Previewing A Dream and Lettice on Wry

| January 18, 2007

I once had after-theatre supper with Maggie Smith, sort of. Familiar to a new generation as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies, she was then known as the Oscar-nominated star of Travels With My Auntand other films. I was actually supping with Pat Mitchell, then the entertainment reporter for a Boston television station, now the head of PBS. The restaurant catered to Boston's theatre people, including those participating in touring shows. It was a lively place. At one point in the evening I heard someone playing the piano and singing who sounded a lot like Joel Grey, fresh from his Cabaret fame. I turned around: It was Joel Grey.

I was seated next to Pat, but at the next table, across from me and a little to the left, was Maggie Smith, in town starring in Noel Coward's Private Lives. She was dining with an older man I didn't recognize. I had an unobstructed view of her any time I turned my head that way, and at one point I saw her looking at her companion with those large, empathetic blue eyes, both hands on his arm.

I thought of that moment when reading that British playwright Peter Shaffer wrote Lettice and Lovage for Maggie Smith, at her request. I could readily believe she would be very persuasive. Shaffer was already famous for Equus and Amadeus (the only play I saw in my one brief visit to London), both serious plays concentrating on male characters. But Lettice and Lovagewould be a comedy principally featuring two older women. The risk worked out for both author and actor: The play won a Best of the Year award in London, and when it came to Broadway in 1990, Maggie Smith (who played Lettice) won the Best Actress Tony.

This week Lettice and Lovage comes to Ferndale Rep, with Marilyn Foote (Night Watch, On Golden Pond) as Lettice, and the Rep's artistic director, Marilyn McCormick, reprising her role as Lotte from the Rep's production a decade ago.

"It's a sweet story about two women who basically don't fit into their society," says director Renee Grinell. "They form a friendship that eventually becomes what saves them." Lettice Douffet is the dramatically-inclined and history-minded daughter of a Frenchwoman who ran an all-women theatrical troupe that performed Shakespeare in French. (Lettice is a French name derived from the Latin word for gladness.) She is a tour guide at a London house of historical significance if not much interest, and as the play begins, she starts livening up her descriptions with flamboyantly dramatic inaccuracies. Lotte, her temperamental opposite, is her boss who fires her for this transgression. This of course turns out to be the beginning rather than the end of their relationship.

The play deals playfully but meaningfully with issues of reality and fantasy, an authentic versus a conventional life, the present versus the past, and more topically, with the ugliness of contemporary buildings and the need to preserve classic architecture. It is also very English in its references and its humor, but the Ferndale production took this as a challenge. "Everyone had a lot of fun doing the research on the history, the architecture, and mostly on British life," Grinnell said. Since Lettice and Lovage is still produced often in America, it must translate pretty well. It begins a run at Ferndale Rep with a preview on Thursday, Jan. 18.

In 1969, when Jean Bazemore first came to HSU to complete her Ph.D dissertation, the director for the university's first scheduled show of that year's season had a heart attack and couldn't continue. She was asked to put together a production, and quickly finished her translation of August Strindberg's A Dream Play, which became the first play she directed in the Van Duzer Theatre.

This week she's back with the same play at the same place, but with a new translation and a new show, a collaboration with her students of the Young Actors Company at North Coast Prep.

Like most of their productions, this is an adaptation, with the students' additions as well as cuts from the text. It focuses on the play's larger questions: Why are some people rewarded and others are not? What does justice entail? What are the consequences of greed, guilt and bad faith? And like the Shaffer play, it deals with what is an authentic life; what is real and what is illusion? "Strindberg explores these questions - which are also the students' questions," Bazemore said, "regarding what it means to be human."

The story follows the daughter of a god who comes to Earth to understand human life. A precursor to the formal experiments of modern dramatists, A Dream Playis exactly that: Like a dream, it deals with our earthly (and earthy) realities but with the dramatic logic of dreams, and with a dreamy mix of the humorous, the mundane and the fabulous.

This production uses live music and video projections (created by a student who edited effects on a home computer that Bazemore said weren't possible at all in 1969). Though Strindberg had his pessimistic streak, this version emphasizes optimism. "It's a matter of claiming your freedom and being responsible to it," Bazemore summarized. I expect a buoyant and bracing evening of theatre, beginning this Friday, Jan. 19, at HSU's Van Duzer Theatre, and continuing through Thursday, Jan. 25, with performances every evening at 8 p.m. except Sunday, Jan. 21.

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