“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, adapted by Frank Galati, produced by The Rogue Theater - Review

Converting a novel into a movie or play requires radical simplification while remaining true to the plot and characters.  With a movie, you have fully fleshed film locations that speak thousands of words.  In the theater, you have several sets that must evoke location.  In the case of The Rogue, you have one set and clever wooden boxes that rearrange themselves into the truck, dining tables, stools, and stands.  Thus, 169,481 words make their way into two hours and forty-five on stage.

 Part of the Joad Family:  Bryn Booth as Rose of Sharon, David Greenwood as Pa Joad, Gabriel Morales as Winfield, Cynthia Meier as Ma Joad, Florie Rush as Ruthie.  Photo AZ Daily Star.

Part of the Joad Family:  Bryn Booth as Rose of Sharon, David Greenwood as Pa Joad, Gabriel Morales as Winfield, Cynthia Meier as Ma Joad, Florie Rush as Ruthie.  Photo AZ Daily Star.

Frank Galati, a member of Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, adapted The Grapes of Wrath in ’88.  It was produced in Chicago, then traveled to Broadway where it won the Tony for Best Play in ’90.  It did not run even a year—this is not the fodder for the matinee crowd.  I was fortunate to see the Steppenwolf Chicago production.  Though memories of the production are dim, The Rogue production seemed more emotional, real, and benefitted from the small stage.  

Galati included music in his adaptation.  The Rogue’s program says, “Music Direction and Original Composition by Jake Sorgen”.  So, I’m inferring that what we heard was all original to this production, though some pieces were old folk favorites.  Here, the music and the players melded into the production, playing non-speaking parts where a “crowd” was needed.  Vicki Brown, violin, and Jake Sorgen, guitar, made wonderful music together and formed much of the frame surrounding and supporting the plot.

The Okie story is told in vignettes:  at the Oklahoma sharecrop farm, leaving the farm, on the road and camping, at the campground by the picking fields, on the road – again.  It’s the eternal story of the disenfranchised poor—contrasted with the off-stage middle class, living some form of the American dream even in the Depression.  They are the farm owner who evicts the Joads, the law enforcement men who harass and arrest migrants, the growers who pit needy against needy to keep wages low, the nascent unions that promise help, but can’t or won’t come through for the pickers.  To leave Oklahoma was to leave hell.  To make a new life in California was a living hell.  In the audience, you felt shame and pain for this black part of American history.  You also felt the love among the Joads and how they were clannishly bonded until California broke their spirits.

 Cole Potwardowski, left, Matt Bowdren, David Greenwood and Aaron Shand.  Photo: AZ Daily Star.

Cole Potwardowski, left, Matt Bowdren, David Greenwood and Aaron Shand.  Photo: AZ Daily Star.

The Rogue Ensemble were excellent in their roles.  David Greenwood, as Pa Joad, at last had a leading role where his vocal “twang” authenticated the character.  His phlegmatic style befits the family leader.  Matt Bowdren, as Tom Joad, and Cynthia Meier, as Ma Joad, shared the unspoken love of mother and oldest child, no matter how unpredictable the child.  

There are 39 characters in The Grapes of Wrath—20 actors are listed in the program guide.  Director, Joe McGrath, did a masterful job of seamlessly blending the characters, choreographing the almost constant movement and delivering the meaning of the play clearly. Travel was signified by “constructing the truck”, situated on the small round circle stage right, propelled around by cast members using long sticks fitted into holes.  It all worked for the audience.  Lighting Designer, Don Fox, made effective use of back-lighting upstage to create silhouettes that added kuroko-like extra players to crowd scenes. 

The Rogue Theatre again took a difficult play, challenged by the need for a large cast, and made it look effortless.  Kudos for a great production.

"Machinal" by Sophie Treadwell, produced by Greenhouse Theater Center, directed by Jacob Harvey

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Based on the lurid story of Ruth Snyder, a New Yorker who, with her lover, murdered her husband and was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison in 1928, Machinal is an “expressionist” play.  That description was used in 1929 when Treadwell’s (an investigative reporter and feminist) play opened on Broadway.  It is characterized by extreme simplification of characters to mythic types, declamatory dialogue and heightened intensity.

Considered a hit on Broadway, Machinal (derived from the French word for mechanical) ran 91 shows.  It was the first big role for Clark Gable, who played the feckless lover.  The show has been revived many times, and is popular with colleges and universities--perhaps because starkness makes for a low-budget production. It’s hard to be involved with a stage full of performers who move woodenly, rarely smile, and, since you know the punch line, hard to become involved in plot development. The movement direction by Elizabeth Margolius was well done and added dimension to flat (purposely) production.  The evening we attended, the understudy, Abigail Schwarz, a student at North Central College, played the Ruth.  She was outstanding.  North Central College collaborated with Greenhouse on the production.

We can assume that when the play was first produced, it alluded to homosexuality in the cabaret scene.  In this production, two homosexual couples, one male, one female, sit woodenly in wooden chairs, mumbling inane lines to each other, holding hands, on the periphery of the set.  Was this added just to appeal to a “special” theater crowd?  To show modern sensibilities that were not likelycast in an early 20th century play? IMHO, the special crowd might be offended because the characters seem so clumsily grafted into the play.

Expressionist theater makes for a rigid and rather boring evening.  If you are a student of theater, see it to learn about the genre.  Otherwise, skip it.  

Physical Festival June 2-10, 2017

This is our third year attending the festival.  It’s all the things we love to see on stage, with plot and drama created by movement, puppets, mime.  It’s a festival, so some are great, some good and some, well, just toads.

There was one spectacular performance:  Anatomy of Fear by Teatteri Metamorfoosi from Finland. It’s one actor relating his daily fears, mostly centered around work, where either he is, or is made to feel, inadequate by his manager.  The fear is represented by a slightly larger than life puppet – a doppelganger, manipulated by two superb puppeteers.  This is not done with strings; the puppet is the main character on the stage, brought to life by the puppeteers holding and working the puppet, mostly from behind, so it appears to have human movement.  Since the puppeteers are in total black (not even eyes showing) you soon forget their presence.

Misiposa Nocturna: A Puppet Triptych by Portmanteau of Chicago – a wonderful local puppet company.  This time the puppets are about two feet tall, rendered in beautiful detail and manipulated by four puppeteers, who also manipulate the scenery.  Again, the puppeteers totally in black so you can lose yourself in the miniature staged creation, forgetting how it is wrought.  We have now seen this group three years running and they deliver each time.

 

The Confetti Maker by Frank Wurzinger (Germany) – a one man Blue Man Group, with paper instead of blue goo.  Impossible to describe in a short paragraph, but if you are familiar with Blue Man, you get the picture - the one above is after the performance.  We loved it.  (Side note:  Blue Man Productions was recently purchased by TPG, who own Cirque de Soliel, so watch for major expansion.)

Wojtec: The Happy Warrior by The Quarter Too Ensemble (UK) – this would have rated higher because the story is fascinating, but was lost in the frenetic presentation.  It’s a true story of a Syrian brown bear adopted as a cub mascot by a Polish Armament Division stranded in the Middle East in WWII.  When they are deployed to Italy and fight in the Battle of Monte Casino, the now full-grown bear accompanies them and serves as a carrier of ammunition to the troops throughout the attack. 


Memory of Dust by Theatre de l’Ange Fou from France and Spring Green WI was an hour-long performance of modern dance/poetry performed by Steven Wasson and Corrine Soum.  Not exactly our cup of tea, but would have benefitted from more poetry, which was lovely.  The performers are easily in their 70’s with the stamina of young adults.

We also attended the evening of performances by locals learning the craft.  We were underwhelmed and hope that next year’s crop is either better pre-judged or that the organizers open the stage to a broader geographic audience of new performers.  

Overall, we enjoyed the festival and will always be there to be treated to unexpected greatness.  


 

"Hookman" , a play by Lauren Yee, produced by Steep Theater, May  2017

We saw Hookman over a month ago – mostly because we try to see everything that Steep produces, not because we were attracted to the play.  To refresh my mind, I read through several reviews, and this one from "Picture this Post" by Brent Eichoff seemed to capture an uneven night of theater, “this genre bending play jams one part drama, one part coming-of-age story, one part horror, and one part comedy into its 70-minute running time. The result is a dizzying and at times uneven, but thoroughly enjoyable play addressing such topics as the safety of young women, date rape, and survivor’s guilt."

What I remember most is the guiltless viciousness (funny as well) of the protagonist’s college friends.  Lexi, a college freshman from the Left Coast is attending an Ivy League school on the Right Coast, likely on scholarship.  A stream of frenemies keeps up a riff of indifference, boredom, malice and faux support.  Guileless Lexi finds solace in the reappearance of her West Coast BBF, who was killed in a gruesome auto accident involving Lexi.  It’s interesting that male reviewer Eichoff captured nothing of the loss of a loving friend and the reality of shallow acquaintances.  

The playwright, Lauren Yee, won multiple awards for her work, though she is just 21.  Yes, 21, and already has plays produced by The Goodman and Steep.  Imagine what the future hold for her and for us.   

“Holmes & Watson” by Jeffrey Hatcher, produced by Arizona Theatre Company

Billed as a “thrilling new Sherlock Holmes mystery”, it was more a “tongue in cheek mystery” based on Sherlock Holmes characters.  The plot is complex, as you need in a mystery, the acting was fine, the conclusion tied up all the loose ends.  It just didn’t light my fire.  Thankfully it was one long act.  Sherlock Holmes mysteries are a genre—you know what to expect.  There were several clever character reversals, and I appreciated the twists.  I would call this standard matinee fare, and we attended the matinee.  
 

"Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash", created by Richard Maltby, Jr., produced by The Arizona Theater Company

Maybe I don’t like the music of Johnny Cash as much as I thought, or maybe this wasn’t a great production.  Ring of Fire did not resonate with me, or the two fans attending with me.  It is not like the bio-pic, Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon that resounded with the music and personalities of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.  Ring of Fire is a vocal bibliography of most of the hits and some of the sleepers.  

The cast of ten surprised me.  Groups like Arizona Theater Company have swung away from large productions because of the cost of talent.  You not only have to hire the cast, you must pay room and board for a several months.  The cast was good.  They did not try to mimic Cash and Carter.  Some of the numbers were fun.  

Overall, a mediocre evening at the theater.  One good note is the new restaurant located next to the theater, Simplicit.  I had the poke bowl and reveled in the sushi/salad combo.   
 

“Wastwater” by Simon Stephens at Steep Theater

We’re going to see Stephens’ play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time while in London, so wanted to see this 2011 collection of three dark vignettes situated in Sipson, a relic of a town in the flight path of Heathrow.  Stephens is Associate Playwright for Steep; that’s the quality of professionals this tiny theater attracts.  The vignettes are loosely connected, dealing with foster children, sexual brutality, white slavery, pedophilia and those involved.  Not so bright and sunny, good writing and fine acting, but not a significant arc of drama.  But we will continue to toad-kiss frequently at this theater.