Posts Tagged ‘Howard Shangraw’

“The Spitfire Grill” Musical This Weekend

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

With its jazz banners, Cafe Aroma is swankier than "The Spitfire Grill," but a favorite hangout of the three leading ladies

By Marcia E. Gawecki

Many of us know “The Spitfire Grill” as that great little restaurant near the airport in Santa Monica. It was started by a USAF lieutenant in 1954 so his fellow pilots would have a good place to eat. Today, it still promotes the area’s aviation history.

Moviegoers may know “The Spitfire Grill” as the 1996 sleeper about a young woman who moves to a small town after being released from prison. Her chance at a fresh start is nixxed by many of the townsfolk. Both the girl, the grill and the town end up changing in the end. The shows strong female characters are played by Ellen Burstyn, Marcia Gay Harden and Alison Eliott.

But “The Spitfire Grill” that I’m talking about is a high school musical by James Valcq and Fred Ally that starts this Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Idyllwild Arts Academy.

Paulina, who plays “Shelby,” one of the leads, didn’t watch the movie on purpose.

“I didn’t want to mold my character after anything that I saw in the movie,” Paulina said. “I want it to all come from within.”

You may have heard Paulina, Becca and Melissa (shown far right) in last year's musical, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

Paulina’s character is a hard luck case herself.  She is shy and is verbally abused by her husband. Although she doesn’t have a shy bone in her body, Paulina said that she has observed others who are.

“But, with the help of her two good friends, Shelby triumphs in the end,” Paulina said.

Bram, who claims to be onstage “for about 30 seconds,” plays one of the male characters in this female-centric story about the spiritual path of turning pain into joy.

Bram admitted to watching the movie and liking it. However, he was skeptical at first of turning “The Spitfire Grill,” a drama with a dark side, into a musical. After the first rehearsal, however, “The Spitfire Grill” musical won him over.

The three leads, played by Melissa, Becca and Paulina, all have incredible voices with wide ranges. You may have heard them in last year’s musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

They are all friends at Idyllwild Arts, a close-knit boarding school set in a small town in the San Jacinto Mountains.

Each weekend, the three of them board the van to Idyllwild, where they’d buy groceries and eat at local restaurants. Cafe Aroma is one of their favorites, although it’s a lot swankier than The Spitfire Grill in Gilead.

“The Spitfire Grill” musical opens at 7:30 p.m. this Friday, May 20 at the IAF Theater on the Idyllwild Arts campus. Saturday’s show is also at 7:30 p.m., but Sunday’s show starts at 2 p.m. All shows on campus are free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.idyllwildarts.org or call (951) 659-2171.

Copyright 2011 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

Published on: May 19, 2011 @ 10:26

Audience Tears Flowed for ‘Eurydice’

Monday, January 24th, 2011

(from L) Nelms McKalvain and Howard Shangraw and friend converse after the show.

By Marcia E. Gawecki

At the final bow, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Some of the audience members were loudly blowing their noses. One woman clasped her had over her mouth to keep from sobbing.

“Really? People were crying? I couldn’t tell,” said Juwan, who played Orpheus, after the show.

However, you could tell that he was impressed. Any time a high school theater cast brings an audience to tears is an accomplishment.

The final show of “Eurydice,” a modern take on the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, by Sarah Ruhl, was held on Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m at Idyllwild Arts Academy.

“I think it was our best show,” said Juwan, after striking the set. “Everything seemed to gel together.”

You didn’t have to know anything about Greek mythology to appreciate and understand the play. It’s been done hundreds, if not thousands, of times. But Sarah Ruhl made it more interesting and palatable.

“I’m glad that it was set in the 21st century,” said one student.

Brooke, a senior who played “Eurydice,” brought Nelms, a piano teacher at Idyllwild Arts, to tears. He stood out in the courtyard with huge tears rolling down his face. Everyone around him smiled. It was rare to see such open emotion from a middle-aged man.

“Brooke just broke my heart,” Nelms said.

Brooke was the happy-go-lucky pretty thing that was in love with Juwan. As a musician, he listened to the “beat of a different drummer.” She loved words, and he loved music. Somewhere in between, they connected.

“There was a lot of kissing going on at the beginning,” exclaimed Juwan’s mom, who came all the way from Kansas, to surprise him.

“I’m glad that Juwan finally got a lead role,” another student said.

Juwan played the heartbroken Orpheus

Juwan played Orpheus, the heartbroken bride groom, to the hilt. He sent music, and wrote letters, to the Underworld, and delivered them via worms. He told his bride of his dreams, in which her hair was made out of faucets. It only made everyone cry harder.

“Please come back!” he begged.

In one of his scenes, he’s talking to a telephone operator. He’s trying to connect to Eurydice in the Underworld. The operator on the other end is confused and exasperated.

“This is a special case,” Juwan tells her. “She’s dead.”

How can he connect to a dead woman? The audience cries harder. Somehow they’ve been there before. Asking an operator for help beyond reason.

When Juwan first saw Sarah Ruhl’s play, he thought it was a kind of dumb. Then he listened to Howard, and drew from his own experiences of heartache, to play a believable role.

Brooke (as Eurydice) might have broken Nelms’ heart with her letters home.

“Don’t try and find me again,” Brooke wrote after they flubbed up the voyage back. She called out his name and he looked back, so that was it.

“I’m sorry,” she wrote to Orpheus. “I was afraid. But don’t come looking for me again.”

In her open letter to her husband’s next wife, Brooke demonstrated her emotional range.

“Be sure and feed him often, because he forgets to eat,” she recited out loud. “And be sure and notice that he blushes pink when you kiss him. If you kiss his forehead, I will thank you for it.”

What woman would want her husband to be happy with another woman? Eurydice had matured while underground.

Everyone expected Joe Spano to steal the show. After all, how can high school theater students measure up to a professional actor with an Emmy nod and many successful shows under his belt?

Stones Dylan and Angela pose for pictures after the show

“He was great, but he didn’t steal the show,” said some theater students.

It wasn’t a slight. What Joe Spano did was elevate “Eurydice” to the next level. Everyone stepped up their game. Because they already had it in them.

Brooke, Juwan, Jake, and the Stones were just as good as Joe. And that’s the way it should be.

He was fun to watch, no doubt. Especially when his daughter was adjusting to being dead. He built her a makeshift room out of string that he tied to umbrella handles hanging from the ceiling.

“That was the saddest part,” said Chris, a music major who saw the show on Friday night.

For others, Joe’s saddest moment was when Eurydice left to follow Orpheus home and said, “With her gone, it’ll be like a second death to me.”

Jake, who played an “Interesting Man,” (who must’ve said “interesting 100 times) was really just a letch, who lured Eurydice to her death.

By the way, Brooke’s slow-motion fall was eerie, but effective. Kudos to Howard Shangraw, the director, and the set designers for making it happen with lights and poles.

I’m not sure why Ruhl created the Lord of the Underworld (also played by Jake) as a pre-teen, but it took away some of his bite. Running around on a trike with oversized shoes and a lit-up umbrella hat was entertaining, but typically, I like my demons older. His youth made it hard to take him seriously.

But, in the end, little Lord Fontleroy on the trike, had the final say.

“I just got chills all over,” said Chris Pennock, an Idyllwild actor best known for his “Dark Shadows” days.

His wife was the one who covered her mouth to keep from sobbing.

“It was so amazing,” she said, wiping away her tears.

Joe Spano (partially obstructed) and his daughter, Liana, a stone, talk with audience members after the show

Outside, Idyllwild residents took pictures Joe Spano and the other actors. It was nice having a celebrity amongst them.

“We grew up watching Joe Spano on ‘Hill Street Blues,”” one resident said. “It was nice to see him live on stage today.”

Spano, who played Eurydice’s father, and his real-life daughter, Liana, played a stone that guarded the Underworld.

“This was the best experience,” said Milan, who was Spano’s understudy. “He improved my acting performance by a mile.”

“Eurydice” played to packed houses on Friday and Saturday nights, Jan. 21 and 22. The Sunday, Jan. 23rd audience stood on their feet to show their appreciation. On Apella Drive, the road out, past the parking lot, a few women were walking home. What a testament to the show! Without a car, they arrived on foot rather than miss the show.

Copyright 2011 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

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Joe Spano Stars in Idyllwild Arts Show on Sunday, Too

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

By Marcia E. Gawecki

“Hill Street Blues” and “NCIS” star Joe Spano will also star in the final performance of “Eurydice,” by the Idyllwild Arts Theater Department, on Sunday, Jan. 23 at 2 p.m. It’s a correction to the earlier report (on Idyllwild Me blog post dated Jan. 20) that the understudies would take over that performance. Theirs was held on Saturday, Jan 22 at 2 p.m.

Today, at 2 p.m., will be the final performance of “Eurydice,” Idyllwild Arts production of the Greek tragedy about Eurydice and Orpheus in the Underworld. Spano starred as Eurydice’s father to packed houses on Friday and Saturday nights.

Milan, a senior Theater major, credits Spano for adding professionalism to the show. It is the first time this crew has worked alongside a well-known actor.

“His choices onstage has given everyone involved with the show a huge acting lesson,” Milan said. “And him being in the show has absolutely effected the quality and professionalism of the show.”

He said that Spano had also taught him to slow down and take his time with each scene.

Brooke, another senior who plays the lead, Eurydice, admitted to being timid around Spano at first.

“I had never worked with a professional actor before, let alone one as famous as Joe Spano,” Brooke said. “But he treated me like an equal.”

Both Brooke and Milan had not seen Spano during his “Hill Street Blues” hey days, but their aunts and uncles gave them an earfull.

“My aunt just loves Joe Spano, and thought he was terrific in ‘Hill Street Blues,” Brooke said.

Milan also researched the shows online.

Juwan plays Orpheus in today's final performance of "Eurydice"

Although the father role may have been missing in other versions of “Eurydice,” Sarah Ruhl’s take is different. She focuses more on the circle of life.

“The father is the second, if not first most important role in the play,” said Milan, who has watched Spano rehearse for weeks. “Without the father, it would not be the same story. He goes through many obstacles, such as memory loss, but had the courage to let his daughter go.”

The set of the play is also top notch with a rain shower encased in an elevator. It’s the work of guest set designer Steve Hudson-Mairet, head of the Theater Department at Marquette University, and Todd Carpenter, the technical director at Idyllwild Arts (see “Help with Eurydice Set,” Idyllwild Me post, dated Jan. 14).

The final performance of “Eurydice,” starring Joe Spano as the father, Brooke as Eurydice, Juwan as Orpheus, Jake as the lord of the Underworld, and Liana (Joe Spano’s daughter), as a stone, will be held today, Sunday, Jan. 23 at 2 p.m.

The show is free and open to the public. The IAF Theater is located inside the Bowman Building on the Idyllwild Arts Campus, located at the end of Tollgate. For more information, call (951) 659-2171 or visit www.idyllwildarts.org.

Copyright 2011 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

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Joe Spano to Star in High School Play

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

By Marcia E. Gawecki

Joe Spano will appear in a high school play this weekend.

This Emmy-nominated actor, best known for his role as Lt. Henry Goldblume in the popular TV series, “Hill Street Blues,” is not playing a detective, an agent, or even an astronaut this time, but something closer to home.

He’s playing a father.

“Having daughters of his own must’ve effected the way that he created his character,” said Milan, an Idyllwild Arts theater student, who plays Spano’s understudy in “Eurydice.”

Sarah Ruhl has taken the classic Greek myth about Eurydice and Orpheus of the Underworld, and changed it to emphasize the circle of life. Ruhl’s take is both entertaining and provocative.

Wait a minute! Eurydice had a father?

According to Milan, the father is the second, if not the most important role in the play.

“Without him, it would not be the same story,” Milan explained. “He goes through many obstacles, such as memory lapses and seperation from his daughter. And has the courage to let her go knowing that it’s the right thing to do.”

With Joe Spano playing the father, you get a better image of a ‘father’ than if a student were playing the role, Milan adds. However, Milan will have a chance to perform, along with the other understudies, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 22.

For the past several weeks, Milan has watched Joe Spano rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

“He has a great, positive attitude and a strong presence onstage,” Milan said. “Him being here has absolutely effected the quality and professionalism of the show.”

Brooke, as Eurydice, admitted to being pretty timid at first.

“I had never worked with a professional actor before, let alone a famous one like Joe Spano,” Brooke said. “But he has treated me like an equal.”

One thing that Milan learned from Spano is patience.

“He has taught me to take my time!” Milan exclaimed. “Lots of actors think they need to rush scenes or moments of the show. Joe has taught me the importance of taking my time and not rush anything.”

Another actor who has likely learned a lot from Spano is his daughter, Liana, who plays one of the three talking stones.

“Joe and Liana have a great relationship,” Milan said. “It’s very clear to see.”

However, onstage the two are all business.

“During rehearsal, you rarely ever see them talk,” Milan said. “Both are focused and ready to work.”

So why is Joe Spano acting in a high school play this weekend? Because his daughter asked him to? Or because Howard Shangraw, his old reperatory acting buddy, who heads up the IA Theater Department, begged? No one really knows for sure, but its likely, after a successful TV and movie career, Joe Spano is doing what he wants.

But for Milan, Brooke and the other teenage actors, the experience has been priceless.

“Eurydice” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 21 & 22, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 23. The understudy performance will be held at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan.22. All shows are free and open to the public. They’re held at the IAF Theater (inside the Bowman building) on the Idyllwild Arts Campus (at the end of Tollgate Road) in Idyllwild. For more information, call (951) 659-2171, or visit www.idyllwildarts.org.

Copyright 2011 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

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Help with ‘Eurydice’ Set

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Even the poster for 'Eurydice' emphasizes water

By Marcia E. Gawecki

With every production, the Idyllwild Arts Theater Department takes it up a notch.

With ‘Eurydice,’ Sarah Ruhl’s modern take on the tragic Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice set in the Underworid, they’ve landed a top-notch actor and set designer.

“We got Joe Spano!” exclaimed Howard Shangraw, head of the Idyllwild Arts Theater Department. “It helps that his daughter, Liana, goes to school here.”

Spano, an Emmy-Award winning actor, is best known for his stand-out characters in the popular TV series, “Hill Street Blues” and “NCIS.” For the ‘Eurydice’ production, Spano plays the father.

Secondly, the ‘Eurydice’ set, which features two live water sources (an enclosed waterfall and a well) is being created by professional set designer. Stephen Hudson-Mairet is a longtime friend of Todd Carpenter, IA lighting and technical director. Steve heads up the theater department at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

He plans to be here 10 days to help Howard and Todd with the set, which is already partially built.

About two months ago, Steve came to the Idyllwild Arts campus to see the student production of “Jayne Eyre.” He wanted to see firsthand what the stage and the IAF theater looked like, and needed to meet with Howard and Todd and get their ideas.

“The IAF Theater is barrel-shaped, like an airplane hanger,” Steve said. “But every theater has it’s challenges. I’ve seen a lot of them and none are perfect.”

After the meeting, he went back to Milwaukee and did his homework.

“Before I even think about drafting a design, I read the play three times,” Steve said. “It gives you ideas that you cannot get anywhere else.”

Juwan, who plays the lead Orpheus, backstage at another event

The second the third read gives him practical ideas about where the actors will stand and step.

For his “Eurydice’ design, he incorporated ideas from Howard and Todd, and came up with a full-color sketch.

“I never leave anything to chance,” Steve said. “Because blue has many shades, and we all need to be on the same page.”

So he attached color swatches to the diagram, which was approved.

“The main part of the stage is framed by an oversized triangle,” Steve said. At the apex, an elevator opens up to a waterfall encased in an elevator.

“The water should rain straight down,” Steve said. “It acts as a barrier into the Underworld.”

Although there are pipes everywhere overhead, he wasn’t sure how the water was going to flow inside the elevator. He had to check it out firsthand.

“I also have to think about what we’re going to do about the water puddling onstage,” Steve said. “And if there would be any long-term water damage underneath the stage.”

These water issues are why Todd and Howard hired a set design professional like Steve. In the past, he has created set designs for massive theater productions like “Hair,” with life-sized 60s cutouts onstage, and “Frog and Toad,” a smaller student production, based on the popular children’s books.

On Thursday afternoon, Jan. 13, Steve was headed to rehearsal, to see the actors in action. And today, he’s going to paint the set along with the students. Among the many challenges will be building an arc and painting a river on the floor.

“In the show, one of the actors rides a tricycle around the stage on an arc,” Steve said. “We’re hoping to make it work for him.”

He wasn’t sure how the arc was going to be built, but was certain that it would work before the ‘Eurydice’ curtain goes up next weekend.

“One of the best things about set design is the collaboration of ideas,” Steve said. “We always come up with something better together.”

Painting a river on the floor was one of the first things he’ll tackle.

Howard Shangraw, head of IA Theater Dept. Courtesy photo.

“It’s going to be ‘river-esque, not raging” Steve said. “Like everything else on the set, it’s a symbol.”

Other symbols include a variety of Asian-style umbrellas that will be suspended from the ceiling. He pulled several from his suitcase to add to Todd’s collection.

“The umbrellas will give Todd something to throw a light on,” Steve said.

During their college days, the two have worked on sets together.

“Todd always takes my ideas and makes them better,” Steve said.

After the final ‘Eurydice’ show, Steve will help the students break down the set. He has no attachments or regrets for a set that he’s been working on for two months.

“I’m used to designing and building sets, and taking them down in six weeks,” Steve said.

His only keepsake is a couple of photos. Most of the set pieces of ‘Eurydice’ will be recycled into other sets.

‘Eurydice’ shows will be held on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 21 & 22, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 23, at 2 p.m. at the IAF Theater on campus. All shows are free and open to the public. For more information, visit www.idyllwildarts.org.

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Jayne Eyre: A Moving Masterpiece

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Bram and Melanie show off their magnetic chemistry in "Jayne Eyre"

By Marcia E. Gawecki

Last weekend’s performance  of “Jayne Eyre,” by the Idyllwild Arts Theater Department, was nothing short of stunning. It looked like a Rembrandt painting set to life. It was dark and moody, yet memorable.

All those who have seen “Jayne Eyre” onscreen or onstage before, know that it’s just downright depressing. Your heart aches for poor Jayne, with no money or station in life, spending years being bullied and starved to death in a repressive school. Her only friend is left to die so terribly young. Yet, in spite of all that, you have to give Jayne credit for her self confidence and self worth.

Melanie and Sasha, best friends for years, play Jayne and little Jayne.

“We’ve been waiting our whole lives for these roles,” Sasha said weeks before the show.

Like many others in “Jayne Eyre,” Sasha played two other roles besides young Jayne, including Blanche, a snobby socialite, and a country girl narrator.

“Playing two roles tests your meddle as an actor,” said Juwan, a theater major, who has played double roles in the past, including “Learned Ladies.” “In effect, you’re doing the work of two people, and you can’t get them mixed up.”

Isaac as the mean headmaster scolds little Jayne, played by Sasha

Sasha said that she was a little worried about mastering her British accents, especially since she had to learn the lower-class cockney accent and the upper class one too. Yet, in the show on Sunday afternoon, her cockney accent was pronounced, and her upper crust had the perfect lilt.

During practice one day, Howard Shangraw, head of the Theater Department, brought it an expert–Amy Sue Fall, a Hollywood linguist.

Bram, who plays Mr. Rochester, the romantic lead, was happy to have her help.

“She helps big name stars like Leonardo Di Caprio,” Bram said.

Amy Sue told Bram to lengthen and shorten his vowel sounds.

“Every word has to be a journey,” she said.

Then Howard told Bram that he needed to work on being more sexy.

“I’m not sure how I’m supposed to do that,” Bram said.

(From L) Ari as Aunt Reed and Sasha as young Jayne square off

Somehow, by showtime, he had mastered the sexy mystique of the elder Mr. Rochester, head of the manor. His low voice was commanding, yet gentle when he bantered with Jayne, the governess (played by Melanie).

“Do you find me attractive, Jayne?” he asked her, as she sat sketching outside.

“No,” she replied, and kept on.

He must’ve found her amusing. Here she was, an impoverished employee, one who relied on him for her entire livelihood, yet she refuses to flatter him!

The encounters where Jayne and Mr. Rochester get to know each other, and then later express their intense love for each other, were incredibly romantic. Bram and Melanie had chemistry onstage, even before the big kiss. They made holding hands sexy.

Melanie admitted to being nervous before the show.

“I have to convey some really intense emotions, but I can’t jump around, scream and shout,” she said. “I have to say a lot with just some simple gestures.”

Mrs. Fairfax, played by Ari befriends Jayne, played by Melanie

Yet, Melanie successfully conveyed those intense emotions, against her Aunt Reed (as told to her maid played by Jessie), and toward Mr. Rochester, her greatest love.

Nothing against author Charlotte Bronte, but I found it a little strange that Jayne kept calling Mr. Rochester “Sir,” even when he told her that he wanted to marry her–as an equal partner.  I know it was Victorian times, and she was years his junior, but even when she inherited a load of dough, she kept calling him, “Sir.”

The underlying undertone of their bantering and arguments was the great respect they had for each other. They listened to what each other had to say and didn’t bully to get their way. You just wanted to watch them spar all day long, like two gladiators in a ring or two lions in the wild ready to mate, headstrong yet decidedly weak for each other.

Everyone should be so lucky to find a mate like that.

It could have ended unhappily for Jayne, if her rich uncle hadn’t died. That’s the Hollywood twist in this tale that seems a bit far fetched, Bronte. Jayne ran away because Mr. Rochester was already married to a crazy lady that he stashed in the attic, right?  He’s a liar and a potential bigamist. End of story in Victorian England.

So when Jayne inherits $200 million pounds, she takes off searching for him. Nothing has changed, dearie, except your finances. Guess she was hoping that things might be different, and luckily for her, they were.

Excellent job by Ariana who played the mean Aunt Reed who abandons Jayne and the pleasant Mrs. Fairfax, (Rochester’s housekeeper) who befriends her. Ariana plays the perfect matron without a wrinkle.

First encounter between the leads, Bram and Melanie

Good job by Milan for playing Lord Ingram, Reverand Wood and St. John Rivers. Not only did his costumes change, but his accents and entire demeanor shifted with the titles.

Well done by Isaac in playing the sadistic Mr. Brocklehurst, head of the school, and a mason who gets savagely attacked by the lunatic Mrs. Rochester. These are two meaty roles successfully commanded by a 14-year-old. Alas, some actors are just born “old souls.”

First tears in the play were shed over the death of Helen (played by Tierra), whose real name means “earth.” How wise and confident she was at a tender age. Happy to rid herself of her sorrow on earth. She also pulled off the classie French lassie, ward of Mr. Rochester. Tierra played two young girls close in age, yet their station in life set them worlds apart.

The tweedy and determined John Reed, the attorney, played by Conor, was a welcome sight in the middle and end of the show. For the first time in our lives, we’re rooting for the attorneys.

The “Best British Accent Award” goes to Kendra, a sophomore, who commanded the snobby Lady Ingram with great aplomb. Every British syllable hit dead on. It was a lovely, yet brief song.

Kendra was also one of the best dressed on the set. The color of her satin gown stood out like a rose rising out of a crack in the desert. All night, we were longing for color, yet, we wanted to gag her with that feathered fan!

Of course, credit for all of the morose and fanciful costumes go to Minnie Christine Walters, the show’s talented costume designer. Every costume was superb, from the gray rags of the schoolgirls to the opulant dress of Lady Ingram and Jayne’s wedding dress.

“We didn’t have to do much to them,” said Jacob, a senior specializing in theatrical costumes. “We just had to take them in here and there. All credit goes to Minnie.”

Hats off to Bonnie Carpenter and Todd Carpenter for their outstanding light and scenic designs. Yep, they pulled off the perfect Rembrandt painting. They made the sets moody and dark, yet interesting. Their use of hysterical sound effects were eerie, and kept everyone on the edge of their seats. The lighted curtain panels offered motion without use of video for a ghastly ghostly impression.

It was a splendid show, Jayne Eyre. A moving masterpiece.

Copyright Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved..

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Next Up: Shakers

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Howard Shangraw had a dilemma. He had to cast his next Idyllwild Arts student production, but it had to have a large number of female roles. He thought about “The Heidi Chronicles,” an award-winning Wendy Wasserman play about feminism, but the dialog was a little too “racy” for high school students.

“I can get away with a lot, but not that much,” Howard said with a smile.

The theater students had their own opinions. (After each play, Howard waits until the last minute to announce the next one, building up interest and anticipation.)

“The next musical is going to be ‘The Odd Couple’ with an all-female cast. I’m sure of it,” several students said.

The next play is about, well, Shakers.

“’As it is in Heaven’ is about religious persecution and a psychological cross section of humanity that is shrouded in simple purity,” Howard said.

According to various web sites, Shakers were a religious group that came from England in 1747. They believed that people could find God within themselves and not through rituals or clergy. They worshipped in plain meetinghouses where they marched, danced, sang, twitched and shouted. Many who didn’t understand their practices, considered them “heretics.”

“As it is in Heaven,” written by Arlene Hutton in 2006, explores generational conflict through the eyes of nine women in a Shaker village in Kentucky. Set in 1838, the play celebrates the music and dance traditions of Shakers, the “Society of Believers.” When three newcomers start to see visions, several of the older women, who haven’t seen any, begin to question their own devotions.

“You don’t know much about Shakers because they believed in strict celibacy. Since they didn’t procreate, they all died out,” Howard said.

Most people don’t know the difference between Quakers, Shakers, and Mennonites, Howard added. The play will showcase Shaker differences. For example, the men and women lived separately. “They ate and slept in different houses, and the only time they mingled was during service when they’d ‘shake’ away their lust,” he said.

He added that many of the songs in the play will be sung ‘acapella,” or without much music accompaniment. “They will be sung ‘like they were meant to be,’” he said.

For the music accompaniment, Howard asked several of the Idyllwild Arts music students to play in a small makeshift orchestra. Una Cheng, who plays percussion, was one of about 15 who played for the school’s musical last year.

“Howard gave us the music about a month before the musical began,” Una explained. As a percussionist, she didn’t have many solos, but had to pay attention to the play’s conductor. “It was fun, and Howard gave us pizza,” Una added.

Howard added that getting costumes for the musical would not be a problem because they plan to make most of them. “You’ve heard of the ‘Shaker’ bonnet, right?” he asked. Well, Shaker furniture, with its simple lines, has also come back into fashion with home decorators.

For more information about “As it is in Heaven,” the next Idyllwild Arts musical about Shakers, contact Howard at (951) 659-2171, ext. 2200, or visit www.idyllwildarts.org.

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Welcome Home: Play Review

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

By Marcia E. Gawecki

“I’ve seen my show,” said Howard Shangraw, head of the Idyllwild Arts Theater Department, to the cast and crew of “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter.”

He was giving these students the ultimate compliment. He was pleased with the final rehearsal and their stellar performance. Even if no one came (in the aftermath of a 12-inch snowstorm that hit Idyllwild that weekend), he was happy.

“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” is a modern play that focuses on a wounded Marine now back from Iraq who is trying to “find her way home” through the help of misfits from Slab City. As outlined in the playbill, this show has become part of a national trend of theater performances that are shining a harsh light on Iraq’s seven-year war.

“This is one woman’s story about her own war experience,” Howard said. “If there’s any message here, it’s this: war is hell.”

The show’s stark reality started with the set. In center stage, wrapped around a large pole, was an American flag, our nation’s symbol of freedom. Yet, this one s soiled and tattered, and created from large strips of rags–the backdrop of an brutal story.

Behind the flagpole was a large, floor-to-ceiling video screen that featured flashbacks of ongoing gun battles and bomb explosions complete with sound effects. Other times, it served as a simple scene changer from a hospital, to a bus station, and then to Slab City, Jenny’s remote “haven” in Southern California.

“The video was our idea,” said Howard, proudly. “At one part in the script, the playwright suggested some slide scenes, but we decided that ongoing video and slides would really enhance the show.”

Howard said that Eric Bulrice, the set designer, an award-winning Idyllwild Arts graduate, went to Slab City, and shot stills of its drab, concrete reality, and even found videos of gun battles. Everything worked out well visually, and if there were any glitches during the show on Saturday night, January 23rd, they were not evident to the audience.

The beauty of a small cast, six in all, is that the audience gets to see the characters fully develop. We know their pasts, their idiosyncrasies, their hopes, their dreams and all the while, we’re cheering for them. At the final curtain bow, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. However, those were not tears of sadness, but of appreciation for a remarkable story well told.

“I couldn’t stop crying for about an hour after the show,” said Dominique DeRoss, a visual arts student, and roommate of Carter Smith, one of the cast members. “I was emotional because I was so proud of my roommate. I know how hard she worked on her performance, and she was so great!”

The show opens with Jenny Sutter, played by Amenta Abioto, being carried into a hospital on a stretcher. “I can carry my own weight!” she snaps at the two Marines, giving us a taste of her exploding anger, frustration and bitterness. It’s also where we first learn that Jenny has a prosthetic leg, a war wound that she obsesses over.

“The leg is not really a typical plastic prosthetic,” explained Howard. “That would have cost us $1,000, but it’s a wrap around one made mostly out of material. I believe it worked.”

Jenny, at odds with her new home environment, watches bus after bus leave the station, until Hugo, an attendant wittingly played by Juwan Lockett, takes notice. He asks about her destination, and she tells him to mind his own business, her eyes flashing. He is quirky–killing cockroaches with his shoe and shouting in glee–yet relentless in getting her to move on. Jenny is as guarded here as she was back there.

Carter Scott, who plays Lou, a loveable, yet neurotic, compulsive gambler-drinker-smoker-thief-and-sex-addict, befriends Jenny and takes her home with her to Slab City, a former WWII Marine base without water or electricity.

“How did I get here?” Jenny asks Lou, obviously appalled by her lowly surroundings, including all the quirky misfits who live there. Buddy, played by Riley Lynch, is Lou’s boyfriend, a physically handicapped lay minister who retells simple triumphs.

“What’s his story?” Jenny asks Lou, as Buddy limps away.

“When he was young, Buddy served as a ‘punching bag’ for his parents, until a neighbor took him out of a shopping cart one day and saved him,” Lou explains. “His parents never came looking for him.”

Buddy’s shoulders stoop, his arms hang awkwardly at their sides, and he limps. His physical ailments are not befitting his young age. Unlike Jenny, however, Buddy chooses not to focus on his physical shortcomings, but tries to heal the world instead.

Lou’s other friends, including Cheryl, her  “psychologist,” played by Madeline Otto, and Donald, a withdrawn weirdo, played by Joey Jennings, serve as the show’s comic relief.

Cheryl, in her business suit and comfortable flats, follows Lou around, encouraging her to abstain from all her vices. “She’s not really a psychologist, you know, but a hairdresser from Hemet,” Donald quips as he “outs” her to the others. “If you really want to help Lou, give her a perm!”

Joey, who wore a knit cap and eye shadow on his cheeks, wasn’t easily recognizable by his family members in the audience.

“I knew it had to be him because there’s only six cast members,” said his aunt from Idyllwild. “He just looked so different, but he stole every scene he was in.”

Like the other cast members, Joey visited Slab City with Howard before the show and met his real life counterpart. With his monotone voice, and eyes that darted sideways, Joey nailed Donald’s tragic character. Donald withdrew from society after he saw a truck crush his best friend to death.

“I miss people,” he admits to Jenny after their first kiss.

Yet, as we watch Jenny have nightmares, battle scene flashbacks, and angry encounters with everyone, we know she’s strong and is going to be all right. Her physical and emotional scars are situational–not rooted in youth.

The bomb, that was planted in a baby’s diaper at an Iraqi checkpoint, went off, killing 23 other Marines, and caused Jenny to lose her leg. That remarkable and grim reality of war wasn’t discussed much in the show. Perhaps playwright Julie Marie Myatt didn’t want to preach.

“How do you live with that?” Jenny screams at Donald near the end of the show. “Twenty-three people died because I didn’t check a baby’s diaper!”

Even when the scenes involved other characters, Howard kept Jenny onstage. “I wanted her emotional turmoil to be ever-present,” he said.

Yet, it is Lou, who makes Jenny remember her obligations. “I’ve seen your breasts, and those are breasts that have nursed children!” Lou exclaims.

“Quit looking at my breasts!” Jenny shouts back.

“You have children, for God’s sake! You can turn your back on your parents, friends, and brothers and sisters, sure. But not your children!” Lou announces in a woman-to-woman confrontation that leaves the audience tearful.

Another powerful scene was somehow created in slow motion onstage. When a balloon pops at her “Welcome Home” party, Jenny instinctively pulls Lou and Donald to the ground, covering them from the “bomb.” When they all realize it was only a broken balloon, there’s an awkward silence as Jenny and Lou struggle to stand up. Then Donald laughs hysterically, and we all hate him for it.

After the party disaster, Lou found solace in booze and cigarettes. When he finds her, Buddy doesn’t preach. We get a good idea on how emotionally fragile everyone is.

In the final scene, Jenny and Lou are back at the bus station. Jenny is headed home to Oceanside, while Lou is off chasing rainbows.

“Go back to Buddy,” Jenny encourages, believing for a second she has a chance for a real relationship. But we know it’s going to take years of therapy to undo those damages of youth. We know somehow Jenny is going to make it. She’ll get physical therapy at the VA Hospital, spend time with her two girls, and piece her life back together. Maybe she’ll even forgive herself.

“God, give me something to believe in,” Jenny kept pleading in her nightmares. Lou said that she could identify with that too. Left with an uncertain ending to the Iraqi war, it’s a plea that we all can share.

Copyright 2010 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

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Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

By Marcia E. Gawecki

How do you prepare teenagers for a play about the ravages of war when no one has ever served in one, let alone met anyone in the military?

“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” Idyllwild Arts Academy’s recent play, will be presented this weekend, January 22-24. It’s about a young woman Marine who returns home from the war in Iraq–disfigured, disillusioned and unable to reconnect with her family. Yet, she finds comfort with the misfits of Slab City, and eventually finds her way home.

The small cast, six in all, are teenagers who play older military characters. Howard Shangraw, head of the theater department at Idyllwild Arts, prepared them in the best way he knew how–he took them to Slab City.

Slab City is a makeshift RV campsite built on a former WWII Marine base in Southern California. The name comes from the concrete slabs where the RVs park. But, like the stark name implies, there is no electricity, running water or comforts of home. Most visitors come to Slab City temporarily during the wintertime, while about 150 veterans live there permanently. Those were the ones that Howard’s students went to meet.

Riley Lynch, who plays a handicapped preacher, said that meeting his character in real life was awe-inspiring. “He told me to keep everything real simple,” Riley said. “But that didn’t mean he wasn’t a complex individual.” After their hour-long meeting, Riley said that he was able to mimmick the preacher’s mannerisms, ticks and labored walk.

Amenta Abioto, who plays the lead, a 30ish African American mother with an amputated leg, wasn’t as lucky. She couldn’t meet her real-life character at Slab City because she was deceased. So Amenta had to rely on You Tube videos and documentaries to develop her character.

Howard showed her and the rest of the cast a PBS documentary about a Marine who had returned home from Iraq with the same challenges as Jenny Sutter. Yet, this Marine ended up committing suicide, Howard said somberly.

Since Amenta’s character’s leg was amputated, Howard tried to set up a meeting with a wounded Marine to hear a firsthand account. It didn’t matter if the soldier was male or female, he said.  Yet, after several phone calls and e-mails to a Marine representative, there was still some resistance.

“He (the representative) had read our promotion piece and was concerned that the play criticized the Marines’ lack of support for their soldiers as they re-entered civilian life,” Howard said. He told him about the excellent veteran programs that cover their needs–physically, financially and emotionally.

“No doubt that the Marines take care of their own,” Howard added. “Our play, however, is not a criticism of any branch of the U.S. military. It’s one individual’s story. If there’s any message here, it’s this: ‘War is Hell.'”

Howard had also invited the playwright, Julie Marie Myatt, to the Idyllwild Arts campus to meet the crew before the show, but ran out of time. “We’ll just have to talk to her over the phone,” he said.

Actually, “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” is not a true account of a wounded Marine. It was created from a compilation of stories that the playwright heard growing up from her father, a Vietnam veteran, Howard said.

“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” begs to be told in our country now, as growing numbers of men and women are returning home from Iraq,” the play promotion adds.

The play opens this weekend with 7:30 p.m. showings on Friday and Saturday, and a 2 p.m. showing on Sunday. All shows are free and held at the Bowman Theater on the school campus located at 52500 Temecula Road (at the end of Tollgate Road) in Idyllwild. For more information, call (951) 659-2171, extension 2200, or visit www.idyllwildarts.org.

Copyright 2010 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.