Friday, December 21, 2012

Two Short Reviews: Violins and Electroshocks

I've seen a handful of shows lately. So, instead of a huge rant about each, it's time for a combination post of short reviews again: Viulunsoittaja katolla / Fiddler on the Roof in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri and Next to Normal in Tampereen Työväen Teatteri.

Viulunsoittaja katolla / Fiddler on the Roof, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri

Riitta Havukainen as Golde, Esko Roine as Tevje.

I swore I wouldn't see this show. My excuse: a friend invited me... And I admit, I was curious about Fiddler. The whole world seems to love it, so maybe there's something to like, even for me?

Indeed, let's start with the good things. I enjoyed Esko Roine as Tevje. Fiddler, to me, seems like a show that will fall flat on its face if the actor playing Tevje isn't up to the task. Luckily, Roine was. His Tevje felt real to me. The problems he faced seemed like something that could've once happened in someone's real life. He wasn't a hero, he made some dubious choices – like a real human being.

I also quite liked the supporting cast. There were some actors whose performances grated on me, but as a whole, the cast did a good job. A special nod to Tuukka Leppänen as Perchik. I felt a tad more awake whenever he was onstage.

Everyone knows Fiddler's music, and it was pretty nice hearing it live. It is rather catchy (read: enjoy listening to If I Were a Rich Man play in your head for the rest of your earthly life).

Then the bad. I think the show was bo-ring. Nothing seemed to happen. I was ready for the intermission about seven times during the first half. The piece also suffered from mood swings: upsetting moments and cheap laughs followed each other with no break in between. Also, the ending felt completely empty to me. Were the villagers even upset?

What's more, the characters, apart from Tevje, were paper-thin. It's more to do with the script than the actors, but it's a problem nevertheless. Tevje's daughters didn't seem to have any defining characteristics. Two out of three suitors had some character, but then there was the last one. It baffled me how one of the daughters made a huge sacrifice for a man who is given three minutes onstage.

While the sets, costumes and choreography served their purpose, I don't think there was anything new or creative in them, nor in Hans Berndtsson's direction as a whole. See how much has changed, visually, since the 60s.

I stand behind what I've said previously: I think Fiddler is a safe and boring choice, perfect for summer outdoor theatres, and I'm disappointed HKT did it. I sure could've lived without this production. However, if a rehash of a fifty-year-old show brings in this enthusiastic audiences (I've never heard people applausing dialogue scenes in a musical before)... I guess the theatre must be happy with their pick.

Raili Raitala as Hodel, Tuukka Leppänen
– as you can recognise from his face as Perchik.

Next to Normal, Tampereen Työväen Teatteri

Eriikka Väliahde as Diana.

Last time I wrote about Next to Normal, I listed what's wrong with the show. While I came to the conclusion that I might want to see Next again, I soon noticed I didn't actually agree with my own opinion. The mere thought of seeing the show one more time started making me annoyed, for all the reasons listed in the previous review: the black-and-white view of treating mental illnesses, the weak second act, the show forcing its opinions down the audience's throat... I felt that no, I've officially stopped liking this thing, too bad I still have a ticket for the Tampereen Työväen Teatteri version.

Not so bad after all! I left TTT as a N2N fan again. I've now seen three versions of Next to Normal, and TTT's is the best out of them. 

The story has never felt this real to me. I completely forgot about its problems watching this. It's a shame TTT didn't change the family's name to something Finnish, like Wasa Teater did, I think that would've made the show hit even closer to home... But I loved the changes they did make. Most notably, they changed the song Better Than Before into dialogue. The slightly witty tune turned into a proper, much-needed but not out-of-place comic relief. The audience was actually laughing. Overall, TTT managed to turn the dragging second act into something interesting. Tuomas Parkkinen's direction had a couple of moments I could've done without, but as a whole, the show had a nice flow going on.

What's more, two thumbs up for Kristiina Saha's sets! It was refreshing to see them take a different turn from the usual cold and angular Next sets. I especially liked Natalie's cage-like little own space.

The cast (Eriikka Väliahde, Puntti Valtonen, Jukka Nylund, Emmi Kaislakari, Juha-Matti Koskela, Toni Harjajärvi) impressed too. When I saw the Wasa Teater production, I wrote they had managed to make my usual least favourite character Natalie compelling – here, I could almost call her my favourite. Kaislakari made her character alive in a way I could, if not relate to, at least understand. Not to say Natalie's family was any worse. Touching and real are words I could describe both Väliahde's Diana and Valtonen's Dan with. The latter's voice didn't seem suited for the part and therefore didn't really hold a candle to other Dans I've seen (greetings to Sören Lillkung), but that hardly mattered, I liked the overall performance nevertheless.

TTT's Next to Normal has four performances left. I recommend it for everyone.

The neat-o set. And the cast!

Photos by Tapio Vanhatalo and Petri Kovalainen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Making Theatre Magic

A little background: in Finland, the theatres are rather different from the standard Broadway/West End theatre. Instead of concentrating on one show at a time, Finnish theatres can have a dozen of plays in their repertoire at the same time. Theatres also usually have multiple stages, so same theatre can have many performances on the same night. I got a chance to take a little tour at Tampereen Työväen Teatteri, in the Finnish city of Tampere, so here's a peek into the backstage world of a Finnish theatre. Originally written for school.
Tampereen Työväen Teatteri looks calm during the day. The lights are off, and the doors won't be opened for the public for many hours. Inside the theatre, however, things are looking busy. During the day, the upcoming productions are being transformed from imagination to reality.

"It's impossible to learn these by heart!"

Tampereen Työväen Teatteri, December 5th, 10AM. It has just been announced in the central radio that Carmen's [a drama version, not the opera] rehearsals will start in a minute. The actors gather around the main stage of the theatre. Chatting, leafing through the scripts, joking – I even hear someone worry about memorizing their lines.

The play will premiere in February, and the whole theatre is preparing for it. Among other things. There are multiple productions under construction inside the theatre.

Sets for Tampere – and the United States

Marianne Rautiainen's handiwork can
soon be admired in Washington, D.C.
While the actors are familiarising themselves with Carmen's dialogue, stagehands are moving big towers covered with plywood onstage.

Besides Carmen, the theatre's set workshop, which is one of the largest of its kind in Finland, is working on several other upcoming pieces. One of them is a play called Lämminveriset. The play premiered two years ago, and it's been a while since the last performance in TTT, too. However, the piece is now changing continents: it will be performed in Washington, D.C., as a part of the Nordic Cool festival, next year.

Marianne Rautiainen, who works in the set workshop, curses the size of the Lämminveriset sets. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. has a smaller stage than TTT, so the sets have to be changed to fit. First, the plan was to send five containers of sets to the US. Now the number has been reduced to three. However, there's still work to do, both with the sets that are going abroad and the ones that are staying in Tampere.

All sets begin as small scale models. The set designer plans the model, based on the script and discussions with the director. Then the set workshop's carpenters, metal workers and surface finishing workers will build full-scale versions of the elements in the model.

Tiina Vanhapelto working on a jug made to be broken.
"A well-done set helps the actor to act and the audience to see", says set designer Hannu Lindholm, who has been working in the profession for 45 years.

The plays, of course, need more than just sets. There are also the props, the items used onstage, and they're the handiwork of a different workshop

"You have to learn to apply your skills to new situations", Tiina Vanhapelto, a substitute worker in the props workshop, says about her job.

The prop workshop can be asked to do just everything, from sails for a boat to taxidermy animal heads. The workers need a vast knowledge of arts and crafts. 

Looks shape a character

Creating costumes. In front, Kaija Koljonen, behind
her Heli Tapper, Päivi Hatanpää ja Sini Paronen.
Carmen's rehearsals keep going on the big scene. They're working on a scene for three actors, so one of the artists waiting for their turn takes the chance to visit the costume workshop for a fitting. Looks are an important part of all characters, and in TTT, it's of course professionals who take care of them.

Like sets, costumes are based on a draft. Instead of a scale model, though, the costume designer draws a picture of their vision. The costume workshop, then, creates the costumes based on the sketches. The style and the materials of the finished costume reflect the original drawing. The workshop also adds little theatre tricks to the clothing: they sew different pieces of clothing together and add hidden zippers, so the costumes can be changed in seconds during the show.

A character's hair has to look right, too. For that task, the theatre has its own hair salon, where the hairdos and wigs are born. During the day, the salon takes care of the hairdos of the actors who use their own hair onstage. Hair is a part of the character's design, just like costumes, even when it's the actor's own instead of a wig.

"An actor can't always decide whether they look good or not", actor Heidi Kiviharju says.

Emmi Lahtinen (in front) and Tiina Ryynänen take care of actors' hair.
In salon chairs, Heidi Kiviharju and Teija Auvinen.
There can be up to three performances on the same night on different stages at TTT. So, the evenings can be quite a hassle. Therefore, the hair and make-up salon only helps with the most complicated hairdos and masks during the performances. Before the show and during it the actors mostly take care of their own looks.

The rehearsal goes on

"Dear lord, I felt so frightened!"

One of the high plywood-covered towers used for Carmen's rehearsals has just almost toppled over. The next time, the stagehands keep the tower standing – but unfortunately, it starts moving downstage too late. Luckily, there's still time before the premiere. In February, the lines will be memorized, and it's not too likely the sets will topple over in front of a live audience.

When I leave the theatre, winter sun is shining, but the windows of TTT's foyer stay dark. The audience won't arrive in hours. Inside, however, the preparations for the night's performances and the upcoming productions continue on full speed.

Sama suomeksi.