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

Theater reviews

March, 2019

MAP Theater's "Trevor"

Jesse Calixto, Michael D. Blum, Zenaida Smith,
Terri J. Lazzara, Danielle Daggerty...
Not shown: Brandon Ryan
Photo credit: Brett Love

MAP is back! Nick Jones’ “Trevor,” directed by Julie Beckman, spins real events involving a celebrity chimpanzee named Travis into a fierce and phantasmagorical fable about human miscommunication, self-delusion and isolation.

Brandon Ryan (Trevor, the chimp) pulls off another amazingly full-throttle characterization as the aging chimpanzee (who better than Ryan for such a role?) whose best years in show biz are behind him. The increasingly manic attachment of Trevor’s owner Sandra (Teri J. Lazzara) to her “child” mirrors the protectiveness of her neighbor, the young mother Ashley (Zenaida Smith) and sets up the basic plot conflict as Sandra’s need for companionship blinds her to the unsustainability of the relationship (sound familiar, anyone?)

Michael D. Blum brings depth and compassion to his role as the stolid local cop uncomfortably trapped by his duty. The remaining cast (Danielle Daggerty and Jesse Calixto) do fine work as the animal protection officer and Trevor’s imagined friend Oliver, a former chimp star like himself whose career has taken a dive. The strong cast delivers energy enough to carry the somewhat over-burdened script swiftly to its climax.

“Trevor” is madcap and touching, and in true MAP fashion, mixes weirdness and hijinks with revelatory glimpses into that weirdest of all creatures: homo sapiens.

Despite occasional repetitiveness, the script rewards with food for thought about the delusional worlds we inhabit, interpreting events and other people through our personal languages and filters, never fully knowing what we truly are or why our lives unfold as they do.

MAP reliably delivers entertaining, thoughtful work, and its commitment to making theater accessible to everyone through its "choose your own price" ticketing model is an admirable commitment more companies in town should emulate.

The venue is small, so I suggest buying tickets in advance, through Brown Paper Tickets (select your own price range, and MAP waives service fees!) MAP isn't on stage that often, so catch this while you can. 

Trevor, by Nick Jones

Directed by Julie Beckman

18th & Union, an Arts Space on Capitol Hill
Now through March 30

November, 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

August, 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

July, 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

July, 2017

ROFLing turf war at MAP Theatre's "Greensward"

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

June, 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

Threesome: The Art of Omission  - ACT Theatre

ACT’s just-opened “Threesome,” by Seattle writer Yussef El Guindi, daringly explores volatile territory at the intersection of sex, politics, and selfhood. In two swift acts, director Chris Coleman’s phenomenal cast peel off layers of clothes, lies, and self-delusion in a comedy that turns ugly as it approaches the unspoken truths – the omissions – that are the true triggers of events. “Threesome” is a titillating, troubling, and poignant reality check.

Act 1 begins as a bedroom farce. A young Egyptian-American couple, Leila (poised, emotionally riveting Alia Attallah) and Rashid (Karan Oberoi as her reluctant and defensive boyfriend) await the entrance of an acquaintance, Doug (hilarious, multi-faceted Quinn Franzen) for what is supposed to be a night of hot three-way sex. And what an entrance it is! Franzen’s naked insouciance catalyzes the differences among the three, transforming the evening into an emotional battlefield of conflicting needs and expectations – a pretty accurate depiction of most three-ways (if that’s not TMI…)

Things quickly go south among the three as details emerge about their respective secrets, deceptions, wounds, and motives. To say much more would be too revealing, but be assured that “Threesome” is not all laughs. As playwright El Guindi states in an interview printed in the program notes, “I think we're funny as a species.... So even when I stray into dark areas, I still find human behavior weird and comical at times....[My] intention was not to be funny. It’s that the characters find themselves in a very awkward, and somewhat comical, situation. When their situation shifts, so does the tone of the play.” That situation changes moment-to-moment throughout the play, which is one of its many appealing aspects, and though we can laugh at the awkwardness and confusion that prevails in the first half, the disaster that follows is wrenching.

By the second act, Leila’s book is about to be published that will reveal her hitherto untold experiences during the 2011 popular uprising in Egypt against the government. As her secret becomes known to both Rashid and Doug, their responses drive the story deeper into raw truth. The complex interweaving of vulnerability and need with harsh and even brutal realities of domination and power are fodder for debate and reflection at the end of this utterly engaging work.

El Guindi’s clever script subtly but pointedly suggests how interpersonal events are microcosms of larger forces in the world -- not only between men and women, for example, but among countries and cultures who mutually misinterpret each other’s histories and motivations. Sexual desire stands in for international relations; who’s in or out of bed signals both personal and political realities; dressing and undressing become metaphors for shifting power and purposes.

Ultimately, the demand “Give me my clothes!” encompasses the anger, power, and desperation of an entire revolution. It is a testament to the skill of the writer, director, and actors that the underlying story remains viscerally grounded in feelingly portrayed human desire and conflict while barely ever sounding a didactic note.

The set design and lighting provide space for the action without drawing attention – a stark industrial backdrop with bed, end tables, a few props in Act 1, then a garish heap of rugs and "eastern bazaar" props for the book cover photo-shoot in Act 2 – and that’s it. Costumes – and occasionally the lack of them – send signals, too, capturing the modern era in both cultural worlds. This is not a gimmicky production, but a confidently acted and directed rendering of a new script that, despite one or two uneven seams, lands with profound emotional impact.

“Threesome” is a captivating, thought-provoking experience, and deals frankly with themes of sexuality, power, gender roles, and violence. ACT, to its credit, explicitly states at the theater entrance that the play is recommended for ages 16 and up, but goes on to say that it leaves the decision about younger audiences seeing this play to parents, guardians, and teachers. Much is revealed, and much is omitted -- enough that viewers will project their individual conclusions onto the silences that remain.

Whatever your age or attitude, “Threesome” will challenge you, provoke you, and possibly influence your sex life. Now that’s live theater.

A Subversive, Succulent “Feast” -- MAP Theatre

“In a dining room, not so far from where we are sitting now…” is the setting for MAP Theatre’s twistedly funny and irreverent tour de force, "The Feast," by Celine Song. Director Aimée Bruneau, with a well-synched foursome of actors, has turned a challenging script into a close-up funhouse of horrors in which story, set, lighting, sound and a few special effects merge into a nightmarishly plausible romp though the dark underbelly of … well, I won’t say exactly what. Think: Edward Albee meets Edward Gorey.

The story unfolds in an America where a bacterial outbreak has caused all meat to be yanked from stores. The four protagonists pay lip service to salads and vegetables while gradually succumbing to a ravenous craving for meat of any variety. An aging married couple and a young friend are guests of Wendy Darling – an amusingly perverse allusion to a very different Never-never land. Wendy’s husband, a surgeon, is delayed by a surgery gone awry, the details of which we glean snippet-wise in a series of phone calls from the increasingly desperate hostess.

During the wait, through monologues, interactions, parlor games, arguments, revelations, and reveries about meat in all its succulent, unattainable goodness, barriers fall, truths are told, a lot of wine is drunk, and the veneer of civilization gets pretty badly warped by the onslaught of hunger, alcohol, anger and eros. By the time the unseen husband arrives, well… things have rather fallen apart.

MAP Theatre’s stated mission is to produce “comedy that hurts a bit.” Mission accomplished! Peggy Gannon’s opening monologue, set against a near-frozen tableau of her dining room guests, quickly dispels any illusions that the evening will be painless. Speaking directly to the audience, practically sitting in their laps at times, Gannon offers a laugh-out-loud rationalization and disturbingly convincing seduction of the audience with “just a thought” of the unthinkable. In casual pre-dinner conversation, Mia Morris and Mark Fullerton as the couple, Sam and Rhett, expose their loathing for one another with unfailing passive-aggressivity and nuanced precision. Brandon Ryan’s apparently inoffensive, meek young Xander describes the “dignity” with which his animal subjects are treated in the vivisection lab. The language of poetry soothes and reassures his audience in the dining room, while the contrast between the scientific soullessness of his work and the beauty he purports to find in it creates funnybone-jarring cognitive dissonances.

Each character has his or her moments under the microscope, and in the intimacy of The Schmee theater, one can’t help but feel the lens turned on oneself as well. With a kind of madcap glee the play rubs our faces in visions of a world that we somehow know exists, somewhere, beyond the borders of the admissible, in our heart of hearts and in the sick fabric of the society we wear like clothing to hide our animal skins and instincts. The ensemble flawlessly captures both the madness and the normalcy of that world, with the vulnerability, fragility, and underlying hideousness of human nature.

Aimée Bruneau and her team have crafted a thrillingly sustained knife-edge between nightmare and normalcy. Joseph Swartz’ near-subliminal soundtrack moves from muzak to faintly spooky organ to heart-pumping beat samples – bass theme from House of Cards, is it? Suzi Tucker’s set is awesome in its blandness, terrifying in its transformation. Staging effects come off flawlessly and further tilt the disintegrating world of the play toward chaos as the tension mounts, hunger grows, and limits stretch. Maggie Lee’s vivid lighting distinguishes the world of the dining room from a parallel world of individuals as they reveal or defend secrets, fears, and histories, and effectively highlights the just-off colors and styles of K.D. Schill’s inspired costume choices. The episodic script reveals one or two structural weaknesses that Bruneau’s very steady directorial hand overcomes; tension and general weirdness rise exponentially as dinner approaches.

The Feast truly is a delight to the eyes and the spirit. There is something gorgeously satisfying in its taboo-shattering; without touting any explicit political agenda (meat-eaters will enjoy this as much or more than vegans) one nonetheless emerges, shaken and delighted, with the sense of having participated in 90 minutes of very welcome subversion of the status quo.

This is a short run and a small house. Get in there while dinner is being served. And bring something non-perishable to donate to Northwest Harvest at the box office.

The Feast, by Celine Song
Directed by Aimée Bruneau
May 1 - May 16 at 8pm at The Schmee, 2125 3rd Ave, Seattle, WA 98121
Industry night Monday May 11th

Name-your-own-price tickets at brownpapertickets.

Sweeney Todd - Seattle Musical Theater

A sooty, brick-walled set opens and closes like a set of razors, transforming spaces; a high scaffold serves as love-nest, confessional, and gallows; a puffing smoke-stack signals bakery goodies before morphing into a hideous crematorium.  Seattle Musical Theater satisfyingly explores ghastly themes of corruption, retribution, and disaster in Sondheim’s most operatic of musicals. Perfect for Halloween -- or this election cycle.

Under SMT’s  Artistic Director Chris Mayes’ seasoned guidance, the production rises above its rough edges. A gifted six-member orchestra under the baton of conductor Nick Durand pumps out a kaleidoscopic range of tone and emotion. And this musical has it all: from the most macabre evil to Tom Lehrer-funny (The Priest Song!) and sweetly poignant love songs, all of it undergirded by the unfolding horrors of abuse, exploitation, greed, and revenge. Music Director Elizabeth Rainey deserves credit for providing the solid musical foundation needed to pull off, in four short rehearsal weeks, a project of this scope and complexity.

Mayes has assembled a mostly strong cast of principal singers and actors, and an ensemble that moves with slightly uneven but enjoyable determination through a challenging array of crowd scenes, characters, set-pieces, dance numbers, and choruses. The sweet voice and accomplished vocal technique of Oren Mauldin in the role of Sweeney Todd nearly makes up for his stiff, somewhat studied physical presence. Thankfully, his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett, is played by Rachel White with all the energy, spirit, and physical inventiveness one could hope for, bouncing off Mauldin’s blank slate like a manic Chihuahua off a screen door.

The opening scene of the play belongs to the vagabond waif, Tobias, played on opening night by Oliver Girouard (the role is shared by another young actor, Caden Tate). In the “prologue” (“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd…”) Tobias introduces each member of the ensemble cast, and establishes his presence as a central theme in the production: the corruptibility of innocence in the “black pit” of a world like London. Girouard’s mic didn’t always do full service to his clear, well-enunciated singing, but his stage presence and good emotional range make him a pillar of the cast.

Shining in the roles of the young lovers Anthony and Lucy separated by fiercely jealous Judge Turpin, Hayley Badrau Gaarde and Matt Lang provide a sweet foil to the dark world their naiveté conceals from them. Lang’s sweet tenor voice and British-Navy-boy good looks are perfect suited to the young idealist who rescued Todd from a watery grave. Gaarde’s feather-light but powerful voice and passionate physicality help some exceedingly tricky duet and solo passages soar with grace.

In Judge Turpin, Eric Hartley finds depth and layers of self-interest, ruthlessness, self-hatred, and despair. The judge’s solo mea culpa, “Johanna,” offers a portrait of a soul torn between remorse and overpowering lust. Hartley’s rendition, high on the platform where we see his attempted seduction of his young ward, and her passionate tryst with her own true love Anthony, is devastatingly authentic -- possibly the most truthful emotional moment of the show. In the same space at the top of the set and yet at the very nadir of human nature, will appear the final tableau of Lovett, Todd, and Tobias, uplifted and destroyed in the final moment of the play.

The set well serves the story. Ingeniously designed by Brandon Scharf and realized by jack-of-all-trades Jordan Gerow (Sound Director/Technical Director/Master Carpenter), it holds in its hinged-blade backdrops the barber’s bare-bones salon/execution chamber; Mrs. Lovett’s “worst pies in London” pie shop; a lunatic asylum; various London streets and alleys; courtroom; basement slaughterhouse and crematorium – all this while crafting a coherent space in which pairings of high and low, funny and tragic, beautiful and macabre, are illustrated. As is typical of SMT productions, the costumes (by Audrey Herow) are rich in color and texture and tell the story along with the set, lights and sound.

Engineering a full body mic system for 18 actor-singer-dancers, and coordinating this with an multi-piece orchestra playing some of Sondheim’s most advanced and complex scoring, is a daunting task; the over-all integration is not uniformly successful. Sound levels for singers varied at times, and there were many passages in which words were difficult to decipher.

The sum of this production, though, is more than its parts: musically engaging and skilled, visually and viscerally entertaining, surprising and inventive, well-paced and well-acted by an essential core group of professionals, this is a creditable presentation of a 200-year-old story. At the darkest and most macabre holiday of the year, at the height an almost cannibalistic display of political and personal ruthlessness weeks before a historic election, people keep asking: “Oh my god! Where is the bottom?” You’ll find it here. It might make you feel better. But don’t take the kids. 

The Most Deserving -- Theater Schmeater

“Seattle is a small town,” is an axiom of the arts community in our feverishly-growing (some might say hell-bent) metropolis, and it used to be true. In Catherine Trieschmann’s amusingly barbed “The Most Deserving” at Theater Schmeater, director John Longenbaugh brings to the stage, in his words “a show about a small town in Kansas written by an award-winning playwright who actually lives in a small town in Kansas,” a region not often glimpsed onstage in Seattle.

In Trieschmann’s fiendishly clever satire of the arts world we’re not only in Kansas, but right here in Belltown. A local arts council is commissioned to award a $20,000 grant to a local artist to be selected by the five-member council board. Vying interests, egos, and agendas come into immediate and hilarious conflict as an “outsider,” Everett Whiteside (an African-American man, destitute, paranoid and hounded by the IRS, played with endearing and manic glee by Ronnie Hill) gains a voice of support from another non-Caucasian and newcomer to the arts council, Liz Chang (Mona Leach, ranging from deftly sarcastic to emotionally fragile.)

What follows is a screwball whirlwind of entanglements, deceits, alliances, and ploys to line up votes. Some painful questions jab through the comedy: how is art defined, and who decides? Is visionary art defunct? Can an original voice or vision break through the political and economic web of obstacles without losing its soul?

Longenbaugh makes good use of his comedy team, but the script’s twists of plot and word-play call for a swift, light-hearted romp; a quicker pace would better support the frothiness of the plot. Some jokes go a bit flat, as when Ted Atkinson (Matthew Middleton, playing a hapless dishrag of a man sleepwalking through life with his cell-phone) does a riff on art that is one long tangled web of lies but loses its punch before the end. His wife Jolene, wonderfully played by Deniece Bleha as a manipulative and condescending, yet somehow likable and even redeemable arts bureaucrat, helps keep the tempo up, even when scene changes require moving beds and couches through curtains in the dark – ah, the life of an actor!

Karen Jo Fairbrook as the wealthy widow Edie Kelch whose dead husband funded the grant, and Ron Richardson as Dwayne Dean, whose banal portrait series of Vice-Presidents he imagines to be on par with Van Gogh, both have great moments of slapstick and reversed expectations (some of these get a little over-milked.)

The set, with more need backstage for furniture than the charming Schmee can offer, ends up rather awkwardly laid out on a diagonal that leaves actors, especially Mr. Hill, too often with their backs to the audience. Other elements, such as the laid-back country pre-show music (sound design by Doug Staley), excellent, unobtrusive costuming (Janessa Jayne Styck), and effective lighting by Dave Hastings, work in perfect synch to create an atmosphere both casual and professional in the best tradition of Seattle fringe theater. It’s refreshing, after some evenings at ACT or the Rep with their full bars and fancy line-up of pricey treats, to walk into the Schmee and see on the bar a bowl of goodies that include your choice of powdered cider, cocoa, or a Hershey bar (“we haven’t had time to do our Costco run yet,” explained the affable hostess, stage manager Jaime Shure), and then to find your inexpensive seat in either the first or second row – no bad seats here!

While in places this show could use and will probably get some sprucing up, it skips along pleasingly and amusingly. The last scene builds to an uproariously funny and well-timed crescendo of collapsing hopes and shams. Longenbaugh’s track record as a director includes his own company Ursa Major, Theater Babylon, and a variety of his own plays and projects; he manages the challenges of this script and the space with considerable skill, even succeeding in the final moment of the play to scale back for a sober and touching finish.

Fittingly, the Schmee Gallery features eclectic works by contemporary local artists Ellan Borison, Joseph Brooks, Jennifer Chin, Catherine Dickson, Claudio Duran, and Moll Frothingham. Perusing these before and after the show, audiences may find they have some changed ideas about what art is, how it gets to be seen, and how it affects us. All that, plus some good laughs and a Hershey bar, make for a great night out in Belltown.

Little Bee -- Book Repertory

Book-it Repertory Theatre’s production of Chris Cleave’s 2008 novel draws a compelling narrative from key scenes and details of the book, but sacrifices some of the slow-building power of Cleave’s writing in the process. This engrossing adaptation trims so much prose that what is left seems at times programmatic: the story moves swiftly and with rising tension and interest, as a well-told story should, but feels overly episodic in the second half, and the ending, which the audience must decipher, lacks too much of Cleave’s word-craft to adequately build the foreboding mood of the novel.
However, Book-it has succeeded again in turning a great book into an entertaining and challenging stage experience. Published in Great Britain under the title “The Other Hand,” the novel brings into sharp contrast the lives and fates of entitled, affluent “westerners” and the powerless poor of an exploited and chaotic oil-producing state — Nigeria, but it could be many places in the world.

The story begins with three women from different parts of the former British empire who by ploys and pluck gain release from an “immigration removal center” in Chelmsford, England. One of them – with the name Little Bee – has chosen language as her survival system; by mastering “the Queen’s English” she is able to navigate and be a leader to the other women as they travel toward diverse destinies.

Little Bee, played with assurance and vulnerability by Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako, makes her way to the home of Sarah and Andrew O’Rourke (Sydney Andrews and Eric Riedmann,) a couple to whom we gather she has some prior connection. As the history and layers of this relationship are gradually revealed, along with  Sarah’s earlier infidelity with a civil service officer, Lawrence (Michael Patten in this and various ensemble roles,) central motifs of the story emerge: who are we under the surface of what defines us – what are our “true names?” What barricades do we erect to protect our lives and the lies that make them work? How much do we care about, and what will we give up to help others? How do we decide who is worthy of compassion?

It soon becomes apparent that the clash between affluence and poverty, first world and third, is a theme as relevant here in affluent, inequitable Seattle as it is in London or anywhere else in our divided and tortured world. As Little Bee gains a tenuous foothold in the family as a de facto nanny to the couple’s young son Charlie (lively and poised Jonah Koval,) illusions and superficiality of modern western life are exposed like the open wound on the neck of a Nigerian soldier – the wound that would kill him if he didn’t take his own life first, as others in this tale do before their own wounds catch up with them.

Despite its dark themes, the book abounds with humor, and director (and Book-It co-founder) Myra Platt excels at bringing it to life. She also directs her accomplished and diverse cast with a flair for capturing in brief scenes the intensity of emotional needs and conflicting goals. First-time Book-It audiences surprised by the conventions of transforming prose into dialogue and action will soon be drawn in and forget they are listening to literature. It’s what Book-It does, and does well. While this staging of a complex and rich novel shows some of the limitations of the genre, it rises above its few weaknesses to deliver a memorable, if ultimately cryptic, message.

“The Other Hand” of the British title perhaps refers to the sacrifice of a finger to save one life, and the giving of a life to save another. Sacrifice and selfishness, hope and despair, candor and deceit, are packed together in a kind of honeycomb world. As Little Bee says late in the play: “I knew that the hopes of this whole human world could fit inside one soul. This is a good trick. This is called, globalization.” Cleave’s text succeeds in pulling together numerous threads in this one elegant phrase. In the stage version, it lands a bit heavily, but does its job nonetheless, using that catchword we westerners think we know to suddenly reveal crushing injustice in a world of immensely different lives and hopes.

Book-It’s usual seamless transitions that squeeze time and distance into a few steps, a tilted set piece, or a strain of music, are especially effective in this play, where worlds collide, history and memory live just below the surface of the present, and the story of the future remains to be written. Will Abrahamse’s set design shifts easily from the monolithic wall of a detention center to the jungle-edge shore of an African beach or an English parlor, and Andrew Smith’s lighting concept fills the wide stage with light and color. The music and sound effects add atmosphere, but lack unifying coherency.
A production this ethnically diverse in Seattle is refreshing, with a mix of African and Caribbean and various English accents, colors, and personalities claiming the stage in quickly-shifting locales. Elena Flory-Barnes’ lush Jamaican helps support the life-filled and likeable character of Yevette; Meiko Parton’s brash and pitiless soldier-leader threatens with his harsh African English and hatred for all things “western,” while we realize that he could be the boy next door. Jason Sanford, Zenaida Smith, Kaila Towers and Book-It acting intern Kourtney Connor create distinct and diverse roles as guards, village women, and ensemble members.

Used as we are to our own Northwest idioms and accents, understanding the mix onstage is at times a challenge, and a good reminder that English, like the “coin of the realm” to which Little Bee compares herself in the book’s opening lines, goes everywhere and has many shapes and voices.

Book-It’s 2015 season is a jubilee celebrating the company’s 25-year history. All tickets are $25. The organization, true to its educational and civic aspirations, is also partnering with two local organizations: Northwest International Refugee Project (NWIRP) and Refugee Women’s Alliance of Washington (ReWA) and will host 6:30 pm pre-show discussions with representatives from those groups and from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on Wednesday April 29 and May 6, and post-show Sunday afternoons on May 3 and 10.

Dramaturg Anthea Carns is also to be credited, with others, for a vivid lobby display and most informative program notes. Audiences of “Little Bee” at Book-It Repertory Theatre will not only be entertained, touched, and perplexed, but also informed and educated about timely issues: immigration, refugees, justice, and more. We theatergoers in Seattle are for the most part a pretty comfortable crowd, in our various ways; “Little Bee” is sweet and dark as honey, but it has a sting, and if you don’t feel it, well, you just aren’t paying attention.

Book-It Repertory Theatre
“Little Bee” by Chris Cleave
Adapted and Directed by Myra Platt
April 22-May 17, 2015 at the Center Theatre at the Armory, Seattle Center

All tickets $25

King Charles III -- Seattle Repertory Theater

Seattle Repertory Theater’s production of “King Charles III,” by award-winning playwright Mike Bartlett, places this modern history play within an Elizabethan half-ring of ancient stone walls topped with statues of figures of antiquity. Under their austere gaze, England’s royal family descends from mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth into a messy political duel, where family and political ties, loyalties, and hopes are tested, broken, and transformed. What will win out: tradition or improvisation? Reason or emotion? Friendship or duty?

Mike Bartlett’s clever script audaciously mimics the form of a Shakespeare history play, complete with blank verse in iambic pentameter, political struggles of various factions, and intermingling of personal hopes and stories with greater forces of history and fate. Director David Muse has crafted a crisply-paced romp of a production where the usual theatrical “unity of time and place” is set aside in favor of what he calls a “unity of nationality.” The cathedral walls of the set serve as an all-encompassing metaphor for the weight of history and tradition under which royalty and commoners alike move like chess pieces in a game that transcends, and sometimes conflicts, with their own desires, duties, hopes, and personal histories. 

The story is plausible enough: in the near future, one presumes, Queen Elizabeth has passed away and her son Prince Charles (a captivating, regal Robert Joy) is in line to assume the role of monarch. Before his coronation, however, ritual encounters with the affable but determined Prime Minister Evans (delightful Ian Merrill Peakes) turn contentious as Charles finds his personal political beliefs irreconcilable with the required — but ceremonial — protocol of the royal imprimatur on a bill on press freedom just passed by Parliament. This legal and ethical quandary escalates to full-fledged Constitutional crisis, with crowds at the gates, armed guards, and even a tank guarding the palace.

To say more would betray twists and turns that ensue; suffice it to say that Shakespeare would recognize the strategies, characters and conflicts that emerge when various forms of power come into conflict. Modern-day Yanks, too, will recognize some of the forces on display now in our homegrown political transition and time of uncertainty.
The very capable cast largely succeeds in making the language of the play accessible and audible, although the script demands a lot with its swings from Elizabethan-sounding sentence structures to modern usages, mingling past and present, tradition and modernism. The rhythms of the verse, like the Bard’s, are not strict; Bartlett’s are sometimes over-reliant on the insertion of “did” and “does” before verbs to squeeze in a needed syllabic beat. But it’s enjoyable to hear natural iambic rhythms of modern English, such as Prince Harry’s “It freaked me out!” fitting neatly into more staid surroundings.

Robert Joy captures many sides of the new King-to-be: ambitious, long-waiting heir to the throne; loving father; passionless spouse; wily politician. His wife, Camilla, draws some understanding laughter in her “second fiddle” role, emerging as a figure of dignity and compassion. The two princes, Harry and William, are distinctly different characters struggling with their public and private lives: William (self-contained, aristocratic Christopher McLanden) seems diffident, but under the Lady Macbeth-like prompting of his ambitious wife Kate (deceptively conniving Allison Jean White) emerges as a figure of power in his own right. Harry (a somewhat monochromatic but likable Harry Smith,) echoes the young Prince Henry from the history plays, discovering the life of the street and “the common people,” and embroiling himself in a problematic relationship with a street-wise activist Jessica (Michelle Beck, who amusingly displays her opposing disdain and awe for royal celebrities.)

The cast includes some distinct and memorable turns by Bradford Farwell, the brazenly two-faced Mr. Stephens, and Rafael Jordan as a kebab seller who reflects with the incognito Prince Harry on the nature of the diminishing state of Britain.

Martyn G. Krouse stands out as stiff-backed Sir Gordon and in other roles, and Dan Hiatt is effective and somehow sympathetic as the household Press Secretary James Reiss, whose allegiances must shift with the changing times. Ultimately, all the characters have a private and a public side, a duty to someone or some entity that requires them to sacrifice something, or betray someone, in order to lurch forward with the listing ship of state.

“King Charles III” makes the audience witness to a plausible future, a recognizable present, and a ubiquitous past. The genre-bending script and juxtaposition of past time with present and future create some moments of cognitive dissonance, and the finale, a coronation in full regalia and musical pomp, leaves one vaguely wondering how much it all really matters. The crown, as the near-King Charles himself points out moments before the coronation, is an empty ring of gold. 
At the Bagley Wright Theater, the “great Globe itself” as the Bard might have called it, director David Muse and his highly creative crew do a creditable job of balancing the diverse parts of this tricky piece of work, and spinning a topical, entertaining tale which, like the times we live in, rings just a bit hollow.

“King Charles III,” by Mike Bartlett
Directed by David Muse
Seattle Repertory Theater, Seattle Center, 155 Mercer St, Seattle, WA 98109
Nov. 11- Dec. 18, 2016

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris -- ACT Theater

The ACT/5th Avenue co-production of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” recasts the Broadway musical in a snazzy, eye-pleasing multi-media experience that spins songs like a rack of greeting cards in an upscale gift shop: catchy, colorful, seductive, and always opening to reveal the twist, surprise, or shock that is Brel’s trademark as a composer and lyricist. Director David Armstrong and Musical Supervisor Joel Fram fashion an entertaining evening that ranges from astonishingly powerful to surprisingly touching, with one or two unfortunate moments of banality, like any collection of greeting cards.

Belgian-born Jacques Brel was already a major star in Europe when the Broadway musical -- a raucous, iconoclastic romp through culture and politics -- caught the imaginations and minds of American audiences in the culturally-politically fraught year of 1968. Translated and adapted for the stage by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, the show enjoyed a long initial run off-Broadway and later productions in cities across the United States and around the world.

Brel fearlessly skewered many golden calves of his time – conventionality, patriotism, romanticism, propriety, and more. Seattle audiences at this production will discover a Jacques Brel alive and tamed, his “noir” sensibility a bit retouched and softened (was the fog in the air really necessary?) for Seattle’s comfortable theater crowd. Still, it’s hard to do a song like “Middle Class” without firmly poking a stick in the eye of any audience, while “Next” or “The Statue” both throw harsh light on the dehumanizing cynicism of a society that treats individuals as either scum or heroes, according to the expediency of the moment.

David Armstrong has gathered a talented crew of performers, who best shine in their solo pieces and two-or-three voice numbers. Costumes, assembled by Harmony Arnold and the cast, are pastel and earth-toned, with occasional exotic splashes. A four-piece band under the direction of Dwight Beckmeyer successfully moves from foreground to background, providing a solid, if occasionally tinny, accompaniment. The splendid set design by Tom Sturge raises a pixillating screen of perforated steel behind which the deep saturated colors of an “abstract expressionist” image appear, shift, and return, while on the screen and across the stark planes of the stage are projected a variety of gripping images, shadows, and light effects.

The show opens, after an underwhelming overture, with the brash ensemble piece “Marathon,” set (as in the 1975 film version) against fast-moving images tracing a horrifying, helter-skelter progression of history of the 20th century. From this full-cast, full-on show-stopper, we zoom to the opposite end of the Brel spectrum: “Alone” – a poignant, emotionally controlled solo by Timothy McCuen Piggee that pierces hearts with the inevitability of loneliness.

From this condolence card we turn to a bright, funny-until-it-hurts Valentine’s Day card, “Madeleine,” in which the ensemble reappears to tell the story of a hopeful, hapless wooer who persists in his love of the never-to-be-seen Madeleine. Eric Ankrim, clad in comfy hipster attire, takes the spotlight first, his bounce and charm an effective foil to snaky, louche Louis Hobson in his leather pants and bling. Timothy Piggee’s approachability is welcome here, his work boots, blue jeans, and relative gravitas grounding the male section with casual, avuncular earthiness.

Kendra Kassebaum and Cayman Ilika complement each other less effectively in costume and voice. Ms. Kassebaum’s solo “I Loved” draws attention to the clunky high-heeled pumps on which she teeters throughout the show, her powerful voice undermined by a studied physicality that may be partly blamed on fear of tumbling. In “Timid Frieda,” where irony repeatedly punctures the surface sentimentality, Ms. Ilika undergoes a fascinating onstage costume change while her crystalline voice tells the story of the remade Frieda; her emotionality is more fluid and convincing than Ms. Kassebaum’s; the two female voices and their characters seem awkwardly paired.

Quibbling aside, the show is entertaining, engrossing, stirring, and remarkable in its range of subjects, reflecting Brel’s genius and originality. Pacing and clarity are top-notch (though the sound is a bit over-miked and reverberant). Each "greeting card" tells its story with alacrity, unpacking a surprise, often with a good kick as well.

All actors have stand-out moments and pieces: Timothy Piggee's superb comic gifts in “Funeral Tango” and “Jackie;” Cayman Ilika very affecting and authentic in “No Love You’re Not Alone” and "The Old Folks;" Eric Ankrim in “The Bulls” and "Next" nailing the dark twists and sudden turns of Brel’s inventiveness; Louis Hobson stunningly bitter in “The Statue,” and funny as hell in “Bachelor’s Dance,” then heartbreaking in his surf-side ramble through regret in “Fanette” (the projected wave images are sublimely integrated.)

Kendra Kassebaum fully redeems herself in a masterful Act Two rendition of “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” Singing in French at a classic stand-microphone in a pool of light, accompanied by Greg Fulton on acoustic guitar and with her split images projected on the screens behind, Ms. Kassebaum achingly fills the song’s huge, understated emotional space. For comparison, rent the 1975 film version if only to see Brel himself, seated at a café table with a glass of beer and a cigarette in hand, deliver a gorgeous rendition of it, only three years before his untimely death.

As a tribute to a modern troubadour unlike any other, “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” (shall we just call it ‘JBIAAWALIP’ for short?) delivers a rich and memorable evening’s entertainment. It is hard, however, to overlook the disappointing final number, “If We Only Have Love.” The song begs to be done simply and with a certain naiveté; in 1968 this was probably easier to pull off than in 2015. David Armstrong (or is it Joel Fram?) positions the singers with their arms at their sides, facing the audience, without movement or other ornamentation. Simplicity and sincerity are the goal, one assumes, and the actors strive to pull it off, but it reads like hard work, especially as the ensemble and orchestra build to a blaring, ill-blended crescendo. The starry background to this song in the film included a whimsical cartoon-like Saturn amidst the heavenly bodies, allowing the audience a slight taste of tongue-in-cheek along with the well-meaning message. Here, unfortunately, the finale reads all Hallmark, all the way.

“Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris"
Production Conception, English Lyrics and Additional Material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman
Music by Jacques Brel
Direction and Musical Staging by David Armstrong, Music Supervision by Joel Fram
An ACT Theater/5th Avenue Theater co-production,
at ACT Theater, Kreielsheimer Place, 700 Union Street, Seattle WA 98101
March 7 - May 17, 2015

Holiday of Errors  - Sound Theatre Company

In these dark times, a comedy riff on Shakespeare and Dickens seemed like just the thing to raise my spirits. Sound Theatre Company’s revival of last year’s “Holiday of Errors” raises several spirits (Marlowe’s ghost, Richard III), but despite some good chuckles and clever wordplay, fails to quite dispel the gloom.

The Shakespeare mash-up has become such a familiar trope that a troupe needs pretty inspirational material and direction to pull off yet another. However, despite the witty script by Frank Lawler and Daniel Flint, and Teresa Thuman’s competent, if somewhat plodding direction, more of “Holiday of Errors ” seems wooden than the set. The script, for all its cleverness, ticks along with metronomic regularity from punchline to punchline; slapstick stage business evokes chuckles; thespian in-jokes amuse some, perplex others; rewritten holiday carols appear and are forgotten; sound effects chime and clang offstage. In short, the predictable elements of a Seattle lightweight, holiday romp are there. But somehow, we are not that amused. It all seems pretty familiar: one “badaboom” after another of word twist, title mix-up, misplaced quote, and the inevitable zombie or two. And there’s perhaps one “Bah, humbug” joke too many.

The story doesn’t really matter. Quotes and characters and story memes are tumbled together with Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and what the program calls “semi-historical facts” to fabricate a madcap backstory to the creation of the play “Twelfth Night.” The cross-references to Dickens are cute, but seem spurious — although without them, the line “Marlowe was dead, to begin with” would not have been possible, and it was one of many laugh-out-loud moments in this not-all-bad comedy.

The best thing about this show, having shared my pique about the script and direction, is the acting. A solid troupe of comedians pick up the heavy-laden script and carry it farther than they should have to — two hours, including an intermission. (This is a play that needs to move trippingly and be done in well under an hour and a half. There’s just not that much there there.)

But enough of my griping. There is good news: Frank Lawler (who co-wrote the script with Daniel Flint) brings existential angst to a Shakespeare who seems continually to be gnashing his teeth as a playwright surrounded by enemies, nincompoops, and yes, even ghosts. Chris Shea is quietly hilarious as Will’s sidekick actor Richard Burbage, veering easily from underplay to gags as broad as a line of actors bumping in succession. Ian Bond, Patrick Lennon, Damien Charboneau and Bob Williams all brighten the stage in their individual ways and help keep the audience smiling during some of the dry stretches between jokes.

Marianna de Fazio channels an Arlecchino-like energy as the cross-dressing actor in Shakespeare’s troupe, whose mission to Queen Elizabeth (Elinor Gunn) sets in motion the comedy of mistaken identities and love interests. She is great fun to watch.

Gunn, as the slutty “Virgin Queen,” has mastered both the role and the genre of Shakespeare spoof with manic intensity and self-assuredness (“What a waste of a good entrance,” she moans when her customary grand appearance on the balcony turns out to be played to an empty stage.) Her timing and energy do a lot to keep the laughs coming.
Terry Boyd, as the Lord Mayor concealing his penchant for flagellation at an Elizabethan sex club called the Iron Codpiece, is a commanding presence on the boards and a satisfyingly hypocritical puritan.

Lastly and memorably is the sordid, sinuous presence of the ghost of “Kit” Marlowe (Daniel Stoltenberg), convinced he is still alive despite a searing headache brought on by a slight case of being stabbed through the eye. His many apparitions provide some of the better moments of interaction among W.S. and his cast of characters. What a shame, though, that he never does walk through that “fourth wall.”

Together, the hard-working actors overcome many problems of an over-long script and somewhat sluggish tempo to make the most of what the script can offer: some good guffaws, a dip in the punch-bowl of Seattle’s over-rich holiday arts scene, and brief respite from a world that seems almost as crazy and pointless as “Holiday of Errors” itself.
Go ahead: call me Scrooge. Probably most people will find the whole thing very funny. Bah, umbrage! Go have fun.

Holiday of Errors
by Frank Lawler and Daniel Flint
Directed by Teresa Thuman
Sound Theatre Company
December 4-20 at 12th Ave Arts Mainstage, Capitol Hill

Dirty -- Washington Ensemble Theater / ACT Theatre

America is a dirty slut. There, I said it.

Wait – I didn’t mean – you thought? No, no: not America as in “US” – but America Jones, the 20-year old porn star in “Dirty,” Washington Ensemble Theater’s hilarious, horrifying, and surprisingly nuanced examination of the corruption of a family – and country – by the gradual repositioning of ethical lines to justify the compromises of our individual, questionable moral balance sheets.

Or… could they mean “us?” WET co-founder and director Michael Place rubs our faces in the greed, cynicism, and desperation at the heart of a 21st century America that will turn any trick, break any rule, betray any truth, and fuck anything that gets in its way or helps it to another capitalist orgasm. The production at ACT is huge fun, a slick, dark satire that strains credulity while delivering a soul-satisfying kick in the ass to the self-righteous.

Not that anything about “Dirty” seems really unbelievable. In rapid-fire sequences that shift from inner monologue to dialogue to confessional and conspiratorial asides, a story unfolds of a man and wife, pregnant with their first child, struggling with careers in a cut-throat world of corporate plunder on one hand, and philanthropic do-good-ism on the other. The hapless but crafty, quick-thinking husband, Matt, tries to face down his evil boss Terry, but then abruptly resigns over a bit of corporate “douche-baggery” that crosses some kind of moral line for him.

His wife Katie is understandably upset by this, with a house to lose and a baby on the way, and in a gradual turnabout from her philanthropic work in defense of young women recovering from sex abuse, is swayed – within certain ground rules – to support Matt’s idea of starting an ethically defensible pornography company that will go viral by dedicating a share of its profits to philanthropy. 

Matt (endlessly watchable, vibrant Anthony Darnell) tries to face down his ruthless boss Terry (Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir, whose pure, delightful amorality repeatedly forces others to redefine their values.) Matt is outmaneuvered until Act Two when he and his former nemesis join forces on the multi-million-dollar ethical porn enterprise, over the protestations of Katie (sharply and sympathetically portrayed by LoraBeth Barr.)

In this half we meet the true King of Sleaze in the porn millionaire Jacob (cringe-inducing, love-to-hate John Pyburn) and witness the consequences of Matt and Katie’s rationalizations when their emerging poster girl Mikayla (sultry, seductive and equally ruthless Leah Salcido Pfenning) scores her own bottom-line triumph.

Andrew Hinderaker’s outrageously clever script, workshopped through ACT’s Contruction Zone play development program, is a lean and compact marvel, though Act 2 is just a tad over-filled, and some of the plot demands deep suspension of disbelief. But one grants it readily, seduced by the total commitment of the actors and of their characters – people like us, prowling the jungle of modern America on the lookout for the next “big game” in which to make our win-all/lose-all play. 

Michael Place and his design team achieve a visual and narrative fusion of love and lust, altruism and ruthless self-interest. The MacStore-white set is squeaky clean, its stark rectangles and split-page effect handily suggesting a double moral spreadsheet, and framing one crisp episode after another like panels in a graphic novel page-turner. The vibrant lighting design manages to keep pace with swift-changing times and locales and dialogue that jumps in an eye blink between rapid-fire skewering in the business world to tender – or not-so-tender – moments of intimacy in the home.

The interweaving of these worlds is the structural spine of the show, closing in on the divide between what Matt and Kate profess to value and what they are in fact willing to do to achieve their goals. This integrity gap narrows and closes in relentlessly, finally leaving Matt at a moment of truth where all options have expired except final utter betrayal, or loss of everything he has sought to gain. I leave it to you to imagine your own response faced with such a choice, and to imagine the countless ways we do make such choices daily and see in the broader life of our society and world.

ACT’s current productions of “Threesome” and “Dirty” may be coincidentally scheduled to overlap, or not; it is surely of interest to see them both, and compare their different ways of exploring the interpenetration of personal, political, economic and sexual realities. “Dirty” is a fast-paced, funny, dark ogle at the underside of America, and ourselves – people of greater or lesser privilege, but all essentially out to make a buck.

And that, my friends, is just plain slutty. Don’t miss it for anything.

The Art of Bad Men -- MAP Theatre

In Vincent Delaney’s captivating and uplifting new play at MAP Theater, real life stories of German prisoners of war held in Minnesota during World War II are spun into a funny, tragic and rich web of interaction between life and art that builds to a transcendent, emotionally stunning point of truth.

Based on interviews Delaney conducted in 2004 with elderly former German POW’s, “The Art of Bad Men” grippingly explores theater as transformational art. As the characters of the play gradually shed self-delusion, pretense, and adherence to dead ideas, each discovers and discloses greater humanity and authenticity. Art, music, theater, even cinema play a part in this process.

Kelly Kitchens’ skilled and unobtrusive direction makes optimal use of the small theater space at InScape, and trusts the well-honed script (which has had reading productions in New York and Minnesota before its Seattle début) to carry the audience scene by scene nearer to the true hearts of people in all their complex layers of good and bad.

Three German POW’s are loosely held in a minimum-security work farm somewhere in Minnesota. Kurt (Benjamin McFadden, who carries the surprising arc of his challenging role with humility and self-control) begins as a flat-toned SS officer still mouthing Nazi slogans and plotting resistance.

His underling and fellow prisoner Gerhardt (Ben Burris, deftly charting a path from callow malingerer to a man genuinely touched by love and commitment) seems content to wait out the war in comfort, stealing cigarettes from his guard and trying to seduce local women.

When joined by a third prisoner, a cowed teenage conscript Franz (poised, vulnerable Sean Schroeder,) the dynamic begins to shift. As Franz charms his fellow-prisoners into fulfilling his dream of directing a production of Molière’s “The Miser,” “Bad Men” goes meta: the intersection of reality and theater inherent in the play’s origins is doubled by the gradually unfolding parallels among the play-within-the-play characters and the men who play them. Harpagon (Molière’s “bad man,” played by the Nazi true-believer, Kurt) attempts to boondoggle Cléante, (Gerhardt, who under Franz’ direction begins to connect with his real emotions) who is in love with Mariane (Franz, cross-dressing with apparent delight and stepping out of fear into artistic bliss.)

For an audience watching actors play characters playing characters and in the process uncovering  truths about themselves, the art of theater intersects with life delightfully and movingly in the layers of this well-crafted script and intimate, un-gimmicky production.

Brandon Ryan and Peggy Gannon, MAP co-producers, both shine in important roles: Ryan as the hapless guard Harvey, who enables the prisoners’ comings and goings beyond the fence; Gannon as Emma, Kurt’s immigrant sister, who refrains from enabling her delusional brother, finding and offering a surrogate family to young Franz. Last but not least, Grace Carmack is full of surprises and unexpected depths as Cordelia -- somewhat implausibly named, it seems, but who knows; perhaps there was such a person in Minnesota in 1944. Her character is delightfully mercurial and entirely plausible.

“The Art of Bad Men” is clearly not just about bad men, nor men alone, but about the ways that humans, across the cultures, languages, and politics that divide us, manage in spite of all odds and all heartbreak to find in art – and specifically theater – that which at deepest levels can unite, uplift and heal us.

To reveal much more about this funny, gripping and memorable production would spoil the experience for coming audiences. In the intimate setting of InSpace, with little more than hay bales and barb wire to set the scene, MAP Theater does again what it seems to do best: choose great scripts, draw together some of the best local talent, and deliver the goods at a very reasonable price.
That's not bad at all.

"The Art of Bad Men," by Vincent Delaney
Directed by Kelly Kitchens
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays Sept. 25-Oct. 17  All tickets are pay what you can.
MAP Theater, at Inscape Arts & Cultural Center, 815 Seattle Blvd S, Seattle, WA

A Delicate Balance -- Theatre 9/12

Trinity Parish Church, a picturesque stone edifice with an antique-looking spire and European aspect, seems an unlikely venue for Edward Albee’s darkly funny examination of conflict, denial and survival in an American family, but when the Parish Hall lights dim and the set brightens, the tight-knit ensemble of Theatre9/12 deftly animates an intimate journey through Albee’s witty piece of cultural criticism.
In the capable hands of director Charles Waxberg, this mixed crew of union and non-union actors have crafted a rich exploration of relationships amongst their complex characters. Agnes and Tobias survive an exhausted marriage in an alcohol-infused dance of avoidance. The steely Agnes (a riveting Therese Diekhans) is clearly the fulcrum and main pillar of the family dynamic, holding in check her mostly cowed husband Tobias (Terry Edward Moore, excellent in a role that gradually exposes layers of conflict and guilt) and making no secret of her disdain for her alcoholic sister, Claire (Mary Murfin Bayley, awkwardly frail, self-mocking, and pitiable – until she reveals her incriminating secret.)

Like a barely tolerated jester, Claire speaks truths that threaten Agnes’ control, while Tobias, the softener of edges, gently restrains her, enabling her drinking while encouraging her to seek help. Then, in a typically Albee-like plot turn that verges on the absurd, the couple’s long-time friends Edna and Harry (Rachel D. Pate and Eric Newman, scarily straight-faced, believable clowns) appear at the door asking to stay the night, claiming their own home has been invaded by a nameless fear.

The astonished Agnes and Tobias see nothing they can do but offer the empty bedroom of their thrice-married and divorced daughter, Julia. Into this out-of-kilter setting Julia returns (Samantha A. Camp, raising the wattage considerably with her outspoken rage and teen-like contempt for her ineffectual parents) and sets the delicate balance of household relations even further askew.

Theatre 9/12 is a unique crucible of talent. Company members take part in weekly master classes, building and honing skills through workshops and performances. Previous shows have included Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar,” “Doubt” by John Patrick Shanley, and Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” at ACT Theater. By no means allow the humble and unusually intimate setting of the church Parish Hall to deter you from catching “A Delicate Balance” during its three-week run. Some of Seattle’s finest actors and emerging talents are involved in the chemistry that makes this show tick.

Albee is a master of ambiguity and suggestiveness; themes abound in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play. What stands out for this writer is the question: are humans capable of change? Do we want the happiness, and risk, of real freedom, or prefer to rest in the torpor of the familiar, like frogs in a slowly heating pot of our own misery? Edward Albee, through the dark lens of his embittered muse, suggests that individuals, and by extension America as a culture, ultimately will choose the devil we know over the unwelcome occupancy of our lives by anything that threatens to overthrow the status quo, however unwholesome that may be, and however radically liberating the alternative might prove.

And yet, there is a kind of awakening that occurs in this play; the numbing alcohol is replaced by morning coffee and a buzz of – not excitement, but perhaps resignation that a new day has come, and life with all its commonplace imperfections and defeats, does go on.

A Delicate Balance, by Edward Albee
Directed by Charles Waxberg, Theatre9/12
At Trinity Parish Church, 609 8th Ave. at James St.
January 23 – February 14th, 2015. 8:00 pm
All performances are pay-what-you-can-afford

“Groucho” – Frank Ferrante puts the “ouch” in Groucho

Frank Ferrante’s uncannily spot-on portrayal of Groucho Marx at ACT Theater’s Cabaret pulls no punches. Groucho’s acerbic wit and unabashed lechery come alive both onstage and in Ferrante’s lengthy improvised meanderings among the audience, horsing around with the audience much as the master of madcap himself might have done and ruffling a few feathers along the way. The badly-dressed, the balding, the bored, the bearded – all feel the offhand lash of Groucho’s whip. Be prepared to cringe, and to be utterly charmed.

You won’t find a performer with better pedigree than Frank Ferrante for a one-man show on the life and character of Groucho Marx. Ferrante was a drama student in 1985 at University of Southern California when he was discovered by Groucho’s son Arthur Marx and cast in his biographical play “Groucho: A Life in Review,” in which the young Ferrante played Groucho from age 15 to 85. Since that early success in New York, London, and PBS television productions, Ferrante’s many accomplishments in show business have been overshadowed by his mastery of the seemingly inimitable Groucho.

The cleverly structured script consists largely of anecdotes, recounted by Groucho conversationally with his audience, that shed light on the Marx family and the comedy team’s background, the origins of their act in vaudeville and early films, and the evolution of the Marx Brothers into one of the top comedy acts of the 20th century.

Dialogue, jokes and one-liners from the films, plus a number of songs with lively piano accompaniment by Mark Rabe, punctuate the show with laugh moments and glimpses into an era of corny but classic vaudeville entertainment. Ferrante masterfully milks both the hooters and the bombs, in true Groucho style, throwing in plenty of recognizable Groucho schtick: the low-rider walk, the waggling eyebrows, the physical highjinks, the crazy side-kick knee-twist dance step, and the ever-present cigar.

As in the movies, moments of poignancy provide some balance to the general mayhem. Groucho’s joke about being “married 47 years – to three different women” stirs a predictable laugh; another side emerges as he tenderly holds a framed picture of Margaret Dumont and reminisces about that statuesque and clueless butt of many a cruel joke. The affection he holds for her is palpable -- I’m sure Groucho could make a ribald quip of that.

Another sweet touch, if a little more prolonged than necessary, is Ferrante’s selection of a 10-year-old boy sitting with his parents (“and these are your parole officers?” he asks), bringing him onstage to have his upper lip painted black and a cigar stuck in his mouth. Ferrante shares the spotlight compassionately and gives the boy – and probably many a child in his hundreds of performances – an unforgettable experience.

Ferrante has a well-packed quiver of one-liners to shoot as he works the crowd. Still, much of the charm and enjoyment of the evening comes from moments that seem unscripted. Though Ferrante has been performing this piece for over 20 years, it never feels stale. His new piano accompanist, Mark Rabe, keeps pace admirably, with enough faux pas, real or staged, to give Groucho even more fodder for wise-cracks. Suitably low-key and deferent, Rabe provides an effective foil to Ferrante’s eruptive and irreverent energy.

Marx Brothers aficionados will doubtlessly gain the most from this over-the-top celebration of a long-gone comedy team, whose influence is huge if largely unknown to younger audiences today. For those who have never chuckled and groaned their way through Duck Soup or Animal Crackers, watched Chico work his finger magic on a piano keyboard, or been moved by Harpo’s astonishingly angelic beauty as he plucks his harp, Frank Ferrante nonetheless offers an engaging and hilarious introduction.

While the Marx Brothers of yesteryear are frozen in celluloid and digitalized on disk, an evening of “Groucho” with Frank Ferrante accomplishes what not even the magic of cinema can: the privilege of hobnobbing with the living presence of one of America’s great comedians, and with an actual scion of the Marx lineage. I bet Groucho could make a joke of that, too. If he did, you will probably hear it in “Groucho.” Don’t miss the chance.

“Groucho” at ACT Theater, Bullitt Cabaret, June 13-30, directed by Dreya Weber, with Frank Ferrante and Mark Rabe

The Temperamentals  - Arouet
A play by Jon Marans
Directed by Roy Arauz

With marriage equality now law in parts of the land, and a tectonic shift underway in public attitudes toward homosexuality, it is timely to consider the roots of the LGBTQ movement. Progressive change in society requires sacrifice and courage by those willing to face the status quo and clamor for justice.

Jon Marans’ 2009 play “The Temperamentals,” produced by fledgling theater company Arouet, now through May 25 at The Ballard Underground, inspiringly recreates the personal and political challenges of the founders of the “Mattachine Society,” who well before the watershed 1969 Stonewall riots braved public opprobrium and the paranoia of the McCarthy era to form the first association for homosexual empowerment.

Roy Arauz’ understated direction and Kim Rosin’s bare-bones scene design demand a lot from the audience in the first half of the play. Arauz’ staging frequently leaves one or another actor’s face hidden to half the audience. A long opening scene between Harry Hay (played with nuanced volatility by Daniel Wood) and Rudi Gernreich (an engaging, conflicted Jaryl Allen Draper) relies on subtext and innuendo, effectively if opaquely conveying a sense of the “coded language” of a despised sub-culture. Minimalist set pieces create indistinct changes of place and time. Even with some foreknowledge of the Mattachine Society’s history, one may struggle in the first act to follow events in various times and locales (Hollywood, Germany, dreams…) and to sort out characters despite the fine ensemble work by Greg Bee, Will Halsey, and Justin Ison.

However, the five actors’ attention to details of relationship and character overcome these minor obstacles with captivating emotional truth. By the end of Act One, the arc of “The Temperamentals” comes into focus as a growing network of friends coalesces around the police entrapment of a carnival roustabout, Dale Jennings (one of shape-shifting Justin Ison’s roles.) Their collective oath of solidarity as he agrees to submit to a trial by jury instead of the customary police shake-down highlights both the political necessity and personal cost of being the “cause célèbre” around which the growing movement for homosexual rights gains traction. The current “gay spring” of marriage legalization has roots sixty years ago in that personal choice to take the stand for individual rights in the face of collective prejudice.

Act Two also brings more clearly into focus the relationship of Harry and Rudi, torn by conflicting allegiances to the Communist Party, fellow Mattachine Society members, and differing personal goals and needs. The outcome of their political and personal struggles highlights the imperfect human heart of grassroots activism, and the presence in the world, perhaps, of amazing grace.

One of the many strengths of this production is the occasional seamless inclusion of the audience: as members at a Mattachine Society conference, a jury at a courtroom trial, and congregants for a poignant benediction that celebrates the journey of the LGBTQ community and evokes a blessing for the way ahead. This entwining of audience and performance inspires affection and respect for the real men and women who despite profound hurt acted on their belief in who they were.

“Who we are” – a statement uttered with violent urgency by Harry Hay – is not only personal; our choices and actions are threads in the tapestry of events woven over time into the shape of the future. By the end of the play an essential message emerges: we are all players in the unfolding history of our lives and our time. A backward glance at early efforts that gave rise to today’s LGBTQ culture is an opportunity to reflect on our current concerns in the fullness of their complexity, imperfection, and significance for the future.

Anyone who appreciates today the dawning acceptance of homosexuals into the social fabric of our country should see this entertaining, emotionally courageous, and inspiringly humble production.

THE TEMPERAMENTALS, a play by Jon Marans, directed by Roy Arauz, produced by Arouet and Alfred Zem Hill. At Ballard Underground, 2220 NW Market St., Ballard, through May 25. Tickets at www. or (800)838-3006.

The Who's Tommy  - Seattle Musical Theatre

Seattle Musical Theatre’s production of “The Who’s Tommy” may not quite be The Who onstage, but anyone — whether you have enjoyed the songs and guessed at the murky story behind the 1969 album release or not — will take delight in this lively and uplifting production.

The artistic vision of the show’s director and choreographer, Harry Turpin, succeeds in binding up the loose-knit pieces of Pete Townsend’s 45-year-old flawed masterpiece with rare and memorable wholeness and a genuine healing touch.

A vivid “steam-punk” industrial set of scaffolds and levels, smoke and mirrors, lights and ladders, provides a rich and ever-changing canvas for the talented 17-member ensemble and four-piece band. The entire staging effectively suggests the rapid-paced playfield of an enormous pinball machine, with lights, bells, and enough surprising twists and turns to keep the audience constantly engaged and entertained.

Turpin makes use of every area of the complex set, with swift transitions, entrances and exits that surprise and draw the eye in many directions. His ever-busy stage is never cluttered; among the talented, hard-working ensemble no moment appears misplaced or unmotivated.

An early series of rapid pantomime vignettes establishes the back story of the war, Captain Walker’s disappearance and return, and the trauma of young Tommy, played with remarkable composure and presence by 11-year-old Jaryn Lasentia.

Caleb Dietzel’s ambitious and complex technical design is stunning. The lighting array seizes key moments and action with pinpoint precision, and dazzlingly energizes musical numbers. Actors clamber and leap amidst the scaffolding like so many pinballs; ensemble members appear in enough guises and settings to gradually acquire distinct individuality.

 Visual creations such as the ghostly images of younger/older Tommy in a semi-translucent mirror stand out memorably. Vivid sound effects of pinball, breaking mirror, aerial bombardment, and more add to the sharp soundtrack. One feels swept along through a series of connected, feverish dreams, lucid and so engrossing one forgets to blink.

Among the many fine actors and singers, some standouts include Young Tommy, whose clear, pitch-perfect solo moments and duets are riveting; Kelsey Hull and Casey Raiha as Tommy’s emotionally conflicted parents; Curtis Jacobson as the tippling clown and remorseful pedophile, Uncle Ernie, in a role that could easily induce queasiness but for its sensitive treatment by actor and director alike; and Robert Barnts-McAulay as the older Tommy, whose virtuosic vocal range and power overcome occasional reediness and help him carry the show despite some stiffness and over-reliance on conventional musical theater movement and gesture.

Natalie Anne Moe belts out a strong, bluesy Gypsy Queen; Doug Fahl shape-shifts convincingly between roles as Minister, Specialist, and Mr. Simpson; Riley Neldam, as Tommy’s bullying cousin, seems slightly uncomfortable with the nasty edge the role demands, but brings a human and likeable quality to the young man’s eventual redemption.

The show is visually and musically appealing, with a breadth of imagination and depth of commitment that easily glosses over minor weaknesses to produce an unforgettable and thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment. Visit the production’s Facebook page for possible Groupon discounts.


MAY 23 – JUNE 15, 2014

Seattle Musical Theater, 7120 62nd Ave NE,

Originally Produced on Broadway by Pace Theatrical Group and Dodger Productions with Kardana Productions

Directed by Harry Turpin
Music Direction by John Allman

Cavalier & Clay -- Book-it Repertory Theatre
Escapism, magic, and miracles

Period furniture, costumes, props, art deco cityscapes, live music, stage magic, and terrific acting by a powerhouse ensemble make Book-it Repertory's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" an unforgettable journey. An inside look at the true stories of some of the comic book world's founding writers, artists and publishers, the evening has something of the feel of a night at home watching four consecutive episodes of "Mad Men," but with a good deal more laughter, depth, virtuosity and heart.

Michael Chabon's 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is itself a wildly creative romp through the roughly two decades of the Golden Age of Comics and a more sober view of the destruction of a family in the holocaust of the second World War and its Phoenix-like resurrection in post-war America.

Though fiction, the stories of Czech immigrant Josef Kavalier (played with convincing Czech stoicism by Frank Boyd) and his American cousin Sam Clay (David Goldstein, in a character whose layers slowly peel away to the bare soul) are based on actual writers and artists behind such Golden Age creations as Superman, Wonder Boy, Captain America, and dozens of others. Fact and fiction flow side by side in this story, like the truths and lies its protagonists tell each other and themselves, like the stage magic that deceives, mystifies, entertains, and provides both literal and figurative escape.

With its customary inventiveness, the Book-it team under Myra Platt's inspired direction labored through many drafts of the script (adapted by Jeff Schwager) to bring Michael Chabon's book to life. Vivid set, lighting and costume designs animate dozens of rapid changes to locales as diverse as an office in the Empire State building, a train station in Prague, a New York City subway, a Los Angeles mansion and an isolated military outpost in Antarctica. In a brilliantly amusing set-piece in the second half, one of the comic book stories comes to life on stage as the character of "Luna Moth" is born in the basement of the New York Public library; the conventions of comic book form, character, dialogue and suspense come to life almost magically, like so much else in this riveting production.

Despite the show's 5-hour duration (including an intermission in each of the two parts separated by a 40-minute dinner break with meals available upstairs), the entertainment never flags. Myra Platt's well-practiced directorial hand keeps the pacing swift and the timing sharp; set changes are handled dexterously; live and recorded music provide just enough atmosphere; character and scene transitions and seem pulled from a magician's hat. It is a long evening, but the actors seem tireless and the story has enough twists and turns and interesting characters to hold an audience riveted.

Amongst the huge and talented cast the quality of performance is consistently high; a few characters do stand out: Richard Arum conveys the somehow likeable but crass publisher Sheldon Anapol, bent on making the most he can from the "trash" his underpaid writers and artists produce, with seeming ease, while also shifting into the role of Kavalier's Czech father in Prague and other characters; Bill Johns and Michael Patten jump from one role to another with delightful virtuosity (Michael Patten's wheelchair-bound arch-villain in the Luna Moth sequence is especially memorable); Opal Peachey crafts a convincing and emotionally grounded character arc from young avant-garde artist in Hollywood's very contemporary feeling art world to a loving mom and lonely housewife in post-war suburbia. The young Nate Kelderman impressively switches from Kavalier's brother left behind in Prague to his very American and independent-minded son in America; Carol Silverstein and Amy Korver fill various amusing character roles with delightful attention to details.

The richness and creativity of this show is impossible to convey in a short review. In her Director's Notes in the program Myra Platt mentions the "pang of creation" that leads the artist and creator to his or her greatest moments of epiphany. Given the delayed opening of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," and the sheer audaciousness of the enterprise that brings to the stage Michael Chabon's sprawling epic of the Golden Age of Comic Books, there must have been many pangs along the way of creation by this remarkable collaboration of artists. Those who brave the journey to experience this remarkable production will be well-rewarded for the occasional pangs of a 5-hour theater happening that may be Book-it's most daring and astonishing creation yet.

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