Sunday, November 26, 2006

opening-night review of *Moonlight and Magnolias*

at Actors Rep through Dec. 9

Sometimes even critics can be wrong. (Hard to imagine, I know, but true.) Browse review-snippets of *Moonlight and Magnolias,* a comic retelling of how *Gone With the Wind* was rewritten on deadline and at hyper-speed, and you’ll confront a lot of jabber about excessive silliness and slapped-on political content.

But the revelation about Ron Hutchinson’s comedy, in moving from page to stage, is how plausibly the arguments about racism and the purposes of art spring out of the Three Stooges routines and back-and-forth wisecracks. This is a comedy that offers something to chew on after the one-liners have melted away. Despite some unconvincing moments and flat spots, director Tralen Doler’s production at Actors Rep (through Dec. 9) wrings commentary about politics and power out of its cram-session comedy. There’s a reason that theaters all over the country have been producing *M&M* for the last couple of years: While his play isn’t profound, Hutchinson still offers satisfying repayment for two hours spent laughing at present antics while reliving the past and imagining what the future might hold.

A comedy about the creative process that requires just four actors and a unit set — of course artistic directors are going to go after this one. And because its producer-figure gives pep talks to his two colleagues, in terms of a well-known movie embedded in our cultural fabric, he’s giving pep talks to all of us out there in the dark. His message is to do work that we love, to do it well, to make sacrifices. That’s a message that audiences will appreciate and apply to their own lives even amid all their guffaws. The play’s running debates about politics — the racism and anti-Semitism of the 1930s (not exactly conquered today) and the creative process (yup, still a mystery) — retain their impact.

The plot’s simple: Producer David O. Selznick (Michael Weaver) locks two guys in a room for week so they can collectively rewrite the biggest movie of all time, that’s all. Selznick has stopped production on *Gone With the Wind,* and he’s hired director Victor Fleming (John Oswald) and screenwriter Ben Hecht (Patrick Treadway) to help him beat the clock by throwing together a new shooting script. They work five days straight, and much credit is due to ARt’s trio of actors for looking progressively disheveled. Treadway looks haggard from the start — and he’s got a times-five all-nighter in front of him just to get the *GWTW* script refashioned under the gun. With skeptical mouth twists, resigned shoulder slumps and shuffling, uncooperative feet, Treadway nicely understates Hecht’s reluctance to write schlock (and worse yet, apolitical schlock without a purpose). Stridency would’ve been too much in a wit-display full of men screaming at each other; Treadway limns his character in small and effective ways.

Hutchinson has written in a couple of red-faced showdowns between writer and director — conception and execution — and Oswald, at some points hunchbacked with vitriol, rages at Hecht the mere typist. But the surprise is how Oswald (who has specialized in portraying elderly men in a couple of productions each at Interplayers and at Actors Rep) delivers a spoof imitation of *GWTW*’s Butterfly McQueen as Prissy, the child who don’t know nuthin’ about birthin’ no babies.

Especially in the first act, though, this thing doesn’t run like the wind, not yet. The second act, fortunately, opens with a series of blackout scenes that ratchet up the laugh-o-meter. There are some needless pauses; with some of the historical references, the cast needs to decide whether to go for laughs (and what kind).

One plot device that Hutchinson uses to get Fleming and Hecht isolated in a conversation is ridiculous and hokey — but then so is much of Gone With the Wind. Still, there’s funny-stupid (the histrionic re-enactments, the slapping routine, the running banana jokes) and then there’s just stupid-stupid.

Some the problem lies with Weaver, though maybe that’s because the double-fussy wallop of “The Tuna Project” will still be familiar after just three months to regular theatergoers. There’s only so much hip-jiggling, floppy-wrist circling of the stage one can see before Scarlett O’Hara becomes less character than caricature. Granted, Weaver’s David O. Selznick is frantically trying to re-enact most of a four-hour movie so that Treadway, as screenwriter Ben Hecht, can cobble together some revised pages. But Weaver’s sometimes too campy for a man who feels so much responsibility — to his studio, to the movies in general.

There was a moment when Selznick first waxed eloquent about the movies during which Weaver didn’t seem to have turned the emotional corner from comic mugging to pep-talk sincerity. But then lights dim, music swells, Weaver pulls back a curtain … and the power of theater to persuade, to make us believe that illusion, right this moment, can be truer than mere facts, is maintained.

Costumer Lisa Caryl puts Weaver in a natty green suit that says, just as it should, Big Shot Producer. Set designer Renae Meredith’s sunburst doors use Art Deco flair to complement the room-full-of-powerful-men look (even if these particular power-mongers have bananas stuck in their mouths).

Writing a late-night review hurriedly after watching a frenetic production of *M&M* feels much like the struggles that Hutchinson’s three men go through in his play — sacrificing sleep just to get some words down on paper. One difference, though: I’m writing a small-city review that’s off the stands by next week. They were writing *Gone With the Flippin’ Wind.*
Critics cling to being “part of the process,” and yet some of them, I am persuaded, are actually fallible. Some of them displayed a knee-jerk anti-popularity response to one of America’s most frequently produced plays. So don’t believe the claims of superficiality about *M&M.* Hutchinson plays fast and loose with historical probabilities, but then so did Margaret Mitchell. The five-day rewrite is a myth, and conversations couldn’t have been as rapid-fire witty as this in any case. But frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn, because Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias — well presented by Actors Rep — is a comedy worth experiencing. It’ll make you smile, but it will also get you thinking about the sacrifices you’re willing to make in order to chase after your dreams. Tomorrow, after all, isn’t just another day; tomorrow is a chance to reshape your life.

29 Comments:

At November 26, 2006 2:55 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the show very much opening night. But isn't this essentially the same cast as BORN YESTERDAY? The plays from ART are challenging and generally well-handled. I love watching all three of the guys in the show -- again. But it would be nice to see some new faces up there, too.

 
At November 27, 2006 8:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at the local auditions for ARt and the turnout was extremely poor. There have been a lot of rumors regarding ARt's casting, much of which focuses on their use of out of town actors. However, the season so far has shown a nice mix of both locals and out-of towners and when it comes right down to it, I don't see how a theatre can put new faces on stage if they're not even auditioning.

 
At November 28, 2006 2:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

They need more choices that is for sure.

 
At November 28, 2006 3:23 PM , Anonymous Resident Curmudgeon said...

Let's face it, this is not community theatre. Don't you think Michael would rather use a local talent when that talent can meet his standards? Much easier on the budget. And, what about his using Wonder Russell in this one. Can't she be included in the "new face" category?
Oh, I too auditioned but did not make it. Still, I have yet to see an ARt production I felt would be made better by my being in it.

 
At November 29, 2006 6:50 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

ARt has an important role in bringing out of town actors to perform here. I wish they would vary their choices as well, because our theatre community benefits from exposure to as many different talents and approaches as possible. The fact is, there are a lot of theatres out there right now, and that spreads the local talent pool pretty thin. I don't think anyone is getting the turnout for their auditions that they would like.

 
At November 29, 2006 9:32 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think auditions have dwindled at ART because it's a waste of time. There are four local male actors who will always play the 40ish roles. The female roles are a little more open. Some actors are not wasting their time anymore and other award winning actors have auditioned and not been cast.

 
At November 29, 2006 12:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think it's ever a waste of time to audition. Just because you audition one year and the director doesn't feel you're right for a role that season doesn't mean that the next season will be the same. The worse your attitude is the less likely you are to give the best impression to a director. In theatre, rejection is part of the package, whether it be at a professional level or a community level. I know many actors who have auditioned for theatres year after year until finally the combination just clicked. It's like the lottery...you can't win if you don't buy a ticket.

 
At November 29, 2006 4:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry,it is getting a bit old.

 
At November 29, 2006 10:26 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

They are part of ART's ensemble which means that we will see them more than once on the ART stage. I personally am very thankful for that as they are both terrific actors. Correct me if I am wrong (and I am sure you will), but I think this is the ONLY show in the whole season where the other two actors (excluding Mr. Weaver of course) are performing - based on the remaining two plays. Born Yesterday was actually the closing show of the last season fo which they were nto the main characters. Once or twice in a season is not overuse in my book.

 
At November 30, 2006 7:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

My bad. Didn't realize it was Actor's Reperatory Ensemble. Wouldn't that be ARe?

 
At November 30, 2006 10:47 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just went through my old programs (yes, I'm a nerd and keep them all) from ARt. I've missed only two of ARt's shows since they started (How the Other Half Loves and Drawer Boy). If you count both Tuna plays as a single production, ARt has never had a play where someone hasn't made a debut. Every show has had someone new in it. The current play features Wonder Russell, her first show for ARt. I'm not sure what all the compaints are about. As the person above said, they have an ensemble, and we see those people more than once. Besides, how many times have we seen the same people over and over at Civic and Interplayers (usually the same people as at Civic.)

 
At December 01, 2006 6:34 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"They are part of ART's ensemble which means that we will see them more than once on the ART stage."

Art is not an ensemble and they owe their audience more of a variety that the same people who are continually cast. There are less auditioners for Art becasue Michale, once he has seen you, asks you to not waste his time by showing up. "I know what you can do," is the refrain. Personally, I'd like the chance to remind him revery year.

 
At December 01, 2006 2:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sure ART would love to see more local talent audition, many really acomplished actors in the area have simply not done so.Art has only a few auditions, as they cast for the whole season, that could be why they don't get a better turn out.If they had a summer and midseason audition it might work better for them and they would get more variety from the actors they cast locally.Their are some really fine local actors I have been surprised have never graced there stage but if their not auditioning what do you do.Maybe ART needs to make an effort to solicit their interest a bit more.I enjoy their productions and the talent, I would just appreciate more variety from the area.It would be nice to mix up the directing a little more to.

 
At December 01, 2006 3:07 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Two facts worth repeating in this context:
1. All four cast members in *Moonlight and Magnolias* have permanent mailing addresses in the Spokane area.
2. An out-of-town actor is not necessarily better than an actor from Spokane. The reverse is also true.

 
At December 02, 2006 10:27 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great show guys!

 
At December 08, 2006 1:22 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with you, Bobo. There is enough talent in this town to do very, very well indeed in almost evey case. However, let's hope it's not forever the same handful of locals.

 
At December 13, 2006 6:55 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The same handful as Civic? As Interplayers? As both?

 
At December 15, 2006 8:17 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As the person posted above, every show has had someone who has made a debut - every show there is a new face. I just do not know what all the fuss is about.

 
At December 15, 2006 10:06 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Civic has much more variety than ARt and Wes handled Interplayers, it too had much more variety. There is no comparison. One musical at civic casts 30 more faces than one would see at ARt.

 
At December 15, 2006 2:45 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

But how many loacal actors can work a daytime rehearsal schedule. ARt rehearses mornings and afternoons. Maybe that's why auditions are sparse, locals have daytime jobs.

 
At December 15, 2006 3:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

More locals can rehearse daytimes than are getting cast. Good ones too.

 
At December 16, 2006 8:24 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The big deal is that the lead roles always go to teh same people. Sure Art throwds a bone to new people (often imported over more talented locals), but they are never the plumb parts that we local actors would like a shot at. Do you want to see Patrick Treadway or Michael Weaver starring in EVERY show? I say give some others a chance!

 
At December 16, 2006 9:04 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Civic has the variety and ability to put on a 30 person musical because they do not pay their actors. The same people get the more important roles there.

 
At December 17, 2006 12:22 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Talent is talent.The acting pool is what it is right now.And it's not bad .It seems to me it does'nt matter how many times you've seen an actor the director is going to cast the strongest person for the role at the audition.It's about the performance it's not about fair.

 
At December 17, 2006 7:12 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said! Thank you!

 
At December 18, 2006 12:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes it's about lazy directors. They know what they're going to get with certain actors, and others may take more work. You take no risks but you get no pleasant discoveries, either.

 
At December 18, 2006 4:48 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as I can see ART casts based on talent not geography. It’s that simple. And remember it’s called "Show Business" not "Show Friends"
ART might just be the best game in town ... and there is a reason for that

 
At December 18, 2006 5:22 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then why does it look like and most agree that it actually is "show friends" and not show business. ART my not be the best game in town. Perhaps the best game in town is yet to come.

 
At December 19, 2006 3:17 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like a bunch of bitter people who didn't get picked for the cheerleading squad in high school either. Geesh!

 

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home