Backstage Stories, a New Play by an Old Theatre Hand
By Gary Carr
It’s always good when an original play by a Bay Area playwright based in a “small but mighty” theatre company gets some serious notice. The following is a review of one such work, Backstage Stories, by long-time Bay Area theatre jack-of-all-trades, John Hull.
Below, Glenn Havlan, manager of San Francisco’s Theater of Others, analyzes the November 2017 production of Hull’s play and also tips his hat to a fellow small theater, the 16th Street Players. Mr. Havlan shines a spotlight on Hull, San Francisco’s 16th Street Players, and the venue they use, the Mission Dolores Auditorium.
Glenn Havlan’s Review
The 16th Street Players are back, this time with an original piece by John Hull. Actually, it’s a dozen scenes all on the subject of theatre as experienced by its practitioners. Backstage Stories, written over several years, compiles these scenes into a two-act format of about 90 minutes. A large cast rotates through the various scenes as different characters. The brief scenes are carefully paced, and they immediately begin to roll into each other, creating some kind of continuity from the different stories and moods depicted.
One thing that holds them together is the stage design, also by Mr. Hull. They are all set in a dressing room with a table set downstage. The entrances and exits are cleverly positioned around the conventional box set and are changed by moving set pieces like a wardrobe cabinet and a free-standing screen. It gives us the feeling that the room has been there for ages and that we’re seeing episodes experienced by its various occupants over many years.
The dialogue in the scenes is natural and tells the stories concisely. Mr. Hull avoids making the characters sound the same, giving them individual voices that suit the settings and attitudes of the people he depicts. This is a world he knows well. It is recognizable to experienced theater people and informative to outsiders.
Director Katina Letheule understands that each scene needs to begin at a brisk clip and that characters need to be established clearly and immediately. Not all of her fifteen actors are equal to this task, which has something of the craft of improv about it.
Particularly adept is Jayme Catalano especially in “The Fracas,” as a stage diva playing off her impending marriage against the chance of a better offer. In that scene she shows excellent comic timing along with Lauren Arnold, who also shines as a ditzy Betty-Boopish innocent in “Heart of Gold” and executes a slow burn comic bit in “Places, Please.” Daniel Morgan displays good energy and clear characterizations in “The Fracas” and “The Costume.”
A nice, wistful scene called “The Debut” is played with feeling by a mother/daughter casting of Shay Oglesby-Smith and Anna Smith. Ms. Oglesby-Smith switches gears and attacks several other characters with gusto, especially as an actress engineering her own comeback in “The Ghostwriter.”
The remaining actors are at least competent, if not as able to accelerate at the rate of the others. And if not everyone is able to clearly differentiate their various roles, the clever sequencing spreads them out enough. This well-considered ordering of the scenes varies the moods among the comic and serious pieces. It also allows for the costume changes, as the cast goes through almost fifty outfits during the evening. The costumes by Marjorie Moore and Taurean Feaster are colorful and distinctive, helping to establish the personalities.
The director has done an excellent job of organizing the pieces into a whole and she keeps her actors moving at various paces that keep the scenes from blurring together. The choice, by either her or the writer, to imagine many characters as British suffers from some unconvincing attempts by a few of the actors to pull it off. Otherwise, Ms. Letheule’s craft is solid and serves the format well, combining the twelve pieces (along with a prologue and epilogue) into an entertaining show that never lags. In fact, it ends with a wild slapstick scene complete with Keystone Cops-type wackies, expertly staged to bring the collection to a furious finish.
The 16th Street Players have utilized the handsome venue on the grounds of Mission Dolores with style since 2009. After a three-year hiatus, they returned last year with an amusing production of “Murdered to Death.” Here’s hoping that the room will continue to function as a theatrical venue. It has a proper stage and the technical enhancements of lighting and sound by Production Manager and Technical Director Paul Seliga make the place a very attractive performance space. The Players have demonstrated an expertise in producing complicated plays in the theater, and their next event will be worth seeing too.