Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"The Birds," "Fiddler" on St. Petersburg stages

   St. Peterburg's two major theater companies are both offering plays based on classic stories that were turned into iconic movies.
"Fiddler" at freeFall
   That's the end of the similarities, though. American Stage's "The Birds" is a bleak mood-piece, loosely based on the Daphne DuMaurier book on which Alfred Hitchcock loosely based a film. It's a rare misfire from Conor McPherson, one of the best contemporary playwrights.
   Meanwhile, freeFall's "Fiddler on the Roof," the iconic musical based on a story by Sholem Aleichem, is a delight, with a revelatory performance by David Mann as Tevye.
   "The Birds" starts off promising something special. Before curtain, the audience sits immersed in Jeffrey W. Dean's ominous set, the interior of house under attack by birds gone wild. Sound designer Todd Olson, who also directed, enhances the mood with distant birds sounds. It's a chilling pre-show. But then...
   Just as show time approaches, the bird sounds silence, and the audience, almost literally captive, is subjected to three long curtain speeches -- two live, once recorded -- that total 15 boring, repetitive minutes of people mostly begging for donations.
   The mood never recovers from those inexcusable infomercials. McPherson's play is alright, but not anywhere near as good as his best works ("Shining City" and "The Seafarer") and it couldn't dig itself out of the hole the curtain speeches dug for it.
   It's the story of disparate people trapped in a house under attack, and doesn't seem to know what it wants to say. Fine performances by Roxanne Fay and Joseph Parra, that phenomenal set and great lighting by Joseph P. Oshry made the evening passable, but nothing more.
   But freeFall's "Fiddler" is a treat. The staging by Eric Davis, the music direction by the great Michael Raabe and, especially, the performance by Mann make the overly familiar 50-year-old musical a treat.  

   Mann takes the role defined by Zero Mostel and Chaim Topol and re-invents it. Tevye's always been a lovable character, but he's usually portrayed as somewhat blubbering, even buffoonish. Mann makes him smart and lets the audience feel a profound level of sympathy for him.   
   The whole production is strong, and it's staged in the round so it the experience is more intimate than what we're accustomed to from musicals.
   "The Birds" runs through Oct. 27 at American Stage, 163 Third St. N., St. Petersburg. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. $39-$49. 727-893-7529,
   "Fiddler on the Roof" runs through Nov. 3 at freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. $29-$39. 727-498-5205,


Todd Olson said...

After Marty Clear spent almost 40% of his review of our production of THE BIRDS carping on the “inexcusable…15 boring, repetitive minutes of people mostly begging for donations”, I feel the need to clarify and correct. One of the things Stage Managers do is time every part of a performance, so Marty’s inaccuracies are easy to correct. Preshow ‘thanks’, especially before a season opener, are necessary in a professional theatre; I wouldn’t expect a critic to understand why sponsor gratitude is important. But the speeches by our Board Chair and myself were not 15 minutes. On opening nights patrons enjoy live music, catered food, and much drink; patrons made it into the theatre by 8:04. Then – over the next 7 minutes – we thanked (not “mostly begging for donations”) two people: those present in our Legacy Society – individuals who have named American Stage in their planned giving - and Bud and Enez Hart, for whom we have officially named our stage in their honor. As Bud and Enez are in waning health, such a public expression was important to us. I guess these were the “inexcusable” parts to Marty. Our recorded curtain speech, which began as we walked off stage, lasted 2:30, and yes that did mention subscriptions, which I suppose, to Marty, passes for “mostly begging for donations”. I think 9 minutes is fair for any not-for-profit theatre upon the opening of their new season. Four major theatres across the country closed this summer; one of the reasons theatres like American Stage remains open is because of generous folks, and it’s critical to thank them. Ironically a critic doesn’t have to care if a theatre remains open or not. But a critic who covers openings should know there’s some pomp on such evenings, should know the difference between thanking and begging, and should know the difference between 9 and 15. Whether a critic decides to devote about 40% of their copy to what happened before the play proper ever began, well that’s the critic’s art, I guess.

Todd Olson, Artistic Director, American Stage Theatre Company

Anonymous said...

Thanks for you comment, Todd. I always value your point of view -- and of course your art.

Todd Olson said...

Thank you, Marty.