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2019 January 9

8 tens @ 8, 2019

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Last weekend, my wife, my son, and I went to the opening nights for the Actors’ Theatre one-act production 8 Tens @ 8, which runs through February 3.

This year (2019) is their 24th season for this festival, which has grown to 16 one-act plays (8 on A nights, 8 on B nights).  The one-act plays are submitted by playwrights, and a committee of five judges select plays from the submissions for production. This year each of the 16 plays had its own director, and there were 26 cast members each of whom played in one or two plays.  Three of the directors (Helene Simkin Jara, Marcus Cato, and Nat Robinson) were also serving as actors (though not in the plays they were directing).

The plays are performed at Center Stage, a small theater that seats 89 people (including the one wheelchair spot).  Both opening nights were sold out, but we counted 5 empty seats on Saturday night, so some people must have been no-shows.

I won’t provide any spoilers in this post, but I will say that both the A and B nights were equally good (sometimes they pack the best plays into the A night, but this year they seem to have distributed them more evenly).  The writing, acting, and directing were a bit uneven, as you would expect with 16 different playwrights, sixteen different directors, and sixteen different casts.  One of the good things about one-act plays is that if you don’t like one, it will be over soon and replaced by a different one. Overall, I think that the quality was pretty high this year, with at least half the plays being well worth seeing.

The plays are performed as two groups of 4 each night, with an intermission between the groups. In the past, we’ve noticed a tendency to put the best plays at the end of each group, but they don’t seem to have done that this year. Somewhat unusually, the three of us agreed on which one we liked best each night. We liked best Tempus Fugit by Greg Atkins (the first play on Night A) and The Rug by Brian Spencer (the 7th play on Night B).

2018 November 6

Back from Goleta

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Yesterday I came back from a weekend trip down to UCSB to see my son perform in a play.

Originally, I was going to stay in a bedroom in Goleta that I reserved through AirBnB, but the host cancelled at the last moment (Thursday, when I was taking Amtrak down on Friday).  The reason for cancellation was a good one—her mother had died and she had to fly to China for the funeral—but it left me scrambling for housing.  Weeks earlier, I had tried the UCSB faculty club and a few of the local hotels, but they were all booked up—they still were on Thursday.  I checked for other AirBnB listings, but the only ones within 3 miles of campus were all booked.  Finally, I ended up at the new Hilton Garden Inn at the corner of Storke and Hollister, at a much higher room rate than I would have had if I’d booked there originally, instead of trying AirBnB.  The AirBnB cancellation meant that trip ended up costing me $550 more than I had expected. The reason I had so much trouble getting a room turned out to be that last weekend was the “Parent and Family Night” for UCSB, so there were many more people wanting to be in Goleta than usual.

I took a different route to UCSB this time: Highway 17 express bus, Amtrak 4796 bus to San Luis Obispo, and Pacific Surfliner to Goleta, though the return trip was my usual Coast Starlight from Santa Barbara and Highway 17 Express.  The Amtrak buses are marginally more comfortable than Greyhound, and the King City stop and lunch break is at a MacDonald’s instead of a convenience store, but the bus part of the trip was still uncomfortable.  I had chosen the Surfliner because it has a much better on-time record than the Coast Starlight—even though my margin for getting to the Friday night performance was tighter with the Surfliner, I felt that there was a better chance of making it.

Indeed the Surfliner was only a few minutes late, and I caught a taxi from the Goleta train station directly to the UCSB campus.  The taxi was a bit pricier than I expected ($20 for the 3.2-mile ride), but I got to the Studio Theater on campus before the house opened.

My son was performing in the Fall 2018 One Acts, which are capstone projects for the five students in the directing concentration of the Theater Arts BA.  He was cast as Roderick in The Ballad of 423 and 424 by Nicholas C. Pappas, who is a faculty member at Moorpark College, a community college near Simi Valley, about 76 miles from UCSB.  It turns out that the director for the play, Stefan James, had been a student of Pappas at Moorpark and had pushed to have the play included in the fall lineup.

All five of the plays in the show were good—well directed and well acted, but The Ballad of 423 and 424 was clearly the best of them.  OK, I’m a parent and I’m likely to be biased, but it really did have the best script. I’m hoping I get a chance to see some more work by Nicholas Pappas—he packed more humor and more pathos into a 15-minute one act than I’ve seen in many full-length plays.

he Ballad of 423 and 424 was the last play on the program, traditionally the place for the strongest or funniest piece, so I was hopeful that it would be particularly good.  All I knew about the piece going in was the description of the parts that had been on the callboard and the description on the Playscripts licensing site:

When a new neighbor moves in next door to one of the most popular and reclusive novelists in the world, she knocks his entire obsessive routine out of balance. In this opening-and-closing-door ballet of love and loneliness, will either be brave enough to answer the other’s knock?

It turned out to be a nearly perfect part for my son—he was completely convincing as Roderick, and his body language and timing were just right. There were more laughs for the play than for any of the other comic pieces and more tears from the audience in the sad moments.  Even seeing the performance three times (Fri, Sat, Sun), I still teared up at saddest scene.

At opening night his performance was praised by several people after the show, including the head of the BFA acting program (Daniel Stein) and the playwright himself, who had come to UCSB to see the performance. After the second show, he also got praise on his comedic timing from a man who had been in comedy for 30 years (the parent of one of the other actors).  As a parent, I was very gratified to see his excellence recognized by others—I’ve not just been fooling myself that acting is something he has gotten really good at.

Of course, he’s been acting for 18 of his 22 years and has been in over 80 classes and productions, so he’s had some time to polish his craft.

I was not able to take videos or even still photos during the performances, but I did get a few posed shots after the performances were over, before the stage crew struck the set.

2018 May 3

Season theater tickets purchased for 2018

In the past week, I have bought my season tickets for both Santa Cruz Shakespeare and Jewel Theatre. For both, we ended up buying three subscriptions—for my wife, my son, and me, although there is one of the Jewel Theatre performances that my son will not be in town for.

The SCS tickets are only available to “members” at the moment, but go on sale to the general public on May 15 (but for $50 you can become a member right away).  By buying tickets on the first day that sales opened to members, we managed to get ideal seating. We are going to everything:

  • Love’s Labours Lost
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Venus in Fur
  • Men I’m Not Married To (the interns’ production)
  • Doll’s House (staged reading—free)
  • The Taming (staged reading—free)

In fact, we’re going to Love’s Labours Lost twice, because my mother-in-law will be in town during the previews, when our son can’t go, so we’ll go with her to the preview and with our son to a showing later in the season.

Similarly, the Jewel Theatre tickets are only available to subscribers (they haven’t even posted the new season on their website yet), but you can become a new subscriber at no cost (other than tickets).  We are only going to 4 of the 5 shows, because we see no point to going to their musical.  (I don’t like musicals in general, and my wife likes some musicals, but not this year’s.)  We’re also not bothering with their non-subscription holiday show—again it is a musical we have no interest in. The shows we are seeing are

  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane
  • Red Velvet
  • Breaking the Code
  • The Explorers Club

The Jewel Theatre plays look like an interesting season, though I’m a bit worried about Julie James having cast herself as the lead in the first one—she has a habit of casting herself in parts intended for much younger actresses, and she is almost old enough to be playing the mother rather than the daughter in this play.  Still, it is less of a stretch than some of the roles she has tried to pull off in previous years.

We bought subscriptions to Actors’ Theatre at the beginning of the year, since they start selling in January.  We still have two plays to go in that subscription:

  • The Realistic Jones
  • Red

This weekend, we are going to a non-subscription theater event: WEST Ensemble Players’ production of Antigone. WEST Ensemble Players are the grade 10–12 invitation-only troupe for WEST Performing Arts, and they are usually pretty good.  We enjoyed the performance of She Kills Monsters that they did in February.

2017 December 10

2018 Santa Cruz Shakespeare season

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Last Thursday, Santa Cruz Shakespeare announced their summer 2018 season to donors at a season-announcement party—they’ll be doing a public announcement later this week.  For readers of my blog, here is the line-up, slightly in advance of the public announcement:

  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Love’s Labours Lost
  • Venus in Fur (by David Ives)

The fringe play has not been selected yet (or, at any rate, not finalized).

The theme is apparently love and sex, with the non-Shakespearean play selected to appeal to modern adult audiences (as well as being a two-hander, to keep down production costs).

Santa Cruz Shakespeare is also starting a new educational program.  The Romeo and Juliet production will stay an extra week at the end of the summer season, giving morning performances for high school groups from Santa Cruz County.  I think they said that they plan to offer the show free to Title 1 schools and for about $10 to other schools. I believe that they are looking for donations (or more grants) to lower the cost of tickets further or provide scholarships for students who can’t afford even the reduced price.  They don’t have this new program on their education page yet, so I can’t give any details.

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.

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