Sunday, October 15, 2017

Dolly, Hamlet, and Frankenstein

It has been a bit of a crazy couple of weeks with Symphony, so I never got a chance to write up Hamlet. Then, we did back to backs on the other two this weekend. So, I decided just to do three quick reviews. All three of these plays have iconic characters which are challenging to play.

Hello, Dolly! (Stars Theater)

I got a chance to play Hello, Dolly! half a lifetime ago, and my wife knows pretty much every song by heart. It is a fun show, with some lines I dig out every so often.

Unfortunately, this particular show was a bit disappointing. While the singing was generally good, the acting was a bit uneven. The sets were also pretty minimalist by Stars’ standards. I was a bit surprised, since the last two shows I saw at Stars (Ragtime and The 39 Steps) were both quite good. I do wonder if the uncertainty regarding their lease led to some belt tightening. In any case, it was enjoyable, just not up to the usual standard. 

Minnie (Caitlin Wolfenstein), Barnaby (Lucas Shearson), Irene (Amanda Locke), and Cornelius (Kyle Ball)
 Horace (Bob Anderson) and Dolly (Lori LaMacchia)

Newcomer Lori LaMacchia was good in the title role, as were Kyle Ball as Cornelius and usual suspect Bob Anderson (who played multiple roles in The 39 Steps) as Horace Vandergelder. Some of the others seem to have been picked for vocal chops rather than strong acting. A couple of high school brothers ended up taking parts at the last minute (according to the program), and, while they acquitted themselves well overall, the youth showed a bit.

Again, I had fun, but it wasn’t as good as previous Stars shows.

Hamlet (Bakersfield College)

My wife and I attended quite a few of BC’s Shakespeare productions during our dating and pre-kid years. Back then, Randy Messick was the theater professor; my wife took his Shakespeare class a few times during nursing school as a change of pace. Well, Messick retired a few years back, and got ordained as an Anglican priest. One wonders if a few times of playing Friar Lawrence prepared him for his second career. Through the years, his hair has gotten shorter (and has now disappeared altogether) while his beard has gotten longer and longer.

Taking over for Messick is Brian Sivesind, a local theater veteran who we have also watched since our dating years - he was in The Comedy of Errors, at the first iteration of The Empty Space, then called Stone Soup. Sivesind continues as executive director at The Empty Space.

Believe it or not, neither my wife nor I had ever seen Hamlet live. The closest we came was seeing the Benedict Cumberbatch version on the big screen. Because BC’s Shakespeare plays are performed right around our opening Symphony concerts, we often struggle to fit it in, and the timing had just never worked out. That was the case this year, almost. We would have loved to have gone and seen Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but there was no date I didn’t rehearse, sadly. But at least we got Hamlet.

This production was a bit of a “who’s who” of local theater, with plenty of familiar names, both students and pros. Ryan Lee, who I have praised for his work in a number of other local productions over the last couple of years, was outstanding in the title role. While I haven’t yet seen him attempt a humorous role, he has a way with brooding characters (as evidenced by his performance as Tom in The Glass Menagerie), as the straight man in a screwball comedy (Arsenic and Old Lace), and as a subtle character in a tragedy (Of Mice and Men). I thought Lee’s interpretation of the character in this play was compelling, consistent, and emotive. I also should mention some of the athletic moves - not everyone could pull off that kind of choreography.

Sivesind as King Mark was also solid. Sivesind is pretty delightful as a villain - he was chilling and malevolent in Othello last year, for example. Messick took a turn as the stuffy Polonius - a role he had never played before. Bob Kempf was hilarious as the chief gravedigger, and Nolan Long, who seems built to play humorous bit characters played off him as the assistant. Nancee Steiger, who has show some real range as the fragile Laura in The Glass Menagerie and as the lead in If/Then, brought a totally different vibe to Guildenstern, giving him(her) a bit of a tic and a too loud laugh. Carlos Vera, who seems to be in just about everything these days, as Laertes. Vera seems to have a bit of a menacing edge to every part he plays, whether Cassio in Othello or Carlson in Of Mice and Men.

I want to also mention Tevin Joslen as Horatio. Joslen was last seen (by me at least) in the role of Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime, and he has a huge stage presence. Playing opposite to Lee isn’t easy, as he tends to own the stage, but Joslen and Lee had real chemistry in portraying the close relationship of Hamlet and Horatio. Both of these young men have real promise. 

 Hamlet (Ryan Lee) and Horatio (Tevin Joslen)

There were a couple of performances which were disappointing mostly because of how good the actors usually are. Amy Hall as Gertrude and Shelbe McClain as Ophelia both suffered a bit from the venue. BC’s outdoor theater is large and, well, outdoors, and projection can sometimes be an issue. Particularly when facing to the side. While I thought both performances were good overall, I lost a few lines to low speaking volumes for each of them. Mostly, this is a minor complaint, but adapting to the venue is important. Outdoor performance is a much different beast, particularly if no amplification is to be used.

BC chose to make a bit of a change to the script in this case. I am not a Shakespeare purist, exactly. I find setting plays in different eras to be perfectly acceptable. However, I am not sure how I feel about this one.

As the play opens, we see the very last scene, where Hamlet bids Horatio tell the tale. At that point, the play is told as a flashback. When we get to the end, the lines were (if I am recalling correctly) changed just a bit so that we don’t get the epilogue in total. (I think a few lines were cut. I wish I had had my script to check it at the time, and two weeks have gone by now.) Finally, at the very end, Horatio, having told his story, drinks the poisoned cup as well.

The sets were minimalist in this case, with copied pages of the script used as wallpaper on everything. In between scenes, echo-y fragments of the lines were played in a mashup. Rather atmospheric, and fitting to a low-budget operation by students. The acting more than made up for it. Naturally, BC’s stuff is going to be uneven, since the point is to give students a chance to act. This particular one was stronger than most. Kudos to Sivesind for maintaining the high standards that Messick brought to the program.

Young Frankenstein (The Empty Space)

This musical was a new one to me. In fact, my experience of Mel Brooks is pretty much limited to Get Smart. Yeah, I know. I am just not that much of a movie person, and I really don’t remember the 1970s very well. (Give me a break, I was born in 1976…)

But I couldn’t resist a chance to see Young Frankenstein, particularly since a number of friends really love it. I was not disappointed. The Empty Space has been outstanding the last few years, and have managed to put on several musicals despite limited space.

My wife and I brought the four oldest kids, and they had a blast. However, I will caution that there is a certain amount of sexual content in the play, so your parenting may vary. We are not particularly puritanical, in spite of (because of?) our Fundamentalist upbringing, so we went ahead and brought the kids. I should not be surprised that the older three got a lot of the jokes - including the innuendo. After all, they are good at wordplay, and read voraciously. I am reminded of the time Amanda and I saw Much Ado About Nothing early in our marriage, and we were the only younger people who got all the naughty jokes. Never underestimate the innocent looking ones…

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the young Frankenstein (“it’s pronounced Frahnk-en-steen!”) is the grandson of the familiar character. As this play is a spoof on the old Hollywood movies, rather than the more thoughtful original book by Mary Shelley, it doesn’t line up with the book, but contains the gloomy castle, and Igor. (“It’s pronounced EYE-gore!”) It is also set in “Transylvania,” even though the accents, names, and foreign words are all German. (Including some German swear words. Don’t ask me why I know them. My German is pretty much limited to food terms, musical terms, and vulgarities.)

Anyway, Frankenstein inherits the old castle back in the old country, but must go there in person, or the property will escheat (go back to the state.) When he gets there, he is met by Igor (grandson of the original), taken to the castle where he meets Frau Blucher, and sees his grandfather’s ghost, who convinces him to “join the family business.” Things, naturally, go awry.

I won’t spoil it more than that. Along the way, the old tropes are spoofed, there are fun song and dance numbers, and the monster gets to do a soft shoe Irving Berlin number.

The cast was outstanding, as usual. Kyle Gaines is quite young, but he has acting in his blood. His mother Julie was also in this production, as well as in Arsenic and Old Lace. (His grandmother had a few big screen parts back in the day, and has done ad work up until the last few years.) Kyle got the part of Young Frankenstein, and he was fabulous. He has a good voice, and an expressive face, and thoroughly inhabited the part. I hadn’t seen him before, although I understand he has been in other plays around town. I also approve of the little mustache he grew for the occasion. Perfect. 

 Young Frankenstein (Kyle Gaines)

Igor was played by Perrin Swanson (no relation), last seen in You Can’t Take It With You as the nerdy xylophone player Ed. Swanson is skinny as all get out, and in black tights with a hump and hood, would have been funny even if he hadn’t done anything. But he was hilarious to watch and listen to. Particularly when he danced, but the rest of the time too. Perfect part for him, and the chemistry between him and Kyle Gaines was excellent.

Igor (Perrin Swanson)

Julie Gaines got the part of Frau Blucher, in which she was appropriately creepy. Perhaps the best was her number “He Was My Boyfriend,” where she describes her love affair with the elder Frankenstein in awkwardly lurid terms. Kyle looked appropriately horrified. (One can only imagine watching one’s mother singing this song. Acting families must be fun…)

Victoria Lusk is an Empty Space regular, usually taking smaller parts. It was fun to see her flirt and pout her way through the part of Inga. Likewise, the other point of the love triangle, Elizabeth, was played by Marti Hoyt in an appropriately uptight and controlling manner.

Inga (Victoria Lusk), Igor (Perrin Swanson), and Frau Blucher (Julie Gaines)
Steve Evans brought the monster to life in a convincing manner as well, both in the original form, and then as the suddenly intelligent monster who “talks like Noel Coward.”

The Monster (Steve Evans)

Director Ron Warren, who is a longtime veteran of the stage, also played the ghost of the old Dr. Frankenstein. Warren is bigger than life on stage, with a voice that could fill a much larger venue, and a naturally sinister aspect that he plays for all it is worth. (If my memory serves, he played Caliban in The Tempest, which was the first Shakespeare I took my older daughters to see.) Warren is also a fantastic knitter - his knit creatures have graced the theater’s art gallery - and knows my wife from the local guild. He also serves as technical director for The Empty Space. Really one of the veteran theater guys who works behind the scenes to make good things happen.

As is the usual case, The Empty Space used creative sets, making the most of a very small space. The sliding door used in this play was a nice touch.

I really can’t think of any negatives to this production. The kids laughed the whole way through it, and we had a great time.

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