Murder and Marriage at Two Local High Schools – The play’s the thing at Mira Costa and Redondo Union
They’re not exactly duking it out in the ring or on the field, but this weekend the drama departments of Mira Costa High School and Redondo Union High School are opening new plays. Both of them begin with the letter “M” but the similarities end there: Mira Costa’s “The Matchmaker” (by Thornton Wilder) is a comedic farce and set in the 1880s, while Redondo Union’s “Macbeth” (William Shakespeare) is a gory tragedy still vaguely set in Scotland but taking place in the aftermath of a global holocaust. In other words, grin and grim.
The directors of both plays, Cary Jordahl at Mira Costa in Manhattan Beach and Justin Baldridge at Redondo Union in Redondo Beach, recently spoke about their latest endeavors and what was required in order to bring them to fruition.
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Justin Baldridge seems affable and intense at the same time. This is his sixth year at Redondo Union and he’s directed a wide range of shows from “Anything Goes” to “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Although he has a degree from Cal State Fullerton, he’s currently earning his Masters from Roosevelt University in Chicago, and his thesis project just happens to be “Macbeth.”
He admits that it’s a challenging work for high school actors.
“However,” Baldridge says, “I taught Shakespeare for an entire semester last year to my advance kids. When I decided to do this show I did a first round of auditions at the end of the school year and initially cast people out of my advance class because they’d had the background and the training.
“They got the scripts and they worked on it all summer. So, by the time I got to them in September, they’d had the script, been analyzing it, studying, paraphrasing, and doing all their actor homework.”
The rehearsals were off to a good start and the young actors, says Baldridge, have been up for the challenge.
“We’re still making discoveries, we’re still breaking down walls – which will happen all the way up until opening and probably till closing.
“I love to take a show and I like to manipulate it and make it my own,” Baldridge says, “and really find the inner core that I connect to.”
This appears to be what he’s done with his interpretation of “Macbeth.”
“I’ve changed the time period,” he says. “We’re doing it post-apocalyptic – we’re not keeping it traditional.” Why? “I wanted to find a way to tap into the students, and they do not tap into the original time period of ‘Macbeth.’ They don’t understand it.”
Baldridge himself says he’s loved the play since high school and especially the struggle for power that it embodies.
“That’s what the play’s all about,” he says. “A power struggle, and usurping the power.”
And so how did the particular vision for this production come about?
“I was watching TV one day and a commercial came on for ‘The Walking Dead,’ and there was this great scene that I still remember to this day where you have one group inside the jail, which is the safe zone, and you have the other people, their enemy group, on the outside of the jail looking in, and there’s a chainlink fence.
“All of a sudden,” Baldridge continues, “I went, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Macbeth.’ We’re in this world where everything has fallen apart and now we are fighting for safe zones. We will do whatever it takes to stay in power or to gain power, whether it’s by manipulating people, lying to people, forming alliances; who do we trust, who do we not trust?”
Just like that, the lightbulb went on.
“I felt the students can relate to this post-apocalyptic thing because not only do we have it on TV, but it’s in video games, it’s all over the place right now. We are in this post-apocalyptic trend in our culture.”
This approach shines a light into the text from a different angle, as Baldridge points out, but at the same time some alterations were necessary.
“I’ve edited the script in such a way,” he says, “that all references to England are cut, and everything is referenced as the East, the South, the West, the North. It’s all directional except for Scotland; that’s the one real name I’ve kept, location-wise. Everything else has been adjusted to the enemy soldiers and the tyrant. We’re not quite sure where we are, but we know it’s tribe versus tribe.”
Surprisingly, the word “zombies” never comes up.
Because they’re such an integral part to the story as we know it, at least two other place names remain intact.
“There’s a fine line when you’re editing Shakespeare,” Baldridge says. “Changing England to the East was easy because even scansion-wise when you’re looking at the rhythm of the line ‘the East’ and ‘England’ still have two syllables. But then all of a sudden you’re talking Birnam and you’re going, okay, if I change Birnam I have to change the premonition that the Weird Sisters have, because they say Birnam Woods.
“Now you have to go, okay, what do I keep, what do I not keep? So I thought, by keeping Scotland then it’s okay to keep Birnam and Dunsinane because those names are core. That was how I approached those issues.”
Those of us who stick around after a movie screening and watch the credits know that many, many more people besides the cast, the director and the producer were involved in bringing the film to your AMC or Regal, and it’s the same here. Baldridge has three student tech-leads, one each for sound and light, set design, and makeup, with the latter student leading a crew of eight other girls. It seems that only the costume designer – Kirk Stefferud of the local Metropolitan Educational Theatre Network – is based off-campus, and even so he’s not working alone but is being assisted by a crew of nine costume girls.
Redondo Union’s production of “Macbeth” promises to be different from what most of us are used to. “As a person and as a director,” Baldridge says, “I love risque and groundbreaking (work), and I like to push limits as much as possible.”
Some people might say that’s what theater is all about.
Going to the chapel?
Cary Jordahl is both the director and the technical director of “The Matchmaker,” in addition to designing and building the scenery, and he’s taught the technical theater class at Mira Costa for the past four years. Local theater aficionados should recognize his name: Jordahl has been producing theater in Torrance for 18 years and his very talented wife, Gia Inferrera-Jordahl, runs the Torrance Theatre Company.
I’m assuming that “The Matchmaker” isn’t as well known as “Macbeth,” since Verdi wasn’t around to turn it into an opera too. On the other hand, everyone knows “Hello, Dolly!” right? That’s the 1964 musical that starred Carol Channing, and which emerged out of “The Matchmaker,” the latter opening on Broadway in 1955. As for “The Matchmaker,” it’s actually a retooled version of “The Merchant of Yonkers,” which playwright Thornton Wilder debuted in 1937. The story is set in the 1880s, and revolves around a widowed marriage broker named Dolly Gallagher Levi. It’s a madcap kind of sitcom and Jordahl explains how it came to be chosen and what challenges it posed for all concerned.
“Over the course of the last few years we’ve been trying to select material that is varied enough to give kids that are involved in our (theater) program for their entire high school time contact with different styles and types of shows. We did ‘The Crucible’ last year, a classic piece of American literature, and after we did that show we thought we need to do a comedy this year.
“We read about 20 different plays,” Jordahl continues, always “looking for something that can provide ample opportunities for as many kids as possible.” That’s because the drama department has nearly 200 students involved with it in one way or another, and no one really wants to miss the boat. Shows with a cast of just seven or eight are going to leave a lot of kids out in the cold.
“We’re also looking for something that will challenge the kids,” Jordahl says, “because if they (merely) have to memorize their lines and pretty much be themselves it’s not stretching their legs or teaching them anything (new). I always say that I want something that is tough to do or challenging so they can really learn something.
“Now, there’s straight comedies,” Jordahl says, “and then there’s farce, which is a whole other level. We were talking to the kids about what farce is at the beginning of the process. A lot of people have possibly heard of it, most of them haven’t even heard of it, and a lot of them don’t understand the conventions of farce. So I thought, Great, we’re gonna learn something; we’re gonna learn a style of comedy.”
Farce isn’t simply wry humor, but rather over-the-top humor that relies on exaggeration, unpredictability, private conversations that are overheard – and misinterpreted, plus near-misses such as one character storming out the front door just as another character barges in from the back. Ray Cooney’s “Funny Money,” Joseph Kesselring’s “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” are examples of this style. As far as I know, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” isn’t.
“The Matchmaker,” Jordahl says, “was the second play that we read, and we read 18 other plays. We just kept coming back to this play because I kept using it as a benchmark, thinking, Oh, this is a good show – (but) not quite as good as ‘The Matchmaker.’ The reason we didn’t just pick ‘The Matchmaker’ was because there are a lot of challenges with the scenery. There’s four separate locations and a lot of props.
“Normally the Fall show doesn’t have as much of a budget as the spring musical, and so we try and be smart about the spending on the Fall show. The producer and I were saying, Well, instead of reading another play why don’t we just figure out how to solve the scenery problem with ‘The Matchmaker’?
“So that’s what we did,” Jordahl says. “We designed the unit – that has to work for four separate locations – in a way that would work for all of them, and then we just moved pieces in and out.”
Simple ingenuity, and another obstacle was overcome – and some people would say that theater is largely about this as well.
The actors’ point of view
“The Matchmaker” has an extensive cast, and four of the leads offered comments – at journalistic gunpoint – as to what it was about the play that put them to the test and then engaged them.
Kavon Tiegs plays Horace Vandergelder, the merchant of Yonkers in other words, who is quite wealthy as his name might suggest. Preston Doran is Cornelius Hackl, a clerk in Vandergelder’s department store. Ryan Fiene, as Barnaby Tucker, is an apprentice in the same store. And Julia McDermott as Mrs. Dolly Levi is the matchmaker but also a friend of Horace Vandergelder’s late wife – and no doubt the one character who’s going to be stirring up a lot of trouble.
“One of the most challenging things for me,” Preston says, “is channeling the time period, being able to relate to people (from that era) and how they lived and how they acted and how they said things.”
“My biggest challenge in this show is being comedic and farce-like,” Julia says, “but also trying to put some substance into [Dolly’s] character.”
Not being able to check my cell phone every five minutes, this would be most people’s biggest challenge.
As for Ryan, “The biggest challenge for me is playing young. My character is the same age as me, the youngest character in the cast.” He believes that in general today’s teenagers try to portray themselves as older than they are, but Cornelius (says Ryan) needs to come across as a little less young, and possibly still green behind the ears.
“I have a really similar problem to Ryan,” Kavon explains; “I have to play significantly older than I am. I’m playing a 60-year-old, very wealthy, very spick-and-span, very uptight man, and I’m an 18-year-old guy, still a high schooler, so it’s hard to put myself in that mindset.”
Sixty-years-old? Well, we’ll need to find you some crutches and lots of stomach padding. At 60 you’re lucky to be alive.
Ryan points out that the show leans heavily on sight gags or visual humor rather than on humorous dialogue.
“If you were to just read the script on your own you’d find it difficult to find comedic parts within the words, but definitely you’ll get the comedy from our actions, from our reactions, and situations that happen on stage when characters come and meet other characters when they’re not supposed to.”
Preston agrees. “One of my favorite parts about this whole experience was reading through (the play) and thinking it was pretty funny, (but) going through all the actions just made it so much more enjoyable and you were able to understand the play a whole lot better.”
“People should go into it remembering that the play is to be looked at through the lens of the 1880s, not necessarily (with) today’s humor,” Kavon adds.
“I think it’s a really funny show,” Julia says. “The audience feels in control because they know everything that’s going on, and they’re just watching these people fail and have conflict. They know what’s gonna happen, but as an actor (our job) is to be like ‘I have no idea what’s going on.’”
The one who gives the show cohesion and pacing is of course the director. He brings the whole thing to life and also, as executive director Carol Mathews points out, is on hand “to guide and direct (the cast) and mold them, and also take things that they might contribute also as to what they think the motivation of their character might be.”
Lastly, a few words with costume designer Alison Gerber, whose costumes for several previous MCHS shows will be on view in the auditorium lobby.
Gerber has a Masters in Costume Design from UCLA and then worked at Pepperdine for five years.
“I taught the undergraduate costume class, and I did all the mainstage shows,” she says. “I worked in the industry for a while but that wasn’t for me, so I left that and worked for the Getty, and then I got married and had kids.”
For “The Matchmaker,” Gerber designed the costumes, bought the fabric, and became a one-woman sewing sensation.
“I’m doing 20 1880s gowns for this show. It’s a lot of work, but that’s my idea of a good time. I said, as long as it’s fun I’ll keep doing it.”
Not only that, but Gerber’s already started shopping for materials to be used in Mira Costa’s Spring musical production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
The Matchmaker plays Nov. 7, 8, 14, and 15 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 12 at 4 p.m., Nov. 13 at 6:30 p.m., and Nov. 15 at 2 p.m., in the Mira Costa High School Auditorium, 1401 Artesia Blvd., Manhattan Beach. Tickets, $12 adults and $10 students and seniors, presale; $15 adults and $12 students and seniors at the door (presale at Patterson Cleaners, Dietz Brothers Music, and Tiffany Cleaners). (310) 318-7337 ext. 5242 or online at miracostaboosters.org.
Macbeth plays Nov. 6, 8, 13, and 14 at 7 p.m., Nov. 7 at 4 p.m., and Nov. 15 at 2 p.m., in the Redondo Union High School Auditorium, 631 Vincent Park, Redondo Beach. Tickets, $7 presale at the school office; $10 at the door or go to ruhsdrama.com.