History channeled

History channeled

‘History Lit’ is a collaborative hit at the Pasadena Museum of History

By Ellen Snortland 05/17/2012

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Critical by nature, I’ve learned to remove my critic hat when warranted. Instead, I’ll don my appreciative “You go!” hat when I see efforts that reflect vision, collaboration and creativity. The theater experience “History Lit,” at the Pasadena Museum of History, warrants my warmest encouragement and the waving of a “Please go!” pennant. As in, please go if you can clear the decks this Friday or Saturday, “History Lit’s” last weekend.

How fabulous to have a museum open its doors and grounds to a production company which has “translated” short American and English fiction into the original 3D form of entertainment: theater. Congratulations to both Unbound Productions and the Pasadena Museum of History for seeing the potential of combining history, entertainment and outdoor enjoyment, and then going for it.

If you’re allergic to the scent of flowers, best to stay home as the grounds of the Fenyes Estate are rife with jasmine, which I happen to love. Otherwise, put on some walking shoes, bring a jacket and prepare to be transported into three different times and stories “on the hoof,” as it were. Three female authors — Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charlotte Gilman Perkins and Katherine Mansfield — and their three short stories have been adapted as short plays by the male producing, writing and directing triumvirate of Jonathan Josephson, Paul Millet and Jeff G. Rack.

Writing about this event is a daunting proposition, as there are so many activities and people involved that a “review” could be taken up solely by lists and a rather convoluted explanation of how the evening works. For example, you need to trust the production team’s ability to get you from one place to the next, and they do it … although not with the promptness I would have liked. Basically, the audience is divided into color-coded groups who then follow “story guides”: costumed characters acting as both narrator and docent.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was the piece I was most interested in seeing, since Perkins is both an historical figure in Pasadena and an influential woman in her own time. It was also the most professionally adapted, directed and acted. If you ever took a Women’s Studies or literature class, you most likely read “The Yellow Wallpaper.” However, Charlotte Perkins Gilman should never be relegated to the women’s lit ghetto. She truly “got it” and should be far better known than she is.

Briefly, “The Yellow Wallpaper” was an incisive story that takes place in the years before women were considered to be full citizens … or even adults. This was the era when scientists and clergy members recommended that women not be allowed to vote, lest their ovaries dry up. Little did the anti-vote people know that, for women who’d already had eight kids, non-working ovaries sounded like a splendid idea! Post-partum women were given doctor’s orders of strict bed rest that were virtual prison sentences.

Ironically, historical forensic experts have actually traced madness to the type of glue used for wallpaper at the time. Director Millet used the rarely seen interior of the Fenyes mansion and his actors with great skill. Gilman was well aware that “bed rest” was bad medicine.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, most famous for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” is a prime example of the impact of art on politics and culture. When Abraham Lincoln met Mrs. Stowe, he is quoted to have said, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” Adapted from the short story “The Two Altars: Or Two Pictures in One,” the short play version is called “Two Pictures in One.” Kudos to the director  Josephson for pulling off a theater equivalent of a three-ring circus in the caretaker’s home on the grounds of the Fenyes Estate. This short story predates “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and was a fictional blow for abolition. Stories about real slaves changed the hearts and minds of Northerners who had been on the fence.

Finally, New Zealand-born author Katherine Mansfield’s story “The Garden Party” requires the most hiking for the audience. In a luscious use of the gardens, we are asked to keep up with the emotional protagonist, Laura Sheridan, who has a glimpse into how the other 99 percent lives. We’re left wondering if she will allow her experience of the untimely death of a working class neighbor merely ruin her afternoon or actually alter how she lives life from that day forward. Rack directed this piece; also, kudos to everyone on the design, production and museum teams.
These last two performances are apt to sell out, so get up, get going and go online for tickets at historylit.org or call (818) 242-7910. All performances are at the Pasadena Museum of History, 470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena. Free parking is ample.

PS: At 2 p.m. Sunday, June 3, friends Martha Wheelock and Jane Guthrie’s documentary “California Women Win the Vote” will be screened at the Pasadena Museum of History, followed by a discussion of the film. This election year, it’s important to not take voting for granted. Take the kids! Heck, take unregistered voters and get them registered!

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