One of the best revivals of 2012 so far was the Colony’s rendition of Jon Marans’ Old Wicked Songs, directed by Stephanie Vlahos.
Now, with the Colony issuing warning alarms about whether it can continue producing in 2013, it has returned to Vlahos with a somewhat similar play, Willy Holtzman’s The Morini Strad, in its West Coast premiere.
Both of these productions use only two actors, playing an older character and a younger character, who overcome initial friction and find a measure of friendship. And both are set in the world of classical music, accompanied by live performances of some of that music.
On the one hand, presenting both of these plays within one calendar year feels a bit repetitive. And of course the older/younger characters and the friction/friendship narrative are familiar features of many plays that don’t necessarily have anything to do with classical music. Some critics will probably cry “predictable”.
On the other hand, despite their mutual interest in music, the pairs of characters in these two plays are hardly identical. The older characters differ in gender, choice of musical instruments, achievements and backstory. The younger ones don’t even do the same kind of work — while the younger man in Old Wicked Songs is a preening pianist, his counterpart (David Nevell) in The Morini Strad identifies himself modestly as an “artisan,” as opposed to an artist. He makes and restores violins with no intent to perform with them in public.Â Old Wicked Songs is set in the old country, The Morini Strad in the new world.
Regardless of what you think of Morini as a script, the Colony does this kind of play really well. Although Morini isn’t as strong a script as Old Wicked Songs, it pulled me into its world and kept me there from start to finish. If your theater is in danger of going over a theatrical fiscal cliff, maybe it’s good idea to use a different variation of the kind of play that you do really well. Do we criticize the Troubies, the Colony’s Burbank neighbors, for relying on a formula that they have seemingly perfected?
Morini (Mariette Hartley), the old violinist who owns a damaged Stradivarius but no longer performs, is feeling her encroaching mortality. Of course, an aged person’s impending death could be called predictable in the extreme. But that doesn’t mean that playwrights should stop writing about it.
It’s a universal concern. And it can follow many different paths — in fact, for one of the best and most-detailed expressions of the diversity with which older people face death, you couldn’t ask for something much more illuminating (or better performed) than Henry Murray’s Three Views of the Same Object, recently seen at Rogue Machine.
Morini, in Holtzman’s play, wants to have her $3.5 million Strad restored to perfection before she goes, but she hasn’t figured out exactly what will happen to it. She hires the young luthier Brian Skarstad to do the restoration, and then she decides to hire him to help her figure out the answer to the longer-term question.
These are based on real-life characters with the same names. But if you’ve heard about the fate of the real-life Morini’s Strad, you should know that Holtzman doesn’t go very far in that direction. This is not a whodunit. He’s more interested in Morini and Skarstad than he is in the Strad that both of them treasure.
Unlike Old Wicked Songs, The Morini Strad does not require its actors to play the music themselves. However, there is a third person, albeit not an actor, on stage. Geneva Lewis, a 14-year-old prodigy from the Colburn School, plays a violin prodigiously, but she usually remains in shadow. Sometimes she’s one of Morini’s students; at other times she is a ghostly image of the young Morini.Â Her performance adds an extra layer of poignancy to the play’s reflections on youth and old age.
Although a theater company’s fate should never be tied to the success or failure of any single production, The Morini Strad certainly provides a strong case for the argument that the Colony is an essential part of the cultural landscape of Burbank in particular and LA theater in general.
The Morini Strad, Colony Theatre, 333 N. Third Street, Burbank. No performances Thanksgiving week. After that, Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Dec. 16. www.ColonyTheatre.org.Â 818-558-7000 x 15.
***Old Wicked Songs and The Morini Strad production photos by Michael Lamont
In my discussion of the Ovation Awards last week, I concentrated primarily on the winners and secondarily on the show.
But I’d also like to take note of an encouraging change in the rules that govern how many shows the Ovation voters are required to see during the year.
Ovation voters are divided into two tiers. Tier One voters (artistic directors and current or past members of the Ovations Rules Committee) have to see only 10 productions (other than their own) during the year. Tier Two voters (all the others) have to see only 25 productions — unless it’s their first year of voting, in which case they, too, are allowed to see only 10.
In the 2010-11 season, Tier One included about 110 voters, compared to 130 in Tier Two. In the following season (2011-12), the one for which the awards were distributed last week, the breakdown was even-steven — 121 voters in each tier.
This was an ominous trend. Considering that there are usually several hundred productions eligible for Ovations, Ovation voters should be required to see more shows, not fewer. The more shows voters see, the more perceptive they should become at figuring out what they consider really good (and really bad).
So I’m happy to report that in the current voting season (2012-2013), the trend has reversed. This year, there are only 63 Ovation voters in Tier One and more than twice as many — 162 — in Tier Two.
According to Doug Clayton, the LA STAGE Alliance’s director of programming and operations, the shift is attributable to a decision by the Ovations Rules Committee to require artistic directors to “submit an application just like everyone else — so everyone who votes has been vetted through the application process.” In other words, you can’t just say you’re an artistic director and automatically become a voter.
By the way, each year I try to salute the most active Ovation voters and scold those who don’t see enough. Although Clayton doesn’t reveal names, he reveals numbers. In the 2011-12 season, the busiest voter saw 283 productions. Three others scored more than 200 shows, and six more attended between 100 and 200 shows. Twenty-nine voters experienced between 50 and 100 of the possible Ovation candidates.
So that’s 39 voters who saw 50 or more shows — an average of Â just about one a week, which sounds to me like an acceptable minimum number.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of Ovation voters saw fewer productions. Seeing a mere 25-50 shows were 100 of last season’s voters. And 101 voters — the largest single group — saw fewer than 25 shows. At least that sorry number is bound to rise in the current voting year, thanks to the new rule about artistic directors.Print