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November 16, 2006

Stage Matters

Boots, Ashland and an Anniversary


Orion's Belt seemed bolted atop the dark trees along Jacoby Creek Road on Saturday's clear, crisp night, as an exhausted Jeff DeMark asked me, "Did I finish it?" That was essentially the question this column ended with last time, as photo of Jeff DeMarkDeMark (left) was working on his latest one-person show, They Ate Everything But Their Boots, for its first-ever performance at the Bayside Grange Saturday evening.

What helped get it done, he said after the performance, was rehearsing with what he referred to as "the band," which was mostly two guys with ukuleles (Tom Chan and Matt Knight) who nevertheless pulled off a credible version of the Jimi Hendrix psychedelic guitar classic, "The Wind Cried Mary." They also doubled as sound effects technicians.

Music punctuated the show at the break and at the end (when DeMark joined in on guitar for a bit of Dylan's "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest") and provided an extra dimension to his tale of working construction on Fred Flintstone's house in an Arizona theme park, with a parody of a tune his building crew rewrote from its incessant radio play (America's "A Horse With No Name.") Afterwards DeMark mentioned the struggle to get the details right, and this -- the song on the radio, the kind of candy bar -- is a key to bringing the stories to life.

One of DeMark's goals for this show was to tell favorite stories he hadn't told before, and the capacity crowd at the Bayside Grange was with him for every word, not only laughing but shrieking and sighing. It helped that his main subject, the process of buying and remodeling a house in Humboldt, was an experience much of the audience seemed to have in common. But by now it's also a personal relationship -- the audience knows him, and was willing to follow him almost anywhere. Partly that seems to be because, in one way or another, he speaks for them: His stories are variations of their stories. They responded not only to the ruefully comic but to the emotional and even mystical meaning of home.

DeMark moved around and used the stage well (with hanging doors and windows on a set created by artist Michelle McCall-Wallace), though transitions were rough -- clearly this was a first presentation. With its responses, the audience on Saturday suggested areas where it wanted to go, which should help DeMark as he hones this show. Some of the stories he told may not remain in it, so the Grange audience heard what other audiences may not. Which also means that as the show changes even people who were there will be eager to see it again.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland has a new artistic director, Bill Rouch, subject of an article and interview in American Theatre magazine. Rouch is familiar with both rural and urban audiences, from being team leader for Cornerstone Theatre Company's 1988 production of a Brecht play in Long Creek, Ore. (population 230) that mixed local amateurs with his pros, to serving as artistic director of Cornerstone as it became a regional powerhouse in Los Angeles.

His first play as a visiting director at OSF was a revelation, he told the magazine, because he realized he could give voice to an unknown community (in a play about rural Southern snake handlers) through the commitment of professional artists in a "communal" and "sacred" experience that was "a turning point in my life." He praised OSF audiences as passionate, literate, devoted and opinionated. When he takes over in the 2008 season he hopes to commission and mount more new plays while continuing the theatre's commitment to diversity. His enthusiasm for the present eclectic repertory suggests he won't be changing what theatregoers like best about Ashland.

Current artistic director Libby Apell's last season begins in February, and it could be really amazing, featuring Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, On the Razzle (one of Tom Stoppard's funny adaptations) and what some regard as Shakespeare's greatest comedy, As You Like It. Advance sales begin this week for OSF members, and for the general public on Dec. 11.

It's been about a year now since I started writing under this marquee. From the beginning, Stage Matters has been a column that presented the various forms of writing about theatre -- reviews, previews, news and interviews -- in the same place. I wanted to provide this mix of points of view and voices, so sometimes it was my own observations, opinions and experiences, and other times I gave the stage to directors of upcoming shows to talk about their intentions. Theatregoers may inform their expectations from these various perspectives, and can then compare their own experiences to what they've read.

In reviews, I often include what interests me, such as the background of the playwright, the history of productions and whatever versions might be seen on video, as well as my take on the present production. As it turns out, other local reviewers don't usually do this but accentuate other elements, so readers can get that information and perspective here.

Regardless of who is happy or unhappy about a specific column, in general I hope that this broadening of information and perspective helps to nurture a live theatre community, because I believe that stage matters. There may be more variations in the coming year, but I've got a typical mix planned for next week: a review of North Coast Rep's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, which opens tonight (Thursday), and a preview of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, which opens Nov. 24 at Ferndale Rep.

Also coming up: A benefit for Dell'Arte students going to India with Clowns Without Borders to work with children in slum areas of Bombay -- it's on Saturday at Mad River Grange in Blue Lake. Call 668-5569 for details.


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