Thursday, September 13, 2007

House and Garden at ART

Making a production out of it


Below are the first 2 articles in a Sunday Oregonian series and the initial review.

The drama is just getting started as A.R.T. prepares for its challenging side-by-side presentation of 'House & Garden'

Sunday, September 02, 2007


The Oregonian Staff

One by one, they line up in front of the table, as a stern voice calls them, each by an assumed name. Each gets a stamped passport and itinerary. The documents are to be kept close to hand, consulted regularly, followed to the letter and the tick of the clock. Their journey depends on discipline and detail.

The passports are a bit of a gag on the part of Artists Repertory Theatre stage managers Stephanie Mulligan and Laura Widener. But they have a real purpose. The travelers are actors, setting off on the rocky road of a new production.

It's a mid-July evening and the first rehearsal for Alan Ayckbourn's "House & Garden." The newly assembled cast snacks on fruit, cheese and crackers, and chats amiably in a large upstairs rehearsal room at A.R.T.'s Southwest Portland headquarters. A few actors pore over the play, eyes set between the purple covers, lips moving as they read aloud softly to themselves. Co-directors Allen Nause and Jon Kretzu gather the group for friendly opening remarks, but everything is very casual.

Then suddenly Mulligan calls roll and Widener issues the passports. It's their way of putting everyone on notice: There's work to do, folks, and we all better stay on task.

That's the case for any theatrical undertaking worth its greasepaint. But it's especially so for "House & Garden." Or perhaps that should be "House" and "Garden."

Because here's where things get tricky: It's two plays. But it's two views of a single story.

Think of it this way: Suppose you're at an English country house while family members, neighbors, workers and visitors prepare for a big event. You watch their interactions as they come and go, and piece together the story of their relationships. But imagine you also could observe the same folks in the same time period from another vantage point, say, the adjacent garden they often pass through when not in the house. You'd see the other side of the coin there.

That's how these twin plays work. They're coherent individually but offer a fuller understanding together. A theatergoer can see one or the other, or both, in whichever order. But they're performed simultaneously, with one cast, actors going from one auditorium to the other and back for their scenes in each play.

Which means they travel so much they need a passport.

Not many theater companies have the wherewithal to tackle "House & Garden." For starters, it calls for two performance spaces no more than a mad dash apart. A high level of artistic ambition doesn't hurt, either.

These make the project a good fit for A.R.T., though. Good timing, too. It kicks off the company's 25th anniversary with something novel, and it's a handy way of showing off a remodel taking place alongside rehearsals. It also provides a long-awaited chance for the company's leaders -- Nause, artistic director, and Kretzu, associate artistic director -- to collaborate.

"It is an insane piece, but it's just the kind of insane piece we love," Kretzu tells the cast, now seated in a large circle. "We've been looking for something that's big enough to work together on . . . . It was 'Les Miz,' 'Nicholas Nickleby' or this."

It's big enough that they'll both have plenty to do. Nause will watch over "House" and Kretzu over "Garden," but the overall presentation is something they've worked out together. "We think of it as a four-act play rather than two two-act plays," Kretzu explains.

The challenge is big, too: Not just getting the timing down so entrances happen when they're supposed to, and no one breaks an ankle rushing down a stairwell between theaters, but making sure the production doesn't become robotic as a result. The company's fall season rides on these plays drawing an audience, ideally to see both.

Oh -- and it'll help if the remodeling of the theater is done on time, too.

A bigger than average share of the burden rests on Tyler Caffall's slim shoulders. The 24-year-old actor, who plays a lovestruck student named Jake, has as much commuting between the two plays as anyone. Then there's his day job as A.R.T.'s facilities manager.

But at first rehearsal, success or failure is weeks away.

The cast is a promising blend of talents old and new, with a web of personal and professional connections. Vana O'Brien was an A.R.T. co-founder; her daughter Eleanor is in the play, too. They're cast as mother and daughter. Nause's ex-wife Brenda Hubbard, who left Portland theater more than a decade ago to teach at Central Washington University, returns as a boozy French film star. By contrast, Tim True and Michael O'Connell are members of Third Rail Repertory Theatre, the hot company in town the past couple of years. Todd Van Voris and Michael Mendelson acted together in the most recent A.R.T. show, "Orson's Shadow." And so on.

The passports, with their notations of "estimated time of arrival," prompt a question from True: "If we miss our ETA, are we on standby until the next departure?"

But things quickly get down to business. Nause tells the cast about Ayckbourn the playwright, how "House & Garden" was inspired by the idea that "we are all walk-ons in other people's lives," and gives advice about the tricky British dialects.

The cast sits in their circle and reads from "Garden" first. To get everyone used to inter-stage travel, Kretzu makes actors move to a chair across the room whenever the script calls for the character to exit.

Right off the bat, some of the characters come alive. Van Voris and Caffall (whose characters, incidentally, are father and son) in particular deliver their lines with the timing and inflections that make them sound like real people conversing.

But there's plenty of work ahead. The next night, in the first reading of "House," Maureen Porter, who plays a stoic upper-class housewife expecting a French dinner guest, cheerfully delivers the line, "We'll all have to speak French, won't we." Then she ad-libs: "Eventually we'll do it beautifully, but for now we're butchering it."

For now, they're happy just to find out where the train wrecks are.

14 actors, two stages, two audiences, one wild production

ACT II: It takes rehearsal after rehearsal to find the "train wrecks" and then avoid them

Sunday, September 09, 2007


The Oregonian Staff

"There's a line in the budget to get cattle prods for the assistant stage managers." Stephanie Mulligan, one of the stage managers for Artists Repertory Theatre's production of "House & Garden," is joking, but draws shouts of devilish glee from the assistants, Michelle Jazuk and Tozzi Laney. They're not sadistic, just serious about their jobs. They must make sure that 14 actors properly time their entrances and exits for two plays.

Already they track what's happening in separate rehearsal rooms with baby monitors. Later, walkie-talkies and Intranet video links will be used. No cattle prods so far.

The British writer Alan Ayckbourn, by some estimates the most frequently produced of any living playwright and a former stage manager himself, makes it sound simple in his author's note: " 'House' and 'Garden' are two plays intended to be performed simultaneously by the same cast in two adjacent auditoria. They can be seen singly and in no particular order."

In practice, however, performing two plays simultaneously by the same cast on two adjacent auditoriums is complicated, the folks at Artists Rep are finding out.

The weeks of rehearsal involve not just the normal hard work of interpreting the text, crafting the setting and polishing the performances, but making sure everything runs like clockwork. It's like herding cats, walking a tightrope and making the trains run on time, all at once.

Early in August, the cast and crew rehearse in upstairs rooms at their Southwest Portland headquarters, tweaking scenes. Opening night is still a month away. Ayckbourn's main subjects are, as artistic director Allen Nause puts it, "love, marriage and family -- and how those don't really go together." In addition to issues of timing and coordination, the directors work to clarify the interactions between the characters.

"You two have a lovely relationship -- your sex noises were fabulous!" co-director Jon Kretzu says. He's talking to Tim True and Brenda Hubbard about a comic scene in which their characters have a drunken tryst in a tent. What needs fine-tuning are "the blissful after-effects."

"You mean snoring?" True deadpans.

It's not snoring Kretzu's after, but a particular sequence of sounds from inside the tent and visual effects outside it to heighten the humor and drive the narrative. "So, it's climax, fountain, exit, more sounds?" Hubbard asks, with an intent expression. Her seriousness about such silliness cracks up the rest of the room.

Every interaction presents layers of detail to examine. There's choreography for a fight scene in "Garden," as Hubbard and Marilyn Stacey -- playing rivals for the attention of True's faithless man of the manor, Teddy Platt -- work out when to hit, when to spit and how to find the right emotional pitch.

Later, director Kretzu works closely on a scene with Michael Mendelson and Marjorie Tatum as a shopkeeper and his wife helping to set up a garden fete.

The two actors are playing catch-up. Since the setting is southern England, accents were set accordingly. But two weeks into rehearsals, the directors and the dialogue coach decided to give the shopkeepers a more Northern lilt. "So Marjorie and I had to go back and relearn all our lines," Mendelson says. "When the voice changes you have to learn your lines differently. It sits in your body differently."

Kretzu, though, isn't concerned with the memorization but rather about shaping a sweet rapport between the characters.

"That was adorable," he tells them after one take. "It was maybe just a shade over the top. We want to make sure it doesn't tip over into being a cartoon." He helps them improvise background for the characters, unseen details to shade what they will present. They practice gestures in unison, trying to make the motions relaxed. Kretzu has Mendelson kiss Tatum on the nose.

"It allows the audience to say, 'Oh, they're in love and they're happy. Nothing bad's going to happen to them.' That way they're in for a surprise," Kretzu sums up.

Simultaneously, in another room down the hall, co-director Allen Nause leads a similar process for "House."

At the end of the evening, everyone gathers to evaluate progress. Union rules require rehearsal to end by 11 p.m. -- and many of the actors have other jobs to get to in the morning -- so the directors rapidly read their notes. They praise small details and suggest improvements to even smaller ones. "Don't break eye contact until that next line arrives. . . . Take more care with the diction on those lines. . . . I like that little dance, but I think you should stop with your foot up in the air. . . . When you do that 'Sweeney Todd' movement with the carrot to the throat, I want you to do it real long and hard, like the Michael to Fredo kiss in 'The Godfather.' . . . For both of you, wine equals sex. 'Musky,' 'animal' -- enjoy those words more. . . ."

Those actorly details matter, not just for sense but for synchronization. A scene that works at eight minutes, 37 seconds must stay eight minutes and 37 seconds, or both plays risk running off the rails.

A few days later, they attempt the first full simultaneous run-through. They expect train wrecks. In fact, they want train wrecks. The sooner they identify problems, the better.

At the start of act one, scene two in "House" comes the first collision. Really, it's more of a missed connection. Things grind to a halt as Todd Van Voris, due to enter as the kindly, cuckolded husband Giles Mace, is down the hall doing a scene in "Garden."

"We're well into three minutes," stage manager Stephanie Mulligan says eventually, a touch of irritation surfacing.

Snags happen a few more times, mostly because "Garden" is moving several minutes slower than its twin. Even so, the train wrecks are little. "They're electric trains," Kretzu quips.

By late August, sets are nearly complete and rehearsals have moved into the theaters. Now, when an actor leaves one play and is due a moment later in the other, it takes a trip through stairwells, lobbies and backstage corridors, past wheelbarrows, sawhorses, scissor lifts and layers of dust from remodeling also going on.

There's 40 seconds of dead air in "Garden," as Van Voris is behind again. Even so, things run pretty smoothly.

That is, until Hubbard comes limping down a hallway, calling out in a stage whisper, "I need ice!"

Hubbard's been doing her scenes barefoot, and affecting the wobbly walk of her tipsy character. A moment before, as she left a scene in "House," she stubbed her toe. Badly. She thinks it's broken.

At the end of the evening, it's time for directors' notes again. "It was almost frightening how smooth it was," Kretzu tells them. "It wasn't a perfect run, it wasn't incandescent, it wasn't the best I've ever seen, but it was damn fine!"

Hubbard tries to smile, but just manages a small grimace, and adjusts the bag of ice on her foot.

Marty Hughley: 503-221-8383;

2 plays, 2 stages, 1 master of farce

Simultaneity is at the heart of ART's well-cast "House & Garden"

Monday, September 10, 2007


The Oregonian Staff

At a time when so much of the theater world no longer seems to believe in itself, let us sing a little song of praise to Alan Ayckbourn. England's master of domestic farce believes so fully in the mechanics and traditions of the stage that he upends them constantly, exploiting their possibilities to break the shackles of routine.

Yet -- and here's the real trick -- he stretches the rules so proficiently that he makes the whole thing seem easy and familiar and comforting. It's only in the afterglow that you realize what an audacious ride he's taken you on, from the proper parlors of cultural decorum to the chaos of civilization unmoored.

You can get much of the full Ayckbourn effect in "House & Garden," his 1999 twinned plays, which have just opened in a pair of very funny and sometimes nervously unsettling productions on the two stages of Artists Repertory Theatre.

"Love is essentially a very simple business," the elegant and unhappy rich man's wife Trish Platt observes in "House." "But in the hands of human beings it often becomes monstrously complicated."

With that she gets to the emotional heart of these plays and the essence of farce: the human compulsion to build things unassailably up and simultaneously will them to fall apart.

Simultaneity is the theatrical essence of "House & Garden." The two plays fold into one another, each performed at the same time by the same actors, who rush from one stage to the next to play what in effect is the offstage action of the show on the other stage. The two shows demand a synchronicity of emotional and comic purpose, even though "House" is more narrative and suggestive and "Garden" more elliptical and riotous.

Understanding the production challenges, of course, is a good deal of the fun, especially after you've seen both plays, each of which can stand alone but also amplifies the other. Ayckbourn's audacity rises from a love of language and stagecraft that ties him to such similarly minded artists past and present as Tom Stoppard, P.G Wodehouse, John Mortimer, the French boulevard comedians, Chekhov (whose agonies of the soul Ayckbourn lightly yet convincingly echoes), and the comic Shakespeare of mistaken identities who so often, in the midst of laughter, lets the dark seep in.

The dark doesn't just seep into "House & Garden," it pervades it, although directors Allen Nause ("House") and Jon Kretzu ("Garden") never let it overwhelm the action. It remains, for the most part, a suggestion, a nagging, a tug at the hem of hilarity.

Nause and Kretzu have assembled a cast that for the most part is so good, it can use such headliners as Michael Mendelson and Michael O'Connell in supporting roles and spend the talents of Eric Hull and mother-and-daughter Vana and Eleanor O'Brien (as a mother and daughter) in low-comedy relief.

Everything spins around philandering businessman Teddy Platt (Tim True) and his wife, Trish (Maureen Porter), on a day when a multitude of things smash together. Teddy has just ended an affair with his best friend's wife, Joanna (Marilyn Stacey), who promptly goes bonkers and starts lurking in the bushes. A Jeffrey Archer-like novelist and political wheeler-dealer (O'Connell) is coming to lunch with an offer from the prime minister to set up Teddy as an MP. A boozy minor French film star (Brenda Hubbard) is showing up to open the annual village fete in the garden. And Trish, on the verge of dumping the whole thing, wanders about pretending that Teddy literally doesn't exist.

True and Porter are wonderful anchors. His gregarious silliness and sensual paganism are a natural match to Hubbard's ruttish film star, and Porter's old-fashioned stage elegance descends like a mist of wisdom on Brittany Burch as the unhappy couple's precocious daughter, Sally, and Tyler Calfell as Jake, who is besotted with Sally and also happens to be the son of the just-dumped Joanna and trusting Giles (Todd Van Voris, in one of his best performances), who until today has been Teddy's best friend. Van Voris and Calfell provide a touching emotional core to "Garden," a play that can get lost in its own mayhem.

"House & Garden" celebrates the beginning of Artists Rep's 25th season, and is beautifully realized by its design team. The company's building has been spiffed up considerably over the summer, too. Things are looking up.

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