Tuesday, March 31, 2009

More on "Tale" from the SCT Review Crew

Here's the newest review from our group of intrepid subscribing-and-reviewing families known as the SCT Review Crew. Today's reviewers are Connie D., Kathi W. and Kelsey W.

Our Thoughts On A Tale of Two Cities

We loved A Tale of Two Cities. The playwright did a great job of remaining true to the book. We liked the way the playwright and director brought out Dickens’ compassion for the underdog, his understanding for the complications of class roles, and his focus on the character of individuals.

Right from the beginning of the play, we were hooked. Having several characters narrate the “It was the best of times…” phrases and the ominous sound in the background was powerful.

We liked the set, which worked in all locations. The coach carrying the Marquis (David Quicksall) was beautifully done (although for those of us near the front, a blanket over his lap would have helped the distraction of seeing all of his legs, etc.). Our other minor frustration was the fence in front of the balcony. In some scenes, it was difficult to see everyone completely. I appreciated how some of the actors leaned down so their faces were visible under the bar.

(top) Darragh Kennan and David Quicksall (bottom) Peter A. Jacobs and Philip Davidson. Photo by Chris Bennion.

We had differing opinions on the accents (or lack thereof). The youngest or us said during intermissions that she would have liked French and English accents so she could keep track of who was French and who was English. We older folk liked the emphasis on acting and clarity versus messing with accents. In our experience, actors trying to maintain perfect accents throughout a play tend to have less energy and force left for their acting.

The costumes were wonderful, especially those of the main characters and the upper and middle class. The Defarges’ (Allen Galli and Amy Thone) clothing was great, but one of us thought the mob scene extras’ costumes seemed a little too theatrically patchy. We know there’s a limit to budget and time, though, and the choice to spend more on the main characters was absolutely right.

Rafael Untalan, Allen Galli, Darragh Kennan, Marianne Owen and Carol Roscoe. Photo by Chris Bennion.

The mob scenes would have been more dramatic with more people, and again we understand there are financial limitations… but maybe you could have had some volunteers or stagehands or prop people come out for those scenes to make it feel more like a real, crowded, out-of-control, city mob.

The acting was excellent, especially Rafael Untalan as Sydney Carton. He was very believable in a role that could be overplayed. He felt very true to the person he was at each point in the story.

We really loved the directing by Rita Giomi. There were great transitions between scenes and ideas, great unity of narration, great use of the stage, sound and actors. There were a number of extremely poignant moments, such as the finale, which were done perfectly.

The final impact was superb. The relationship of Carton and the seamstress, pointing out his true compassion despite himself, was touching. We momentarily had a tough time transitioning with the same actress being the pitiful seamstress right after she’d been the cruel Mme. Defarge. Luckily, Amy Thone is such a great actress that we were able to forget the Mme. Defarge in her within a few seconds.

Rafael Untalan as Sydney Carton. Photo by Chris Bennion.

The long climb around and up to the guillotine, the darkening red sky, and the rhythm of the heads/guillotine falling coming closer together as the seamstress and Carton waited their turn made for great tension. Having the stage completely and suddenly darken when the guillotine finally fell on Carton was perfect. It’s not often that it takes the audience such a long time to catch their breaths and gather their wits enough to applaud. We noticed that many people were tearing up at the end, including Untalan. We (and he) were so involved in Carton’s last minutes that we felt it was brave for the actor to come back on stage after that experience.

Of course, we felt that this play was very relevant to today. (Did you choose this before Wall Street toppled and even more people lost their jobs and homes?) The point of caring for others and living for others really came across.

Thanks again for a wonderful show.

A Tale of Two Cities runs through April 12, 2009 in SCT's Charlotte Martin Theatre.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Activity: Rock, Paper, Scissors

Disparities of power and status are dominant themes in A Tale of Two Cities. The following activity from SCT's Education Department, written for use in a classroom setting but appropriate for any type of group, invites participants to think about power and status, their relative nature, and all of the factors that contribute to status.

Rock, Paper, Scissors

Standard Version

- Establish a gesture or specific body position for the following prompts: egg, chicken, dinosaur.

- Players all begin as eggs. The objective is to raise your status from egg, to chicken, to dinosaur by playing Rock, Paper, Scissors to grow more powerful. You may only play against people with the same status as you.

- The rounds go like so:
Egg vs Egg: winner becomes a chicken, loser stays an egg.
Chicken vs Chicken: winner becomes a dinosaur, loser becomes an egg.
Dinosaur vs Dinosaur: winner gets to stay a dinosaur, loser becomes a chicken.

- Once most players have become dinosaurs, the game is over.

Discussion Prompts

- Discuss status and how it relates to each of the characters above (egg, chicken, dinosaur). Why does an egg have lower status? Why does the dinosaur have higher status? What makes people have high and low status? Money? Education? Strength? Supernatural powers? Social Position?

- When did your status change in this game? When, in real life, does a person’s status change? If participants have seen A Tale of Two Cities, can they think of any characters whose status changes?

A Tale of Two Cities Version

- Discuss with players which characters in the play have higher and lower status. Rank three characters in order of their status. Choose which character is the egg, the chicken, the dinosaur and discuss why.

- Our Example:
Egg = Gabelle (low status: low ranking social position, poor, afraid of the Marquis)
Chicken = Lucie (middle status: comfortable life away from violence of France)
Dinosaur = Marquis (high status: noble, life of luxury, makes others do things they don’t want to do)

- Establish a gesture or specific body position for each character.

- Play Rock, Paper, Scissors as before, using the characters from the play

Thursday, March 26, 2009

SCT Review Crew kicks off with "A Tale of Two Cities"

A couple of months ago, we came up with an idea for the SCT Review Crew. At the time, the closing of the Seattle P-I was imminent instead of in the rearview, and column inches for arts coverage were (and are) drying up everywhere.

So, we turned to our audience, and asked for subscribers willing to write reviews for the plays they see this year, and the SRC was born. Today, we unveil the first SCT Review Crew submission, a review of A Tale of Two Cities penned by Review Crewer Karilynn W.

Off the bat, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this play—it stands out as one of my favorites for this age group. I even hauled my father to the theater, which I do occasionally, and he also thought it was really well done.

Rafael Untalan, Chelsey Rives and Connor Toms. Photo by Chris Bennion.

I’m still in the midst of reading Dickens’s classic and with all due respect to the novel, sometimes it’s a more enjoyable experience to see certain works in a different medium than the original. For me, SCT succeeded by presenting A Tale of Two Cities in a fluid and engaging stage performance, lightening up some of the dense prose and plot without losing the themes and impact of the original novel. The result is an exciting, thoughtful and accessible story, sometimes funny and sometimes dramatic, that stays true to the novel’s interwoven narrative while still retaining clarity between the different plot threads. There is never confusion as to what or where events are taking place—I was caught up in the story without having to stop and figure out what just happened.

Rafael Untalan (background), Chelsey Rives, Connor Toms and Philip Davidson. Photo by Chris Bennion.

I also thought the set design (by Carey Wong) was stellar, playing a big part in the flow and tone of the story. In the darkened light, the wooden walkway stretching around the stage and the multi-tiered set pieces set the mood and worked wonderfully during the “split screen” scenes—simultaneous events taking place in different cities and in different past/present times. The English major part of my brain was even tickled in that, particularly in the France scenes, the multilevel set played on the class divide conflict—the aristocracy at the top and the “common” citizens at the bottom. Of course the set and lighting, especially striking during the guillotine scene, was great with or without a nagging English major brain.

Props to the cast—my experience is that SCT casts consistently do a great job and I always love seeing familiar faces from previous plays. Both Monsieur and Madame Defarge (Allen Galli and Amy Thone) were strong characters and played well against each other, shedding light on the different lengths one might go to for such a cause. (Thone also stood out to me because her of very recent appearance in another wonderful play, Tomás and the Library Lady.) I also really want to highlight Mr. Carton’s character (Rafael Untalan) — for me, using him as the primary mouthpiece for the story transitions brought focus to him and anchored the final act, where as the story’s heart, his decision hits home—at the end, I felt the pricks of emotional eye burn (you know that feeling you get behind the eyes when you’re moved by something). At the same time, he also brought some lightness and humor to the tale. He was the smart, smart-alecky guy that we liked; he wasn’t bad, just unmotivated and uninvolved until he found something that mattered.

Rafael Untalan as Sydney Carton. Photo by Chris Bennion.

I know in the performance I attended, the play was enjoyed by a wide audience, from preteens on up to the older couples that attended, including me and my guest. After the final scene, the audience gave a standing ovation and on the matinees I usually go to, I don’t see that very often. I think we had a slight guillotine technical malfunction at the end, but it didn’t disrupt the onstage action. This is a great choice for preteens and up, all the way up to fathers like mine—if I lived farther north, it’s one I wouldn’t mind seeing again.

A Tale of Two Cities runs through April 12, 2009 in SCT's Charlotte Martin Theatre.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"A Tale of Two Cities" Teen Review

Opening weekend of "A Tale of Two Cities" is behind us, and our very first review comes from a teen member of our audience, Kathryn L., a student at Bishop Blanchet High School. (spoiler alert - critical plot points are revealed)

I am fourteen and have only heard of Charles Dickens. You say Dickens and I think of Oliver Twist, a whale, and milkshakes. I attempted to read A Tale of Two Cities before coming, but could not get a hold of a copy as it is apparently a very popular book. Going in, all I knew were two things. One, I was going to watch a play based of a story by the famed English author Charles Dickens; and two, the story and play took place during the French Revolution.

Philip Davidson, Connor Toms, Chelsey Rives and Rafael Untalan. Photo by Chris Bennion.

On the way out, I knew three more things. One, it was terrific, even though I had no idea what the story was about going in. Two, it made me cry and was definitely better than reading The Odyssey for school. And three, (was that my [Language Arts] teacher I just saw walking out? Well, it wasn’t - thank goodness for that) I couldn’t wait for junior year during which I will read the book because of school requirements, and not only was I excited, but also dreading the idea of crying again when Carton (Rafael Untalan) and Darnay (Connor Toms) switch.

The sets were very realistic and I marveled at the well painted-backdrop and the richness portrayed in the Marquis’ (David Quicksall) room. I could almost feel the imaginary crowds’ spit as it rained from their angry mouths while they yelled for the death of Darnay at the trial. The devotion the cast and crew had for the making of the play shined through the dynamics of their voices, movements, and spectacular effects. Fast costume changing is right - it went by so quickly that I almost forgot that there were only a few people total.

(top) Darragh Kennan and David Quicksall (bottom) Peter Jacobs and Philip Davidson. Photo by Chris Bennion.

By far the drunken confession of love by Sydney Carton for Lucie Manette (Chelsey Rives) to the empty streets and then later the neighbors was the best. His sarcastic comments coupled with Charles Darney’s earnest do-gooding compliments made for very interesting conversation regarding Lucie. The sobs of the dying sister and Lucie as death is brought to whomever are life-like and chilling, and the shock on Mr. Lorry’s (Peter Jacobs) face as Carton says goodbye is priceless, as are Dr. Manettes’ (Philip Davidson) mad mumblings. The fierceness and loyalty shown by Miss Pross (Marianne Owen) towards her “ladybird” is matched only by Samwise Gamgee towards Frodo Baggins, and the determination and partiotism for France (in a unique way) is only for Monsieur and Madame, excuse me, the Citizens Defarge (Allen Galli and Amy Thone). The devastation of losing a child is evident of Gaspard’s (Darragh Kennan) face, as is his nonchalance at committing the murder of the Marquis to avenge his Babbette.

Rafael Untalan, Allen Galli, Darragh Kennan and Marianne Owen. Photo By Chris Bennion.

All together, the set and the superb acting of the actors are what make the show, and the sound effects are truly wonderful.

The play makes me want to read the book, and I only have two complaints. That it didn’t go on for longer, and that Carton didn’t live. But hey, you can’t control that, the original author’s dead, and the book is only known world-wide.

A Tale of Two Cities runs through April 12, 2009 in SCT's Charlotte Martin Theatre.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A few minutes with Allen Galli from SCT's "A Tale of Two Cities"

Allen Galli, most recently seen at SCT in last year's hit Busytown, was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his busy tech. schedule to talk to us about A Tale of Two Cities.

A Tale of Two Cities opens Friday, March 20th in SCT's Charlotte Martin Theatre and runs through April 12th.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Props are a good thing

Our excellent props department is led by Properties Shop Manager Edie Whitsett, who shared some interesting tidbits about the props from A Tale of Two Cities.

There are additional challenges when working on a play about a specific time period, in this case the years leading up to and first few months of the French Revolution (the start of is generally marked by the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789). You have to maintain a balance between historical accuracy, the desired visuals and the technical demands of the play (where some props have to be durable and others have to break apart for each performance).

As a result, we have the pieces that embrace historical accuracy:

- Quill pens were first used during the 500's BC. These are the quill feathers of birds sharpened to a point. Steel nib pens did not come until the early 1800's. The quill pens in "A Tale of Two Cities" are either turkey or pheasant quills.

And we have other pieces where the proper visual and feel are more important:

- The pistol is a Cogswell Pepperbox; it actually dates form the mid 1800's, but we really liked the look for Madame DeFarge. Ours is cast out of urethane foam so it won't break when it gets dropped.

Originally developed in London in the mid 1800's, this six-shot percussion pistol was not technically a revolver since the multiple barrels and receiver rotated together. This replica gun has a mechanically-revolving barrel with working action and wood grips. Though this replica pistol saw limited action in the Civil War, it was likely more commonly used in saloons of the American frontier underneath a poker table.

- The rifle is an American Civil War replica used in reenactments.

And we have the pieces that Properties must build to look like one thing, but fulfill a different purpose:

- The wine barrel that drops and breaks is made out of foam, glue, rope and wood.

- The pudding is carved and painted foam with sauce made from paint and glue - yum! A traditional English pudding is made of eggs, flour, butter (or suet - raw beef fat), dried fruit, brandy, syrup, spices and soda. It is steamed in a mold, tightly covered. Some folks baste it with more brandy or pour a hard sauce over it.

What strikes me most about this list and the other items that Edie shared, which covered items and topics ranging from secret societies’ use of coded messages woven into textiles to the invention of the envelope and the origin of 8 1/2” x 11” paper, is how much Edie and her staff gets to learn in the process of researching props.

And isn’t that often the best thing about theatre – we come to it with one expectation, to be entertained or enlightened, and find we learn more than we could have anticipated.

A Tale of Two Cities opens Friday March 20 and runs through April 12, 2009 in SCT's Charlotte Martin Theatre.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Audio Preview: A Tale of Two Social Classes

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." It was the days leading up to the French Revolution. And while it would be ridiculous to pin the cause of a social upheaval on the scale of the French Revolution on a single cause, the poverty of the masses (exacerbated by a general famine) matched to the conspicuous consumption and feudal privileges of the nobility was clearly a primary instigation.

The following preview audio clip from SCT's A Tale of Two Cities offers a glimpse into this tension, illustrating also the nobility's condescension to the working class, which would soon fall to Enlightenment ideals of citizenship and inalienable rights.

Recorded by SCT Resident Sound Designer Chris Walker, and featuring Allen Galli, Darragh Kennan, David Quicksall, Amy Thone and Rafael Untalan.

A Tale of Two Cities opens March 20, 2009 in SCT's Charlotte Martin Theatre and runs through April 12, 2009.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Behind the Green Screen

As we mentioned before, we've started using green screen for our press shoots - the photography shoots that take place a couple of weeks before opening night and capture press preview images.

And while this process does reduce stress on our scenic shop, as we no longer pester them for set pieces two weeks early so we can use them as backdrops, it would be a mistake to call it "easy."

The process requires a great deal of care from our photographer, Chris Bennion. He has to be conscious of not just the light on the subject, but must also the green screen to get it as close to flat in appearance as possible. The more folds and texture we can see in the screen, the more time I'll be spending dropping it out in Photoshop later.

But it takes more than Chris and the actors and I - a lot more. The costumes are usually still being finished and sized, so we usually have at least Rana Webber, our Costume Shop Manager, and a draper on hand, and often a second draper and a make-up artist. Because our shots are often tight and close, and stray hairs or oddly-curled bits of costume will make the finish work much harder, all of these folks are constantly fussing over the actors between shots, trying to make sure we capture the perfect look.

The actors are troopers. They show endless patience as Chris asks them to move a half-foot forward, now three inches back, twist slightly toward the light, not too far, now hold that pose, longer, longer, a little longer, ok, got it, relax. The photo shoots aren't long, but between the blazing lights and constant posing, they can be grueling.

In the past, we've used a couple of different sources for the images we drop in to the background. For The Wizard of Oz, we used stills taken from the projection design, and for Pharaoh Serket and the Lost Stone of Fire we used shots of the model of Jennifer Lupton's lavish set. A Tale of Two Cities doesn't have any projections, and the set is highly-functional but not visually compelling as a backdrop, so we turned to the Public Domain.

This painting is called "Prise de la Bastille" or "Storming of the Bastille" by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735-1813). The copyright expired long ago, meaning we can use the images as part of the Public Domain without paying a royalty (which our budget demands).

Once Chris drops off the raw images, like the one above, it's time to put in some earphones, crank up a little NPR and spend a couple of hours with Photoshop. We drop the majority of the background out using Select>Color Range, which does a good job but can leave a green "halo" around the subjects. It can also, if you aren't careful, drop out bits of green from the actors' costumes.

After the big drop, there's all the detail work. Hair and wigs present the biggest challenge, as you want to get out all of the green but leave in the stray strands and wisps so the hair looks realistic - not a round hair helmet. We use a combination of some Magic Wand selections, pencil and airbrush erasers, and subtle manipulation of hue, usually working at super-high magnification.

The results are very stylized images - more movie poster than preview clip. But they do a great job communicating the look and tone of the play, which is, after all, the primary job of press images.

We'll post more of the images from this shoot, including an "outtake," as soon as we get the finish work done.

A Tale of Two Cities opens Friday March 20th in SCT's Charlotte Martin Theatre and runs through April 12th.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Adios, Tomás

Tonight was closing night for Tomás and the Library Lady. It's always a little bittersweet to close a show, especially one as heartwarming as Tomás.

During the talkbacks that followed every show, our actors asked the audience if any of them spoke other langauges than English at home, or if they had close friends or family that spoke other languages. The responses were pretty amazing. As of tonight's final performance 66 languages mentioned in talk-backs:

Spanish, Thai, Korean, French, Gaelic, Ukrainian, Tagalog, Portuguese, Latvian, Hindi, German, Hungarian, Vietnamese, Kachchi (India), Arabic, Tlingit, Tamil (India), Greek, Cambodian, Swahili, Croatian, Pig-Latin, Lithuanian, Turkish, Lebanese, Finish, Hawaiian, Laotian, Amharic (Ethiopia), ASL, Bulgarian, Tibetan, Marathi (India), Urdu (Pakistan), Kannada (India), Nepalese, Norwegian, Malayalam (India), English, Bosnian, Navajo, Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Czech, Danish, Romanian, Swedish, Mongolian, Tigrinya (North Africa), Farsi, Samoan, Somalian, Icelandic, Flemish, Dutch, Estonian, Berber, Latin, Telugu (India), Haitian, Serbian, Italian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Polish

It was a honor and a privilege and a pleasure to host this lovely show, and to discover the incredible linguistic diversity in our audience.

Remember, just one more week to see Pharaoh Serket and the Lost Stone of Fire. Next up: A Tale of Two Cities.