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Theater Quarterly



Spring around here is whimsical and finicky about time of arrival. Not theater. Right on cue, the show always does go on. Especially in the spring.

Today North Coast theaters are either holding auditions, in production with coming shows, performing or all or some of the above. Take a look.

Director Carol Escobar was simply brimming when she talked with me about Northcoast Rep's production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest , which opens March 10. Escobar is always brimming --&nbspquick, eager, and enthusiastic, whoever hired her to manage Kinko's was typecasting. When you cross the finish line of a conversation with her you are ready for the day. "So Carol," I asked gently, edging the door open. "How did you get involved in this production?"

"Well, they asked me and I said, `Yes.'

"I really shouldn't admit to this because it will sound bad. But I said `yes' and then I read the play; I look at the project." (Escobar is one of those enchanted people who prefers the reckless truth.)

The Importance of Being Earnest is a classic period piece, a comedy of manners considered to be Wilde's best. It's surely his most epigrammatic work, crammed with witty one-liners.

[photo of Courtney Greenlaw and Eddie Olson] Courtney Greenlaw and Eddie Olson

After she read the play, she said to herself, "Well. OK, this'll be all right." And then she "invited a group of friends over to just do a read-through, to hear it. A little wine and cheese, and we sat around and read it, and I went `Oh, my God, this is the funniest play!"

I mention this because the limited resources that tend to rule the hopes of community theaters can also ruin their dreams. Choosing a play is crucial and difficult because of the many considerations which make the piece doable or that, in the end, undo the production.

On paper NCRT's season is formidable. Linnea Conway's production of The Tempest stormed through town to large, appreciative audiences. After Wilde's play comes another Broadway classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the season finishes up with Steve Martin's contemporary smash Picasso at the Name Nobody Can Pronounce.

According to Escobar, the season's play selection was shaped around the idea that there should be something good for everyone in the family -- for all ages.

"The object is to get people to come back into the theater, to do shows that people want to see," she said. "You want to be challenged, you want to challenge actors, you want to have good roles. But you want to keep in mind that you always want to have an audience."

Easier said than done, especially when you are competing with six other local theaters, television's seductive obsession with millionaires, sports events, the power of Hollywood hype on TV, and 22-plus films playing daily at area movie houses.

But Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is the kind of play that can create an audience.

Two weeks before opening, Escobar is very excited about the way things are going with the nine-member cast. "We are off-book already! I made them!" she exults.

"Mary Lou Hockenson is co-directing," she notes, describing a slightly unusual arrangement. "Every night we laugh. There is funny stuff." Christy Dugger has designed the set, which is three sets, one for each act, something of a technical triumph.

Jennifer Janson, who sparkled in the PAC days, is Lady Bracknell. Larry Otterness, a standout in Escobar's RATS improv group, is Jack. Ed Olson is Algernon. She reels off the names of the cast with affectionate satisfaction, if not smugness.

In a comedy of manners, the butler plays a minor role, silent or otherwise. "My goal is to have an entire stellar cast," Escobar says, noting the richness of the local talent pool. "Even the butlers in this cast are absolutely incredible. I feel we have accomplished that in this show. We built up the smaller parts, in fact, we are going to do a pre-show routine with one of the butlers."

Is the play outdated?

"I don't think it's outdated at all. It is completely current." (She gets a little bouncy-feisty about this.)

We discuss how what was in 1895 described as a comedy of manners is today discussed with words like politically correct and incorrect. Although Escobar doesn't want to tip off too much of the action of the play, she refers to attitudes and behaviors that make the play contemporarily relevant. Lady Bracknell warns against long-term engagements. "There's too much time to get to know each other; just find your mate and get married," is the attitude, she says. (Did I hear somebody mention Darva Conger?)

"This is the first actual out-and-out comedy I've ever directed. We're having fun. We are playing it broadly, with schtick -- and it is funny."

Escobar is funny. She has undoubtedly infected this project with the rambunctious spirit of RATS. You also have to admire her unabashed ambition and competitiveness. She wants to fill the theater. She says so straight out.

She reminds me that one ought to attend NCRT because of its recent remodeling, the lure of involvement that theater holds, the low ticket prices --&nbsp$10 or less -- for great entertainment.

But I am better persuaded by another fact. "We can't skimp on cheesy little props!" she proclaims. I want this show to look spectacular!" So she is defying the No. 1 Rule of Props, which is, "Don't bring anything to the theater unless you don't want to see it again." Escobar is bringing in her grandmother's antique tea set for one scene.

Faced with that kind of conviction, I predict fine, fun theater for her production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Turn of the Screw

The Ferndale Rep just completed the short run of its "teen production," The Diviners, and is already launched into rehearsals of The Turn of the Screw , Henry James' classic ghost story.

As a member of Ferndale's Play Selection Committee, Marilyn McCormick pushed this play for years.

"When I was a teen it just electrified me. The whole story, the idea of these ghosts and whether they were real or not real, and the possession of children was very real to me."

James' story has an odd slope to it, an obliqueness, that has fascinated many for a long time. Masterpiece Theater recently aired a riveting production that wowed critics. Watching it for the first time in a long time, I felt that deliciously horrifying experience of my skin shimmering, crawling, when Miss Jessel appeared across the pond. Turn of the Screw is that rare horror story, bloodless yet terrifying.

Now McCormick is Ferndale's artistic director and Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation is finally being produced in Ferndale.

[poster] Poster for FRT's Turn of the Screw

The show is directed by NCRT's artistic director, Michael Thomas, who, according to McCormick, is "very excited about the play." She also notes, "This is the sort of challenge of our season. It is a very literate play. It runs in one long act rather than an intermission break. And it has two characters, which makes it a real challenge for the actors."

"Challenge" is hardly the word for it. This is a make or break kind of project.

"James Read plays multiple roles; the man in the play who plays everything from the child all the way up to the uncle who owns the house but doesn't want to have anything to do with the children. The woman is from Dell'Arte, Gail Griggs."

We talk about how strong Read's Caliban was in the recent Tempest production and how terrific Griggs was in Rudy Galindo's recent show, Laundry of Dreams. In it, Griggs was able to fashion a world of sound and tension out of nibbling on a Dorito. Steve Carter is designing the set, Joe Collins, the light design, Beth Lanzi, costumes. Thomas is hoping to get a violinist on stage for live music underscoring.

McCormick has had a comprehensive study guide written for Read and Turn of the Screw so that teachers can include this package in their curriculum.

This has all the ingredients of a fascinating production.



[Redwood Curtain Logo]Clint Rebik, Redwood Curtain's artistic director, told me last Saturday there have been fine audiences for As Bees in Honey Drown. The production has settled into place and is running very smoothly. The play continues through March 10-11 -- its final weekend of production. If you haven't seen it, now is the time.

Like other theaters in the area, Redwood Curtain is performing one play while in production for a coming show. Unlike other theaters in the area, Redwood Curtain auditions and casts its whole season's lineup at the end of summer.

Rehearsal time has not come easy in recent weeks. There is frenzied building, late into the evening going on next door in the Eureka Mall space.

[The Last Night of Ballyhoo]("I always want to go on record as saying that Pierson's has been and continues to be overwhelmingly supportive. But what they are doing is huge. They have come about 20 feet into the theater space. So the new walls have turned the theater configuration 90 degrees. But Pierson's has always been very intent on making sure that everything was in place for us, trying to find solutions for all the problems the building presented.")

Right now the theater is trying to find a way to make a more permanent, walled structure and keep the flexibility of the Visqueen.

The coming play is the Pulitzer Prize winner by Alfred Uhry, The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Typical of the material Redwood Curtain selects, this is a "warm and thoughtful romantic comedy" with social overtones and insights into society in Atlanta and America in the late '30s.

Big things are happening. Hitler is invading Poland, Gone with the Wind is opening. But for some, the most important concern is Ballyhoo, a social event. Rebik notes that what is different about this production for Redwood Curtain is that each member of the six-member cast plays only one character.

When Redwood Curtain opened last season, it made something of a splash by paying the people in the productions. It's had an impact on other theaters in the community. Some thought the North Coast could not support another theater.

"At no time did we ever think of ourselves as elitist or `better' than others, it was just something we thought of as important to do," explains Rebik. He compares it to someone wanting to open another restaurant, even though there seem to be restaurants enough.

"Every theater has its own niche. They want to do things their own way, they want to do the things they do best. We want to audition for the season, pay our actors and do this kind of material. It doesn't make us better, or uhhh, anything," he says, sounding a little withered and frustrated by this attitude.

We talk about whether there can be too much theater. And we agree there cannot.

It seems to me that our burgeoning community theater is getting better and better and that can only be better.




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