Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Seattle’s Best Theater of 2019

Sunam Ellis and Ayo Tushinde in Sheathed
(Laura Dux Photography)
A moment from Indecent at Seattle Repertory Theatre (Bronwen Houck)
It’s the time of year for idiosyncratic lists of “bests” summing up the last 12 months. It’s time to celebrate the strength and vitality of the theater scene that is the greater Seattle area! As I assembled my list for 2019, what jumps out for me has been the inclusion of live music as a significant production element in some of this year’s top plays.

The Top of the List:
While there was, as always, some terrific work on stage, I am celebrating two works in particular as the kind of theater that I long to see every time. Indecent at Seattle Repertory Theatre was full of everything brilliant about theater. The subject matter packed in layer upon layer by the brilliant Paula Vogel. The execution by director Sheila Daniels and an absolutely sublime cast. The best technical support and a trio of musicians that had to act, sing and move around a stage like no one’s business! It was not without trepidations that I became an audience member, but I left bursting with feelings and ideas that continue to weave through my mind.

In a very different, wonderful way, the new work, Sheathed, by inventive and lovely (local!) playwright Maggie Lee, was a wholly new work of essentially sci-fi fantasy, where strong sword-fighting women (Ayo Tushinde and Sunam Ellis) quested and struggled with deep questions of vengeance versus reconciliation. Adding to the atmosphere of this Macha Theatre Works production, live music by Leanna Keith also enlivened the event in essential ways.

Other Significant Productions:
Style points must be given to ACT Theatre’s production of Dracula, updated by (sometimes local) playwright Steven Dietz to focus on Mina instead of Jonathan Harker. Again, crucially, live music performed by Rachael Beaver intertwined with an urgent, unforgettable power. Puppetry and dramatic blood walls enhanced the telling.

Both the script and the productions of the following impressed me very much. Take Me Out, by Strawberry Theatre Workshop, included an incredible cast and taut storytelling about a racist baseball player. The Christians by Pony World Theatre confronted religious fundamentalism in a simple format in real churches and made everyone think. Lungs, a challenging two-hander by Really Really Theatre Group, starred Erika Vetter and Arjun Pande as a couple trying to factor in their impact to “climate” in everything – including having children.

Kathryn Van Meter had a great 2019 with two strong performances that showed her range and depth in acting. The mother figure in Fire Season at Seattle Public Theater was gritty, dirty, desperate, and pragmatic. A similar mother in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Village Theatre used a lighter touch. A star turn by Michael Krenning allowed this top production to shine.

Another gritty work was produced by Book-It Repertory Theatre, where Ian Bond played the most desperate of addicts in American Junkie. The timely piece and Fire Season, shed light on what is going on across the country, or maybe in the house next door to you.

Gin Hammond brought back her astonishing family story of Returning the Bones, courtesy of Book-It Repertory Theatre. It was an honor to see it and her again.

Social and Racial Justice:
2019 included a significant number of productions focused on waking us up to racial and social injustices and allowing and inviting minorities to the stage. My favorite production of that group was Sound Theatre Company and The Hansberry Project’s Citizen, a powerful and cogent, challenging work about racism with an ensemble that was ready to confront it and stand tall.

Other such productions included Pass Over at ACT Theatre, White at Theatre22, The Call and Thanksgiving Play at Seattle Public Theater, and Bulrusher at Intiman Theatre. Peeling at Sound Theatre Company focused on the excluding of those with physical challenges. Seattle Repertory Theatre produced rousing biographies of Nina Simone (Nina Simone: Four Women) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Shout Sister Shout!).

Three productions “just” celebrated living and including culture in their lives. The Brothers Paranomal at Pork Filled Productions pulled off a whole lot of mysterious stage “business” while having spooky fun. Washer/Dryer by Pratidhwani and SiS Productions had fun with the clash of Chinese and Indian families. Kim’s Convenience at Taproot Theatre similarly used humor to tell a Korean-immigrant tale.

Theater Oddities:
The “hive mind” that sometimes appears in Seattle gives us oddities like two productions of Uncle Vanya (The Seagull Project and Theatre9/12) almost simultaneously, and two productions of The Revolutionists (one in 2019 by Theatre22 and one that appears in 2020 at ArtsWest). Sometimes, though, there are fortunate “echoes” and amplifications where this year, AJ Epstein presented Mat Smart’s play, The Agitators, where Carol Roscoe and Reginald Andre Jackson went toe to toe as Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, and then Taproot Theatre produced Necessary Sacrifices where Lamar Legend and Ted Rooney sparred as Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. A few might also have seen a reading of Rachel Atkins’ developing musical, This Is Not (Y)Our History, which focuses on the suffragist movement and included Susan B. Anthony, as well! This intersecting is a unique way to delve into a subject area and expand your awareness!

Musical Brightness:
Justin Huertas had a great 2019. Justin wrote us the world’s quirkiest musical, The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion (ArtsWest), and an update of Book-It’s popular Howl’s Moving Castle which significantly tightened the story. Watch for him to bring more top-notch work in 2020!

Two superb productions could hardly have been better. The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre co-produced the best Urinetown I can imagine, highlighting climate change in a way that makes this musical resonate well beyond what the writers might have intended. Village Theatre reprised Million Dollar Quartet, one of their Broadway exports, with the most amazing cast I’ve ever seen. The “quartet” of singing musicians who had to stand in for famous performers, Skye Scott, Brian Grey, Jason Kappus, and particularly John Countryman, created jaw-dropping energy.

I enjoyed the heck out of seeing Brenna Wagner head up Bright Star at Taproot Theatre, and having the chance to find out what that Steve Martin-Edie Brickell musical was like. I loved seeing Taproot’s mounting of Always, Patsy Cline again with the sultry singing of Cayman Ilika and the delightful Kate Jaeger.

The surprise fun was how well Head Over Heels (ArtsWest) included the Go-Gos’ songs into a musical, and watching the snappy choreography by UJ Mangune as performed by a bunch of new-to-me young ensemble dancers.

Also, we were treated to a wonderful concert-style performance of The Light in the Piazza by Showtunes Theatre Company where music director Nathan Young created the full lush Broadway orchestral sound in all its complicated glory. Having concerts employing the fantastic musical-theater talents in this town do these musical concerts is a highlight.

2020 already has some significant productions headed our way. I hope you enjoyed my salute to the productions of 2019.

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