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Frankly, my dear, you shouldn’t miss
   
 MLT’s Moonlight & Magnolias!


article and photos by Grant Weaver, GuidingStar.ca

 

Hard at work rehearsing: Martin Kalin as director Victor Fleming,
 Andrew Horbatuik as screenwriter Ben Hecht and Ali Adatia as producer David O
. Selznick

 

 

(Feb. 5/08) From February 11 to 14 at Markham Theatre For Performing Arts, Markham Little Theatre takes us behind closed doors in playwright Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight & Magnolias, an imaginative and humorous speculation about how the final script for the movie Gone With The Wind was written. 

          Director Michele Browne pumps up the comic possibilities of a play that also features hardnosed talk on some of the pressing social issues of the day as well as pungent wrangling on the very basic principles of movie making. 

          Michele directs a cast of four talented actors who handle with aplomb the wide range of emotions called up by this clever work.  But, if that sounds a bit heavy, remember that Markham Little Theatre seeks first and foremost to entertain.  There will be lots of laughs along the way. 

          How did Hutchinson’s play come to be written?  Well, it is a historical fact that in 1939, shortly after beginning the filming of the movie version of Gone With The Wind---the burning of Civil War-era Atlanta had already been shot---producer David O. Selznick, unhappy with the way the production was unfolding, fired his director, scrapped the original screenplay, and suspended production for five days.  He called in a new screenwriter Ben Hecht and brought in as new director Victor Fleming, pulling him off the set of The Wizard Of Oz two weeks before its completion.  The three of them were locked in a room for five days, living on peanuts and bananas, while they hashed out a new screenplay.  And, in fact, a new screenplay was produced, and the shooting of the movie resumed with that new script and with the new director.  Gone With The Wind went on, as we all know, to become a cinema classic.

          So, what went on behind closed doors for those five days?  First of all, there was one small problem: the new screenwriter, Ben Hecht, had not read the novel.  That was solved by the producer and director re-enacting for him the scenes they wanted in the movie.  Combine what is known with what came from the imagination of Ron Hutchinson, and you have a play that captures the tension, the dissension, and the comedy that this hothouse atmosphere no doubt produced.

          Michele Browne, whose many on-stage performances have delighted Markham Little Theatre audiences for over twenty-five years, takes on another role that is equally familiar to her, that of director.  Michele, most recently, appeared in Waiting For The Parade last September and in the leading role of Judith Bliss in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever this past November.

          Markham Little Theatre is set to explore some new playwrights in its upcoming 2009/2010 season and Moonlight & Magnolias initiates an entry into some newer material that has the ability to entertain but also to tackle issues in a style that has an edge to it.

          “I think it’s a great play,” Michele said.  “I think it’s a play that men will enjoy as much as women.” 

          There are scenes of no-holds barred slapstick.  There are others that take on important questions of race and religious prejudice.  Should the movie, for example, include the scene in which Scarlet O’Hara beats the eleven year-old black maid?  On top of that, an interesting debate ensues on the process of movie-making itself.  To screenwriter Ben Hecht’s assertion that “In the beginning was the word”, Selznick counters that “In the beginning was the deal”.  Victor Fleming, naturally, maintains that the key player is the director, the one who calls “action!”   These moments of angst and disagreement are kept enthralling and entertaining by the high-energy performances that Michele has elicited from her cast. 

          “I’ve asked the boys to keep the energy up,” she says, “and they’re giving me what I want.”

          GuidingStar.ca attended MLT’s rehearsal this past Sunday (February 1), at their BackStage location on the grounds of Markham Museum, and I can tell you that high energy was the order of the day.

          In the role of Producer David O. Selznick is Ali Adatia, who appeared last year in back-to-back MLT productions The Odd Couple (Female Version), and Over The River And Through The Woods.   He has also been getting on with a budding film career.  Ali recently appeared in an episode of Forbidden Science on The Movie Network and, in March, television viewers will see him in a new ScotiaBank commercial.

          Ali gets a real workout in Moonlight & Magnolias.  He is literally never offstage and his character, but for a brief stress-induced coma on stage, is constantly engaged in high-voltage, and often high comedic, dialogue. 

          “Selznick is losing $50,000 a day, “ Ali explained.  “So, it’s high stakes, high pressure. The three characters have all got their own opinions, and ideologies, and ideas about what’s going to work.  But out of that also comes a lot of humour.”

          The new director of Gone With The Wind, Victor Fleming, is played by Martin Kalin who is in his first production with Markham Little Theatre.  In his stage career, Martin has been playwright, actor and director.  One of his one-act plays, Circle Dance, was produced in 2001 at the New Ideas Festival at the Alumni Theatre in Toronto.  Recently, Martin appeared as Owen Melville in Norm Foster’s The Melville Boys performed at the Herongate Barn Dinner Theatre in Pickering.

          “He’s a lot of fun to play because he’s very pompous, very headstrong,” Martin told me.  “There’s God, and then there’s a movie director!”

          Which makes it all the more hilarious when this same Victor Fleming is drawn into the re-enactment of the beating of a servant---with Fleming on the receiving end---and a birth, with Fleming the mother-to-be and Selznick the midwife!

          All this is for the benefit of the new screenwriter who has not read the novel that is to be put on the big screen. 

          Screenwriter Ben Hecht is played by Andrew Horbatuik.  Andrew appeared in MLT’s The Constant Wife in February 2007 and in Hay Fever this past November.

          “Ben Hecht,” Andrew explained,” is the conscience of the play.  He’s a very idealistic person who sees things in black and white.”

          Despite their primary goal, to produce a new screenplay for Gone With The Wind, Ben Hecht also forces the players to deal with the issues of racial and religious discrimination.  The Jewish question looms doubly large in the shadow of the coming war in Europe. 

          Completing the cast is Felicia Brennan in the role of Miss Poppenghul, David O. Selznick’s assistant and secretary.  Felicia, in addition to her on-stage work, has a full plate this year as president of the board of Markham Little Theatre.  The last time we spoke with Felicia, in February 2008, she was in the director’s chair for The Odd Couple (Female Version).

          Unlike the other characters, Miss Poppenghul is not a historical figure but a composite of several secretaries who had worked for Selznick.  Her job is to see that everything runs smoothly and, at the beginning of the play, she is very on top of things.  As the pressures of the days mount, she begins to unravel.

          “In Act 2,” Felicia explained, “you can see the toll the past five days have had on her.  It’s fun to play these two polar opposites.”

          Meanwhile, in the spacious workshop, the building of the set is nearing completion.

Michele speaks enthusiastically about this key component of the production. The set design crew located photos of David O. Selznick seated at his desk in his office and, under Set Designer Ross Liversage, are reproducing this setting as closely as they can.  Michele’s husband, Producer Terry Browne, succeeded in tracking down two telephones of the style of the era.  And, lest anyone with a peanut allergy think they should sit this one out, the crew has spared no expense to ensure that only fake peanuts are used!

Props co-ordinators Judy Heffernan and Judy Stelwagen have been hard at work putting together the many objects that will be handled, and flung(!), during the performance and costume designer Maria Cerone will have everyone dressed in pre-war fashion.

          So, how can I resist paraphrasing yet again Clark Gable’s famous line from Gone With The Wind?  Of MLT’s production of Moonlight & Magnolias, running from Wednesday, February 11 to Saturday, February 14, one can say with debonair assurance: “Frankly, my dear, it is a wonderful play”.    

  


          Tickets to Moonlight & Magnolias can be purchased through the box office of Markham Theatre at 905-305-SHOW (7469).     


          Click here for complete show details.

          For more information about Markham Little Theatre, visit www.markhamlittletheatre.com.




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