Theatre Review: Directing “Fiddler”

My regular readers may have noticed that I review stage productions but not movies.  Part of this is that I rarely see movies in cinemas (True Grit was the last movie that we attended).  Part of this is that many others are writing about movies already.  Part of this is  that a movie is a different means of presenting a story from a play.  More or less, movies are the same with each showing.  I might catch different elements or themes by viewing the same movie at different times, but this has more to do with my familiarity with the presentation, or different life experiences that have transpired since the last viewing.  But, the images on the screen are the same.  Stage performances, in contrast, will be different when produced at difference theatres by different companies.  I wrote about the Fresta Valley Christian School Spring Musical of Fiddler on the Roof in May.  Two month later, we attended the McCoy Grand Theatre’s production of Fiddler on the Roof.  Same script and music. Different productions.

Attending two productions of the same play in such a short time, allowed me to consider the influence of the director on the performance.  Diane King, the Drama Club advisor for Fresta Valley directed their production of Fiddler on the Roof.  Keith Miller, a veteran of The McCoy Grand, directed the show we saw recently.  Each director had to make many decisions related to casting and staging, which brought us in the audience the experience of viewing the musicals.

Casting: Most professional theatres conduct their auditions for shows in New York City.  Regional theatres will still use local actors, along with the big-draw names, and actors based in NYC.  Mrs. King and Mr. Miller, directing for a school and community theatre, had different missions and difference talent pools.  While both are constrained in selecting parts from relatively small communities, they both have an advantage of knowing when they chose the show who might step up to the stage.

A skill of a director is to assign parts for balance in the cast.  A play or musical does not succeed because the actors recite all the lines and sing all the tunes.  The phenomenon called “chemistry” come from casting actors who give each other energy, keep up the pace, draw out a pause which gives us in the audience a chance to absorb the poignant line or to laugh at a good bit of schtick.  This applies to main characters, as well as to ensemble performers, with or without lines.  The more evenly casted are the roles, the more we will focus on the whole production, rather than someone who stood out for being too skillful or missing cues.

In Fiddler on the Roof Tevye has five daughters, three near marriageable age.  Unless a director happens to know a family with five talented daughters, she or he will have to cast the siblings with some dissimilarity in appearance.  Both Mrs King and Mr Miller approached this situation by casting three young actresses with distinctly different physiques for the roles of Tzeitle, Hodel, and Chava.  This is actually plausible, in that siblings often are different heights, weights, and display different sets of body language.  Given the themes about love that each daughter will represent, these physical differences can enhance each actresses’ character development.

The eldest daughter, Tzeitel (Sarah Widder*), struggles to follow in the tradition of marrying a young man, Motel (Charles Kilmer), from the village, while asserting her desire to marry for love, rather than by arrangement for financial security.  Both Mrs. King and Mr. Miller cast a young woman who may seem plainer than her sisters, but also more robust when she does stand up for her promise to marry Motel.  This works well, as Tzeitel’s story parallels the Biblical story of Leah and Rachel (the older daughter, Leah, must marry before the more beautiful young daughter, Rachel) and she will bear the first child of the next generation.  The next two daughters, Hodel (Makayla Baker) and Chava (Anna Smith), catch the eyes of young men from outside the village.  Perchik (Ben Smith) is the revolutionary, who will reach out his hand to Hodel to dance, then to follow him to Siberia after he is imprisoned.  Casting a young woman with a bashful smile and lithe hand makes their devotion believable.    Fyedka (George Maddox), a soldier and Christian, will notice Chava’s figure and the book tucked under her arm, before she accepts the book that he hands to her to read.   The director has the challenge to cast a young woman who will not upstage her sisters, but who can step to the spotlight to dance while Teyve sings about his “little bird”.    For a large cast, as with Fiddler on the Roof, the director has many other casting decisions.  (*Given that I reviewed the Fresta Valley production previously, I will site names of the performers and crew for the McCoy Grand in this review.)

Staging.  Once the director determines the cast list, and the actors set about learning their lines and tunes, the director must turn his or her vision on the physical space in which they will perform.  As I described earlier, Mrs. King and her set crew has the challenge of constructing the village of Anatevka in the multipurpose room of the school.  The Mccoy Grand is a formal theatre, but from an early era in which the stage was designed relatively shallowly, with little room in the wings.  At some point, the owners extended the front of the stage over the orchestra pit, doubling the performance space, but jutting half of it in front of the proscenium arch and curtain.

In those spaces, the set crew shaped the village, the farm yard, Teyve’s and Golde’s home, a tavern, and Motel’s tailor shop.  Mrs. King solved this puzzle by placing the interior of the home in the back left corner, the farm yard and village scenes in front of this space, separated by a curtain that could be drawn across the interior room, and using rotating flats with doors to represent the tavern and tailor shop center stage.  An additional challenge for Mrs. King was accessing the stage, as the only entrances were from the two hallways that lead into the multi-purpose room.  Her crew effectively extended the sense of the village off the stage and into these hallways.  The effect of this layout was that I had the sense of looking through the public spaces in order to view the private interactions of the characters.

Mr. Miller’s crew laid out a different plan.  The public spaces were mostly set behind the proscenium arch, with a three-dimensional barn, complete with milk buckets and cart to the left, a stone wall back stage, and entrance to Teyve’s and Golde’s  home.  The interior spaces were represented by setting up furniture in front of this scenery either center stage (the tavern and home interior), or to the right (tailor’s shop).  Additionally, Mr. Miller brought in the audience by having several scenes in which characters entered through the aisles and step up to the stage, such as when the Constable (Keith Miller) and the Russian military (Lucus Orrndorff, Iam Im, Ken Peck, and George Maddox) carry out a pogrom during the wedding.  Mr. Miller’s direction brings the private scenes of the play up front, against the backdrop of the public spaces.

Blocking.  Once the stage is set up, the director must go scene by scene to block out where the actors will position themselves on the stage.  As I suggested, Mrs. King confines each scene to different areas of the stage, allowing the performers to work within close contact to each other.  This is particularly effective in the more intimate scenes such as when the Tevye sings the question to Golde, “Do you love me?”, or when Motel and Tzeitel show off their new additions, their child and sewing machine.  Mr. Miller, in contrast, because he blocks the interior scenes in front of the public spaces, has the whole front of the stage to fill with actors and movement.  In “Teyve’s Dream” scene Teyve (Heath Hershberger) tells Golde (Danyl Freeman) that Grandmother Tzeitel (Faye Sherman) and Fruma-Sara (Heather Thorne) visited him in a dream to warn against the marriage of Tzeitel to Lazar Wolf (Bod Thompson).  Teyve and Golde lie on au up tilted bed relating the dream, while the cast comes out from the behind the scenery, wearing masks and swirling around the couple and stage.  The constant movement fills the stage and gives the scene a very dream like vertigo.

Lighting.  Both directors work with limited lighting affects, as neither space was built with modern stage lights.  Mrs. King uses a few light poles and a spot light to illuminate different areas of the stage.  Mr. Miller has left, right, and central lighting to work with.  Yet, both bring on goose-bumps with clever use of their lights.  Mrs. King uses the spot light, with a yellow filter, for Teyve to step into while talking with God.  This focuses our eye on to his deliberations.  Mr. Miller turns off the light for great affect during the Sabbath prayer scene.  The stage is darkened and backstage a white curtain becomes illuminated with blue and red, while Golde lights the candles on the table.  As the family’s faces shine from the candle light, other cast members step down the aisle, carrying candle lights and singing in the midst of the audience.  Sometimes the absence of light catches the moment better than daylight.

Music and Amplification.  Most professional theatres use microphones and amplification to some degree these days.  This might be area microphones around the stage or wireless microphones positioned within the leader actors’ costumes and wigs.  Recorded and live-music may come in the form of incidental music between scene to full orchestras accompanying the singers on stage.  Having a music performance emphasis in their curriculum, Fresta Valley was able to incorporate the preparation for Fiddler on the Roof into their studies.  Mrs. King had the challenge that the orchestra playing in the multipurpose room could overwhelm the students singing on stage.  She chose to provide wireless microphones for the lead singers.  Mr. Miller, on the other hand, worked with limited space in which to place live performers.  The musicals, which we have seen at the McCoy Grand, have been accompanied by recorded music.  This production had the most even quality accoustics that we have heard.  With monitors on stage and the main speakers in the balconies, the music filled the auditorium, but did not drown out the singers, who did not have microphones.

While using microphones to hear the lyrics is important, using amplification changes our auditory focus.  With microphones, our ears are drawn out to listen to the speakers.  Without microphones, our ears and eyes are directed to the same location: the actors.  Microphones also encourage a different, softer style of singing, with the performers being careful to avoid extraneous sounds that might be picked up.  Singing without amplification promotes development of projecting one’s voice and a fuller sound.  In these two productions, I agree with the director’s decisions, considering the performance spaces and experience of the singers.

Make up and Beards.  The actors make up serves two purposes.  Because stage light tends to be bright, it tends to wash out color.  Warmer color make-up counteracts the risk of looking pale.  Make up also allows actors to appear younger (smoothing out facial lines) or older (accentuating wrinkles).  Mr. King, working with a student cast portraying adult characters, used make more for the later purpose.  Mr. Miller, working with a actors portraying people their own age, used make up sparingly, mostly for the former purpose.

Country men and traditional Jewish men have beards.  Needless to say, Mrs. King did not have many of her actors with beards, and therefore utilized wigs to fill out their facial hair.  Mr. Miller had most of his adult actors grow beards.  A couple, being country men, may have come with beards in place, but several, whom we have seen in prior productions at the McCoy Grand, usually appear shaven.  Beard wigs require an additional level of suspension of belief from the audience, because rarely do these look or move like a natural beard.

Directing.  Usually when I write about local theatre productions, I emphasize the performers on stage and my impression of the show.  I do this because I want to praise the efforts of those who devote their time because of their love of the live stage experience.  But, without the directors, pulling together so many different elements, none of this would happen.

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About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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One Response to Theatre Review: Directing “Fiddler”

  1. Pingback: Theatre Review: Fiddler on the Roof | hermitsdoor

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