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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 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.

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 18

Theatrical weekend

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This weekend has been a busy one for me—I went to three different theatrical performances:

Saturday night: 8 tens @ 8
Each year, the Actors’ Theatre puts on a show consisting of 8 10-minute one-act plays, which they select from submitted manuscripts.  (I wrote a little of the history in 8 Tens @ 8 in 2016). My wife and I went to see the A show on Saturday night—we’ll go to the B show in a couple of weeks.  The plays were not all of equal quality—not in the writing, not in the directing, and not in the acting.
Our favorite of the A show was You Too, by Tim Woods, directed by Scott Kravitz.  The lines were good, the characters believable, and acting and directing spot-on.
Also excellent was A Shared View, by Mary Caroline Rogers, directed by Audrey Stanley.  The script was a little less strong, but the acting and directing were excellent (both MarNae Taylor and Marcus Cato were well cast).  Good Medicine by Rod McFadden was fun, but very predictable. Flirting with Age, by Jack Spagnola (the only author without a blurb in the program), was a pretty predictable farce, but we enjoyed seeing MarNae in a very different role than she had in A Shared View. It is always a good idea to end with a farce (or at least a comedy), so that people leave feeling good about the show. Flirting with Age was a good choice for this position (though Good Medicine might also have worked, it wasn’t quite as fun).  
Threatened Panda Fights Back was too silly for the somewhat serious theme of extinction—the costuming was fun, but I was not otherwise impressed with the play. The Italian Prisoner by Paul Lewis had directorial problems (the singer was much too loud relative to memory of the boy Joey Rosen), the acting was a bit wooden, and the script too obviously borrowing from Tosca. Following Ms. Sergeant was a good effort with a rather flawed script—the sudden confessional mood seemed out of character for both characters, and the resolution too forced. Janis Gives Comfort was trying to handle “death and sex” as a theme in a nostalgic vein, but it didn’t resonate at all with me—perhaps I just didn’t care enough about Janis Joplin, who the main character was obsessed with.
Sunday morning: Winter’s Tale
The Del Mar Theater had the broadcast of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale performed by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company from the Garrick Theatre.  The Winter’s Tale is not often performed, because it is a somewhat muddled combination of a number of themes (jealousy, young lovers in disguise, rustic merriment, …) better handled in other plays. Branagh assigned himself the choice role of Leontes, but then over-acted the part. OK, it isn’t the subtlest part Shakespeare ever wrote, but it doesn’t call for crumpling up on the stage with stomach cramps all the time.  Setting the initial scene at a Victorian Christmas party exchanging token presents also seemed rather forced. Judi Dench as Paulina was very good, though, and the dancing in the rustic scenes quite impressive (if a little more balletic than country).  It was worth going to see The Winter’s Tale, but there’s no reason be sad if you missed it.
The Del Mar had put the broadcast in one of their small upstairs theaters, which sold out—I think that there was a high-school class getting credit for attendance. It would have been better in the larger theater downstairs.  But the Del Mar was definitely the right theater to show the broadcast in, as it has the closest that Santa Cruz gets to the gilt plaster ornamentation of the Garrick Theatre.
Sunday evening: Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard
West Performing Arts did a theatrical performance of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard, using only 6 actors (5 female, 1 male) and 3 musicians. The actors were fairly young (middle school or early high school, I think). One review on a homeschool mailing list said “Very different from everything else I’ve seen going on locally in this age group,” but it seemed to me to be pulling together many of the theatrical techniques I’ve seen WEST developing over the past few years with their teen actors. 
They did a lot of chorus work, like at the Shakespeare conservatory; they did a lot with solid colored lights and backlighting (using their LED floods); they had movement pieces like the ones S. Kate Anderson had done for Call of the Wild; there was a “seduction” scene done in single-word lines, inspired by a Carol Burnett sketch that my son and another teen actor had performed at AFE (under WEST direction); and the actors kept changing roles, with a hat or a shawl to mark the characters (also from a Shakespeare conservatory). They had a dance scene under blacklight with fluorescent makeup (WEST has learned something since the days they tried Star Wars with glow-in-the-dark paint—fluorescence is much more visible and controllable than luminescence).
They were pretty true to the plot of the book, while making a very theatrical production, and I was impressed by how well they pulled off a rather difficult bit of theater.  The next generation of WEST actors is going to do well. I was only sad that the light rain had kept people away, and the house was only about 80% full—the performance was good enough that they should have been selling out every night.  (Of course, with only 6 actors, the built-in audience of family and friends is smaller than when they have a larger cast.)

My weekend was busy (in addition to the theater, I did a bit of blogging and spent most of a day putting together a course fee request for two-quarter version of the Applied Electronics course), but my wife was even busier, as she went to a Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturday morning, at a different theater chain than the Shakespeare broadcast on Sunday morning.

2016 January 7

8 Tens @ 8 in 2016

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I just bought my tickets for the 8 Tens @ 8 shows for this year. I did not manage to get opening-night seats (sold out), but had no trouble getting other nights I wanted, even though the performances will be at Center Stage, which has a tiny house (89 seats).  They’re scheduled to perform from tomorrow 2016 Jan 8 through Sunday 2016 Feb 7, with six shows a week (a total of 26 shows).  The shows usually sell out, so the total audience will be about 2300.

This is an annual event for Actors’ Theatre, consisting of 8 ten-minute one-acts.  Each year they solicit scripts and produce the eight that they like best. A few years ago they started doing another 8 semi-staged readings of another 8 runners-up (“The Best of the Rest”), and last year they started doing two full sets of 8 plays each, as they are doing this year. So there will be 13 performances of the A set and 13 performances of the B set.

They started with 53 plays submitted in summer of 1999 and have grown to almost 300 submissions this year (so each entrant has over a 5% chance of their play being selected to be produced—not bad odds for a $10 entry fee). [Numbers from a Good Times article, info about submission fees from http://www.sccat.org/#!play-submissions/cxkq]

They’ve managed to get 17 different directors for the 16 plays this year (two directors for one of the plays) [http://www.sccat.org/#!auditions/c21ka], so the styles of each play will be rather different, though the sets can’t be very different, as they only have one minute to change sets between plays.  If it is like previous years, several of the directors will also be acting in other plays and many of the actors will be in several plays (probably just as well, as Center Stage has only a tiny backstage).

I understand that Jewel Theatre is still managing Center Stage, as well as the new Colligan Theater at the Tannery.  It’s good that they have two stages to manage now, as the 8 tens @ 8 performances are on some of the same nights as Jewel Theatre’s performances of Fallen Angels.

Picking 8 tens @ 8 performances we could go to was a bit tricky, because we had to avoid conflicts with Jewel Theatre’s Fallen Angels, with West Performing Art’s performance of Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard, and with the Santa Cruz Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s 1st. In order to fit everything in, we’re having to double up one weekend, with performances to go to on both Saturday and Sunday night.  (Weekday nights with work the next day are a bit tough for us.)

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