From class to stage
Two schools stage classics of different eras
The Man Who Came to Dinner, Black Box Theatre, Butte College
The first time I saw local theater mainstay Jerry Miller perform was in 1996, in a production of The Man Who Came to Dinner at the Blue Room Theatre. He was fantastic in the lead role of Sheridan Whiteside—powerful, natural and unforgettable. I left the theater feeling energized.
Last Thursday night, I watched Miller reprise the role in Butte College’s big Black Box Theatre, and though his performance was nearly as memorable, the Drama Department was not so successful in putting on an energizing production of the classic 1939 farce.
The action takes place in a big house in small-town Ohio in the 1930s, where Whiteside is a nationally famous radio-show host who has slipped on the ice outside. Stuck far away from high society, he terrorizes the local yokels and his hosts with his pretentious and overbearing, yet hilariously sarcastic, presence.
On this opening night, much of the lively screwballness that the play promises either fell flat (awkward entrances, dull performances) or was energetic yet disconnected from the main action, entering and leaving with a thud. The experienced Miller kept things in motion with his strong, but not-too-strong, presence, but director Barry Piccinno and the less-experienced student/community cast didn’t have the flow going, and sans sharp pacing, all that’s left are 70-year-old cultural references (Hedy Lamarr anyone?).
There were some highlights, though: Set designer David Beasley and his crew deserve an award for their beautifully designed scene. Arin Larson as Whiteside’s assistant was feisty and remained connected throughout. Of the side characters, the best was Andrew Hahn (who had three small parts) as the visiting dashing playwright/actor/singer Beverly Carlton. He was magnetic in his scene, flamboyantly prancing around the stage, speaking in a blue-blood affectation (that did, however, make his lines indecipherable in places) and singing a very impressive rendition of Cole Porter’s “What Am I To Do.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Inspire School of Arts & Sciences, at Center For the Arts
Perhaps it’s the inevitable curse of being 30-something, but teenagers today—with their sexting and Snookie and super-charged video-game consoles—scare and confuse me. Luckily, some reconnection and a more positive perspective on the youthful spirit was easily obtained from the Inspire School of Arts & Sciences production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, proof positive that teenage talent and artistic passion are alive and well in our community.
With minimal input and light guidance from adult handlers, the Inspire students built the production from the ground up; they designed and made the set and costumes, performed an original score with an 18-piece orchestra, choreographed the dances and delivered the Bard’s heroic couplets with the confidence and zeal most of their peers save for Justin Bieber lyrics.
Upon entering, attendees got an up-close look at the costume design on the four House Fairies, picture perfect from the hem of their gossamer gowns to the tips of their pointy ears. Even more impressive was the set, a two-tiered mockup of ruins rising from fairy-infested woods, with a built-in slide made to resemble a waterfall. Projected images of the moon and trees to the side of the action completed the ambience of a sylvan wonderland.
The music and dancing also fit the play perfectly, filled with technical expertise and punctuated with playful movements. The fairies pirouetted like prima ballerinas one moment, and somersaulted like 3-year-olds the next, precisely as we might dream frolicking wood nymphs would, all in time to a score that ranged from haunting to hilarious.
Of all Shakespeare’s work, this play is arguably best suited for young productions. Peppered with ribaldry and propelled at least partially by a long-running bum joke (relished here by standout Jared Enos as the half-ass, half-man weaver-cum-thespian-cum-Fairy Queen-consort Nick Bottom), it is in part a playwright’s ode to lusty, rebellious young love. The themes that played out as the Athenian elders, young lovers, acting troupe and supernatural population interact—passion and duty, rationality and compassion, youth and wisdom—echo through the ages.
For 400 years, theater goers have walked away from this dream with a bit more youthful spring than they may have entered with, and thanks to the Inspire school for keeping the tradition alive.