Hamlet Pun Fun

(Spotted in Toronto’s historic district.)

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TheaTour!: Stephens Auditorium

Can architecture be both modern and primal? Stephens Auditorium at the Iowa State Center, a recent stop of mine, argues yes! it can! For proof, first examine the jagged, toothlike boxes (above) than hang over the vast orchestra (below).

They’re equal parts Modernism and tribalism, reason and fury, security and danger, violent, giant spears put to contemporary use. Looking at them, I think of mod, Le Corbusier-like starchitects, but also of ancient, primitive South American clans. Quite the coupling, eh?

This odd dance of eras plays out all over the space, from the cavern of the house…

… to the starship-meets-temple exterior.

It’s even present in the exquisite patterns of béton brut (“raw concrete”) that tattoo the building’s in- and exteriors. (Béton brut is a gorgeous style in which the imprints of wooden, concrete molds are left intact rather than smoothed over.) It literally collides old world and new, embossing the present with the past.


Of course, down in the dressing rooms all that matters is makeup and props and water bottles… concerns, I might add, surely shared by those ritualistic, ancient tribespeople.

Past and present… not so separate after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Chat! with Jay Montgomery


Superstorm Sandy did more than ravage the infrastructure of the Tristate area; it threw a major wrench in the schedules of pretty much ever theater production in the region. Especially hard hit was Staten Island’s Harbor Lights Theater Company, whose production of The King and I was thrown in jeopardy when Sandy settled in. Associate Artistic Director Jay Montgomery was nice enough to answer some questions about the challenges Harbor Lights now faces. 

What have been the physical and financial impacts of Sandy?
Harbor Lights produces at Snug Harbor Cultural Center, a New York City Park. When the Mayor shut down the parks, we were shut down, also. We lost six days of build and tech time, as well as rehearsal. We delayed our opening a week, and then another day when Snug Harbor was closed due to the Nor’easter, finally opening Friday, November 9th. We have to close on the 18th, rather than extend a week, due to the unavailability of the cast the next week, which is Thanksgiving.

Financially, we lost a third of our run—we’re a new company in our third season, the only Equity company in the history of Staten Island—and a three-week run is what we’ve built up to in our short history. The loss of revenue puts us in real peril. We estimate the loss at $30,000.

Has the state provided any aid?
The state hasn’t provided any aid as of yet. We do intend to pursue support if available. As of yet, we have not found any sources to help with loss of revenue.

How did your creative team manage to work on the show while public transportation was shut down?
The creative team worked electronically through the storm’s aftermath. Getting to SI was impossible for days—we drove to our Stage Manager’s house—she had power—to recharge and do administrative work.

How can New Yorkers help you guys out?
New Yorkers can help by coming to see the show! One of the great things the arts can do is promote healing, and this production certainly does that.

Have you been in touch with other theaters impacted by the storm?
We have been in touch with other theaters indirectly through David Lotz of Actors’ Equity; he has been spearheading communication throughout the area.

Moving away from the hurricane, what are the challenges for a young company like yours?
Our biggest challenge is simply carrying on. This production of The King and I was a strategic choice to get us to the next level in audience development. We invested significant money in advertising and production value – specifically choosing a classic piece of theater. Besides the loss of four performances, the last thing on the mind of Staten Islanders right now is to do anything pleasurable, and with good reason. This has caused a slow down in ticket sales for remaining performances resulting in additional loss of income. Whether or not we can survive the financial loss is unknown, but we remain determined to have a glorious closing week.

We’ve offered blocks of tickets to displaced people, relief staff, and volunteers in Staten Island to two of our performances  encouraging them to let us transport and lift them for an afternoon or evening; Harbor Lights was created to be an institution to serve the community, by bringing the arts to our underserved borough. We hope to continue to fulfill that mission.

____________________
The King and I plays through November 18th at The Music Hall at Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden
Tickets are available HERE.
More at http://theharborlightstheatercompany.org/
Hurricane photo, above, courtesy of NASA
Pictured below: Hansel Tan and YoonJeong Seong in the Harbor Lights production of The King and I.

In Rep with “Cloud Atlas”

The Repertory System isn’t dead!

Back in Ye Olde Days, troupes of actors would rehearse several shows at a time and perform them on alternate evenings. Audiences got the unique thrill of seeing the same set of actors perform, say, a Shakespeare on Tuesday, and a Durang on Wednesday. (Now that would be a fun bill!) For reasons of cost that system is mostly dead.

Or is it? Cloud Atlas, the wonderfully big-thinking movie based on David Mitchell‘s novel of the same name, puts the idea of the old Rep System back to use, and brilliantly so. Built out of six seemingly separate stories, Cloud Atlas flits from one narrative to another, a handful of actors changing garb and temper along the way. We get Halle Berry as a Space Agey adventurer in one tale and a hard-hitting journalist in another. Tom Hanks has equally heavy lifting, playing everything from a scientist to a strange tribesman to a murderous writer.

Thematically, this continuity seems to suggest that the characters are reincarnated versions of themselves. But on a less heady, more concrete level, it’s also just really damn cool seeing great actors in different digs.

Witness Madame Berry and Mr. Hanks…

and Hugo Weaving…

Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Bae Doo-na, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon and others round out the chameleonic cast.

So cool, right?!

TheaTour!: The Rialto Square Theatre

And then there was the day we performed in the Titanic of theaters, the Rialto Square.

Marble, gold leaf, crystal—this baby had it all. First class, here we go!

We’re a children’s show (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by TheatreWorksUSA, which, by the way doesn’t endorse these opinions) so we’re not exactly used to this grandeur. We play loads of fascinating, beautiful, inspiring houses (see other TheaTour! posts) but Versailles, they’re mostly not.

The Rialto? Versailles it mostly is.

The theater, which opened in 1926 as a movie palace, is mostly GrecoRoman in its style, but don’t miss the Byzantinism of the chandeliers and the decorative boxes, which are swathed in a plaster weave of Middle Eastern patterns.

A dramatically lit relief that appears to depict the birth of Venus is the focal point of the proscenium.

The legs of the proscenium, however, refuse to be outshone.

It’s hard to communicate the sheer size and enormity and relentless splendor of the Rialto, but this panorama gives that a shot.

As actors, my tour-mates and I almost always enter a theater through its backstage, only venturing into the lobby if time permits and access is permitted. Thank heaven, then, that we found our way to this, the mother of the mother of the mother of all lobbies and esplanades.

The columns are scagliola, or imitation marble, though the darker pedestals they stand on are real. The archway is inspired by the Arc de Triomph in Paris, and the esplanade is fashioned after (surprise surprise) the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.

That esplanade opens up into a rotunda, a dizzying circle of grandeur and luxury.

Crowning the rotunda is a chandelier known as “The Dutchess.”

While the gold leaf tapers off backstage, there are plenty of good views to be had, this stack of stairways for one.

And then there’s the lovely star dressing room, which (like other parts of the theater) is rumored to be haunted. (The Syfy show Ghost Hunters recently made a visit to the Rialto to investigate some of the ghostly claims.)

Outside, an appropriately massive marquis and facade hint at the treats hidden within.

Again and again I’m astonished by the wealth of theatrical treasures that bejewel our United States. Perhaps its the vapors of election night still floating around me, but that wealth makes me feel, well, patriotic.

____________________________

All photos by theater-words.com

Detroit House

1.

“Can we take a look at the old theater?”

My friend and I were in downtown Detroit and had ventured into the lobby of something called the Michigan building. Visitors to town, we were unsure what kind of cajoling would be needed to let us into the crumbling theater that we’d heard was hidden inside.

“$20,” said the guard.

“Really?” Too high.

“$10.”

More like it—

“$5”

Sold—

“Just messing with y’all. It’s free—take the elevator the third floor, go right, then through the exit sign.”

2.

I’d read about this place on the Detroit blogs, blogs that sported cool urban-explorer names like “Faded Detroit,” and “detroitfunk.” These sites specialize in what’s become known as “ruin porn,” wistful photography that glorifies deterioration and degeneration. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, especially when it comes to theaters, so upon learning of this faded palace, I knew I had to make a visit.

The blogs had laid out the basics: Once a palatial, 4,000-seat house featuring the likes of the Marx Brothers, John Philip Sousa and Bob Hope, the Michigan had barely skirted demolition in the late ‘70s, but was converted into a garage when workers in the office building it’s in whined about inadequate parking. The result was a faint echo of the former glory, but some of the old magic, I heard, could still be found.

3.

As directed, my friend and I headed up, went right, made our way down some steps, through another door, and—

“Ahhhhhh—!!!!!!!”

There she was! A brick and plaster cavern, a frozen Rococo tent, the most absurd and fantastical parking lot known to man. The walls rippled Mars brown and red, grey and cement, faded gold and seasick green.

Heaven, in other words.

Navigating the 15-odd cars in hibernation, we found a spot in the center of the shell and pieced together what we could of the theater’s history. Three levels of parking had been installed at some point—we were on the top floor—so that explained our proximity to the glorious ceiling. Glancing up, we could see the gorgeously spoiled plasterwork almost intimately—a glyph here, a fleur-de-lis there.

We turned around, taking in the back of the house. There stood the stub of what must’ve been the balcony. There were the old corridors leading patrons to their seats. And there was what used to be the rooftop of the lobby.

The curve of the ceiling directed our eyes forward, to the proscenium. The concrete floors had cut off both of its legs, but the rounded top sat mostly undisturbed.

Beyond it lay the gap of the stage itself, a vast maw untouched by the parking lot, if not by the elements.

The water dripped and the sun shone through and flanks of rust and mold continued their slow crusade and I couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful. Why? Decay creates a mystical regret that makes us (or me, at least) feel curious and humbled and part of the Bigger Picture, no less guarded from the steady, wearying forces of time than the buildings around us. It’s like looking at the stars and feeling small and big at the same time, and knowing that The Answer, the simple answer, is right there, embedded in something physical just beyond your touch.

4.

Detroiters, of course, are starved for this kind of transcendence. We all know how the city has turned into a brittle chrysalis, how the jobs and the factories and the prosperity have vanished, how the public trust has gone sour. How plywood fills the windows of downtown office buildings. How traffic lights, if they work at all, blink the same eternal pulse: red black red black redblackredblack. How homes lost to foreclosure sprout trees like so many nursery gardens.

This is the roiling landscape Lisa D’Amour chose for her Pulizer Prize finalist of a play, Detroit, seen earlier this fall at Playwrights Horizons.

Walking around the Michigan Theater it was impossible not to think of D’Amour’s play, a play that culminates in the destruction of a house. Taking in the Michigan’s slow demise, I wondered, are its remains so different from the charred beams and joists of D’Amour’s play?

Not really, if only for the delightful happenstance that theaters are often referred to as, well, houses. I love this: What word could be more appropriate for spaces that soothe and rattle, welcome and surprise, nurture and madden?

So there we stood, my friend and I, in a crumbling Detroit house, acting as its small, temporary family.

Of course, a family turns a house into something else entirely.

A home.

There might only have been two of us, but in that moment, we filled the Michigan. She was a full house. A full home.

TheaTour!: The Victoria Theatre

Making small talk with local theater crews can be tough going, but one question always seems to get a shutmouthed gang chattering: “Any ghost stories here worth knowing about?” Crew guys (and the occasional girl) become positively babbly when given the chance to tell a choice bit about a phantom producer, composer, or director.

Or, every so often, a performer. Even if most of the crew’s stories don’t concern actors, I love to imagine bits of their ghostly essence left behind, some magic sparks floating by that my castmates and I just might be able to breathe in and use onstage.

Those actor-ghost-sparks were of an especially starry caliber at Dayton, Ohio’s Victoria Theatre. Heavyweights like Carol Channing and Faye Dunaway once graced the stage, one of the oldest continuously run in the US. Backstage posters (above) hint at some of the stars of past, and make for fun pre-show perusal.


But beyond the posters, the celebrity meter gets even higher. Victoria alumni also include the likes of Edwin Forrest, Harry Houdini, Al Joson, Mark Twain, Sarah Bernhardt, the Marx Brothers, Fanny Brice, and many others. This view…


… was their view. This rake…

… is what Carol Channing herself saw as she descended that staircase, singing, “Hello, Dolly!” Do these actors’ ghosts peer down on their performer-descendents from these ornate boxes?

Or are they backstage, gleefully moving props or whispering encouragement?

Ask a stagehand. He’ll know.

That Other Disney Magic


On Broadway, the word “Disney” is synonymous with “big,” “spectacular,” “humungous”—pretty much any word large enough to encompass human-sized dancing cutlery or a plastic light-up underwater grotto. (Cough, Beauty and the Beast, cough, Little Mermaid.)

But after catching a performance of Mary Poppins tour in Pittsburgh, I realized “Disney” just might be synonymous with another word: intimate.

Ok, ok, physically, Poppins is anything but small. There is, after all, a 30-foot, light up umbrella, a house (with a staircase!), and denizens of dancing statues. But the story, about a family finding its way back to itself, is heartwarmingly simple and surprisingly emotional: Mary Poppins teaches two children generosity, gets a father to value his home life, and returns a mother her peace. Yes, there are enough super-sized tap numbers and expensive design shenanigans to make spectacle-hungry audiences happy, but the really important storytelling business is about nothing more (and nothing less) than humans connecting. 

The show’s final image proves as much. It features not a set piece or a stunt, but a simple family portrait: the Banks family, together, walking forward, united in step and heart.

I’ll take that over a flying nanny any day.

_______________________________
Photo by Wayne Taylor at the age.com.au, featuring the Australian cast of 
Mary Poppins.

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