It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: I’m In an Ill Humour

Dave Sikula is bitching about British Theatre.

The misspelling above is intentional and the smallest of protests against what I see as a creeping Anglophilia in the theatre and, well, in general.

My wife and I saw the broadcast of the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s “Merrily We Roll Along” tonight, and my dislike of the show and the production aside, it reminded me of something I wanted to discuss after seeing the broadcast of the National Theatre’s production of “Othello” last week; namely, why the hell are the only productions seen in this format direct from London? *

Now, to make things clear from the start, I have nothing against the RSC, the National Theatre, the Chocolate Factory, or any other production company or entity (Okay; there are some companies who have burned me often enough that I’ll steer clear of them, but in general, I wish everyone all the best). I mean, I’ve seen their productions in person on numerous occasions and have obviously paid good (American) money to see the broadcasts. Some of them (John Lithgow in “The Magistrate;” “All’s Well That Ends Well”) I’ve enjoyed immensely; some of them were just dull (Derek Jacobi in “Cyrano” and “Much Ado About Nothing”); and some of them were just puzzling (the recent “Othello”). That said, anything that brings theatre into the consciousness of the mass public is to be welcomed.

But why is it always the Brits? What is it about that accent that turns otherwise-sensible Americans weak at the knees? I was going to say “discerning Americans,” but that would mean leaving out New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who seemingly spends as much time in the West End as he does in Times Square. This self-congratulatory article deals with it. (London’s “theatre scene … is the best in the world”? Yeah, it doesn’t get much better than “Grease 2 in Concert” or “The Mousetrap.”) But now I’m just getting petty. My point is, though, other than London and Broadway, Mr. Brantley doesn’t seem to think any other theatre is worth his time; nothing in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, or even San Francisco seems worthy of his notice.

I found the production of “Merrily” pretty dull (an opinion in which I seem to be in the minority), but that’s not the point. If the exact same production had been mounted at, say, the St. Louis Muny or the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, only Sondheim buffs would have heard of it, and it certainly wouldn’t have been shown in American cinemas.

Now, I realize a good portion of this lack of American product is due to commercial considerations. Producers on Broadway are trying to sell tickets and make a profit. Road producers (I’m lookin’ at you, SHN!) probably think it would cramp their ticket sales. (Though it seems to me like exposure would increase, rather than diminish, audiences’ interest in seeing live shows.)

I wouldn’t expect to see “The Book of Mormon” or “The Lion King” at my local movie house (although that didn’t seem to be a consideration when the National’s “One Man, Two Guvnors” or “War Horse” were screened in advance of their runs on Broadway. For that matter, the films of “Les Mis” and “Phantom” didn’t seem to daunt their popularity as live attractions). But that doesn’t explain why we don’t see productions from seeming “non-profits” as the Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theater, or Playwright’s Horizons. Hell, national exposure might actually help these companies’ revenue stream. And those are just companies in New York. That barely scratches the surface of what’s being done in the rest of the country.

As a reader of American Theatre, I’m exposed on a monthly basis to shows I’ll never see in person. I’m not saying that every production across America needs broadcasting, but surely Steppenwolf’s production of Nina Raines’s “Tribes” or the Guthrie’s “Uncle Vanya” or the Magic’s “Buried Child” (to name just three) are as worthy of a national audience as Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art” from the National. But somehow the imprimatur of “London” makes it a must-see for some.

And it’s not just broadcasts of plays. How many times, especially in recent years, have we had to suffer through the lousy “American” accents of British actors? (It was actually a shock for me to see Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said” and hear Toni Collette play with her own Australian accent, so used was I to hearing foreigners play characters who were American despite no real reasons in the script.) Sure, there are actors (Collette herself, Hugh Laurie. Alfred Molina) who can do superb dialects, but there are just as many (such as the cast of “Merrily”) whose attempts are cringe-worthy. But they’re British, so the assumption is that they’re better trained and better actors solely because of their nationality.

(I’ve also noticed the creeping use of British English subject/verb agreement. I always find myself making mental corrections when a singular entity, such as a corporation or company is said to do something with a “have,” as in “BART have announced the strike has been settled.” It’s “has,” dammit. Or when someone is said to be “in hospital” or there’s some kind of scandal in “sport.” It just sets my teeth on edge.)

Anyway, my point isn’t that we shouldn’t be exposed to British theatre; what they show us is usually worth seeing.” What I am saying is that I’d like to see American companies, as well; or even Russian, Brazilian, Malaysian, or French (the greatest thing I ever saw on stage was Théâtre du Soleil’s “Richard II.”) Why should audiences be deprived of great theatre just because it didn’t originate in the West End? In Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (the Berkeley Rep production of which I so raved about in this space last time), Vanya has a long rant about what he sees as the debasement of American popular culture (a rant I – and a good portion of the audience – agreed with, by the way). The rant includes this complaint: “The Ed Sullivan Show was before Bishop Sheen, and he had opera singers on, and performers from current Broadway shows. Richard Burton and Julie Andrews would sing songs from Camelot. It was wonderful. It helped theater be a part of the national consciousness, which it isn’t anymore.” As much as we all love the theatre – either as participant or spectator – unless we do something to restore that awareness among the public at large, we’re talking to ourselves – and a dwindling “ourselves” at that. I don’t know if the Americanization of televised theatre would change that awareness, but I’d sure like to see someone try it.

* Okay, there were the broadcast of the production of Sondheim and Furth’s “Company” that starred Neil Patrick Harris, and Christopher Plummer in “Barrymore” and “The Tempest,” but those were rarities.

Working Title: Sad Autumn Roses, a Comedy

Will Leschber gets Chekhovian. 

Let me begin by saying that I love visiting Chekhov. There’s nothing like the dark catharsis that comes from watching Anton Chekhov’s characters meander circles around each other for over two hours and end up in roughly the same place in which they started. Nothing earth shattering happens. Yet everyone is more clearly acquainted with growing ever older and increasingly colder. I don’t want to live in these plays. But to visit and mourn with these characters for a time, that satisfies some desire to feel and purge melancholy. This exact aspect of depressing hopeless is why many have relayed to me their disdain for this Russian playwright. But to each their own. Having this affection, I absolutely went out of my way to see the Berkeley Rep production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”. This Christopher Durang play takes the tropes of Chekhovian drama and packages them in a comedy.

It is said that Anton Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies which were turned into dramas by their respective directors. While I don’t agree with “Uncle Vanya” being categorized as a comedy, I do think that the balance of humor and sadness is inherent to Chekhovian drama. This is something that film director Louie Malle plays with in his 1994 film “Vanya on 42nd Street.” What would make for a better film/theatre comparison than a play realistically portraying characters trapped by their Chekhov namesakes and a film that parades itself as a play in pre-production.

Malle’s film opens with shots of New York City’s bustling 42nd St. The cast meets and greets each other with affection on their way to rehearsal. Immediately, we get a sense of the community aspects built into creating theater with a group of friends. The space in which they are rehearsing lies in the dilapidated New Amsterdam Theatre. The creative players are surrounded by a hundred years of theatre history falling apart around them. It’s simultaneously melancholy and invigorating. “Its all crumbling but its all so beautiful,” says one of the actors. Fitting for Chekhov, I’d say. Durang’s play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”, also takes place in the shadow of a hundred years of Chekhovian history. Old tropes and familiar character types are used to delight the audience and surprise them too.

Back on 42nd St, the actors and director converse about the day to day of life in the theatre. All of a sudden we then are thrown into the “actual” rehearsal. The switch between “real-life” conversation amongst actors and the written dialogue for “Uncle Vanya” is seamless. Our only tip is a small group including the director who are now shown now uniformly watching the interaction between performing actors. Where is the line between an actor and a character? Is there one? Christopher Durang plays with this line in his play as well. However he plays with it in a different way. The characters within “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” are named after Chekhovian characters. To most theatre goers, this goes without saying. The question watching the play unfold is then this: Is there a line between the original characters and the new? How closely are these recycled types tied to their original creations? Herein lies the fun. We are delighted to see characters making light (and dark) of their lot in life. We are also happy to see when Durang’s characters break away from the sad distinction of the Chekhovian original. We get to see a difference. This is not the case with the film. “Vanya on 42nd St” doesn’t draw a distinction between actors and the characters they portray. We know they are different but a clear distinction isn’t provided. They wear the same regular 90’s street clothes and speak in the same accents. This gives us question of identity to ponder. The ponderance of where one reality begins and another ends is intrinsic to the nature of theatre and yet, in this instance, it is more fully displayed in a film. The Berkeley Rep production presents characters who have to fight past the melancholic history built into their names and given identities. The film presents actors who are more real as characters rehearsing than as actors conversing.

It’s interesting how within the film, the delivered dialogue once the rehearsal has begun feels more natural than the conversations between actors at the opening. Is this just something in the way we expect to hear dialogue delivered within a performance that doesn’t line up with the less theatrical, everyday speech of the opening? Or is it a choice director, Louie Malle, is making about what is more real: everyday interaction or performance on a stage? The Vanya within Berkeley Rep’s production at one point writes and puts on a unconventional play. His aims to get at deeper truth than everyday experience. The play within the play finishes before its end as the author, Vanya, stumbles into a diatribe railing against change and reflecting on the culturally shared experiences he had as a youth. 106 million people watched the finale of MASH. More than half of all American households tuned in. If you didn’t watch, you heard about it. Everyone shared this. Nowadays we have so many more strands connecting us and only feel more isolated. This is the rampant subject matter of the tirade deftly delivered by Anthony Fusco. This idea is not new. Chekhov wrote about these things a century ago. But the presentation is stellar and the subject matter is still potent. As Nina says in “Uncle Vanya”, “The old are like the young. They want someone to pity them.”

In the end, the film uses the tools of the close proximity camera to access this Chekhov play through quiet realism. It’s an odd thing to say considering we are watching actors rehearse out of costume in a theatre that looks nothing like the setting of the play. The facade is on full display. The entirety of the story presentation is less realistic than a staged play and yet when we are shown these characters in close-up the emotions on screen resonate with a personal and quiet reality. That is where the film succeeds. “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” succeeds by playing with 100 year old characters and making them new again. The themes Anton Chekhov wrestled with in his life time still have to be fought through today. Have I wasted my youth? What is the point of a life unfulfilled? Is happiness illusory? Since these questions can only be answered individually, I welcome the altered Chekhov presentations given through Louie Malle’s film and Christopher Durang’s play.

The Berkley Rep production plays through Oct 27th. And “Vanya on 42nd Street” is available to purchase digitally on itunes, Amazon and Vudu.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Runnin’ on Empty

Dave Sikula is running on empty… but the blog is still full.

There comes a time in the life of every actor when the lines just won’t stick. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s a subconscious dislike of the material, maybe it’s a lack of time, maybe it’s just being tired.

I’m currently in rehearsal for a show – and am trying not to succumb to the awesome reality that we open in a week – and I’m having a horrific time remembering my lines. (The blocking is another issue; the stage manager’s frustration at me is palpable.) It’s not the material – which is very good indeed – so the other factors must be (and indeed are) in play.

As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before – but am just too damn lazy to check – in my youth, learning lines was simplicity itself. I could pretty much read through a page, learn it more-or-less photographically, and have it down in no time at all. It’d take maybe a couple of hours to learn even the longest script. As I’ve grown older, though, either my brain is full or (more likely) just old and unwilling to take on new knowledge which it knows it will need only temporarily. It’s not that this old dog can’t learn new tricks – I just started a new job (this will come up again in a moment, so consider this foreshadowing) and am having no trouble learning the things I’ll need to do for there. But I’ve been looking at this script for weeks and having the damnedest time getting the dialogue to stay in my head.

Lack of time? Well, I’ve got time to write this – and don’t think I’m not thinking “Y’know, I really should be going over my lines …” as I type. (I can feel my stage manager sending me thought waves compelling me to do so.) But with the new job? Well, I get up, head off to the salt mine, toil for eight hours, battle traffic to get to rehearsal, do that work, come home, finally get a bite to eat at 11 pm or so, watch some television (usually all I have time for is Letterman, Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert), and, in the twinkling of an eye, it’s 2:30 and I’ve got to go to bed in order to start the cycle all over.

So that brings us to the “too tired” part of our list. If I’m lucky, I’ll get six, maybe six-and-a-half hours tonight, which is nowhere near enough for a boy my age. Even if I try to squeeze in the lines (in more than one sense), as I close my eyes to try to keep from cheating and looking at the page, I find myself drifting off to Dreamland.

And, yet, somehow (including disappearing at the office in order to find someplace to run lines), I’ve found myself able to learn, oh, a good 70-80% of my lines. I probably know them all well enough to paraphrase my way through the script, but given that the director is also the writer, he’d probably notice (yet another danger of having writers direct their own scripts; they know the text too well for the actors to fake it …).

Now, fortunately, our next real rehearsal isn’t for a few days, so I’ll have a wee bit of extra time to keep learning – if I don’t fall asleep. Unfortunately, that next “real rehearsal” will be our first tech. In the larger sense, I’ve got a week and I know I’ll be there (after a train wreck of a rehearsal just three nights ago, I knew that that was the worst is was going to be – and if I make the same progress in the next three days that I made the previous three, I may well know everyone’s lines …).

I’ve never missed the deadline – sure, I’ve gone up or gotten lost (who hasn’t?). But I’ve never been completely at a loss. Well, there was that one performance of “Private Lives” when I jumped seven pages. My scene partner gave me one of the most single most panicked looks I’ve ever seen on a stage. I realized what I’d done and she gave me a cue that put us back on track. We looped back to where I’d gone wrong, skipped over the dialogue I’d delivered about ten minutes previous, and moved on. And there was the five-character musical I did when the entire cast went up simultaneously. None of us had the least idea where we were.

Fortunately, it was the one moment in the show – the pretty dreadful “Whispers on the Wind” (never heard of it? Wish I hadn’t …) – where it was slow and lyrical. After about an hour – well, more like 45 seconds – someone said something that sparked someone else to say something else, which sparked something else, and pretty soon, we were back on track.

In neither case, the audience never noticed a thing. They never do.

Well, occasionally they do; like the performance of “Anything Goes” that was interrupted by a dog wandering onto the stage. That they noticed. But going up? Mistakes in blocking or business not coming off as planned? Nah.

So the short version of all of the above – now he tells us! – is simple. It’s never too early to start learning your lines. It’s not possible to get too much sleep. (I’m reminded of Paula Poundstone’s line about baby-sitting and the difficulty of trying to put her charges to bed: “Can you imagine there was ever a time in your life when you didn’t want to sleep?”) And most importantly, while you young whippersnappers may laugh now at the possibility of having trouble learning lines, trust me; your time will come.

Most of you probably don’t remember Johnny Carson anymore, or know him only vaguely, but I remember how he used to make a lot of monologue jokes about Forest Lawn cemetery. Then one day, he got a note from the folks who ran Forest Lawn. It read, “Just remember, Mr. Carson. We will have the last laugh …”

One last note: I saw “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Berkeley Rep this week and can’t recommend it highly enough. Anyone who’s done Durang knows how deceptively difficult he is to do. This cast makes the impossible look easy; hitting all the right notes and balancing the Chekhovian laughs with a surprisingly touching ending. I was actually a little misty-eyed as it ended (though I didn’t stand, you can rest assured). By all mean, go see it.