Sunday, October 12, 2008

When times get tough -- go to the theatre!

Back in the days of FDR, the government initiated all kinds of programs to pull the country out of depression. The Federal Theatre Project was one such initiative. From the FTP web site:
At one point in its life, the Federal Theatre Project employed around 12,700 people. More than nine out of every ten of these workers came from the relief rolls. Ninety percent of the FTP appropriation had to be spent on wages. About fifty per cent of FTP personnel were actors. Others were writers, designers, theater musicians, dancers, stage hands, box office staff, ushers, maintenance workers, and the accounting and secretarial force necessary to carry out any enterprise operated under procedures required by the Government of the United States. These workers were employed in theater companies operating in at least forty cities in twenty-two states.
Sadly, the FTP came to an end in 1939. Congress wasn't too happy with the left-leaning content found in much of the FTP's work. In particular, the Living Newspaper project, although attracting large audiences, focused on progressive solutions to the problems facing folks struggling to get through the depression. Living Newspaper took articles from the newspapers and built scripts around them. You can read more about this form of theatre here. It was a brilliant concept, but one that was doomed in that it would inevitably challenge the powers in charge. Most importantly, it recognized the significance of theatre as essential entertainment in bad times as well as good.

As we head into this new era of economic uncertainty, I can only wonder if the theatre will once again need rescuing. Who will be able to afford those hefty Broadway ticket prices? The average B'way ticket price is around $75 per seat, with many shows demanding far higher prices for dress circle seats. Touring productions that come through Ohio are not cheap either and even many community theatres have seen their ticket prices rise to above $20 per seat.

Fortunately, there is at least one theatre locally that has held down the cost of tickets while maintaining consistently high standards. The Magical Theatre Company in Barberton provides affordable theatre for the family. I went to see their current production yesterday. The show is Holes, which began its life as a juvenile novel by Louis Sachar and then became a Disney movie.
Sachar also wrote the stage adaptation, which is presented by Magical Theatre with public performances running through October through October 19. (School performances continue through October 24th.)

One thing I always love about Magical Theatre productions are the set and lighting designs, which are always imaginative and never pedestrian. For Holes, the set up is a large rectangular center raked area, painted sand yellow with round holes of various sizes in which the boys do their digging. At stage right and left are two small acting areas backed by projection screens. It is here that the intertwining back stories of Sydney's forbears and the Kissing Bandit are played. During those stories, the boys are often seen in frozen action positions -- which must be held for long lengths of time. Very effective and demanding great discipline from the young actors.

Speaking of the actors, I must confess that four of the young men featured in this production are either former students or present students of mine, and thus my review may be considered a wee bit biased. However, I can honestly say that if this production weren't worth seeing, it wouldn't be worth writing about. I will simply say that all of the boys in the cast do a great job and inhabit their characters with zest and maintain consistent physicality in their interpretations.

As usual in a Magical Theatre production, the acting across the board is crisp and satisfying. Among the adults, Dennis Sullivan as the Sheriff is particularly menacing as he spits his sunflower seeds as punctuation for his sharp words. Holly Barkdoll as the Warden is just as sharp and venomous as her character's rattlesnake nail polish, while director Dennis O'Connell plays two dynamically different characters, the sympathetic ancestor Elya Yelnats and the evil Charles "Trout" Walker, the owner of Green Lake and killer of Kate Barlowe. Adam Hoffman provides excellent comic relief in his role as camp counselor. Another comic delight would be Kristin Larsen as the Attorney General, a minor role that stands out due to the actor's vocal and physical transformative abilities.

Holes is a many layered story that mixes comedic and dramatic elements into an engaging story for children 9 and above. It is the kind of play that would have fit right into the Federal Theatre Project's mandate to provide outstanding theatre at an affordable price. It delivers much to think about and provides us with all kinds of post-show topics for discussion: Greed, racism, coercive punishment, and individual responsibility versus just plain bad luck are some of the themes in Holes. And at only $8 per ticket, this production is a steal of a deal! If you live within a reasonable driving distance of Barberton, put this show on your calendar for next weekend.

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