Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"Annie" in 3-D: at Spokane's Civic Theater

“Annie” In 3-D
at Spokane’s Civic Theater


Wally Lee Parker

            This last Sunday afternoon we went to a matinée showing of the Spokane Civic Theater’s production of Annie.  I’m not a big fan of Little Orphan Annie or at least I wasn’t.  Probably because I saw the lifeless 1982 movie version of the original 1977 stage play at least as much of that film as I could tolerate.  But that was a stage production translated into film.  Maybe better said it was a stage production half-heartedly spilled onto film.
            Having attended around two dozen or so Civic Theater productions now including the Civic’s excellent 1996 rendition of Lost in Yonkers I’ve come to the conclusion that something very vital doesn’t translate when scripts intended to be played live before relatively small audiences are converted into celluloid.  Lost in Yonkers also made into a movie is a fairly good example of that desensitization (though far from being the worse).  And I’m not just talking about the fact that stage productions are naturally three dimensional meaning a form of 3-D without the eyestrain induced headache.  Unless a movie production begins by taking the essence of the stage script and rewriting it specifically for the camera (think 1978’s film version of Grease), the sad remnants are only going to be alive in the Frankensteinian sense meaning the movie’s likely to be a lumbering monstrosity with its “vital force” erased.
            Jim Kershner, the Spokesman-Review’s longtime theater critic, said in his write-up of the Civic’s 1996 staging of Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, that it was “technically an amateur production.  He then went on to say that the Civic’s rendition was “actually superior in many ways to the Broadway Touring version.”  With my community college education, I’m just not sure how one differentiates between amateur and professional theater except maybe ticket price.  Kershner, who’s seen a lot of both kinds of theater, seems to be suggesting that the proof is in the pudding, not the price.  I know it cost relatively little for a front row seat at the Civic.  (All the seats cost the same.  If you want the front row you’ll need to buy your ticket early.)  I do know that sitting close enough to the stage to see the expressions on the actors’ faces is important.   I do know working class people can’t afford to go to professional plays and sit close enough to really see.  It’s been my experience that sitting fairly close makes it more likely I’ll become absorbed into the play and absorption is a part of the alchemy of stage magic.  If you’re in the twenty-fourth row of a 3,000 seat amphitheater, you might as well go to the movies.  So I’m all for amateur theater if it allows me to participate as an audience member should.  And the Civic has always been good about inclusion.
            Not to say there weren’t problems with the Civic’s Annie.  Some words, spoken or sung by the young girls, and, on occasion, even the women wearing electronic assist, dropped below audible level.  Movies solve that kind of problem with post-production fixes.  Actors in live productions need to compensate for the lack of overdubs and re-dubs with technique.  But even with the best of those, having spent four years of my much younger days not that far from the painfully loud dry-planers of Deer Park’s sawmill, my ears are not always up to it.  Then too, girls as young as the actresses in Annie seldom have the lung capacity and projective range to make everything loud.  So I’m going to do something anyone attending live theater needs to do on occasion (at least the amateur kind of theater where you don’t need to do without a month’s worth of suppers to buy the tickets), and that’s give the actors a pass for effort.  The kids were good.  They were putting their hearts into it.  And heart is one of those things that seldom come across in a thoroughly homogenized Hollywood adaptation.
            Another thing Hollywood loses is spontaneity.  It would be easy to think the theater should have no spontaneity either.  After all, it’s all written down beforehand as dialog and set directions.  Just follow the directions, and as any good cook knows, everything will turn out perfect just like pictured in the cookbook.
            In what galaxy does that work?
            So the character Annie goes twirling across the stage and slams into a heavy wooden desk.  Was that in the script?  No.  But Annie played by ten year old Sophia Caruso just winced, then smiled, then carried on.  Now that’s heart.
            When tap-dancing keeping rhythm with Daddy Warbucks (Daddy being played by the always excellent Mark Pleasant) those metal tipped soles would occasionally slide across the stage, threatening to spill Annie on the floor.  Not a trace of fear, and the dance would clatter on.  Now that’s acting on the fly — the spontaneous kind.
            Back at the orphanage, all the little girls were down on their knees, pounding out a rhythm with scrub brushes against the floor and metal mop buckets.  It was perfect.  And then they jumped up.  Wooden mop handles snapped rhythms on the floor.  And through it all, never a self-conscious glance to the side.  They were looking out at the audience.  These kids third, fourth, fifth graders they didn’t need to see what the others were doing because each knew they were doing their own part right.  You could tell by the grins.  From our place in the fifth row, those grins were easy to see.  
            Maybe it’s just the parent in me, but when the girls in the orphanage crawled to the top of the stage’s bunk beds, did anyone else in the audience want to tack on some side-rails, or throw extra pillows on the floor.  Those weren’t images up there.  Those were real kids.   
            Perhaps the actors would disagree, but to my mind it takes an inordinate amount of courage to be on that stage.  It’s a crucible for excruciating embarrassment.  And I always worry that something is going to go wrong even if the actors don’t worry.
            It’s called empathy something today’s culture, with its love of sadistic reality shows, severely lacks. 
            The truth is everyone in the theater is an active participant in the play even those who only watch and react.  Because of that, the theater is alive.  Not simply live.  It’s really alive.  The fact that filming a performance or recreating a play as a film seldom seems to carry that spark with it proves that it’s the participatory aspect to the theater that adds that magic ingredient.  It’s the play washing out over the audience and splashing back across the stage that adds that communal sense of rapport.  A movie is just a dry image incapable of responding in return to the audience’s response.  No emotional reverberation.  No 3-dimensional immediacy.
            And there’s always the hazard of accidental events that no amount of stage direction or rehearsal can remove.  Thusly necessitating the axiom, “The show must go on.”
            If there was something to dislike about the performance of Annie, it came from a few, select members of the audience.
            My God, the perfumes men and women drench themselves in are supposed to be a sexual attractant, not an aromatic weapon.  It’s hard to be attracted when you’re being suffocated.  A little bit is a tease.  But when the people around are gasping for air take the hint.
            Then there are those individuals that find it absolutely essential they run a continual commentary about what’s happening on the stage.  Does the theater need to add more inclusive phrases alongside its “Please turn off your cell phones” reminder?  Things like, “Uses perfumes in moderation.”  And “Save your comments and witticism until after the performance.”
            The theater is so temporal, it’s sad when someone’s thoughtlessness distracts from the moment.
            Speaking of temporal: In this last Sunday’s Spokesman-Review Jim Kershner noted the impending retirement of the Civic Theater’s scenic and lighting designer Peter Hardie.  One thing I don’t believe Kershner mention in his article is that Hardie is also an actor.  I still recall the audience reaction to his excellent rendition of the lead character in the Civic’s production of Moliére’s Tartuffe.  That was back in 1993.  The entire play was spoken in rhyme but any consciousness of that oddity seemed to dissipate after the first dozen stanzas.  It was magical.
            That’s the only regrettable thing about live theater when the performance is over or an actor’s career everything that has transpired lives solely in memory.  Nothing of real substance lives on like it would with film.  And that’s what makes distractions from the audience distractions such as toxic perfumes and chronic nattering so irritating.  The parts of the play missed can never be replayed.  Theater is totally in the moment.  If members of the audience aren’t respectful of that moment aren’t respectful of their own part of the theatrical experience it’s an insult to all those that love the theater.
            The Civic has two productions of note scheduled for this next season.  One is Grease.  It appears or so I’ve read that the movie version was far removed from what first appeared on the stage.  It will be interesting to see whether it’s the original stage version or one of the several revival stage versions that the theater intends to produce.  The other is The Producers.  This play has an interesting history in that it was originally a movie (Mel Brooks, 1968), then a stage play (2001), and once again a movie (2005).  The last film version, with Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and Uma Thurman, suffered to great extent from the lack of intimacy that makes these things extraordinary on stage.  But if the Civic manages to add back the magic, and the world doesn’t end before the September opening, this play is likely to be something spectacular.
            Just to be on the safe side we already have our season tickets and seat reservations — fifth row from the front.

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