Friday, February 24, 2017

"Well" - meta-theatrically funny and a hard play to get right

Sarah Rudinoff and Barbara Dirickson in Well (Alan Alabastro)
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through March 5, 2017

Playwright Lisa Kron wants to explore illness and recovery. Some people recover from illnesses and others can’t. Kron wants to know if a reason can be found for who does which, and maybe why. In this kooky meta-theatrical play, Well, that breaks the fourth and fifth and sixth walls, Kron – who appears in the play as herself (but actually played by talented Seattle actor Sarah Rudinoff) – Kron explains all this to the audience at the beginning of the show.

Kron tells of her mother’s history of being sick with a mysterious disease that her mother attributes to “allergies.” And yet, even though mom has been debilitated, she’s been able to move them to a struggling integrated neighborhood and been active enough as a civic leader to help the neighborhood heal. Kron wants to link the healing of the neighborhood to the lack of healing of her mother.

“But,” Kron says, “this play is absolutely not about my mother!” Kron says she’s just using her personal life to examine the larger question.

Part of the fun of this script is that it is different from most plays. Much of the play is addressed straight at the audience in an acknowledgement that you are there. (This is the breaking of “the fourth wall” which is the pretend wall across the front of the stage that actors are supposed to pretend is there and that no one is watching.) Rudinoff, I mean Kron, explains exactly what she wants to do with the performance.

She enlists four actors (Chantal DeGroat, Reginald Andre Jackson, Adrian LaTourelle and Liz McCarthy) to help her activate the storytelling portion of the evening. They try their best to help, but sometimes they don’t quite know what should be going on and interrupt their presentation. A number of the interruptions end up being due to her mother.

Kron’s mother (played by Barbara Dirickson, whose presence we are thankful to have back on a Seattle stage) is apparently sleeping in her living room, but has been transported to Kron’s play with every case and canister in her cluttered little house. Mom doesn’t want to be part of the play, but is there to support her daughter.

Still, Mom has to interrupt from time to time to help get the story straight. Kron has the actors play the story of the integrated neighborhood that her parents moved them to when she was a little girl, where she has a rainbow-painted memory of her mother heading up the neighborhood council and everyone getting along. Mom interrupts to let her know that it just wasn’t that simple. You can’t compress years of struggle and complexity into a two minute presentation.

While Kron is telling the story of her childhood, suddenly a young girl (Emma Blessing) stomps out to torment Kron and chase her around the stage. She is a classmate from Kron’s memory who bullied and tormented her. Young Miss Blessing takes stage like a veteran and has a great deal of fun in the role.

While there are many funny parts of the play, the construction of it tends toward anarchy and often it intentionally falls apart. It can be hard to figure out where the play wants to go or if it arrives at any particular destination.

While Rudinoff and Dirickson ping pong well against each other, and the other actors gamely look like they’re supporting the show, aspects of this production, as chosen by director Braden Abraham, work against it. In particular, the play seems best suited by its nature to be done in a very small space. The Leo K could have been a far better choice for mounting the production than the more cavernous main theater.

The conceit of the script is that it continues in fits and starts. The interruptions are supposed to be “real life” and the actors are called by their real names as if they are no longer acting. None of those moments ever felt like a “real” interruption.

The script is definitely a challenge to pull off. The verdict here is that it hits most of the jokes and misses the sense of messy real life interruptions, going more for the act-y pretend-y interruptions. Even so, it’s enough fun to make it a good time.

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