Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Actors Rep names new managing director

Raymond Ochs, on the ARt board since September, will take over alongside Michael Weaver.

Actors Rep hopes to announce its 2008-09 season sometime in March; plans are for the theater to continue being housed at SFCC's Spartan Theatre for the next year.

'I've worked with nonprofits in the arts," says Ochs. "And there are life cycles to these things. After four seasons, Actors Rep is leaving its infancy. It's moving into its maturity — which hopefully means budget levels so that Michael can do plays with larger casts."

At a recent "shareholders meeting" with "supporters and friends" of ARt in attendance, the board shared its vision that moving into a downtown space was probably a five- to 10-year project — only to be met by strong opinions that it needed to be more like a three-year ambition. Clearly, there aren't many empty spaces downtown that could house 250 seats and all the spaces necessary for a theater. But Weaver talks envisions a future in which ARt might offer seven major productions (with longer runs than at present) along with five smaller-scale shows and children's theater in the summer.

Ochs and Weaver report that the number of ARt subscriptions has climbed to "about 1,300" now.

"We're not competing against CdA Summer Theatre or Interplayers or the Civic," says Ochs. "We're competing against Gonzaga basketball and Chiefs hockey and having martinis at Bistango. When people leave their homes today, they have 4,000 options for things to do. We want to make theater a compelling part of their lives."

Ochs has done media relations for the Oregon House of Representatives, done marketing and development as director of public support for the Red Cross in the Yakima area, and worked in marketing, public relations and as news directors for a couple of KHQ-owned TV stations in Yakima and the Tri Cities.

Reed McColm, who functioned as ARt's business manager for the past few months, will continue his relationship with the theater as one of its several "artistic associates."

boot camp for theater critics

Bobo apologizes for his relative absence in recent weeks. Turns out arts editors have more editing to do than you might think.
He'll be gone the first half of February too — seeing lots of theater in L.A.
Bobo applied to and got himself embroiled in 11 days of an event with the catchy name of the National Endowment for the Arts' Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater:
acting classes, presentations by directors and critics, writing workshops, lots of seeing plays and writing reviews and having those reviews critiqued. It's hosted by USC's Annenberg School.
25 arts writers from all over the country -- some editors, mostly freelancers, a few involved with TV/radio/Websites, all devoted to writing better about theater. Swanky hotel, nice restaurants, and maybe some wild drunken revelry in bars, though I'm the shy, retiring type myself.
This is the NEA AJI TMT's fourth year; turns out your tax dollars also go to support similarly lengthy workshops for journos who work in small markets and who cover dance (in N.C.) and classical and opera (in N.Y.).
More later, during perhaps, and after.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

review of *The Last Five Years*

at Spokane Civic Theatre, downstairs, through Feb. 17

What if you went through a passionate love affair and the subsequent breakup, only backwards? Your disillusioned self would laugh at the puppy in love; your young lover’s yearnings would scoff at the idea that passion like this could ever die.
Jason Robert Brown’s *The Last Five Years* (at the Civic’s Studio Theatre through Feb. 17) bends time like that to evoke wonder and disenchantment with love. Cathy, traveling backward in time, falls out of and into love; Jamie, progressing in regular chronological fashion, falls into love and then out of it.
The cross-plotting may sound like a gimmick, but the result embodies a bittersweet mood. Even in the midst of a love affair, we know it’s fleeting; even when we’re scalded by a bad breakup, at least we have some fond memories. Brown’s contrivance is incisive: For all the people who dismiss musical plays as hopelessly artificial, here’s a contemporary musical that’s honest and intimate and true.
The Civic’s production is perceptively directed by Yvonne A.K. Johnson and passionately sung and performed by Andrea Dawson and Robby French. As Jamie, the New York novelist whose career is taking off just as he meets this nice shiksa girl, a struggling actress from Ohio, Robby French has the easier job: His version of the story is the one told in chronological order. But French responds with the best work he has turned in locally: exuberant in love, rationalizing and defensive when he strays, he’s enacting the songs instead of merely presenting their emotions. French seems a bit overwhelmed by the rapid-fire demands of a tune called “Moving Too Fast,” but Brown may simply have written an overly demanding song. Besides, Brown springs surprises on us: What’s moving too fast isn’t Jamie and Cathy’s romance, but Jamie’s career. This is a guy who fixates on his job, using emotions to further his career, and French embodies Jamie’s contrasts well.
As Cathy, the small-town girl willing to pay her dues to make it as an actress in New York, Dawson is particularly good at depicting wonder and happiness. That serves her well (by contrast) in her audition scene, “Climbing Uphill,” when suddenly all he comic self-doubt comes pouring out — and in the show’s opening sequence, when she’s the one looking back with regret and sadness.
Brown’s five-year saga — passion gets turned on, then off — is so intently autobiographical that all its neuroses and emotional exhibitionism are fully on display. But he has written, composed and gotten himself all caught up in the details of his own journey that some scenes will resonate more for him than for audience members. (That time on the lake in Ohio? I guess you had to be there.)
But Johnson directs so as to maximize the tragicomic mood. She stages the last scene so as to echo the wedding (a scene in the show’s middle that offers its only duet). You know that kind of affectionate goodbye you say to someone you’ve just fallen in love with, and you keep coming back because you can’t wait to see your special someone tomorrow and the next day and the next? That’s the kind of goodbye we witness from the woman’s perspective in the play’s final scene. But in Brown’s time-twisted musical, the other character — the man who has made this journey in the usual order, from start to finish — is simply saying, forever, goodbye.
There are subtle parallels throughout that reveal a sure-handed director’s touch: At different junctures, both lovers teeter along a ledge, evoking the giddiness of being in love. Brown and Johnson will have Jamie puttering around his apartment while Cathy sings about him in hers (or the reverse). The effect is to keep separate these two flawed but likeable characters who, we’re hoping, will eventually work things out. Except that they don’t.

From her keyboard, musical director Carolyn Jess leads violin, cello and bass in some delightful musical mimicry. When Cathy gets depressed about her acting career, the music winds down too; when Jamie’s excited about his writing, the piano throbs with energy.
Brown’s tunes emulate Stephen Sondheim’s: lyrical in the moment, unmemorable after the fact, clever and witty and sometimes too much so. But their talkiness characterizes Cathy and Jamie well. The autobiographical particulars may clutter and confuse this show, but there’s no denying that we make an emotional journey with these two young lovers and emerge at the end with view of romance that’s wiser, jaded and refreshed all at once.
Between two living areas, set designer David Baker slashes a ramp rising to a versatile, neutral space; his projected slides nicely suggest the action of 14 shifting scenes. And when we see French’s and Dawson’s baby pictures, and then photos of their characters in love, we tend to go Aww, isn’t that nice? even though we’ve just witnessed their breakup. We all want to fall into — or stay — in love. Even when we know better, even when we know it won’t last.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

That's where you can find three photos of *The Last Five Years,* Jason Robert Brown's musical in the Civic's Studio Theater, Jan. 25-Feb. 17, 2008
Sorry, no review yet ...

Saturday, January 19, 2008

opening-night review (long rough draft) of *On Golden Pond*

A script that’s intelligent and subtle but far from earth-shaking script requires exceptional acting to make it really shine.
Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond (1978) is that kind of script, but it isn’t receiving that kind of production at Spokane Interplayers Ensemble (through Feb. 2).
There are a number of advantages that the 1981 movie had that this production lacks: The real-life tension between emotionally remote Henry Fonda and his then-middle-aged daughter Jane, palpable onscreen. The last hurrah of two beloved screen icons who we’d grown to love and revere, working together for the first and only time: Fonda and Katherine Hepburn. Thompson’s opening-up of his own script, so we could see the beauty of their summer retreat in Maine, and the fishing on the lake, and the dock where daughter Chelsea tried to do her backflips just to impress her father Norman. He’s a curmudgeon who isn’t easy to like — but since Henry Fonda had been an admired movie star for 40 years by that time, he (and Hepburn too) brought a built-in fan base and years of accumulated affection with them: We were ready to like the old codger even if he did say lots of nasty, spiteful things.
A stage version produced 30 years later in Spokane has none of those advantages. The risks are greater; the emotions need to be etched more deeply; the dialogue has to crackle with sarcastic affection.

In the Henry Fonda role of Norman Thayer — 80 years old and crusty, a retired professor who has a hard shell to keep everyone else out but now is starting to feel the onset of death — J.P. O’Shaughnessy is delivering the zingers without demonstrating just why this elderly fellow feels such a deep need to hurt other people with his verbal jousting. But On Golden Pond isn’t just about an old guy who’s funny; it’s about an elderly fellow who’s both funny and afraid. Norman is rude, racist and remote; a better production would insist on givng the darker edges of Norman’s fear more exposure.

For a complete experience, playgoers have to acknowledge Norman’s contradictory sides too. Simply laughing at the spectacle of a spry old fart still having the gosh-darn gumption to whip out some witticisms short-circuits the play. Sure, wrinkled old men still tell jokes, let fly with insults and talk about sex. But that’s not all there is to uncover here, and if “Golly, the energy that old fella still has!” is an audience’s primary reaction, a lot of the play’s meaning gets neglected.
Comedy lives on quick contrasts. But if the only contrast that fuels the jokes here has to do with dying old men versus the lively jokes they tell, then the performance and the playgoers are settling for the stereotyped un-surprise of codgers with energy.
And yet Interplayers’ opening-night audience, healthy in size, was willing to laugh demonstratively at the little quirks of mimed stage business — people puttering around and getting confused inside their own homes as we look on — in the manner of people who are quite conscious that they are watching a live show, have paid good money for it and expect to be able to display what a good time they’re having while doing it.
Old farts aren’t supposed to be quite so crotchety, quite so blatantly evasive, so explicit about sex, so mean-spirited. The path of least resistance is to laugh at the wordplay and witticisms without engaging the darker truths: fear of death, regret over emotional connections severed, a sense that your life’s work is over and you’re no longer useful.

Instead, ideally, On Golden Pond ought to set forth several contrasts. Norman jokes about death but fears it. He criticizes his daughter but wants to love her. He does love her but can’t tell her. He keeps people at an emotional distance using techniques that are sometimes obvious, sometimes intricate.

Forgetfulness, failing health, loneliness, emotional estrangement, impending death, feelings of uselessness — in elderly people’s lives, these are earthquakes, or at least fault lines that are widening and threatening to drag them down.
But they aren’t played that way in director Maynard Villers’ production. There’s not enough at stake here to justify the leisurely pace of the long opening act during a long evening in the theater. As Norman and Ethel Thayer, J.P. O’Shaughnessy and Maria Caprile shuffle around the inside of their lakeside summer house, puttering around and putting in time during their twilight years. The emotional stakes aren’t raised to an interesting level, really, until the first act’s third and final scene, when the Thayers’ daughter Chelsea (Olivia Brownlee) arrives to deliver a chilly “Hello, Norman” greeting to her father and the tension becomes evident. Chelsea has brought her fiance (director Villers) and his son from a previous marriage (Jared Alme) in tow, and each of them are alloted a scene to establish that they’re not going to put up with any of Norman’s manipulative bullshit.

Caprile makes nice with everyone for a couple of acts, and she’s believable as the woman who sees Norman’s good side. More than anyone else here, Ethel’s in touch with the simple pleasures of life, and Caprile shows us that. But she could use more zowie in her stingers: When Norman jokes about taking a job reading to an invalid, Ethel “feels bad for the invalid.” Later, she refers to Norman as “the sweetest man in the world — and only I know it.”

While the big confrontation with her father seemed brief and almost perfunctory, Brownlee was especially good and conveying her lingering resentment, staring out a window at a father who’d held her aloof for far too many years. As the teenager who bonds with old Norman during some afternoons spent fishing, Alme adds energy to an otherwise slower, older evening.

Villers the actor is effective in his one scene — leery of rustic living and deferential to his potential father-in-law, he seems meek and conventional until a startling speech about not putting up with any more of Norman’s mind games. It’s delivered with quiet determination.

Villers the director, however, allows the pace to lag and fills the scene-changes with New Age-y Muzak, pointlessly. Actors’ backs were turned to the audience during some important oddly under-emphasized emotional confrontations: Norman realizing how much his mind is fading; Chelsea lashing out at her parents; Ethel declaring just how much she loves her husband of 48 years.

There are still things to admire in Thompson’s script. It hints at death without depicting it directly, hints at reconciliation without getting all syrupy about it; suggests that even octogenarians are capable of change, even if they won’t live long enough to reap all the benefits. Norman is a funny, quirky, complex guy, recognizable to baby boomers whose parents were of a certain generation. There’s some real suspense over intermission about how Norman will respond to these new men in Chelsea’s life. And in the Chelsea/Norman faceoff, we can see reflected a lot of the generational conflict so many of us have witnessed or experienced. So there’s value in still producing this script -- but not as listlessly as this, not when there’s a Fonda-Hepburn monument available at every video store.

Friday, January 18, 2008

*On Golden Pond* pix

now posted at
three photos

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

from Ian McEwan's lips to ...

Ian McEwan (Amsterdam, Saturday, Atonement) in a New Republic interview, about why he doesn't read bloggers' reviews of his novels: 

"It seems that when people know they can't be held accountable, when they don't have eye contact, it seems to bring out a rather nasty, truculent, aggressive edge that I think slightly doesn't belong in the world of book reviewing."

In your blog posts here, be accountable. Don't be nasty and truculent. Don't smear individuals without any justification. It can't just be "X is crap." It has to be "X doesn't attain what the scene or play is trying to attain — and here's why, and here's how it might be done better." Otherwise, you're demeaning the conversation.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

opening-night review (partial and incomplete) of "Rabbit Hole"

at Actors Rep Theatre (SFCC Spartan Theatre) through Feb. 9

"Come on out in the midwinter slush to see a sad play about a married couple grieving over the accidental death of their 4-year-old son."
As ARt's business manager Reed McColm, remarked to me before the show, "Rabbit Hole" isn't exactly the kind of show that "really sells the popcorn."
It's the loss of all those people who dismiss such a premise as"too depressing" and move on. Like most tragedies, "Rabbit Hole" points out ideals worth striving for, even if they're denied to us, even if we end up denying them to ourselves. Here, it's a happy family life -- seeing one tragically disrupted only makes us value the family we have all the more. Tragedy's counterintuitive like that: It vaults us past the sadness, and we leave the theater feeling rejuvenated.

If there's a central figure in this accomplished cast, it's Page Byers as Becca, the dead boy's mother.
When it comes to Izzy, her younger sister, Becca assumes the role of the maternal authority figure, the finder-out of guilt. The two sisters fight over food and clothes and furnishings -- whatever is at hand so they can remind themselves that they are miserable people.

She punishes herself even in the drab, shapeless dress she sometimes wears. (Jessica Ray's costumes -- including Izzy's opening party-girl get-up and the loud print for Doyle-Lipe's brassy matron -- quietly supplement the actors' characterizations.)

This emphasis on upsetting expectations -- learning really to accept that other people have different ways of grieving -- extends even to the ways playgoers may respond to John Hofland's upper-middle-class kitchen and living room. Small portraits of Danny cluster on the forestage, toppled at odd angles. Three much-larger-than-lifesize drawings of the dead little boy loom over the living areas, if one's obscured by the kitchen cabinets. Surely, I thought, such large-scale paintings would over-literalize the haunting nature of grief. We get that the memory of the child's death hovers over every single waking thought that Becca and Howie have, as they say repeatedly. But to drive that point home, do we really need conversations to be held in front of giant portraits? Design decisions like this seem too on-the-nose, too distrusting of the audience's intelligence.
And yet ... witnessing the screaming arguments, the quiet sadness in the presence of those large-scale portraits -- witnessing them in real time, with the hush of attentive listeners, the occasional sniffling, the slight leaning forward to catch the quieter lines, the pressing back against our seats when Weaver's grieving father vents his anger at his wife, at the teenage driver who ran over his boy -- all combine to make the giant drawings feel like part of a ritual. It's a ritual of grief we all have or will someday undergo, this not being able to get away from sadness, because there it is, larger than life, staring us in the face, not budging, and there is nothing at all that we will ever be able to do to make it go away.
One scene, with two characters sorting through little Danny's clothes and toys, is presented _through_ one of the portraits, which turns out to be a scrim: We literally see the little evasions, the talking-around-the-ever-present topic of death, literally _through_ the filter of the dead boy's presence.
And absence. His portraits can't replace him; he's still gone; and Hofland's design decisions aren't overly literal. Instead, in the best manner of a ritual, they highlight the inexpressible, the many sadnesses we never want to face, not ever. And must.

If viewers like me can have a change of heart over something as peripheral as the design elements, maybe that's a nice parallel to playwright David Lindsay-Abaire's focus on upsetting all kinds of expectations. We can never be sure that our way of grieving is the only way, or that there are some universal criteria out there determining who's ready to be a parent and who's not. The best plays show us something new, and "Rabbit Hole," especially in this consistently affecting, sometimes funny, usually lump-in-the throat production, holds up a mirror worth seeing. Even if looking in gets a little painful.

As the grief-stricken mother, Page Byers depicts an angry, repressed, resentful woman in what's clearly her best work ever at ARt.

All five members of the cast turn in remarkable, even outstanding work.
As the teenager whose car accidentally crushed the life of Becca and Howie's little boy, Jimmy-James Pendleton is a revelation. He didn't mean to do it; he's so sorry. Sad helpless anxiety marks every bit of crumpled-posture hand-wringing that Pendleton does, and his performance, hauntingly, is full of tears. A conversation he has with Byers' mother strikes a note of hope, mind-expanding and understated all at once.

On the debit side, it strains credulity that short Doyle-Lipe might be the mother of tall Hoaglund. And that's it -- that's about the only criticism I have of this show.

Last May, I saw the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of "Rabbit Hole." This Actors Rep version, in nearly every way, is better: in emotional involvement, in versimilitude of conversation, in using silence to highlight the pain that people quietly undergo before lashing out at anything, anyone who reminds them of irretrievable loss.

There's a scene in "Rabbit Hole" in which two people quietly resolve to get through one emotionally trying situation after another: The fight to function with grief, like the fight to maintain sobriety, is taken one day at a time. The brick's in the pocket; eventually you get accustomed to its weight. But it never goes away.

Because parents don't fear bugs or spiders or things that go bump in the night. What parents fear most is the death of a child. Their child.

Friday, January 11, 2008

opening-night review of "Laughing Stock"

on Spokane Civic Theatre's Main Stage through Feb. 2

Well, the theater people will love it. But will it get the same amused and affectionate response from non-theatrical Muggles?
In Laughing Stock (on the Main Stage at the Civic through Feb. 2), playwright Charles Morey has fashioned a backstage farce -- with sentimental, we-love-theater scenes appended -- that's receiving a very good if flawed production from director Troy Nickerson's cast and crew.
With several exceptional performances, recognizable character types, overt appeals to doing what we love most, technical accomplishment -- and a parody of "Dracula" that's among the funniest stage-farce sequences I've ever seen -- Nickerson has assembled a very enjoyable show.
A summer stock theater in New Hampshire gathers its actors (varied in commitment and talent level) to put on -- in repertory, one night after another -- a farce, a horror fantasy, and a classic tragedy. The mix of genres and personalities leads to shenanigans and fiascoes both in front of the theatrical curtain, behind it, and even during rehearsals. We witness rehearsals for both Dracula and Charley's Aunt along with performance-snippets of Dracula and Hamlet. The artistic director is idealistic; the business manager pinches pennies. The intense leading man is in hot pursuit of the bimbo, who's totally starting to understand this whole acting process, you know? Other varieties of actor on display include the jaded, the doddering, the inept and the drunken. The tech director and the interns are way overworked, and there's an unseen, offstage Philistine old biddy whose taste is shallow but who must be appeased because, well, she's rolling in it.
While the script of Laughing Stock gets too insider-y with all its Ibsen jokes and pushes the magic-of-theater angle too hard, it will still appeal to anyone who's ever pursued any avocation out of love (and not love of profit). Even better, in a solid all-around cast, several standout performances add special luster to this show. As Mary the bimbette, Tanya Barton has to be hubba-hubba eye candy and succeeds. Mary wants to be taken seriously as an actress even if her idea of an audition involves doing a lap dance; Barton oozes sexiness without making the easy dumb-blonde choices. She shares several scenes Patrick McHenry-Kroetch as her leading man. McHenry-Kroetch finds multiple motivations in his character and plays them all: the overly conscientious, overly self-focused Method actor; the hang-loose horndog; the scenery-chewing thespian. Playing Dracula, he wants to bring his character to life, even if he is one of the Undead.
Paul Villabrille plays a reluctant young actor as his usual shlub, though there's some high jinks with a moving prop (a four-poster bed) that has Villabrille dodging and darting around to save his own neck -- and it's a masterpiece of physical comedy. Susan Hardie pipes up with her stage manager's sarcastic remarks, then takes solace from a bottle of gin until she finds her character arc in coming back around to what made her love theater in the first place.
As has been the case so often in his years of service to the Civic, scenic and lighting designer and technical director Peter Hardie deserves great credit for getting a complicated show right. Imagine trying to get dozens of fast-paced lighting and sound cues deliberately wrong. There were onstage miscues involving flowing capes, flying bats, moving beds and sleeping stagehands that had me laughing so hard I was crying -- and I wasn't alone.
There's a "physical improvisation" (groan!) scene led by Nancy Gasper -- aggressively opinionated as the revolutionary, radical lesbian director, her hair pulled back and her postures mostly macho -- that pays off in lines like "My orangutang is not bisexual" that are even funnier than that line is all by itself.
Audience love onstage chaos, with plenty of people running around making fools of themselves, and Laughing Stock obliges. They like being involved in the putting-together of a scene, too -- so when the elaborate "tea gag" from Charley's Aunt (an intricate gag around a tea table) is pulled off flawlessly, audience members responded with delighted hand-clapping, as if they'd actually been part of the rehearsal themselves.

There are, however, some slow and flat portions of the evening. As the artistic director, Thomas Heppler has some cell-phone conversations with the theater's patroness that don't underline or time the jokes well. There's an is-he-gay-or-straight? exchange in which the nervous pauses are mistimed with the dialogue, deflating the comedy. As the "executive managing administrative director," Gavin Smith gets saddled with a way overextended, unfunny bit about pencils; Smith does what he can, but the problem is mostly the playwright's. And for a character who's eventually referred to as "terminally embittered," David Gigler doesn't seem nearly bitter enough in an extended speech about just how tough it is to get an acting job on Broadway -- or, for that matter, anywhere. And finally, all those inserted we-sure-love-theater scenes just seem calculated, especially when they pile up near the evening's end.

Two and three-quarter hours (even when including an intermission) may be simply too long for comedy. Of course, especially in its final scene, comedy isn't all that Laughing Stock is pursuing.
Unfortunately, when it comes to love of acting, Morey protests too much, over-emphasizing how folks get bitten by the theater bug.
It strains credulity when a dozen people during a performance of Hamlet pause during all their backstage bustling around just because Thomas Heppler is supposedly delivering Hamlet's advice to the players ("Speak the speech, I pray you") so movingly. As if that weren't enough, the final scene predictably treats a couple of actors who've grown tired of their profession as stand-ins for the audience. There _is_ something special about being part of a theater cast, but special pleading on its behalf doesn't make it any more grand. Better to let the universal appeal of Morey's theme come across more gently, as an appeal to all people everywhere who take pride in hobbies and obsessions that pay off in satisfaction but not in dollars.
"Laughing Stock" takes an over-long first act to achieve its setup, but the payoff in Act Two, Scene Two -- the everything-goes-wrong "Dracula" parody -- is worth buying a ticket for all by itself.

photos of "Laughing Stock" and "Rabbit Hole"

... are now posted at
three of each
both shows open this weekend
After a long absence (vacation, holidays, hassles, etc. -- apologies), Bobo is back and has moderated 24 comments that now appear in the bowels of this blog