Bringing back Thurber
[Photos: Gorilla Theatre]
Billy Martinez, left, and Steven Clark Pachosa star in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, one sketch in the Gorilla Theatres production of A Thurber Carnival.
By JOHN FLEMING
© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 6, 2001
James Thurber used to be one of America's most popular writers. His stories and cartoons virtually defined the New Yorker in the magazine's heyday through the 1950s. Thurber favorites like The Night the Bed Fell were taught in high school English classes. There was even a TV series based on his persona, My World and Welcome to It.
Though New Yorker writer and cartoonist James Thurber may have gone out of style, the timeless themes in his writing are still "gently subversive,'' a director at Gorilla Theater maintains.
But fashion in humor changes. Thurber's star has faded.
"I think over the past 20, 25 years, people have kind of forgotten about him, and that's too bad," said Steve Mountan, managing director of Gorilla Theatre. "When you read his pieces, his writing is very timeless. He was writing about the human condition and asking us to take a different look at things. At times, there's a dark feeling toward the world, but he wasn't off-putting. I call it gently subversive."
Mountan directed A Thurber Carnival, Gorilla's season-opening production. With a cast of nine actors and a pianist, it's a revue of Thurber sketches and incidental music that was premiered in 1960, a year before Thurber died. The original production starred Tom Ewell and Peggy Cass.
The show includes popular Thurber stories such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox and The Unicorn in the Garden. "They translate well to the stage, because he used dialogue quite frequently," Mountan said. "They're virtually word for word from the stories, with a narrator in the non-dialogue."
D. Davis and Steven Clark Pachosa in Gentlemen Shoppers from A Thurber Carnival, a revue of sketches by one of Americas most popular writers.
Mountan decided to take on the play's direction after seeing the set design for it by Brooke McEldowney, a Sarasota cartoonist whose strip 9 Chickweed Lane is syndicated in newspapers around the country.
"When I saw his design and read his notes on it, all of a sudden the play took on a whole new life of its own," he said. "He's very whimsical, which is why he fits well with Thurber. We're going to try to give the impression that the evening is a program of improvisation by these actors."
A Thurber Carnival is the first of eight productions this season at Gorilla, where Mountan became managing director in April. The theater does its biggest show ever, the musical Side Show, in October, with a pair of New York actors, Gaelen Gilliland and Maria Couch, cast in the leading roles of Siamese twins.
Also on the agenda are Sacco & Vanzetti: A Vaudeville by Louis Lippa in January, August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in February and Warren Leight's Tony Award-winning play about a jazz musician, Side Man, in May.
A Thurber Carnival opens today and continues through Sept. 23 at Gorilla Theatre, 4419 N Hubert Ave., Tampa. Tickets: $19 and $22. (813) 879-2914.
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