Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Local Droppings, Dog Days Edition

Before heading into the next period of employment, I took a few weekends to catch up on the local theatrical offerings. Slim pickings, volume wise, as August really does mean the Dog Days of summer. Most theatres in town are dark, or are in rehearsal for their big season opener.

First Up, I caught the first show of the new Theatre Alliance season. It was quick (about 70 minutes) and easy (less than 5 minutes from my house), so I had nothing to lose by popping in. Actually, TA puts out really interesting stuff, though I miss most of it. I appeared there 4 years ago or so, and had a very rewarding time.

Their current show, a world premiere, just did not sit right with me. It was one of those scripts redolent with characters who are quick with the quips, which gets old for me pretty quickly. As a result, I did not enjoy the production, nor the performances in it (I give the actors kudos for playing the script with gusto, I just didn't buy any of it). The show is getting mixed-to-good reviews, so apparently some people like it.

My second evening out was much more enjoyable. I shlepped out to Rep Stage to catch their season opener, A.R. Gurney's "Mrs. Farnsworth." My grad school buddy Steve Carpenter directed the piece environmentally. That is, because the play takes place in a classroom, Steve actually did the show in a classroom, a lecture hall at Howard Community College. I really enjoyed this bit of left-wing agitprop, which contained a couple of swell performances by Helen Hedman and Mitchell Hebert.

I was so glad I ventured out a third night, to catch the remount of "Pangs of the Messiah" at Theatre J. The show ran a month or so ago, and was such a success, it's back for an encore. I confess that I was prepared for a dry political diatribe, but instead, I was completely sucked into this very personal story of Jews being evacuated from the West Bank. The script was riveting from start to finish, and the performances, lead by Laura Giannarelli (seen here with Alexander Strain) and Michael Tolaydo, were among the best I've seen in a long while.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Lingo of the Letdown

Gotta hand it to tiny Bay Theatre Company. They are one of the very very few theaters who make the effort to notify actors that their auditions tanked.

Well, that's not really the way they put it, of course. And notification that you did not get the job is really appreciated by the actor. Most theaters (more than 90 %, I would estimate) don't bother with such courtesies, leaving the actor in a sort of limbo, wondering if a decision has been made, or if he is still in the running, or if the theater has dropped into the ocean, or what.

But tiny Bay Theatre is doing it right. Only a few days after my recent audition for them, I received a brief email thanking me for my efforts. I commend them for that nicety, but have to roll my eyes at the cliche which they, and all other theaters, use: "We are going in a different direction."

...um, which direction would that be? South?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Treading Water

Periods like this in my life always feel like treading water. One event, or series of events, has ended, and the next has yet to begin. So, I get the feeling of remaining stationary while life swirls around me.

"Bye Bye Birdie" ended as a success, and I was lucky enough to have my long-time soul-mate Judy with me to help with the Post Show Depression. She spent several days with me in DC, and I barely felt the usual let-down. We had a quiet and uneventful visit, with a movie ("Hairspray") and a stage show ("Democracy") sprinkled in. Mostly, we caught up on each other's lives, and spent a good deal of time enjoying my newest favorite TV series, "Slings and Arrows." Judy and I had a ball following this Canadian series which deals with the hilarious trials of running a major Shakespearean Theatre (read: Stratford in Ontario.)

Jude hopped the train to Newark, and a plane to Edinburgh, and I spent several days doing mundane things such as the dentist and the eye doc.

I helped celebrate the Very Low-Keyed 20th anniversary of "Shear Madness" at the Kennedy Center. An elaborate cake was commissioned to help commemorate this DC institution, currently the second longest running non-musical play in the history of American Theatre (the Boston production of "Shear Madness" is number one). But other than an informal gathering of the cast and KenCen crew, this auspicious birthday passed, well, inauspiciously. This was surely at the wishes of the creators, who consider the Kennedy Center production the Jewel in the Crown of the show.

And now, I have a few short weeks before theatrical activity begins again. Next week, I'll have two auditions (one show I really really want, and the other I'm non-committal) for productions in the spring. It would ease my mind a bit if one or both come through, as I have nothing on the books beyond October.

But, I'm not complaining. Not too much, anyway. In a few weeks, I'll be tossed back into the "Opus" remount, for only a week or so, during which I will also begin rehearsals for "Of Mice and Men." So, similar to last spring, I'll be pulling double duty, but with a twist. This time I will have to give up my role in "Opus" after we reopen, in order to concentrate on my horseshoe skills in "M&M".

Ah well, too much work. This is a GOOD problem to have...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Bunch of Coconuts

I find myself strangely moved by the passing of TV icon Merv Griffin. He made buttloads of money inventing Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, but I remember him primarily for his talk show, which was in its heyday back when talk shows were just that. They were not promos for the guests' newest film, album, or TV series. Back when I was watching The Merv Griffin Show, talk shows were for talk.

It must have been in the late 60s that I watched Merv regularly. My family had a rule (with some flexibility, I must say) that dinner happened at the dinner table, and not in front of the television. This made watching Merv difficult, as his 90 minute syndicated show was broadcast during our dinner hour in Atlanta, where I grew up. Thankfully, my mother was more amenable to dining on a TV tray if Dad was held up at work, and since he almost always was held up at work (Thank you, Lockheed), I often dined while enjoying Merv and his guests.

And what an outlandish group they were. We had Merv's announcer, the incomparable Arthur Treacher, a hilariously pompous British character actor whose film career consisted of a series of butlers. I'm not sure he knew how funny he was, as he attempted to translate the Americanisms which were thrust at him, but he had a strong chemistry with Griffin.

Back then, Merv excelled at presenting the Entertaining Guest. These were not people booked to hock the latest project, these were people who could actually speak extemporaneously and entertainingly. Merv loved eccentrics, so we were introduced to Monty Rock III, Stanley Myron Handelman, Prof. Irwin Corey and, a particular favorite, Hermione Gingold.

Aging TV writer and wit Jack Douglas was a frequent guest with his much younger Japanese wife, Reiko. I didn't know at the time that Reiko was a skilled comedienne, all I knew was that the duo was a scream. Their routine usually included humor aimed at Reiko's ignorance of the English language (a put-on, I'm sure, but who cares? It was funny).

A typical encounter:

Merv: "So Reiko, what have you been doing here in the States for fun?"

Reiko (recited as if she had learned the answer phonetically): "Photo-graphing Mi-li-tary In-stall-ations..."

Charo was another frequent guest who capitalized on her lack of knowledge of English. Married to elderly bandleader Xavier Cugat, she looked for "sook sex" in America.

I still remember the comics Merv showcased back then. Ruth Buzzi was a frequent guest, as was Joanne Worley, with her trademark feathered boa. This was several years before they gained fame in "Laugh-In."

Moms Mabley was a frequent guest, getting huge laughs for politically incorrect, semi-racist humor. And I have a strong memory of wacky Dody Goodman, years before gaining a bit of fame on "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," singing a hilarious old tune called "Lydia the Tattooed Lady." (That number still sits on my list of possible audition songs.
It's true that Merv lavished a lot of screen time on his favorites, which included the Gabor sisters and the Reagans. But he should be applauded for booking interesting people who could fill 90 minutes with witty repartee, with nary a project to promote.

Thanks, Merv, for all those evenings in front of the TV.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Memories of Pete

On the heels of the discovery that my old college chum Jenny, about whom I have already written, passed away over a year ago, comes more crummy news. My old high school drama teacher, Joan Peterson, died back in February, and the news is only now being circulated.

I imagine every single stage actor in the country owes at least part of their ambition to a high school drama teacher. I owe "Pete" a good deal more. She transformed what could have been a monstrous year into one of the best of my life.

I arrived at Kennedy High School in suburban Los Angeles the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. A more disastrous time to move a teen-ager couldn't be found, but my father received a big promotion which required that our family relocate from Atlanta to California.

I was a misery. Forced to leave the friends I had gained in 17 years in GA, right before we all graduated, in order to attend a brand new school for one year, I was determined to get out of high school as soon as possible. I arranged my schedule so that I could graduate early, in December, as I was sure I would be miserable at this new school. And I was, for about a week.

Even with the accelerated schedule, I had room in my school day for an elective, so the councillor handling my woeful case placed me in "Drama B," which was the second semester drama class. I sat in the back of the theatre, in the corner, in the dark, and sulked, while the class spent the first week doing improvisations. I received many many looks from the other students, who wondered who the hell that long-haired, sullen sourpuss sitting back there was.

Friday arrived, and I could delay my participation in the class no longer. I got up on stage with the other slackers who had ducked performing until the final moment, and was assigned the following scenario: "you are stuck in an elevator."

I hate that kind of improv, where the funny quip trumps any truth, but the fact is I can usually come up with the Funny Quip, and I had a good scene. Joan Peterson approached me after class, clearly stunned that the sullen weirdo who had been sitting in the back for four days was in fact able to speak in complete sentences. She encouraged me to audition for her Play Production class, the advanced drama class which produced all the school's plays, the next semester. I informed her, with an air of insufferable superiority, that I was graduating early and would not be available to be in her advanced class in the spring.

I returned to school the following Monday to discover that Pete had arranged some voodoo with my schedule, and I was in her Play Production class, without an audition. Once again, I endured strange looks from students wondering who this wacko in the back of the class was.

Pete was casting the first show of the season, Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians," and I auditioned for the villainous Judge Wargrave. I was disappointed that I was instead given the role of the drunken Dr. Armstrong, but Pete, who had known me less than a week, already knew that I would give the neurotic doctor a much needed comic edge.

I was on my way, and the year at Kennedy turned into a terrific time. I had such fun with "Ten Little Indians," and more importantly, the students working on it, that I changed my mind about graduating early, and hung around for the entire year.

That second semester cemented my close relationship with Pete, as I spent most of every day with her. Since I had already fulfilled all of the requirements to graduate, I became Pete's assistant for two classes, as well as attending both Play Production and the newly created Musical Theatre Class, which was producing Kennedy's first full-scale musical, "Hello Dolly."

In fact, I was only away from the theatre twice a day, to attend my PE class (BOWLING, how can that could be a PE class?), and Typing, a concession to my mother who moaned that I would be wasting a whole semester of my life if I didn't learn something useful.

(I certainly don't consider that semester a waste, though I did need to learn to type, so thanks Mom.)

Performance-wise, I had a great season. "Ten Little Indians" was followed by an evening of one-acts, then the title role in "The Miser," and my first appearance in a musical, playing Rudolph in "Hello, Dolly!" Interspersed, Pete allowed me to experiment with directing, including a Brecht one-act called "The Elephant Calf," and my senior project, which was a revamped revival of a soap opera spoof I had participated in at my previous high school, called "The Stagnant Storm."

Pete also encouraged me to attempt my first Shakespeare, and, under her tutelage, I entered the regional Shakespeare competition, in which my Malvolio monologue took fourth place.

Joan Peterson did more for me than put me in plays, and encourage my artistic expression. She made it possible for me to forge strong friendships during a year in which I was desperately in need of them. Our relationship lasted far beyond the single year I attended Kennedy High, as I returned to direct one of her Fall Festival entries (Elaine May's "Adaptation," which was a finalist), and she allowed me to rehearse my final college directing project at Kennedy, Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano."

I lost touch with Pete once my college career heated up, but I returned to Kennedy several years later, when, quite out of the blue, my younger sister Joan landed in Pete's production of "The Boyfriend." My sister was not at all part of the drama crowd, she'd never even taken a class. But during the senior year of what was a pretty "normal" high school career (precision pep squad, Homecoming Queen, that sort of thing), Joan decided to take a chance and do something she had never done before. She auditioned for the musical.

Pete snapped her up to play the comic role in The Boyfriend (the role which made Sandy Duncan's name), and Joan delivered a knock-out performance in the scene-stealing part, which included the biggest hit from the show, "Won't you Charleston with Me." Pete had no idea Joan and I were related, though once she found out, she demanded to know where the hell my sister had been for the last three years, as she could have cast her in just about everything.

Many years after my last visit to Kennedy, I was surprised to find Pete and her husband Don in the audience at Granada Theatre, where I was appearing in a musical review called "Perfectly Frank." Pete, as always, was hugely enthusiastic about my work, and it was a joy to see her one last time.

In that first year in LA, Joan Peterson's encouragement allowed me to consider that I might actually be able to forge a career in the theatre. I doubt my parents would thank her for that, but I certainly do.

Her students, at Kennedy and earlier at Monroe High, called her Joan, Joanie, Pete, Mrs. Pete, even Mrs. Peterson, but they all meant the same thing. She was a friend and mentor in the very best sense. Most of her students went into other professions, but I am sure that all of us hold our memories of her very dear.

Thank you, Pete. I'll never forget you.