Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Secret Garden

“The Secret Garden” was the Davis Musical Theater show which closed out the company’s time at the Varsity Theater in 2002, prior to moving into the Hoblit Performing Arts Center. I gave it a lukewarm review, pointing to low energy and a bare bones set, which made, particularly, the finale scene very disappointing.

I was curious to see what changes I would find six years later, with the company firmly ensconced in their own theater, hoping they would improve on that long-ago production.

They have. In the current production, which opened this weekend at the Hoblit Performing Arts Center, the look is much more plush, the cast consistently good, and the overall evening a delight.

Based on the beloved 1911 book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, "The Secret Garden" tells of Mary Lennox (Kaylynn Rothleder), the only survivor of a cholera epidemic which swept through the family compound in India. She is taken back to England to live with her only remaining relative, her uncle Archibald Craven (Bret McLaughlin), a hunchback who lives in a lonely mansion on a hill in the Yorkshire Moors.

Archibald has been wallowing in deep grief over the death of his wife Lily (Caitlin Kiley), who died in childbirth ten years ago, and has isolated himself from the world, and especially from his sickly son, Colin (Christian Salmon), who is bedridden and kept hidden in his room by his physician, Archibald's brother Neville (Rick Eldredge).

The arrival of Mary, initially a spoiled, self-centered child who has been waited on all her life, causes disruption in the carefully ordered life that Archibald has built for himself.

In her loneliness, Mary begins to explore the grounds and finds secret garden, planted by Lily, and locked ever since her death. With the help of the gardener, Dickon (Joshua Smith), brother of the chambermaid, Martha (Emily Jo Seminoff), Mary works to revive the garden, and in so doing she is herself changed into a caring child who ultimately brings life back to the house, to Archibald and to Colin.

It is helpful to have either read the book or seen the movie (with Margaret O’Brien as Mary) to understand that half of the people on the stage are actually ghosts. This is not a fault of the DMCT production, but of the musical itself, with book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and (mostly forgettable) music by Lucy Simon. The authors seem to take for granted that the audience will already be familiar with the story.

However, whatever the shortcomings of the musical itself, this modest production is quite good.

The bulk of the story and the action rest on the shoulders of Mary Lennox and Kaylynn Rothleder is up to the task. She can be petulant, angry, frightened, and filled with wonder. Rothleder is both a good actress and a good singer, which is half the battle right there.

Bret McLaughlin is a marvelous Archibald Craven. The grief is painfully written on his face in all of the scenes when he remembers his beloved wife. He has a powerful voice, which is equally effective when tender, as in the duet with the ghost of his wife Lily, one of the more poignant in the play.

Caitlin Kiley’s Lily is eloquent and in great voice, and also quite poignant as she interactions with her husband.

Christian Salmon, as Colin, turns in a good performance as Archibald’s son, Colin, being kept in bed by his doctor-uncle who is convinced that to let Colin out of bed would be to shorten his life. He has a good tantrum, and a wonderful wide-eyed wonder look when he sees Mary’s garden.

Rick Eldredge is sufficiently smarmy as Dr. Neville Craven, gradually taking control of Archibald’s house and family for his own reasons.

The supporting cast is quite strong, from Jabriel Shelton, the Fakir in the opening scenes, down to Richard Lui as Ben, the old gardener who is full of wisdom to impart to Mary.

Joshua Smith carries a heavy load as Mary’s friend Dickon, who teaches her how to bring the seemingly dead garden back to life again. Smith has great charisma and you enjoy watching him on stage.

Emily Jo Seminoff is the relentlessly cheerful chambermaid, Martha, Dickon’s sister. Seminoff has a long professional resume and it shows in this role.

Dannette Vassar is the dour Mrs. Medlock, given the task of bringing Mary to Yorkshire. She’s curt and crisp and without much empathy and Vassar is wonderful in the role.

Director Steve Isaacson, who also designed the sets and lights, has greatly improved on his 2002 production. With a cast which is uniformly fine, a more detailed set (the finale is now quite lovely!), and interesting lighting effects, such as the tree on the curtain during one of the later scenes, he has created an enchanting production.

Kudos also go to costume designers Jean Henderson, Anna Johnson and Denise Miles. I particularly liked the assortment of pinafores for Mary.

While its slower pace and complicated themes may not make it a good production for children under the age of 8, older children, especially little girls, should enjoy entering Mary’s secret world and watching how her transformation rubs off on everyone.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Julie, Julie

Liam Creighton never touched a video camera until he went to the University of Kent in Canterbury at age 21. Now, at age 29, he is submitting a film, “Julie, Julie,” to the upcoming Sacramento French Film Festival and a test print is being given a test screening at the Varsity Theater on June 16.

“Have you heard of Worcestershire sauce?” he asked me, when we met for coffee at Mishka’s CafĂ©, where he worked for 18 months when he first moved to Davis with his wife Courtney Hopf, an American he met when she was doing a year abroad in Canterbury in 1999.

“That’s where I’m from. Just outside Worcester.”

It was a town of about 2,000 people, he explained, and the main industry was catalog sales. “It was just me, my mum, dad and the cat,” he said.

But young Liam loved movies and would often skip school to go to the movies with a friend (“It was either that or the pub, when we got to be around 17,” he laughed.) He had a special affinity for Alfred Hitchcock movies, particularly “Vertigo,” and has been on a mission to visit as many of the location shots from that film as possible since he moved to California in 2004. “I like the classic films of Hollywood, which were small, intimate, and tightly crafted,” he explained.

Creighton graduated from university with a BA in Film Studies and moved to Davis so that his wife could start a PhD program in English Literature at U.C. Davis. He worked several jobs, including managing the Varsity when it re-opened as a movie house. He currently teaches DV camera operation and video editing through DC-TV as well as making projects for clients on the side. He also works for CAFF (Community Alliance with Family Farmers).

For the past two years, Creighton has worked at Sacramento’s French Film Festival, running the projector for the short films, and it was there that he got the idea to enter a film in the 2008 festival (“And hopefully many festivals after that,” adds Hopf). He felt it was his way to give back something to the festival.

“I’d seen a lot of the short films there. I thought some of them were great. Some of them that come from France are just astonishingly good, really quite mature and some really showed potential.”

.“Julie, Julie” is a 15 minute short film. Creighton wrote the script and is the film’s director and editor. Hopf took on the job of co-producing and acting as production coordinator, a new experience for her. “The biggest challenge was having no idea how to go about doing the things I needed to do, yet having major responsibilities of the production on my shoulders,” Hopf said.

“Courtney derives a perverse pleasure from paperwork,” laughed Creighton.

“It was a lot of fumbling around and learning as I went along,” said Hopf. “How does one get a shooting permit? How do film makers hire SAG union actors? How do you form an Limited Liability company? buy production insurance? create a shooting schedule? Often the things I worried about the most turned out to be quite simple, and almost always the things I thought would be easy turned out to be a nightmare. I learned to openly acknowledge my ignorance and ask a lot of questions. In the end, the great thing about independent film making is that people really respect you for doing things the "right" way - meaning you pay people on time, you respect their expertise, you make sure they're fed and comfortable so they can do their jobs well. We were very committed to this, and so people were willing to help us along and teach us what they knew. It was a pretty amazing experience.”

To be included in the French film festival, a movie must have some connection to France, so Creighton’s heroine, Julie (played by American actress Stephanie Carwin, who is fluent in French) is in an accident and receives a blow to her head. When she awakes in the hospital, she speaks only French and doesn’t recognize her husband. The movie then explores the issues of identity and communication.

Creighton was inspired by the film, “La Moustache,” directed by Emmanuel Carrere, the story of a man who shaves off his moustache and is surprised when nobody notices. When, at the end of the day, he asks his wife why she didn’t mention the shaved moustache, she tells him he never had a moustache to begin with.

“The man’s entire identity starts unraveling,” explains Creighton. “He starts questioning who he is and his whole relationship with his wife falls apart. He doesn’t know what’s going on any more. That got me thinking. I was already asking what can I do to create a film that is an American story, but has a French component. Then I got this idea. I talked it through with Courtney and it seemed like something that would work, and we started building on that.”

While Creighton wrote the script himself, he sought feedback from many friends, including his old high school drama teacher. “She has really good radar for theater and writing and emotion in writing, so she’s always a good sounding board. She’s also very detail-oriented, very nit-picky.”

With script in hand, he began the monumental task of producing a professional short film.

He found his cast through an on-line casting web site, Mandy.com. “I used it before, here and in the UK. It’s pretty well respected. Serious people check it and make a point of applying for things through that.” He not only found his cast – Fred Pitts, an ER Doctor and SAG actor; Stephanie Carwin, who is presently getting a Masters in Aesthetics and is also a full time actor; and Hester Schell, who teaches acting and wanted real footage for her resume, to show herself playing a doctor – he also found his cinematographer, Sacramento-based Mark Herzig on the internet.

“Mark was a real find,” said Creighton, who couldn’t find enough superlatives to describe his Director of Photography. “He has 20 years of experience and loads of contacts.” Herzig was able to help find top notch crew people, who were essential to the overall professional look of the film.

Finding the money to make the film was obviously a major undertaking. Most of the $12,000 was raised from family and friends, with one large donation from an anonymous donor and a sizeable check from the Margaret Atwood Book Group of Davis.

To keep their backers, and interested parties, apprised of progress, Creighton and Hopf set up a web site, called “Shooting Bulletins” (http://www.junkopia.net/movieblog/), where Hopf would create videos at various intervals when there was something new to report (and where they could also ask for additional donations).

Next they needed shooting locations. They needed a 50s style diner, a street, a hospital, and a house.

The connections of his filming crew were essential in finding a hospital. They approached the UCD Medical Center, Cowell Hospital, Kaiser Medical Center, the Surgery Center in Davis, but the liability issues were “crazy.” Then someone on the crew knew of a hospital in San Mateo which has a room it can shut down, so they can make money by renting it to film crews.

They found a diner with the perfect look in Sacramento which had the right look, with booths and a side-on angle for filming, but the owner hardly spoke English and the previous film crew she had rented it to made a mess of things, so she said absolutely not.

Instead they filmed at Cindy’s in Davis and through “movie magic” made the scene through the window look like downtown Sacramento.

In terms of dollars per second, the street scene, where Julie has her accident was the most expensive scene. It is only seven seconds on film, but they had to pay ~$100 for permission to block off the street, they paid an overtime police officer. They had to rent orange cones. They had the entire crew, who were all working for a low salary, but it all added up. They had a stunt coordinator driving the car involved in the accident.

“As well as getting permission to use the street, we also had to get permission from the restaurant, Thai Basil, to let us use their seating area and toilet so we’d have a place for our actors to pad out. And it’s always essential to have a bathroom.”

Creighton and Hopf drove many miles trying to find a house where they could shoot their interiors. They were looking for a vacation rental so they didn’t have to deal with the stress of people living in the house. “People don’t realize how disruptive a film crew is. They’ll agree and then you turn up and even a small crew is going to just completely make you feel like a stranger in your own home.”

They ran into a surprising roadblock with their first inquiries. “The first question you get from people when you email them about shooting a movie in their vacation home is ‘what KIND of movie?’ A lot of porn gets shot in vacation rentals, so we assure them that it’s not that kind of movie. We assure them that it’s a professional production and that we have professional people on board and that we will be doing it properly.”

(Ironically, it might help that Creighton is British. “People seem to think a British accent sounds more intelligent,” he laughed, adding “It’s completely not true, but I’ve got a lot of British actors to thank for that. Having an accent is also good for people remembering who I am. I’m the English guy who wants to make the crazy movie.”

Ultimately Creighton and Hopf found five houses that seemed do-able in terms of location and in terms of size. But they visited the five from Healdsburg (which was the farthest north), to Half Moon Bay (the farthest south), all in one weekend. They also visited Pt. Reyes, which is where Creighton wanted to shoot his beach scene, until he found out the cost involved in getting a permit.

The house chosen was in Half Moon Bay. “It had the right kind of look (because my characters are architects) and it had really high ceilings in the central living area anyway. That meant I could do certain things with the camera that I was very excited about,” said Creighton.

The production crew also included five interns from the UC Davis English / Film department. The five raved about their experience and opportunity to work with such professionals, and to have significant responsibility on the set. The five even started their own Facebook group to stay in touch.

Things went so smoothly with production, that at times Creighton found himself standing around with nothing to do. “The shoot could probably have run itself. At times I felt like this privileged person who gets to sit there and say ‘you do this’ or ‘you do that.’” He occasionally offered to help with things like moving equipment, but his help was declined. “What I ended up doing was keeping my eye on my script and my story boards and wandering around telling my actors what to do. Everything else was like this mellow machine that ran around me.”

When the filming was completed, Creighton had the laborious task of cutting and editing the footage. “I’m quite pleased with the job I did,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve edited something of this nature, something with a polished style.”

Accuracy is particularly important to the young film-maker, as this is going to be his audition to film school. “There are two schools that I really like, the London Film School, and the National Film and Television School just outside London. Mike Leigh (director of the recent Academy award nominated “Topsy Turvy”) is the head of London Film School. Stephen Frears (Director of “The Queen”) teaches at the National Film & Television School. Those are the places I’d really like to go.”

He would just like to get to a place where he can stop obsessing about the film, he told me when we had our second interview. “I’ve lost a lot of socialization,” he said.

At the conclusion of our interview, Creighton opened up his laptop and showed me the first third of the film. Just when I was getting interested, he stopped the film and invited me to come to the test screening on June 16th. Members of the community are also invited, for a $5 entrance fee. Creighton is hoping to get a large enough audience to get a realistic reaction from people coming in cold to the film.

All I know is that I will be at the screening. I want to see how it all comes out!

Monday, June 09, 2008

A Number

Caryl Churchill’s “A Number,” now at Capitol Stage in Sacramento has been called the first 21st Century play, for, indeed, it deals with subjects that at one time seemed a part of science fiction, and now are at least possible, if on the distant horizon.

The characters are “Father” (Loren Taylor) and “Son” (Gillen Morrison) and the subject is human cloning, a subject which asks many questions, not the least of which is – who are we, really? Are we our DNA? Are we the products of our upbringing? And the ever popular “Nature vs. nurture?”

Son has just discovered that he has been cloned. That there are “a number” of clones and he realizes that he doesn’t know whether he’s a clone, or the original. Surely he must be the original. He feels like the original.

In an opening dialog which has all the rapid-fire crispness of a ping pong game, we watch Son’s deepening confusion and father’s growing anger that the hospital should take such liberties. They circle the stage like a couple of prize fighters, son gradually seeing the positive aspects of there being more than one of him, father seizing the opportunity to get “a lot of money” from the hospital, son seeing the down side of cloning–who is he? And how many others are there?

Father tries to explain how a clone might have been made–maybe when son was born, or maybe when he broke his leg and was in the hospital. Maybe they took scrapings of his skin.

He’s all for profiting from the illegal use of his son’s DNA. “They’ve damaged your uniqueness, weakened your identity...”

As the discussion progresses, father’s story began to crumble and he begins to reveal that he’s not as innocent as he first stated. In fact, his wife and son were killed in an auto accident and he was so distraught at losing his beloved son that he agreed to have him cloned.

Or is that really the story?

The piece is only 65 minutes long, but director Stephanie Gularte makes certain that it is a roller coaster ride from start to finish.

Morrison has the opportunity to stretch his acting chops to become three very different personalities, as first one, and then another of the clones (or is one of them the original?) interacts with Father, each expressing his own feeling about the cloning experiment..

Each discussion with Father reveals a bit more of father’s story and wipes away the warmhearted person we saw in the opening moments of the play. Taylor’s performance matches Morrison’s in its multi-faceted complexity.

Apparently mother died under questionable circumstances–was it an auto accident? Did she commit suicide? Was it something else? Father becomes more and more evasive on the subject. We eventually discover that he apparently botched the fathering of his young son and he wants a second chance, hence the cloning.

But what became of the original? Was he killed, as the father first states, or did he survive? And if he survived, where has he been all these years?

Jonathan Williams’ somewhat stark set (a couch and some light-filled columns) adds to the futuristic feel of the play, along with Steve Decker’s lighting design, creating the mood for each meeting with a subsequent clone. Brad Thompson’s sound design, with its relentless heart beat, adds an element of suspense.

Capitol Stage’s production of “A Number” will be one that you will long remember.