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2016 March 6

Two theater performances

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Computers on campus were down this weekend, first for scheduled maintenance on the file server, then for a power failure.  Because another storm was expected today, they did not bring all the servers back up. So I got essentially no work done this weekend.  Luckily, I had two other things scheduled for the weekend: theater performances!

On Saturday night, my wife and I went to a performance of Rimers of Eldritch, by West Performing Arts.  This was the first production that WEST has done that was a joint production by the staff and by the WEST Ensemble Players, their elite teen group.  (They’ve done  a few staff productions before, and the WEST Ensemble Players usually do two shows a year, but this was the first combined effort.)  Of the eighteen performers, nine were listed on the playbill as staff, though I suspect that the four teaching assistants were unpaid.

Several of the current staff have very recently been members of the Ensemble Players, so the combined effort was not as much of an intergenerational effort as it would have been a few years ago.  The 18 performers were all on stage for the entire show.  The stage at the Broadway Playhouse is fairly small, and the flexibility of the lighting somewhat limited, so it took careful blocking to direct audience attention to the 2 or 3 characters involved in each scene, but it allowed quick cutting between the scenes, which is suited to the rather fragmented order and repetitions in the play.

I was impressed with the performance—the play does not have a simple linear plot and requires good character work to be effective.  The material “contains mature themes, sexual content, violence, and strong language”, which could easily have lead to awkwardness on stage, but the actors (staff and teen) managed to pull it off.  I thought that Sam was particularly good as Skelly Mannor, but no one did a poor job with their part.

I turns out that we’ll be seeing another play by the same playwright (Lanford Wilson) later this spring, as Jewel Theatre will be doing Talley’s Folly, as a co-production with Santa Cruz Shakespeare. I don’t think I’ve seen any of his plays before, so it is a little strange to be seeing two in the same season.

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went up to the Experimental Theater at UCSC to see a production of Marqués: a narco Macbeth, which was written by two of the students in the production. They had a huge cast (27 actors) and a large production staff (up to 60 listed, though some people were listed repeatedly if they filled more than one staff position).  The concept was a fairly straightforward one—a direct rewrite of Macbeth into a struggle for leadership in a Mexican drug cartel.  Unfortunately, despite the enormous amount of effort put into staging the play, it did not really work.

The problem was primarily with the script, which included both modern dialog (in Spanish, English, and Spanglish) and direct quotes from Shakespeare.  The two did not blend well, and it did not help that the actors recited the Shakespearean lines in an affectless monotone that sounded like seventh-grade students reciting lines they did not understand. There were two authors listed for the play, and I wonder which one was responsible for the failure to translate Macbeth into modern idiom.

The play would have been much better with no quotations—the plot is obviously enough Macbeth that there is no need for quotes. (Kurosawa’s adaptation to the samurai movie genre, Throne of Blood, shows what can be done with the play translated into a different culture and idiom.) Alternatively, they could have played Macbeth entirely with the Shakespearean script, but with the costuming and staging of the narco Mexican theme.

The Experimental Theater is a very flexible black-box space, which they had set up as a cross-shaped stage dividing the audience in 4 quarters.  The feet of the actors were at the head level of the audience (like a fashion show), which made viewing the closest actors rather difficult (particularly when they were speaking from behind where you were seated), and they ended up having to restrict most of the action to the long-axis runway, so that people could see what was going on.  This made a lot of the blocking rather difficult, as there was little room for people to move around—the director did a fairly good job of the blocking, given the constraints of the stage they had selected.

The production made good use of three sides of the theater for projected images, and the costuming was good, but the show as a whole never developed much emotion in the audience—the lines were too wooden.  Perhaps the best part of the show was the makeup on Bruja 1, as a Day of the Dead skeleton.

So despite the much larger budget, fancier equipment, larger production crew, and larger cast of the UCSC production, I have to say that the WEST production of Rimers of Eldritch was by far the better of the two performances we saw this weekend.

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