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2017 August 20

Santa Cruz Shakespeare 2017 reviews

In More recent theater events, I listed the 8 plays I’d seen in May and June, and reviewed Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s production of The 39 Steps.  Since then, I’ve seen the rest of the Santa Cruz Shakespeare season and a couple of other performances

Date title produced by
2017 July 18 Antony and Cleopatra Royal Shakespeare Company (broadcast)
2017 July 28 Measure for Measure Santa Cruz Shakespeare
2017 Aug 5 Split the Bill
2017 Aug 8 A Most Dangerous Woman (staged reading) Santa Cruz Shakespeare
2017 Aug 11 Shakespeare Conservatory showcase West Performing Arts
2017 Aug 15 The Night that Never Existed (staged reading) Santa Cruz Shakespeare
2017 Aug 19 Two Gentlemen of Verona Santa Cruz Shakespeare

Let me start with the non-SCS performances.

I won’t bother reviewing the Royal Shakespeare Company performance—it was worth seeing, but did not wow me. A workman-like production with nothing to excite particular interest.

Split the Bill was a combination of sketch comedy and improv with many of the same actors who were in the Dinosaur Prom improv troupe that my son used to act with, plus some younger comedians.  I suspect that he could have been in the Split the Bill shows if he had gone to the earlier ones this summer (this was their fourth of four), but his sleep-all-day schedule this summer has made it difficult for him to do anything involving other people.  The show was similar in quality to the Dinosaur Prom shows—amusing in the moment, but not particularly memorable.

The West Conservatory showcase was a little different from previous years, in part because they had different teachers this year.  The monologues and scene work were quite good, but the choral piece at the beginning was ragged and the clowning towards the end a bit clumsy. There are several upcoming actors in the WEST troupe who are good, so we’ll probably continue to go to the WEST teen shows, even though our son has aged out.  (Perhaps I should say “actresses” instead of “actors”, since only one of the actors in the conservatory was male, but I tend to use “actor” as a genderless designation.)

For transportation to the four Santa Cruz Shakespeare productions at the Audrey Stanley Grove, we did bus+walk to get to Measure for Measure, but walked the whole way (about 3.8 miles) for the other three productions.  For all of them we took Lyft home.  The walk takes us about 1:25, so is about the same speed as walking plus bus.  Lyft continues to be a fairly reliable way to get home (better than the taxicabs we tried last year).

The Measure for Measure production was the weakest one of SCS’s 2017 season.  Although there was some good individual acting, overall the performance was run of the mill.  The lower-cast characters were so ruthlessly cut that they added little to the play, the costuming looked like a low-budget high-school production, and the direction was lackluster.  They were deliberately working with a small cast so that the production could move to CalShakes after finishing in Santa Cruz, but the double and triple casting was not very effective.  In particular, I found that double casting Claudio and Pompey (and clothing both in the same prison outfit distinguished only by Pompey’s hat) did not work well.  I also did not care for dressing Angelo in high boots—it would have been better to dress him as a missionary than as a Nazi. The directorial choice of handling the problematic ending by converting the Duke’s marriage proposal into a job offer (with no changes to the lines) was reasonable for a 21st century audience, but it seems like so much of the director’s effort went into that choice that there was no time to make the rest of the play work well.

The two staged readings were an interesting experiment on SCS’s part.  They were expecting a fairly small turnout, but got around 200 for each of the readings. I don’t have cast lists for the two performance, though I recognized a number of the performers.  Julie James did a good job as George Eliot in A Most Dangerous Woman (by Cathy Tempelsman), and Mike Ryan was good in both shows.  I was expecting a little more blocking and gesturing in the performances, but quickly adjusted to the style of actors stepping up to the music stands with their scripts to indicate when they were on stage.  The story of George Eliot’s life made a good play, and it would be a good one for Jewel Theatre to produce (a better part for Julie James than many of the ones she casts herself in).

The Night that Never Existed is a play by Humberto Robles, translated from Spanish by Rochelle Trotter. It is a two-hander, with Mike Ryan playing Shakespeare and Patty Gallagher playing Queen Elizabeth.  The concept is a simple one: Queen Elizabeth asks Shakespeare to teach her about love.  Many of the lines are borrowed from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets and are deftly arranged to support the scenes. Unfortunately, there are also a number of expository lines (Queen Elizabeth praising Shakespeare) that are leaden—I don’t know whether the fault here belongs to Robles, Trotter, or both.  It would require a really fine production by virtuoso performers to make this play worth producing, though with a little editing it could work well.

Overall, the staged readings were a good experiment, providing dedicated theater goers some extra entertainment and allowing the company to experiment with some different plays that probably could not command a big enough audience for a full production.  One big problem was the sound.  I was unable to hear one of the actresses in A Most Dangerous Woman (I don’t know her name), and even Patty Gallagher was hard to hear from the third row in The Night that Never Existed. I had no trouble hearing Patty in her roles in the main productions, so I think that the problem was more lack of rehearsal than inherent to the actresses.  The outdoor stage at the Grove does require more projection than most actors are used to, and it is particularly hard for the higher-pitched female voices (and it doesn’t help that I’m going deaf, losing the higher frequencies first). The sound system doesn’t help much, as it introduces echoes before it provides much support.  Perhaps the sound engineers could work on better speaker and mic placement for next year, and perhaps some filtering to produce more treble than bass boost.

Two Gentlemen of Verona is probably the best show this summer, though it is a toss-up with The 39 Steps. The costuming for Two Gents is some of the best I’ve seen from B. Modern (who is a great costume designer), directing was inspired, and the clowns Launce and Speed given full rein (they are too often cut drastically or underplayed).  This production was much better than the 1999 production by Shakespeare Santa Cruz (I still remember being disappointed that they had cut Launce’s “my cane understands me” joke in that production).  The conversion of Launce from a male to a female role worked surprisingly well, even if it did substantially change the sexual jokes in the milkmaid (changed to milkman) scene.  Doing that scene as a cabaret act was really impressive and gave the acting interns a chance to show off some of their skills. All the acting in this play was great (well, one muffed line by Speed, but it did not detract from his otherwise good performance).

Unlike Measure for Measure, the company did not come up with a reasonable resolution for the abrupt ending of Two Gents (the forgiveness for Proteus still seems wholly unnatural), but the rest of the play was so good that one could forgive them for not being able to fix Shakespeare’s clumsiness here.

Bottom line: go to see The 39 Steps and Two Gentlemen of Verona.  If you have time for a third play, Measure for Measure is ok.  If you can only afford the time for one play, choosing between The 39 Steps and Two Gentlemen of Verona is tough—you are unlikely to have an opportunity to see a better production of either play.  Much of the humor of The 39 Steps relies on the differences between film and stage productions (and it helps to have seen the movie—indeed to have seen several Hitchcock movies), while Two Gentlemen of Verona is a comedy that is intended to stand on its own.

2017 July 15

More recent theater events

I haven’t been posting about theater I’ve seen since the post Recent theater events, which was back in April.  Here is a list of things we’ve seen since then:

Date title produced by
2017 May 13 Great Expectations WEST performing arts
2017 May 19 Avenue Q Santa Cruz High School
2017 May 20 Sylvia Jewel Theatre
2017 June 3 Zoot Suit UCSC Theater Department
2017 June 5 Two Gentlemen of Verona UCSC Shakes To Go
2017 June 10–11 Midsummer Night’s Dream UCSB Shakespeare in the Park
2017 June 17 Merry Wives of Windsor Silicon Valley Shakespeare
2017 July 14 The 39 Steps Santa Cruz Shakespeare

The WEST teen production for the spring, Great Expectations, was fairly well done, though there were a few actors who were too quiet, even in the small Broadway Playhouse.  The teen productions have a mix of first-time-on-stage actors and experienced ones, so can be a bit hit-and-miss.  Their WEST Esemble players are their more experienced teen troupe—I did not get to see their production this Spring, though my wife did—they had an adaptation of Robin Hood that they performed at some local schools, including the one where my wife is the librarian.

The Santa Cruz High production of Avenue Q was good—we went because it included an actress who has also performed (at WEST) with our son (she’s also the daughter of one of my former students—we found out that she was in the Avenue Q production when we ran into her and her father at a local eatery).  The biggest problem with the Avenue Q production was that the singers were miked, but the mikes did not work consistently. I’m not a big fan of musicals, but Avenue Q seemed better written than most.

The next evening after Avenue Q we went to see Sylvia by the Jewel Theatre. The acting and production were good, but the script was rather weak material, so the production as a whole was not very satisfying.  It was quite a contrast to Avenue Q the night before, which had much weaker production values but better material. It showed that even a professional production can’t rescue a weak script.

Zoot Suit at UCSC was an amazing production, combining first-rate acting, superb costuming, and a first-rate script. The script was updated by the author (Luis Valdez) last year for a production in Los Angeles, and this production was directed by his son, Kinan Valdez. Because Luis Valdez is a local author, he attended the performance the same night we were there and was available after the show for Q&A (we did not stay for that, because we needed to catch a bus home). This was probably the best student production I’ve seen, at UCSC or elsewhere.

My wife and I saw the Shakes to Go production of Two Gentlemen of Verona at the elementary school where my wife works, as I was unable to get to any of the performances that they did on the UCSC campus. As always, the Shakes to Go production was fast-paced and simplified for school children to be able to follow, but well done within the constraints of a production that has to be finished in 50 minutes and needs to be portable enough to be set up on in an unfamiliar location in about half an hour.

We traveled down to Santa Barbara to see our son in Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he played Peter Quince (the leader of the play within a play). I made a video recording of both performances, but haven’t yet rendered it to put it up on YouTube.  The play was difficult to film, as they had a lot of the action in the audience, and I had a hard time panning the camera fast enough to catch what was going on.  I liked the production, but I never know how much of that is just my bias towards anything my son is in.

After my son got home from Santa Barbara, all three of us took the bus to San Jose to see Merry Wives of Windsor in Willow Street Park. The performance space in Willow Street Park is quite nice—a very large stage area with a steeply raked bowl for the audience and a wooded backdrop. It was a fun production, but not quite at the high standards of Santa Cruz Shakespeare (more at the level of good student productions).  The performance was free (suggested $10 donation at the end), subsidized in part by the San Jose City Council, I believe.  We spent as much on getting to the performance as we did on the show. Unfortunately, we probably won’t be able to go to the other Silicon Valley Shakespeare productions this summer, as they are in Sanborn Park, which is inaccessible by public transportation. (We might be able to use Lyft to and from the Lawrence Expressway train station, but that makes for a fairly long trip, and catching the last Highway 17 bus home could be difficult.)

Last night we went to see Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s production of The 39 Steps, a farce based on Hitchcock’s movie of the same name. The production is amazing, with the 4 actors playing dozens of roles (well, one actor has 1 role, the actress has 3 roles, and the remaining roles are all played by the 2 remaining actors). The costumes and costume changes were perfect. The show was hilarious and has been getting good reviews—I was surprised to see that Grove had not been sold out and that there was a lot of groundling space still available.

All four actors in the Scottish inn scene, photo from the SCS media page https://www.santacruzshakespeare.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/The-39StepsPhoto5_300dpi.rrjones.jpg

Santa Cruz Shakespeare is doing only comedies this summer (the other two are Measure for Measure and Two Gentlemen of Verona). Their interns are doing Candide, and the company will be doing two staged readings: A Most Dangerous Woman and The Night that Never Existed. We, of course, are planning to see it all.

We took public transit to the Audrey Stanley Grove last night, which really meant about 2.4 miles by bus and 2 miles walking.  It would have been almost as fast to walk the whole way, as we could have gone a slightly more direct route. We took the newly built path from Park Way Trail (at the end of Park Way) up to the Audrey Stanley Grove. It is a very steep path that my wife was willing to do uphill, but not downhill—I’d be a little reluctant to take it in the dark also. The trail is definitely a hiking trail and not for bicycles. We ended up taking Lyft home, which for the three of us was not much more expensive than the bus and much more convenient.

2017 April 16

Recent theater events

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I have been so busy lately that I haven’t had a chance to do a blog post about the theater I’ve seen lately. The electronics course has mostly been responsible for my being busy—from March 20 to March 27 I was grading the huge pile of design reports for BME 51A, and classes started again on April 3.  Two weeks into the new quarter, I’ve just finished grading the third set of homeworks for BME 51B, and I’m already tired of grading.  (There are still six sets of exercises and five 5–10-page lab reports to come.)  I have a non-course pile of “grading” to do also: I’m on a committee to evaluate 22 project reports from across the School of Engineering for Deans’ and Chancellor’s Awards.  I’ve looked at four of them so far, and I have about a week to finish them.  They are a bit bigger than the little design reports (7–67 pages), but generally better written, and I don’t have to read them closely—just rank them to figure out which are the most award worthy.

But since I have my homework graded, I’ll take a break to list some of the plays I’ve seen lately:

date title playwright theater company
March 25 Dance of Death Strindberg Jewel Theatre
March 29 Julius Ceasar Shakespeare Oregon Shakespeare Festival
March 29 Shakespeare in Love Norman/Stoppard/Hall Oregon Shakespeare Festival
March 30 Henry IV, Part One Shakespeare Oregon Shakespeare Festival
March 31 Hannah and the Dread Gazebo Jiehae Park Oregon Shakespeare Festival
March 31 Mojada: a Medea in Los Angeles Luis Alfaro Oregon Shakespeare Festival
April 15 The Nether Jennifer Haley SeeTheatre

 

The Strindberg play did not quite sell out the Colligan Theater, but it was well attended by the usual crowd of white-haired theater goers.  Julie James gave herself one of the leads (what’s the point of owning a theater company if you don’t get to play lead?), but this time she was well-cast in a part that matched her skills, unlike some of her earlier attempts to play parts for women 20 years younger. The play was well-acted, but the directorial decision to use MP3 players and laptops jarred with the text in several places.  The set was a bit generic, but the costumes were good. Overall, I think that we all enjoyed seeing the play, but have no particular desire to see another production of it ever—it just isn’t that gripping a story.

Over  Spring break, my son and I both traveled by bus with people from Santa Cruz Shakespeare (staff, board members, and donors) up to Ashland, Oregon to see 5 plays there, to get a backstage tour, and to get a tour of the new production facilities in Talent, OR. My wife was unable to go, as her spring break is a week later than UCSC’s and UCSB’s.

Of the five plays we saw, Shakespeare in Love was the most fun, Mojada had the strongest emotional impact, and Hannah and the Dread Gazebo  was the most thought-provoking.  The two Shakespeare plays were the weakest productions.

The Julius Ceasar was a rather lack-luster production, with little attempt to get inside the characters’ heads, just showing us the public faces.  I found the Brutus (played by Danforth Comins) particularly disappointing, portraying Brutus as a weak and vacillating figure, rather than a man of strong principles who was so moral that he attributed high principles to everyone around him.  The dance theater elements really left me cold—it felt like I was watching a poorly produced music video on YouTube. The kata at the end seemed endless and monotonous. Others in our group had much more positive reactions to the play, and the reactions seemed to split based on whether or not people liked to watch dance.  The dance fans loved the play, and the non-dance fans did not.

The Henry IV, part 1 had a good Falstaff (G. Valmont Thomas) who was an excellent physical comic, and they really played the Eastcheap tavern scenes for all they could milk out of them, but the second half of the play fell flat.  Some of the cross-gender casting worked well (Lauren Modica as Glendower, for example), but I was not thrilled by Alejandra Escalante as Hotspur.  Don’t get me wrong—Ms. Escalante did a superb job of acting, but the machismo of the part made it very difficult.  (Note: I’m not at all opposed to cross-gender casting—last year’s female Hamlet at Santa Cruz Shakespeare was by far the best Hamlet I’ve seen.)  I think it would have been more interesting (though even more difficult) to make Hal be the female character—the father’s disappointment at not having a worthy son and Hal’s subsequent attempt to live up to the father’s dreams could have worked quite well as a female role, though the desire to keep the same actor for Henry IV, part 2 and for Henry V would have required a much bigger commitment to a female lead.  Some of our party thought that Falstaff’s comic acting was too much like minstrel shows, with too much caricature of black culture.  Others were uncertain whether Mr. Thomas was being directed to this caricature, or whether it was just his style of comic acting—I’m sure that black comics actors are forever wrestling with the dilemma of how to be funny to a wide audience without being disrespectful to their peers.  I’d be interested in hearing how black theatergoers react to his Falstaff.

Shakespeare in Love is a delightful romp through a lot of Shakespearean references (as well as big parts of Romeo and Juliet), and the actors and actresses all seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.  The play is pretty close to the movie (at least as I remember the movie), which is unusual in a stage-play adaptation of a movie.  I was impressed by the teen actor playing John Webster (Preston Mead)—he did a good job of portraying a particularly ghoulish character.I think that this play will have the widest audience appeal of any of the five we saw.

Hannah and the Dread Gazebo was the strangest play I’ve seen in some time, with a lot of dream sequences and non-linear story telling. All the money for the set was spent on a massive wall that tilted down to make a rooftop.  We were told that the counterweight for the wall weighed 8000 pounds, and that combined with the rest of the wall, the total weight was around 10000 lbs.  The counterweight was not taken out of the theater on the twice daily set changes, but the rest of the set was. I was particularly impressed with the lighting design (by David Weiner), as the set took on very different characteristics with no change in the set pieces, just from the lighting.  The only disappointing set piece was the “gazebo” at the end, which was symbolically represented by a chandelier—this felt like a we’ve-already-overspent-our-budget move, rather than an artisitic choice. The quick costume changes needed by the Shapeshifter (Jessica Ko) were also technically very challenging (some of the changes had to happen on stage, as there was only 5–10 seconds for them). The play had an emotional resonance for some of the Asian-Americans in our group and perhaps a few other second-generation immigrants, but I found it more of an intellectual puzzle than an emotional play (despite being a second-generation immigrant myself).  I really needed more time to ponder it, but we had Mojada to see the same evening, which rather cut short my time for rumination.

Mojada was definitely a gut-punching play (as you would expect from any adaptation of Medea). The script kept many of the elements of Euripedes’s play, though a number of characters were conflated to reduce the cast size.  The acting was strong, but I found the set rather distracting—trying to make an L.A. slum apartment look like Baba Yaga’s hut was a little too strained.  They might have been better off producing the play on a bare stage.

The high point of the trip to Ashland was not the five plays (though they were definitely worth seeing—or the 3 non-Shakespeare ones were).  The high point was visiting the production facilities in Talent, OR. The custom-built space is a Makerspace par excellence for theater lovers. They have all the usual tools: 3D printers, laser cutter, CNC router, CNC lathe, machine shop, two wood shops (props and scenery), spray paint booth big enough for a car, robotics workshop, … with huge amounts of space. One wall of the paint shop has a grid large enough to hang the largest flies that any of their theaters can use, with theatrical lighting for it so that they can paint the backdrops vertically, rather than having to lay them on the floor. Their scene shop has a full-size mockup of the theater stages, complete with a 14-foot-deep pit for testing lifts to the stage, and that mockup is a small fraction of the whole scene shop.

Almost half the building is taken up with storage for costumes and props. The costume collection is amazing, and they rent out everything to theater companies and schools (with a big discount for community theaters and schools).  Almost everything is photographed and indexed on the web (https://www.osfcostumerentals.org/OSF-Costume-Rentals).  The props are not so well indexed nor do they have a formal rental program, though they have occasionally rented out pieces on a case-by-case basis.

This wall of shoes is part of the shorter wall of the room—the long wall would not fit in any of my pictures, nor would the many rows of racks double-height racks of clothes.

I took a few pictures in the costume storage area, but none were able to capture the sheer magnitude of the space and the overwhelming number and variety of costumes. This picture shows just a tiny fraction.

The most recent play I’ve seen is Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, which is still showing at Center Stage (through April 29). The play is intended to be thought-provoking (about what standards should apply to online entertainments), but the themes are a bit tough for many audience members: child abuse and murder of virtual characters.  Like in many science fiction works, there was a bit too much exposition, but the actors managed to keep things moving despite that. The highlight of the play was the performance by Olivia Gillanders, a fourth-grade student who played the role of Iris, the child avatar that is abused and murdered (off-stage). Nick Bilardello as Mr. Doyle and Andrew Davids as Mr. Sims were also quite good.  I felt that the April Bennett (as Detective Morris) and Robert Gerbode (as Woodnut), did decent jobs, but were not up to the caliber of the rest of the cast—their delivery was sometimes a bit wooden, and the characters lacked the intensity of the others.  Part of that may be in the script—the characters didn’t have as good lines—but they could have done more with what they had to work with.

The set was very simple, being split between an interrogation room (stage right) and the virtual world called the Hideaway (stage left).  The interrogation room was done in greys and ultra-utilitarian furniture, while the Hideaway attempted to be a lush Victorian parlor (not quite successfully, as the theater company lacked the budget, but well enough to give the impression of a virtual-world Victorian parlor).

I felt a little sorry for the actors, as the house was only about half full last night (I don’t think I’ve ever been to a production at Center Stage that was not sold out before, as the house only seats 89 including the wheelchair spot). The play is worth seeing, and there are two more weekends (tickets at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2729920). I recommend that people buy tickets, even if they can’t go, in order to keep small theater companies from going bankrupt in Santa Cruz.

In addition to these plays, other recent cultural events include Viva La Lehrer IV (April 8 @ Kuumbwa Jazz, a celebration of Tom Lehrer songs) and a visit to the crochet coral reef on display at the Porter Sesnon Gallery at UCSC (which my wife and I went to April 14).

The Lehrer songs were fun, though I could quibble with some of their selections and how much time they gave to the weaker performers compared to the stronger ones—I don’t feel any need to go to Viva La Lehrer again for about another 5 years.

The CO2CA-CO2LA Coral Reef exhibit runs at the Sesnon gallery until May 6.  I recommend it for kids as well as for adults (one part is mounted in a dark room that you explore with flashlights).

2016 September 18

Streetcar Named Desire and Richard II

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What do this Tennessee Williams play and this Shakespeare play have in common? Nothing much, really other than my having seen performances of both in the past 10 days.

I saw Streetcar Named Desire opening night at the Colligan Theater produced by the Jewel Theatre Company, for which my wife and I have season tickets. We had three tickets (one for my son as well), but my wife got a bit ill (the hazards of working at an elementary school) and decided not to go. My son and I went and found it to be quite a good production.

I’m always a little worried when the artistic director (Julie James) gets cast in a major role—the perks of owning and running a theater company, I suppose. She is a decent actress, but the parts she gets cast in are sometimes ludicrously inappropriate and should be given to much younger actresses.  (Jewel Theatre does hire across a wide range of ages, but skews a bit older in their actors than, say, Santa Cruz Shakespeare—though not nearly as old as their audiences.)

For Streetcar, casting Julie as Blanche works well, given the change in culture since the play was written and the generally older age for marriage these days. What really made the production work, though, was the superb acting by Brent and Erika Schindele, who played Stanley and Stella Kowalski, and generally good acting by all the performers.  The set, costumes, and musicians were also very well done, making for a very satisfying show.  I find Tennessee Williams’  characters all rather irritating people, but I believe that is the author’s intent.

Streetcar runs until Sun 2016 Oct 2 and is worth the $43 single-ticket price ($37 for students and seniors) at the box office.

Richard II was not being performed locally—what my wife and I saw was the recording from the Globe Theatre in London, recorded last year as part of the Globe on Screen series. The performance was worth seeing, if only because Richard II is rarely performed in the US. I was only familiar with two of the monologues: Richard’s “sad stories of the death of kings” and John of Gaunt’s “On this blessed plot, this realm, this England.” I mainly know the “sad stories” monologue, because my son memorized it.

The acting in Richard was generally quite good, but I found Simon Godwin’s directing rather annoying, spoiling several scenes by playing them as farces for the groundlings. I felt particularly sorry for the actor playing the Duke of York, a very dignified and noble character torn by his loyalty to the idea of kingship while serving a very imperfect king, being forced to act the buffoon to satisfy the director’s need for low comedy. Part of the “sad stories” monologue was also played for laughs, reaching out to hold an audience member’s hand, destroying one of the strongest scenes of the play (though other bad directorial decisions had already weakened that scene).

I would say that I’ll make a point of avoiding productions directed by Simon Godwin, but truth to tell, I’ll have forgotten his name by tomorrow.

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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