July 16, 2009

NTC's 'Inherit the Wind,'' July 2006

Deep homo sapien panic

By Mark Langton

IJ Correspondent

Once again, the now-homeless Novato Theater Company (formerly the Novato Community Players) has risen above both adversity and expectations by pulling off an absolutely riveting production of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s “Inherit the Wind,” which had its opening Oct. 29 in their temporary venue at Unity of Marin in Hamilton Field.

Not since the last time Bay Area theater legend John Brebner sat in NTC’s visiting director’s chair and made A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” the surprise hit of last year’s winter season, has this 81-year-old, comfortable old shoe of a company turned out anything of this caliber. In years past, the company’s offerings could be less like a night of theater and more like a night of Bingo. Brebner really should visit more often.

Coming at a time when the U.S. political climate has taken a sharp and unprecedented veer to the right, when religious fundamentalism appears to be on the rise both at home and abroad and Creationism (or, as it is called today, “intelligent design”) is once again being pushed as an alternative to Darwin, “timely” doesn’t even say it.

Ripped, as they say, from today’s headlines, the play is the fictionalized retelling of the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial" (as it was called in the newspapers of the day), in which Tennessee schoolteacher John Scopes was arrested for teaching Darwin's theories to his high school biology students in violation of state law. The trial became a national cause celebre when The Baltimore Sun, represented by the great journalist (and dyed-in-the-wool atheist) H. L. Mencken, hired famed attorney Clarence Darrow to defend the young schoolteacher. On the other side of the fence, the attorney for the prosecution was the crusading demagogue and three-time Presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan.

The Scopes character (played by Buzz Halsing, who is also credited as Assistant Director and Music Director) is named Cates in this story, and Halsing plays him with great energy – perhaps too great. When he makes his first entrance among the crowds of milling townsfolk picketing the courthouse, he looks every bit like the bandleader in “The Music Man,” about to break into song, "free-style" (“I’m the new O.G. /and that rhymes with “D”/ and that stands for DARWIN…!”)

One of the more interesting performances of the evening was by actor Phil Wharton as the Darrow character, Henry Drummond. From the moment Wharton lopes into view -- with his baggy suit, funny tics, hair incongruously long underneath his snap-brim fedora, he looked like a cross between Groucho Marx and a clean-shaven Abe Lincoln. We like him on sight, and suspect we have an character on our hands. We are not disappointed.

Another interesting take on a role is Joe Peer’s interpretation of E.K. Hornbeck, clearly meant to represent journalist and social satirist H.L. Mencken (sometimes called “The American Nietzsche”). His ongoing commentary and mutterings are pure Menckenisms; and, while he doesn’t appear to trip over himself to comfort the afflicted, he still never hesitates to afflict the comfortable.

Conspicuous by their presence in crowd scenes are assorted small-town types and characters related to the principals. There is the apoplectic fundamentalist minister, Rev. Brown, played with gusto by Steve North, who gives the Bryan character, Mathew Brady (played by Mark Jordan) a run for his money when it comes to hellfire and brimstone. Either actor could have played either role. There is the latter’s painfully conflicted daughter and Cates’ paramour, Rachel Brown, a nervous but tasteful vision in white who chews her lip a lot (the vision thanks to the costume designs of producer Brenda Weidner, et al.). She does a journeyman’s job with a thankless role.

The staging was inventive and, at times, almost choreographed like a square dance. It was just as old-fashioned, anyway: When the two principals begin, they stand at far stage left and far stage right, striking stiff profiles that bring to mind those old textbook drawings of the Lincoln-Douglass debates – very stylized and artfully done. Also, Brebner’s last-minute decision to make the audience the jury box was inspired. The resulting eye contact with both lawyers during their summations made them that much more persuasive, and us that much more engaged.

There is a nobility to this work, ennobled further by this dignified production. When the two men come to their final showdown and the barrier of dogma is breached, it is, finally, Darrow/Drummond’s words that lifts us up, again. It is not the ring of oratory but the ring of truth, not the logic, but the sheer poetry of his argument, that transforms this play into something larger. Who can not be stirred when Drummond/Darrow pleads with the court, with anyone who will listen, to open their minds? “Don’t you understand?” he shouts. “That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward, BACKWARD through the glorious ages…when bigots burned the man who dared to bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”

July 09, 2009

'Humble Boy'

Robyn Wiley and Matthew Purdon
star in a modern reduction of 'Hamlet'

The quantum mechanics of bees

Or, to be a bee,
or to let bees
let bees be bees

By Mark Langton
IJ Correspondent

Bravo to Ross Valley Players for taking on the Northern California premiere of a difficult, but beautifully written, contemporary work like “Humble Boy” by hot new British playwright Charlotte Jones. It opened Friday night at the Barn Theatre in Ross.

“Humble Boy” is a rich honeycomb of poetry and science, wrapped in an English comedy of country manners, that, we soon discover, is actually a reduction of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

Playwright Jones’ willingness to take on huge themes -- death, bereavement, immortality, betrayal, love -- is equaled only by her intellectual curiosity when it comes to big ideas. And they don’t come much bigger than astrophysics and quantum mechanics.

Felix Humble (Mathew Purdon) is an overweight, somewhat overwrought astrophysicist from Cambridge who has returned to his family home for the funeral of his father.

Purdon’s Felix is a moody, indecisive young man, given to suicidal ideation. Remind you of anyone? His professor-cum-beekeeper father has just died, and he’s just discovered that his mother is already keeping company with another old coot, whom she intends to marry with, what Felix feels is, unseemly haste. Sound familiar? Perhaps so, but this play is no tragedy the way “Hamlet” is tragic. It’s an elegant comedy that charms and amuses with dry, parlor room dialogue that would make Tom Stoppard proud.

Once Humble's mother, Flora (Robyn Wiley) comes on the scene we begin to understand where his dysfunction comes from, as she starts to skewer him verbally, treating him like a simple-minded, red-headed stepchild. In point of fact, he's a research fellow in theoretical physics at Cambridge, hoping soon to find "the mother of all theories, a unified field theory" that will reconcile Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. At present, it has put him into an existential spin.

“The equations don't exist for what I can already sense,” says Felix. “ I can't ... hold all the notes, all the variables, all the harmonies in my head..” When those are replaced by the sounds of a buzzing hive, we cannot help but fear for our dear Felix.

His mother, Flora, is overbearing in the extreme, blaming her own misery on her son, her late husband, the weather, bees, pointing her finger at everyone but back at herself. She aims her comments at her son like a circus knife-thrower, wounding him with each successive throw -- tossing out stingers like, "I have been doubly unlucky in my life. To marry a biologist and give birth to a physicist.” Her very presence is so toxic to Felix that he actually stutters in her presence.

Felix discovers she is having an affair with a neighbor, George Pye, played by Simon Boddington. Pye has no love for Felix, and the feeling is mutual. It is amusing to note that Flora's married name is Humble and George's last name is Pye. Given Jones' penchant for punning, perhaps it is a suggestion of what Flora feels like she's eating when suffering a mouthful of the social-climbing George.

The cast is completed by George's daughter Rosie (Mary Beth Smith), Felix’ ex-girlfriend from seven years back; also Mercy Lott ( Lynn Stofle), a neurotic family friend -- and the play's female Polonius -- and Jim, the Gardener (David Bintinger), just a bare wisp of a fella. The Hamlet parallels are clever, almost glib, but never truly integral, nor do they prevent the play from telling a story of its own.

One performance that stood out as absolutely authentic was Mary Beth Smith’s Rosie. The character is written somewhat one-dimensionally as merely promiscuous. In Smith’s hands, a stronger character emerged – almost a feminist sensibility in the quality of independence she brought to Rosie, never striking a false note.

Busy, buzzing bees are at the poetic heart of this extended metaphor of a play –indeed, even its title, “Humble Boy,” is but a short, onomatopoetic leap to “bumble bee”), and actress Wiley is perfectly cast as the queen of this buzzing little hive. Wiley even looks like a bee, with her large, black sunglasses, suggestive of huge insect eyes and her hair done up in (what else?) a beehive. She is groomed, politely dressed, but there is nothing coiffed about her anger, or her despair.

Even though this play was written with Felix at the center, due to the sheer force of Wiley’s talent and experience – and, what appeared to be Purdon’s lack of same – this interpretation has the mother at the fore.

Wiley’s scenes with Boddington’s George have a playful quality that contain moments of truth for both actors. George is written as kind of a social-climbing, pawing lout; however, this is not possible with Boddington. He has an air about him that is both capable and charming -- a virile, Sean Connery-like, rough-and-tumble Australian thing going on – though Boddington actually hails from Hartfordshire, England. Where h-urricanes, h-ardly, h-appen.

For all the talk about bees and black holes, however, it is as a son-and-mother story and a study in grief that Jones's play works best. Without giving anything away, there are transformative moments in the second half -- in the performances, the language and the tale -- that would confirm for anyone who pays attention that this is an important new work.

Just as Hamlet reminds Horatio that “there are more things in Heaven and Earth that can be dreamed" in his philosophy, so, too, does Felix discover not even a unifying theory of "everything" can truly explain the depths of the human heart. Could it explain the rules for, say, the kind of love that knows no law?

Go see this play. Make a bee-line for it.

Marin Independent Journal

July 05, 2009

Redemptive Americana: TheatreNOW's 'The Spitfire Grill'

By Mark Langton

Article Launched: 07/01/2008 04:30:38 PM PDT, Marin Independent Journal

As sweet and as corny as Kansas in August, high as a flag on the Fourth of July, if Bruce Springsteen was a Broadway musical he'd be "The Spitfire Grill," TheatreNOW's soaring production of redemptive Americana, playing through July 13 at Novato's Pacheco Playhouse.

Written by composer James Valcq and lyricist Fred Alley, who also collaborated on the book, "Spitfire Grill" has all the sweeping, anthemic grandeur of a Springsteen concert, with its distinctly American themes of triumph against impossible odds and the manifest destiny of a hardscrabble small town. Indeed, you could almost do away with the dialogue and turn it into a full-scale opera (or "folk opera," as mentioned after the show by a member of the cast); it's that universal. Its heart is that huge.

Based on the inexcusably sentimental 1996 movie by Lee David Ziotoff, this production never becomes too precious, thanks to the skillful hand of director Carl Jordan, the towering musical direction of David Shepard and the scaled-down producing talents of Gary Gonser and Parker Lee. While it has the wholesomeness of "Oklahoma!" or "The Music Man," it is not without the darker hues of any song on Springsteen's "Nebraska," or the brooding rock opera of "Born to Run." And with its plot references to rape, incest and manslaughter, "The Spitfire Grill" could never be accused of trafficking in treacle. It lets us know that it's midnight in America -- and this is no time to get cute.

Witness just some of the lyrics of one of its better songs, "Diggin' Stone":

"Shoulder to shoulder / diggin' stone / pay hard cash for all you own / a man is more than blood and bone / when he's shoulder to shoulder / diggin' stone ...."

It has "John Henry," Woody Guthrie and Bruuuuuuce just written all over it.

Still, it is not unlike "The Music Man" in that it follows a timeworn, albeit successful, formula. We've seen it before ("The Foreigner," "The Bishop's Wife," "Being There"). A suspicious stranger comes to town when the curtain rises, and changes everyone for the better by the time it falls.

The stranger in this case is Percy Talbot, a tough-as-nails young woman, fresh out of prison, looking to make a fresh start by taking a job at the local grill in a small, mythical Wisconsin town - a town with the hopeful (indeed, biblical) name of Gilead. Angela Madaline-Johnson plays Percy with all the rough but eventually softened hues of a wild but wounded bird, who gradually lets us know why caged birds sing.

The cast also includes Linda Paplow as the seemingly unfriendly Hannah Ferguson, longtime owner of the Spitfire Grill. (Paplow's is a Cinderella story all its own, having stepped in brilliantly - only three weeks before the show opened - as understudy for original cast member Jamie Kelley, who had to drop out due to a medical emergency); the supremely talented Dani Innocenti-Beem as Shelby Thorpe, abused wife of the defensively macho Caleb (handily played by Bryan Hendon); and Drew Gasparini as the town's handsome young sheriff - two strong and gifted actors who give nuanced renderings of what easily could have been a couple of two-dimensional roles. To her credit, Julie Ekoue-Totou reins in her own prodigious talents as Effy, the town gossip, and Jim Fye and Larry Williams alternate as a mysterious figure in the shadows introduced only as the Visitor.

They are an attractive group, with a pleasing vocal blend (in evidence in ensemble numbers like "Shoot the Moon," "Ice and Snow" and "Come Alive Again"), and if a couple of solos crack (as with Hannah's "Forgotten Lullaby," a must-listen for any kid thinking of shipping out to Iraq) or strain (as with Percy's difficult opener, "A Ring Around the Moon"), it is because they are rendered with a courage and a passion that is easy to forgive.

The challenges of the small Pacheco Playhouse stage are overcome by the brilliant set design of Steve Murch, which has more optical illusions than a drawing by M.C. Escher.

Enough cannot be said about the professionalism of the three generations of women in this cast, who are the standouts of this production - particularly Innocenti-Beem. When her classically trained voice turns to sotto voce ("When Hope Goes," "Wild Bird"), everyone in the audience sounds as if they caught the same cold. She's that good.

Go see this show. Let's try to keep politics outta this, but if you've ever been stirred by a Barack Obama speech, you will be stirred by "The Spitfire Grill" - and for one very good reason: It has the audacity to give us hope.


What: "The Spitfire Grill" by James Valcq and Fred Alley

Who: TheatreNOW

Where: Pacheco Playhouse, 484 Ignacio Blvd., Novato

Tickets: $19-$22

Information: 883-4498, http://www.theatrenow.org/, http://www.pachecoplayhouse.org/

Rating: Five out of five stars

Mark Langton can be reached at mark.langton@comcast.net.