Brian Doyle at Chuckanut Radio Hour

You will of course remember my glowing review of Brian Doyle’s most recent novel, Martin Marten, which remains the best book of 2015 to date (and may well make it through: I rarely award more than one *10* in a year). The same week that that review published over at Shelf Awareness (and my teaser posted here), he came to my little city to speak at a local event, the Chuckanut Radio Hour.

The Chuckanut Radio Hour is edited and aired on local radio a few times afters its live production, and it costs $5 per person (plus fees, naturally) to be part of that live audience. My parents and I went to see this edition, because Brian Doyle! I hadn’t been before (my parents had). The show describes itself as

…a radio variety show that began in January 2007. Each Chuckanut Radio Hour features a guest author and includes guest musicians, performance poet Kevin Murphy, Cascadia Weekly columnist Alan Rhodes, an episode of “The Bellingham Bean” serial radio comedy, and some groaner jokes by hosts Chuck & Dee Robinson and announcer Rich Donnelly.

(Chuck and Dee are the owners of Village Books, our local top-shelf independent bookstore.) I have wholesale stolen that quotation because it’s quite accurate, although in this edition we missed Alan Rhodes and instead took an extra musical number by guest artists 3-Oh. The band was good, and funny, with covers and originals; the spoken-word/poetry was good; “The Bellingham Bean” was quite funny (and guest-starred the versatile Brian Doyle to boot). The hosts’ jokes were, yes, groaners. But of course we were there for the author. Brian Doyle turns out to be a falling-down fine comedian in his own right, who knew? Also a very good storyteller, although that is less surprising. He didn’t really need an interviewer – just a microphone and a stage, and free rein. He monologues quite cheerfully, energetically, happily, and oh so funnily. He then continued this performance after the show was wrapped up, as we lined up to get our books signed (did I cheat by having him sign my galley?) and talk with him: the line was long because Doyle was so generous with his time and attentions, and I am grateful.

That’s two very good author-talk experiences in a row. If you get a chance to see Brian Doyle live, do! And for now, go get yourself a copy of the new Martin Marten: it’s outstanding and unique. And join me in investigating his earlier work, too, which includes two novels (The Plover and Mink River) as well as a bunch of essays. Here’s to local theatre etc.!

National Theatre Live at the Lincoln presents A View From the Bridge (a Young Vic production)

I recently reviewed A View From the Bridge in preparation for this performance, which like Treasure Island was performed onstage in London, recorded, and then screened at the Lincoln Theatre where I saw Romeo and Juliet (whew).

view bridge

It was outstanding, a truly special experience. The screening opened with a short video incorporating interviews with some of the behind-the-scenes folks involved: the director, set designer, and art director, if memory serves; and scenery video of London (where the theatre is) and Amsterdam (where the director lives). My father, who was my date for this show, commented that it made him miss both cities. We learned a little about the theatre, the director, and the concept for this show: to find a way to surprise the audience even with a play that audiences are expected to know fairly well. I shall avoid spoiling both the play and this production, and only say: they surprised me.

This production was mind-blowingly good, and expertly suited to Miller’s original work. They did deviate from his set design tips: there were no furnishings, just a stark white vinyl floor and wall with a floating glass bench wrapped around the three remaining sides. Costumes were nondescript, neutral or earth tones, and there were few costume changes: Katie changed her shirt when she stood up to Eddie and grew up; and the immigrants changed upon their arrival. This ultra-minimalist lack of color, furniture and set decor left just the actors to carry the story, which they did. The acting was unspeakably good. And the cinematography did it justice: I don’t even recall noting cinematic choices in Treasure Island, which mostly held back and provided panoramic views of the stage – a fine choice, since the stage set in that case was so impressive; but here we relied heavily on close-ups, and the framing really caught my eye. Many shots were close-up of actors’ faces, or scenes involving a few people, say, waist-up; these scenes were then framed by the borders of the white stage set, or framed around one or two props (the chair Marco holds aloft, for example). The whole thing was artistically very fine.

Miller’s humor shone through, but most notably the tension, sexual and violent. There was a percussive gong employed in a few scenes, a slow-paced, low, metronome-like sound that ramped up the tension beautifully, like the tick… tock… of a clock in a silent, anxious room. Somebody in the pre-show video (sorry, I can’t recall who) made an excellent analogy about the play itself: he said that it was like we are watching two cars approach each other at high speed, knowing what is going to happen and then… boom. That is a great description of Miller’s work. It is the story of an inescapable tragedy that we all see coming but are powerless to halt. (This is emphasized further by Mr. Alfieri, the lawyer who acts as chorus, and his foreknowledge and sense of foreboding throughout.)

All in all, in my reading and my watching of this play, I’m deeply impressed: with Miller’s original*, and with this production. If you have a way to access National Theatre Live, don’t miss it. This is some of the finest theatre I’ve ever seen.


Rating: 10 pillowcases.

*I slightly misspeak: as it turns out, Miller’s original was a one-act play. The two-act version that we know best today was actual a reworking, according to Wikipedia.

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.

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