Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Theatre Droppings: What the Magnolias Saw

I was glad to spend a long weekend in North Carolina, checking up on the pater, and relaxing on his screened porch, overlooking the heavily landscaped backyard complete with waterfall.

That's the life. I have tried to spend more time there in the last few years, and have even worked in the area a bit, but opportunities for me in the Asheville/Hendersonville area have been slow to come, and I am usually pulled back to DC for professional reasons. While in the mountains, I was very glad I caught two shows from the leading professional theaters in the region.

My North Carolina Stage Company, where I did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead over a year ago, was opening Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw. It took our audience a few minutes of tentative tittering before we got into the swing of the piece's style, and then the show really took off. It's the kind of bawdy sex farce at which those Brits really excel, with mistaken identity, cross-dressing, and a horny married couple as its catalyst. This was the strongest production of this play I have seen, with Charlie Flynn-McIver and Vivian Smith providing riotous central performances. I had seen the dramatic work of young Casey Morris in NC Stage's earlier production of The Beauty Lieutenant of Connemara, or whatever that Irish play is where Mother pees in the sink, and he continues to do great work. I had not seen Matthew Burke before, but his performance as the cop was quite wonderful. I have to hand it to director Ron Bashford, who solved some technical issues pretty creatively; I think the show's traditional set calls for a series of doors, perfect for the slamming usual in this kind of farce (somebody in the play exclaims, "Why are there so many doors? Was this house designed by a lunatic?”), but such a set is impractical in NC Stage's thrusty black box, so the director made lemonade. His production proves that an audience does not notice a stage set's limitations if the performances are good, and here, they are terrific. I hear the show has been extended a week.

I was also able to pop out to the Flat Rock Playhouse to see their current offering, Steel Magnolias. That Summer Stock staple is not one of my favorites, but it is certainly a crowd-pleaser among the oldsters who provide the core of the theater's audiences. I had heard that one of my R&G cohorts, Julia VanderVeen (isn't that a great name?) was in the show, so I drove out to Hendersonville to see it. I have previously written about the significance Flat Rock Playhouse has had in my life (I saw my first play there, as a little kid), so it was no sacrifice to attend a show there, no matter what they were doing.

Turns out, the show was a hoot, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It is very much an ensemble piece, but chief among the gals was Pamela Myers, who all Musical Theatre Geeks know by voice if not by name. She introduced the Stephen Sondheim classic "Another Hundred People" to the world, in the original Broadway production of Company, and earned a Tony nod for her efforts.

(That's Myers on the right, with Donna McKechnie and Susan Browning, introducing another Sondheim classic, "You Could Drive a Person Crazy")

Here, she played the proprietress of The Hairport, the beauty parlor which provided the setting for the show (I know such places are now called salons, but my mother, a true steel magnolia, always went to the Beauty Parlor, and I still think of them as such). The performances here were all very strong, and I credit director Scott Treadway with steering the somewhat sitcomish dialogue into more realistic territory. In addition to Ms. Myers, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Rebecca Koon, who delivered Clairee's hilarious one-liners with a refreshing dryness.

And need I say that my friend Julia was a standout? Regular readers of these pages have already discovered the phenomenon that my friends always seem to do outstanding work in their shows, and Julia is no exception. Her role, the squeaky clean Annelle, can come off annoyingly sanctimonious, but Julia effectively tracked her character from mousy doormat to proselytizing missionary, and still made us like her. That's a pretty neat trick.

Steel Magnolias's final scene is probably the main reason the play fails for me, as I find it melodramatic, maudlin, and manipulative. But here again, I offer kudos to director Scott Treadway, who helped his actresses achieve a bit of truth with this sequence; they were rewarded with a standing ovation.

I had an emotional reaction during my visit to Flat Rock, but only part of it was a result of the production. The curtain speech was given by a young, enthusiastic gent whom I assume is the new artistic director of the theater, Vincent Marini. He talked for more than a few minutes before the curtain went up, though he failed to introduce himself to us. About half-way through his speech, I finally assumed he was the new Chief Gee Whiz. He had already finished his promo when he remembered he wanted to say something more. He motioned to the booth to cut the sound (the pre-show music had already begun), and he started talking again. He wanted to introduce the theater's new group of apprentices, who had arrived only a day earlier from around the country, and were going to be in residence at Flat Rock for the next three months.

About twenty or so young, fresh-faced, college-aged kids stood up in the audience, and received probably the only applause they are likely to get all summer. I guess some of them may end up onstage, perhaps in one of the big musicals which Flat Rock produces, but most of the time, they will be working backstage, building in the shops, and helping park cars. Who knows, maybe they weed the lawn, too. But what a terrific experience they will have, living and breathing theatre all summer. Their excitement at being in the theatre that day was palpable, and infectious. I felt a catch in my throat, and a twinge of envy.

I wish someone at my undergrad, California Stage University Northridge, had mentioned the existence of this kind of apprentice program. Most summer stock theatres have them, and have had for decades, where very young actors just beginning their careers gather to live and work to support the theatre's season. It is a terrific way to learn theatre from the ground up, and to begin to forge the friendships which are a great part of a life in the theatre. I would have eaten up an experience like that, but the faculty at CSUN was either ignorant of such programs' educational potential, or just didn't care enough to encourage their students to investigate such opportunities. I never knew these apprentice programs existed until years later, when I started working in such venues as a professional.

hmm. I wonder if Flat Rock Playhouse needs apprentices...

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