When it comes to summer festivals for new plays – or new plays at any time of year – it’s pretty hard to beat the Contemporary American Theater Festival, way down in WV. They’ve been at it since 1991 and are going strong. This year’s lineup looks stellar.
Put this in your Google calendar. Every second Monday, it’s time for E4P’s New Shit Show.
That means – tonight!
THE COCOANUTS have landed | Audience powerless to resist ageless, madcap hilarity at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Ladies and gentlemen, THE COCOANUTS have landed. Not in Florida, the setting for the 1929 Marx Brothers film that is the departure point for this newly adapted stage musical version by Mark Bedard, but much closer by, in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley. And in what may prove to be one of the runaway hits of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 season, a cast of nuttily comic talents has taken up an irresistible and very loud residence in the Angus Bowmer Theatre for the next nine months. You have been warned.
On opening weekend at OSF, the order of shows matters. Just as any one play has a beginning, middle, and end, a group of four plays over three days works together in a certain way. Savvy planning takes maximum advantage of how to affect and entrance the audience, ultimately sending everyone home with a great overall buzz. It’s a carefully organized four act production.
This year THE COCOANUTS was perfectly positioned as the main event act three on Saturday night. Diehards committed to all opening shows had already seen a solid if somewhat unexciting TEMPEST as act one on Friday, and an unforgettable rendition of the rarely produced THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW Saturday afternoon as act two. But neither of those shows could be called a comedy. And if there is one thing a full house in a theatre longs to do, especially if they have traveled from afar to be part of a multi day gala celebration (the only way to describe opening weekend at OSF), it is laugh. No force on earth is stronger than the desire of an assembled audience to laugh. And on Saturday night, the floodgates finally opened and flew right off the hinges.
There’s two parts here to the fun: the show, and the actors. While the show itself is solid and benefits from referencing a much loved film, the real attraction of COCOANUTS is a dazzling cavalcade of OSF super stars. Much as a lot of the appeal of the Marx Brothers was the Marx Brothers themselves, as opposed to the plots they found themselves enmeshed in, this is the kind of show that succeeds or fails on the strength of brilliant physical comedy. The actors have to be good enough that they can simply stand there, look at you, and it (meaning your ability to not laugh) is all over. Mission accomplished.
But if there is one aspect of the structure of the show to call out, it is the reliance throughout on short but recurring, hair-raising improv segments. Like a pause at the top after a long roller coaster climb up and before the thundering descent, realizing that the cast, in front of a sold out house, is suddenly off book and airborne with no net or harness causes no small degree of terror (for us and them, no doubt). Will they pull it off? It takes that crazy moment of pure chaos to bring forth the flipside of uncontainable joy when they bring it home. And on opening night, the improv moments were so good they should have all been scripted in for the rest of the run to save everyone some extra inches of stomach lining.
Commanding the shock troops of mirth is Mark Bedard as Mr. Hammer (Groucho). Bedard is fast, hyper attentive, and very much in control. On opening night, during one of those inevitable moments when an audience member decided that, yes, this quiet pause was finally the time to unfurl that glazed donut wrapped (in several layers) in what sounded like brittle Christmas present paper (were they a plant?), Bedard was instantly on it, instructing the poor suckah: “Yeah, go ahead and unwrap it now.” Hilarious. Along with a speechless Brent Hinkley as Harpo and John Tufts as Chico, Bedard leads his three musketeers into a night of endless technicolor laughs – and several prolonged scenes of spontaneity.
There’s plenty of madcap hi jinx and breathless shenanigans to keep the laughs rolling up the lower slopes of the mighty Siskiyou. But for some actors, just standing there, or making the slightest move, is sufficient to bring the house down.
Brent Hinkley. Even if you don’t know him by name, you know him. He’s that drunk guy with a ruddy nose, listing to and fro, or swiping at a butterfly in his underwear like an overgrown toddler. He’s the village idiot with a heart (if not brain) of gold. He’s the guy roused from sleep wearing an absurd vintage Shakepeare era sleeping cap. Hinkley is a master at filling in the borders of OSF scenes with such exquisitely funny detail that you can easily miss what is really going on, because you can’t look away from him. Hinkley is more center stage here than in other shows, but treat yourself some time and just keep your eyes on Hinkley the whole time he’s on stage and watch what he does.
And another: K. T. Vogt. As the bruising, outstandingly funny Mrs. Potter, who is a mother-on-a-mission (namely get that daughter married to the fella with a future, not the desk clerk), Vogt is simply too good to be believed. Channeling some of Hinkley’s butterfly chasing elan, Vogt is often just outside the narrative (and one step behind it), frumping and woozily swinging an overloaded handbag at a world that just won’t behave. She is quite possibly the single funniest person in this show – which is saying something. Unfortunately none of the production photos feature Vogt in code red mother mode, but for anyone who has seen the show, an indelible image of her teetering around stage in a somewhat cavernous dress, hefting that god almighty handbag while trying to maintain Victorian era standards, will be burned into memory. At one precious moment, pulling the rug out from under her daughter’s infatuation with the desk clerk, Mrs. Potter clarifies that there is one way to know if he (Eduardo Placer) is “just” a clerk: “If he clerks, he’s a clerk.” Bam. Case closed.
But don’t answer yet. You also get David Kelly, Kate Mulligan, and Jennie Greenberry. The list goes on. But in the interest of public safety and order, we should probably stop at this point.
One more improv gem (and I don’t think this is a spoiler alert as it appeared to be a one night only event). Late in the opening performance, as considerable comedic firepower had already been deployed and wheeled off stage, funny man John Tufts was delivering some pointed comments to director David Ivers where he sat in the audience, when suddenly he said something like: “Most of this show was directed by David Ivers. Except for this part.”
Uh oh! With zero warning, there we were again at the top of that roller coaster summit, plummeting in space, holding the person next to us, or screaming with our hands up if we were really tough. The brilliant aspect of this particular foray into the unknown is that you got the feeling Bedard did not even know what was coming. Was this purely Tufts and Hinkley, deciding to insert a little something into the center of a mainstage OSF show? Do they have to, you know, clear it with anyone before deciding to do that? You’d love to know. After a long and skyborne double twisting backflip, as the landing came into view and you realized Tufts was indeed going to stick it (and the roller coaster was going to stay on the tracks), Bedard could do nothing but stare deadpan at the audience for a good minute of hysterical house-destroying laughter as if to acknowledge: “So, that happened.”
It did happen. It happened again and again. And it will keep happening until November 2.
So don’t delay, visit Florida (aka Ashland) today!
Despite several implausible storylines, Guirgis’s over hyped “ethnic” play at Artists Rep contains a nugget of gold
No theatre company in America gets more mileage out of bad language and drug use than New York’s LAByrinth. But stripped of the “street poetry” (who knew there were so many poets roaming downtown Portland!), Jackie’s quest for the good rings true. John San Nicolas gives a tremendous, nuanced performance.
It was a snowy Sunday afternoon in December of 2005, and brand new Portland company Stumptown Stages was staging their first ever production at the IFCC. The show was the soaring, hilarious, beautifully klezmer-inflected URINETOWN by Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis.
Aside from the marvelous production, I remember one unusual detail. After a single viewing, I left the show with total recall of every song (music and lyrics). I went home singing “This is Urinetown! Your tickets should say Urinetown!”, “Worthy of a gurney”, “Look at the sky”, “Follow your heart” (listen to those first three notes once, and you’ve got it) – and so many others. And pretty much have continued to sing them ever since. Though the ol’ memory has gotten a little dinged up, I can still summon up individual performers belting out one classic or another. Lori Paschall, anyone? Who needs amplification! Incredible.
I contrast this experience to so many other current musicals where remembering the song or lyric while the song is still playing is hard enough, not to mention the next day.
How is it possible that a two hour exposure to URINETOWN was sufficient to commit the entire score to memory? It’s possible because the writing is that good. That’s how it has to be with the musical craft. The music and lyrics weld together into an unforgettable hook that also transports you. If successful, a song from a musical lodges in your brain where it continues to play, zombie like, for months or years. You are powerless to resist.
Whereas without that spark to infect the audience, no amount of notes and words will raise the pulse. Or be remembered.
Lots of theaters still don’t get that one of the ways the audience knows a theater produces works of art is that the theater’s web site is a work of art.
There’s no mystery here. The show before the show (and the one that determines whether the audience will ever get to the main show) is a theater’s brand – often largely channeled by the web site. If that pre show is good – if it’s really good – then maybe, just maybe, an audience member may decide to show up for the real show.
To flip this round, how likely is it that a theater can create unforgettable nights of drama when its web site looks like an artifact from a Smithsonian exhibit on “THE EARLY INTERNET”? It’s possible (especially for theatre artists of a certain age). But it’s not very likely. And at any rate younger audience members will be gone in not 60, but more like, five seconds. Poof.
The web site, then, becomes a proxy. And savvy audience members know how to save themselves a boatload of money and misery. “If the web site sucks…”
Surrounded as we are by a sea of digital ugly, behold a true thing of rapturous beauty. The Public Theater has a new web site.
And if it’s any indicator of what’s coming up – you’re not gonna want to miss much this year down on Lafayette.
Thou art more generic and more boring.
Look around at a lot of big American regional theatres and their seasons. And what do you see? All too often, a horrifying blandness and sameness. A kind of lockstep conformity to the same approved franchised properties trucked around from coast to coast like so much frozen ham. Dull, listless menus of shows that take the audience for granted. The complete and total absence of art. Because to make art, you need artists.
In the era of local, many regional theatres didn’t get the memo. A strangely place-inspecific “you could be anywhere” ethos prevails. Except you are nowhere. Third rate productions of second rate scripts. Against such an ossified menu, the local Olive Garden starts to look cutting edge.
Why, in city after city, are America’s theatres at sush a loss for how to be different, genuine, influential?