Arts + Scene » Stage Matters

Keep It Simple

One critic's look back at the year on North Coast stages



Theatre is hard to do, in the best of times -- even without economic hardships affecting box office and production decisions. There are multiple challenges and pitfalls in every show. There may be more drama backstage than on -- as I'm told occurred at one local theatre this past year: a lead actor's significant other got so upset by his onstage business with the leading lady that he dropped out of the show perilously close to opening.

The interactions of producers, designers, directors, actors (and their spouses), limited resources and even more limited time, different agendas (professional, institutional and personal) and the interplay of text (its history, its contemporary expression) and its realization on stage -- it's all a complicated process. And yet, from the point of view of the audience, it's very simple.

If you know anything about baseball, you realize (and probably relish) that it's a fiendishly complicated game, and playing it well is difficult. But it's also very basic. As the fictional manager of a minor league team in the classic movie Bull Durham tells his players: "This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball."

For the theatre audience, there are certain simple and basic expectations: The audience wants to see the play, hear the play, and follow the story of the play. A production's first job is to make all of that easy. It isn't so easy to accomplish, but I wonder if the focus on these tasks doesn't get lost sometimes. Several productions this year seemed to take their eye off the ball.

Scenic design may be dazzling and expressive, and it may carry out some aesthetic related to the play, but does it help or hinder the actors in being seen and heard? Directors may create "stage pictures" that keep the eye moving, but does the blocking help or hinder audibility, or focus the relationships of the characters?

Theatrical magic may include spectacle, but basically the spell can only be sustained by intelligibility. Part of following the story is knowing who the characters onstage are, and who they are talking about if that character isn't present. The audience enjoys the engagement of figuring things out, but if it is too much of a struggle, they may just give up. This is as true ultimately of experimental work, like the often impressive Inverted Lorca at Dell'Arte this fall, as it is of established conventional plays.

While certain moments and flourishes may remain strongest in the memory, sometimes effects take spectators out of the play rather than pulling them in. I know that I've wondered more than once why two characters who are apparently engaged in intimate conversation are doing so by shouting at each other from opposite sides of the stage.

Probably the biggest distraction generally is the agony of scene changes and transitions. These cause such time-consuming technical problems that playwright Sarah Ruhl suggests -- only partly in jest -- that the traditional stage curtain be revived to separate scenes by rising and falling. My concern is the effect on the stage illusion and the audience's engagement. Is more gained by specific scenery than is lost by watching people move things around every few minutes?

Effectiveness is partly a game of expectations. Approaching a drama, audiences likely expect only to be engaged by something -- the story, characters, subject or setting. A powerful dramatic and emotional experience is a bonus. But audiences approaching a comedy reputed to be funny expect to laugh, and if they don't, the show has not done its job.

 Of the last four comedies I've seen, only one -- the Dell'Arte Christmas show --was consistently funny. The other three had funny scripts and reputedly funny prior productions. But problems of intelligibility and pace -- or maybe the apparent decision to concentrate on other aspects of the play -- cut the comedy.

Still, there were several productions this year that did the basic stuff and went beyond it to create fine theatre: among them were North Coast Rep's Love List, The Goat and The Producers; HLO's Light on the Piazza, Ferndale Rep's Crimes of the Heart, Dell'Arte's revival of Intrigue at Ah-Pah, Redwood Curtain's Bad Dates, visiting Cornerstone Theatre's Jason in Eureka. And there were intriguing beginnings, like Joan Schirle's aforementioned Inverted Alba, Dell'Arte's The Body Remembers, John ADEkoje's Jagun Fly at HSU, and David Ferney's The Misunderstood Badger at the Arcata Playhouse, plus several visiting shows at the Playhouse. And again, our own unique Jeff DeMark.

This is probably more than an area this size that's this isolated could reasonably expect. On the other hand, every audience reasonably expects an intelligible performance every time, on the way to being entertaining and maybe even enlightening.

Late News Headlines: The recent production of The Marriage of Bette and Boo is the first HSU show this decade to be selected to compete in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre regional festival. And Redwood Curtain's long search for a new venue may be over, according to reports. Stay tuned.

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