Taking a leap into theater
by John Pixley
Did I have the right theater? That’s what I was thinking. It was like I had gone to see a movie and I had gone into the wrong theater at the multiplex.
Except not only was I not at the multiplex; I wasn’t seeing a movie. I was watching a play. Still, I wondered if I was watching the right play, the play that I thought I was going to see.
I don’t know why, but I thought The Electric Baby was going to be a holiday play, a sweet, little theatrical confection for the whole family to enjoy, if not a new Christmas play. Maybe it was a modern or post-modern sci-fi version of the Christmas story. After all, there was a baby that was electric and the ad said something about people seeking and trying to get “from one place to the next.” It was two weeks before Christmas, and there were all those cute, family-friendly productions that I was seeing advertised for the holidays.
Then again, it would be just like Ophelia’s Jump to put on an unusual, adventurous, even challenging Christmas play.
The Electric Baby by Stefanie Zadravec wasn’t a Christmas play. It wasn’t a holiday production. And it definitely wasn’t family-friendly, with a fair number of f-bombs and depictions of a troubled marriage, a car wreck and profound grief to start off with. No, this wasn’t a happy, jolly show.
But it was magical and wonderful, as in full of wonder. It wasn’t so sweet, but it was more like bittersweet, and it did, surprisingly enough, bring some comfort and joy.
That’s the thing about Ophelia’s Jump, the theater company that has been making a go of it here in the Claremont area for about the last four years. Not only is going to their shows an adventure; it is clear that, for the company, putting on a show is an all-get-out, high-risk-high-reward adventure—one that they love to share with us, with pride and rightfully so.
Check out Beatrice Casagran. She directed The Electric Baby. She also did the sound design and the scenic design. This isn’t unusual. When the company put on its superb production of Christopher Durang’s Vanya, Mosha, Sonia and Spike, Ms. Casagran directed and performed in it. Theater work is hands-on, of course, but this company is really, really hands-on.
So hands-on that they held rehearsals for The Electric Baby in someone’s living room. They surely would have rather not, but they had to, so they made do. More on this shortly.
This is like Mickey and Judy saying “hey, let’s put on a play!” Except these aren’t kids. These folks very much know what they’re doing, and they definitely mean business. This is a company that not only put on plays but puts them on with the highest of standards. As I noted when I saw the Durang play, it was just about on par with the production I saw, directed by David Hyde Pierce, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, a production that itself was rated by Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty as better than when the play was on Broadway.
What’s more, Ophelia’s Jump puts on meaty stuff, leaving the audience with something to chew on, if not argue about. Yes, the Durang play was a comedy, but it riffed seriously and ingeniously on Chekhov. I think the first Ophelia’s Jump play I saw was Clydebourne Park, a sharp comedy exploring racism that takes off from A Raisin in the Sun. There was Sarah Ruehl’s Eurydice, which gave us exciting, challenging on-stage visions. And last year’s Tribes, which I also saw previously at the Taper, explored how the disabled—in this case, deaf—identify as disabled and with others who are likewise disabled, often more than with their biological family. (Unfortunately, I kept getting tripped up by a young woman playing the main character, a man. Was this also a comment regarding transgender people?)
The Electric Baby, a perfectly wondrous un-holiday show, fit right in, after all.
The company does all this, plus its annual two-play midsummer Shakespeare festival at Pomona College’s lovely, outdoor Greek Theater, with the barest of resources. More than putting on world-class stage work on a shoestring, this is a stage troupe without a stage. Indeed, this is a theater company without a theater of its own, without a home.
Aside from the Greek Theater, which makes perfect sense for the midsummer outdoor festival (it also finally puts the idyllic venue to wonderful, regular use), the company has to make do to whatever area stage would have it. Once or twice, it was lucky enough to squeeze into Pomona College’s elegant Seaver Theater (most appropriately for the dreamy Ruehl play) and the high school, blessed with a nice, new theater of its own. Recently, it has made do with a black box space at The Theater Company, located in an industrial park—if that’s what it is, as I can’t even call it a strip mall—over in Upland.
“Made do” is definitely what the company has done, all the more with the latest space. Although Ms. Casagran and company has done well transforming this drab, sterile space with simple yet evocative sets and lighting, as well as fine acting, of course, the limitations of using other’s spaces (and equipment), are apparent.
Not only did rehearsals have to be done in a living room. The matinee performance I saw last month had to be stopped for 10 minutes. “I’m calling an intermission,” Ms. Casagran said as she abruptly appeared on stage and broke the performance not long after the play began due to some of the lights not coming on. A similar thing happened when I saw the Durang play at the same venue.
Although the way the company deals with these issues with aplomb is impressive and, yes, exciting to see, Ophelia’s Jump deserves better. And we deserve better. Yes, it’s live theater and anything can happen, but there shouldn’t be any more drama in the theater than what’s supposed to be on stage.
Ophelia’s Jump has been trying to raise money to get a theater in this area that they can call its own, that they can call home. This company works so hard—truly a labor of love—and puts on the best stuff. It has a whole season lined up this year:?Quilters the Musical by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek, A Behanding in Spokane by Martin McDonagh, Orphans by Lyle Kessler, La Bete by David Hirson and Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing during the Shakespeare festival. It deserves a home for all this work.
And we deserve this theater here. Claremont is no longer just a sleepy, little college town where the sidewalks roll up at 5. As friends and family who no longer live here keep noting, Claremont has gotten to be quite the lively spot, with more than its share of artists and people who love the arts, on top of an increasingly active and busy college scene. Ophelia’s Jump, with its own theater, would fit right in, another pea in a delectable pod.
And not having to drive to LA to see more good live theater? That’s definitely something good to look forward to—something we need—as this new year begins.