Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.


A Straight Meditation on National Themes, Part 2

I spent February in the skin of a monster. I played Roy Cohn, the very real attorney who guided the knife point of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Red Scare, then adamantly denied his own homosexuality even as he was dying of AIDS. He's a character in Tony Kushner's landmark, two-part play Angels in America, which was directed for Olympia Little Theatre by Nic Olson. The show inspires bizarre moments on stage.

OLT's new artistic director Kendra Malm was delivering opening-night house announcements when suddenly, a stack of boxes that formed a wall of the set leaned over and collapsed. The destruction of that wall, and the emergence of an angel through the breach, mark the climax of Part 1, Millennium Approaches. "I don't think that was supposed to happen," Malm announced accurately. No one was standing anywhere near the structure, which remained upright for 21 hours prior to the fall. This sort of thing makes actors believe in theater ghosts.

We performed for a larger house the second night. After the three-hour show, as per OLT custom, we greeted departing guests as they passed through the lobby. An audience member (and frequent OLT actor) came over to shake my hand. "Hey, do you watch that show Breaking Bad?" she asked. I replied it was one of my favorites. "Your Cohn kinda reminds me of that lawyer," she mused, meaning Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). I threw my arms in a V and claimed victory for the night. That performance, at least, I won Angels in America. That was one of my favorite audience compliments ever.

By Saturday we were inured to the occasional walkout. (The show pushes people's buttons.) We agree it was our finest performance of Millennium Approaches, and the crowd responded warmly. Sunday? Not so much. An audience member shook my hand and asked, "How do you do all that yelling?" Another complimented each of us in turn before arriving at the last actor in line. Instead of praising his performance, the audience member announced, "You need to speak up more," then strode out the door.

I wonder if anyone in the Saturday-night performance of Part 2, Perestroika noticed Roy's blessing of Joe included the split-finger Vulcan symbol. I learned Leonard Nimoy, who passed away that morning, based the gesture on the Hebrew letter shin. That letter stands kabbalistically for both Shaddai (Almighty) and Shekinah (the feminine dimension of God).

You have to hand it to any audience member who sits through, and tracks with, an epic night of theatre that makes David Mamet sound like the Disney Channel. Even a brief male-male sex scene, which caused pandemonium in the SIU-C theater where I played Louis twenty-two years ago, raised nary an eyebrow over the weekend. I did learn something new: in Olympia, snapping your fingers at an actor means, "I agree." Apparently, it's something students do at The Evergreen State College to avoid interrupting discussions or lectures. I wish I'd known that beforehand; in theatre circles, snapping fingers usually means "hurry up." I was acting as fast as I could!

I think the cast of Angels in America would agree that a role in that show is something an actor hopes to achieve as much as enjoy. We tested our mettle against it and emerged with minimal bruising. Thanks to every audience member who braved its content and morally complex characters. Now, on to directing a nostalgic comedy! In the week and a half since we wrapped Angels, the cast of Laughing Stock at OLT has already blocked that new show and worked through most of its scenes. That's good, because we open in sixteen days. No pressure!

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A Straight Meditation on National Themes, Part 1

Unless you're an actor, it's probable you know nothing about Tony Kushner's landmark 1993 play Angels in America (though you may have caught the HBO miniseries version). Angels sounds like the kind of show you'd find at a Baptist theme park. It is not. Theatre folk revere this multiple Tony winner, but it's both arduous to stage and off-putting to elderly, conservative audiences, so most companies shy away from producing it. Oh! I should also mention it's divided into two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, each of which is three hours long. That's a long sit, especially when characters are rambling on about government and "power to the people." So why do we in the acting and directing games adore it so much?

A key element of the play is gay Americans' struggle for acceptance in the 1980s, as a viral plague ravaged their community while amplifying the phobias of heterosexuals. I've told the story before of how a visit to a drag club, and a list of names read there of the recently deceased, won me over once and for all to the side of righteousness--meaning I am a straight ally. That night in, I think, 1991 was a game-changer for me. It put the lie to everything I'd been told about homosexuality by my Christian elders while injecting harsh reality and urgency into the AIDS crisis. Five years later, I found myself playing Louis in an SIU-C production of Angels in America, Part 1. I auditioned in hopes of earning the part of Roy Cohn, a thinly fictionalized incarnation of the very real attorney at the heart of the Red Scare and marginalization of gay citizens. Cohn died of what he called "liver cancer," in actuality HIV, in 1986. Instead I got Louis, who has many more lines and is openly gay and is also kind of a bastard himself, in that he begins an affair even as his longtime boyfriend disintegrates from HIV infection.

We heterosexual folks who love theatre spend our lives working side by side with gay men and lesbians. We love them as family. They're part of us. So when we hear about legislators, to this very day, working overtime to curry favor with Fox News viewers by yanking hard-won rights away from those we love, it destroys us on a gut level. We embrace Angels in America because it articulates, in so many ways, a cause we view as embedded in our cells. Its characters demand equality, from God and other humans, as opponents close ranks around them. This play is the Marseillaise to our war: "C'est nous qu'on ose méditer de rendre à l'antique esclavage! Aux armes, citoyens!"

But if I'm being honest, even as the justice of our cause swelled my chest, I was uncomfortable rehearsing as Louis. I'd never kissed a man before, and I'd certainly never mimed sexual activity with my pants down before hundreds of people. The play is still shocking to conservative audiences, but man; in 1996, in Bible-belt southern Illinois, patrons' outrage--yes, I know the word outrage is vastly overused, but I stand by it here--nearly set the room on fire. I had to confront and get over my own hangups and prejudices, then face the collective displeasure of six hundred people a night. There were letters to the editor. People were assigned to walk actors to their cars. It was crazy. And I know it changed at least one life...mine.

Fast-forward 22 years to tomorrow at 7:55 p.m., when I'll walk on stage, finally, as Roy Cohn in an Olympia Little Theatre production of Angels in America directed by Nic Olson. We're presenting Millennium Approaches this first week, then Perestroika the second. It's a staged reading, meaning we actors will have books in our hands, but I think even OLT was surprised by the level to which this staged reading has been produced. It's fully blocked, costumed, lit, and sound-designed. There's a rudimentary set, complete with levels and special effects. To facilitate fight, love, and sex scenes, we've memorized certain pages. We studied Aramaic, French, Hebrew and medical jargon. No one gets naked, but we would've if asked. At the risk of implied condescension, I can't imagine how OLT could've asked for or gotten a smarter, more dedicated, talented cast. Kudos, for example, to Austin Lang, who's playing Louis; he's made choices I wish I'd been clever enough to make at SIU. I think what audience members get from this show is 85-90% of a fully-staged production, and remember, that's over six hours of theatre. Not too shabby!

If, that is, we get an audience. I haven't made too big a deal of the show up till now, because frankly, some of my readers won't want to see it. If, for example, you oppose gay marriage, this show isn't for you. Gay marriage wasn't a remote possibility when Angels was written, but the absolute rightness of it underlies every word. If the sight of two men kissing gives you the squeams, then, again, this show isn't for you. I suspect the 21st century won't be, either. If you can't abide swearing--I say words in this I wouldn't call my worst enemy--or seeing me play a horrible person--absolutely the worst I've ever played, by the time Perestroika gets through--then please stay home. Save your eight bucks a night. I mean, maybe this'd be a great learning experience for you, but frankly, you seem like the kind of person who avoids those. Not my problem. If you love to be challenged, however, to be wildly entertained by the hugest of emotional arcs at the climax of the Eschaton itself, then I damn sure know what you should put on your calendar.

It's different doing this show now, not just because I'm playing Roy instead of Louis. The world has changed in so many wonderful ways over the last two decades, some of which allowed it to mature in ways that helped it catch up with the play. My friends helped make some of that happen. One of our professors at ECU, Mary Bishop (now Bishop-Baldwin), was a driving force in legalizing gay marriage in Oklahoma. The cool theatre senior who lived next door is now a different sex altogether, which makes her one of three transgendered people on my Facebook friends list. Again: not part of our collective reality in 1996. Each day, the fight for equality is taking place in everyone's neighborhood, on TV and in social media, and the good guys and gals are finally winning. On the theatre side, no more do we see open homophobia in newspaper reviews. Actors are expected to be fully comfortable performing gay characters, including same-sex physical contact. It's part of our lives now. And y'know, once that period of uncertainty and yes, discomfort, passed, it freed people like me to understand that Angels in America has a much bigger theme than even the securing of equal rights for all our fellow Americans. It's about what it means to be a country itself. What is the point of all this? What are we trying to accomplish? How do we move ahead, and toward what, when we haven't decided what our guiding principles are? No, God isn't dead, but He also isn't president. He doesn't tell us which legislation to pass. The books He allegedly wrote seem decreasingly relevant to our daily lives, not because we're all fallen sinners, but because they predate modern science or humanistic ethics (or, in the case of the Torah at least, Euclidean geometry). In other words, while God continues His two-thousand-year history as a deadbeat dad, how and, as significant, why do we conduct our civilization? Those are vast questions. In some ways, six hours of drama isn't enough to scratch the surface, but Kushner's attempt at doing so is comparable to Shakespeare's meditations on the human condition in Hamlet. It doesn't get any bigger or better.

So that's the outline. I'll have more to say about our experiences with Angels, and in more of an anecdotal fashion, next week. In the meantime, wish us broken legs. Let us know what you think of our show. It'll be interesting, for both us and you.

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Happier Trails

I'd already resolved to find ways to lessen my life's anxieties when, about two weeks ago, the crown on one of my molars exploded in my mouth. I'm sure the popcorn I was eating at the time was a factor, but the crown was less than two years old and I hadn't bitten down on a kernel. When my dentist took a look, he said, "Holy smokes, dude, what're you stressing about? Have you been gnashing your teeth? You're grinding away the enamel. It looks like you're carving Mount Rushmore in there." He asked me politely if I'd consider a night guard. I was embarrassed; I didn't know how to tell him I did most of that damage during the day.

Like most people, I have occasional concerns over money, but the biggest source of my stress has been an element of my night job. I'm proud to say I've been a critic, columnist, and occasional feature writer for The Weekly Volcano for over five years now. That's part of the reason I get to call myself a professional writer, a fact that brings considerable happiness. I like and respect my editor/publisher/boss, I've been known to enjoy the occasional perquisite, and I've had the amazing joy of helping draw attention to dozens of worthwhile productions. I've written something like 180 theatre reviews. I'm no Clive Barnes, but yeah, it adds up.

I spent my formative years in a college town where the only newspaper critic, a guy I'll call Dick, wrote his reviews under a pen name. He did so largely because he was also the president and de facto monarch of that town's only community theater. Conflict of interest? What conflict of interest? This smarmy bastard went so far as to review shows he himself directed, referring to himself once as a "visionary." Lord almighty. I have to tell you, that still burns. Years later, I sought my job at the Volcano after another local critic reviewed a show he hadn't even seen. So believe me when I say I've thought a fair amount about why criticism is necessary, how it can go wrong, and why it's important to remain as objective as humanly possible. And that, because heaven knows it wasn't for riches or fame, was the main reason I clung to my ideals in the face of considerable opposition.

Y'know what, though? Enough is enough. The truth is I feel horrible each time I have to pan a show, more so if my friends are in its cast, crew, or production staff. It feels as if I'm delivering a death notice. I can't sleep. I get hate mail, not to mention an awkward reception upon showing up at parties. My more cutting remarks get quoted back to me; never once, not that I can recall, has anyone ever quoted a compliment. And the funniest thing is I feel almost as much stress when I turn in positive reviews. I pore over Facebook, obsessively waiting for someone to notice I've been a sweet guy this time around. I can't take the roller coaster anymore. So with that, I've decided to take what I call an open-ended sabbatical from theatre criticism. My editor was kind enough to grant this request and offered to increase my word count in other areas. Let me say again: this was my idea, not his or anyone else's, and it's been a long time coming. I've been pondering my exit strategy for years. My editor has been nothing but supportive, even as certain theaters clamored for retribution.

Usually when a critic steps down or away, he or she uses an essay like this to say what an honor and pleasure it's been serving the theater community. As I said before, sometimes it has been an enormous pleasure. There are folks I could name who've been lovely even after I panned some of their efforts. They know demanding critics oblige us to become better artists. That's been true in my case. I still remember the first review I got from ol' Dickie. I appeared in a Broadway revue (almost certainly produced sans royalty payments, but that wasn't my concern at the time) in which my solo was "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof. Dick wrote--keep in mind, I was 24 at the time--that I was "a dead ringer for Topol but could show more enthusiasm in the role." Topol was Chaim Topol, the burly actor who played Tevye in the movie, when he was 36 but looked a decade older. And the worst thing about that review, which I can still quote from memory? The son of a bitch was right. I was half-assing it on stage. I did have Topol's physicality but none of his dance moves. I remember the reviewer who told me to my face that I'd added nothing to a show I directed that wasn't in the script. I could lay out numerous logistical reasons why that had to be the case, but it was the truth nonetheless. I was guilty as charged. I was guilty when a grad committee member bashed my understanding of blocking actors in the round. I was guilty the many, many times professors told me I was growing too full of myself. And it hurt. Oh, man, did it hurt. But in the long run, I grew as a person and a performer. I'm still growing with the help of objective audience members and readers. That isn't something that stops just because we get a few tricks and years under our belts. We can't say, "Listen, I've done a hundred shows" and expect that to absolve us from working on our craft.

Yes, it has been a pleasure being a theater critic. Sometimes. On the other hand, it's also been a pain in the keister. If it was, in fact, an honor, there were times when that honor felt more like a dreaded obligation. The truth of the matter is certain theater practitioners are laboring under the delusion that critics work for them, not for the critics' editors and readers. Of course we do serve the theater community as a whole--but constant promotion is not the only way to support the arts. That's what publicists do, and it's easy to tell they work for theater companies because theater companies sign their paychecks. Now, it is true theaters give critics pairs of comp tickets, and that ain't nothin', especially when shows are expected to sell out--not that most opening weekends are full. But what troupes are buying when they hand out those tickets is an impartial authority who'll tell them the truth. Audiences won't do that. Audiences lie, as they say in Oklahoma, like a big dog. Audience members walk right up to theater managers, time after time after time, and say, "That's the best show I've ever seen." They give exuberant standing ovations to shows that are mediocre at best. They lie because social etiquette demands it, especially in our highbrow, artsy circle. Furthermore, audience members aren't usually theater authorities (a few major exceptions notwithstanding). It's why banal musical revues sell better than smart, intense dramas. It's why 40-year-old Neil Simon scripts, charming as they are, sell better than newer, edgier texts with more relevant jokes. I wasn't brought in to act like your average audience member. Theaters already have audience members for that.

As actors and directors, usually under assumed names I could see right through, blogged or commented in angry rebuttals of my critiques, I did my best to maintain the rhetorical high ground. I labored to consider their complaints, no matter how inelegantly or insultingly phrased, and mine them for valid concerns. There were times when my colleagues were right. I was too glib when I wrote that puff piece about local burlesque. I was new on the job and made obvious rookie mistakes. I committed typos and even significant factual errors. I held theaters and theatre practitioners to the highest standards I'd seen them achieve in the past, a policy that make sense but didn't always square with the vicissitudes of theatrical budgets and schedules. I wrote negative comments as jokes sometimes, a practice that casual readers of the Volcano loved but which caused even mild rebukes to land like sledgehammers. For all that, mea culpa. I apologize. This is not an easy job, especially if one is doing one's best to do it honestly and fairly, and I'm not without blame in its execution. Besides, if you're one of those people whose feelings I hurt, I know it doesn't matter a whit to you why it happened. You just think I'm a jerk. I could invite you to chat up my wife sometime about how it all went down, but that'd put too much unnecessary stress and responsibility on her.

Again, I did my best to take the high road. Sometimes, that road is downright exhausting. I didn't take this job because I'm made of impermeable stone. I know it's popular to paint critics as self-important jerkwads who sit around compiling lists of all-purpose insults, but I've met a fair number of critics now and I have never met that critic. What I have met are theatre geeks who adore the art form and know how effing great it can be. It's not only I who spends months looking forward to writing his or her annual "best of local theatre" awards column. I doubt I'm the only critic who spends twice as long writing a negative review as he or she takes writing a positive one. And boy, do I understand the temptation to soft-pedal or obfuscate or downright perjure oneself to avoid writing unflattering reviews. I enjoy being liked as much as the next guy. Trouble is, I also have this insane OCD aspect to my personality, and it demands that if I intend to fulfill this job, I have no other choice but to do it as I know it's supposed be done. And if you think it's the job of a reviewer to avoid talking smack about artists' work, then check out Richard Roeper's review of Night at the Museum 3. With the passing of Roger Ebert, Roeper's probably the best-known critic in America. Folks like them were my role models, not hometown Dick that I was telling you about earlier.

Anyway, this may be my last chance to write about this stuff, possibly ever, so allow me to debunk a few common responses. Here's a list of reasons people claim I reviewed their work negatively.

1. He's just mean.

I do have a mean side. I admit that, and not without shame. I often laugh at mean jokes and have been known to express such myself. I'm an easy laugh, an easy cry, and equal parts romantic and cynic. Of course, I could say much the same about you, more than likely. I suspect a truly mean person would derive some pleasure from hurting other artists' feelings. I do not.

2. He plays favorites.

Ask director Pug Bujeaud about that sometime. Ask Chris Serface or John Munn. Ask them how being my friends shielded them from negative reviews. Or, for that matter, peruse this year's Carvy awards list, in which I gave justly-deserved recognition to folks who were cursing my name at the time.

3. He should be more supportive of theatre.

That's like saying the only way of being supportive of theatre is to suck up to everyone who makes it. Come on. You know better than that. If I agreed with that idea, I'd be doing a disservice to all the teachers and directors who were hard on me over the years, then reveled as I got better and prospered in the arts. They were being supportive. They supported me with honesty, at times brutal honesty. I needed that. You know artists need that. Without it, we're too lazy and self-defensive and we allow ourselves (and our art form) to stagnate.

4. He doesn't know what he's talking about.

See, there you go insulting my teachers again. I guess you're entitled to your opinion, but I can promise you I did not find my degrees or résumé at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.

5. He wanted to hate that show.

As I've said a million times, I never want to hate any show. I value my time too much for that. It's more fun seeing great shows and extolling them in print.

6. He expected to hate that show.

Maybe. Do you expect to love every film playing at your local cineplex? Is it possible you're more drawn to comedies, for example, than to torture-porn horror films? Do you suspect the next Transformers epic might be less than a classic of its form? I grant you no one's fully objective about anything; I concede I'm more drawn to edgy dramas than to camp. But please, give me this if nothing else: I'm open to having my mind changed. The play I named show of the year in 2014 was a camp homegrown musical. The play I expected to love most, it turned out, underwhelmed me. I reviewed the show I saw, not the show I expected to see. Make it good, and you were probably in the clear no matter how I felt driving into the parking lot.

7. He's biased on behalf of certain theaters, especially the ones that cast him or hire him as a director.

That's an easy assessment to make if you've never cast or hired me. If, on the other hand, you have, then you remember the pans I've given Capital Playhouse, Lakewood Playhouse, OFT, OLT, and TAO over the years. You may ponder how seriously you'd take my remarks if I never did theatre anywhere.

8. He thinks he's better than us.

It depends. I do think I'm better than certain other people, at least at certain things. There are actors and other theatre folk I know are better than me. Almost anyone alive is a better dancer. That doesn't mean I can't recognize an ill-rehearsed or sloppily choreographed dance number when I see one. I'm fairly confident in the caliber of my training as an actor and director, and I'm fond of my own writing. That's kinda what led me to applying for the job, right? Would you rather I thought I was worse?

9. He doesn't know the troubles we were up against, nor how hard we worked.

On the contrary, I assume you performed Herculean labors and were up against the world, because I'm an actor and director. I know how much sacrifice and effort it takes to put on a lousy show, let alone a terrific one. Sometimes, though, love just ain't enough, my friends. We've all been in that show we beat our heads against but could never lock down. It happens to the best of us. Y'know who doesn't know what you were up against? The audience, and they mostly don't care. They paid their money; now they want terrific entertainment. They deserve really good entertainment and whoa, I'm asking for the moon here, they benefit from theatre that makes them think and rewards good taste. That's your job, no matter how things went south.

So yeah, those are explanations people give, to themselves and others, as a way of offloading the blame for their hurt feelings onto me and other critics. I submit to you, however, that there's another reason some shows get panned, and it's a simple one that invokes Occam's razor. Are you ready? Here it is:

Sometimes shows just aren't that good. Now, it doesn't mean people weren't trying. It doesn't mean people aren't talented. It means that's how the cookie crumbles at times. I've been in clunkers, too. And sometimes, we balk at negative reviews because, as I did above, we suspect they have something of a point.

I do feel better getting this off my chest. But y'know what'll make me feel even better than that? Using my freer time to create new art of my own. I'll be directing a backstage comedy called Laughing Stock this spring, and I'm also very happy to announce I've been cast as Roy Cohn in Angels in America (Parts 1 and 2) at Olympia Little Theatre, opening February 19. I look forward to critics' reviews. If I deserve to be panned, then I will be. The responsibility is on me to earn critics' respect, not on critics to pat my head no matter how the show goes. After one more review, for Cirque du Soleil's Kurios, I'll hang my theatre critic's hat up until such time as I feel happier doing the job. And if that bit of news gives you a warm feeling of gloatiness inside, then I hope you'll keep that to yourself.

Oh! And if I should happen to come strolling into your restaurant, all bets are off.

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Kitchen Confidential

My sister Monica and her husband run a barbecue restaurant in Shelton, Washington, a very good one called Smoking Mo's, and she and I recently got to talking about TV cooking programs. She enjoys Restaurant Impossible and other shows that delve into hardcore restaurant management--skills that don't always have much to do with cooking, but which many avid home cooks overlook when considering an eatery of their own. My wife and I prefer the competition shows: Top Chef and, to a lesser degree, Chopped. None of us like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and you shouldn't, either.

My sister repeated something I've heard before, which is that one of the keys to operating a successful restaurant is consistency. Customers often respond to a plate of food by saying, "Have you tried adding this" or "I wonder if this salad might be better with that," but most customers order a dish with the expectation it'll taste exactly like the one they ordered before and remember fondly. There's no percentage in mut(il)ating a dish once you've hit on a winning formula. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

So when Ted Allen instructs a quartet of competitors to open their Chopped baskets ("You get...channeled whelks! Chickpeas! Galangal! And...Liquid Paper!"), their approach to cooking becomes all too clear. Some competitors whip up the same grub they serve everyday. "I know I can make a great risotto," one chef will say, "so I'm thinking I can put a little twist on it by adding Liquid Paper." In this context, however, the only twist is the new ingredient. The chef may not even have a clear idea what the addition of this unfamiliar ingredient will do to her dish, but she knows by God, at least that risotto will be good. Until it's not, which always seems to blow the losing chef's mind. "I wish the judges had had a fair chance of seeing what I can do." Well...they did. In fact, they saw exactly what you do, plus one contradictory ingredient.

Then there are chefs who can look at a basket of ingredients and think, "Okay, the galangal suggests northern Thai. I don't normally cook Isaan, but I bet if I steam some veggies I can turn this into a halfway decent nam phrik. The Liquid Paper's a curve ball, but its adhesive qualities might make it perfect for sticky rice. I should also throw in a bit of curry to counter that poisonous titanium dioxide aroma." The chef can "pre-taste" combinations of flavors in her head, and she understands the physics of food: the way heat affects meat and vegetables, for example, and the history and logic behind a number of regional cuisines. Such chefs tend to win high-end cooking competitions on TV. It doesn't mean they're better chefs, at least not in the context of a working, professional restaurant kitchen, because the modus operandi of a restaurant isn't the same as that of a TV cooking competition. It just means they're approaching food itself from a different and (I hesitate to say this, for reasons that'll be clearer soon) deeper point of view.

Side note: somebody recently told me she enjoys barbecue but prefers Mexican food. Um, I said, barbecue is Mexican food. Barbacoa's a Mexican word. "What's 'barbacoa?'" the person replied testily. "Who said anything about that? I just want carnitas." You mean pulled pork? "No," the person insisted. "Carnitas. Aren't you Mexican?"

So anyway, I thought of this difference in approaches last night as we struggled through a long rehearsal of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. My wife and I are both in the show, which runs September 12 - October 12 at Lakewood Playhouse. (Did you just hear a weird noise? It sounded sort of like..."Plug.") It's a locked-room mystery in which guests on a secluded isle meet their Maker one by one, even as they attempt to forestall their untimely demises by determining which of them is the killer. It's...silly. It's the closest thing one can get to Neil Simon's Murder By Death without actually getting that. Because it's ridiculous, I feel justified in going for broke with some of my character choices. Now there's a painful period of modulating that to fit the world of the show, a directorial issue which, by necessity, laps over onto me.

Anyway, we're all about 98% off-book, meaning we know our lines but can't rely on our cerebral cortices to release the right word every time. We know our blocking, we understand the play (as well as Christie's labyrinth of evidence can be understood), and we're starting to get used to 1940s props and actor-unfriendly furniture. This is the week or two during which a show grows up. If all goes as it should, it'll reach voting age around the time we hit tech week, at which time the director and crew must turn their nearly-full attention to matters of lighting, costume, sound, and set dressing. It's an awkward week, when adolescence induces growing pains.

This hump arises in every cycle of rehearsals, but I'm struck by a particular complication in this production. When I was in high school and undergraduate college, I developed the idea that an actor spends the first week or two creating a character, then the remainder of the rehearsal process perfecting the ability to repeat a judiciously composed set of line readings (i.e., specific inflections of dialogue) night after night. I believe I was encouraged to do so by most of my instructors and directors. I was like that line cook who makes delicious spaghetti bolognese or salmon en croûte a dozen times a night, six nights a week, fifty weeks a year. I made pretty good spaghetti at ECU, if I do say so myself, and what opening-night audiences saw was the spitting image of the performance I gave on the night we closed. I got cast pretty consistently, won acting awards, and generally felt good about the skills I was able to bring to the table.

Now, I don't want to belabor this, because one of my grad-school theatre professors told me acting was pretty much the most boring thing one could talk about. I think James Lipton and his producers might disagree, but yes, the subject can start to feel too inside-baseball. I do, however, want to explain that most of my grad-school actor training was in the Meisner method, as developed and taught by director and coach Sanford Meisner in the 20th century. Like the Stanislavski method, it relies on given circumstances and empathetic identification to craft a character, but then it's much looser within each moment as the story progresses. Line readings can diverge considerably from performance to performance, informed by differing line readings from other Meisner-trained actors on stage. This was the approach used by most of the cast of the last show I was in, Lakewood Playhouse's 12 Angry Men, and if used properly it can invigorate a production like no other technique I know. The audience feels it's seeing intense conversation, not the pristine delivery of mentally prerecorded dialogue. In my critical opinion, it makes for a more dynamic, involving show, but of course I would say that because I paid thousands of dollars to learn that technique.

The Meisner method creates chefs who, metaphorically speaking, know the physics of food. They can think in the moment and respond to subtle inflections, nuances--perhaps even the mood of the audience. That bizarro mystery ingredient in their Chopped baskets might throw them, but only for a moment. The method I learned in high school, consistent reproduction of memorized inflections, is like that reliable Amazon of a line cook. Both the innovator and the replicator have great knife skills. They make wonderful food. After a great deal of bitching and moaning and refusing to change, I was finally won over to the position, however, that Meisner acting is better, meaning real-er, or at least that I preferred it enough to switch over. I take my acting seriously, perhaps indefensibly so, and I want to make the finals of Top Chef against competitors who are really, really good.

What's happening on this show is that most of the cast is taking the consistency approach. The director approved of this for weeks, and rightly so because his cast was on task. We were doing our homework, bringing accent or back story improvements to every rehearsal, and moving off-book weeks earlier than usual. Now it's clear, however, that we're hearing the same performances night after night after night. "I SHOULD like you to know I have seen through your TREACHery, Doctor ARMstrong," an actor will emote. "Okay, good," the director responds, clearly stifling a wince, "but I think maybe this time, it's important to remember that your character is making a direct accusation of Armstrong in particular. Also, he's boasting about being the one who may have solved this big mystery. So, you know, play with that." The actor will nod appreciatively: yes, yes, very good. I see exactly what you mean. I can work with that. Thank you. Then, next rehearsal: "I SHOULD like you to know I have seen through your TREACHery, Doctor ARMstong," only two decibels louder.

Now, if I'm being honest (and not merely biased toward my own approach), I cannot say for sure either technique is truly "better acting" than the other, because both produce terrific spaghetti. The problem occurs when actors of both types try to work together in rehearsal. The techniques are at cross purposes, because we Meisner actors can't respond as urgently to pristine line readings that sound like they came out of an MP3 player, and consistency actors turn into robots when their line readings don't apply to new dynamics. The result is a bunch of histrionic Meisner actors intensely beseeching confused Audio-Animatronic figures. It's a mess, one you'd never confuse for an actual conversation.

At this stage of the game, I'm unsure our director will be able to nudge one group of actors into embracing or even reluctantly adopting the methodology of the other. But speaking as a director myself, blending styles and approaches into a self-consistent whole is one of the more difficult, esoteric, and ultimately rewarding aspects of the job, so I remain optimistic. Things can shape up tout suite in the week before an audience sees a production. And don't get me wrong, a play can include both styles and work well enough. A restaurant can usually handle one kitchen Edison without crashing and burning. But the next time you go to a play (or, for that matter, watch a narrative show on TV), try the shoes of a critic on for at least a few minutes. See if you can figure out which type of kitchen technique its actors prefer. You may be surprised to learn how easy it can be to tell the difference.

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What's the best movie you've ever seen? Now: what's your favorite?

If you were to ask me about the best movie I've ever seen, my off-the-cuff response would be Citizen Kane. I've seen Citizen Kane upwards of a dozen times, and I've enjoyed it immensely each time. That's the mark of a great movie. Same goes for The Silence of the Lambs, another strong candidate for "best movie I've ever seen." But my favorite? That's a whole other story.

Suppose for the sake of discussion we were to define a person's "favorite movie" as the movie he or she would be interested in watching the greatest number of times. In that case, I've seen The Empire Strikes Back over a hundred times all the way through in my life, and I'm probably down for a few more. The Empire Strikes Back is by far my favorite movie. Other finalists include Aliens, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the original Star Wars, each of which I've seen dozens of times and will likely watch again.

At the end of each year, we're often asked which pieces of entertainment we enjoyed most from that year. Our responses often depend on which way the question is asked. What was the best movie I saw last year? Keep in mind I haven't seen Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave yet, but the best film I saw in 2013 was probably Captain Phillips. I was really impressed by it. But my favorite movie last year, meaning the one I've seen the most times? There wasn't a single movie I saw twice in the theater (kind of unusual for me), but I ran out and bought Frozen the first day I could. My wife and I loved that picture, and I think it's a safe bet it'll be remembered as our favorite movie of 2013. It did win Best Animated Feature (and Best Song) at the Oscars, but was it nominated for Best Picture? Not even close.

I thought about that this morning as Frozen kept getting mentioned on Facebook. Frozen was the #3 box office hit of last year, and it's still making money in theaters even as people snap up the Blu-ray and DVD releases. The highest-earning Best Picture nominee was Gravity, at #6. Below that, American Hustle was way down at #17, The Wolf of Wall Street at #28, Captain Phillips at #32. To find 12 Years a Slave, you'd have to go all the way down to #62. What we love and what we respect are often two different things.

So I tried something. I listed all the years from 1927 to 2013, the years for which the Academy has named Best Pictures. Then I pulled up the IMDB Top 250, which charts IMDB users' rankings of the movies they most admire. Best? Favorite? I guess it's a little of both. For each year, I listed the highest-IMDB-ranking movie for that year. If a given year had more than one such movie in the Top 50, as often happened in the 1990s (there are a lot of thirtysomething IMDB users), I listed all of those in order and separated them with single dashes (/).

Since many years contributed zero movies to the IMDB Top 250, I typed "NONE" in their spaces. Then I looked at the top 200 box-office successes, adjusted for inflation. If the biggest hits for a given year weren't already on the list, I added them after a double dash (//).

One thing we learn from compiling a list like this is that some years (1939, for example) were much better movie years than others (I'm looking at you, 1970). You also learn people didn't spend a great deal of money on movies throughout the 1930s, Snow White notwithstanding. I've read many times that King Kong was a massive success in its day, for example, but it turns out it was only the third-biggest hit of 1933.

If a given year was still blank, I typed a triple dash (///) and looked up the biggest hit for that year. That happened a lot from 1928 to 1938. I can certainly understand why people didn't have a lot of disposable income back then...but seriously, why were the movies so damn bad?

Finally, I marked a movie "(N)" if it was nominated for Best Picture, and "(W)" if it won. Here's the completed list:

1927: Metropolis
1928: NONE /// The Singing Fool
1929: NONE /// Gold Diggers of Broadway
1930: NONE /// All Quiet on the Western Front (W)
1931: City Lights
1932: NONE /// Shanghai Express (N)
1933: NONE /// Queen Christina
1934: It Happened One Night (W)
1935: NONE /// Mutiny on the Bounty (W)
1936: Modern Times
1937: NONE // Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
1938: NONE /// Alexander’s Ragtime Band (N)
1939: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (N) / Gone With the Wind (W) / The Wizard of Oz (N)
1940: The Great Dictator (N) // Pinocchio
1941: Citizen Kane (N) // Fantasia
1942: Casablanca // Bambi
1943: NONE /// For Whom the Bell Tolls (N)
1944: Double Indemnity (N)
1945: NONE // The Bells of St. Mary’s (N)
1946: It’s a Wonderful Life (N)
1947: NONE /// Unconquered
1948: Bicycle Thieves
1949: The Third Man
1950: Sunset Boulevard (N)
1951: Strangers on a Train
1952: Singin’ in the Rain
1953: Roman Holiday (N) // The Robe (N)
1954: Seven Samurai / Rear Window
1955: Diabolique
1956: The Killing // The Ten Commandments (N) / Around the World in 80 Days (W)
1957: 12 Angry Men (N)
1958: Vertigo
1959: North by Northwest // Ben-Hur (W) / Sleeping Beauty
1960: Psycho
1961: Yojimbo // 101 Dalmatians
1962: To Kill a Mockingbird (N)
1963: The Great Escape // Cleopatra (N)
1964: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (N) // Mary Poppins (N) / Goldfinger
1965: For a Few Dollars More // The Sound of Music (W) / Doctor Zhivago (N) / Thunderball
1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
1967: Cool Hand Luke // The Graduate (N) / Jungle Book
1968: Once Upon a Time in the West
1969: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (N)
1970: NONE // Love Story (N) / Airport (N)
1971: A Clockwork Orange (N)
1972: The Godfather (W)
1973: The Sting (W) // The Exorcist (N) / American Graffiti (N)
1974: The Godfather, Part II (W) // Blazing Saddles
1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (W) // Jaws (N)
1976: Taxi Driver (N) / Rocky (W)
1977: Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (N)
1978: The Deer Hunter (W) // Grease
1979: Apocalypse Now (N) / Alien
1980: Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark (N)
1982: Blade Runner // E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (N)
1983: Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
1984: Once Upon a Time in America // Ghostbusters / Beverly Hills Cop
1985: Back to the Future
1986: Aliens
1987: Full Metal Jacket
1988: Cinema Paradiso
1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade // Batman
1990: Goodfellas (N) // Home Alone
1991: The Silence of the Lambs (W) / Terminator 2: Judgment Day
1992: Reservoir Dogs
1993: Schindler’s List (W) // Jurassic Park
1994: The Shawshank Redemption (N) / Pulp Fiction (N) / Forrest Gump (W) / Léon: The Professional // The Lion King
1995: Se7en / The Usual Suspects
1996: Fargo (N) // Independence Day
1997: Life Is Beautiful // Titanic (W)
1998: American History X / Saving Private Ryan (N)
1999: Fight Club / The Matrix / The Green Mile (N) // Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
2000: Memento / Gladiator (W)
2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (N) / Spirited Away
2002: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (N) / City of God / The Pianist (N) // Spider-Man
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (W)
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind // Shrek 2
2005: Batman Begins
2006: The Departed (W) // Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
2007: Like Stars on Earth (Indian)
2008: The Dark Knight
2009: Inglourious Basterds (N) // Avatar (N)
2010: Inception (N)
2011: The Intouchables (French)
2012: The Dark Knight Rises // Marvel’s The Avengers
2013: The Wolf of Wall Street (N)

I went to all this trouble in the hope that your favorite movie of all time is on that list somewhere. Did it work? If so, did your favorite win Best Picture that year? Probably not. Was it a huge box office success? Maybe, but not necessarily. According to IMDB users, The Shawshank Redemption is the greatest movie ever made--an assessment that leaves me baffled, honestly--but it isn't one of the thousand biggest box office hits of all time, even before inflationary adjustment. It made a mere $28.3 million in its domestic run. Even the Robocop reboot made more than that, and it's probably terrible.

There's a disconnect here. A lot of IMDB users are about my age, so of course we contributed our favorite 1980s movies to the Top 250 list. Yet the Academy didn't like our favorite movies, so huge box office hits like Empire or Back to the Future weren't even nominated. Should they have been? You tell me. If our collectively favorite movie of 2013 was Frozen, didn't it deserve a nomination? One could argue that many box office hits (Independence Day or The Phantom Menace, for example) are so bad it proves we have awful taste and should listen to the Academy, but Frozen is a really well-made movie with terrific songs, strong performances, jaw-dropping production designs, and one hell of a third-act plot/thematic twist. I submit to you that it deserved to be a nominee. It's just hard for Academy voters to take animated films seriously, a problem they've also had with comedy, fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Romantic comedies sometimes get a pass.

This becomes especially relevant as stage troupes plan their upcoming seasons, which many are in the process of doing right now. If you ask people at the end of a season to choose the finest play they saw, it's usually a well-acted drama. But if you ask them which show they're most excited about from the upcoming season, it's usually a musical. And if you ask specifically, "What was your favorite play from last year," then the answer will often be a comedy. That's why it's so important for theaters to select plays from each category. It's also important they pick scripts you may never have heard of, because most people pay little attention to new dramatic plays. Furthermore, once you've found a theater you like, it's vital that you trust that company's play selection committee and artistic director. Go see their picks even if they're obscure or sound "weird." Live a little. I mean, how attractive a title is Frozen? A cartoon about two sisters who can't interact, set in frigid Scandinavia...ugh, right? Sometimes, our favorite entertainment comes clean out of nowhere.

What's the best movie you saw last year? If it was an Oscar nominee, there's a strong chance you'll never, ever sit down and watch it again. But your favorite movie? In many homes, your kids are watching it even as we speak.

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Another Juror #3

I'm pretty sure I was in high school when I first saw Sidney Lumet's 1957 film version of 12 Angry Men, the Reginald Rose teleplay that debuted on CBS's Studio One. In that justly lauded script, a jury must decide whether a New York City teenager is guilty of murdering his father. Not only is there a direct eyewitness, but another nearby resident heard a cry of, "I'm going to kill you!" followed by the thump of a body on the floor. That same "earwitness," an old man in the apartment below the murder, reported seeing the accused flee the building. As if that isn't enough to convict the kid, there's a mountain of circumstantial evidence including a rare switch knife found in the father's chest. Only one juror remains unpersuaded, the idealistic Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda in Lumet's film). He's opposed by the blatantly racist Juror #10, coldly rational Juror #4, and pugnacious Juror #3. As Rose's story progresses, we learn details about each juror--especially #3--that may have colored their initial opinions. I fell in love with the movie instantly. It spoke to my growing suspicion that not everything in the world is as clear-cut as it seems, and that justice is a largely subjective abstraction.

My favorite performance in the film wasn't Fonda's, though. He's fine, of course, but the standout for me was a fella named Lee J. Cobb, the burly old crab who played Juror #3. Except he wasn't that old! I learn from Wikipedia that Cobb was just about my age when he appeared in the movie. It was shot a few years after Cobb was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, for which he reluctantly named names. (Read his Wikipedia page. You undoubtedly would've done the same in his circumstances.) Cobb is ferocious in 12 Angry Men. His amazing career stretched for over four decades, and this was among his most praiseworthy efforts. I thought, "Here's an actor I can get behind, committed and fierce. He uses his size to his advantage. There's nothing comic about it. Cross your eyes at him funny, and he's likely to take your head off." And then I thought, "Someday I'd love to play that role myself." I kinda knew it'd happen, someday anyway, and that premonition both excited and terrified me.

So that was thirty years ago. Director Vicki Webb has now cast me as Juror #3 in Lakewood Playhouse's production of the stage adaptation. To be honest, I don't think I even auditioned for that role, assuming I'd be lucky to get anything in a town full of talented actors. But once I reread the script, I realized I was in for a challenge. In some ways, it wouldn't be fun. My method being what it is (a personalized variation on the Meisner technique, if you're into that sort of shop talk), I wind up feeling a lot of what the character feels, and what Juror #3 feels most of all is frustration. It's important to walk into every rehearsal, then every performance, convinced that this time, that sanctimonious Juror #8 is gonna see the error of his ways and get with the program. And then, damn it all, he never does! Night after night, against inconceivable odds, that ol' deus descends in his machina yet again and hands Juror #8 the laurel, leaving Juror #3 in the cold. At play's end, our unwitting antagonist is in an awful place--alone, exposed, devastated. And yes, to some degree at least, I do feel that, night after night. It's psychotic, I grant you, but I do. It can make for a mopey drive home. Having now played similar roles in Oleanna and Hamlet, and at the plaintive request of my wife (who has to live with me after those drives), I'll be retiring my antagonist suit for a while after closing this show. So if you want to see me succeed at epic-failing, you'd better act fast!

The lines in this show are incredibly difficult to memorize. They repeat each other in slightly varied wording, switch intentions in mid-sentence, and skip around from topic to topic like a game of drunken hopscotch. Our cast still hasn't squeezed them all into a run, let alone delivered them in the proper order (though we do manage to hide our mistakes from most observers, a skill which shouldn't be valued lightly). As we slogged through our last few tech rehearsals, I honestly wasn't sure we'd have the time we needed to pull it all together. We were altering the show in significant ways the night before preview. I'm a proud man in some ways, so I hate for people to pay good money to come see me in a disaster. Ergo, despite the exhortations of good people at Lakewood Playhouse, I didn't do much to remind people opening weekend was upon us. By the time I knew we had a deserving production, I'd run out of the time needed to pimp it.

So now here we are in the hiatus between first and second weekend. Adam McKinney, subbing for me as critic for the Weekly Volcano, says the script is thematically "outdated." He's not wrong. I feel Rose could've made the same points as well if not better by, for example, cutting Juror #10's big speech in half. Like McKinney, I find Juror #3's motivations 'too pat.' Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor says she saw the film in college and it drove her toward the law, but she also admits the jury's behavior would demand a judgment of mistrial in any true homicide case. The play isn't perfect, Gentle Reader. It's just great.

I can tell you for a fact, we've given everything we had to make this show as relevant as humanly possible. Our director and I insisted from day one that every character should reveal both noble and lamentable traits. I made it my personal crusade to inject humor and humanity into an admittedly obnoxious, often set-chomping role. Now it's your turn to, as the show's ominous tag line would have it, "judge the jurors." Yikes.

I'm proud of what my new friends and I have brought to our 12 Angry Men. I hope you get a chance to see it. If not, add the movie to your Netflix queue. Perhaps you, too, will find yourself thinking deep thoughts about justice and equality under the law. Oh, and hey! If you wouldn't mind, spare some sympathy for poor, cranky Juror #3. He's doing the absolute best he can.

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Pride and Prejudice

I caught this show late, after Joann Varnell reviewed it for the Weekly Volcano. Managing artistic director John Munn solicited my opinion, though, so here it am be:

Love and lethargy
Settling in for an afternoon with Austen
Christian Carvajal

Watching a cinematic adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility back in 1995, I was struck by an element I'd never understood about her novels: namely, their life-or-death stakes. To a woman of the early nineteenth century, an Austen novel was all but a thriller. It's not just some adolescent soap opera about which comely sister will wind up snogging whom in the pantry. If these protagonists don't appeal to decent, affluent men, their futures, and those of their families, will be grim indeed. Barred from most areas of economic security, they have only one escape from destitution. That's profoundly sad, but it was a certainty of life two hundred years ago in England...and here.

Unhelpfully, there's little of that life-or-death urgency in an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice currently running at Lakewood Playhouse. Its script, by Joseph Hanreddy and J. R. Sullivan, aims rather for charm and sentimentality, achieving both for much of its considerable length. That's nothing to sneeze at, of course, but it also means that first hour can be rough going for the uninitiated. My wife and I had trouble keeping our eyes open. (To be fair, one could chalk much of our lethargy up to a hearty brunch at Marrow before the show.) Soon, though, as with Downtown Abbey, we found ourselves sucked into the labyrinthine social proceedings almost in spite of ourselves, realizing only in retrospect how desperate its characters' monetary straits were. Thanks to wonderful costumes overseen by Frances Rankos, everyone looks so wonderful they seem to live, not on the edge of starvation and poverty, but in an all-ages prom.

By intermission, we finally get a handle on who's whom, how they're related, who's been courting whom why, and how (Darcy's) pride and (Elizabeth's) prejudice came into the picture. That's when Rachel Boyer's outstanding performance as Elizabeth comes into sharp relief. She's surrounded by so many one-note characters--the fault of Austen, not this production's sizable cast--that we need her credible reactions to ground the show's milieu in truth and consequences. Tasked with enlivening a talky script, director Casi Wilkerson allows (encourages?) some actors to turn their amps up to 11. Mason Quinn, for example, is an unctuous cartoon; the question isn't whether he's overacting but whether he's overacting enough. Other actors gnawing the scenery with a vengeance are Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson as Elizabeth's histrionic mother, Lee Ryan as contemptuous Lady Catherine, and Olivia Barry as Elizabeth's boy-crazy little sis. Don't get me wrong: I liked all those performances, grand as they were, because this isn't a Mamet play. It's a romp, and that raises the ceiling everywhere but over our heroine (and audience surrogate Mr. Bennet, played by Steve Tarry from the center of his wheelhouse).

I'm not sure I understood Wilkerson's treatment of props. Most were invisible, their usage mimed. Are costume props the only ones visible? If so, does that rule extend to rings? The distinction seems a bit arbitrary, but yes, it does serve a stated goal of moving the show as rapidly as its script will allow. Not so the many elegant balls, I'm afraid; while all are beautifully choreographed and executed, each seems progressively less necessary to advance the plot.

Contemporary male that I am, I still rather enjoyed this incarnation of Austen. It just took most of a long act to get me there. If you're a fan of this type of romantic confection, I suspect you'll need far less persuasion.

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The 39 Steps

Gentle Reader,

As you probably know, my wife and I returned four days ago from an eight-day vacation in Paris. I'd never been to Europe before; my wife had but dipped a mere toe into France. When people ask me how it was, my immediate answer is "Life-changing." That's the truth. My wife and I are slightly different people now: more Parisian, less certain and, as Anthony Bourdain used to say, "hungry for more." We're still processing everything we learned and how we feel about it. I'll have more to say about Paris later, of course, once our rush of reactions has slowed. In the meantime, it's my pleasure to offer the following (late) review of a show which opened while we were gone.

Renton Civic’s flying circus
Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, completely different
Christian Carvajal

If you’re a fan of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)—as by now most regular theatre patrons are—then The 39 Steps should hit right in your sweet spot.

I’ve never seen Hitchcock’s 1935 movie version of The Thirty-Nine Steps, a 1915 action novel by John Buchan, but I learn from Wikipedia that Patrick Barlow’s 2005 stage adaptation follows its plot to the letter. That surprised me, because Barlow spins Hitchcock’s thriller into a Pythonesque comedy by adding jokes and using four rangy actors to portray its entire international cast. In director John Munn’s production for Renton Civic Theatre, Bob DeDea plays Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London. Hannay attends a music hall performance by Mister Memory, a man famous for his ability to cram prodigious streams of data into his brain. Shots ring out; soon Hannay’s unfairly implicated in the stabbing of une femme fatale (Deya Ozburn). He goes on the lam, chasing a circle on a map toward a fateful Highland rendezvous and the nature of the story’s titular MacGuffin. There’s also a confusing action sequence involving strangers on, as one may fairly expect, a train.

DeDea plays Hannay with period-appropriate panache. Ozburn embodies the slinky femme fatale, a shy Scottish bride, and a no-nonsense Englishwoman. As for the show’s remaining performers, Bryan Bender and Eric Hartley, I admit I lost track. Each must’ve played upward of a dozen characters plus onstage sound effects, skipping through UK accents and costumes with deceptive ease. The script allows for bravura transitions, including a whirling dervish number that cycles through a handful of hats. I wonder in retrospect whether it might’ve been more fun had Ozburn or another female performer played some of those roles, but I don’t know the script well enough to say how that might’ve worked. In any case, Munn and his cast do an admirable job of demonstrating their breadth and fluidity of range while keeping the story as clear as possible, which at times isn’t very.

As with Shakespeare (Abridged), the jokes are inconsistent but often hilarious. The script slumps a bit in Act II but recovers in time for Bender to impress us with a Mister Memory act of his own. (I missed this along the way, but apparently he’s explaining the physics of an aircraft in stealth mode. Hmm. I always assumed it was fairy dust.) Curt Hetherington stage manages his own lighting cues, dissolving us from scene to scene effectively and even throwing in a rod-puppet tribute to North by Northwest.

I know from performing Shakespeare (Abridged) that shows like this can be both incredibly demanding and a joy to rehearse. The emphasis has to be on making sure the fun had by the actors translates to equal enjoyment for audience members. RCT’s 39 Steps manages that difficult feat with aplomb.

[Renton Civic Theatre, The 39 Steps, $15-$22, 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. through Oct. 5, 507 S. 3rd St., Renton, 425.226.5529]

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Pride (In the Name of Baseline Competence)

If I had written this blog entry 36 hours ago, it would've had a very different message and tone. The good folks at Capital Playhouse, an Olympia company devoted almost exclusively to American-style musical theatre, were kind and clever enough to invite me to appear in their spring production of Legally Blonde: The Musical. I say "clever" because I've learned more than I can say here about the complexity and difficulty of staging a professional-quality musical in the time they have to spend on it, and that'll help me keep perspective when I'm writing reviews. I say "kind" because I'm a theatre critic in Oly, and I haven't always been hyper-complimentary about Capital Playhouse productions. I bashed a run of their shows so persuasively that their promotional staffer was obliged to call and beg me for mercy. I hated CP's last Christmas show so profoundly that my review achieved lasting notoriety, yet its director is the one who cast me in Legally Blonde. That poor promotional staffer plays Paulette. They've both been nothing but sweet to me, though I know I've offered reason for concern.

See, I agreed to play Elle's dad with the sole proviso that I could not, should not, absolutely would not dance so much as a single step in the show. This is only to the show's benefit, I assure you, and that's not me having a rare bout of insincere modesty. I am to dancing what Guy Fieri is to haute cuisine. I only wish I had the skills and control of one of those dancing balloons outside a used car lot. The company agreed to let me out of dancing, then immediately implied it would find some way to get me in tap shoes. I've held firm. Yes, I do move my body in a vaguely predetermined way in the show, but as God is my witness, to call what I'm doing dancing would be equivalent to referring to the late Gerald Ford as an acrobat.

There were several reasons why I agreed to do this show so soon (i.e., immediately) after my previous role in The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood. First, I was excited about meeting CP actors face to face that I'd praised so many times in past reviews. In that respect, this transaction was an unqualified success. Bailey Boyd (Elle), Kristin Burch (Brooke), Patrick Wigren (Warren and choreographer), and director Chris Serface among at least a dozen others have truly impressed and inspired me. We have actors, including Ms. Burch, performing a full, high-energy song-and-dance number while simultaneously skipping rope. After seeing their finished product, I was stunned to learn Burch has been performing her role with the flu and a 104-degree temperature. I honestly had no idea. She's a pro. There's amazing talent up and down the line in this show, and they got it all ready in three and a half weeks (a necessity in order to maximize theater earnings).

My second reason for signing on was I wanted to push myself. I know I'm not a fully-trained singer, and I beat my head against it last year when I participated in Opera Pacifica's production of La Traviata. I may not always enjoy difficult learning experiences, but I understand their value. I was told Elle's dad had only a minute-long solo, so I figured I could handle that with minimal humiliation. So here we go! Who's up for a challenge?

What I did not understand was the company needed a greater number of male performers than they'd been able to find and hire. Ergo, I was soon recruited to play Winthrop, a dean of admissions, as well. Then I was asked to play a student. And a reporter. And a prison guard. You see where this is going. Suddenly my "minute of Elle's dad plus some choral stuff" became an entire show, complete with five costume changes. Don't get me wrong, I'm less essential to the overall success of the show than a backstage coat hanger, but I do have plenty of things to do...none of which I'm especially good at.

Again, I'm not being falsely modest. I can act. I have comic timing and I'm good with character voices. I can carry a tune, with a year of vocal training back in college. I just want you to understand that a.) I'm a klutz, due to my size and other physical limitations, and b.) I know I have issues with tempo. I discovered this during opera rehearsals last year. I don't read music, mostly because I can't, and there are times when it's difficult to hear what the orchestra is up to exactly in numbers like these. Sometimes the music's just ornamental squiggles behind a vocalist who carries the melody. There's no drum track like the ones we're used to on radio. So there are times, during my solo for one, when the orchestra goes "THUMP" and one had better maintain a consistent rhythm from there on out without further assistance. That's tough for me. I looked at a series of rest symbols in my script and thought, "What the hell is 'squiggle-dash-percent?' Can't somebody just point at me when it's my turn to sing? How do I get myself into these ordeals?"

Anyway. Long story short, I've had a hell of a time achieving even minimal standards of vocal mediocrity, and I'm used to being more competent than this. So when we finally got the real orchestra Monday night and my tiny little minute of singing flew completely off the rails, I was hit by a walloping, crushing realization: Ohh! I'm just never gonna get this. I am going to suck in this show. I've embarrassed myself and failed this hardworking company. They deserve better, and I don't have time or know a way to fix it.

I was heartbroken. It's amazing how deeply I feel these things. You'd be justified in asking why I don't find more comforting ways to spend my ever-diminishing free time. I don't know if I have a convincing answer for that question, so I won't try. What I will say is I'm unwilling to work this hard and fail without going down swinging. So I kept at it, rehearsing the same minute of vocal music more times than I could rationally defend, and last night, for the first time, I got it right with the orchestra. My mood reversed overnight. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I don't know if I've been prouder of myself for anything I've done the last two years. (My last personal triumph before that was marrying the optimal woman for me and my life, but you knew that already.)

So here we are. I've gone from thinking of musical performance as, in the words of David Foster Wallace, "a supposedly fun thing I'll never do again" to a "teachable moment." Tonight marks the free audience preview before we officially open tomorrow. I'm not saying Legally Blonde: The Musical has the best script since Sondheim was a pup, but it does have catchy songs and a lot of cool dancing by people who aren't me. It's sexy--I swear to God, these people all have perfect asses, which defies probability--and you'll root for plucky, Pepto-pink Elle. You might even see me genuinely grinning in my "young Nick Nolte" wig, assuming I make it through that white-knuckle minute of song three, "What You Want," without a catastrophic accident.

Break a leg, fellow Blondes.

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Sherlock’s Last Case Trailer

I know it's been a while since I've had much of an online presence, Gentle Reader, but all that is about to change. I get some time off between writing assignments starting tomorrow, so expect new stuff soon. In the meantime, here's the trailer for the play I'm directing, Sherlock's Last Case, starring John Munn and Steve Tarry. It recorded somewhat low--I blame the source video, but who knows?--so you may have to bump up your speakers. Sorry! The teaser's reposted below that.

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