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The Year That Was

Topical and timeless on North Coast stages



"Drama is a mansion with an almost infinite number of rooms," wrote Michael Billington, the great drama critic for the Guardian. "I see no point in shutting off any of them."

As I've noted on other occasions, there are gaps in the North Coast theatrical ecology. But it's worth noticing the variety that does exist, and that this past year's productions supported and altered that ecology, however subtly.

Dell'Arte pioneered "theatre of place" on the North Coast, and this year saw a unique example in the second version of Mary Jane: The Musical. It's unique precisely because it's the second version. Dell'Arte has brought shows back before, updating their topical and local references. But this time it re-conceived a show from just the summer before, and so the 2012 version was actually the product of two successive years, which resulted in a deeper (and darker) show. I still recall Dell'Arte's Blue Lake: The Opera as a more successful production, but certainly Mary Jane is more relevant to local identity and its future.

Another successful "theatre of place" show was Women of the Northwest at the Arcata Playhouse. It also was a group effort, part of the national fascination with "devised theatre" that worked in these two productions, with adequate time and thorough process. It wasn't so successful in the Dell'Arte holiday show, The Fish in My Head -- well-performed and produced, but so disjointed that it's the first show I can recall that got me to root for the villain: the guy who wanted it to make more sense.

This year also brought an unusual number of topically relevant dramas written by actual playwrights: Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room at Ferndale Repertory Theatre, Justin Lance Black's 8 and Suzan-Lori Parks' Venus at Humboldt State University, for example. HSU and College of the Redwoods also contributed classics (Moliere at CR, Noel Coward at HSU) and a glimpse of a different cultural approach in HSU's version of the Sanskrit drama Shakuntala. A theatrical ecology is sustained by educational inquiry for both participants and audience.

Humboldt Light Opera Company added to its high quality contributions with Damn Yankees and Cinderella. Redwood Curtain continued to concentrate on small cast contemporary American comedies, but took a few more chances this year with plays of challenging form and content, such as Circle Mirror Transformation, Dusty and the Big Bad World, For Better and The Language Archive. These forays work largely because Redwood Curtain nurtures a high level of acting.

Our two community theatres (Ferndale and North Coast in Eureka) have the words "repertory" in their names, which refers to producing shows from "the repertoire," or the roster of successful plays (artistically, commercially or both) of the accessible past. There are a lot of judgments involved: Some shows are too big (and expensive) or too small, too new (rights are unavailable) or too old.

But how old is too old? Looking back at this year yields a rule of thumb. Dramas can be quite old, though Shakespeare is about the limit. This year we got a searing drama from the 1950s (Look Back in Anger at Ferndale Rep) and a mystery from the 1940s (Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap at North Coast Rep). Comedies and musicals are usually more recent. Which is another reason that North Coast Rep's production of the pioneer musical comedy Anything Goes was so fascinating.

There are few if any Broadway musicals older than Anything Goes that get produced anymore. Songs have since been added, and today's version is not exactly the same as the show that premiered in 1934, but the Cole Porter songs themselves have not changed. His music is timeless, but his lyrics are very topical -- particularly in one of this show's most famous songs, "You're the Top."

The lyrics are a kind of mini-tour of 1934. While some of the places and the famous people named in the song are still well known, others mostly aren't. Quite a few clever references go right by a lot of the audience some 70 years later. So how does that work?

It was interesting to watch how Molly Severdia and Erik Standifird relieved anxieties by acting out contemporary reactions to some references in their performance of the song, a highlight of the North Coast Rep production. For instance, they gave the line "You're broccoli!" the icky vegetable look, but in 1934, broccoli was new to the U.S. and quite fashionable.

They simply ignored other references, like Jimmy Durante, a showman who was often parodied into the 1960s. In fact some lyrics are now so obscure that there are several online attempts to track down their meaning. There was a long and involved theory about "you're a drumstick lipstick" until somebody uncovered an old ad that showed that Drumstick lipstick was a 1934 brand name. Still, it isn't necessary to know that moisture-proof cellophane was a modern miracle in the '30s to laugh at the exuberant brilliance of "You're the National Gallery/You're Garbo's salary/You're cellophane!"

The strange alchemy of the topical and the timeless in a play that lasts is one of the wonders of theatre, as it is in other arts. So it's a vital part of our theatrical ecology.

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