Wednesday, February 28, 2007


There are stunning moments that one finds in theater. Moments that surprise you and take your breath away.

There was such a moment at Friday night’s Davis Musical Theater opening of Lerner & Lowe’s classic “Camelot,” directed by Lenore Sebastian (in her first directorial position with DMTC). The show had opened well. The set design by John Ewing and Steve Isaacson was not opulent, but utilitarian and for the low-budget production it worked just fine. The pared down orchestra, under the direction of Steve Isaacson was adequate, if lacking in the richness that one would like to hear in a big work such as “Camelot.”

Gil Sebastian’s King Arthur was fine, nicely balancing the shyness of the boy who never expected (or wanted) to be king with the man who has become one of the most powerful rulers of the land and yet is terrified to meet his bride-to-be.

Paul Fearn, returning to DMTC after an absence of 13 years, was a wise Merlyn, Arthur’s mentor, soon to fall victim to the spellbinder Nimue (Bridget Maguire, vocalist and Meg King, dancer). (Fearn would go on later to add delightful comic relief as the doddering old Pellinore.)

Marguerite Morris gave one of her better performances as Guenevere, whose “youth was sold” when she was given in marriage to this stranger, King Arthur. Guenevere is not ready for maturity before she has had an opportunity to experience the “simple joys of maidenhood” -- “Shall two knights never tilt for me / and let their blood be spilt for me?” “Shall a feud not begin for me? / Shall kith not kill their kin for me?” Morris had the lovely bearing of a queen, and the voice of an angel.

Arthur admits his own nervousness about the upcoming nuptials, but convinces Guenevere that “there’s not a happier spot for happily ever-aftering” than Camelot.

Up to this point it has been a delightful first scene. As the royal couple exited, the curtains closed and Lancelot du Lac (Tae Kim) appeared in a spotlight. When Kim opened his mouth to sing, everybody in the near-capacity audience sat up straighter. We all experienced a stunning moment together. Kim, a medical student newly moved to the Davis area, is, amazingly, making his very first theatrical appearance--ever, yet he has the confidence of a seasoned professional and a voice worthy of any professional production. He lifted the production to a higher level. It is unfortunate that he had slight pitch problems in Lancelot’s signature,“If ever I should leave you,” and seemed to be unable to get solidly back on pitch throughout the song, but other than that slip, he was first rate throughout the evening.

Another outstanding performance was turned in by Jon Jackson as the deliciously bitchy illegitimate son of Arthur, Mordred, who is responsible for bringing down Arthur’s dream of a world where disagreements are solved by rule of law rather than by swordplay. Like Kim, Jackson lifted the production to a higher level and made it something more than a run-of-the-mill, decent community theater production of an old classic.

“Camelot” is the story of honor, of love, of friendship, of betrayal, of remorse, and of honor again, as Lancelot and Guenevere deal with their love for each other and their mutual love of Arthur, whom they do not wish to hurt. Arthur must also deal with his love for his wife and his best friend, but sets thoughts of revenge aside following their betrayal, because he still loves them both and would rather see them happy together than to lose them completely.

In the end, nobody wins.

Sebastian and Morris, who give fine performances at the start of the production, grew into their roles and their relationship as the evening (and the Camelot years) progressed, so that by their final scene together, there was genuine affection between them and their farewell was wrenching.

The supporting cast is small, lacking the “oomph” for a production this grand, but they do the best they can to be a decent crowd.

Jan Isaacson choreographed a May pole dance for “The Lusty Month of May” which was colorful, and gave the chorus lots of business to do.

Young Griffin Jackson is Tom of Warwick, on whose shoulders Arthur places the responsibility of keeping the dream of the principles of the Round Table alive. Jackson is very cute, but could speak up a bit more in order to be heard.

Jean Henderson designed the costumes and Morris, in particular, has never looked lovelier.

This production of Camelot has a lot of good things going for it, but it is worth seeing especially for the debut of Tae Kim who, if he chooses to continue doing theater, has a long successful career ahead of him.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

There is a Disney ad running on television now for the latest version of the cartoon “Cinderella.” In it, we are shown the now-familiar face of the sneering evil stepmother. I thought of that image several times, watching Janis Stevens’ portrayal of La Marquise de Merteuil in Capital Stage’s lusty production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos, directed by Michael Stevenson.

Stevens’ Merteuil may be the most malevolent female character you see on stage this year. With her head tilted back, her eyes mere slits, and her mouth forming an icy smile, Stevens is the perfect bad girl.

The setting is pre-Revolution Paris. Merteuil enlists her former lover, Le Vicomte de Valmont (Jason Kuykendall), to avenge a wrong done to the both of them by the unseen Gercourt, who has seduced a lover of Valmont while in the midst of a liaison with Merteuil. Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce Gercourt’s young bride to be, the 15-year-old virginal Cecile Volanges (Michelle Murphy). However, Valmont, feeling Cecile too unchallenging and uninteresting a victim (“humiliating, if you fail; commonplace, if you succeed”), is more intrigued by the virtuous, married La Presidente de Tourvel (Stephanie Gularte).

Let the games begin!

Kuykendall is a perfect co-conspirator for Stevens’ Merteuil. Tall, handsome, charming, and totally smarmy. Kuykendall has it all. He appears believable in his interactions with the young Cecile and the virtuous Tourvel, yet his personality can change in an instant when he flops down on the chaise lounge to report progress on his path of seduction. Valmont doesn’t plan on one thing: he actually falls in love with Tourvel and he’s not quite sure how to handle those feelings, which are his ultimate undoing.

Gularte is positively luminous, struggling with her response to Valmont’s advances, juggling the conflict between her duty to her husband, whom she does not love (“I am so lonely!”) and her desire for Valmont.

Michelle Murphy is so innocent, so young, that her rape by Valmont is so disturbing, we almost hope someone from “To Catch a Predator” will pop out from behind the secret panel and prevent the attack. Her later delight in the pleasures of the bedroom are likewise disturbing, given the age discrepancy between the two partners.

Paul Alary is Le Chevalier Danceny, a young man hopelessly in love with Cecile who innocently allows Valmont to control both his life and his pursuit of the object of his desire. Alary plays this young man as a bumbling adolescent whose transformation later in the piece is striking.

David Campbell makes much of the small role of Azolan, Valmont’s valet.

The supporting casts is equally strong – Gail Dartez as Cecile’s mother, Mme de Volanges; Vada Russell and Mme de Rosemonde; Megan Smith as the courtesan Emilie; and Michael Pollock as the Major-domo.

This production is so good that one would wish for a larger venue to greater present the opulence of the period, but Capitol Stage does what it can with the space it has to work in. Jonathan Williams has designed a generic drawing room which can be transformed into various boudoirs or drawing rooms by the movement of the ubiquitous chaise lounge, the changing of a vase of flowers, or the addition of a card table.

Gail Russell’s costumes are luxurious, and well suited to the character in question, whether the deep scarlet of Merteuil or the more virginal beige for Tourvel.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a sexy tale of love, lust and lies, beautifully served up by Capital Stage. The production contains brief nudity and is not recommended for the under-18 crowd.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Jack Lynn

Actor/director Jack Lynn owes his illustrious nearly 70-year career in the theater to giving the worst audition anybody had seen in ages at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in England, at age 15.

The 84 year old Lynn, director of the Woodland Opera House’s current delightful production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” spoke with Oscar winning actor Robert Donat (“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”), an adjudicator for RADA, following his audition. Donat explained that they were not looking for finished or polished performances because “if someone is already polished there would be no need for instruction.” “We’re looking for potentiality,” he said. “We can see that you have talent, but you just don’t know what to do with it.”

Donat became one of Lynn’s mentors. Another mentor was a man named Robert Atkins, best known in England (at that time) for being the only man to have directed all 37 Shakespeare plays, some of them many times.

Lynn apparently fulfilled his mentors’ view and within three years he had done “a little directing, a little instruction and a lot of acting” (including a season at Stratford-Upon-Avon, under Atkins’ direction).

He was recommended by Donat for a position at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse, at the conclusion of the World War II. The Playhouse, established in the late 1920s, had become an accredited college by 1937. It had as many as five independent stages in operation at any given time, making the it the single most prolific theatrical producing organization in the world.

Donat, who expected his protege to concentrate on acting was surprised to discover that he preferred teaching. “I love instructing,” Lynn admitted, clarifying that he feels you can’t teach acting. “The talent has to be there in the first place, so ‘teaching’ is the wrong word.”

(A lifetime of instructing has formulated one of his philosophies – “The more I learn, the more I realize the less I know. I hope when I was young I never had the attitude that I find so many young people have today--learn a little and think they know everything.”)

In 1947, the 25 year old Lynn moved to the United States for what was to have been one term at the Pasadena Playhouse. Before the end of his term, he was invited to stay on permanently. He eventually became the head of the Shakespeare Department and, in 1956, became dean of the college. “ I was told that I was the youngest dean of any educational institution in the U.S.,” he says, modestly.

For personal family reasons Lynn returned to England in 1959. “Until then I had been visiting England every summer while living in the states. Now, between 1959 and 1987 I reversed my life and was living in England and coming to California every summer. I think that might be a record — since 1947 there has not been a single year I have not been in both countries. It’s what has kept me poor all my life.”

Upon his return to England, he was contacted by John Fernald, who had taken over as head of the RADA in the early 1950s, and asked to join the staff as an instructor/director. “I told him I thought it was a very good idea to employ ex-students,” Lynn said. “Fernald’s reply was ‘We’re not employing you because you’re an ex-student, but because of your work with founder Gilmor [sic] Brown at the Pasadena Playhouse.’ It was then I realized how famous the playhouse really was,” said Lynn. “It was world renowned.”

His students, at Pasadena Playhouse and RADA span the gamut of theatrical greats from Anthony Hopkins to Ruth Buzzi, and include such luminaries as Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Charles Bronson.

During his time back in England, Lynn became the producer of Knightsbridge Theatrical Productions, with over 10 West End productions in London, including “Pygmalion,” with Diana Rigg and a then-unknown Bob Hoskins (“We can claim to have helped him start his career”), “Candida,” with Deborah Kerr (“A wonderful person”), “Hamlet,” with Ian McKellan, and “Lord Quex,” with Judi Dench and John Gielgud.

Both Dench and Gielgud became good friends. Lynn wistfully remembers the late Gielgud fondly. “He was a wonderful actor, a wonderful man. So modest it was unbelievable. He had no idea how good he was.”

His “closest and greatest friend” is Paul Scofield, who won both an Oscar and Tony playing Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons.” “A very fine actor and friend.”

"I've been so lucky over the years with people I've worked with and the friends I’ve made,” Lynn said. “Great actors are some of the nicest people. They have a basic humanity and a basic kindness. They have to be nice, unprejudiced and open minded if they are to portray people of all types and styles. If you have a closed or prejudiced mind, you are unable to really understand the characters and it affects your performance.”

But Lynn saves his greatest pride for his “adopted son,” actor, novelist, playwright and director Ian Ogilvy, well known in England as Simon Templar in “Return of The Saint,” and seen in the U.S. in many television productions including “Murder She Wrote,” “Jag,” “Murphy Brown” and “Diagnosis Murder.” He is now making a name for himself as an author of children’s books. By mutual agreement, Ogilvy did not take his adopted father’s name, feeling that nepotism was a terrible thing. “His attitude was that because I’d been a producer and goodness knows what if he changed his name people would think I used my influence to get him work, and he wanted to earn it on his own.”

As an actor, Lynn has been in several television productions, such as the Rabbi in “Bar Mitzvah Boy.” His last movie appearance was as the bookseller in the film “Yentl,” and says he adored director/star Barbra Streisand. “She was an angel to work with,” he said, contradicting those who warned him that she would be difficult. “She’s kind and considerate as long as you do your work. If you don’t she can be critical.”

In the early 1990s, following a run as Cardinal Woolsey in a production of “A Man for All Seasons,” with Charlton Heston, Lynn was invited to come to Sacramento to work with friends Jerry and Laura Grisham, who ran the now defunct Stagedoor Comedy Theater in Sacramento for over 25 years. He remained with the Grishams, doing some coaching and some directing, and acting in local productions.

“To talk about my life would fill a three volume novel,” Lynn laughs. Instead he now does a one-man show, “Life and Laughter in the Theater,” in which he reminisces about his over 68 years in the theater. It was this show which first brought him to Woodland at the invitation of Woodland Opera House Artistic Director Jeff Kean. He has since taken the show to Scotland and England, and will present this one man show for the last time at the Chautauqua Theater in Sacramento on Sunday, February 11 at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., as he plans to retire to England soon after.

The show is described by Chautauqua as “the story of his life in entertainment, filled with humour and poignancy. A fascinating talk followed by questions.”

Health problems have compromised his ability to direct as he always has. “I’m one of those directors who likes to get up on the stage and demonstrate things, but the most frustrating thing is that I have to stay seated because I’m being incapacitated.” Instead he now sits in the house and actors come to him following a scene, in order to get instructions.

“The Importance of Being Earnest,” currently at the Woodland Opera House, will be his swan song as a director (“It’s one of my favorite plays”). He is very happy with this production. “The secret of good directing is to cast the play with the best possible people,” he says, pointing to all of the cast, but particularly Jerry Lee, in the role of Jack Worthing, with whom he first worked when the young actor was merely 15. “Jerry has made the greatest advance of any young actor I’ve ever worked with,” he says, proudly.

When he returns to England, Lynn will move into Denville Hall, a retirement community for theater persons outside of London, where he recuperated from surgery on his previous trip to England.

“It’s going to be a terrible wrench for me,” he says, sadly “I shan’t be coming back to the States every summer. Thank goodness a lot of my English friends whom I see every summer are very happy that I’m going to be there.” Among those friends is the Chairman of the Board of Denville, a former RADA classmate, Richard Attenborough, who first suggested that Lynn make Denville his permanent home.

For health reasons, Jack Lynn may be giving up the more energetic of his career activities, but something tells me that we have not seen the last of this delightful, talented gentleman.