Showing posts with label Florida Stage. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Florida Stage. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Financial Crisis Reaches Out to the Arts

The tentacles of the Great Recession and financial malfeasance run deep, as evidenced by the demise of one of the great theaters in the area, Florida Stage. While their move to the Kravis Center this year was a positive development, everything else seemed to be a negative for this local, but well-established theater company, its revenues shrinking because of declining contributions (partly due to the aftershock of the Madoff scandal which hit this geographic area particularly hard), reduced interest income, and changing demographics as well. When we first began subscribing to Florida Stage, more than ten years ago, I remember remarking about the average age of the audience, wondering whether succeeding generations will appear to take their (now our) place. It seems like great theater has taken a back seat to Twitter and Facebook in that regard, Florida Stage's subscription base declining from a peak of 7,000 to now only 2,000 (including our prepaid subscription for next season which now will not be).

Florida State was daring enough to put on many original plays and musicals, not content to take the "easy way" as many theaters do in Florida, serving up the pabulum of Broadway revivals or touring companies as a staple. Of course, it is one thing to be daring during good economic times and strong subscriptions, and another to steer that course when the tide is running against you. I thought this season's offerings could have been stronger, maybe they should have served up a classic play or two to appeal to its audience. Ghost-Writer, I thought, was their best play of the season, with their opening play, Cane , the weakest.

All in all, there have been stronger seasons at Florida Stage, but it is doubtful whether that would have saved the company in face of all its other macro adversities. A really tragic moment for the arts and for the West Palm Beach area.

And this eliminates, still, another venue for new plays, one that I've learned firsthand from experience is fraught with difficulties to produce. More than a year ago I began an adaption of four Raymond Carver short stories into a theatrical work, When We Talk About Carver. Florida Stage was very much on my mind as a possible venue but it took me most of the year to negotiate and secure a formal permission for non-commercial, non-exclusive stage rights (just to show the work) with the Carver estate.

I had thought the success of "Gatz" which is a six hour acted reading of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was an encouraging sign that unabridged adaptations of great literature could make great theatre. As Fitzgerald is to the American novel in the 20th century, Carver is to the American short story, and it is time HIS story and magical power of writing should be dramatically told. Also, interestingly, the new film, Everything Must Go with Will Ferrell was based on Carver's short story “Why Don’t You Dance.” The timing might be right for something more significant by and about Carver.

But without a local theatre that would consider a new work, even one which was essentially written by an established writer of Carver's stature, I now begin a search for a company that is willing to take chances as was Florida Stage.

One can only hope that other such companies can survive these hard economic times, one of the many unintended consequences of putting Wall Street ahead of Main Street (jobs) and failing to address a decade of deficit spending. The closing of Florida Stage is not only a loss for our area, it is a tragedy on a larger scale for the Arts in general.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ghost-Writer Haunts

Florida Stage is the "other" serious theater in the West Palm Beach area and although I've written often in these "pages" about the consistently fine productions of Dramaworks, I've only occasionally touched upon those of Florida Stage. This season is a significant one as they have now moved to the Kravis Center's Rinker Playhouse. Unlike Dramaworks, Florida Stage is bravely dedicated to new or relatively new plays, so that is an added risk, as if presenting serious theatre is not enough.

They opened the season with Cane which was followed by Goldie, Max & Milk. But with Ghost-Writer by Michael Hollinger which opens today (we saw a preview), Florida Stage will have its first big hit of the season, drama at its best. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the play is by a well-established playwright, and even though this is the southeast premiere, it was vetted on the stage in Philadelphia at the end of last year.

Ghost-Writer apparently is not for everyone as a few people inexplicably left the performance right in the middle (there is no intermission). But if you cherish the nuances of language and how great staging and performing can turn little moments and glances into profound occurrences, Florida Stage has the play for you. As Louis Tyrrell, Florida Stage's innovative Producing Director said before the play, "it is an elegant play performed eloquently by the actors." Those words were not an exaggeration.

The play takes place in 1919, set in a studio apartment of a well-known writer, Mr. Woolsey, who hires an amanuensis, fresh out of typing school, Myra Babbage. She is obviously enamored of working for a renowned author. Their relationship gradually becomes more than just employer and employee, both developing affection for one another. It also progresses to the point where Myra can anticipate what Mr. Woolsey will dictate and will even interject her own opinion as to choice or word or punctuation. Stirring the dramatic pot is Mr. Woolsey's wife, Vivian, who is jealous of Myra, and displeased that her husband has set up this apartment (away from their home) for his work.

Every play needs a change catalyst, and in this one it is Mr. Woolsey's death before he has finished what might be his masterpiece. But after his death, Myra feels she can still channel his muse. Is it a ghost? Or is she simply looking to make a name for herself (as Vivian suspects)? Or did their relationship evolve to the point where the voice in the novel is really a collaborative one? Myra puts it to the audience to decide (or not to decide).

One thing that does not change is the role of the typewriter which, sphinx-like, sits in the middle of the stage, almost the fourth character in the play. At one point, when Mr. Woolsey is suffering from writer's block, he has Myra type "anything" just so he could hear the clatter of the Remington. Type it again he says as he stares out the window. And again. Finally, the words spring to him, just as the final words of the unfinished novel come to Myra after days of not feeling the muse (or hearing the ghost?), but not until she, too, has typed the "catch phrase" -- which Mr. Woolsey had entreated her not to reveal to him (and, therefore, not to us). What could it be?

The play slides back and forth from the present to the past, effortlessly, almost imperceptibly. The staging is like a delicate dance, the characters taking a position on stage (as Mr. Woolsey at the window) or gracefully gliding about each other to the point where Myra and her employer actually dance (ostensibly to familiarize Mr. Woolsey with a subject he needs to write about but clearly is unfamiliar with). The early 20th century set was developed with period piece precision and the three quarter round seating puts the audience in the action.

But to succeed with a play which is about language and understated emotions also requires fine acting. Considerable measures of the play are monologues given by Myra, played by New York City based regional actor, Kate Eastwood Norris, who deserves accolades for her carefully articulated and poignant performance. J. Fred Shiffman plays the restrained, somewhat bland but meticulous, Mr. Woolsey to a tee. Lourelene Snedeker does a fine job displaying Vivian's jealously and even conjures up our sympathy. Woolsey had once portrayed her as a vivacious, desirable woman in his first novel but he now shares his muse with another, younger, woman.

So was it a ghost? The beautiful language of the play itself provides a key, as spoken by Myra:
What is a ghost, in any case, but vivid memory, visiting when one least expects it? And aren't we all subject to haunting? The smell of liniment conjuring Mother at the bedside; the pair of shoes recalling a son or brother fallen in the fields of France? Surely memory is ghost enough...

Ghost-Writer runs at the Kravis Center's Rinker Playhouse until April 3.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dinner With Friends at Dramaworks

Last night was the first preview, in effect a dress rehearsal, of Dramaworks' production of Donald Margulies' play Dinner with Friends. It will open tomorrow. Although a "rehearsal" the preview had all the earmarks of an opening, not a beat missed.

As my literary maturation was greatly impacted by the likes of Updike, Yates, Cheever, and Carver (each of whom wrote numerous stories about couples), not to mention having lived most of my life in Connecticut (where Dinner with Friends is set), Margulies' play strikes a familiar funny bone. I know these people. It also helps to see the play performed by one of America's finest regional theaters, Dramaworks of West Palm Beach. I can only wonder how the incredibly intimate stage of its present quarters on Banyan Boulevard will translate into their more substantial Clematis Street home next November.

On its present postage stamp sized stage, Dramaworks effectively deals with the seven scene changes required by the play in its two acts, the action shifting from the present in act one to the past at the opening of act two and then back again to the present. The scene changes are effortless as the staging is simple, using mostly three props that can be shifted from being used as table and chairs and, when put together, can be turned into a bed. The changes, rather than being an impediment, seem to move the action along in an engaging way and on Dramaworks' present stage, all of this is happening right before you, bringing the audience into the performance.

The play strikes blunt truths in the finest tradition of tragicomedy, Margulies offering up both the humorous aspects of male female relationships and the wearing of time which can lead to destructive outcomes. As Margulies said in a PBS interview concerning his play Collected Stories: "My plays are fairly diverse, but their unifying theme is loss. The characters in my plays are all dealing with change in their family life, in their professional life, dealing with their own mortality. In Dinner With Friends it's change in friendships and evolving marriages. I think that time is a player in all of my work—very palpably in Collected Stories. The ways that people deal with the effect of time, which invariably entails loss, is probably what unites all these works."
And loss pervades Dinner with Friends, newlywed Gabe (Jim Ballard) and his wife Karen (Erin Joy Schmidt) introducing mutual friends Tom (Eric Martin Brown) and Beth (Sarah Grace Wilson), the two couples becoming best, inseparable friends. But a dozen years later Tom and Beth are breaking up, leaving Gabe and Karen pitching and rocking in their wake, questioning their own relationship and facing the sudden realization of friendships ending combined with the inevitable regrets of middle age.

In Scene 1 there is manic dinner conversation between Gabe and Karen about their recent gourmet vacation in Italy, Beth listening passively, finally revealing the real reason why Tom was not there, their marriage ending. She says that Tom said "This is not the life he had in mind for himself." That becomes a question mark that looms over all the characters for the rest of the play. The shock and betrayal is best expressed by Gabe: "All the vacations we spent together at the Vineyard. How could he walk away?"

In Scene 2, the same night, Tom returns to Beth's bedroom and is furious that she has told their friends the news without him. "You've got the advantage, now....They heard your side, so they are with you....You prejudiced my case!" There is some physical violence, culminating in sex. As Tom later explains to Gabe about the incident, "Rage can be an amazing aphrodisiac!"

Scene 3 finds Gabe and Karen parsing blame, Karen wondering about Tom, "the person you completely entrusted your fate to is an imposter....Maybe he never existed before...your friend." Gabe: " You think you're safe on solid ground and it cracks open."

The opening of Act II shows the couples on Martha's Vineyard twelve years earlier, when Gabe and Karen brought Tom and Beth together. In their youthful bantering, Tom says of Gabe and Karen, after a show of how happy the newlyweds are: "Their job is to make the rest of the world feel incompetent" and in that statement lies the unspoken friction between the couples in ensuing years.

Scenes II and III are interesting as they analyze the unraveling relationship between Beth and Karen, and then subsequently Tom and Gabe. In fact, there are a number of dynamics throughout the play, between the two couples, the two spouses, and then the two male and female friends. Each of these relationships are challenged and changed. In fact, and that is the genius of the play, what is unspoken is really as important in these two scenes, as in spite of the friends' surface reassurances about staying in one another's lives (Tom and Beth now with different significant others), one knows that this friendship is irreconcilably over. Gabe sadly says to Tom, "We were supposed to grow old and fat together," Tom responding, "Isn't that just another way to say misery loves company?"

The last scene finds Gabe and Karen ritualistically making up their bed in Martha's Vineyard, Karen asking "What were all those years about?" The same question we all ask ourselves at times.

Most of us have experienced that unsettling moment when best friends announce they are separating, realizing at the same time one's own life cannot go on as before.. The play rings with an inescapable universal truth, further brought home by the fine directing of J. Barry Lewis, who has orchestrated this piece to fully express his vision: "we create family out of our friends and acquaintances....we recognize a bit of ourselves, as we attempt to engage one another in meaningful relationships to fill the powerful need for family."

The actors are all newcomers to Dramaworks, all pros with extensive credentials. Perhaps the most difficult role to play is Gabe's as he is uptight with a mess of internal contradictions, instinctively empathizing with Tom on the one hand and condemning him on the other. Jim Ballard handles the role convincingly. Ballard is multi talented in that he also has a Broadway quality singing voice having seen him play the Wolf in Sondheim's Into the Woods at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton last year

We saw Erin Joy Schmidt perform the lead a couple of months ago in Florida Stage's Goldie, Max and Milk. She was an ideal Karen, absorbing the shock of Beth's accusation of "You love it when I'm a mess...You need me to be a mess...I was comic relief," Ms. Schmidt dramatically delivering Karen's remorseful reply: "You're my family."

Eric Martin Brown was a convincing Tom, who feels liberated from what he feels was a loveless marriage: "I always felt inauthentic having this life...most of the time I was just being a good sport" (to which Gabe replies, "I thought we were just living our lives.") Interestingly, Brown attended the Yale School of Drama, where Margulies teaches (I wonder whether he was his student).

Sarah Grace Wilson is wonderful as Beth, the sorrowful little "artist" who awakens to the reality that her passion for art was just a substitute for living. And, we find out to our surprise, had a lover earlier in the marriage.

Having, myself, adapted two of Raymond Carver's short stories to one-act plays (presently waiting for permission rights from the Carver estate), each about couples, I have a new appreciation of how difficult it is for a playwright to incorporate all the elements of a great play, the humor, the tragedy, doing it all with dialog, no descriptive narrative, making the characters real, having a story the audience will hang onto until the end. Margulies' play is a master class in playwriting, justifiably receiving the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

And I can more clearly see the incredible confluence that must happen to create great theater, the writing, the directing, the staging, the acting. It is a creative act of teamwork. Arts such as painting and literature are solitary journeys into the soul. Dramaworks knows how to bring all the necessary elements together in their productions, always mindful of its basic mission statement "theatre to think about."

Sunday, May 3, 2009


One of the admirable qualities about local theatre in South Florida, aside from the usual touring revivals of classic musicals and plays, is that some will take chances on innovative new productions. I’m referring in particular to original productions offered by The Florida Stage in Manalapan and Dramaworks in West Palm Beach over the years. Yesterday we saw such a work -- CAGNEY! -- a world premiere at Florida Stage.

I was wondering how the life story of the famed Jimmy Cagney could be carried off as a musical and the answer is the passion and commitment of one man, Robert Creighton, the lead actor, who conceived the work, and wrote the music and lyrics along with Christopher McGovern. Creighton is also a dead ringer for Cagney and Ann and I were taken in by the play and his inspired performance. In fact we felt as if Creighton was channeling Cagney himself.

It is the rare creative genius who can bring it all together – the vision, the ability to write music and lyrics, and then to act, sing, and dance as well. Creighton is one of a handful of unique actors able to create such a work as CAGNEY! He joins Hershey Felder who was brilliant in bringing GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE to life, which we were fortunate to see at The Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach several years ago. It ultimately made its way to Broadway, and Felder was actor, pianist, playwright and arranger. (Believe me, as an amateur pianist I have a special appreciation for Gershwin and the skill needed to do justice to his music which embodies elements of jazz, ragtime, and classical.) No one could have accomplished that better than Felder, as no one could have created such a successful, moving musical on Cagney other than Creighton.

My Uncle Phil had a summer home in Stanfordville, New York where I used to spend time as a kid and Cagney bought a farm there in the mid 1950’s, one that we frequently drove by, usually trying to catch a glimpse of the great actor, but Cagney kept to himself and was rarely seen in the area. CAGNEY! reminded me of those days and roused my interest in learning more about his life. Wikipedia has a good detailed write up and after reading the entry, I am astonished by the musical’s level of detail and accuracy.

But most impressive is CAGNEY! as a musical itself. This is not a little revue with some nice song and dance numbers. On a smaller stage it follows the principles of the great musicals of our times. The story line, songs and the chorography are woven together with one element advancing the other. We never felt that we were being “performed to” but, instead, brought into the action and moved every step along the way. The entire cast was outstanding, obviously being inspired by Creighton as well.

It also follows the traditions of excellence from the Great American Songbook with witty lyrics sometimes reminiscent of Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin, seamlessly woven into the music, appropriate for the era and the major themes of work. They brought out the tensions between Cagney and Jack Warner, Cagney’s bulldog convictions, his devotion to his mother and his wife, and the accusation of his being a Communist sympathizer, an irony not lost by Creighton’s depiction of Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

I hope that, as with Felder’s work, CAGNEY! will find its way to a larger audience perhaps on Broadway. But my concern, after my generation dies away, is that there will be succeeding generations who care enough to preserve the memory of people such as James Cagney and, equally important, dedicated to carrying on the traditions of the Great American Songbook. Creighton’s musical, not to mention his performance, accomplishes just that and I can think of no greater compliment.