men and 12 women of a wide variety of ages. No roles will be pre-cast. The first round of auditions will consist of singing only, there will be no cold readings from the script. Please come with a prepared audition piece of no more than 2 minutes in length. An accompanist will be present. Please come prepared with sheet music. A CD player will be available. Please bring a resume and headshot if available. Auditions will take place on Saturday, June 28th at 2 p.m., and Sunday, June 29th at 6 p.m. at NCRT, 300 Fifth Street in Eureka. Call-backs will be on July 6th in the evening. Production dates are November 13th thru December 13th, 2014 with rehearsals beginning mid-August. Please contact director Lauren Wieland at laurencwieland@gmail.com if you have any questions.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Opening Friday June 6 at Ferndale Rep is the comedy The Dixie Swim Club by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Mamie Wooten.  Directed by Leira V. Satlof, it features Marilyn McCormick, Marilyn Foote, Rae Robison, Dana Zurasky and Natasha White.  Scenic design is by Ray Gutierrez, with costumes by Lynnie Horrigan.

 The story is about the friendship of five women who met on their college swim team and reunite at a beach cottage in North Carolina, one weekend a year for 33 years.  The play portrays four of those weekends.   Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 through June 22.  There's a special Actors Benefit performance on Thursday June 12.  786-5483.

Les Miserables continues at North Coast Rep.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Members of Dell’Arte International School’s graduating class of 2014 present The Finals: an evening of ten minute plays as their final projects, Thursday through Saturday (May 29-31) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. Audience members are asked to make comments and give grades. (707) 668-5663, www.dellarte.com.

The musical Les Miserables continues at North Coast Rep.  My review is in this week's North Coast Journal. 442-6278, www.ncrt.net.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

The musical Les Miserables opens Thursday (May 22) at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Directed by Calder Johnson, with musical direction by Elisabeth Harrington and Nanette Voss-Herlihy, it features Dan Stockwell, Craig Benson, Jo Kuzelka, Greta Stockwell and Voss-Herlihy. 442-6278, www.ncrt.net.

 Aria da Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay is performed by 12 Northcoast Preparatory Academy students directed by Jean Bazemore at the Arcata Playhouse on Monday May 26 at 8 p.m. It is a benefit for developing a theatre exchange program with a school in Japan where these students recently performed this play, on a trip to study Japanese theater in Kyoto and Tokyo. A $10 donation is suggested but not required.

The 2014 Dell'Arte International School Thesis Festival continues for its final week, Thursday through Saturday (May 22-24) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre at Dell’Arte in Blue Lake.  My review is in this week's NC Journal.  Appropriate for ages seven and up. 668-5663, www.dellarte.com.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Dell'Arte School MFA Class of 2014 presents their Thesis Festival plays for two weekends, beginning Thursday May 15.  The evening includes a comedy featuring Lucy Shelby and Ariel Lauryn, a tragicomedy with Andrew Eldredge, Allie Menzimer and Emily Newton, and a comedy concerning free will with Jerome Yorke, Darci Fulcher and Billy Higgins, plus alums Grace Booth and Ruxandra Cantir.

Shows are Thursdays-Sundays May 15-17, 22-24 at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.  Pay what you will, for audiences older than 7.  668-5663.

Final three performances of the contemporary musical comedy I Love You Because at Redwood Curtain are this weekend: Thursday-Saturday.  443-7688.  A co-production with Humboldt Light Opera.

Friday, May 9, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Nothing new this weekend, but I Love You Because continues at Redwood Curtain, a co-production with Humboldt Light Opera Company.

A Happy Birthday to Michael Fields of Dell'Arte!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Dell'Arte School first-years present their original clown show, titled clownishly enough, Clown! Thursday through Saturday (May 1-3) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.  This year's students come from Sweden, Greece, Zimbabwe, Iran, Georgia, Spain, Brazil, exotic Canada and the U.S. (707) 66-5663, www.dellarte.com.

It's the final weekend for the HSU Theatre, Film & Dance production of Playhouse Creatures , reviewed in the Mad River Union by Beti Trauth.  Last shows are Thursday-Saturday (May 1-3) at 7:30 p.m. with a matinee Sunday at 2, in Gist Hall Theatre. 826-3928, HSU Stage & Screen.

Continuing: the musical  I Love You Because at Redwood Curtain in a co-production with Humboldt Light Opera Company.  Busy Beti Trauth gives it a rave at Tri-City Weekly.   www.redwoodcurtain.com.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

This North Coast Weekend

Ophelia, Lady Macbeth and all female characters in Shakespeare and English drama were played by males before King Charles II decreed in 1660 that henceforth they must be portrayed by actual women. Playhouse Creatures by contemporary British playwright April DeAngelis is about those first actresses, backstage as well as on stage.  Its Old Vic production was billed as a “tragic-comic burlesque.”

 An HSU production opens on Thursday (April 24) for a two-weekend run. Directed by Mark Swetz, it features Queena DeLany, Anna Duchi, Michelle Purnell, Ambar Cuevas, Vanessa Fragoso, Adrienne Ralsten, Giovanni Alva and Kyle Rispoli. Scenic and prop design are by Derek Lane, costumes by Kaden O’Keefe and lighting by James McHugh. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. in Gist Hall Theatre Thursdays through Saturdays, with a matinee on Sunday May 4 at 2 p.m. 826-3928, HSUStage.blogspot.com.

 The Dell’Arte School MFA Class of 2015 presents I Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, their self-created exploration of tragedy, Thursday through Sunday (Apr. 24-27) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo Theatre. Creator-performers are Hannah Gaff, Alyssa Hughlett, Christopher Kehoe, Sarah McKinney, Moses Norton, Kaitlen Osburn, Drew Pannebecker and Cooper Lee Smith. 707-668-5663, www.dellarte.com.

At the Arcata Playhouse on Saturday (Apr 26) Cirque du Shwazee presents a family-friendly comedy cabaret, in a benefit for the Arcata Playhouse Summer Youth Programs.  It all begins at 6:30 p.m. with local band Bandamonium and a circus midway for kids that includes face painting and a puppet show.  The main performance begins at 7:30, with aerialists, clowns and circus theatre acts, featuring Amy Tetzlaff as the giant rabbit, Guapo the Handsome One, and Cirque du Soleil clown Mooky Cornish.  822-1575, www.arcataplayhouse.org.

While strictly speaking not a stage event, Ferndale Rep opens its two weekend event Music From the Hart on Thursday.  The night-by-night lineup is here at Brown Paper Tickets.  If you asked me I would guess that, despite the success of Spamalot, this is the direction the Rep Board is taking, if indeed there is a direction.

I Love You Because, the HLOC musical at Redwood Curtain, continues Thursday through Saturday (until May 17).  See review directly below.