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March 16, 2006

Stage Matters

Nothing mellow about
melodrama at Dell'Arte


Blood and thunder, Sturm und Drang, cheap thrills, sentimental tearjerker, not to mention a major source of overacting and inflated visual effects: Melodrama can't get no respect.

Yet while analysts of dramatic forms can't even agree on a definition, even in outline melodrama describes most of the drama we've seen for the past 200 years. With outcast heroes and suffering heroines overcoming apparently impossible odds and immovable obstacles, or solving seemingly insoluble problems and mysteries, melodrama defines nearly every dramatic television series in existence, and most movies -- not only the obvious tearjerkers and "chick flicks," but also most "guy flicks": sports movies, space operas and comic book adventures. While "melodramatic" definitely describes soap operas or Plan Nine From Outer Space, it also can reasonably be applied to Lord of the Rings, Rocky, CSI and ER.

Historically, melodrama developed in festivals and popular (rather than "high art") theaters, associated with spectacle and with roots in pantomime. (So silent films were often quintessential melodramas, including their use of musical accompaniment. The "melo" in melodrama is the same one as in "melody"; the word simply means drama with music.)

Those roots in the same tradition as comedia del arte make melodrama a natural component of the curriculum at the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre, where 32 students in the Professional Training and MFA programs have created an evening of melodrama, Thunder, Tears, Daggers and Rage, which they present to the public this weekend.

Ronlin Foreman, the school's Director of Pedagogical Research ("a teacher of teaching," he explains) describes the theory and process of the five-week program of study that led up to this performance, which he taught along with Dell'Arte co-Artistic Director Joan Schirle.

Foreman delineates the four themes in melodrama: the love triangle, the neurotic obsession (his example is the Bette Davis movie, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), family melodramas and the theme of oppression in society.

The social theme may be the least familiar as melodrama, but historically it is among the most consistent and important. Stage melodramas were popular and powerful in the French Revolution, served to expose the ills of industrial society in 19th century England and 20th century America, and were put to use by the Communist government in China. But probably the most telling example was Uncle Tom's Cabin, seen in various stage versions by some 3 million Americans. Some historians say that the stage melodrama, more than the novel, turned popular sentiment in the North against slavery in the decade before the Civil War.

These themes, Foreman explains, are often combined. "There's the family drama of trying to better themselves in an oppressive society, or the love triangle combined with a neurotic obsession. These themes help us to understand the larger dimensions of human experience."

Melodrama, Foreman continues, also consists of grand emotions (love, duty, honor, justice, deceit, vengeance, virtue, vice) pushed to the moment of the irreversible change ("Someone is driven from their home forever") but ending with the triumph of virtue.

In portraying the circumstances of these rewarded virtues, suffering is inflicted from outside, while in tragedy the heroes takes responsibility for their fate. When oversimplified into stock characters representing the innocent good versus the evildoers, melodrama versus the complexities of the real world invites parody.

But there will be no Dudley Do-Right moments in the Dell'Arte show. Though melodramas often contain comedy (or vice versa -- think of Charlie Chaplin's great features, like City Lights) Foreman insists it must basically be played straight.

"In this exercise we ask students not to play with parody or satire," he said. "We're coming out of a time of irony, when society doesn't hold to very many strong absolutes." In order to understand the role of melodrama in theatre, students need to represent these absolutes with conviction. "Otherwise we don't have a context for understanding honor or duty or justice. We don't have clear virtues, or a way to understand deceit, or the play for justice and revenge unless we have loyalty."

Audiences will see four separate melodramas, each about 20 minutes long, all conceived and written by the ensemble of students performing them. They will see how grand emotions "live in an extreme of physical action."

The students of Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre present Thunder, Tears, Daggers & Rage: An Evening of Melodrama, March 16-18, 8 p.m. at the Carlo Theatre in Blue Lake. Thursday's preview is pay-what-you-can. Friday and Saturday, $7 general, $5 students/seniors. Reservations: 668-5663, ext.20.

Also this weekend: Shakespeare's King Lear, an Arcata Parks & Recreation production directed by Linnea Conway, at the D Street Community Center in Arcata. It plays March 16 & 17, 23 & 24 at 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee on March 19 at 1:30. Admission is $15. For information about dinner and Sunday tea specials go to


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