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OC LIVE : THEATER : Laguna to Stage ‘Under the Gaslight,’ a Melodrama With a Past

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Andrew Barnicle thinks the melodrama is misunderstood.

Snidely Whiplash, weeping heroines tied to train tracks, all those playlets that seem to go on and on at places like Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm--that’s what most of us think about when we think of melodramas at all.

But Barnicle, the Laguna Playhouse’s artistic director, sees a bit of original American theater, interesting both historically and artistically. He hopes to make that clear with “Under the Gaslight,” one of the earliest examples of the genre, and maybe the best.

The play, which opens tonight and continues through Dec. 10 at the playhouse’s Moulton Theater, was written by Augustin Daly and first produced in New York City in 1867.

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Though popular once upon a time (it was revived frequently through the late 1800s and early 1900s), it slipped into obscurity as audiences became more sophisticated.

Now, Barnicle says, “Under the Gaslight” and melodramas like it tend to be resurrected merely for camp or satire, which doesn’t do them justice.

“You have to remember that they weren’t done [back then] to be cheesy. They were done to be taken seriously. I’m sure Daly saw this as a sweeping drama. Mention the melodrama, even to theater people, and it conjures images of Wild West saloons, twirling mustaches and rabid, peanut-throwing audiences. There is another side, however, and we want to shed positive light on a much-disparaged old form.”

The plot does have most of the conventions usually associated with melodrama. There’s a damsel in distress (the plucky Laura), a hero (good-looking Ray) and assorted other characters who help and hinder Laura and Ray along their path.

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Of course, there’s also a bad guy, the low-living Byke, a loser who claims Laura is his long-abandoned daughter, creating havoc in the high Manhattan society that Laura flits through. More havoc is created when Byke kidnaps her to extort money from Ray.

And right, somebody gets roped to the tracks, requiring a dangerous rescue.

Barnicle agrees that it all can sound hackneyed, just a little too familiar, but he says the production should be placed in perspective to be appreciated. For one thing, “Under the Gaslight” is credited with introducing the now-famous train episode.

“This climactic moment set off a wave of copycat scenes from other playwrights, with heroes and heroines threatened by buzz saws, waterfalls, stampedes etc.,” Barnicle said.

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The audience should also keep in mind that the exaggerated melodrama acting style was necessary in Daly’s day. Actors needed to project more than they do now simply because the theaters were so large and the illumination from footlights was poor.

Barnicle draws a link between “Under the Gaslight” and opera, which also uses grand gestures to convey emotions.

“Traditional operas are, in thematic and structural terms, 18th- and 19th-Century melodramas set to music,” Barnicle said.

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Having actors assume the melodrama style without going too far has been a challenge, but not the biggest. Barnicle said the sets, lighting and other technical aspects have been among the playhouse’s most ambitious. There are eight scenery changes, ranging from a re-creation of a Hudson River pier to that train finale.

“This is really probably more ambitious than we should be,” Barnicle said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces backstage--it’s like a giant picture puzzle.”

In keeping with melodrama traditions, scenes will be separated by brief singing performances. Back then, the songs gave stagehands the time to get everything into place. It does the same in Laguna Beach.

The tunes will include “Hard Times” and “Some Folks,” both popular folk songs during the post-Civil War period, when the play is set. “Under the Gaslight” will also feature original music by Terence Alaric, a local composer who has contributed often to Laguna Playhouse shows.

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* What: The Laguna Playhouse production of “Under the Gaslight” by Augustin Daly.

* When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. Through Dec. 10.

* Where: The Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Laguna Canyon Road and head south.

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* Wherewithal: $10 to $30.

* Where to call: (714) 497-2787.


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