Novel Entertainments - Part 1

Ever read a book and wish you could experience it, live? That's what playwrights are in business to do, isn't it? But how can the hundreds of pages of a novel be captured in “the two hours' traffic of the stage?” With nearly 600 pages, The Cider House Rules by John Irving needed two plays (well, one play in two parts for a five-hour encounter) to do it justice. The movie version reduced it to just over two-hours, leaving out so much, but wonderfully capturing the essence of Irving's intent. Shakespeare worked mostly with short stories and historical accounts, not whole novels – a chapter of Holinshed's Chronicles of England, one of the tales in Boccaccio's Decameron or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a section of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. But The Bard was mostly interested in plot points and character, not mood, tone, or style.

And most theater-goers in the 16th/17th Centuries hadn't read the story or poem that was crafted from the “best sellers” or important literary works available in their day. Today, books are often evaluated before publication for their dramatic potential with an eye to the commercial value they bring to a project. (“Everybody's read it.” “They're dying to see it on stage!” “It'll sell like hot cakes.”) And the dramatizations are usually (too often, perhaps) evaluated for their “faithful” representation of the source.

Of course, in the limited a space of a theater, with less than a tiny portion of the army of collaborators that's scrolled at the end of a film, what can you do? Obviously, it ain't easy. We've had five (and a sixth “inspired by”) such productions in Los Angeles this fall. Let's look at how they fared.

Let's begin with Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, recently presented in a relatively large-scale, rather complex production at Pasadena's popular classical repertory theater, A Noise Within.

There is a mythic conceit at the center of Oscar Wilde's late-Nineteenth Century novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. A trope that taps “into a root of Western folklore” according to the author of a recent study of the poet John Gray, who is believed to be the real Dorian Gray.

The conceit of the tale is the painted image of a beautiful young man that suffers the corrupting ravages of age while its living subject physically retains the bloom of youth. Hence, the vanity of beauty is made visibly dramatic by a Faustian bargain – a bargain that leads the living Dorian Gray to regret the deal he made, for it brings him a loveless life and the corruption of his soul. With this conceit, Wilde the novelist sets out to plumb the cost to the spirit of rampant narcissism. Originally made available to the public as a homoerotic magazine serial, the critical reception to Dorian Gray was typically Victorian – the wit and the writing were praised but it was deemed “unclean,” “poisonous,” “heavy with the mephitic odors (noxious vapors) of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” Sometime later, Wilde “cleaned up” the prose, extended the tale by a few chapters, and published it as a novel. That was 1890.

Five years later, 1895, Wilde was defending himself in a court of law against the charge of “gross indecency,” for which the main exhibit against him was his novel. He insisted that The Portrait of Dorian Gray was “a highly moral book decrying the pursuit of pleasure devoid of empathy or personal responsibility.” Does that mean that by portraying the sin of vanity as it inevitably corrupts the soul, one is forearmed against the commission of that particular sin? Isn't that like showing you the effects of excessive fatty food intake as a cure for the ills of obesity?

It is with a deep appreciation of Wilde's intent that one of the Southland's most talented directors, Michael Michetti, has created his own stage adaptation of Dorian Gray. Originally produced at the Boston Court in Pasadena, Michetti's newly revised adaptation, in a no-holds-barred, visually fascinating production aptly achieves the homoeroticism of Wilde's work.

Okay, but does Michetti's unquestioned artistry (and A Noise Within's restrained-lavish production elements) succeed in creating an effective stage work? In this case, it depends upon what one thinks is the purpose of the novel. Michetti, as director, has an abundance of theatrical ideas, filling the stage with Wilde's wit, strident music, and a wide-ranging cast of Victorian characters. At the center is, of course, the handsome youth, Dorian Gray. But there is also a loquacious Wilde stand-in, Sir Harry Wotton, the enlightening goad to Dorian's tragedy. Do these two characters give us a satisfying performance version of the novel's essence?

Unfortunately, except for a stunningly-staged finale, the real drama, the raison d'etre of the novel, seems veiled behind the verbal onslaught of Wilde's notorious wit and some over-wrought modern dancing.

While director Michetti fills the stage with movement and adaptor Michetti with a full evening's helping of the Wildean excess, “the mephitic odors of moral and spiritual putrefaction” – the corrosive effects of vanity on the soul – seems to get lost in the theatricality.

Even more than Shakespeare's Hamlet, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an internal drama – the soul as the battlefield between social values and naked impulse, the need to hold on to one's youth being at odds with the richness of experience and age. In Michetti's version, what seems to be lacking is the interior of the character. We are given a blank picture frame instead of being able to see the painting age, as Dorian's soul is increasingly devastated by the corruption of immortality.

Michetti, the ever-inventive director, has a penchant for countering expectations. In Michetti the adaptor's version of Shakespeare's Hamlet (also for A Noise Within, but many years ago) he eliminated the Ghost of King Hamlet. Why? Because, I think, Michetti the director wanted us to believe the dead monarch was not a ghost, but a deep-seated construct within the psyche of young Hamlet. So, his Hamlet is both characters, speaking the lines of the revengeful spirit facing a mirror (or really any reflective surface, for that matter). An intriguing idea that didn't always work.

Oscar Wilde, the novelist, is exploring the internal agony of Dorian's external vanity, but in Michetti's Dorian Gray, it's largely (not completely) missing – presented off-handedly, an observation here or there, buried in directorial business, or presented enigmatically in a Martha Graham-esque dance with extensive narration read from the novel. How much more moving would it be, how much more dramatic to hear – in private moments – Dorian speaking to himself, first recognizing, then denying, eventually trying to manage, finally being overwhelmed by the inner corruption that forces him to put a violent and tragic end to the conceit. But where Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is a tragedy, Michetti's Dorian is melodrama.

Of course, there is a more contemporary way of handling Wilde's novel. It would require some modest changes to the plotting, but it would realize the hidden drama – Oscar Wilde confronting his own beliefs. What adaptor every worried about a little dramatic license? By positioning Sir Henry as the central character and Dorian as the object of Henry's influence – just as Salieri, the lesser composer in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, sets Mozart, the better composer, on the road to destruction – it would allow the book's deeper concerns to be dramatically realized. Sir Henry would for all intents and purposes be Oscar Wilde, the narrator/novelist, living through the experience he's relating. And like Dr. Dysert, in Shaffer's Equus – a tame if wise psychiatrist, trying to cure the very pagan passions (in a young patient) he only wishes he was brave enough to experience – such a dramaturgic approach would allow the audience to experience the tragedy Wilde's novel give us.

Either approach would allow the stunningly-staged climax to bring Wilde's confrontation with the dangers of beauty to a more successful conclusion. Destroying the Picture of Dorian Gray would be the only way out.


Nike Doukas Accenting Her Way From The Cockney Streets To The Royal Court

Actress Nike Doukas will be doing double duty in Pasadena Playhouse's latest production of KING CHARLES III, previewing on November 8, 2017. Besides taking on the character of ‘Ghost,' Nike's accent coaching expertise will be utilized to achieve maximum British effect of the various British characters. Nike was most gracious to take the time to answer my accented inquiries.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Nike!

I have seen you credited as both a 'dialect coach' and an 'accent coach.' Could you explain the differences, if any, between the two terms 'dialect' and 'accent'?

I so appreciate your question about the difference between a dialect coach and an accent coach! Linguists make a very sharp distinction between the two: A dialect is defined by vocabulary that people use depending on where they come from, for example, in Boston (where I grew up), people say "wicked" to mean "very" (among other things). But the classic "Park the car in Harvard Yard" is an accent, the same vocabulary is used, but pronounced differently. I deal only with pronunciation, and therefore, am an accent coach. For some reason, theater people tend to call what I do a dialect coach, I'm not sure why, but I'm always trying to correct the error.  

If I wanted to sound like a Cockney villager, would I come to you with the request to coach me in a Cockney accent? Or in a Cockney dialect?

Come to me for coaching on your Cockney accent - although Cockneys also have a very extensive dialect, which I can research for you, if you want extra help on that. Then I will be your dialect coach.

Any accent you would name as your specialty?

My specialty is British accents, particularly RP, or Received Pronunciation, which is also known as the Queen's English, and is that very refined sound you hear from the Royals and upper crust. I also specialize in Cockney and Estuary, which is the ever more popular accent, sort of mid-way between RP and Cockney.

In KING CHARLES III, what various accents will we be hearing? Upper-class British? Lower or middle-class British?

We will be using all three in KING CHARLES III. I have also coached about twenty other accents for plays and TV. Boston is one of my favorites, for obvious reasons.

How do you feel about productions that do not incorporate the appropriate accents of the show's characters?

I feel very strongly about accents in plays. There are certain plays I can't imagine without an accent, and KING CHARLES III is one of them. As an actor and as a theatre-goer; for me, the accent informs and enriches the play. The sounds people make reflect their emotional, physical selves, the way people make a sounds, informs how they express their point of view. This is not only in terms of the way the sounds are formed in the mouth, but the musicality of the speech, which varies so much from region to region. Think about the way Jimmy Carter's accent compared to Hilary Clinton's accent, compared to LBJ's accent, compared to our current president's accent informs their speech and personality. When directors try to neutralize accents, or lose them altogether, it makes me feel they don't really understand the world of the play. I sometimes think they think it's too hard for the actors and will distance them from their roles. And it is hard work, and can feel distancing. In KING CHARLES III, we are working for a much more expressive musicality, that is very alien to our American ears. Americans tend to make emphasis with volume, not pitch. The Brits are much more versatile with the vocal tools they have; they use volume, pace and most especially pitch, and it makes them much more expressive communicators. It's why they are so pleasant to listen to! So as Americans in the cast, we have to embrace those changes and make them feel like ourselves, and that takes work. But that's what actors do! We love taking on different physicalities, different ways of dressing, different ways of thinking. So for a director to say that's just "too hard," I say, "It's our job." And for the director who says, "It will alienate the audience. I want this to feel universal." I say, "There is no such thing as a universal accent. Everyone has one. And when audiences recognize themselves, it isn't because of the accent., It's because of the shared humanity. The fun and the lesson is recognizing yourself in someone who seems quite different. Fortunately, our director Michael Michetti, feels the accents in this play are of the utmost importance. He and I talk a lot about the story we are telling with the way the actors are sounding. He's very sensitive to the nuances of sound, and I love that.

Would you consider yourself an actress who loves to teach and coach? Or a teacher/coach who loves to act?

I am something of a typical L.A. actor (and American actor) who does as much acting as possible, and supplements my income with outside work. In my case, I'm an accent coach. I teach accents in class, and I am an acting teacher and coach. I also started directing a few years back, and in fact, will be directing Harold Pinter's THE HOTHOUSE at Antaeus as soon as KING CHARLES closes. I adore teaching and directing and accent coaching, but I think of myself primarily as an actor. Being an actor informs everything I do as a teacher, coach and director. Specifically as an accent coach, I know how delicate the process of developing a role is, and how alienating it can be to add an accent to the mix. I like to think I am able to help the actors use the accent to get closer to their characters. I often give notes in terms of acting choices. That's really fun for me. I try to be sensitive as to when an actor can hear a note about accents and when they need to focus on other things.

You're multi-tasking in KING CHARLES III, first in the role of Ghost and also as the show's accent coach. Do your two positions overlap? Or do you keep them separate?

In KING CHARLES III, I rarely give notes when I'm acting. Aside from the fact that I don't want the actors to think I'm listening for their accent when I'm acting with them, I don't want to be listening for their accent when I'm acting with them! So I spend most of my off-stage time taking notes. This wonderful, warm and talented cast has been absolutely receptive and welcoming of the notes. They make it easy for me.

You were chosen as one of the ten to participate in the Lunt Fontanne Fellowship Program in 2011 led by Olympia Dukakis as your Master Teacher. What was the process in getting to be chosen?

I was a 2011 member of the Lunt Fontanne Fellowship. Each year, the Fellowship selects ten American regional theatre actors to go to the Lunt Fontanne estate in Wisconsin, and study for ten days at their beautifully-kept home in the country. I was nominated by South Coast Repertory Theatre, a theatre where I have worked a lot over the years. It was an absolute honor to be nominated by my friends at SCR, and accepted into the program. Each year they have a different "mentor" leading the group of ten actors, and my year, it was Olympia Dukakis.

What gems of wisdom did Ms. Dukakis share with you?

She is a fiery, passionate, and hugely talented actress. We spent ten days with her thinking about and working on Chekhov plays. She had much to share with us, including her incredible knowledge on the period Chekhov was writing in. She also has a specific way of rehearsing. It was challenging and rewarding to experiment with her way of looking at rehearsal. It was especially rewarding to be among old and new friends in this group, and share war stories, complaints and to appreciate each other's work. It's very rare that actors get these kind of working retreats, and are treated so lovingly and lavishly. It made us feel very special, and I recommend it to any actor who's lucky enough to be asked to be included.

Thank you again, Nike! I look forward to hearing all your wonderful work in CHARLES.

Thank you, Gil, for your interest in me and in KING CHARLES III.

For ticket availability and show schedule through December 3, 2017, log onto www.pasadenaplayhouse.org


Audio Interview: Judith Scott - of the feature film GUESS WHO - stars in “Mrs Warren's Profession” at A Noise Within

Enjoy this interview about “Mrs Warren's Profession” By George Bernard Shaw staring Judith Scott (of the feature film GUESS WHO where she played alongside Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher & Zoe Saldana) at A Noise Within, running until Nov 18th. You can listen to this YouTube interview while commuting, while waiting in line at the grocery store or at an audition, backstage and even front of the stage.  For tickets and more info Click here.


Urgent call to action: Robert Schenkkan's ‘Building the Wall' will premiere at Fountain Theatre, roll across U.S.

LOS ANGELES (Feb. 17, 2017) — A new play by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan (The Kentucky Cycle, All the Way, Hacksaw Ridge), written in direct response to the immigration policies of the Trump administration, reveals how those policies might lead to a terrifying, seemingly inconceivable, yet inevitable conclusion. Building the Wall opens at the Fountain Theatre on March 18, the first in a series of productions set to take place at theaters across the U.S. as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.

In the very near future, the Trump administration has carried out his campaign promise to round up and detain millions of immigrants. As a writer interviews the former supervisor of a private prison, it becomes clear how federal policy has escalated into something previously unimaginable.

Multiple-award winner Michael Michetti directs James Macdonald (Mutual Philanthropy at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA) and Judith Moreland (Ovation Award for the Fountain's Miss Julie: Freedom Summer) in Schenkkan's riveting, harrowing and illuminating cautionary tale.

“This is an urgent cry of warning from a leading voice in the American theater,” says Fountain co-artistic director Stephen Sachs. “It's an opportunity for the Fountain to make its voice heard through our art. This project is more than a play. It's already ignited a national firestorm with theaters across the country signing up to produce it.”

In an interview with BBC Newshour, Schenkkan noted that “Donald Trump is not unusual or extraordinary… this is the playbook of authoritarianism. The question, of course, is not what Donald Trump will do. It's what we, as citizens, will do to respond.”

“Audiences can expect to be very rattled by this play,” notes Michetti. “Robert lays out a clear path of where we could all too easily end up if we don't change course. But the idea is not for people to go home depressed. It's a call to action. We've got to stop this from happening. We need to step up and exercise our rights as citizens to create positive change.”

To that end, the Fountain will host post-performance discussions throughout the run, and additional ancillary events are currently in the planning stages.

Other productions of Building the Wall are set to take place at the Curious Theater in Denver, Forum Theater in Silver Spring, Md., Borderlands Theater in Tucson and City Theatre in Miami.

Building the Wall runs March 18 through May 21, with performances on Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.; and Mondays at 8 p.m. (dark Monday, March 20). Three preview performances take place on Wednesday, March 15;Thursday, March 16; and Friday, March 17, all at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $15$35; every Monday is Pay-What-You-Can. The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Secure, on-site parking is available for $5. The Fountain Theatre is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. For reservations and information, call (323) 663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com. Like us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/TheFountainTheatre. Follow us on Twitter: @fountaintheatre.