Opening night of Dell’Arte’s Korbel IV: The Accident saw an overflow crowd in the Rooney Amphitheatre, cheerfully engaged in the annual rites of family mini-picnics, adult wine-sipping and general bundling-up after sundown, gathered to witness the resumption of a hometown participatory soap opera with the Dell’Arte brand of comedy, music and local satire. They weren’t disappointed.
Michael Fields anchors the story as ex-logger turned hospital janitor and apparent gunrunner, Tommy Dugan, growling like a North Coast Jack Nicholson (“It’s not a Ken and Barbie world.”) Much of the comic action is in the winsome and capable hands of Jacqueline Dandenau and David Ferney, Bob and Lynne Wells, Jane Hill and Lynnie Harrigan as hit-and-run victims with back-stories, and the singing nurses of St. Mo’s Hospital and Casino: Lila Nelson, Joyce Hough and Jaese Lecuyer. In our conversation, Fields likened their musical interpolations to those in Dennis Potter’s breakthrough TV miniseries, The Singing Detective, though I was reminded of Potter’s Pennies From Heaven, which shares the song “Life is Just A Bowl of Cherries” with Korbel. Josh Salas, Soren Olsen and Calder Johnson are the dancing orderlies.
The show typically veered from topical local humor and slapstick to the Potter-like poignancy of the world-weary refrain, “Is this all there is?” There were the usual flamboyant touches — a real ambulance arriving at the gate, life support hoses pulsing with neon lights — a spectacular 1950s Las Vegas-style set by Jody Sekas, and upbeat tunes by Tim Gray and the Dell’Arte House Band.
What about the question the playwright Michael Fields asked — can this comic mayhem be combined with saying something about love and forgiveness? The answer is yes, thanks to some nice second-act writing (the Emily Dickinson lines were perfect), Donald Forrest’s eloquence as Terry Dugan, and Joan Schirle’s brief but delightful appearance as Dorothy, the matriarch. A lot was resolved, but is the story over?
There’s something about the opening show of the Mad River Festival that inspires ruminations — or pontifications — about theatre itself. Last summer I looked to theatrical origins in traditional festivals. This year had me thinking about the “live” in live theatre, and its relation to the local and community.
These thoughts were also inspired by a conversation with Charlie Myers, my movie-reviewing colleague in these pages, after the benefit concert for Deborah Clasquin last Saturday. (An impressive turnout, though the proceeds will apparently pay for at most one of the three experimental treatments Deborah requires, so donations are still being accepted at the HSU Music Department.)
Charlie and I chatted about the comparative advantages and disadvantages of our respective beats. Although I envy Charlie’s access to on-the-job popcorn, and I’ve noticed that he can critique the latest Spielberg film without much chance of running into Steven at Wildberries (nor of receiving the evil eye from the ticket-taker on his next visit to the movies), on the whole I think I have the better gig. And that’s even apart from the fact that these days I would only review movies on a sliding scale. If my base rate were $100, say, I’d have to charge $500 just to sit through an Adam Sandler comedy, $400 for Mike Myers, etc.
Unlike movies, theatre is live and local in various ways, as exemplified by these Dell’Arte summer shows. They’ve become community rituals, and the shows respond to the occasion, even in seemingly small gestures, like a character blowing bubbles for no apparent reason but to interest the children on the blankets near the stage. That the community sees itself reflected or refracted on stage is part of the “theatre of place” enacted in this year’s play, which works because the theatre has the depth of experience and credibility that can come with being located in the community, and because the story on stage can respond to the latest news with the speed and spontaneity of live performance.
There are prices to be paid in dramatic focus, structure and depth, and references that not everyone knows enough about to find funny. But sometimes revealing the local does more. The Dugan story reflects characteristics of the North Coast, but in doing so it reveals something about many other small towns, counter to media images. The kind of differences and diversity symbolized by transsexual lesbian Terry Dugan (and based on a real story — see Donald Forrest’s moving explanation in the program) is almost always associated with big cities — and “San Francisco values.” But the truth is that they are present in these smaller places, though perhaps less obviously than here on the North Coast. So the shame, guilt and conflict portrayed in this story may exist even more strongly there, and extends to all kinds of differences, not just this one. And the process of forgiveness — including self-forgiveness — or the failure to find it, is a more universal drama of real life.
In locating an essential drama in the local, there is usually an element of the universal. Being human, the drama is shared, and the community is partly created by seeing it enacted.
You can get that universality at the movies sometimes, too. But what you can’t get is the same kind of intimacy when the people on stage and the people in the audience face each other.
An aspect of this was imprinted on my consciousness some years ago at a small theatre production in Pittsburgh of Arthur Miller’s play, The Creation of the World and Other Business. Though it’s comedic, the play deals with weighty themes of good and evil, individuality and community, fate and freedom. The audience was very close to the action, and I had my Satori moment when I saw right in front of me God’s bare feet. That is, the bare feet of the actress playing God. Somehow that made the play real and present. These were real people struggling with these big questions, as the human author did, and as we in the audience do.
There is something about real bodies on the stage — at times uncomfortable, and yet vitally human. Audiences and actors breathing the same air demonstrate that apparently abstract questions may really be the most basic concerns of the human community. So how do you combine life and art, the everyday with its meaning? Create art. Present it live.
Korbel IV finishes its run this weekend, July 3-6, with the Festival’s adult cabaret, Red Light in Blue Lake, after the July 5 performance. Ferndale Rep has its annual July 4 show, and will open its senior show, Make Mine Metamucil, by local newsie and playwright Dave Silverbrand on the July 11 weekend in Ferndale, before moving it to the Eureka Theater July 26. North Coast Rep opens its next show, Lend Me A Tenor, July 17. Eureka Theater also has summer classes in improvisation, commedia, acting and movement for adults, teens and children. Info at www.sanctuarystage.com.