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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.

2014 August 17

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

I’m a little envious of my son—he’s gotten to go to Ashland twice this year to see plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  He’s seen nine different plays there this year, two of them twice.

For the first trip this year he went with Alternative Family Education, as part of their Dramatic Literature course in spring semester.  They teach the course each year around the plays that they’ll be seeing in Ashland—he’s taken the course three times and enjoyed it each time (except for some of the written assignments).  The first time he went, I was on sabbatical, so took the time to travel with the group as a “chaperone”—we’d had to fly to Ashland separately, rather than travel with them on the bus, because the trip left the day of the state science fair, though we both rode the bus home.  Since then he’s been able to travel both ways with the school group, but I’ve always had a heavy teaching load in the spring, and couldn’t justify skipping class for a pleasure trip to Ashland.

Last week, he traveled with a group from West Performing Arts.  This is the first time that WEST has done an Ashland trip, and it was planned at the last minute, so they were not able to get enough tickets or transportation for parents to accompany the group. It was a smaller group than the AFE—only ten teens and two adults. They were originally planning to see five plays, but while they were in Ashland they managed to get the last twelve standing-room tickets to Into the Woods, so they ended up seeing six plays—a pretty intense schedule with only three hotel nights!  They didn’t do as many workshops as the AFE group, but a lot of the workshops are aimed at general school groups, not at kids who had as much theater training as this group.  I don’t think that the teens minded not having a lot of workshops—most of them had just finished a two-week intensive Shakespeare conservatory, and all of them had done at least one of the Shakespeare conservatories (either this year or in a previous year).  It was an older group than the AFE trip also, as three of the teens were 18 or older and had graduated from high school.

I had some time this summer and could have gone myself, but arranging my own transportation and lodging at the last minute did not appeal to me, and my wife was not particularly interested in going there. She would travel to see world-class opera, particularly if the destination also had great art museums, but not for theater—the local productions are high enough quality for her and not much trouble to attend.  We had season tickets for Santa Cruz Shakespeare this year (as we did for Shakespeare Santa Cruz most previous years), and we’ve got season tickets for next year’s Jewel Theatre season.  We’ll also go to 8 tens at 8, an annual production of 8 new (or fairly new) ten-minute one-acts, and probably the best of the rest, a staged reading of another 8 from the pool considered for 8 tens at 8.  We also usually see the Shakespeare To Go performance, though not together—my wife sees it when they tour to her school, and I see the last performance they do, up on the UCSC campus. We’ll probably also go to the WEST Ensemble Players performances and the summer teen show by WEST. Though our son won’t be in them any more, we still know a number of the actors and they kids usually do a good job (tickets are cheap also).  If Santa Cruz Shakespeare puts on a holiday pantomime this year, we’ll probably go to that to, and possibly go to see the long-form improv group Freefall at one of their shows.

We’ll be going to one more WEST Performing Arts performance this year—a fund-raiser for their scholarship program this Friday.  This is not a rehearsed production—they’ve just requested a number of their more reliable actors to do monologues or sketches.  So my son will have one last chance to perform at West End Studio Theatre, though he hasn’t decided what he’ll do yet.

So with 14 or 15 theater events a year, and more available if we wanted them (UCSC stages several plays every quarter, but we rarely go to any of them), it isn’t as if I was starving for theater. My wife doesn’t get to anywhere near that number of operas (a few in San Jose and a few in San Francisco) and has to make do with broadcasts in the movie theater—and I wasn’t counting the broadcasts of National Theatre London that we see at the movie house, so I shouldn’t count opera broadcasts either. I’ve no cause for complaint.

Still, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has a bigger budget than anything in Santa Cruz and produces some pretty impressive shows—I would like to see them again. Maybe next year.

2014 June 9

Summer theater: Santa Cruz Shakespeare

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Tonight I went to a “Meet the Directors” event for donors to Santa Cruz Shakespeare.  (I’m a tiny donor, but I plan to give more this year, now that I know we can afford my son’s college expenses.)

The event was at Vino Cruz, a local wine shop that specializes in Santa Cruz Mountain vintners (there was wine served donated by Sones Cellars, local vintners who have been long-time supporters of Shakespeare Santa Cruz).  There was seating for about 20 people, with standing room for another 10 (I gave up my seat for some women who were less able than me to stand for the hour-long event).

Santa Cruz Shakespeare will have the Festival Glen at UCSC, and they’ll be doing two comedies: Merry Wives of Windsor and As You Like It (and the interns will be doing a no-budget production of the farce The Bard of Avon, which sounded hilarious as described by its director). I’ve already got my season tickets purchased (very nice seats), and I urge others to get theirs soon.  Anyone who will be in the Bay Area 2014 July 1–Aug 10 should try to get tickets for at least one performance.

The schedule and ticket sales can be found at http://santacruzshakespeare.org/  All ticket sales and donations go to provide the budget for next year’s shows—they are using a strict forward-funding model, with no borrowing.

Santa Cruz Shakespeare has been having some trouble getting the word out that there will be Shakespeare performed in the glen this summer and really wants as much word-of-mouth advertising as they can get.  So tell your friends about it!

Mike Ryan made some jokes about Santa Cruz Shakespeare having its first season, but having a 32-year history as well.  Many of the people associated with the productions this year (actors, directors, production staff, donors, dramaturges, …) have had long associations with Shakespeare Santa Cruz, some renewing associations that had lapsed.

There were no startling revelations from the directors, but I heard a little about how they viewed the plays and what period they were setting them in (roughly 1830s for As You Like It, and 1920s England for Merry Wives of Windsor).  The actor for Falstaff will be the same one who has appeared for the past few years in the Henry plays, and he’ll be great. Rehearsals have started (somewhere on Shaffer Road, on the far west side of Santa Cruz).

The costumes will be by B. Modern (who did a lot of the costuming for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, sometimes brilliantly and sometimes just a little too weird).

They couldn’t afford a large crew to reset the stage between plays, so they’ll be using a single set for all three plays (with minor modifications), to save money. The directors have discussed the set needs for each play and think that they have a workable compromise.  It won’t be quite the very elegant bare stage that I remember from a previous production of As You Like It (was it the 2006 production, or the 1997 one?), but it won’t be overly elaborate like the 2007 Tempest.

In any case, I’m very much looking forward to the summer season of Santa Cruz Shakespeare.

In other theater news, I also have ordered season tickets for the five shows that Jewel Theatre is doing: Saint Joan, Enter the Guards, Harper Regan, Complications from a Fall, and Woman in Mind.  We managed to select dates so that my son will be home from UCSB for 4 of them, so we got him a 4-play season ticket to go along with our 5-play season ticket.  (See http://www.JewelTheatre.net for more information.)

 

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