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

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