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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.

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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.

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.

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