Thursday, February 27, 2014

Enjoyable "Spelling Bee" at Seattle Musical Theatre

Evan Woltz (front) as William Barfee (photo credit unknown)

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
closed

A good cast amps up the fun in Seattle Musical Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which is a fond and funny look at the tweenage participants in the one event that gets national attention for nerds.

Bee is a relatively simple show and allows for the focus to stay on the jokes and songs and character development. A pair of adults, here Tadd Morgan and Lindsey Larson as the ascerbic vice principal and amiable teacher, run the spelling bee. One really different aspect to this musical is that three audience members are pulled up to spell with the “kids.” That amps up the fun, too.

As each “child” is asked to spell, facts are given to the audience about them so we get a chance to know more about them as the production goes on. Also, each child gets a chance to shine in a song about his or her life. So Brad Walker plays Chip Tolentino who is mooning over another kid’s sister and gets one of the funniest songs in the musical, My Unfortunate Erection. Chelsea LeValley plays Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere who has two very helicopterish dads and a lisp. Nik Hagen plays homeschooled Leaf Coneybear who isn’t even sure he’s smart.

Evan Woltz plays William Barfee who has a magic foot that helps him spell (a song about the foot is usually a big crowd pleaser). Woltz was confined to a wheelchair with an injury, but it worked for his character amazingly well! Every show should have a wheelchair from now on! This is one production where a geek in a wheelchair even works better!

Melissa Fleming does a terrific job as Marcy Park, an Asian-American girl who resents how perfect everyone expects her to be. Fleming also has one of the best voices in the show. Kelsey Hull adorably plays Olive Ostrovsky whose parents are the opposite of helicopter – her mother is somewhere in India and her father is missing the Bee due to work.

Isaiah Parker does a nice job in the difficult role of Mitch, a “comfort counselor” who is court-ordered to help out at the Bee, and also performs as one of Logainne’s dads. Often, this role goes to an African-American though it doesn’t seem like it must be. It is an unfortunate reflection of the overabundance of young black men who are embroiled in our justice system. Besides the Asian girl, there is not much diversity called for in the musical, unless blind casting is used. Here, the unforeseen use of a wheelchair made more diversity where not much is often used.

While the production was generally well directed by Matt Giles, and likely he also choreographed the small amounts of movement involved which were also nicely done, he had a tendency to make his actors overamp the comedy and the stereotyping. That detracted a bit from the funny bits, especially the over-acting of the “dads.” They are already clearly homosexual if they are two dads. They don’t need to then also use stereotypical movements on top.



Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Teatro Zinzanni: "On the Air" more chaotic in a Good way

Anki Albertsson and Juliana Rambaldi (photo by Keith Brofsky)


On the Air
Teatro Zinzanni
Through June 6

Teatro Zinzanni’s “tag line” is Love, Chaos, Dinner for every show, even as the shows change and get retitled. The current show is named “On the Air” and uses the fictional radio station Radio TZ to broadcast its shenanigans. Refreshingly, this particular iteration is more chaotic in a funny and endearing way, because it shakes up the standard format just a bit, in that it does not specifically have an MC or Maitre d’ character. 

Even a small change is welcome. The standard format has gotten kind of tired and really has needed a rethink. This isn’t to say they have completely abandoned their formula. Indeed, it’s not that much different, but perhaps just enough so that the ensuing chaos feels a little more fun, a little less by-the-book.

It’s a terrific and wonderful place to go for your first time, for anyone who has never gone! And completely makes a special evening, no matter who is performing, since everyone is always a top notch performer. It’s a given, but bears repeating.

There is the audience kibbitzer extraordinaire, Kevin Kent, back to be silly and pull unsuspecting dinner guests from their seats and have them do or say funny things. There are two wonderful singers, Anki Albertsson – a real celebrity from her native Sweden, and an experienced musical theater performer, and Juliana Rambaldi, who scampers ditzily around and teases diners, and helps end the evening with a glorious operatic aria.

The trapeze act is two males, this time, Collin Eschenburg and Matthias Fischer, and a stuffed cat. Les Petits Freres, Domitil Aillot, Gregory Marquet , and Michael Bajazet, are back, though they aren’t actually brothers. Vita Radionova performs her fantastic hula hoop juggling and does her otherworldly contortions, and in this show gets to be an alien from outer space, too. New to the mayhem is Joel Salom, an Aussie juggler who occasionally helps to bring order to the chaos.

For the dinner part of the evening, the new menu includes a very good steak, a crab and sea scallops seafood entrée, and a rich vegetable mash with filo and sweet corn option. The carrot bisque was very silky and very, very hot! (That’s hard to do with so many to feed at once.) The dessert was a lovely tart of apple-rhubarb compote and a whipped topping.

The flight of wine that goes with the meal includes wine from Germany, France, and a couple of wines from Columbia Valley. The dessert wine, Ice Wine from Columbia Valley, was incredibly sweet and fruity and was a lovely accompaniment to the tart.

For more information, go to www.zinzanni.com/seattle or call 206-802-0015. Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters.


Solo performers travel from NYC to Theatre Off Jackson for "Mom Baby God" and "Killer Quack"

Madeline Burrows in "Mom Baby God" (Jessica Neria)


Solo Performance Festival
Theatre Off Jackson
continues Feb. 27, 28, March 1

Those in the know have been attending Seattle’s Solo Performance Festival over the last several years, housed and supported by the crew at Theatre Off Jackson. Several different solo performers have had shows this last month and this weekend showcases a few more.

Two in particular are coming from the East Coast to showcase their talents.

Mom Baby God is performed by Madeline Burrows, who spent two years going undercover to anti-choice conferences (for which kudos seem due, just for actually attending such things to expose what really goes on there)! She plays “a teenage anti-abortion activist at the fictionalized Students for Life of America Conference. Six other characters from ministers to abstinence-only sex educators provide humorous, insightful and shocking looks into the movement,” says the pr for the event. More information on her work can be found at www.mombabygod.com.



James Judd’s piece is entitled Killer Quack, about a real man who pretended to be a dermatologist in Manhattan and ended up killing one of the patients. It turns out that Judd was one of the patients, seeing “Dr.” Faiello to remove a tattoo, and was kind of infatuated with the handsome “doctor!” So, his piece is autobiographical, and involves letter and converstions he exchanged with the man from prison. More information on his work can be found at www.killerquack.com.

Solo performance is a unique skillset. You must have a compelling story or subject matter and be confident about your ability to hold all the attention and manage the entire performance generally without any onstage help. I interviewed these two performers about solo performance and why their performances work best in that way.

MG: What was your background in theatrical performance and did you have to do/change/learn anything to become a solo performer?

JJ: The lessons I learned at The Groundlings and the Improv (in Los Angeles) is that the theatrical experience is always for the benefit of the audience, not yourself. The worst advice people give actors, especially solo performers, is "just go out there and enjoy the moment." I was lucky enough to be part of an improv class led by Cynthia Szigeti, the legendary improv teacher.  On one particular night I was on stage with scene partners.  I was dying up there. She shouted at me, "Do something funny!" It was a thunderbolt of truth. When you are on that stage it is your responsibility to entertain the audience who paid for their tickets and dragged themselves out of their homes to see you. If you can't cut it, get out. 

MM: I was doing a lot of Suzuki theater training, which is very focused on the body and physical specificity. Doing that kind of precise physical work helped me a lot when creating solo work, because in solo performance you’re relying on one body to convey sharply different characters and tell a story. I also worked with Andy Paris from the Tectonic Theatre Project when I was in college, doing interview-based work and training in their Moment Work method. That work taught me not to hide the process – in solo performance, you have no choice. So both Suzuki work and Moment Work taught me a million things about solo performance without me realizing it at the time.

MG: What made you want to develop a solo show on this topic as opposed to a multiple-actor play?

JJ: I'm exclusively an autobiographic solo performance artist.  My art is turning the stories of my life into theatrical experiences to entertain audiences. It's also an intensely personal story of my relationship with a man who began as the objection of my affection to someone who rejected and frightened me to a tabloid sensation as the Killer Quack to eventually becoming someone I consider a friend. Do I think it would work as a multi-actor play? Probably.  But then where would that leave me? Would I have to buy a ticket? What if no one wanted to sit with me? It's all too much to think about.

MM: Initially it was out of necessity so that I could attend all the anti-choice events on my own time and rely on myself to meet deadlines. But through the process I’ve fallen in love with solo work. One of the best things about solo work is the interaction with the audience. In any play you feed off of the energy of the audience, but in a solo show the audience becomes your scene partner. It’s terrifying and exhilarating, because it forces you to be present from the get-go.

I portray several male characters in the show – right-wingers who say some explicitly misogynistic stuff, but because it's a solo show performed by me, they are being expressed through the body of a young Queer woman, and by the same actor who 30 seconds later is portraying a teenage girl. Having all these characters come through the same body can give a sense of how this teenage girl, Jessica, is internalizing the politics of the right-wing, what effect they are having on her. It also provides a thread of continuity that I think is politically important. Solo performance drives home how despite some tactical differences, the anti-choice movement is very united. All these different characters are pieces of the puzzle. And that’s a scary thing.

From the get go I wanted this to be a piece of theater that could connect with a growing anger about the attack on reproductive rights and with activists who are grappling with how to build a counter-movement to the anti-choice movement. A big part of that meant the ability to tour the show, and doing a solo show provided the kind of flexibility to make that happen.

MG: What makes solo performance a preferred medium?

JJ: There's nothing easy about touring a solo show.  Being a solo performer means carrying everything, literally, with you to the next performance.  It's intensely lonely and psychologically difficult, especially that half hour you spend alone backstage waiting for the show to begin.  There's no camaraderie, no one to lean on backstage or onstage, and the cast parties are the WORST.

I can come up with a million better ways to spend whatever time I have left in this life that would be infinitely more comfortable and less stressful but for whatever reason I have to do this. It isn't a pursuit of fame because no fame will come of it. It isn't part of my journey to the next level. It isn't a means to an end. It is the end. This is it. This is what I do. Do I sound depressed? I'm not. I love this life. 

Mom Baby God performs Feb. 27, 28 and Mar. 1. Killer Quack performs Feb. 28 and Mar. 1. For more information, go to www.theatreoffjackson.org or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/venue/163709 or call 800-838-3006.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Odysseo" lives up to its hype

Acrobats (photo by Francois Bergeron)
It's possible that ticket prices are daunting for this amazing blend of human and horse feats of derring-doo. Still, Odysseo is likely to be one of the most memorable "event" experiences you can hope to see, anywhere in the world. So, what price is worth that? Only your pocketbook can tell.

With 66 horses, a good number of them performing without saddle or bridle of any kind, and 52 artists, including riders/handlers, riding acrobats, aerialists and acrobats, this is an immersion into a fantasy world where you don't have to think or analyze. It's all wonder and emotion. 

A small band of musicians play live music, though they are so well integrated that they sound recorded. Like Cirque du Soleil "songs," the words are unintelligible combinations of  lovely sounds and flavors of language that are beautifully delivered by Anna-Laura Edmiston.

The troupe of African acrobats (apologies if not all of them are African, though some must be from Guinea per press release) are particularly engaging and crowd pleasing. Their energetic antics are cheeky and laugh-inducing, but also have aspects of amazing physical strength and endurance. Their enjoyment is infectious and they get the crowd clapping. 

The horses are asked to do things that can be extremely taxing for them, like stepping sideways, and maintaining formations. But none of them are coerced, and it's clear from back stage conversation with groomers that the horses are cossetted and even spoiled in encouraging them to cooperate. On stage, the spectacle of unfettered horses staying in formations or, in the event that one decides he wants to run his own way, the calm encouragement to get back into place, is calming and awe-inspiring.

Sometimes, like a three ring circus, there is so much to see that it is impossible to focus on one person or trick, particularly when a host of aerialists swing from rings around the stage. An enormous video backdrop enhances the scenery over a huge mountain built especially for the performance. 

The finale includes pouring 80,000 gallons of water onto what had been a sandy surface, turning the stage into a lake in just a few minutes. All in all, there is nothing like this anywhere else. Seattle has just extended the run until March 16th, but there doesn't seem like anything is holding them back from extending even further. As there is also no guarantee, don't wait to lock in your opportunity to go. 

Feel completely free to bring the whole family. Even children as little as 4 or 5 will probably find enough to rivet them to the stage, and there is nothing offensive anywhere, except a few piles of horse poop on the stage.

For more information, go to www.cavalia.net or call 1-866-999-8111.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"Black Like Us" furthers important community explorations about race

Florence (Chelsea Binta) & Maxine (Dior Davenport) in Black Like Us (photo by Shane Regan)

Black Like Us
Annex Theatre
(co-produced by Brownbox Theatre)
through March 1

Black Like Us wades in where a lot of others fear to tread, a full-out discussion of race in our veins. A recent Pacific Science Center exhibit focused on race and scientists discovered about a decade ago how one mutation in one gene (out of 3.1 billion?) may be the genesis for the lighter pink/yellow skin coloration that proliferated across Europe. Yet, skin color became the great divide in society.

The premise of the play starts with varied skin color within the same family. Two sisters are shaded differently: one lighter and one darker. That truth, already a head-shaker one might think, to those who see only "black" and "white," in 1950s Seattle, leads the one with lighter skin to escape the oppressive nature of the racial divide by "passing as white" and even loving and marrying an Italian and not introducing him to her family.

"Passing" was considered a trick and a con. Regardless of how absurd it was and is to categorize people by skin hue, "passing" was ... ummm... illegally claiming to be white, even though that is what any "white" person does due to skin color. So, it's with a mixture of shame and defiance that Florence (Chelsea Binta) leaves her family behind. The consequences, to both sides of the family, are what the rest of the plot focuses on.

Florence's children and grandchildren appear as white as their father/grandfather. Her choice to hide apparently does not get revealed through DNA transfer in skin color. We meet, in the play, her daughter and three granddaughters (Devin Rodgers, Alyson Scadron Branner, Lindsay Evans and McKenna Turner). 

Florence's sister, Maxine (Dior Davenport), becomes a black activist, marries, has at least one child we don't meet, and two granddaughters we do (Marquicia Dominguez and Kia Pierce). Maxine becomes acquainted with Florence's daughter, Donna, when Donna moves into a neighborhood she can afford - aka the diverse neighborhood that Florence grew up in and Maxine remains in. 

Fertile ground is plowed in the script when the three white granddaughters figure out their grandmother was "black" and go looking for their cousins. Branner's role, Sandra, gets to be the outrageous and funny say-it-like-it-is sister who relishes how she now has a lot more to talk about, and maybe her kids might benefit by "minority status" in applications to college. 

There are a lot of laughs in the play, both easily enjoyable ones and uncomfortable titters, as we are forced to examine our own deeply buried (perhaps) thoughts about skin color, how we were raised, who we are now, whether we behave the way we believe, if we have knee-jerk reactions we'd rather not have. Sandra addresses head-on, in her way, whether it's ok to call people "black" or "African-American" and embarrasses her sisters by having "I'm Black and I'm Proud" as her ring-tone. 

So, kudos for considering and then creating this play and getting it on stage to help us all look inward and explore, and perhaps revise.

Now for hoped-for revisions:

The play grew from a ten minute short to a 30-minute short to what is now close to a two and a half hour marathon. It is massively too long and undercuts the challenge it presents to audiences to look inward by awkwardly inserting soap-opera-like elements.

The "how" the granddaughters find out Florence was black includes a sister who won't tell why she already had suspicions before they find a mysterious box. Scene after short scene simply ends when Michelle just doesn't answer her sisters' questions. It takes them forever to push back and finally get the answer: she had infertility tests which revealed sickle cell anemia genes (a gene known to most-often be a hereditary possibility among African-Americans). That fact is important, but the character development it adds is nil and the addition of some odd kind of cliff-hanger scenes is incomprehensible.

The interactions between Maxine's granddaughters and Florence's granddaughters are fun and interesting and there could be more there. There are realistic questions on the part of the "left behind" family as to why they should wish to interact with the "white" family that just found out they are "black." The question of who we are and who the world perceives us to be is quite important.

The relationship on stage between Florence and Maxine is also mysterious. Short scenes between the two of them at different decades of time show that they never reconcile, but not why. They don't include more information except one tangential mention that Florence had apparently reconnected with her parents and even financially supported them in their declining health, but Maxine didn't know.

There is a scene saved to the end that shows how Florence gets her idea to "pass" and that it could provide benefits. However, the reasons Florence chooses this direction are never made clear, and that is one potent area for theatrical exploration. There doesn't seem to be any fear that her choice will be revealed to her husband upon delivery of a child, which would add to her danger of discovery. 

There are some great moments in the play and some telling and intelligent exploration of the topic. Playwright Rachel Atkins has created interesting and unique characters who have distinct voices. There is almost material there for two plays, though, one between the sisters and one among the grandchildren! But for the moment, the substantive play has been allowed to grow with the help of cliche'd moments of melodrama that detract, bore, and release the audience from their tensions. Once released, we too often tune out and then ignore. There is too much here that needs attention to allow that to happen.

For more information, go to www.annextheatre.org or call 206-728-0933.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"Marisol" challenges, not for every taste

Shermona Mitchell and Carolyn Marie Monroe in Marisol (photo Jessica Martin)

Marisol
(at the INScape Building)
Through February 24

A new company, The Collision Project, is debuting their maiden work, Jose Rivera’s Marisol. The company is comprised of people who have been part of other small companies around town, but say they want to “foster unusual collaborations within highly theatrical, yet simply staged stories.” They want to do that in “cross-disciplinary” experiences.

This production of Marisol does not clearly demonstrate a cross-discipline of any other artistic medium, though it is an interesting and challenging choice of work. Choosing Jose Rivera makes them stand out, since few of his plays have been mounted in Seattle, at least in recent years. Marisol is challenging because it is open to so many interpretations. It is a surreal and non-linear premise that begins with a young woman on a New York subway possibly being murdered with a golf club, but maybe that’s someone else who shares her name.

Perhaps the world is ending. A guardian angel (Shermona Mitchell) comes to Marisol (Carolyn Marie Monroe) and tells her that she must leave to join an angel army against a senile God. Marisol must make it on her own. Marisol isn’t sure who she can trust: a co-worker (Libby Barnard) who turns out to be the sister of the man, Lenny (Ben D. McFadden) with the golf club? a society woman who has been arrested for using her credit card over the limit (Jill Snyder-Marr)? a man with an ice cream cone? a man who has been set upon, gasolined and set on fire, and now oozes burns? (both Carter Rodriguez)

The play has many possible themes running through it. The themes call out for a director to choose among them for the way to thread the needle for the production, rather than throw spaghetti at the wall and see which sticks. Director Ryan Higgins makes a credible stab at the play, but does not help the audience understand the way through very well. The play does not crystallize in the way that could help.

The rudimentary sets are gritty and roughly painted, but succeed in creating a down-at-heels world in low-income New York City. But if we’re to be transported to a realm between worlds, there are few signposts to help us know that we’ve been torn off the Earth.

Rivera’s play is full of Catholic references which are likely opaque to those who are not steeped in that tradition. So, his meaning and the potential redemption (is that what the ends means? That there is the possibility of “winning” somehow, in this world?) Marisol might achieve are probably outside the grasp of those who don’t follow the hierarchies of angels and the traditions of Catholic Hell.


The actors eagerly embrace the challenge. If immersing yourself in a world that is different and challenging is part of why you love to attend theater, then this production is definitely for you. If you like your stories laid out with few questions and endings that wrap everything up, you’ll want to steer clear. 

"Venus in Fur" Tries for Real Human Sexuality but ends up on Mount Olympus instead

Gillian Williams and Michael Tisdale in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Venus in Fur (Chris Bennion)

Venus in Fur
Through March 9

So, an actress walks into an audition late. Very late. And the director/adapter is tired and frustrated, having auditioned dozens, he lets us know, DOZENS of young women who can’t even begin to speak the language of his play. His masterpiece is an adaptation of an 1870 novel, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. But the actress dispenses with the novel as “S&M porn,” offhandedly, challenging and taunting the director to allow her to audition, since she’s already there.

Thus begins the latest production at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Venus in Fur, by David Ives. In a co-production with Arizona Theatre Company, two actors from there, Michael Tisdale and Gillian Williams, and director Shana Cooper mount this electrifying, titillating, challenging, funny, whiplashing, role-reversing, sexuality-exploring one-act.

The somewhat lengthy (100 plus) minute one-act is a fast-paced exploration of both the subject of the novel, masochistic relationships (named after author Sacher-Masoch), and who’s on top. Is it the slave or the master? Is a woman by definition the weaker sex, or does the man give over to serve the woman?

What makes this play particularly fun is the lightning fast switches from modern vernacular and slang back to 18th Century refined speech. Williams is fantastically good at the minute moments of back-and-forth, with a faint New Yorkese, and brash American style, giving way in parts of seconds back to a pseudo-British refinement.

Tisdale starts out promisingly, but does not plant himself firmly enough in the asshole category to hang on to his ascendance in the face of Williams’ immediate disarmament. He does a good job, but when he has to change to a certain submission, the change is undercut by too much passivity at the beginning.

David Ives’ play is very well written and very fun, particularly at the beginning, though he doesn’t end up challenging the male/female relationship nearly as much as he promises. And the ending seems like he decided he had written a long-enough play and had to finish it somehow.

The very first sentences Ives has the man say are completely unbelievable to me: that he couldn’t find any good female actors. Ives may not know that there are dozens of fantastic female actors for every male, because so many women develop theatrical skills for so few female parts! So, it undercuts his understanding of women, and as the play goes along, so do his postulates for feminine power.

Director Shana Cooper plainly revels in the strength of the female character, but unfortunately doesn’t help her create levels of intimacy or a real sexual chemistry with her male counterpoint, and therefore the production misses any highs or lows. The first half of the play feels fun and involving, but it flags and then stays about the same for the last half.

Ives’ decision to transform the female into an archetype (at the end) seems in a perverse way to suggest he is not at all comfortable with real human female sexuality.  In a battle of sexual power, only a Goddess can win over a lowly man, not a real woman. And in that dilemma, Ives fails to illuminate anything useful or new about our sexual lives.


The play is smart enough, then, to end up disappointing. Both a testament to and a failure of a set up that has promise, but does not cut through the musty ideas of female sexuality that continue to hamper us in the rest of life.

Book-It's "Frankenstein" is the Real Story

Connor Toms, Jim Hamerlinck (shadowed) in Frankenstein (photo by Chris Bennion)

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus
through March 9

We have taken a ghost story by a remarkable 18-year-old woman, written in the early 1800s, and stretched it all over the place by now, with movies of various  sorts and successes, all the way up to the over-the-top hysteria of Young Frankenstein. The novel has sparked inspiration and adulteration and a classic "creature" that is known the world over, though often the creature is named Frankenstein, which is incorrect.

David Quicksall has adapted and directed the current theatrical production of Frankenstein for Book-It Repertory Theatre. As is Book-It's mission, he has gone back to the book and what we see on stage is crucially not a horror story, with blood and gore, though there is some of that. It is a distillation of a novel of unfettered ambition, passion without boundaries, and a cautionary tale of where human endeavor should fear to tread.

The adaptation has much to recommend it: a talented cast, as usual, headed by an intense and focused Connor Toms as Frankenstein, a young man who describes his folly in pursuing his passion for chemistry through forming and animating a quasi-human being. He tells his tale to a ship's captain (played with gravitas and enormous patience by Frank Lawler) after being rescued improbably in the waters of the Artic Sea.

The fluid set design by Andrea Bryn Bush, of many curtains billowing in stage breezes, a dim and evocative lighting scheme by Andrew D. Smith, eerie and cataclysmic sound and some terrific original music by Nathan Wade, and precise costuming by Jocelyne Fowler, provide great atmospheric support.

The cautionary tale is of a young man’s passion for science, an obsession with discovery, and some very unlikely science fiction. In some ways, the holes in the story become more obvious, and the leaps of logic more difficult for an audience member to make. But it certainly is a ripping good tale.

Frankenstein gives life to a creature and is so horrified by what he has done that he rejects the creature, leaves him completely to death or uncertain life, and tries to forget all about him. The creature (improbably – here is one of those leaps you just have to accept) not only finds a way to live, but also learns English and how to read, all by himself, and then finds a way to find his creator, Frankenstein. The creature, in retribution, then murders everyone who is important to Frankenstein.

The creature’s longing for human contact is pretty palpable, but however much ardor Jim Hamerlinck displays as the creature, and it’s considerable, the director created a certain emotional distance from the audience that fails to stimulate our empathy to the degree that could be accomplished. Partly because some of the creature’s story is told by voice-over.

I continue to wish that theaters help their playwrights/adapters by giving them top-notch directors who can team to bring out the best of each quality. Book-It is somewhat unfortunately wedded to a concept that the adapter is the best one to direct a production. I disagree with this and think they would have great synergy of energy if they allowed teams of two to create their productions. There were particular moments that a different director might have improved. Quicksall is both a great adapter and a solid director. Just better one at a time, in, as they say, my humble opinion.

Due to a small amount of nudity, the production is not for children, perhaps under sixteen. For more information, go to www.book-it.org or call 206-216-0833. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"Odysseo" rides into Seattle in a big way

(photo by Francois Bergeron)


Odysseo by Cavalia
Big Top at Marymoor Park
February 19 through March 9


Cavalia, the amazing acrobat and horse event, has come through Seattle a couple of times in the last decade, generating a lot of excitement each time. Developed by Normand Latourelle, who was one of the pioneers of Cirque du Soleil, it has an atmosphere very similar, but with the addition of dozens of horses, led almost invisibly to perform incredible feats. 

Anyone who is a horse-lover, and it's probably hard to find someone who is not, would love this performance. This year, a new iteration arrives in mid-February called Odysseo. It is bigger, at least twice the size, and innovates the tent structure to remove the inhibiting tent poles. The resulting tent is bigger than a hockey field and can house as many as 30 horses at once. 

They've also expanded the range of the acrobats who perform with and around the horses. Their innovations create, they claim, a theatrically equipped performance space that rivals anything on Las Vegas or New York City stages. Yet, they have moved it from city to city. They also include an enormous projection screen the size of 3 IMAX screens that use 18 3-D projectors. It is a massive undertaking that immerses an audience into a fantasyland. 

Two of the performers with the show are married acrobats, Tomoko Onishi and Michel Charron. Tomoko grew up in Japan, where Michel (from Canada) met her, and they became interested in the circus arts and began training in the United Kingdom. After more training in Montreal, Canada, they performed all over Japan until the tsunami of 2011. 

While they do primarily aerial work, they do get to work with the horses, too, at least by riding them. Michel says,"'Our primary act is a pole act on a motorized computerized carousel as one of three couples. It's quite a contraption. It comes in from the sky on the grid." Tomoko adds, "We bring the horses on stage, walking together, without any rope and the horses will follow us." 

Tomoko says,"'It still scares me sometimes (working with the horses), somebody moving a way we don't expect. For example, when I started training with horses, they didn't follow me at all ... they are supposed to follow me, but I didn't have a connection. Slowly, as I trained, I knew how to touch them with a stick as an extension of my hand, and they began to walk with me. That was an interesting progression."

Michel adds, "We see the different aspects of their character. They can be afraid of a curtain and want to flee. Or the first time they hear an audience applaud, it can sound like a hiss to them, which is dangerous. We have to help them be calm. Also, they have to determine who is the top horse in the hierarchy. When you see them angry, they are very powerful. They can seem gentle, but they have awesome power. If horses are going to fight it out, you can't get in the way. When they spin, you don't want to be in their way. You see where (the term) 'horse power' comes from." 

Tomoko continues, "A gentle kick for them is huge for us. I also do a silk act and horses spin us from underneath. We also train the horses and they are afraid of the fabric. We go up and down, and the horses run away, so we have to do the same thing over and over and let them be comfortable with the fabric." 

They joined the show and were part of the 2011 official opening. They had skills beyond the aerial work that were useful to the tour, as well. Michel says, "I have experience in aerial rigging and Tomoko was in costuming before." They continue to have fun in this work because every show is different, both in audience and even horse behavior. 

The tour travels by car, from town to town, so participants can experience sightseeing on the road. "We can stop and see the small towns in between the big cities," Tomoko notes."'We can pull over and have lunch in a town you might not have the opportunity to see," Michel adds. "In Vancouver, we saw the bald eagles and spent New Year's Eve on a mountaintop."

Asked about both the advantages and disadvantages of living and working together all the time, Michel notes, "Tomoko and I have been really lucky and established boundaries. If you're in a strictly professional relationship, you always have that politeness, but when it's your partner, you can express frustration or anger and that can work against you. It's better to meditate on it before. You can have a bad training session and at some point you have to say that was work and we're back to us."

Tomoko adds, "On the other hand, being comfortable together, on stage, a couple act is very easy to express ourselves and express emotion. It's easier for me. I'm Japanese and shy. I wasn't good at expressing myself." 

They've never been to Seattle before and are looking forward to exploring another great city. "I feel like I'm paid to travel,' Michel says. 'We have comfortable living quarters and we get to go explore on our days off."

For more information on this unique event, go to www.cavalia.net or call 866-999-8111.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Mirror Stage Company's "Honky" as provocative as it gets!



Mirror Stage Company just mounted another excellent play reading that provoked some great audience participation. Their Feed Your Mind play reading series has been doing that kind of thing for ten years now, and artistic director Suzanne Cohen's choices are terrific plays that usually present interesting and less-travelled-than roads of issues.

This time, the play was Honky by Greg Kalleres. More than almost any play I've experienced, this play went straight for the heart of racism, how we speak to each other, how we think of ourselves, and included advertising, as well. Kalleres' bio mentions his experience with writing and producing commercials for ESPN, Nike, Brand Jordan, and Budweiser. The play focuses on a company that makes basketball shoes, focusing on marketing to black teenagers, and on the marketing department folks who write the ads and create the buzz.

The play starts after a teen gets shot for his basketball shoes. The shooter apparently uses an advertising tagline. The white man who wrote the commercial, with a hip-hop tag line "'sup now?" is full of angst and remorse for his part in writing the ad and even goes so far as to try therapy to feel better.

A white executive in the play says, "When white kids shoot each other over these shoes, then we'll know we won." It's in reference to the company now focusing on widening their audience of purchasers to white teens who follow black teen culture to figure out what's hot and what they should emulate.

But Honky shoves in all kinds of other aspects of race, from the executive talking about "your people" to a black associate, to the black associate trying to figure out what's "black enough," to the white ad writer's calling his girlfriend "as white as you can get," to the white girlfriend's attraction to the associate in a random encounter at a bar, to the therapist of the ad writer turning out to be a) black and b) the sister of the associate... It's complicated, though not confusing during the reading.

As usual, a group of talented actors included Elena Flory-Barnes, Sara Coates, Tim Gouran, Carl Kennedy, James Lapan, Andrew Litzky, Corey Spruill and Tyler Trerise. For those who like to talk about the subject matter of a play they've just seen, FYM is particularly enjoyable for the diverse audience opinions shared.

This year's theme for Feed Your Mind is racism and the last reading was Race by David Mamet, which also zeroed in on aspects of racism in a current and challenging way. The next reading is April 5 and 6 (at the Ethnic Cultural Theatre in the University District) and is Detroit '67 by Dominique Morisseau.This play focuses on the riots that happened there in 1967, and includes the music of Motown and a sister and brother's after-hours music joint.

For information or tickets to Detroit '67, go here: http://www.mirrorstage.org/detroit67.


Thursday, February 06, 2014

Annex brings "Black Like Us" world premiere to Capitol Hill

(Posted on Capitol Hill Seattle blog:)
Rachel Atkins, playwright

February brings a new play to Annex Theatre, co-produced by Brownbox TheatreBlack Like Us by Rachel Atkins. Annex says that while its scheduling during Black History Month is intentional, it is “more than race… of the sweet, complex, and exasperating relationships that exist between sisters…The history of the Central District and the Civil rights movement in this city are woven into the narrative.”
Rachel reports that as many as 3 million people have seen her work presented around the country, but most people in Seattle aren’t even aware of the (local) company. Living Voices focuses on social justice issues of many sorts: civil rights, women’s suffrage, Japanese American internment, the Holocaust (Anne Frank), immigration. All their scripts are written by Atkins and then integrated with video or archive photos, and the actor interacts with voices from the past.11th and Pike’s Annex is no stranger to new plays, many of its presentations deliberately chosen from local playwriting submissions in a hotly contested annual company debate. Nor is Rachel Atkins a stranger to playwriting, with a long history as a writer and teacher and 20 years as a script writer for Living Voices, historically-based multimedia one-person theatrical events.
“This play is about families and sisters,” Atkins said. “I wrote the play so it could be double-cast but (director) Jose Amador decided we would keep individual roles for four African American women instead of two, so there would be a maximum opportunity for more actors of color, since there are so few on stage, often.”
Atkins said this work is also purely female. “The relationships they have with each other have nothing to do with men,” she said. “I’ve gotten good feedback about that. ‘Hey, none of their problems have to do with if they’re going to get some man or keep some man.’”
Atkins said she turned to her own background to write characters of a different race. “My parents are Jewish but my step-dad, who raised me was black,” she said. “I grew up in the ‘70s when a mixed-race family was not nearly as common as now. I grew up aware of those issues and questions about race and it was a complicated situation for my mom and step-dad.”
“The play is from 1950s until today, so characters in the ‘50s speak differently than contemporary characters,” Atkins said of the language she used. “Part of this is about the assumptions we make about people and these characters needed to sound like themselves, whatever their skin color. Also, the play is set in Seattle and there is a regional sound to it.”
“I had a shorter version of this play run last year and black audience members actually talked to the characters,” she said. “I don’t think any white audience members did that. Tyrone (Brown, artistic director of Brownbox Theatre), my director, did mention that might happen because black audience members might have something to say about what was happening on stage.”
American folk tales
Also playing until February 26th on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Annex is Story and SongBret Fetzer performs two American folk tales with backing a small group of singers a la the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?
For more information, go to www.annextheatre.org or call 206-728-0933.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Review: Mr. Pim Passes By is a lovely drawing-room comedy for a delightful evening

April Poland and Ryan Childers in Mr. Pim Passes By (Erik Stuhaug)

Most people know A.A. Milne, if they know him, from his wondrous creations in Winnie the Pooh. But he wrote many more stories and even plays. One of his theatrical creations is currently on stage at Taproot Theatre. Mr. Pim Passes By is what is termed a “drawing-room comedy,” taking place entirely in one room of a turn of the century house, and often focusing on manners of the time.

This gentle comedy has a lovely cast with just the right style of arch delivery, mostly from leading lady, April Poland. Poland plays Olivia Marden, fairly recent wife of the middle aged master of the manor, George Marden (Ryan Childers), a man set in his ways, but crazy about his new wife. Olivia never goes about stamping her foot and confronting her man. She seemingly meekly accepts his edicts (“No, you can’t put up patterned curtains in my established old home”), yet continues sewing curtains confident in finding a way to bend him around her finger and get her way.

Mr. Carraway Pim (Chris Ensweiler) is actually a mild-mannered occasional popper inner, who is mostly a device to deliver partial bits of information that stir the household into a tizzy. His remembering more bits of information and popping back in to deliver them creates continuing moments of changing tizzy. It’s enjoyable fun, though it doesn’t stack up to anything more meaningful. Drawing-room comedies general don’t.

The main pleasure is in watching the actors have fun with their characters, which they all do. A darling performance of note is the youngest character, a ward of Marden, Dinah (Allie Pratt) who folds Mr. Pim into the family and tells him all sorts of secrets in a charmingly offhand way. She is matched in her charm by Daniel Stoltenberg as her almost fiancée, Brian Strange, who, as a painter, does not earn enough for Marden to take him seriously as a suitor. Olivia must find a way to convince her husband that Brian will manage and he should let the match take place.

A fun cameo role of “Aunt” Lady Marden has Kim Morris sweep in and wave her hands about and strut out, and Ginny Hollady maintains social prestige as the maid. They are all veddy British, of course, and lovely costuming (as always) is reflected of the period by Sarah Burch Gordon.

Director Karen Lund is a past master at this type of play, with Taproot liking to produce so many of these lovely, light productions. And set and sound designer Mark Lund has done so many plays here that he probably has every measurement ingrained in his brain. They’ve got it down!


If an entrancing evening is desired and the most taxing thing you want to think about is to wonder whether Olivia really will solve everyone’s problems, this is definitely the play for you. Suitable for all ages. For more information, go to www.taproottheatre.org or call 206-781-9707. 

Monday, February 03, 2014

Review/Discussion: "A Great Wilderness" is a complicated, valiant effort

Braden Abraham and Samuel Hunter (Andry Laurence)

Playwright Samuel Hunter chooses uncomfortable characters or they choose him, as evidenced in his play, The Whale, about a morbidly obese man, and in the world premiere play, A Great Wilderness, now being presented at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Here, the uncomfortable character is an old man ending a career working as a gay-conversion therapist.

When we get invited to a play, we reviewer-types get press releases with blurbs written to entice audiences to come to the show, while encapsulating what it’s about. The Rep said this about this play:

Walt has devoted his life to counseling teenage boys out of their homosexuality at his remote Idaho wilderness camp. Pressured to accept one last client, his carefully constructed life begins to unravel with the arrival of Daniel. When Daniel disappears, Walt is forced to ask for help—both in finding the missing boy and reconciling his past with the present.

Sometimes, even when only reading the press releases once, and cursorily at that, their context can be very influential and not always in a very positive way. The phrase that resonated with me prior to seeing the play was “reconciling his past with the present.” In fact, after seeing the play, what was on the stage really had nothing to do with reconciling his past with the present.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hunter is demonstrably a brilliant, up-and-coming playwright and his challenging topics are gripping. In this play, he clearly desires to get inside of and “play around in” (no fun intended here) the mindsets of people he came into contact with as a boy in small-town Pacific Northwest who believe deeply in Scripture and have been taught that Scripture declares homosexuality a sin, and therefore, want to help anyone they know stop sinning, if at all possible. They have been told that homosexuality is a choice, that it is a “lifestyle,” that it is mutable. Therefore, they can influence someone and train him (usually him) out of it.

An industry developed, as we know, that worked to “cure” young boys of their sins of homosexual thoughts or actions, and psychology participated in the wrong-headed notion of mutability for many, many years. Often, this therapy was also given in a wilderness camp environment, a get-away from normal life in order to allow new ways of living to be cemented before returning.

Now, we are evolving, and we begin to understand that this is not a “choice” and not mutable. It is as biologically determinate as blue eyes or brown hair or left-handedness. And we know traits are dominant and recessive. Yet no one who is righthanded can change to being lefthanded without almost superhuman efforts after losing an arm, for instance.

We know that boys who went through this kind of conversion therapy were essentially told that they could not stay who they were, were sinners, and could be saved. We know that boys who went through this therapy sometimes committed suicide, probably because they couldn’t change and didn’t feel like there was any other choice left.

Hunter wanted to illustrate the issue with a man who he reveals in the play to have had homosexual feelings when younger, and by having dialogue that states that those who often feel drawn to be therapists in the field are probably those who struggled with the same feelings as the boys they take on as clients.

What we see on stage, however, does not nearly get to Walt, the older man, working to reconcile his past with his present. That would really be a longer play or a different play.

What is on the stage is more about the legacy of building something and letting it go when the builder is gone. Much of the dialogue focuses on Walt’s transitioning to an elder facility and his friends’ desire to sell the camp he built rather than continuing the services of conversion therapy he offered there.

If the couple who wants to sell had wanted to go in a completely new direction, that would have been a clearer topic. But as Hunter writes this version (who knows if he will consider a rewrite?), it turns out that the couple consists of his ex-wife and her second husband, a … wait for it … conversion therapist, though a townie one. At one point, she accuses Walt of never having loved her, the implication being that since he was homosexual, he was unable to give her the love she needed. Then why would she marry another conversion therapist, if conversion therapists are mostly all men who struggled or struggle with homosexual issues themselves? (Not to mention that it’s a terrible accusation to say homosexuals can’t love people they’ve committed to, unless it’s supposed to be a statement from a still bitter ex-spouse.)

Braden Abraham directs a wonderful cast of acting talents in this interesting subject, who flesh out these characters as fully as they can. Michael Winter is compassionate as Walt, who is ending his career and uncertain of his impact on his “boys.” Jack Taylor displays great instincts as Daniel, the boy at the center who is lost and afraid and gentle and suspicious. Christine Estabrook plays a bossy, but understandable ex-spouse, with R. Hamilton Wright as her caught-in-the-middle spouse with few options to know what to do. Gretchen Krich has a fairly easy role as a forest ranger who doesn’t need to involve herself in the controversy. Mari Nelson does a solid turn in an underdeveloped role as Daniel’s mother.

As a non-Christian who is hyper sensitive to Christian thought, one of the surprises for me was how little Scripture there actually was in the play. It feels like Hunter missed the boat in this regard: the whole reason these Christians feel they must root out the sin is because of how central Scripture is to their whole lives. Everything revolves around the Bible and everything comes back to the Bible. I feel like I have some insight here from personal experiences.

Even the mother, married to a man who shunned his son, yet was one of the pastors of a mega-church, apparently, rarely mentions anything Biblical. No one prays for the missing boy. No one prays, at least out loud, for him or herself and for guidance. There is a crisis and yet no prayers are said? No one holds hands? No one invokes God or Jesus, almost at all?

There is, perhaps, a very important exploration here. Boys continue, and girls continue, to commit suicide. The It Gets Better project and online musicals like TheHinterlands try to penetrate the vast middle of this country to get word to those small-town boys and girls who feel different and who are afraid of themselves and what they are told is their sin that they control.

While the production of A Great Wilderness begins to explore the issue, the best parts of that exploration are the scenes between Walt and Daniel. The rest of the characters get in the way, right now, and distract from what probably should be the heart of the experience, and the challenge to Walt should probably be right in front of him: Daniel. Staying put. Believing in himself. Showing Walt that Walt can love himself, too.

I welcome your comments.

(Information at www.seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222.)


Saturday, February 01, 2014

Endangered Species Project moves to ACT Theatre



Next Up: The Madwoman of Chaillot, Monday February 3 at 7:00pm at ACT Theatre

Mark Anders, an originator of ESP, and talented actor and director and musician in town, is passionate about Endangered Species Project and their move to ACT Theatre, this month, as part of ACT’s Central Heating Lab adventure. I asked Mark about how ESP started and a bit about the move and what they expect in the future.

Mark says, “A group of actors and a director or two, including Cynthia White and Dan Kremer, Jeff Steitzer, and Larry and Jeanne Paulson, and Amy Love (and a couple of other people) and I began some conversations about how there are plays that just don’t get done anymore. Either because they’re too many characters for modern American theaters to remount them, or look too expensive to theaters, too many sets, or because they’ve been forgotten or fallen out of fashion.

“We gravitate to what is known as the ‘well-made play’ though I don’t quite know what that means, since every play should be a well-made play. All those plays that are silent on the bookshelves. So, we’ve rediscovered a bunch of playwrights, new to me, and it’s been thrilling for me to read them.

“We also knew that Susan and Clayton Corzatte would have extensive knowledge of the kind of plays we would want to do. We didn’t know, at first, that Clay was suffering from ALS, but later, there were ways we were able to keep him involved. With Susan’s help,he directed The Show-Off, for example After he passed, we picked The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker because it was the play on which Susan and Clay met (they were both acting in it). And that was one of the reasons we wanted to do it. The only month we’ve skipped since we started was the month that Clayton died.”

Back at the beginning:
“Cynthia White had been in charge of a reading series down in Ashland, OR, and the group was talking about plays we missed, like The Little Foxes. I was in it and think it is so tightly and expertly written and you just get on the ride. You get sucked into the plot and off you go. Those are the kinds of plays that appealed to all of us. That old narrative joy that we all learned to love as kids, ‘Tell me a story.’

“One of the great things about doing readings, more than a regular play, is that the audience has to enter into it with us, and their imaginations are being called into play. It’s like an exalted radio play. I’d love to see these plays on stage, but in some ways, readings make the plays come alive in a way that done fully with a big set wouldn’t necessarily do.

“We wanted to do the readings with top notch actors, given limited rehearsal time. We put our toe in the water and started a monthly reading. The name (ESP) arose out of our discussion, that these plays were endangered, in danger of dropping out of the culture."

The very first play they did was Both Your Houses by Maxwell Anderson, on February 14, 2011. Both Susan and Clayton Corzatte were actors in that reading.

“We started scheduling plays and finding directors and the director usually casts the play. Our members often make proposals of plays they’d like to do. Our first list was huge and it's just grown from there. Some of the time, we pick plays that are good for a time of year, or one time the Seattle Rep was doing Or, a play about Aphra Behn and we did an Afra Behn play (The Lucky Chance, April 2012).

“We’re getting more adventurous and doing plays that hardly anyone would recognize now. Like Miss Lulu Bett by Zona Gale that (director) John Dillon brought to us. I didn’t know Zona Gale and now I’m a huge fan.

“It’s a huge amount of work to keep the organization going. We now have a steering committee which I am on. Casting was difficult for me because I had some guilt about calling up my friends to ask them to do a play with me for no money. I’ve always wanted to pay actors. I don’t need to be paid because I’m part of the organization but we’ve always paid for the permission to do a reading, unless they’re in the public domain. It’s not terribly expensive but it’s one of our costs, including copying scripts. We’ve mostly not had to pay for the venue.

“We had no idea if we were going to make any money and in the beginning we only had 20 or so audience members. We asked for donations to cover costs. Then we started getting nicer amounts of donations, averaging about $5/person, and we bought some music stands for ourselves to replace broken ones. We have a little money in the bank, now. Not enough to pay actors what we'd like, yet, but seed money.

“We’re hoping the move to ACT Theatre will help us do a lot more in the way of raising funds. We grew a much bigger audience at North Seattle Community College up to around 140. We didn’t really outgrow NSCC, but another of Richard Ziman and Leslie Law’s efforts (Sandbox Radio Collective) was moving to ACT Theatre’s Central Heating Lab, a coproducing relationship, and with Richard’s and Leslie’s priming, ACT asked us if we wanted to produce there, too.

“There are aspects that I like and aspects I don’t. Downtown means you have to park and there’s no way to park for free anymore. That’s a bit of a drag. But being in a big time theater doing these plays feels good to me. NSCC was incredibly supportive, going out of their way to make sure we were taken care of, but it’s great to feel a part of the theater scene, rather than away from it, as I felt a little at NSCC. I think it’s attractive (to actors) for people to be performing in the ACT space.

“$15/ticket is different. That came after heavy discussion with ACT about what we should charge. That’s what ACT charges for a lot of things. There are also people with the ACTPass which allows those subscribers to come to things at ACT included in the Pass. With this reading, we are starting compensating actors for their services.  And we’re paying for their parking.

“We’ve been encouraged by ticket sales and it’s doing well, though not sold out. ACT also takes their fair  share out of the $15. We'll see how this first reading goes.  

“When we move on to plays a little less famous than Madwoman, we’ll see how we do as far as how much we can pay actors, depending on our attendance. We’re planning on doing some huge casts as far as sheer numbers of actors. One of the impacts is for these audiences to see just how many people these plays had in them. Dead End by Sydney Kingsley is gargantuan. He talks in his introduction to the play that he had to diagram everything for himself because it was so complex. He directed it as well. He has boys in the tenement house and the rich apartment across the way.

“(The play is set) on the East Side in NY in the ‘30s and things are kind of dire. The rich apartment house is having its entrance repaired and the rich people have to come in and out the servants’ entrance and they had to rub shoulders with the poor people next door. It’s a very current feeling. The plays that ESP tries to pick still have things to say to us now.

“I’m thrilled we’re even considering attempting it! It’s 39 speaking parts! Once in a Lifetime by Kaufman and Hart (another play we might do) has 60 parts. We’re talking about a lot of characters and several settings, as well. Madwoman also has 17 or 18 actors playing slightly more than that number of parts. That’s a lot of actors on stage! And a lot of fun.

“We have such a devoted core of people who come. This is an experiment. We’ll see where this leads us. We want to try this and see if there is as much hunger in the Seattle community for this as we have in doing it.”

For more information, go to www.acttheatre.org or call 206-292-7676. Or you can go to their website at www.endangeredspeciesproject.org. Comments welcome on this blog.