Thursday, March 26, 2009

Theatre Droppings: Gypsies, Extras, and Body Beautiful Beale

Before I left Asheville the other week, I finagled my way into seeing a tech rehearsal for the next project from North Carolina Stage Company, their remount of Stones in His Pockets (the show had a very short run this time, and has since closed). This piece has interested me since I saw a non-union production in DC, about which I wrote a while ago. It's two actors playing more than a score of characters, and is rather a tour-de-force for the actors involved. NCStage's artistic director Charles Flynn-McIver was paired with one of the leading actors in the region, Scott Treadway, and their chemistry was dynamic (they have clearly worked together often). My travel schedule prevented me from seeing one of their actual performances, and they were kind enough to allow me to watch one of their final dress rehearsals. From my chair, the show was a winner. I particularly enjoyed the Dance Sequence (I don't even remember the scene in the DC production), which utilized the actors' comic senses quite well, and they weren't bad tap-dancers, either. Most of the show was comedic, but a handful of moments brought real poignancy to the inhabitants of this small impoverished town in Ireland, hosting a big-budget Hollywood movie crew. Since I'm spending so much of my time in the Asheville area these days, I am sure I'll catch Charlie and Scott in another adventure soon, either as an observer or, hopefully, as a co-conspirator...

I traveled a bit after closing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and landed in DC in time to catch the National Touring production of A Chorus Line. I have very vivid memories of seeing the original cast of this landmark, just a few weeks after Joe Papp moved them uptown to Broadway, and a few months before they swept the Tonys in 1975. I've written about them in these pages. A grainy clip of that cast can be seen in one of my Friday Dance Parties, too.

Since seeing the original, many other productions of A Chorus Line have crossed my path, but I have resisted seeing the show again. I studied the show, which is one of the few musicals to win the Pulitzer for Drama, a bit in grad school, as I wrote a term paper on its creator Michael Bennett, and have a huge respect for it. The piece did many innovative things, including adding the term "triple threat" to the theatrical vernacular. More importantly, it actually changed the way musicals are created and rehearsed. Bennett was the first to use an extended workshop period to create his show; until that time, musicals were fully written before rehearsals began, then began a preview period out of town where the authors refined the piece before bringing it into New York. Bennett changed that routine, and the workshop system has since become the traditional way to birth a new musical work.

Anyway, access to a free ticket to the National Tour stopping into DC convinced me it was time to revisit the show. I was pleased to find a hugely entertaining, dynamically staged production. That having been said, it was unfortunate that we had four, count 'em FOUR understudies handling leading roles. My previous experience with understudies has been very good; I have almost always found them to be extremely competent. In this case, two were quite good, two so much. Ah, well, it was a Sunday night performance, the end of a very physical work week, so I guess I don't blame so many of the leading players for bailing. I was more surprised to discover the creakiness of the final minutes of the play. The dialogue surrounding "What I Did for Love," which became a show biz anthem of sorts back in the day, has not aged well, and the director did not improve things much with his stagy blocking. Nevertheless, the tour is a very fine one, with lots of pleasant surprises, and I am very glad I saw it.

Just a few days ago, I popped over to see a new play called After the Garden. It is actually a recreation of a nightclub act which Little Edie Beale performed for a week in New York in the late 70s. The Beales were an upper-crust family of the mid-20th century, and included in their number the Bouvier sisters, Jacqueline (later to be Kennedy-Onassis) and Lee (Radziwell). Little Edie was not one of the success stories of the clan; a documentary about her living conditions at the decrepit mansion on Long Island was released many years ago. Grey Gardens revealed an eccentric woman caring for her aged mother, and was alternately hilarious and pitiful. After the Garden was developed by the manager who arranged for Little Edie to appear in her own cabaret act soon after her mother died. It is a one-man show, and my old friend Jeffrey Johnson is swell in the role. The piece itself includes bits of confessional, bits of cabaret, and a whole lot of laughs. Every once in a while, though, it delivers a very poignant moment of this unlucky woman's life. The producing theatre is Ganymede Arts, a group dedicated to the GLBT experience, and they have converted the back storeroom of a gift shop into a quirky but functional performance space. I saw the show with the gayest audience since last year's Tony awards, which added to the merriment (like other underdogs, Little Edie Beale has become a bit of a gay icon). I have a hunch more will be heard from this new play, and am certain this new performance space has a future as well. As for Jeff's performance, well, I've been his fan since our South Carolina days in the early 90s, and he has yet to give less than 1000 percent in any performance I have seen.

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