This weekend, I saw renewed evidence of the difference a good director can make in the performance of an actor.
There is a performer that I have seen multiple times over the years. She's quite skilled and is willing to take risks and be big. However, more often than not, her performances have annoyed me because no matter what the role she's had, she's always played it so that the focus was on her, regardless of the story. When there was a choice to be made, the choice was always made for the cheap laugh rather than for the more authentic storytelling that can have a deeper effect on the audience.
What I saw her perform this weekend was the best that I'd ever seen her do. She took all of her wealth of acting skills and talent and performed in a disciplined fashion. By cutting back and doing less, she put in a powerhouse, memorable performance.
Much of the credit for this goes to the actor herself, but I would also guess that one of the reasons she blossomed in this show was because she had the benefit of a very strong director, one who worked with her and helped her to perform as a part of the play rather than simply be amused by the bits and business that this creative performer was able to produce.
It is said that stage is an actor's medium whereas film is a director's medium. Perhaps so, but even on stage, directors are able to make incredible differences in individual performers when they are skilled at teaching and the actor is responsive to the direction.
So,I've been thinking about the production of Caroline Kava's "The Early Girl" since I saw it on Monday.** And, yes, if you didn't take my advice to go see it, you're out of luck now because it ran for only two nights. It's one of those interesting plays that you don't see done much. I find it curious that it is so rarely done given that it is a single-set show, is very well written, is a fascinating character study, and deals with issues of employment that many people can relate to.
If I had to speculate on why this show, written in 1986, is so rarely done, perhaps it is because people are uncomfortable with the idea that the work they do could be compared to the work done by prostitutes. Or perhaps it is because these prostitutes tend to defy the usual stereotypes. They aren't all tragic and they aren't all alike. They aren't all hardened and each of them have very distinct personalities. Nor are they all mass produced from the "prostitute with a heart of gold" mold.
There were several themes in the show, but the one I found most interesting was the exploration of why people stay in a job that is soulless, exhausting, and dangerous. The reasons were different for each of the five girls and the madam, but they were ones that are by no means restricted to the profession of prostitutes. One was addicted to shopping and material things, one thought she was in love with one of the customers, the other had a child to support, and the madam was intoxicated with the idea of success and glamor.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the play was how it did not deliver on the expectations that the audience has about a play set in a whorehouse. The types of drama and tragedy were very human and not the type of tragedy that we expect when sitting smugly in our respectable jobs. Rather, they were the same type of dramas and struggles that any worker in any type of position must deal with.
Because it was a dark night production, the second company had to work with the set of the mainstage show--which in this case was the basement apartment of "All Childish Things." Richard joked that it was going to be a play about the best little whorehouse on Tatooine. Thankfully, one pretty quickly looked past the set. The main challenge was something that Richard said he came to love--the fact that the only entrance was up and down a flight of stairs. While it made the play a very aerobic workout for the actresses, it also created in a dramatic, unspoken way the sense of how exhausting their work was. Yes, they tell you that they are servicing 37 johns in a night, but the constant pounding up and down the stairs reinforced it.
While there were solid performances put in from everyone, I was especially impressed with the honest performance put in by Lara Bidus. She was cynical, but not hardened; aggressive, but not harsh. She also portrayed a vulnerability that only occasionally slipped out.
Knowing that Meghan Nystrom was recovering from mono and was still struggling with nose and throat issues, made the strength and energy she put into her performance particularly impressive.
Nor could the madam have been played more perfectly and with more strength than what was done by Cassie Little. She could have given any corporate executive a run for their money when it came to personnel management techniques, competitive motivational manipulations, and strict control of time off, pay, personal calls, and workplace rules.
I enjoyed the play that night and would have liked to have seen it Election Night if I wasn't already booked for Frost/Nixon (which was also an excellent experience, but you can read about my views on that show here.) I do believe that the reason this show is not staged more often can be tied to the fact that it is simply too uncomfortable for most of us to find so much similarity between the choices we make in our workplace and the choices made by working girls.
**OK, when I first started writing this blog entry, it was still the week that the play ran. I've gotten a little behind in posting.
This weekend is the final opportunity to catch both "All Childish Things" at BoarsHead and "Leaving Iowa" at Williamston. Both are shows well worth seeing. If you want to read some reviews on them, there have been several:
All Childish Things:
Ken Glickman's review in the Lansing State Journal
Don Calamia's review at Encore Michigan (scroll down a ways) (This is also the review in which I most frequently found myself nodding in agreement. Perhaps because we went on the same night.)
So with links to all the reviews of my professional colleagues out of the way, I'm going to write a little about some of the things that struck me with each show.
All Childish Things
There was so much about this show to love. Yes, it helps that I was a child of the 70s and 80s and remember the thrill of these shows coming out. The four characters on stage are my contemporaries and it is easy to relate to them and to their passions (even though I never was a collector, believing that toys were for playing with). I know I just compared the last BoarsHead show (Permanent Collection) to this musical, but bear with me as I do the same to this play. I was reminded (for a different reason) of Avenue Q again, even though the what is a major theme in the musical is a secondary one in All Childish Things. In both productions, the characters are wondering what has happened to their lost idealism and whether there is anything but cynicism in their future.
All Childish Things is a very funny play, but it is also a very touching one. I was especially impressed how playwright Joseph Zettelmaier was able to use the Star Wars series on multiple levels. There was the overt, obvious way in which it was in all of the dialog, the plot, and the set. But there were also thematic and structural echoes with moments of predictability being used the same way they appeared in the films. It made for a brilliant script that was filled with secretive winks and invitations to listen even more closely.
I had a blast at the show. Yes, there was fine acting in it. Yes, Aral Gribble was at the top of his game and Jason Richards, Brian Thibault, Molly Thomas and Keith Allan Kalinowski also turned in excellent performances. Yes, the set was a perfect basement that brought smiles to geeks everywhere. But it was ultimately the fact that I was moved to feel hope and optimism, that I felt the playwright was able to reveal what mattered most in a materialistic and sometimes shallow world, that made the evening one I am grateful for. There were moments during the climax that made my eyes water because of how perfectly the play captured the importance of friendship, loyalty, and holding on to dreams.
Leaving Iowa was in many ways in the same vein as All Childish Things. It was also one of those plays in which you are constantly laughing--until it is time to cry. Unlike the BoarsHead show, though, this is a show I would recommend taking the entire family to. Yes, there is some minor language, but it is relatively rare and is more than made up for by the delightful family themes and interactions throughout the play.
I suppose it had particular poignancy for us this year because of both my grandfather's and my father-in-law's deaths this past year. It was a short trip to the reminiscences of past family vacations and on the drive home from Williamston after seeing the show, our son was regaled with tales from both of his parents of what family car vacations were like. Richard talked about how organized his father was with the AAA triptychs and every portion of the trip planned out. He was part of a large family and they would often sprawl out in the back of the station wagon on longer trips (this was in the days before children wore seatbelts). I recollected how we called every round haystack a "Snuffleofagous" and how my brother loved to count overpasses--especially when I was trying to read.
It was the beauty of "Leaving Iowa" that it brought out memories and gave our family something to share beyond what was seen on the stage. And for days afterward, our son would burst out with one quote or other from the play.
For the actors playing the two children, John Lepard and Teri Clark Linden, it was a return to a show they had done years ago at Purple Rose. Linden very nearly stole the show, she was so very animated and delightful to watch. She easily had the role that was the most fun.
Another powerful aspect of the show was the relationship between the father (Hugh Maguire) and Don (Lepard). Rarely did they speak directly to one another, but there was a bond of love, guilt, and affection that was almost visible. In scenes where Lepard's character spoke to his father's ashes, Director Tony Caselli placed Maguire on stage, silently watching and actively listening. It created a powerful, compelling mood.
Like all Williamston shows, this one paid attention to detail. The set was sparse, but it was the sparseness that made it rich in the imagination of the audience and allowed for them to create multiple locations with only a few chairs.
Leaving Iowa is very definitely a feel-good show, the kind that reminds you that good family theater extends beyond fairy tales and musicals.
It's Election Day. Today is the day that each of us have our opportunity to help govern the country. Today is the day that we are called upon to perform our most important patriotic, civic duty. It is by going to the polling place and casting your vote that you earn the right to call yourself a citizen of the United States, a patriot.
I know there are many who feel that voting doesn't make a difference. There are those who say that because they don't like either candidate (even though you're voting for a long slate of candidates in many races), that they won't bother voting. There are those who believe it is all rigged and so their vote doesn't matter.
I would beg anyone who has fallen victim to cynicism to not become an object of cynicism. Don't be the disaffected, uncaring voter who is willing to let things go to hell in a handbasket because they "are going to anyway."
For more than 230 years, this country has led the way in peaceful changes of government. Be a part of that. There is no more important civic duty. There is no more important way to express your patriotism. You are the government of the United States of America. If you want your representatives to be good governors, then you must lead by example by showing up and casting your vote.
OK, lecture over.
I'll end with two thank yous:
Thank you to my employer who gave us two hours with pay off to go to the polls and vote.
Thank you to the Lansing School District for choosing today as a planning/professional development day. It let me take my son to the polls to wait in line and explain to him what voting was all about.
One of the reasons I insist that this blog is personal and not professional is so that I can write about things that would not be kosher to write about professionally--namely, those things which my husband is involved in. This is as it should be, because while I have the ability to be objective about my husband and his work (just ask him sometime what I tell him in private), I refuse to be objective about him in any public forum. He is, after all, my husband and as such, he gets nothing but my full support. If you ever want to hear anything negative about my husband's work (and I don't know why you would), you'll have to talk to someone other than me. (Indeed, be warned that I would be rather hostile to any attempts to engage me in a negative conversation about my husband. But I suppose that goes without saying, right?)
So, huge disclaimer out of the way...
Tonight and tomorrow the BoarsHead Second Company is performing "The Early Girl" by Caroline Kava. Lara Bidus chose this show about call girls in a whorehouse. It's a show that opened on stage the year I graduated starring Demi Moore, and I have to confess that I've felt a cringe here and there as it was referred to as a "period piece." I've barely adjusted to the 80s being "retro," much less the idea that a play set in 1983 counts as a "period" piece.
Richard is directing the show and cast members include Lara, Erin Clossen, Kristi Starnes, Kellie Stonebrook, Cassie Little, Meghan Nystrom, and Andrea Vesecky.
I've not seen even a minute of rehearsal (nor indeed, even met most most the cast). But I would encourage anyone (any adult, that is) who has a Monday night free--or who wants to escape the election madness Tuesday night (after you've voted of course!) to come enjoy this free show.
P.S. Because Dark Night productions take place on the set of the main stage show (and the current show is the excellent "All Childish Things"), Richard has been joking that the play takes place at the best little whorehouse on Tatooine.
Last weekend, I went to see Born Yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought the timing of it was perfect as it deals with issues that continue to be relevant today. It's a theme I wrote about this past week in my column.
On a slightly different theme, it got me thinking about comparisons that we make between things which we've seen. It will surprise no one reading this that I prefer live performances to movies. Watching Born Yesterday this weekend and Caberet the weekend before that reinforced one of the reasons I have that preference.
Theater invites us to believe that there is more than one right way of doing things. Every time we go to see a stage production of any show, it will be different from the time we saw it before, whereas every time we see the same movie, it will be the same.
One of the challenges that modern live theater has is that whenever they produce a show that has been made into a movie, the performers are going to be compared to their silver screen counterparts. Indeed, for many people, the movie becomes the standard to which the live performance is compared. I've many times heard a person say they didn't like an actor's performance and when you engage them on the reason why, it is because they weren't like the person who created that role for a movie version.
Is it that the movie performer is automatically better? Or is it simply that the movie version can be returned to repeatedly and it is always the same?
One of the appeals that theater holds for me is that it is different every time. I've seen many productions of Macbeth and I always look forward to another opportunity to see it because I know it will be done differently than the other times I've seen it. There is no one right way that Macbeth must be portrayed, or Lady Macbeth, or any of the other characters. It depends on the vision of the show, what theme the director wants to explore, and how the individual actor is choosing to create the character.
I believe that live theater by its nature invites us to be more open-minded and to accept and embrace diversity. Not all audience members accept the invitation, but it is there nonetheless. It is difficult for static electronic media to issue the same invitation.
This is a personal blog with absolutely no affiliation with the Lansing State Journal. While I write a column on similar topics for them, this blog is purely my own opinion with no one responsible for what is expressed here except me. What I'll express here are observations and thoughts about theater, shows, and art in general. I'll mostly avoid reviews--I prefer traditional media for that--and stick with more conversational responses to theater.
I am a lover of theater who is blessed to be able to write freelance theater reviews and a weekly performing arts column for the Lansing State Journal. I have a degree in journalism and was a National Endowment for the Arts Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater fellow in 2007.
I've acted in, directed, and worked back stage at theaters on a community level and am now content to cheer on the efforts of my husband and son. Together, Richard (my husband) and I were drama specialists at the Montessori Children's House of Lansing for four years.
I was also the publisher of Book Help Web (a book review and author profile/interview site) for many years and was one of the founding writers of Flyover (a blog that focuses on art news from America's outback) at Arts Journal. I'm a former Category Lead for the Books, Magazine, and Newspaper section of Epinions.com.