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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Mad Men meets Looney Tunes in Sandbox Radio's "63 Trillion"

Sandbox Radio's first full-length stage production, "63 Trillion," directed by comedy master Richard Ziman, plays for laughs at West of Lenin in Fremont through November 19. John Bunzel's fiendish script affords a fly-on-the-wall view of the kind of corporate boardroom where failed CEOs reap golden parachutes; financial behemoths gobble one another; wealth disappears into suit pockets while 401K's drop into the red.

In the intimate setting of West of Lenin, here arranged in facing tiers of seats along the length of a well-fitted corporate boardroom, a premier acting team makes a bitingly wicked clown-show from the sleaze, greed, and utter amorality of peak capitalism.
Jason Marr being schooled (or fooled) by Charles Leggett
Photo courtesy of Sandbox Radio

Richard Ziman, who also directed MAP Theater's hyper-fun "Greensward" at 12th Ave Arts this summer (reviewed below), has a knack for snappy physical humor and timing; who knew an office chair could be such a riot? or a stapler so viscerally gladdening?

The show's effervescence owes as much to its brisk pace and superb acting as to the wit of the script, which careens from raunchy one-liners ("sooner or later every asshole gets a licking") to social satire ("if it was easy to get rid of people we care about, we'd do it all the time.") The action drives along at near-cartoon velocity -- Mad Men meets Looney Tunes.
David Pichette as Dick; Charles Leggett as Kenny
Photo courtesy of Sandbox Radio

It's a joy to sit within spitting distance of Seattle stage luminaries such as David Pichette, Terry Edward Moore, Charles Leggett, and more fine actors as they zing their way through the clever script. The six male, one female cast (a pretty accurate slice of corporate America) step into memorable characters, starting with hapless Tom (Terry Edward Moore), bullied and overrun by a breezily ruthless Frank (David Gehrman); then Kenny (Charles Leggett), who bobs around the stage wreaking havoc like a nearly-unstrung marionette, and, at the top of the food chain of sharks and prey, Dick (David Pichette in a dream role) -- cool as a cucumber, possibly deranged, the epitome of eccentric, one-step-ahead-of-the-pack billionaire.

Peter Jacobs delivers a great performance as Peter Black, a duped investor who seems always seconds away from heart attack; Amontaine Aurore plays a subdued, but steel edged, stiletto-heeled corporate lawyer, shafting everyone in sight. Dick eventually teams up with the newest member of the team, Jonah (entirely entertaining Jason Marr) to fashion a satisfying climactic comeuppance on the rest of the pack of jackals.
Amontaine Aurore and David Gehrman
Photo courtesy of Sandbox Radio

"63 Trillion," first produced at the New American Theater in Los Angeles, plays for laughs but hits some real nerves. Its general looniness only marginally surpasses the ugly reality one imagines. Whoever the hedge-fund bandits are that drive the American economy into a ditch over and over as they careen down the high-speed lanes of our capitalist economy, their portrayal as sleazy, self-interested schmucks is feel-good fun; their ruin, and the ensuing redistribution of wealth, is every leftie idealist's dream.

The fact that Sandbox offers a flexible ticket price policy should make it easy for anyone to catch this great show before it closes November 19th. As your retirement savings, bank account or home value approach the next impending collapse, you can enjoy some cheap Schadenfreude and high-value entertainment at one of those precious little Seattle theaters quietly fomenting revolution and crying out to be heard. Go see it!

"63 Trillion"

by John Bunzel
Directed by Richard Ziman

Sandbox Radio, in association with Mud Bay Partners
at West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St., Seattle, 98103

Running October 20 - November 19 Thur-Sat @7:30pm and Sun @2pm

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"Statements...." by Athol Fugard - A broken land just a step away

Athol Fugard's semi-opaque poem/play, "Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act" currently showing at Theater Schmeater, is a dark journey into a broken land. Co-directors Emily Marie Harvey and Jordan-Michael Whidbey have chosen one of Fugard's three "Statement" plays for production in Seattle, and as their program notes suggest, they intend it as a challenge to the audience.

Despite some weaknesses in the production, it is a challenge worth accepting. Though the play was created and is set in the time of Apartheid in South Africa, with harsh miscegenation laws that forbade relations between races, one need not look far to see this play's relevance to modern America and the Pacific Northwest.

Darien Torbert and Amanda Rae. Photo: Dave Hastings
In the 50-seat theater-in-the round "Schmee," the play begins as lights go dim on a small rectangular playing area barely adorned with a rumpled bedsheet, a few scattered clothes, an empty Coke bottle. The darkness remains. Two shadowy figures enter and sit in an embrace. Barely discernible in the penumbra, a white Woman (called Frida Joubert, played with sensitivity and vulnerability by Amanda Rae) speaks with quiet urgency and appeal to a black Man (Errol Philander, enacted with grace and emotional accessibly by Darien Torbert.) As she paints a picture in words of her sensations at a moment of beauty and bliss, her lover caresses her hair, listening in the lazy afterglow of love-making. "The color seems to pulse...warm sounds, warm smells..." A vision of Eden and the regained innocence of two people in love.

Chris Shea as the Policeman. Photo: Dave Hastings
The Man shares a story from his day: how he helped a small boy building a play house, and coached him to add rooms. "If you're going to dream, give yourself five rooms, man." Each of the two lovers thus begins the series of "statements" that together make up much of the through-line of this unconventionally structured script.

In language both plain and ornate, direct and allusive, the conversation continues, a slow and delicate struggle to overcome the shame and fear of being seen in one's true form, naked, vulnerable and real. The audience, too, is given time to adjust to the perhaps uncomfortable experience of witnessing nakedness and intimacy in close theatrical quarters as the darkness slowly brightens toward a faint dawn.

That dawn never quite comes, though, as the gathering menace of the outside world, embodied in the blunt-speaking Policeman, Det. Sgt. J. du Preez (Chris Shea) surrounds the love pair in a trap of law and prejudice. A nosy neighbor informs on the mixed-race couple, the trap is sprung, and into the glow of their dawning trust pierce harsh-strobing flashbulbs and spotlights. The dream has ended; the nightmare remains. Light, the slow friend of truth, becomes the swift enemy of hope.

In this roughly middle third of the show the audience witnesses in a most visceral way the grindingly inhumane consequences of systemic racism and institutional injustice. The Policeman reads a detailed statement of the facts of the couple's law-breaking. The nakedness of the lovers and their tenderness for each other -- all executed with breath-bating skill by directors and actors -- contrast vividly with cruel ejection from their tiny lost square of Paradise.

The last section of the play consists primarily of a monologue by the Man, a poem and diatribe directed at unseen persons -- perhaps simply the audience in a real sense: those who witness. The lovers are torn asunder. The Man describes his body being taken away piece by piece: "Exhibit A... Exhibit B..." He speaks of God, perhaps to God. He finds his only victory in final separation from the God of white privilege. To be destroyed by the system is to be liberated from its constraints and injustices; to no longer be seen at all.

Amanda Rae as Frida Joubert. Photo: Dave Hastings
That, at least, is one way to interpret or experience it. As in T.S. Eliot or the great French poets, one can wander through the words for a long time, mystified, intrigued, stirred, frustrated, and illuminated. 

This is a challenging work to pull into a state of theatrical unity, and the production does not fully succeed in doing so. Torbert's long solo at the end seems desultory as his movements around the stage and his upward directed gaze lack a clear focus. Similarly, the directors create many moments of truly startling authenticity and tension, yet fail to merge the disparate voices and threads of the play into an entirely coherent take-away.

The sound track, which consists of various moods of period and other music, then harsh effects of capture and oppression, ends the show with an ongoing mechanical offstage sound that suggests a stifling, ill-functioning air circulator. Inhuman and oppressive in effect, it somehow distracts from the already challenging closing monologue
Darien Torbert as Errol Philander. Photo: Dave Hastings
Still, within this somewhat flawed container, the work of the actors and creative team stands out. Chris Shea manages to be a functionary coldly convinced of the justice of his work, a professional who never pauses to question the nature of the system in which he thrives. Rae and Torbert together achieve highly nuanced and touching moments of emotional truth and verisimilitude, no small feat in such a close-up stage environment. And the play itself, for all its opacity and free-associative qualities, is a work of beauty, anger, and inspiration.

Theater Schmeater, located on 3rd Avenue and Blanchard in Belltown, sits squarely outside of Seattle's more fashionable theater neighborhoods: downtown (ACT), the Seattle Center (Rep, Book-It, Seattle Shakes), and Capitol Hill (12th Ave Arts.) Approaching the theater, you will see evidence of America's home-grown class apartheid: homeless, disabled, addicted, poverty-trapped Americans largely invisible or untouchable to the affluent drinkers, diners and condo-dwellers that make Belltown boom.

One of the many virtues of this daring, important, and justifiably angry production is that on leaving the theater, you may find some light shed on those people you pass on the street, and on your own position and responsibility for them. It's easy to wear a button or post a sign that Black Lives Matter. Are you willing to see up close the effects of a system that, for all its fine words, denies that daily in deeds? I suggest you try.

Now through August 12 at

Theater Schmeater
2125 3rd Ave. Seattle

"Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act"
by Athol Fugard
Directed by Emily Marie Harvey and Jordan-Michael Whidbey

Run-time 85 minutes

Monday, July 24, 2017

"Alex and Aris" - More Plato than Godot

A man… a tree… a horizon. Where are we, anyway?

ACT’s world premiere of Moby Pomerance’s “Alex and Aris” opens with classic archetypal vividness: a figure emerges from behind a gnarled tree and peers into the near distance: wary, curious, observant… a young man waiting for the arrival of … something.

Chip Sherman and Darragh Kennen as student and mentor. Photo: Chris Bennion

The stark tree against an empty sky suggests Godot. But no; it is Aristotle, Athenian student of Plato, summoned by the Macedonian King Philip II to instruct his teenage son Alexander. The young man, whom Aristotle first mistakes for a commoner, is Alexander himself. The tutelage has begun before the great Aristotle even realizes it – a tutelage that works both ways.

The story highlights an intersection of philosophy and policy in an ancient world, and this elegant, fast-paced production brings out the proximity to our "modern" world of that seemingly distant confluence.

Under John Langs’ direction, the pace never slows, though at times one almost wishes it would. There is a lot to take in: sumptuous language; a complex back story; a host of off-stage characters; swift leaps through time as Alexander transforms from pliant student to increasingly defiant and purposeful master of the world. The script is an intellectual challenge, and Langs and his creative team make of it a thrilling, deeply engaging puzzle.

Darragh Kennen in mid-lesson. Photo: Chris Bennion
Darragh Kennan (a down-at-heels-looking, slightly fussy Aristotle) and Chip Sherman (with stunning command of the stage in successive embodiments of his character) find remarkable synergy. The guarded, princely young Alexander seems incapable at first of understanding the world but through the lens of power – the facts of the world before his eyes and within direct experience. As the philosopher, teacher, and visionary Aristotle awakens him to the world of imagination, he unwittingly releases a force beyond his dreams.

Kennan succeeds at a difficult acting task: making one of the great luminaries of the world appear human-scaled and contemporary while convincingly rooted in a historical figure. His relatively modern attire and manner contrast with the subdued, regal, increasingly powerful Alexander, whose idiom and carriage spring from more archaic ground. 

Julia Hayes Welch’s rich and surprisingly malleable scene design supports the vitality of this cerebral, yet very visceral theater experience. The tree-roots gripping the stage acquire dreamlike depths of meaning and association: the hidden, living force of history beneath our feet, perhaps, or the far-reaching consequences, foreseen or not, of thought and action.

Multi-level terraces highlight shifting power, perspectives, and states of being. A great wall on which a classical visage is barely discernible as though worn away or half-remembered by eons of human history, opens surprisingly to reveal a cupboard of homely instruments: scrolls, a lantern, drinking vessels. Screens expand or shrink the broad world beyond the scene of action -- the waiting empire, the very Elysian Fields.

The only jarring element is the ubiquitous stage mist, which induced a wave of coughing in the audience. Presumably meant to add a filtered or softened look, it is an unnecessary distraction.

Philosopher and King: Darragh Kennen and Chip Sherman.
Photo: Chris Bennion
One of the most effective leaps of imagination occurs in the penultimate scene, beyond time altogether. Here, Robert Aguilar’s nuanced lighting design combines with inspired costume, set, and directorial choices to create a moment of pellucid apotheosis: Aristotle, garbed in classical robes of silver and pure white (a change from his earlier shabby tweeds) orates directly to the audience, describing a dream flight above time and the world. Above and behind him, facing away on an ornate Grecian-style throne, sits the Emperor of that world, a god-like presence in a timeless state of legend and archetype.

For a few moments we see both Philosopher and King in unity and paradox -- one, yet in opposition. It’s a moment of transcendence and beauty, followed by a shattering and sudden climax.

Part of the genius of this production is the apparent ease with which the modern and the ancient are sewn together. Running through the play is a sense of the power of history to spring up underfoot, as it were, with new life; or with tragedy, as in the modern Balkans or any number of other locations, with new grounds for revenge, mayhem, and death.

Matt Starritt's sound design is rich with music from the Balkans, Caucasus, Iran, Turkey -- Alexander's empire represented in traditions that find global audiences today. The tonal illustrations add yet more sensations to the theatrical feast.

Pomerance’s script achieves an intricate and satisfying arc of time, as words and images from early in Alex’s training echo to the end: “You cannot defend a thing by refusing to say what it is…”  “They filled our broken mouths with stones…” Both master and student are slaves to destiny, as in the ancient tragedies; and to facts of history and psychology in today's terms. Is imagination the only tool man can wield to attain elusive and perhaps illusory transcendence?

The very watchable Chip Sherman. Photo: Chris Bennion

Every viewer will have a unique understanding of the challenging script, and may leave the theater puzzled, wishing perhaps that the abrupt ending did not cut one off in mid-thought, for there is much to process.

Puzzlement aside, one cannot help but be engaged and moved by this well-crafted, vivid production featuring two exceptional actors and the full resources of ACT Theatre's deep talent pool. Philosophy is less about finding answers than asking good questions; this play will leave you with many, and with a deepened sense of just where we might be in the big picture of time, history, and the human imagination.

"Alex and Aris"
by Moby Pomerance

Directed by John Langs

at ACT Theatre
July 14-August 6, 2017

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

ROFLing turf war at MAP Theatre's "Greensward"

(This revised version of my original review corrects some misapprehensions on my part that were set right when I returned with a friend to enjoy the show a second time.)

Pay what you want, find your own seat… take a deep breath… and hold on for an unforgettable ride across time, space, and the American lawn.

"Greensward" defies any expectations. Director Richard Ziman and his turbo-charged ensemble have crafted a genre-busting slapstick romp – Tintin meets Dr. Who? The show's manic pace relents occasionally for a romantic storyline or reflective interlude, then surges onward, veering hilariously from sight gag to set piece, plot swerve to rib jab. If you are one who grins when entertained, your cheeks will ache by intermission.

In "Greensward" author R. Hamilton Wright has penned an ingenious tongue-in-cheek satire of American society and global power, and an astonishingly funny and topical exploration of an American nightmare: science vs. power.

Kevin Lin, as Dr. Timothy Hei. Photo credit: Shane Regan
We are introduced first to Dr. Timothy Hei (Kevin Lin) – whose name is the first wave of a storm of wordplay that never goes dry. At the center of a deceptively simple playground of a set, Dr. Hei ruminates on his childhood of lawn care as he tends the central exhibit in a “Suburban History Museum”: an authentic hand-powered, rotary lawnmower. This innocuous start introduces a plot thread and central metaphor of the madcap but somehow coherent story line.

That story, according to the program notes, takes place "in a world almost exactly like our own, but not quite." Hei’s boss, Dr. Fletchley (Cole Hornaday, a callow, self-centered bureaucrat/scientist who turns on a dime – or a million – in self-interest) snatches credit for Hei’s botanical research project, then swiftly turns against his protégé when money speaks. Hornaday morphs between roles with an alacrity shared by all this versatile cast.

Innocent, nerdy, and endearing Dr. Hei plays straight man to a panoply of characters. As Hei’s project gains notoriety, a struggle surfaces among the potential winners and losers in a breakthrough that would -- gasp! -- eliminate the lawn-care industry.

Kevin Lin, Peggy Gannon, and Bill Higham. Photo credit: Shane Regan
Dr. Hei’s project funding gets cut off in a hearing overseen by an indifferent Committee Chairman (stuffy, hilarious Bill Higham, who later plays a suave French ambassador with perfect nuances of accent and mannerism) and a ruthless, cut-em-off at the pants Senator Flemhorn (Melissa Fenwick in the first of several sharply differentiated roles.) No one gets a word in edgewise around the Senator, until the Chairman realizes what Hei's new turf can mean to him and his golf-course cronies.

Peggy Gannon soon comes on board as Hei’s fast-operating publicist, April Broom. When she later transitions from a soulless marketeer to an unexpectedly vulnerable love interest, Gannon (co-Artistic Director of MAP with Brandon Ryan) pulls off some truly tender moments as a cynic gradually redeemed by Hei’s awakening innocence.

Nik Doner and Jason Marr interrogate Dr. Hei (Kevin Lin). photo: Shane Regan
The rapprochement of the two at a madcap formal dinner at the French ambassador’s residence is nearly foiled in a riotous climactic scene with the amoral gun-for-hire Lothar (stunningly watchable, mock-sinister Nik Doner) and his erstwhile sidekick Kemp (Jason Marr, another agile character actor, as a two-faced fixer for the agricultural behemoths desperate to crush or corrupt Dr. Hei.)

Ashley Bagwell, too, is memorable in multiple roles:  a hard-hitting Alex Jones-like radio host, a top-tier fashion photographer, and a multi-millionaire eccentric with – well, I mustn’t give away one of the best contrivances of the show; suffice it to say that Bagwell pretty nearly steals it, no small achievement when every character steals the show over and over again.

Kevin Lin with Ashley Bagwell as T. Scott. Photo: Shane Regan
Marianna de Fazio stands out as host of a little-watched TV science program, and even more as the radical feminist eco-warrior Flora Sequoia. Liberal-leftie Seattleites may cringe at the caricature, but one of this show's many glories is that it fears to skewer no sacred cow.

The bottom line in this utterly original script is: the bottom line is what matters in America. Entrenched interests, powerful corporations, corrupt politicians, all conspire to maintain control of “the people,” like the manicured, clipped, fenced and homogenous lawns both of the elite and the common American family. "Liberating the lawn" might empower the grassroots, and there is too much money to be made by too many "power plants" to permit that. Those in power don't want the world to feed itself; they want to feed the world, and make hay doing it.

Indeed, the lawn is liberty. From the first-act lesson on lawn manicure as a human tool of self-preservation, to the ultimate face-off between control and freedom, the play deftly and hilariously moves through mayhem to transformation and a world where Hei is the hero, and grass is free. 

The show runs only through July 29 at 12th Ave. Arts. Get there early – tickets are at the door, and as always with MAP’s radical ticketing gamble, you set your own price, with no service fee.

MAP Theatre presents

by R. Hamilton Wright

Directed by Richard Ziman

12th Ave Arts at 12th and Pine on Capital Hill

Now through July 29, 2017

Sunday, June 18, 2017

"Downstairs" at ACT Theater - a chilling battle for love, memory, and truth

Theresa Rebeck's “Downstairs,” a co-production of ACTLAb and Theatre 22 directed by Julie Beckman, dives bravely into emotion and experience, finding both redemption and damnation. As the play opens, Teddy, played by Brandon Ryan as a vulnerable, manic anti-hero, putters in a basement room in the home of his sister Irene (Christine Marie Brown) and brother-in-law Gerry (John Q. Smith.) Irene's attempts to engage with Teddy trigger unfolding layers of fear and denial as brother and sister probe, parry, and persist in uncovering each other’s secrets, sharing their truths, gradually regaining tarnished but authentic trust in one another.

Literally above their heads prowls something very dark – a demon, as Teddy puts it: Irene’s husband Gerry, whose poisonous inner core is soon revealed. As the two siblings circle one another in a dance of alternating denial and revelation, Gerry’s weighty, toxic presence threatens their cautious rapprochement.

The script by Theresa Rebeck was submitted in 2016 to ACT Construction Zone’s new play development project, and ultimately chosen for a full production. Like the scene break intermezzos that bounce around a keyboard in weirdly unhinged arpeggios, the dialogue and characters seem desultory at times. Yet sudden revelations emerge from smokescreens of accusation, evasion and manipulation. Truths are uttered, clarity springs forth. The script's threads of metaphor and plot interweave and form patterns of meaning: who owns the house? Who decides what is true? Where’s the money? Who has value? What remains of the past? What is remembered and what forgot? What matters?
Christine Marie Brown and Brandon Ryan; photo: MR Toomey Photography
The cast is uniformly riveting. Christine Marie Brown seems a meek soul, cowed by her hateful husband (one is tempted to leap to the stage and hit the man), but under Teddy’s questioning and Gerry's menacing she reveals layers of strength, pride, regret, and determination. Sharp acting choices capture the anguish of a person trapped in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship: the downcast eyes, submissive stance, wary feints for a trace of personal power. Her conflicted love for her troubled brother and fear of her hate-filled husband ring painfully true.

The same can be said for Brandon Ryan, whose talent for creating characters of intricate and uncanny precision seems boundless. Teddy is a slovenly mess, perhaps verging on psychosis, hiding secrets about his life and spinning long tales of persecution. Yet his underlying lucidity bursts out: if anyone has a grip on the real, it seems, it’s the madman so close to the edge of sanity that he alone can call out truth. It’s an old trope told here in very new clothes. 

In a gripping stand-off with Gerry, Teddy finally utters the words that strike fear into Gerry’s malevolent soul: “You’ve been seen.” It's an effective antidote to the poison that Gerry spreads: “You don’t exist.” Once this blow is struck, the revolution begins.
Christine Marie Brown and John Q. Smith; Photo: MR Toomey Photography

Moments in the second act veer toward melodrama but are restrained by Julie Beckman’s skilled direction and a terrifyingly contained performance by John Q. Smith. The monster he portrays is not beyond what anyone in the audience may have experienced or imagined: an utterly self-centered autocrat with the power to intimidate those around him and shape reality to fit his own narrative. His performance, too, is spellbinding, and despite the extremity of his evil, one recognizes its truth and knows the type. 

The talented cast handles challenging language with virtuosity. Words spill out, racing and overlapping; silences leap out like shadow monsters; words wound, deceive, overpower, and console. Innocuous phrases take on stunning power: "He's fine!" -- "You've been seen" -- "You're not real." To some degree, it's a play about words: their surfaces and their subtexts; their power to define or obscure reality, create or thwart community; to kill or to care. 

"Downstairs" is a play for our time, when facing down demons and holding onto simple truths may be our only path toward imperfect but necessary salvation. It's an experience not to be lightly undergone or easily forgotten.

ACTLab & Theatre22 present

by Theresa Rebeck

Directed by Julie Beckman

The Bullitt Cabaret at ACT Theater

June 14 - July 9, 2017