guest review: Bellingham Theatre Guild presents Silent Sky (2019), from Pops

From Pops, and from the Bellingham Theatre Guild, which I miss.

In its 90th year, the Guild does a great job with Silent Sky, a 2015 play by Lauren Gunderson in San Francisco, “an Arts meets Activism writer… currently recognized as America’s most produced living playwright”; she has written many about unappreciated women in history.

It was very well done here by a cast of five; great dialogue well-played, and engaging characters to tell this story of Henrietta Leavitt, who worked as a menial-labor type ‘computer’ for a famous astronomer before making the groundbreaking discovery of ‘Leavitt’s Law’ (circa 1910) that provided “a way to accurately measure distances on an inter-galactic scale” and ultimately allowed Hubble to describe an expanding universe.

It’s hard to tell if they are getting better and better, or we are just appreciating them more. It seems to me that good play-selection is a key thing.

Play selection is a huge deal, I’m sure. You also just seem to have very fine actors (and presumably directors and other behind-the-scenes decision makers), though. My failed attempt at enjoying community theatre in Asheville recently showed me what well-meaning but just poor acting can do for a play: not much good. As Egan said at that event, Bellingham attracts artists, right? Count yourself lucky! I would have enjoyed this one, I think.

Main Street Theatre presents Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (2018)

My lovely Houston friends – the same ones who rented Rent for us – took me to see the sweetest play at Main Street Theatre. Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is, of course, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. It takes place at Pemberley after Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, and Jane and Mr. Bingley, have been married a few years. Jane is pregnant; Lydia is still married (not entirely happily) to Mr. Wickham; and Mary and Kitty are still at home. The entire family is now converging on Pemberley, along with an unexpected guest or two: Mr. Darcy’s unpleasant Aunt de Bourgh has just died, and a distant cousin Arthur de Bourgh will be arriving for Christmas as well, having just inherited.

The Miss Bennet of the title here is Mary, the middle sister, whose life has begun to chafe. She loves to read, study, and practice her pianoforte. No one she knows understands her interest in a life of the mind; and while she loves traveling between the pages of books, she aches for a wider-traveled life in the real world, too. At Pemberley, amidst the giddy happinesses and dramas of her sisters, she wishes for more. And more may be in the cards for her just now, to start the new year…

Romantic? Sweet? Rather predictable? All of these things, yes, but so enjoyable. It’s clever and funny and plays at my emotions adeptly. I think it’s really saying something to tell you that while I saw each plot move, more or less, coming, I was still on the edge of my seat, because I had such sympathy for each character. What can I say. Buying into fictional plots might be a specialty of mine.

I loved every bit of this evening. The clever references to Austen’s original (including the genius line about “a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune…”), the heartfelt acting, the sweetly familiar setting and simple, charming set. I believe Main Street Theatre qualifies as amateur theatre, but it was very professional. Mary’s piano playing was no small accomplishment in itself; no one broke or stumbled over a line for the whole thing; it was excellent all around. Overall, I think this production accomplished everything intended by the play (by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon). It made appropriate reference to the inspired original and made playful use of my emotions. It was at every turn sweet, and (the idea goes) ’tis the season for sweetness. Here’s to the latest Miss Bennet.


Rating: 7 books with blue covers.

Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood

While visiting my parents in Bellingham, we picked up this sweet, raucous outdoor play: Marian retells the Robin Hood story from a differently-gendered perspective. It was great fun. The evening was perfect, quickly cooling as the sun went down (not quite in our eyes) until we were all wearing our fleece jackets. We sat on concrete stadium-style benches in Marine Heritage Park, a downtown park with a sizable homeless/loitering population that, I think, events like this hope to reclaim in some way, or, they hope to help renovate the park’s reputation. (It was fine.) The set was simple – the troupe lugged it there, up and down a hill, by hand – but perfect. As I’ve written before, the set shouldn’t carry a play’s weight; elaborate sets and costumes can be great, but the acting and the play itself should do the heavy lifting.

The story opens in the usual spot, at an archery contest with grumpy Prince John presiding and Robin Hood in disguise. Except that Robin Hood is Maid Marian, already in disguise: that’s right, Marian is Robin Hood, yielding lots of costume/disguise changes and two-people-never-seen-in-the-same-place stuff. Marian/Robin should be our protagonist, but that role is shared by a character named Alanna, a lady-in-waiting, who does a certain amount of audience-facing narration, and (slight spoiler) ends up joining the Merry Men early in the play. Few of the Merry Men, in fact, are men at all.

Gender-bending is a theme, and while gender-bending is as old as gender conceptions (and absolutely Shakespearean), there were some modern twists here, including one of the Merry Men requesting they/them pronouns and a change to the group’s title to ‘Merry Men and Much.’ (All well-received.) Also, the script was an interesting mix of an older, more formal diction and a modern slangy one, which I think is always a good tool: once you’ve primed your audience to expect that period-style talk, the modern usages become totally hilarious in context. There was lots of physical humor as well, and no small amount of romance. We the audience were in stitches.

This production was more amateur than some: a few actors stumbled over a few lines, and the sound system (or the microphones? during costume changes?) cut in and out a bit. No problem. As I’ve written more than once, I love to see passionately produced and talented amateur theatre, even if there are a few glitches as here; and there is no question that this play was produced with passion and talent. I had a fabulous time; I was super disappointed when the play ended and wanted it to go on for hours.

Thanks, Sylvia Center folks, for romance and hilarity and poignancy. Hooray for Marian and her Merry People.


Rating: 9 arrows for joy.

Houston Shakespeare Festival presents Comedy of Errors

I went home a few weeks ago to see a favorite Shakespeare play as part of a favorite annual event. I’ve been attending the Houston Shakespeare Festival and other events at Miller Outdoor Theatre since I was a small child, and I’ve always loved seeing productions of Shakespeare, as I’ve written about before.

This year’s comedy was Comedy of Errors, a classic. This is Shakespeare’s first comedy, or among his first, and one that establishes several Shakespearean tropes: mistaken identities, twins separated at birth, love triangles (squares, hexagons…). Two sets of twins have been separated, forming two sets of master-and-servant in two rival cities. One set has a father; one set lives near their mother, but doesn’t know it. When the four younger men come into the same setting, hilarity ensues: wives mistake the wrong twins for husbands; goods are delivered to one twin, payment denied by the other. Classically, though, it all comes out right in the end.

my feet before the show

It was lovely being back on the hill at Miller in Hermann Park, with a blanket and a date and a bottle of wine. The setting was so much of it: with people all around me of all ages, skin tones, and configurations; families and couples and groups of friends and solos; picnics ranging from boxes of fast-food fried chicken through elaborate cheese-and-charcuterie spreads. I have to say, though, that this was not the best production I’ve seen the Festival put on. The Houston Press‘s review saw a show in which sound issues had been resolved, but the show I saw had some difficulties; the sound effects to match the slapstick comedic blows were often off, and there were some issues with the actors’ microphones. This was a shame, because the acting was overall very good. A few actors fumbled a few lines, giving a more amateur impression than I remember from years past. But I’m patient with artists doing their best. I was both puzzled and amused by the “exit, pursued by a bear” joke, which comes from The Winter’s Tale and not Comedy of Errors at all, but okay. There were some modernizations, including references to sports and the use of a group of (I’m guessing) elementary school-aged kids. I’m not sure what this contributed, other than to give young actors a chance at the stage, which is a thing I generally support and so I’m amiable about it, but again, puzzling as an inclusion here.

The thing that troubled me most was use of a stereotyped AAVE by the characters played by black actors. A prologue-style opening involved a rap performed by two actors, one black and one white, offering two rather different effects; this made me uncomfortable from the first moments, and every time a black actor stepped onstage, it continued. I don’t see how this contributed to any positive feature of the play. It seems to me that Shakespeare can be produced in two ways. First, it can be done “straight,” that is, played as Shakespeare wrote it, by actors of all races and appearances, without their race making any difference to the characters they play. Or, it can be modernized, and race (along with other constructs, social issues, identity politics) can be brought into the play. But this was neither. This was like straight Shakespeare but with black bodies played for laughs. Ouch. I’m quite surprised that other reviewers didn’t mention this aspect, because it bothered me considerably.

When I can look past this problem with the play–which is on the one hand a huge problem, but on the other hand present for rather few minutes of the evening overall, because the black actors were few–I’m glad to see Shakespeare in the park, for free and produced for the love of it. My date found this, his first Shakespeare play, funny and accessible and fun, for which I’m grateful. I’m glad to see the crowds gather to take in a classic comedy, and I’m looking forward to seeing further endeavors. But this one, not the finest effort of a long-lived institution. I hope they do better next year.


Rating: 5 chains.

San Diego’s Old Globe presents Uncle Vanya

I previewed this one for you a few weeks ago.

Uncle Vanya started slow but ended up enjoyable. The first half, pre-intermission, dragged a little; Grammy felt so, and I did, and I heard similar murmurings about us. I suspect the conversational model for this production (see that earlier post) contributed to this impression, as it indeed took more audience effort to engage with the actors and their lines. And here’s a major flaw in the model: we had read quite a bit about the quietness and the recommendation to use the offered assistive listening devices. We were greeted upon arrival with further cautions on this point. But then we were told that the device was incompatible with hearing aids. Grammy was told that she could take her hearing aids out to use the device, but that her hearing aids should be sufficient. Well, they weren’t. She pretty much missed the first half of the production. We set her up during intermission, and she caught the second half fine, but we did some pretty serious debriefing after the show about what she’d missed, so that she really got the overall story only after the fact. I’m very disappointed in this aspect. It’s a shame that after such effort was taken, we were so poorly served. An innovative production can only be appreciated to the extent that it can be taken in.

That said, the second half picked up in pace (and I found it much funnier), and Grammy could hear, and I observed that the crowd around me perked up. It’s really a fine play by Chekhov, only it requires a little patience. The acting was fine! And the theatre is a lovely space: small and intimate and atmospheric. There is something so special about a theatre in the round. (I spent the first half watching an elderly gentleman in the front row across from me sleeping. He woke up but good in the second half.)

In a classic sense, the plot of the play involves several formations of unrequited love; the resentments of family, class, income, and caregiving roles; and general frustrations about the shape of human lives: family, and our relationship with the natural world. There is a fair amount of humor, but the chief feeling is one of distress. Also classic is the sense that if only these people would talk to each other outright, much would be resolved; but if this is an exasperating tendency of fiction plots, that’s only because it’s an exasperating tendency of people in real life. In the end, I felt sympathy for most of the characters, despite their flaws. I thought the acting was wonderful, especially Vanya, and the doctor, and Sonya, and I thought the production over all was a good one–setting, props, theatre management–and I, at least, had no trouble hearing. But again, the failure to serve my Grammy with the much-discussed assistive listening devices is a crying shame. I enjoyed it, but certainly have some criticisms. As always, I feel very lucky to take in fine theatre in a beautiful city and with great company. Thanks, Grammy.


Rating: 7 glasses of vodka, naturally.

upcoming: San Diego’s Old Globe presents Uncle Vanya

For today, a little background information on a review that is to come.

This week, I am so lucky to spend time with my Grammy in beautiful balmy southern California. Among other things, she takes me to such very fine events as this production. And clips all the relevant papers for me to peruse.

Grammy’s paperwork

This is such a different production that I wanted to do a post ahead of seeing the play, so that you get the same preview I did.

Much is being made of this play in advance. This translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky was commissioned by San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, where I still remember seeing Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona with my Grammy and Pop when I was ten. (Lucky, lucky girl.) Pevear and Volokhonsky are today’s “pre-eminent latter-day translators of Russian translators” (from The San Diego Union-Tribune, and I certainly don’t know any better). The theatre installed an extra row of seats for the first time, so an already intimate space becomes still more so. And, stepping away from ingrained theatre traditions, according to a letter sent to my grandmother when she purchased the tickets:

Over the past eight years of his work as both playwright and director, Richard Nelson has been exploring what’s been dubbed a ‘conversational theatre.’ In it, the characters speak, behave, and interact as truthfully as possible, and the audience listens in. The actors focus with uncommon rigor on each other, and invite the audience to lean into their interactions. They don’t artificially turn to the audience, they don’t ‘cheat out’ to make sure they are always seen at every moment, they don’t push their voices to be heard. They simply converse with each other as people do in real life, as if no one were watching. And the audience listens, closely, as if overhearing a conversation at the next table in a restaurant.

Therefore, we are urged to pick up assistive listening devices, which are being provided in larger-than-ever numbers, to help us hear this quiet conversation. Director Nelson points out that Uncle Vanya is “a family play… a very complicated family play, but it’s a family play” with the smallest cast of any of Chekhov’s works.

Some years ago, I saw a play at Houston’s Alley Theatre that referenced this one, but other than that, this is my first experience with Chekhov, though his reputation of course precedes him. I’m really excited to see Chekhov performed at all, but this unusual production sounds especially interesting. It’s always such a treat–to see my Grammy, to see the Pacific Ocean (off her balconies!), and to see fine theatre in such a lovely little space as the Old Globe. I mark my gratitude here, then, and I’ll get you a review of the play in weeks to come!

movie: Twelfth Night (1996)

Last week I reviewed the play. But wait, there’s more! My required reading for residency also included a viewing of the movie, from 1996, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring such names at Helena Bonham-Carter, Richard E. Grant, and Ben Kingsley.

For me, this film contributed to the play as printed on paper in its music, its scenery (shot in Cornwall) and, as always with Shakespearean productions, the lively acting. As much as I love the written word, Shakespeare’s comedy always benefits for me from performance–maybe this is definitive of theatre. Of course as well the lack of stage direction leaves the filling out of the drama to the producers (actors etc.). And Twelfth Night is somewhat special in including lyrics, which only improve when set to music. Imogen Stubbs and Steven Mackintosh as the twins, Viola/Cesario and Sebastian, make a perfect pair: I’m impressed at the likeness, and wonder if every production gets so lucky. (I so wish I could go to Houston for the Festival!)

While Shakespeare never feels particularly dated to me–I would not be the first to call him timeless–this movie somewhere feels more placed in time, despite being set in a different time than when it was filmed. Perhaps the pacing felt a little slow? I’ll always recommend seeing this stuff performed, though.


Rating: 7 scenes in a barn.
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