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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 August 1

Santa Cruz Shakespeare has released Hamlet photos

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Santa Cruz Shakespeare has now released photos from their production of Hamlet on their blog. This complements their previous release of photos from Midsummer Night’s Dream.

For my review of the two productions, see my previous post.

 

2016 July 30

2016 Santa Cruz Shakespeare season

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This year, Santa Cruz Shakespeare is presenting two plays by their professional cast in their brand new Audrey Stanley Grove in Delaveaga Park, in addition to a play performed entirely by their unpaid interns. The main plays this year are Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, two of the most popular plays Shakespeare wrote, and the intern’s play is Orlando, an adaptation by Sarah Ruhl of Virginia Woolf’s novel.  I’ve now seen both the Shakespeare productions and will be seeing Orlando after it opens.  The company has posted photos of the Midsummer cast, but not (yet) of the Hamlet cast.

I always enjoy seeing plays in repertory, seeing the same actors in very different roles—there is too little repertory theater in the US nowadays, so the summers in Santa Cruz are a treat. I urge everyone to see both the Shakespeare plays this year, but if you can only see one, Hamlet is by far the better production. They made a number of changes to the play, in order to get equal roles for both genders, and I worried about what damage might have been done by making Hamlet, Polonius, Rosenkrantz, and Guildenstern all female roles (not women playing men’s roles, which is often done, but Hamlet as the princess of Denmark).

There were a couple of unedited lines in Hamlet that didn’t quite work (like referring to Polonius’s beard), but Kate Eastwood Norris was the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen—utterly convincing in all of Hamlet’s varied moods.  A lot of the lines that seem overplayed in most productions resonated with new depth.

The very simple set and effective lighting (having Hamlet’s shadow on one of the towers during a soliloquoy, for example) increased the impact of the lines. Having the fog come in during the performance was an unplanned, but mood-enhancing addition—I can’t promise that in future performances!  The costumes for Hamlet were not distracting, but the “Denmark” of this production seems to be set in no particular century and on no particular continent.

All the actors were at the top of their form opening night, and the audience gave a standing ovation (which is not all that common for Santa Cruz audiences—we tend to be a tough crowd). Even the Player King’s speech, which was left in, not hacked down to a couple of lines as in many productions, was moving.  (My wife agreed with Polonius that it was a bit too long, but was surprised at how a good performance made even the rather overblown lines resonate.)

Patty Gallagher did a marvelous job as Polonius—her Polonius was a wholly convincing pedantic counselor, and the gender swap making her Laertes and Ophelia’s mother instead of father may actually have made the role more believable. (Polonius has always behaved more like an old woman than an old man.) Having Ophelia cast as a black woman and Claudius as a black man did raise some questions about Polonius’s earlier relationship with Claudius and his dead brother.

There were some parts cut that we missed, like Horatio’s attempt to kill himself at the end, and some we didn’t (they cut out Fortinbras, who never seemed to belong in the play anyway).

In both plays I was impressed by Larry Paulsen (Puck and Philostrate in Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Player King and Gravedigger in Hamlet).  It is, perhaps, an unusual choice to make an older man be Puck, but his Puck was the best part of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bernard Addison as Nick Bottom was also quite good (better than his Claudius in Hamlet, which was solid, but not inspired).  The two women, Katherine Ko as Hermia and Mary Cavett as Helena, were good, and for once the heights of the actresses matched the insults in their fight scene.  Kate Eastwood Norris was quite good as Penny (not Peter) Quince, with the extra byplay of having a crush on Nick Bottom adding to the normally rather thin lines for Quince.

But the directing and costuming for Midsummer were a bit lackluster—the fairies moped about the stage like hungover teenagers wearing boring pajamas.  Patty Gallagher as First Fairy bossed them around and had some rather stylized movements that seemed rather awkward—it might have been better to let one of interns have that role and given the fairies a bit of life.

I guess I’ve been spoiled by having seen Danny Scheie’s 1991 production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Festival Glen by Shakespeare Santa Cruz—it is hard for a rather mundane, traditional performance like the one Terri McMahon directed this year to compete, even if there were some good additions (like the miming of the potions by Puck and Oberon).

On more mundane matters—the Grove is a comfortable place to see a play (but bring blankets—it gets colder even than the Festival Glen did), but it is rather inaccessible by public transit, bike, or walking (the two-lane access road to the park is very narrow and unlit). We ended up taking taxi and Uber, but cellphone reception in the Grove can be a bit spotty, so calling a taxi can be tough, and the taxi drivers don’t have any idea yet where Santa Cruz Shakespeare is, and the official address on Upper Park Road is misleading.  We ended up walking out of the park after Midsummer Night’s Dream, after the taxi we called got lost, and we met a taxi at the golf-club clubhouse after Hamlet, choosing there as a more findable location.

I like the new benches for the reserved seating, but they need cup holders or, better, little shelf tables on the back of the bench in front (which I saw they had started to install). The boxes for the groundlings are a bit confusing, as there was no indication whether any of them had been reserved by a group.  Perhaps they need a sign for each box, either saying in red “reserved” or in blue “open for groundlings”.

The bathrooms are rather hastily installed trailers, but they did have hot water, which one doesn’t always get in public bathrooms these days.

The Grove was finished on time (about 3 months from permission to start to opening night), if not quite on budget (they still need to raise about 16% of the cost of the Grove, being $219k short).  They are also looking for donations to fund next year’s production, since they are using a forward funding model, where the ticket sales and donations this year determine next year’s budget, rather than building up debt the way the former Shakespeare Santa Cruz company did.  (It was that debt to UCSC that killed SSC.)

So go to https://www.santacruzshakespeare.org/ and buy tickets, make donations, or both!

2016 February 25

Santa Cruz Shakespeare announces 2016 season

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I attended the season announcement party for Santa Cruz Shakespeare tonight, at which they announced their line up for the season.  They really need a blockbuster season this year, to help pay for the $1,000,000 construction of the new “Grove at Delaveaga Park” performance space, for which they have a 2-year lease.  Naturally, they picked very well known and popular plays:

  • Hamlet
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream

For the Fringe play by the interns (which is often as good or better than the plays by the professional actors, except for the inevitable intern who can’t project well enough for outdoor theater—but they’ve had that problem sometimes with professional actors), they chose a less well-known play:

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, adapted as a play by Sarah Ruhl.

According to the play’s web site, it was first performed in 2010, so it is a relatively recent work.

Mike Ryan is continuing the practice of gender-balanced casting, which should work well for the couples in Midsummer Night’s Dream—that play is nearly gender-balanced as is. 

For Hamlet, the title role will be played by a woman.  I don’t know whether she will be “Princess of Denmark” or whether she will be playing a male role. I think that Hamlet could be a female role, though the parts of the plot involving Ophelia would change somewhat in tone.  If Hamlet becomes a female role, what about Horatio? Also, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be male, female, or one of each, equally plausibly. I’m curious to see how they work this out.

I’ve seen an all-female production of Hamlet in Santa Cruz (April 2012, produced by San Francisco State University, and presented by Jewel Theatre), in which the roles retained their original gender, despite an all-female cast—it was a good production, particularly for student work.  I suspect that SSC will try a more challenging adaptation, in which some of the roles change gender, rather than cross-casting the actors.

Of course, the point of having this season-announcement party for “Producer’s Circle” donors was to ask people to give to the capital campaign, in addition to their annual giving for the operating expenses.  They’ve raised about 67% of what they need, but that still leaves about $330,000 to raise in the next month or two.  I think that they’ll be going public with the capital campaign soon, once they’ve got a few more big donors to make the remaining “ask” seem more feasible.

They are getting a no-interest loan, I believe, backed by donor pledges, so that they can start construction as soon as the money is promised.  The idea is that people can pledge money to be given over the next three years, and the loan makes the money available immediately for the upfront construction costs.  My wife and I have already donated to the 2016 budget and were planning to donate to the 2017 budget, and we’ll probably give something to the capital campaign, but we haven’t figured out how much yet.

The planning permits are approved, I believe, so they are ready to start work on the site as soon as the money is available. They had planning documents at the party, and I spent some time leafing through them.  They look pretty good, but it doesn’t seem like there will be any aisle lighting (though I supposed they could add non-permanent rope lights or equivalents).  There wasn’t aisle lighting at the Festival Glen either, and its lack did not seem to cause  any problems.

They’re starting their season a little later this year (July 12), with the hope that the delayed start will give them enough time to finish building everything.

2016 January 21

Santa Cruz Shakespeare—Oregon Shakespeare

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Santa Cruz Shakespeare (SCS) is organizing a trip to Ashland to see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) before the SCS season starts. It sounds like fun, but …

  • The trip is March 16–March 19, 2016, at the end of exam week, with grades due on March 22.
  • It costs $1250 a person (a bit high for a bus trip, 3 plays, and 3 nights of hotel—a lot more than the AFE trips my son took that saw 4–5 plays and several workshops).
  • Deposits have to be made before Feb 6.
  • They are going all that way by bus and then only seeing 3 plays.
  • My wife is not excited by the plays they plan to see:
    • an adaptation of Glibert and Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard
    • Twelfth Night
    • Great Expectations

I must confess, I’m not particularly excited by those choices either. Yeoman of the Guard is not the best of G&S, and I’ve no idea what OSF is doing in the adaptation. Adding country music does not sound appealing to me.

I think my wife and I both like Twelfth Night, but my wife is afraid that I’ll be comparing it to a performance that I saw in Berkeley when I was a grad student at Stanford (so almost 40 years ago). That performance included the a capella group Oak, Ash, and Thorn singing all the songs that are alluded to in the script (there are a lot of them), in addition to good acting and staging. I doubt I’ll ever see as good a Twelfth Night again. What amazes me is that the band is still together and still (sometimes) performing in the Bay Area.  (Hey, maybe Santa Cruz Shakespeare could hire them to do a great Twelfth Night performance!)

Great Expectations is not my favorite Dickens story (actually, I’m not sure I have a favorite Dickens story—it’s been a long time since I’ve read any of them).

Of course, so early in the season OSF only has 4 plays running (the SCS trip doesn’t include River Bride, which seemed the most interesting of the 4 plays running early.  Later on the OSF season gets more varied and more interesting, but SCS will be in rehearsal or production then, and unable to run a tour bus up to Ashland.

Maybe some year SCS will do the trip during UCSC’s spring break and OSF’s first plays of the season will be more enticing—then my wife and I might find the prospect more alluring (though going up later in the season, when it would be possible to see a wider variety of plays, is still more appealing).

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