April 19th, 2005

Spring at last

April has at last brought us genuine spring, delayed because of the coldness of late March. In Wisconsin, green comes up from the ground like a mist. This is particularly noticable in the wooded parkway along the Kinnickkinnick River. The woods are a gray-brown frieze all through the winter. The snow gradually vanishes to reveal the patchy carpet of low-growing herbs that remain green, though frozen, all winter. As the days pass, one can track the rising of sap as pale buds become visible on the willows and low shrubs, the saplings, and finally extending up into the branches of the mature trees. Now, there is a light green haze shrouding the woody framework, which will eventually thicken into a solid curtain of forest.

The first wildflowers in these parts are the wood hyacinths, which bloom in beds in the shadowy portion of the woodlands, their intense blue vibrant against the dark green of their foliage. There are a few violets in some of the lawns now, and the daffodils followed shortly on the hyacinths advent. Many of our plantings are well up now: tulips (a couple blooming), day lillies, irises, peonies, poppies all are six inches or more tall, holding the promise of future beauty.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

I haven't had time to enter anything for the last month because I have been rehearsing and then performing my role of Sherlock Holmes in the West Allis Players' production of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," which ended last weekend. This show has been a very interesting experience in a number of ways, notably in seeing how fast a cast with widely varying levels of experience can put together a show. The original script was adapted for Samuel French by one Tim Kelly, evidently a house writer specializing in adapting classics for the stage, since his credits include "Frankenstein," "Dracula," "The Woman in White," "Varney the Vampyre," and a lot of others that charitably sound like "mellerdramas." Our director had evidently not picked the script and wasn't very fond of it. (Plays for community theatre get picked two ways, usually: sometimes the playreading committee chooses the show and finds a volunteer to direct it; other times a director comes forward with a show they want to do and convinces the board to take it on.) Usually, the rehersal time for a stright play runs about five weeks. However, we were about one and a half weeks into rehersal before we settled upon a final revised script, which borrowed heavily from both the French version and Doyle's orginal, with some totally new interjections. Thus we ended up with a very "free" adaptation and about three and a half weeks to pull it together.

The end result didn't get good marks script-wise from the Holmes purists in the audience, but it was good fun as a show, and I've had better roles, but seldom as much fun in one. Besides getting to do the classic Holmes deduction bits, I also got to skulk around in disguise, with an on-stage unmasking scene; lurk through the secret door; shoot the hound; and be shot in turn by the villainess.

If you don't recall secret doors, Holmes getting shot, or a villainess in Doyle, I congratulate you on your knowlege of Sherlockiana. On the other hand, we ended up with a lively although textually uneven show that I still think captured the spirit of the orginal.

The cast was very widely varying in experience. Our director, Steve Parr, is professional with a lot of acting and directing credits. Then there was myself, Bob Stahley (Watson) and Rick Anderson (Barrymore, the butler) who are veteran actors, followed by varying ranges of experience down to the young men, Kyle Warras as Sir Henry Baskerville and Eric Caves as Jack Stapleton, who were essentially doing first major roles. Everyone did a good job, although with the short run-up, the show was never as tight as might have been. On the other hand, the audience doesn't know the script and the bobbles weren't too obvious.

I actually got good reviews as Holmes. Of course everyone knows I am neither tall nor thin, but I got some boots that added an inch of height and a slimming black suit, which along with decent makeup (my mustache was temporarily sacrificed for the muse) allowed me to project Holmes creditably. Several people said I had the Holmes mannerisms down perfectly. Bob Stahley was an excellent Watson and a real mainstay to me and the show in general. Actually, it's a toss-up who has the more important role to the script, since Watson is on stage for several scenes while Holmes is offstage supposedly hunting around Dartmoor. Kyle Warras as Sir Henry also was on in every scene and lent great energy to the production, although his tendency to occasionally ad-lib tended to put other actors a bit off-stride. On the other hand, without Holmes, there is no show, so I didn't feel too guilty taking the last bow.

Lytheria 25th Anniversary

Lytheria is the name of the fannishly-well known house on Milwaukee's east side that is home to Lee Schneider and the ever-changing band of communards that have taken part in the great experiment as to whether or not a fannish household can long endure. This April marked the 25th anniversary of Lytheria, and a long-expected party was called for. Lee invited all the former residents he could find (that weren't banned--not everyone has left under happy circumstances) as well as friends and familiars. I fall into the latter category, having hung out there ever since I moved to Milwaukee twenty-four years ago. By this time, I've probably spent as much cumulative time there as some people who have paid rent. Of course Georgie has been a regular visitor too, and felt called upon to exercise her cake artistry in the cause, producing a spectacular three-dimensional replica of the house in four layers of cake, finished off with cardboard porches and model railroad architectural details. Several people who saw it did not realize it was a cake at first.

The doors opened at noon for some of the out-of town guests. I dropped off Georgie and the cake there about 5PM on my way to my last performance of "Hound," and came directly back from the theatre after the show. As i expected, the cake had not been cut, and wasn't actually disassembled until after midnight when a mob demaned it. The cake was delicious as well (as ususal).

It was very good to see some of the old-timers, such as Peter Thomas and Ingrid Stark (aka Ingrid the Crafty), but also sad to see how many were kept away by distance, by life, or at least in one case, by death. Twenty-five years is a long time and a lot can happen in it.

It was a good party and a worthy commemoration.

Boswell's Dream

This has been a month for live theatre. Get a break from rehersal, and what do we do? Go to a play! We had good Friday off, and caught one of the last performances of Renaissance Theatre Works production of the new play "Boswell's Dream," based upon the writings of diarist and biographer James Boswell and the (possibly) historical circumstances surrounding the discovery of a huge cache of his personal papers in postwar Scotland. Although justly famous as a biographer for his "Life of Johnson" and his journal of the trip to the Hebrides, Boswell was not wel respected due to his libertine ways and low tastes.

"Boswell's Dream" is a new play by a local playwrite, and open with Boswell's arrival in London, where his "hick" ways do not overcome his engaging personality's ability to gain acquaintance with famous authors, actors, and artists--as well as numerous women. His "dream" is to meet the famous "Dictionary" Johnson, and the play shows us how this might have happened. The play structure has dreams within dreams, as we are shown angry messages from Boswell's censorious father as dream sequences, among others. The only flaw with this is that it permits the stage crew overuse of the trite device of fake fog to indicate dream states.

In the second act, the timeline shifts to 20th-century Scotland, where American univerity researchers are hot on the trail of Boswell's literary trove not for it's own sake, but in hopes it might hold new Johnson material. Conflict breaks out here, as Johnson's heirs aren't wild about unleashing his scandalous memoirs, the uptight professor in charge of the expedition doesn't see the value in Johnson's journals, and initially only his graduate assistant holds out for bringing them to light. This is where the real drama of the play begins, and, as new work, I could say needs polishing. There is a lengthy scene in the second act which sharply contrasts the vapidity of the modern people with the intellectually glittering group that surrounded Johnson, which goes on too long in my opinion. The play is essentialy two plays: the first act, in which the modern people are mere shadows, and the second half, in which Boswell and Johnson are more present but still mainly "dreams". I think if I were re-writing this show I would have intertwined the two plots more evenly.

Very nice performances by Brian J. Gill as Boswell, Brian Robert Mani as Johnson, Cathleen Madden as Joan Weinstein, and a solid cast playing multiple roles in both centuries.

Lady Windermere's Fan

And, of course, having just finished a production--we go out to a play! We got tickets for the Milwaukee Rep production of "Lady Windermere's Fan," by Oscar Wilde, which we were very pleased with. We had read "An Ideal Husband" for our Bardic gathering recently, which was a great deal of fun, and so Wilde was in mind. Milwaukee Repetory Theatre is the city's premire theatre company and it showed in this sumptously mounted and costumed production. Deborah Staples was very fine in the vital role of Mrs. Erlynne, and Chaon Cross equally so as Lady Windermere. These two ladies, the sadder but wiser one, and the painfully naive one, carry the play with most of the supporting roles being caricatures of social species common to Wilde's time. This was Wilde's first theatrical success, and laid out themes that he would follow in other plays, such as "An Ideal Husband," notably the corrosive effects of secrecy and the sheer destructive capabilty of ignorant self-righteousness. I applaud Wilde genius and audacity in bringing about a "happy" ending for all, and without the revelation scene that seems so inevitable. Everyone performed well, but the other performance particularly worth mentioning was Ted Deasy as Lord Darlington. When reding the play it was easy to see Darlington as a mere seducer, espcially given his remarks about his own wickedness, and his opportunism. Deasy, however, made it possible to believe that the character really did love Lady Windermere--at least for the moment.

This production continues through May 15. Highly recommended.