Friday, January 11, 2019

Seattle’s Best Theater of 2018!

The City of London stage floor for Parliament Square  with scenic painter Annie Duffiance 
(Justin Duffiance)

The "macrame'd" backdrop for Parliament Square (Dangerpants Photography) 
It’s time to look back at 2018 and take note of some of the great theatrical presentations that took place on Seattle-area stages! As usual, there was a lot of fantastic theater to be seen and to experience! Here’s my list of notable and excellent productions, as I saw them. 

I need to acknowledge the excellent season that ArtsWest had in 2018 as Artistic Director Mathew Wright continues to elevate their overall presentations, both in terms of choices of scripts and in terms of technical support! This year, I saw most of their productions, including An Octoroon, Hir, Peerless, Skeleton Crew, and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Every one of these shows is also listed in one or another of the categories below! Keep cranking it out, folks. I hope others are making plans to get subscriptions!

Top Honors:
Excellent stage productions usually include all the components of a piece, in terms of great technical supports, and a great script, and great performances by the actors. Here are some of those excellently well-done shows: Hand to God at Seattle Public Theatre was a gutsy and outrageous show. Hir, co-produced by ArtsWest and IntimanTheatre, was similarly gutsy and timely in terms of the focus, in part, on transgender youth. ASL Midsummer Night’s Dream by Sound Theatre Company was a massive endeavor by a pretty tiny company to include deaf audiences and actors in a seminal Shakespearean experience. Peerless at ArtsWest had a subject matter that I’m extremely tired of personally – high school angst, but it was such a high level of effort with a kick-ass ensemble and a funny-smart script that I was won over. Skeleton Crew, another of the terrific ArtsWest productions, highlighted people that don’t often get plays written about: factory workers and union members, and focused on corporate profit-taking at the expense of their personnel. Native Gardens by Intiman Theatre was a funny skewering of racial stereotypes and a bandying about of tropes about “the Man” and border walls and all manner of topical immigration issues. Ironbound at Seattle Public Theater was a taut, edgy character study in minimalism.

Doing the Classics That Aren’t Shakespeare:
Seattle Shakespeare Company took on George Bernard Shaw, he of the three names and tongue-in-cheek dialogue. Arms and the Man boasted a great cast and a director (David Armstrong) who has spent his career focused on musicals. They romped it up to a gentle rollick befitting this classic. Seattle Repertory Theatre can always be counted on to do August Wilson scripts to perfection as they did in 2018 with Two Trains Running

WOmen in Shakespeare:
A more pronounced trend in 2018 was for women to portray men and Shakespeare seems ripe for every possibility as Sarah Harlett portrayed Richard III for Seattle Shakespeare Company and upstart crow collective, and Mary Ewald took on Timon of Athens for Shakes, and Amy Thone got her chance to chomp on Shylock in The Merchant of Venice for Shakes and managed an incredible transformation as Nixon in Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s Frost/Nixon. There is a lot of satisfaction for this female to see women chewing up scenery heretofore reserved for men! 

A growing non-binary inclusion is clear in Seattle theaters, including whole small companies, like Reboot Theatre Company ( that have non-traditional casting as part of their mission and reason for being. Clearly, Seattle theater practitioners are staying ahead of the curve and pulling audiences with them as society changes its viewpoints. 

Smart “Small” Shows That Made Big Impact:
If you’re not paying attention to small companies in town, you’ll miss some of the best theater. Three of the productions I loved in 2018 are Queen from Pratidhwani, that used the science behind bee disappearing syndrome to speak about the perils of research funding and the lure of fame and fortune versus the honor of coming clean about likely-undetectable errors due to bias; Swallow from Theater Schmeater that was an intense character drama about three gender-torn individuals; and Veils from Macha Theatre Works that delved into the history of “the Arab Spring” and women’s subjugation to or identity with the various body coverings in the Arab world. They were simply riveting theater. 

Super Solos:
Honor must be paid to those who create whole worlds by themselves. Sara Porkalob continued to develop her “Dragon trilogy” with Dragon Mama, her real family biographies with scintillating detail. Until the Flood (at ACT Theatre) by Dael Orlandersmith explored various members of the community in Ferguson, Missouri after the 2014 tragedy of the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown. Her show focused on just about every kind of view available and hew of skin color in a fascinating show of how one person can become so very many different people. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at ArtsWest is technically not a solo show, but Felicia Loud has been luminous every time she has graced the stage as Ms. Billie Holiday, eclipsing everyone and everything else. 

Leading Roles:
There were two men in 2018 whose work was a tour de force in their respective shows and whose talent must be acknowledged. Ben Burris was simply amazing in Hand to God, as he managed the sheer complexity of a boy and his hand puppet. Burris’ years of quiet puppeteering in various local theatres were the perfect preparation for this amazing role. Lamar Legend had to become several “selves,” sometimes almost at once in An Octoroon, and kept up a tremendous amount of energy doing it. 

Other great leads include the shared role of Hunchback of Notre Dame that Joshua Castille and E.J. Cardona performed, where Castille demonstrated the depth of emotion in sign and Cardona sang the heart of the role, beautifully mirroring each other. Tracy Michelle Hughes was heartbreaking as a factory worker who would not let anyone see her pain in Skeleton Crew. Gretchen Krich was brave, hurt, subjugated, resurrected, defiant, and tender in Hir. Sunam Ellis was the most profane and surprising mother in Hand to God. Alexandra Tavares seemed to transform into a troubled, hopeless yet determined character in Ironbound

Innovations in Inclusion as well as Excellence:
New ways to include otherwise excluded audiences was another welcome trend in 2018 where the 5th Avenue Theatre produced a most unusual Hunchback of Notre Dame with a signing Hunchback and ASL Midsummer Night’s Dream was completely signed and spoken with a double cast of deaf and hearing actors. These are wonderful and successful efforts and more can and should be done. Kudos to Sound Theatre Company’s entire season, that included You Can’t Take It With You and The Rules of Charity with characters in wheelchairs. They are the Little Company That Can that doesn’t let their size or funding determine who they put on stage!

Classic Musicals:
The best musicals this year were all classics, as well as all female-centered! Annie at the 5th Avenue Theatre was a joyous romp through the cartoon ‘30s. Hairspray at Village Theatre reminded every one of us that “Negro Day should be Every Day.” Kiss Me, Kate was another fun and funny production at the 5th Avenue Theatre with the glorious Cayman Ilika making audiences roll in the aisles as she detailed how much she “Hate(d) Men.” 
Smaller Roles Making Big Impacts:
Some of the most-remembered moments in a production are not with leading characters. Indeed, sometimes you remember a much smaller role that makes the biggest impact. Let’s acknowledge the small roll of the Mother in The Wolves at ACT Theatre, played by Christine Marie Brown; the littlest sister, played by Kelly Karcher in Miss Bennet: Christmas as Pemberley at Taproot Theatre; Annette Toutonghi in Ibsen in Chicago at Seattle Repertory Theatre – who thankfully didn’t hurt herself; Annelih GH Hamilton in Don’t Split the Party by Transparent Storytelling Group; Cynthia Jones’ Miss Hannigan in Annie; and Jessie Selleck as Cinderella in Disenchanted (Mamches Presents). 

Then there were William Hall, Jr. in Two Trains Running as the classy gentleman he is; Chip Sherman in Seattle Children’s Theatre’s production of And in This Corner: Cassius Clay as the younger brother; Brandon J. Simmons’ upper, upper-crustian in The Picture of Dorian Gray at Book-It Repertory Theatre; Jose Abaoag as a tortured servant in An Octoroon; Christopher Quilici in Peerless; Shane Regan as the titular rooster in Year of the Rooster by MAP Theatre; the mysterious Jeff Steitzer in The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes at Village Theatre; and Jose Luis Uz dancing away with scenes in Village Theatre’s production of Matilda

Favorite Ensembles:
Sometimes productions are elevated by the way the team of actors pulls off the script with every single actor giving their all and each moment fulfilling its purpose. These are some of the favorite ensembles from 2018. The Journal of Ben Uchida: Citizen 13559 at Seattle Children’s Theatre, Two Trains Running and Familiar at Seattle Repertory Theatre, American Hwangap by AJ Epstein Prod and SiS Productions, Ironbound, Peerless, Smoke and Dust at Macha Theatre Works, Swallow, Welcome to Arroyo’s also at Theater Schmeater, A Small History of Amal by Forward Flux Productions and Pratidhwani, Brainpeople by Latin Theatre Projects, and Queen

Arresting Sets:
The way a play looks on stage can be crucial to putting over its message. These are a few of the most visually arresting or important sets that I saw in 2018 and I’d like to acknowledge the work. First, I’d like to call out the incredible handwork needed for Pony World’s bizarre, well-done work, Parliament Square. Hundreds of hours were needed for it – to create a huge macramé upstage piece that designer Lex Marcos and artist Mandy Greer created from the vision of director Sann Hall along with an intricate, enormous rendering on the stage floor of the City of London. Also, the macramé piece was mirrored in the costuming of Caitlin Cooke, who created a macramé’d “scar” for the lead character who sets herself on fire at the start of the play. 

Other beautiful sets include Richard III’s by Shawn Ketchum Johnson that doubled as percussion; Misha Kachman’s diner for Two Trains Running for spare realism that was clearly not real; Lex Marcos (again) for Native Gardens for realism that looked really real;

Christopher Mumaw’s work on Hand to God with a classroom that had to be destroyed and put back together every night; and Burton Yuen creating a rundown factory that felt like a terrible break room for Skeleton Crew

Not Like the Others:
I’d like to acknowledge a completely different production from any other in 2018. Akropolis Performance Lab likes to choose work that they then put their own “spin” on and their production of Jean Genet’s The Maids showed exactly that difference. There were many spins put on this production, like having the maids be older and the mistress be very young, but the most striking spin of all was Zhenya Lavy’s playing Vexations by Erik Satie on the piano – over and over and over and over. It’s a short, but evocative and strange musical moment that changed the entire character of the play with its inclusion. They call themselves “art theater” and it is a special blend. 

Exciting New Work:
The last category is certainly not in any way “least”!! Seattle is blessed with plenty of writing talent and here is a list of eight great plays that had their world premieres here in 2018. Holly Arsenault had The Great Inconvenience produced at Annex Theatre. Rachel Atkins debuted her Family Matters with ReACT Theatre. Christopher Dimond and Michael Kooman premiered The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes at Village Theatre. Nathan Kessler-Jeffrey wrote Don't Split the Party and produced it with Transparent Storytelling Group at the Slate Theater. Joy McCullough-Carranza found compatibility for Smoke and Dust with Macha Theatre Works. Lauren Yee brought The Great Leap to Seattle Repertory Theatre (who co-produced it with Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company. Y York had two new plays produced this year!  Framed was produced by Snowflake Avalanche and The Impossibility of Now was produced by Thalia's Umbrella! 
Thank you, All, for the gift of your talents to our town!

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