Monday, February 26, 2018

Chekhov Gets An Updating

The Illinois Theatre Association (ITA) continues on in Tucson, AZ.  Jan and I spent an invigorating afternoon at the U. of AZ directing studio where John Muszynski directed a new play by MFA student Fly Steffens.  Had a nice chat with[JDY1]  John after the show and also ITA stalwart Donna Burke who was visiting. We may want to set up an AZ alum chapter for ITA.

The play was a mind bending contemporary retelling of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.   In 95 intermissionless minutes it covers most of the Chekhov plot, but adds strange noises, recorded passages, interior monologues, multiple voices and a bear that erupts out of the birch forest with a primal sexual force that snares Masha and several other of the characters. Moscow is a myth and so is life in the burbs.  That may be why the author extends the title to:  Three Sisters, or: Insignificance is sickening and love means nothing at all;  all it is is the strength to keep going on no matter what.   No matter what, this was challenging stuff, excellently produced,  and with a young and exuberant cast.  Kudos all around.


Friday, February 23, 2018

Wrath Lacks Grit

It was serendipity that placed us at the Rogue Theatre in Tucson to see the Frank Galati adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath last month.  The serendipitous part was that it was also my father’s birthday. He would have been 112 years old on January 27th 2018.  As we watched the retelling of this iconic novel I kept thinking back to Dad’s own life. He was not an “Okie” and he had made it through the 1930’s without the kind of disruption that plagued the Joad family, but his early life in rural Wisconsin prior to and during the First World War did have a parallel that is hard to ignore. He came from a large family that had a peripatetic downward spiraling existence. Dad's grandfather owned a farm but his father had been reduced to a tenant by just  before WWI.  Then dad's father disappeared during WWI and left my grandmother with five children.  Total poverty was the controlling factor until after the war and it forced my dad and his older sister to withdraw from high school to help support the family.  Dad's dad and my grandfather did re-appear after the war, but the family never recovered economically.  I apologize for this too long preamble on the Rogue Theatre production, yet what I was thinking about as the production began does have a bearing on my reaction. 

The production just plain started out for me on the wrong foot. In the early moments  several characters appeared bare footed and as they displayed their clean, smooth,  lily white, unblemished extremities all I was conscious of was that these our actors were miles away from struggling hard scrabble farmers in the midst of walking to California.  I am sorry for the bad pun but thank heaven most were shod fairly quickly and remained so for the duration.  Yet the lack of grit and sweat of that early image continued to nag.  

The chosen minimalist semi-Brechtian production style was understandable given the reasonably small wing space and the demands made by a large cast and multiples scenes. The stage was bare and backed by a full width cyclorama. A manual turntable dominated stage right.   Benches tables, poles, and some cloth were piled up to be used to construct the truck and all other scene locations.

Musically the show continued the Rogue’s use of live instrumental accompaniment. A violin and guitar/banjo player provided pre-show music and this couple continued into the play to underscore and provide scene bridges.  

Prominent for acting accolades was Matt Bowden’s appropriately smoldering Tom Joad-- all dark browed and bearded.  I also liked the contrast of Cole Potwardowski’s Al Joad.  There was youthful confidence along with the devilish sexuality of his uncontrollable glands.  Cynthia Meier’s Ma, I am sorry to say, just never connected with me. Not always was I sure that she effectively played her own suffering aspect before she declared that keeping on keeping on is the only possible human choice. She told the story, but the challenge of the role is to also live it and at that point the Brechtian narration seemed to win out over the emotion of the character.

The company, even at 20 strong, was faced with constant doubling making it hard to accept the minor players as anything other than narrators and scene shifters.  All but the most essential props were mimed and this choice also exposed us to differences in pantomime competency.  The ensemble did attack their challenging role changes with vigor and it made no matter if they were in a character or manning the spokes to rotate the turntable.  I did, however, feel for the girl who had to hold up a  blanket in Act II. It seemed like an eternity and my seatmate commented on it as well.  

Lighting and sound moved us effectively from scene to scene with scrim silhouettes and campfire flicker effects deserving of notice.  The best technical kudo was saved for last and the combination of sound and lighting and actor sound and movement during the climatic storm proved to be a fitting highlight of the performance.

The costumes were clearly dust bowl and kept to a palette of umbers and blues, but many looked too clean and unstressed for folks who are making a long, hot, sweaty, physically debilitating journey.  This may have been part of director Joe McGrath’s commitment to commenting on rather than submerging us in the grunge of the journey, but it also accounted for my feeling that some grit was missing in the production.  Luckily, as noted just above, the ending met the challenge. The culminating image of Rose of Sharon striking a pieta pose combined with nourishing the starving man was worth the price of admission alone. Perhaps it was just the jarring start that kept me from involvement early on, but I can’t help feeling that in the early going the pace just seemed too relaxed and lacking focus. Act II provided redeeming action and dramatic tension, but it was not enough to turn a very good production into a great one.  



Friday, February 16, 2018

Rain Rain Don't Go Away

We've had over an inch of rain in Tucson over the last few days and our morning walk in Sabino Canyon had a whole different look about it.

For the past month and a half we have had daily sunshine and not a drop of moisture. Our views were pretty much like this.

Now all of a sudden there were puddles on the main trail toward the dam and Bear Canyon.

The clouds were hanging low and often the saguaros seemed to be isolated in the mist.

The valleys still retained the clouds.

We made our way up to the Picnic Overlook for a full look at the canyon valley and the high country.   

The lake is full and the creek pours over the dam.

As exciting as the long views are, the real harbinger of coming spring comes in the close-up's that reveal droplets of water clinging to the waiting branches.




Even the roadrunners approve.





Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book review of Chicago by Brian Doyle

Chicago by Brian Doyle

Just stumbled over this little book. The jacket noted it was a novel about a young man moving to Chicago to take his first job. It is his story of the five years he spent there before moving on with his life. He finds an apartment house and it is full of fascinating characters—each one a mystery waiting to be explored. He runs on the lake front bouncing his beloved basketball and explores the niches and alleys and rooftops of the city.

Why did this seem so appealing? I had spent a semester in Chicago some years ago as the faculty fellow for the ACM’s Chicago Arts program and it looked like the book would traverse a similar time and location. And sure enough it did make references to plenty of places I had visited from the Hancock Center to the Green Door.  There are lots of food stories, some grit, but a minimum on the nastiness, danger, or racism of the town.  That’s ok as this is a positive look at the city and his experiences like mine were positive overall.

Philosophically he opines that when you are a kid you think the big moments in your life would be full of fireworks and announced with mega fanfares. But the truth is it is not that way at all.  They just sort of sneak up on you and you amble through them much as you amble through all the rest of your days. Only  hindsight sees them for what they were—defining moments in your life.  You missed the significance then, but you see it now.

Doyle’s prose is full of humanity, gentle humor, and fantasy.  For instance there is a dog named Edward who talks to everyone and controls the world.  Yes,  Chicago is another coming of age story, but it resonates better for me than the recent Oscar nominated  film “Lady Bird.”  The narrator in this book seems much more in touch with his world. He sees hears and feels everything and everybody.  

Try it and you may feel in tune with this old Scottish song fragment that parallels the famous Irish blessing.

“May the hills lie low, may the sloughs fill up, may all evil sleep, (and) may the good awake in you (each day.