Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Best Theater of 2014

Evelyn DeHais in Chaos Theory at Annex Theatre (Dangerpants Photography)

(as published in the December 26th issue of Seattle Gay News)

Here we are, again, at year’s end and I’m about to recap some of the highlights of the Theater Year. The year was more eclectic, I think, than some, and includes exciting developments, particularly in local writing. Of course, it is just not in me to call out only five or ten productions…

But before I plunge in too deeply, I want to acknowledge the tremendous writing of Robert Schenkkan and effort that is Seattle Repertory Theatre’s All the Way and The Great Society in performance. You can still see these performances through January 4th, though tickets are getting scarce. Since it is almost an import, it’s hard to claim it as completely “our own,” but it is important work and a chance to see work that has already received national acclaim. Jack Willis needs to be acknowledged as the hardest working actor on stage this year!

This might be called The Year of Local Playwriting! More world premiere plays were performed and, in my opinion, at a higher level of sophistication and polish than I think I’ve ever seen.

A raft of challenging subject matters and tight writing were exemplified by scripts such as Black Like Us by Rachel Atkins (by Annex Theatre/Brownbox Theatre), Royal Blood by Sonya Schneider (by Onward Ho Productions), Chaos Theory by Courtney Meaker (by Annex Theatre), Tails of Wasps by Stephanie Timm (by New Century Theatre Company), Balconies by Scotto Moore (by Annex Theatre), Attack of the Killer Murder of … Death! by Wayne Rawley (by Theater Schmeater), the adaptation of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Jeff Schwager (by Book-It Repertory Theatre), Blood Countess by Kelleen Conway Blanchard (by Annex Theatre), and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle by Rose Cano (by eSe Teatro).

Each of these plays deserves at least a paragraph on what was so great about them, but I’m afraid this would turn into a chapter of a book, if I wrote more. There is so much more to talk about.

Theaters of 2014
Anyone notice how many Annex Theatre mentions there are? Annex often produces original work, but this was a particularly strong year for them.

Let’s also give a loud shout out to the little theater in Redmond that can: SecondStory Repertory! They are always hard working out there, but this year’s slate of musicals and straight plays was edgy and might be daunting to any single theater. They did excellent productions of A Little Night Music and La Cage aux Folles and tick, tick … Boom! They took on difficult musicals like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Chess and gave us opportunities to see them done well. They challenged their audience with Keely and Du, a play about kidnapping in the name of religion over abortion. It has been a banner year of effort for Mark Chenovick and Jen Klos!

Speaking of musicals, this was a huge year for very big musicals with some casts that could not have been more perfect. You can still see one of those perfect castings if you get out to Village Theatre either in Issaquah or Everett in January for Mary Poppins. Cayman Ilika as Mary and Greg Allen McCormick as Bert are performing at the perfect moment in time for these roles. You can also still catch the lovely cast of A Christmas Story at The 5th Avenue Theatre and married talents Jessica Skerritt and Dane Stokinger as Mother and Old Man.

Village also managed an amazing cast for In the Heights with the best choreography of the year (by Daniel Cruz)! Adding to those productions, we got to see Sarah Rose Davis as Funny Girl at Village, who has to have been dreaming of doing that role since she was born!

Little Shop of Horrors was a wonderful production (co-produced by ACT and 5th Avenue) starring Josh Carter and Josh also joined in with a fantastic cast at the 5th of Monty Python’s Spamalot, along with talents like Allen Fitzpatrick and Laura Griffith. Seattle Children’s Theatre recently wrapped up a world premiere musical of Dick Whittington and His Cat starring Mike Spee as Dick (and composed by our own Rich Gray). A successful independent production (by Sidecountry Theatre) of Passing Strange introduced theater audiences to local musician LeRoy Bell and a hard working ensemble.

Top Productions
The three best straight plays for me in 2014 were ACT’s incredibly taut and well-acted The Invisible Hand by Ayad Akhtar, introducing Elijah Alexander to Seattle and with Connor Toms, Erwin Galan and William Ontiveros (directed by Allen Nause), a terrific and powerful presentation of Larry Kramer’s A Normal Heart by Strawberry Theater Workshop, with a strong cast, and a surprising Diana of Dobson’s by Cicely Hamilton at Taproot Theatre. The surprise about Taproot’s production was not that it was well executed – their productions invariably are – but that it was such a great script that still speaks to today even though it was written at the turn of the 20th Century.

Star Turns
Standout moments include some leading roles and some small ones. The trans-FTM role played by Evelyn DeHais in Chaos Theory introduced this talented newcomer to our local stages. Amy Love returned to the boards with her special character in Royal Blood. Terri Weagant got to play a whole range of crazy in Blood Countess. Will Rose did a gorgeous job as Don Quixote in Don Quixote and Sancho PanzaAmy Thone commanded and put her heart and soul into the doctor role in The Normal Heart. And in the tiniest role, Joseph Tancioco sang his heart out as the Piragua Guy in In the Heights.

Michael Winters was a heart-rending character in A Great Wilderness at Seattle Repertory. Erik Gratton was the most dead-pan sneaky guy in The Foreigner at Village Theatre. Tracy Michelle Hughes took on Charlayne Woodard's one-woman piece Pretty Fire at Taproot Theatre. Amy Hill held her own in the tumultuous production that was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Seattle Repertory. Timothy McCuen Piggee was the best actor of both parts of Angels in America at Intiman Theatre, as they audaciously focused their entire “season” on Kushner’s masterwork.

Tight 2 and 3 Handers
There were a handful of terrific small cast shows where every actor counted. The best two-handers were Gidion’s Knot at Seattle Public Theater with Heather Hawkins and Rebecca Olson as a mother and teacher in the worst parent-teacher conference ever (directed by Shana Bestock) and The Mountaintop at ArtsWest with Reginald Andre Jackson channeling Dr. Martin Luther King and brianne a. hill as a cheeky hotel maid (directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton).

Two outstanding three-handers were A Lesson From Aloes presented by Thalia’s Umbrella with William Hall Jr., Terry Edward Moore, and Pam Nolte, and Death and the Maiden presented by Latino Theatre Projects with Tonya Andrews, Frank Lawler, and Fernando Luna.

Slightly larger ensembles with solid acting all around included Tails of Wasps with Paul Stetler, Brenda Joyner, Sylvie Davidson, Hannah Mootz, and Betsy Schwartz, Third by ArtsWest with Marty Mukhalian, Bill Higham, Kacey Shiflet, Mark Tyler Miller, and Kate Witt and A Small Fire by Sound Theatre Company with Teri Lazzara, Gordon Carpenter, Sara Coates, and Ray Tagavilla.

Unique Settings
Tails of Wasps also gets a mention for the great use of a particular location in ACT Theatre’s building that made a perfect hotel room. Another production that used a particularly appropriate location was Akropolis Performance Lab’s original adaptation (by Zhenya Lavy) of Uncle Vanya. They used the manor-like environs of the Garden House on Beacon Hill to create an instant old-family-residence feeling. Also, the young upstarts of Horse in Motion took over the entire University Heights building for their creative production of Attempts on Her Life.

Speaking of sets, I have become enamored of sets by designer Robin Macartney. Her set for Girl You Know It’s True in particular (produced by Theatre Off Jackson) was so simple (some burlap curtains sliding on curved rods that became walls and room separators) that it was genius. Other sets, at Annex in particular, for Balconies and Chaos Theory continued this spare but elegant aesthetic. She’s one to watch.

More Jobs Well Done
Three more productions deserve notice and include three more companies yet to be mentioned. We are so fortunate to have such a range of companies and intense, committed theater producers in this town. So, the three are: Impenetrable by SiS Productions, The Bunner Sisters by Athena Theatre Projects and The Lisbon Traviata by Theatre22.

Made Me Laugh

Because I love to laugh, I have to close with the people who made me laugh the hardest this year. Andrew Lee Creech and Cory Spruill as Fab and Rob, the guys of the pretend pop duo Milli Vanilli, in Girl You Know It’s True brought the pair to life. Their choreography was period appropriate and hysterical and also well-executed. And the funniest actor, hands down, in 2014 was (drum roll please) Tracy Leigh as the dotty baker’s wife in the wonderful American-Wee Pie at Seattle Public Theater.

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