National Theatre Live at the Pickford presents Treasure Island

The Pickford Film Center regularly offers this format: live-taped broadcasts from the National Theatre in London, of plays performed on the stage there. I was originally skeptical about the concept; would it translate? The answer is yes, and I will be seeking out more.

treasureI was interested because I have fairly recently read (listened to) Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. This adaptation for the stage by Bryony Lavery was astoundingly good – on which more to come; this is mostly a rave review – but I don’t know why I’m always so surprised at how much they change from the original. (This is why they call it an ‘adaptation.’ I know the compression/acceleration is necessary, but I’m always taken aback and disappointed. When will I learn?) In this case, most notably from the start: Jim is parented not by his mother but by a grandmother, both of his parents being dead; and Jim starts out as a gender-bending youth, and then becomes clearly a girl. The former, the grandmother for the mother, remains inexplicable to me. She provided some comic relief; maybe the mother from the original, rather a serious, even dour character, was deemed too sober. But I didn’t find the grandmother so much better as to justify making the change.

Jim as a girl, though, was totally amusing and fun, and provided another element. She’s every bit as boyish as the Jim we know and love; it is mainly just a poke at the original, and an inclusion. I dug it. And the gender-bending confusion here and there is good fun. Maybe it’s strange, that the apparently huge change of the protagonist’s sex bothers me less than the substitution of one female relative for another, but there it is.

This format, of stage-on-film? Completely outstanding. I loved that it captured the best of both worlds: the theatricality of the stage with the informality, convenience, and affordability of the big screen. The music & sound effects were great. And the set! My word, this is the finest set I’ve ever seen onstage: the stage itself was round, and the set lifted up from a flat to a multi-story, and also rotated on demand, so that there was no need for darkened figures hurrying to replace scenery while the audience was distracted: they simply turned the stage around, the actors meanwhile performing in our view, and changed what was behind (or took it underground to change it there). Transitions were perfectly seamless, adding to the drama rather than taking away from the momentum of the play, because there was such a sense of movement, of action. I am blown away.

Jim herself, portrayed by Patsy Ferran, was possibly even more astounding than the astounding set. She was delightfully expressive and sort of puckish, and pulled off that gender confusion early on. Lavery’s adaptation keeps Jim as the narrator of the story, so she speaks directly to the audience lots throughout. I loved the emotion and delivery: action, drama, adventure, humor.

As for some complaint about the “feminist twist”: I have to disagree with the Spectator blog. I don’t feel that the play was feminized aside from the change of Jim’s gender; she goes on no feminist tirades; she’s not a particularly feminine girl by any means. It was more of a nod than anything else, and takes nothing away from Stevenson’s original. The tone of that original is unchanged, except in that this version is a little funnier – which has nothing to do with Jim’s nominal gender. If we’re going to take issue with the fact that the play is not precisely the original novel, I think we have bigger beefs than Jim’s gender, frankly: the ending is changed, for example.

This play was even better than the original book, to which it is not completely faithful – for the best.


Rating: 8 apples.

The Lincoln Theatre presents Romeo and Juliet, the musical

lincolnThe Historic Lincoln Theatre in a town near mine advertised a new musical version of Romeo and Juliet, and I needed little convincing. My parents and I drove down for one of the last productions.

The theatre is beautiful, an old movie house with ornately painted walls, a small lobby and an “art bar” in an adjoining alcove. An orchestra was seated at audience level off to one side of the stage. The music was well performed, and as far as design, it was often a benefit to the play, and sometimes not. The group scenes were fun with the addition of song and dance (the choreography was quite good, playing up the bawdy bits). There were definitely times as well when Shakespeare’s script would have been better spoken than sung – the musical format a little bit forced, you know. Especially in his back-and-forth dialog, his repartee, Shakespeare is pretty near perfect on his own, and those lines should have been left alone. So for the music, a mixed score; but honestly, you’d have to do a lot more than this to mess up Shakespeare, so my criticisms are slight and good-natured; it was great fun to see.

A bigger problem was what I’ll call technical difficulties: our seats were in the second row, with the orchestra curling up along one side of us and the players right in front. They had microphones, but the speakers were behind us. The balance between instrumental music and actors’ voices was badly off: we often couldn’t hear what they were saying or singing at all. (Luckily we know the play well, and the acting makes much clear.) At intermission halfway through we moved well back in the theatre, and the sound quality was so drastically improved – quite good now! – that I’m only sorry we waited that long. We partly missed the balcony scene in that first half. Once the sound issues were resolved by our reseating, I have little to nitpick.

The acting was quite good. Mercutio was outstanding; Juliet’s nurse was great fun; and Romeo and Juliet themselves were, as one would hope, the stars of the show. The actors represented a wide age range, which is again as it should be: Juliet was played by a senior in high school, and though Romeo is listed as a college graduate, he felt plenty youthful for his role. Tybalt is a mere child at 14! But a pretty burly 14, and pulled off the impetuosity required. While Juliet was wonderful – and a fine singer, once I could hear her – I admit Romeo was my favorite actor. He was handsome, dreamy-eyed, romantic and passionate; it was just right.

This play (and so much of Shakespeare) stands the test of time. It was written more than 400 years ago, and I’ve seen it repeatedly, but it’s still so fresh and affecting: every time I ache for Romeo to wait just a little bit longer, for Juliet to wake up in time, for Tybalt to listen to Romeo’s pleas, for Mercutio to recover. And although I had considered myself a little too jaded for this, I admit the romance got to me again, and clearly will the next time I see this play performed. It’s just too good. Shakespeare has his audience wrapped up; the romance and the tragedy are every bit as alive in 2015 as when he wrote these lines in the 1590’s.

There is comedy here, too. I don’t know the histories so well and so won’t comment; but even in his tragedies there is bawdy, physical humor or wordplay. Different interpretations can play these lines up more or less; this one inserted a few pelvic thrusts to good comedic effect.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the musical adaptation; it was often fine and only occasionally the merest bit heavy-handed, but the play as presented by talented actors was outrageously fun and moving and I’d see it again. But I’d sit further back.


Rating: 9 vials for Shakespeare, 8 for the production, 7 for sound.

The Neighborhood Playhouse presents A Year With Frog and Toad

the first book

the first book

You know I love to go to the theatre. I noticed a poster around Christmas for this production, which is based on a series of children’s books I remember, the Frog and Toad adventures written & illustrated by Arnold Lobel. I loved the idea of a play built on these sweet, simple stories, and the price was right. When I had time to think of it a little more, I wondered if “children’s theatre” was really something I wanted to see; but they did bill it as being fun for adults, too. Shrug. My parents and I went on a Sunday afternoon… and I’m so glad we did!

frog and toadFrog and Toad’s adventures have made it to musical theatre, and only five actors play all the roles: Frog and Toad, of course, are joined by a menagerie of birds, moles, turtle, lizard, snail and squirrel, which roles are shared between the other three. We thought the musical format was “inspired” (my dad’s word), but it turns out to be the inspired choice not of The Neighborhood Playhouse but of Lobel’s daughter, who commissioned the piece in 2000, according to Wikipedia, which also points out that this is a popular choice for community theatre groups, as we saw here. It is really sweet, and cute – in the spirit of the original books. Frog and Toad are neighbors and good friends, and share an entirely good-hearted, caring day-to-day life. They interact with the other woodland creatures in good-hearted ways; it is positively heartwarming (cynics beware), and in musical form, both hilarious and charming. I found it ran a little long for the age group that formed the audience, at nearly two hours. But the performances – singing, dancing and acting – were quite seriously good, far better than the under-10-years crowd would have required, I suppose, and plenty impressive to those of us adults unaccompanied by babes. My favorite character was Snail.

I think it’s great that TNP is out there producing such quality, affordable theatre; and I liked the venue, the Bellingham Theatre Guild, an intimate setting in a former church. I will be looking for more. Hooray for the new hometown!

Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater by Timothy R. White

A comprehensive academic study of the industries behind theatrical Broadway.

broadway

Historian Timothy R. White considers an unexamined intersection of urban history and theater history in Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater. Broadway as his subject is both a geographical area in New York City and a representation of theater in the United States; his focus is the crafts and trades that have supported Broadway in both its meanings over the years. He writes, “This de facto ‘factory,’ churning out shows for national consumption, has yet to be given its due in history books and is little understood as the mighty industrial district it truly was [in its heyday].”

Just as a magician never reveals his tricks, actors and producers have never been eager to divulge to audiences what goes on behind the scenes. But as White shows, for every singing, dancing actor who treads the boards, myriad supporting players are necessary. Stagecraft covers the craftspeople (carpenters, painters, seamstresses, milliners, costumers and designers) who produce the backdrops, painted scenery, furniture, drapes, props, costumes, wigs and makeup, working with a variety of raw materials, such as lumber, paint, fabric. Later in history, lighting and sound riggers and technicians joined this list (in fact, the arrival of electric lighting prompted improvements in costumes and scenery, since they could now be seen clearly). These craftspeople were then challenged by the ascension of alternate media (radio and, to a lesser extent, film and television) to find new roles.

Blue-Collar Broadway details these trades, their history and their products, and the industrialization and unionization that came with the concentration of theater in New York City’s Broadway district. White shows how stagecraft industries played crucial roles in history, from early American theater’s geographic dispersal to the Broadway heyday, and through a growth of regional theaters that decreased Broadway’s dominance. He also offers new explanations for patterns of crime and prostitution in Times Square’s recent past, using the context of theater craft.

White’s voice is academic and no-nonsense, and a reader purely interested in the most entertaining angles of his entertainment subject may find his writing a bit dry. But examinations of specific plays (Evita, Oklahoma!) brighten the mood, and White is not without a certain subdued humor. Certainly any fan of theater history, economics, the patterns of urban New York City or general urban history will find his meticulous research stimulating. Blue-Collar Broadway is appealing for its sincere and thorough attention to a key, little-known industry.


This review originally ran in the December 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 proscenia.

Bellingham Circus Guild: Aerial Showcase

On December 5, Husband and I joined my parents for a performance of the Bellingham Circus Guild, apparently a well-respected local venue for regular people to learn juggling, acrobats, and the like. This was the annual Aerial Showcase, a big deal (we’re told) because all the rigging required for aerial performances means they rarely get to do much of it at one event (or at all).

The 9-10 acts we saw took place in a warehouse in the southern part of town, a nice big space clearly purpose-rigged with all kinds of equipment (not just for aerials) and big roll-top doors and giant skylights that I bet are lovely in daylight. We paid $15 a head to get in, which I am happy to pay considering all the gear and overhead – and all the skill exhibited.

What the heck is this aerial stuff? It was mostly women, in mostly tight clothes (leotards and the like, with sequins etc.), on a variety of rigs, including your more “standard” aerial silks:


…a big steel hoop:

…a single rope:

…again a more “standard” trapeze:

…and chains and hammocks. (Not all of the above pictures come from Bellingham, and none are mine. See links for sources.) It was wild. Acts began with the more basic – newer members of the Guild – but they were absolutely super impressive. I liked feeling like these were real people, like I could do this (with a LOT of work). And they got more and more intense, with these women (there was only one man, half of a couple-act) releasing the silks (or whatnot) to fall and be caught in their own web – clearly one needs to be very confident that one has arranged the silks properly!! Wow. I was exhausted, and in fact the last 2 (or so) acts were kind of lost on me, after being so emotionally involved, excited, and frightened for these impressive performers – I didn’t have any energy left for the last few! It was really something, some of the best stuff I’ve seen. Very athletic, obviously – all core strength (think about the rings that the male gymnasts do in the Olympics), and often sexual or at least sensual in nature, too. Beautiful, strong, athletic people, with grace and rhythm, and definite showmanship. Remarkable, memorable, incomparable. And again, inspirational: anybody (you or I!) could sign up to learn this stuff, although slowly & with much effort, obviously. I was over the moon. Cirque du Soleil was everything even more – more flexible, more outrageous – but you know, not more impressive. If anything, this was more awesome, because it was so intimate – in such a smaller, informal space, but also intimate in that I felt like these were just regular people I could bump into at the grocery store. And I sure hope I do.

Alley Theatre presents Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

vanya

Husband was kind enough to accompany me to the theatre again, our second play at the Alley this year. (See Fool from a few months back.)

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike references Chekhov; but no familiarity with his work is required to enjoy this one. Vanya and Sonia are aging siblings – she’s adopted, they will remind you a few times – still living together in the family home, mostly bickering with one another and dissatisfied with their lives (particularly Sonia, who is casually mentioned as being bi-polar). Their sister Masha is a successful actor – less so on the stage, more so in the movies, particularly sexy slasher flicks; but she is aging, too, and feeling less secure about her sex appeal and professional future. When Masha comes to visit this time, she brings Spike: a much younger aspiring actor and a hot piece of male flesh inclined towards taking his clothes off. This habit is the source of some laughs, as everyone onstage is entranced by his beauty (Vanya as well as his sisters is attracted to men); but as Nina points out late in the play (I paraphrase): Spike is beautiful; it’s a shame about his personality.

Oh yes, Nina. The cast of six is rounded out by a beautiful young neighbor girl, Nina, also an aspiring actor and a huge fan of Masha’s; and the housekeeper, Cassandra. Cassandra is a real hit: like her Greek namesake, she is cursed to make predictions that are… often right, more or less; but that are disregarded. She is a strong personality and a great stage presence, and provides still more comic relief. The play is not short on laughs, in fact, despite some heavy subject matter: depression and late-life regrets; family dynamics; climate change and politics; a rapidly changing and-not-always-for-the-better world. I was struck by a line (again I paraphrase) about how there are now 900 (or some such number) television channels available, and you can always find a news channel that tells you what you already believe. Late in the final act we are treated to that classic, the play-within-a-play, written by Vanya and performed by Nina, which takes place in the post-climate-change-apocalypse, when humans are extinct.

It got a little long-winded here and there, I confess; I think Husband appreciated the fart jokes and lighter, always-accessible humor of Fool better than this one. There were some tangents. But I appreciated every one! I highly recommend this mashup of serious topics, comic relief, and plentiful references to literature and the arts. The actors were strong, too. I heard a few missed lines – just a few, just barely – but was still very impressed by the personalities. Cassandra and Sonia were real standouts; I was especially struck by the arc achieved by Sonia, from dumpy house-bound depressive through an exhilarating costume party to actually making plans to go out on a date. I cheered her on. And Spike’s portrayal in the near-nude was both hilarious and, yes, attractive.


Rating: 8 molecules.

habits passed along

As I’ve done in summers past, I was looking forward this summer to seeing some Shakespeare dramatized at Miller Outdoor Theatre, where we can sit outside under the stars and bring dogs & food & drink along, and all the performances are free. This is a summer activity I grew up with and still enjoy. Part of my tradition also involves reading or rereading the plays ahead of time so I’ll be ready to fully enjoy what I see. Therefore, I started checking the website for information on the Houston Shakespeare Festival early this summer, to see what plays they’d be putting on (there is always one comedy and one tragedy or history), with the intention of getting my hands on a copy of each if I didn’t already own them.

This year’s history is Henry IV, 1, which I requested from my local public library. The comedy is The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and I was pretty sure I owned a copy, since I saw it as a child with my grandparents in southern California. I went home to check, and sure enough, my 1964 “general readers” edition from the Folger Library was there on the shelf. I pulled it out and put it in the stack.

I was not prepared for the surprise I got when I opened it up, though. This note is taped into the inside cover:

photo 2 (1)
From my grandmother:

Dear Julie,

We’re planning to take you to this play while you’re with us (it’s an outdoor theater) and since it was written 400 years ago (+/-) the language is real strange to our ears and we thought you (and your parents?) might have fun reading it during your trip! It’s a lot more fun to see it ’cause there are no stage directions in the script so it’s hard to imagine all the action. It is a comedy – really kinda silly, I suppose. But I know you’ll enjoy it more if you’re a bit acquainted with the story…

Have a wonderful time & please give our love to all those nice sisters & cousins & all.

Can’t wait for your visit to us!

Love, Grammy & Pop

P.S. Please bring the book with you!

Can you just believe! This is the very copy provided by Grammy & Pop for me to read before seeing what I’m sure was my first Shakespeare performance ever; and I’ve still got it, and here I am however many years later, going back to see the same play and preparing for it in the same way, by rereading this very copy. It got me thinking about where I got these habits. Grammy puts it in this note in almost the exact way I put it to my friends: “this play will be a lot more enjoyable if you know a little bit about the story ahead of time.” I think I can see who I have to thank for my playgoing practices!

I’m wondering about the year, of course. You can see Grammy dated it with day, month and date – no year, but the day-to-date question, combined with her mention of our other travels that summer, put me at just past my 10th birthday for this event. I also found tucked away a ticket to an Astros game (at the Astrodome! against Philadelphia) from the following summer. And my father’s and grandmother’s memories put it around the same time, so I think we’ll call this my ten-year-old introduction to live performances of Shakespeare. (I might have read some before.)

astro
Finding this note inside this book was a real treat for several reasons. For one thing, it’s always nice to hear from my Grammy, who still sends me newspaper clippings with appended notes like this one! And I am looking forward all the more to seeing The Two Gentlemen of Verona performed this summer, because I’ll be thinking back to that summer more than 20 years ago. But most of all, I think it’s charming to consider where we get our habits from. I guess I’ve just always been a person who enjoyed theatre, and enjoyed reading the written drama beforehand; but of course nothing happens in a vacuum, so it’s really fun to see this clear indication of where I come from. Thanks, Grammy.

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