Night out takes me back to live theater – what a joy

I did something this past Saturday night that I haven’t done in years. I went with my wife of lo’ these many years to the thee-a-tah along with my oldest son.

That’s right. I went to the theater in Santa Paula, Calif., of all places. For those of you who are geographically challenged, Santa Paula is about a dozen miles east of Ventura. Most assuredly not the first place one thinks of when speaking of attending live theater. But there it is, hidden behind a park on a side street. It’s called the Santa Paula Theater Center, and I highly recommend it.

The play we saw this past Saturday, “Directing Hamlet” was wonderful. Yes, it had its flaws, like the cell-phone gimmick that ended the play in an unsurprising and disappointing way. That is the fault of the writer, Michael Perlmutter, who probably should take a second look at this gimmick because it takes away from an otherwise stellar evening of  storytelling.

Mr. Perlmutter also directed this production and did so deftly. Usually, you don’t want your actors with their backs to the audience, but this time, it worked. It helped create the space where actors and directors work.  And this play is about that space. Yes, much more as well, but it is most assuredly about the space in which human beings escape to create.

The two character play features the capable Joe Boles, as the troubled director, Lee, trying to connect with his young actor played by an astonishingly fresh and exciting talent, Curtis Cline, who played Brian. Cline brings an authenticity to his character that is both unusually bright and disciplined that leads to a theatrical freedom.  And this freedom allows the audience to jump on board. Good stuff.

Boles and Cline also work well together, performing a high-wire act of ostensibly rehearsing Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which of course leads us into realms of self-discovery. Also, good stuff.

Obviously, the play is about much more than the play, “Hamlet,”  and that’s the only place I believe it stumbles. I’m not going to address the gimmick because it is central to the story.  Just this thought: subtlety is the key to the cathartic moment. We, the audience, should not know before hand what is going to take place. When we do, and when the expected does take place, it loses its punch. We leave slightly adrift. Not because of the mystery but because of the lack of it.

Enough of the criticism, which is so easy to offer. My late father, actor James Whitmore, use to say that critics were “eunuchs at an orgy.”  He was right, I believe, and this play was well worth the $12-per-head – senior and student discounts – we had to pay.

I have seen many productions in my day and this ranks as one of the best. No kidding and not an overstatement. There are moments where time literally stands still, and the moment on stage becomes our moment; the essence of good theater is when the audience is lost in the story, listening, feeling, seeing and understanding. That happens here – time and time again.

By way of an example, I am a notorious clock watcher. I did not look at my watch but twice during this play. That is something. At least, for me.

As earlier mentioned, I hadn’t been to a play in many years. Life just gets busy. Shame on me. “Directing Hamlet” has encouraged me to go again. I plan to do so.

“Directing Hamlet” closes today, Sunday, June 26. More information about the The Santa Paula Theater Center is available at santapaulatheatercenter.org. Check it out. You won’t regret it.

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About stevewhitmore

Former award-winning newspaperman and broadcast journalist, both radio and TV, spanning three decades. Army-trained paralegal, court bailiff and prosecutor's lead investigator for the 8th Infantry Division's Judge Advocate General's Corp., Mainz, Germany. 1973-1975.
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