Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Sprawling “The Brothers K” gives as much as it demands!

The Chance family (Chris Bennion)
The Brothers K
Part 1: Strike Zones
Part 2: The Left Stuff
Book-It Repertory Theatre
Through June 26, 2016

Last year, Book-It Repertory Theatre took a big gamble: they adapted a very long book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, into a two-part play that asked audiences to spend an entire day at Seattle Center, eat, wait, and watch the entire event. The plays were about the history of Jews in comic-book creation and a couple of fictitious cousins. Both productions were so well done, so well-acted, adapted, presented, that the experiment succeeded.

That success, following another blockbuster two-part presentation of The Cider House Rules, was apparently enough for them to contemplate trying again with another big book, The Brothers K, about a nuclear family, baseball, and the 1960s into and surrounding the Vietnam War. Since the plays just opened, the success at the box office is still to be determined, but my opinion is that they have again succeeded in presenting a compelling and excellent work that justifies the time demanded of an audience!

Written by David James Duncan and adapted and directed by Book-It’s Myra Platt, the book focuses on the travails of the unique Chance family. (Note: The cast is huge, and I apologize for not naming all the wonderful cast members who contribute.) They are parents Hugh and Laura (Gavin Hoffman and Alexandra Tavares) and their six kids Everett, Peter, Irwin, Kincaid, Winifred and Beatrice (played as adults by Christopher Morson, Trevor Cushman, Riley Shanahan, Spencer Hamp, Rebecca Anne Love, and Annika Nori).

Part of the draw of the story is that the family lives in Camas, Washington, and so the sense of place is very local for us. I’m sure that is part of the reason for the adaptation. Though also, Pratt adapted Duncan’s The River Why, previously, so he is a known author.

We get to know the Chances through a narration by Kade (short for Kincaid), their youngest son. They are a tight-knit family, but there are tensions. Hugh was an amazing baseball pitcher who lost his thumb at the paper mill he works at, but baseball is his passion. (The “K” in the story obvious parallels the Karamazov Brothers of Russian literature, but also stands for a notation for “strike” in baseball.)

Mom is a devout 7th Day Adventist, and Dad is not. But Dad supports his wife’s choice of church. This already sets the table for questions, because it is not at all clear how this marriage survives. Indeed, the relationship is constantly threatened. In Part 1, when three of the teen sons strike against the church, Mom ostracizes them from her life. That fundamental tension begins to threaten the family unity.

The outside world and the changes from 1953 to 1969 in Part 1 provide a lot of the fodder for the story of this family. But the family life is presented in moments large and small, such as a dad quietly holding his son on his lap, reading the paper, and the experimental surgery that transplants Dad’s toe onto his thumb so he can pitch again.

The chemistry and support of Hoffman, a Portland actor I certainly hope comes to our stages more, and Tavares, is powerful and wafts warmly to the audience. They become story anchors, as well as opposites to attract different emotional responses from the audience.

Director Platt’s management of the enormous cast, making it feel small and intimate, is a tribute to her understanding of the material. Morson, Shanahan, Cushman and Hamp get the majority of playing time, as their stories unfold in different directions.

Shanahan’s character goes through the most changes, as he valiantly tries to live life as God would have him, but ends up getting drafted into the War, and leaving behind a new wife and child. Morson’s character turns into a quirky draft-dodger in a very ‘60s way of behaving, while Cushman’s character immerses himself into the newly discovered (in the ‘60s fad way) Buddhist way of life.

By the end of Part 1, the family has shrunk in Camas, tensions with the local church are at an all-time high, Hugh has been encouraged to find his way back to baseball, but the sons are all worlds away. What will happen in Part 2?

Part 2 is a more difficult-to-stage event. We open at a point of danger and tension, and much of the first part of that play is told via letters. Letters are always difficult to animate well on stage, and films manage that kind of exposition much better. However, when the choice to show a scene is used, the play again regains the riveting feeling that Part 1 evokes.

Part 2 focuses on (spoiler alert, sorry) the damaged Irwin, who is essentially trapped inside a mental hospital run by military who both refuse to believe his story and also think his religious statements are babbling idiocy. When the rest of the Chance family finds out, they get to work to get him out.

Laura is challenged to get her church involved, Everett leaves Canada to save his brother, Peter comes home from India to rejoin the effort and everyone goes on a road trip to confront the hospital administrator. The hysterical road trip gives the audience a breath of humor and opens up the rest of the play to a rollicking, empowering ending.

Shanahan’s journey from good-hearted religious fanatic to wounded warrior to coma victim is emotionally wrenching. It’s a lovely piece of work. Morson is so naturally funny that even his more serious moments amuse, but that works in his favor. Hamp is consistent, but as most narrators, he fades a bit into the background.

A few of the ensemble are so outstanding that they deserve mention. Aaron T. Moore, a Boise, Idaho resident who’s been cast here for the first time, is wonderful in various roles, including both the boorish Adventist pastor and the boisterous family uncle. Suzy Hunt in a mini-treasure of humor as both the atheist mother-in-law and an Adventist on the adventure. Sunam Ellis has great fun with a strange Canadian. Bob Williams is a warm baseball friend of Hugh’s. Evan Whitfield is a snarkily good Major.

A word about the adaptation: Much of it is masterful and reflects the years of experience Adapter Platt has in doing this kind of work. I do worry a bit when an adapter then also directs, because it deprives a good script of a partner in refinement, which a good director can be to new material. Platt is also a fine director and shows that in both of these complex Parts. There are certainly moments and aspects that can be trimmed, and even if it still runs as long as two Parts, it could strain the audience a bit less in staying power.

Also, there are two different female characters with enormous and tragic stories we learn that are subsumed into the whole in an uneasy, adjunctive way, lying on top of the story like a plate that no one knows what to do with. While Platt does a great job of giving the women of the story as big a presence as possible, this really is a “man’s” play.

But overall, this is another triumph for Book-It and company that you truly should see. While committing a whole day to an event like this might be a budget stretcher (you have to figure food into the whole thing, for stamina if not hunger), the best experience might be the days you can see both Parts at once. That is the report from people who saw the two Parts of Kavalier and Clay. That way, you will experience the breadth of the family story.

Kudos to the tech side, with great set touches (the wooden calendar among others) by Christopher Mumaw and evocative lighting from Marnie Cumings. Matt Starritt brings in iconic music from the ‘60s and Chelsea Cook dresses them all with subtle ‘60s attire. They all work to pull this winding story together.

For more information, call 206-216-0833 or go to