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The More Things Change

American melodrama at NCRT, DeMark at Dell'Arte

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The Poor of New York, now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka, is a mid-19th century American melodrama, a classic of its kind. The story involves the machinations of an unscrupulous banker (played by David Simms) and his daughter (Brittney Sky Webber), and the effects of their manipulations on a family driven into poverty (Shirley Santino, Tim Donnelly and Kelsey Larson), as well as on an unfortunate young man from a prominent family (David Moore).

The context of a Wall Street crash and what we now decorously call "income inequality" has contemporary resonance. One character's speech could be spoken today with few alterations: "The poor man is a clerk with a family, forced to maintain a decent suit of clothes, paid for out of the hunger of his children. ... These needy wretches are poorer than the poor, for they are obliged to conceal their poverty with the false mask of content. ..."

Comic relief and opposing ethics come from a family that generously shares its scant resources (Wesley Fuller, Scott Osborn and the irrepressible Toodie SueAnn Boll). With a crucial assist from Jenneveve Hood's period costumes, the actors convincingly embody their characters. Jim Buschmann as the banker's co-conspirator is especially strong, as is Kelsey Larson with a performance in a limited role that suggests great potential. Other parts are played by Randall Larson, Lucas Hylton, Bob Service and Pam Service. Robert Keiber performs period songs.

It's no easy task to present a classic melodrama to a contemporary audience. Melodrama was the most popular stage form in Europe and America in the 19th century, though these plays are seldom performed now. Thanks in part to the moustache-twirling villains of silent cinema and the tear-jerker excesses of soap operas, "melodramatic" has become a term of derision.

Still, most conventions of the form — larger-than-life characters, the very good characters victorious over the very evil, with appropriate music — have migrated successfully to movies and television dramas. Today's audience can buy into the melodrama of NCIS or Star Wars, but can't seem to accept stage melodrama presented without irony.

Irony, however, is the opposite of what melodrama offers, which above all is emotion. It's no coincidence that melodrama prospered when larger-than-life 19th century actors ruled the stage. After generations dominated by naturalistic acting, it's hard for contemporary actors and audiences alike to handle the emotions of melodrama. The opening night NCRT audience responded with genial boos for the villain and oohs and ahs for the love scenes, but as drama historian and critic Eric Bentley affirms, melodrama's power is in evoking fear and empathy, and causing actual tears of sorrow and joy.

But for modern actors and productions to fully commit to the emotions of melodrama is risky. It could provoke disbelieving laughter. The NCRT production seems to vacillate — playing it straight, but also at times with an ironic wink. It might be more than interesting to go for stronger and bigger acting that tries to command the heart of the audience.

Written by Dion Boucicault, one of the most prolific and successful playwrights of the time, The Poor of New York defies some stereotypes of melodrama by presenting a villain with something of a noble motive, and another character who changes sides. Even surrounded by extraneous sing-alongs that suggest a nostalgic distance, there are scenes that can evoke real feeling, with insight into the America of today.

Praise is due to artistic Director Michael Thomas and the NCRT board for seeking out this exemplar of a rarely seen theatrical form, as well as the Greek tragedies earlier this season (along with the blockbuster Les Misérables) that provided bracing variety to North Coast theatrical offerings. This is a worthy production that's also intriguing for its potential and for how it might play to different audiences each time.

Directed by Alex Service with scenic and lighting design by Calder Johnson and sound by Michael Thomas, The Poor of New York is performed weekends through August 16. 442-6278, www.ncrt.net.

Coming Up:

One night, Jeff DeMark had a dream: He and some friends were performing at the Mad River Festival. Though he estimates he's done about 20 solo shows at Dell'Arte, this summer's festival wasn't on his radar. But the dream was compelling and he emailed Dell'Arte's Michael Fields to tell him about it. "Good dream," was Fields' reply, and soon this evening was arranged: Acting on a Dream: Summer Stories, Songs and Wild Left Turns in the Big Hammer Tent on Thursday, July 31 at 7:30 p.m.

Half of Dell'Arte's motto of "from around the world and down the block" was demonstrated in Elisabeth's Book last week, with participants from France, Spain, Moldova and the U.S. The other half is somewhat accidentally exemplified in the DeMark show, which features mostly light-hearted summer storytelling by Blue Lakers DeMark, Marvin Samuels and Lizzy Moonbeam, along with Charlie Gilbert. Music is provided by DeMark's band The Gila Monsters, which features Blue Lake residents Rick Levin (guitar) and Ron Sharp (bass) as well as Jean Browning (keyboards) and Paul DeMark (percussion). 668-5663, www.dellarte.com.

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