Sunday, September 7, 2014

Death and the Maiden, Latino Theatre Projects

My ticket to Death and the Maiden was also my summons to jury duty. Ariel Dorfman's play conscripts us in a courtroom drama made all the more riveting because the trial is private, not public. In the opening night production by Latino Theatre Projects and directed by Emma Watt, the audience held its collective breath, witnessing and judging as the unspeakable was spoken.

The play is set in a new democracy where dictatorship is an all too recent and vivid memory. It's drawn from Dorfman's experience as a Chilean, but it could, by design, be any country in the birth pains of democracy, where torturers and the tortured, prisoners and the imprisoned, deposed and the silenced, are uneasily trying to figure out what comes next.

Fernando Luna, left, and Tonya Andrews in
the Latino Theatre Projects production of Death
and the Maiden. Photo by Michael Brunk.
What comes next in this story is that Paulina's husband Gerardo is late coming home, and she is alone and anxious. He finally arrives after a kind stranger named Dr. Roberto Miranda stops to help with his flat tire. Gerardo invites him in, with promises of his wife's excellent margaritas. Paulina recognizes the doctor's voice, his skin, his smell, as the doctor who raped and tortured her when she was a political prisoner in the days of the old regime. She knows her reasonable husband will have difficulty believing this of the kind stranger (after all, she may not be quite altogether well). She prosecutes a private trial at gunpoint, with Gerardo functioning as the doctor's defender. 

The three-actor cast is outstanding. Fernando Luna as Dr. Miranda manages to do the nearly impossible—be utterly despicable and loathsome, and at the same time make me want to hear more. There are scenes where he is bound to a chair and gagged, and his eyes give the scenes depth as we hear revelation after revelation.

The one place where I expect the play will only get stronger as the actors feed on the ensemble's energy is in Frank Lawler's performance. He has a wickedly difficult role to play. Gerardo is a lawyer, personally and professionally committed to the rule of law, he has hopes for his country, and his star is rising. He has just returned home from being appointed to head a commission investigating the crimes of the old regime. And he is a husband whose own wife has been harmed by the old regime, to an extent he can only imagine at the beginning of the play. Navigating his principles, hopes, and interests proves tricky. 

His defining feature is reasonableness. And yet, there's an explosive scene where the doctor pokes his fingers right into the sorest spots, and from Gerardo I would have liked to see a little less outrage and dismay, a little more shattering in frustration and pain. It's important to the drama and the ending that Gerardo's hold on his gossamer principles and hopes be very, very tenuous. He is the caged one, and we need to smell his fear over everything he could lose.

Paulina, on the other hand, doesn't have so much to lose, and might have something to gain, depending on the choices Gerardo makes. Tonya Andrews gave a fierce performance, making her character walk a knife's edge between strength and debilitation, decision and resignation, power and mercy. Gerardo gives the play its slipperiness and fragility; Paulina gives the play its gravitas and heartbreak.

Together these three outstanding actors managed to evoke a stew of emotions, base and noble, each of the three characters forcing me to confront the question moment by moment: what would I have done?

Props to everyone involved in the set, lights, and sound. Kristina Hestenes-Stimson's set and costumes and Zanna Paulson's lighting were integral to the show's action and meaning, arrivals and departures, creating the setting's essential privacy. I loved the way director Watt made use of the upstage to make us feel like voyeurs and downstage where she put the action practically in our laps. Sound designer Joshua Blaisdell's job was crucial, as the plot pivots on sound many times, including playback of tape recordings. The timing and functioning in every case was flawless. 

Death and the Maiden is very good theater. It's dramatic, thought-provoking, brilliantly performed, and deeply moving. Go see a play, and make it this one! We enjoyed it so much, we plan to see it again. Shows are Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons through September 29, at the Ballard Underground. See you there.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Summer plays abound and delight

When it's nice in Seattle in the summer you just don't want to go indoors. We're eating most of our meals outside and enjoying what has been, for the most part, a pretty dry and delightful couple of months.

Luckily, the desire to be outdoors has not greatly reduced the opportunities to see plays. We have not written much at all about anything of late; just one baseball post by me, and a review by my Sweetie, the official scorer, of Marisol by The Collision Project back in March. But I've been lollygagging my way through a delightful Sunday afternoon, computer out on the deck, and thinking about the now-concluded outdoor theater season, and simply had to share.

L-R: Heather Gautschi, Jaryl Draper, Alex Matthews, and Adria
La Morticella (as both fish and penis). 14/48 photo by Joe Iano.
For us, 14/48, the World's Quickest Theater Festival, is not to be missed. We block out the dates on the calendar as soon as we know about them, and it's rare that anything else can muscle in on those weekends. Held on two consecutive weekends twice each year, the festival each weekend features 14 world premiere one-act plays in 48 hours. The plays are written overnight and rehearsed and performed the next day. The last two weekends the festival was held at the Seattle Rep--in its parking lot and right in front of a giant dumpster. This is totally keeping in line with the 14/48 meme of doing theater outside the norm.

As always, the festival was loaded with gems. I think my favorite was Scot Auguston's hilarious play, Candiru Means I Love You, directed by Peter A. Jacobs. It's all about a guy who has a fish living in his willie. You really had to be there.

Weisenheimer has a birthday coming up, and as a present my Sweetie, the official scorer, signed me up as a member of the 14/48 Projects Wine & Stein Club. This is a gift that give the company a little chunk of change with which to do its thing, and gives the bearer of the specially engraved wine goblet special access to the theater and unlimited vino. Everyone wines. Wins, I mean.

Another hands-off weekend is the one on which the Seattle Outdoor Theater Festival is held, typically the weekend after the July 4 weekend. We try not to miss it! This year eight different companies did a total of 14 performances at Volunteer Park.

Johnny Patchamatla and Libby Barnard as Othello and
Desdemona, in the giddy, newlywed phase before things
went south. GreenStage photo by Ken Holmes.
My favorite of the summer was GreenStage's Othello, directed by Teresa Thuman. Johnny Patchamatla had the title role and was just grand. Martyn G. Krouse was a deliciously wicked Iago. Libby Barnard was fantastic as Desdemona. After seeing her mostly as kooky chicks and cartoon characters, it has been great to see the fierce side of Barnard in this and Marisol. Ashley Flannegan Russell was wonderful as Emilia, Craig Peterson tremendous as Cassio, and Michael Ramquist played Brabantio with a seething bile about his daughter's marriage to the Moor.

GreenStage also performed Love's Labour's Lost, a great outdoor slapstick directed by Vince Brady, who was so delightful as Lear last summer. The entire cast were most entertaining and their frequent quick costume changes were amazing. GreenStage's condensed, hour-long Backyard Bard shows play in smaller parks and are really engaging audiences. We saw a double feature of All's Well That Ends Well and The Comedy of Errors with a really delighted audience at David Rodgers Park on Queen Anne.

Terri Weagant's Antony says a few words over Caesar's
corpse. Wooden O photo by John Ulman.
Seattle Shakespeare Company's Wooden O did a fun version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, directed by the incomparable David Quicksall and complete with a five-member doo-wop band. Their Julius Caesar was a fine show by an all-woman cast directed by Vanessa Miller. Terri Weagant as Mark Antony rocked it at Caesar's funeral. A truly delightful cast that we are most grateful did not perish of heat stroke. It was in the mid-90s the day we saw it, and it became pretty uncomfortable just watching in the mid-day sun; we expect it was even warmer for those wearing leather armor or long overcoats in the rainy, stormy scenes.

There was just a bit of indoor theater this summer as well. Book-It Repertory Theatre did a rollicking, ambitious, five-hour version of Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, directed by Myra Platt. Jeff Schwager wrote the abridged stage version of the 600+ page novel and managed to keep the play to about five hours. The run time included three intermissions, one of them a 40-minute dinner break.

Frank Boyd, Opal Peachey, and David Goldstein in The
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Photo by John Ulman
David Goldstein, who played Sammy Clay, told us during a conversation at 14/48 that the cast and crew were a bit skeptical at first about taking on a project with such great length, and Goldstein in particular spent a huge percentage of that time on stage. But it totally worked; the show never felt too long.

Frank Boyd played Joe Kavalier, Opal Peachey portrayed Rosa Saks, and a top-notch supporting cast made this show a delight.

Book-It's mission is to inspire audiences to read, and it's working. I've started Kavalier & Clay myself, and am already up to about page 30.

Lastly, Theater Schmeater debuted its new, Belltown digs with a most entertaining production of The Attack of the Killer Murder... of Death! written and directed by Wayne Rawley. It's a hilarious, noir-ish gumshoe spoof set on the set of a '50s sci-fi flick. Even the character names are hilarious: Kitty Curvey, Martin Van Handsome, Desdemona Sunset, Beauregard "Red" Andrews. Rawley's Live, From the Last Night of My Life was one of our favorite shows of whateveryearitwas, and Killer Murder was killer, too.

The Schmee also did a fun outdoor show that was super kid-friendly. Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf wasn't afraid to mix metaphors or fairy tales. Lyam White was a delight at the Wolf, and pigs Aaron Allshouse, Amelia Meckler, and Pilar O'Connell were more than his match.

Though the Seattle outdoor theater season has wrapped, we're still going outside to play. We'll be visiting Ashland and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in September.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Albuquerque 3, Tacoma 2

"Strike the traitor out! Strike the traitor out!"

The youthful hecklers at Cheney Stadium on this gorgeous Sunday afternoon had frequent opportunity to use this chant, as the lineups for today's game between Tacoma and Albuquerque were littered with former Rainiers and former Mariners. The highest volume of razzing was reserved for one Carlos Triunfel, once a consensus top prospect with the M's who spent the bulk of the last two seasons playing at AAA Tacoma before being waived by Seattle this spring.

"Strike the traitor out!" Carlos Triunfel bats for Albuquerque
in the ninth inning against Tacoma June 8.  The former M's
prospect went 1-for-4 for the Isotopes, who beat the Rainiers
3-2 on Armed Forces Appreciation Day at Cheney Stadium.
The rancor toward Triunfel is understandable, even (or especially) from nine-year-olds; my Sweetie, the official scorer, and I saw him in a game last year in which he made three actual errors, a handful of additional mental ones, and generally came off as pouty nut case. If Nuke LaLoosh is ever displaced from being the epitome of the five-cent-head, we expect Triunfel could be a worthy replacement. Oddly enough, at a game back in April at Cheney, Triunfel hit a couple of doubles, drove in two runs, and seemed to haunt his former mates. This turned out to be something of an aberration. In 47 games with the Isotopes this season Triunfel is batting .213 and has just six doubles and one home run. The Mariners are not exactly known for their clever personnel moves (who can forget Jason Varitek AND Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb?), but it seems unlikely that anyone is going to regret the waiving of Triunfel any time soon.

Former Mariners and Rainiers Alex Liddi and Trayvon Robinson are also on the Albuquerque roster, making one wonder why, with all of the dough the Dodgers have, they have to rely on Seattle outcasts to fill their AAA roster. The Rainier roster is laden with ex-M's too, of course. We're not sure what Nick Franklin has left to prove at this level, as he's batting .364 for the Rainiers with an OPS of 1.079, though he's hit just .128 in a handful of at-bats with the big club so far in 2014. Abraham Almonte, Jesus Montero, Logan Morrison, and Humberto Quintero joined Franklin as ex-M's in today's lineup.

Alas, our vocal young fans only kept up their patter of hey-batter-batter for about two innings, when either their vocal cords gave out or the effects of the Captain Crunch wore off. But they were entertaining while they lasted, even though they wanted a pitcher and not a belly "scratcher" in a clear yet incomprehensible departure from official chatter.

Of the former Seattle prospects on the Isotopes roster it was Robinson who did the damage today. He led off the game with what the Tacoma scorer charitably called a double, but what my Sweetie, the official scorer, properly identified as E-7: an easy popup that Tacoma left fielder Xavier Avery lost in the Sun that went for two bases. After the play a Tacoma player ran out some sunglasses for Avery, who apparently didn't realize it was sunny out as the 1:35 p.m. game began. Robinson scored later on a legitimate two-bagger by Clint Robinson.

Almonte tied the game with a home run on the second pitch in the home half of the first, and it remained 1-1 until Trayvon Robinson connected on a two-run homer in the Albuquerque fifth.

It remained 3-1 until the ninth, in large part because of Liddi. Tacoma loaded the bases with two out in the bottom of the fifth, but Montero grounded out to the former Mariner at the hot corner. Then in the bottom of the eighth the Rainiers had a runner on first with one out when Montero smoked what looked for all the world like a double headed into the left field corner. But Liddi made a sprawling stop at the bag, whipped the ball to second for a forceout, and Montero barely beat the relay to first to avoid the twin killing. Ty Kelly followed with a single to right, on which the notoriously slow-footed Montero made it to third. But Avery, who still owes us something to make up for the botched play in the first, whiffed to end the threat.

In the bottom of the ninth, with the bulk of a large Armed Forces Appreciation Day crowd already departed for wherever is considered a better place than the ballpark on a sunny Sunday in Tacoma, Jabari Blash led off with a Texas-league single to right. Gabriel Noriega, however, followed by grounding into a 6-4-3 double play. Naturally, Quintero then hit a homer that would have tied the game had a runner remained on base. Almonte singled to keep hope alive, but Morrison grounded out feebly to end the contest and the Isotopes won 3-2.

Weisenheimer admires the kids who called out Triunfel as a traitor, even though, technically, the M's cut the guy loose. In this day and age when we're planning special events to honor the enemy (is anyone else sick and tired of the hoo-ha about Derek Jeter? I say good riddance to Yankee rubbish.) it's good to see that some of the young people of today recognize that one should root, root, root for the home team.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Marisol, The Collision Project

Imagine living with layer upon layer of existential threat. Imagine that your very own guardian angel pulls a Lucifer and goes rogue (at least she seems to have a good reason). And all heaven breaks loose. Imagine inside is outside, you're totally exposed, the people you love can't remember your name, you're not sure if you're dead or alive, you have to take sides, but the sun is rising in the south and setting in the north, and you can't get there from here.

That's Marisol, by Jose Rivera, directed by Ryan Higgins, in the inaugural offering of The Collision Project

After seeing a lot of your standard psychological realism fare lately (and some of it, sadly, not very good), a few hours of magical realism with tropes and themes and archetypes and symbols and poetry and graffiti and all sorts of other dramatic deliciousness went down smooth. 

Carolyn Marie Monroe and Ben McFadden in Marisol.
For one thing, the play dances circles around more thorny theological questions than you can shake a thurible at. You can find a lot in this play; one of the ways I enjoyed it was as a send up of the end-days left-behind crowd I knew growing up in the evangelical world. What if people who actually are the outliers in our society—people who have immigrated, people who can't afford to live where they work, people with brown skin, people who can't hold down a job, people who are overdiagnosed and overmedicated, people in debt, people who love the wrong people, people who are losers (according to the capitalist winners), people who march to their own drum, people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time—are the people who are invited into the revelation delivered by a fulgent messenger, invited into the light. (Yeah, I know, that's actually really biblical, which makes Rivera a better theologian than Tim LaHaye. Go figure.)

For some intellectual fun, the structure of the play is like a slinky. Mobius magic, as it spirals and twists in on itself and somehow ends up getting from here to there. It's like music; you have to be able to hold a theme or two in your head and recognize when the artist is restating, recapitulating, stretching, bending, and playing around with it. It's a fugue, not a ditty.

The play has serious roots; for antecedents there's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of course; a generous dose of theater of the absurd; Dostoyevski, I think; evangelical catholicism, obviously; and a good hit of the kind of high Apostle John must have been on at the island of Patmos when he went all war-of-the-worlds. Awesome!

OK, so I like Rivera's play. And The Collision Project's production? I liked it too.

A lot of my appreciation for the production comes from the play's effect on me. This was one of the most absorbing, riveting, and upsetting evenings of theater I'd been to in a while. I have a bit of a tendency toward anxiety (ahem) and this play played on that tautness like sympathetic vibration on a well tuned guitar. I found myself feeling strung and checking in with myself during and after the play to remind myself that everything's pretty much ok for right now in my little world, and, so far as I know, the world is not coming to an end just yet (right?). Given that dramatic excitement-and-relief, it was a satisfying evening of theater; something to feel, to sink my teeth into, to mull over, and to talk about for days with the Weisenheimer.

So how'd they do it?

Dramatic art, baby, dramatic art. The set: staged at Seattle Inscape, now a history, arts, and culture facility, formerly an INS facility. The stage oddly L-shaped and "marred" with doorways that turned out to be integral to the play. Smart. The lighting: parsimonious, which is to say, brilliant. The performances: Ben D. McFadden was indefatigable, indestructible, indelible, and creepy. We've seen Carolyn Marie Monroe in a number of very different roles over the years (including Juliet in R&J, Rachel Stein in End Days) and to all of them she brings a sweet steeliness. This play needs it. The vulnerability, credulity, and faith in her portrayal of Marisol make the whole improbable thing possible. And she gets herself all the way around Rivera's poetry. Libby Barnard; we had no idea she could be so fucking fierce. Shermona Mitchell was a grounded angel, even before she fell to earth; and Jill Snyder-Marr was unhinged as the Woman in Furs. Finally, Carter Rodriquez is now giving me nightmares with his vivid portrayal as Scar Tissue, seared in my memory. He laid down a rhythm with his physicality, pathos, penache, and humor.

And, of course, it all comes back to the play itself, the story. Like all the best plays, it's about big fat juicy questions. Safety and protection vs threat and exposure. Loyalty and fidelity vs righteous rejection. Roots and heritage vs coming completely unmoored. Revelation, and how the hell you'd recognize it. What side of the battle are you on. And all done with craft and skill; imagination and verve; creativity and hope. I would like more theater like this, please. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: A Streetcar Named Desire

For many years my response to the common conversation-starting question of what I would do if I had a time machine has been that I'd go back to 1948 and see Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Barrymore Theatre in New York. I'm sticking with that, but on the way back I think I'll drop in again on this year's marvelous Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Streetcar, directed by Christopher Liam Moore and featuring Kate Mulligan as Blanche, Danforth Comins as Stanley, and Nell Geisslinger as Stella.

We all know how this Tennessee Williams story is going to turn out for Blanche, and so for her it's not the destination of the streetcar that matters so much as the journey. Mulligan and Moore have crafted a marvelous character who knows she's in a bad part of town, but keeps fighting with all she's got trying to cross back to a better side of the tracks. What she's got isn't enough, of course, but Mulligan plays Blanche with a great deal of depth and subtlety in a performance that was a pleasure to watch.

Kate Mulligan as Blanche and Danforth Comins as Stanley
in Oregon Shakespeare Company's production of A
Streetcar Named Desire
. OSF photo.
As much as this is Blanche's play--we've often seen the role referred to as the King Lear for women--it always seems to be Brando who is lurking about the set somewhere, listening in and occasionally bellowing, "Ha!" Comins makes us forget about Brando for three hours and plays Stanley in a way that makes him almost likable on occasion. He's still a big ape with a hot temper, but he's also smart and occasionally tender. There are some great moments of real connection between him and Blanche before he brutally brings down her house of cards.

There were almost visible sparks between Comins and Geisslinger, whose Stella was tired and knocked up and had her loony sister living with her in their tiny French Quarter apartment. She was also still incredibly hot for Stanley; she goes to watch him bowl, after all! Stella is not taking any crap from either of her roomies, though she accepts and cares for both despite their flaws.

The supporting cast was grand as well, with special props to Jeffrey King, who played Harold "Mitch" Mitchell, who nearly woos Blanche. Revelations about her past chase him away, but you know he regrets it. We also know that he believes what Stanley did, but still can't tear himself away from the poker game.

This year's lineup really showed us how deep OSF's company of actors is. Comins has had some great roles over the years, such as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (another Williams classic also directed by Moore), and the title role in Coriolanus. He didn't disappoint here. It was a hell of a year for Geisslinger, who was great as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and scored as Stella, too. I most remember Mulligan as a hilarious Beatrice in Servant of Two Masters, but she's had some nice roles such as Karen Weston in August: Osage County and Mae in Cat. She totally rocked as Blanche in a memorable performance.

After the show my Sweetie, the Official Scorer, and I talked about writing a sequel: Streetcar II. We decided against it because there would be no story. Stella and Stanley are mad for each other and will put this little incident behind them.

You don't need a time machine just yet to catch this Streetcar. It plays at OSF through Nov. 2.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: The Unfortunates

The Unfortunates is a powerful new musical developed and premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I loved it. Damn it, I'm going to have to stop saying I don't like musicals. 

There's a cool story behind this project. Some years ago Bill Rauch picked up the phone to invite Ramiz Monsef to play the Player King in 2010's Hamlet. We remember the buzz about the play-within-a-play being done by a rap troupe, and we enjoyed what they did. Well, apparently Monsef is a pretty good negotiator. He said he and his buddies wanted to work on a little something-something, and would OSF be a home for that. Rauch said yes.

Good move, because that little something has been workshopped for a couple of years now, earned one of the 2013 slots, and blew us and the rest of the audience away.

The Unfortunates is a collaborative effort directed by Shana Cooper and written by Monsef, his fellow 3 Blind Mice Jon Beavers and Ian Merrigan, and Casey Hurt, with additional material by Kristoffer Diaz. Monsef, Beavers, Merrigan, and Hurt formed the core of the outstanding performing ensemble. 

Apparently Monsef had long wanted to do something on the old blues song, "The St. James Infirmary Blues" (which is derived from an even older ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake," thus the title of this musical). Being blues fans, we know and love the song. Monsef and his collaborators took that song and let their imaginations go, riffing on it to create a phantasm, a dream, a hallucination, a life that passes before your eyes. 

Ian Merrigan as Big Joe, and the rest
of the cast of The Unfortunates.
OSF photo.
Here's the story they came up with: a group of men are in a prison camp, where they will be executed. One by one they're taken away. One of these men, Joe, is insensible with fear and grief, kneeling and holding his fists in fighting position in front of his bowed head with a photograph of his sweetie gripped between his fingers. Through chance and the sacrifice of his comrades, Joe's the last to go. But before he does, he slips into the story of the song his friends sang in their last hours: "St. James Infirmary Blues." He becomes Big Joe, the thumper for King Jesse's bar, who in addition to keeping order made sure the dice always turned up sevens. He is useful for and defined by his fists, which are huge. He loves Rae, Jesse's daughter, who was born with no arms, and who sings like an angel, but he can't bring himself to speak for or to her. Jesse allows a hustler to win an hour with his daughter, a bet lost because Big Joe failed to pound the floor with his gigantic fists at the roll of the dice to make sure the house won. After this initiation Rae stops singing and joins the ranks of prostitutes in the bar, to Big Joe's grief and shame. Jesse dies of "the plague" (probably the flu pandemic of 1918), and Big Joe inherits the bar. He cleans things up, which isn't good for business, and at about that time the plague starts picking off the regulars. When it threatens Rae, Big Joe decides to play craps once again to win the money for the doctor. But he returns too late. Rae sold her body to the evil doctor in exchange for the cure, but died anyway, and when Big Joe finds and confronts him, the doctor admits that it was all a scam and there is no cure. Rae reappears to Joe. She has arms, he finds his voice, and he is able to slip out of his ginormous fists and hold her with human-size arms and open hands. The world of the bar slips away and Joe is back in the prison camp, able to stand and face the guard who comes for him with courage, thanks to the song of his brothers in arms.

Yeah, I know. Sounds like a hot mess, or maybe just goofy. Definitely implausible. Certainly not uplifting. I'm glad I knew absolutely nothing about the musical before showing up. I might have skipped it in order to see The Tenth Muse a third time, and that would have been a real shame. Because this was one of the most joyful things I've ever seen.

The story works because it doesn't begin to try to be realistic, and instead uses all the arts and magic of theater to tap in to deeply held human fears and hopes, pulling from and across cultures for symbols, tropes, archetypes, all in service of the theme of our indomitable human capacity to create and feel joy. Awesome. Besides, psychological realism is overrated. 

And it works because music is the story; it is the inspiration, the theme, the conclusion. It is what this play is about. Without the music, the story would have made a pretty good comic book, and it would have been cool, but it wouldn't have been a play. I woke up the morning after seeing The Unfortunates with the music in my head, my ears, and on my lips. Part of the joy of this music is the artists' dexterity across genres. They used a through line of American ways of telling stories with music—the blues, ballads, rock, gospel, rap, and again and always the blues. I suppose the music has had the roughest edges smoothed out to be the hummable, crowd-pleasing, foot-stomping, hand-clapping stuff of musicals. That's cool. I was entertained by the little old ladies making a bee line for the CD sales table after the show (I hope they purchased; this little old lady did!). But if I had magical powers I would create a time machine and spirit myself back to the midnight workshops at the Black Swan when they were riffing and jamming and figuring this all out.

Finally, I have to hand it to the costume shop and costume designer Katherine O'Neill. Our faithful readers (both of you!) know that I tend to tweak the costume design at OSF. Here, the costumes were essential to the  story, and they designed and executed them beautifully. Here was their tall order: the story needed a costume for a lovely woman with no arms; great big giant fists—each bigger than the guy's head—that look reasonably realistic and that open and close and will stay on but can be slipped out of at just the right time; and arms that can be pulled out from the shoulder almost to the length of the stage. Plus clowns, prostitutes, preachers, barflies—oh, and rooks (yeah, like the bird). It all worked really well and made sense, in a wonderful outsized comic-book-superhero kind of way. The set designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer was slick too, accommodating the live musicians (yay for live music on stage!), drawing us into the scene, and moving us quickly between bar and prison camp locations.

I take back every grumpy thing I ever said about the recent proliferation of musicals at OSF. Good call, Bill Rauch; good call.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Liquid Plain

We saw three world premiers in Ashland this year, new work commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. All three plays pretty much picked us up and body slammed us into our comfy theater seats. First up is The Liquid Plain by Naomi Wallace, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. 

The Liquid Plain is a well-researched play about the slave trade of the late 1700s run through Bristol, Rhode Island by James De Wolf. The play is about the relationships between a common law couple each escaped from slavery, Dembi and Adjua, who found each other and are forging a life together working in entrepreneurial fashion on the docks, scraping together passage to Africa; the sailor Cranston they drag from the water to salvage his stuff but who isn't quite drowned after all; and their child, Bristol. 

Kimberly Scott as Dembi, Danforth Comins as a just-washed-
ashore Cranston, and June Carryl as Adjua in The Liquid
. OSF photo by Jenny Graham.
Never appearing in the play but critical to the characters and action is Adjua's unnamed sister, who did not survive the trip over on the slave ship. We are reminded of her presence at various points before and during the action by an empty chair with buckles on the arms suspended by ropes on a pulley, like the one in which she would have been lowered overboard by Captain and later United States Senator De Wolf. 

Making appearances are De Wolf, played by an apparently indefatigable Michael Winters; a rake and reckless captain, Liverpool Joe, who takes risky voyages picking up people from the underground railroad and returning them to Africa; he is played by one of our favorites, Kevin Kenerly. Balthazar is a sailor throwing in with Liverpool Joe in a quixotic effort to make his fortune, or just get by. And the ghost of William Blake visits Bristol (the place and the character) by borrowing a disemboweled and gibbeted cadaver (must have been great fun for the costume shop); both Balthazar and Blake are played with the perfect balance of gravitas and comedic relief by Armando DurĂ¡n.

After setting up the characters, their relationships, their hopes and dreams, and their losses, things get complicated just before intermission, as the ragtag crew is about to embark on their long-dreamt-of journey to Africa. Adjua announces her pregnancy, and Dembi takes actions that will separate him from his beloved forever. 

When we return from intermission, it is about 40 years later. Adjua died at childbirth, and the now-grown Bristol has come to Rhode Island from England to take revenge on De Wolf and find her father. The men she finds—Cranston, De Wolf, and Dembi—all hold surprises for her in her journey back to her roots. 

In an epic that crosses generations, it can be a bit too easy as an audience member to stay detached. Only Dembi and Cranston span intermission on stage (not counting a ghostly Adjua, which I didn't think added anything). Just as we have come to care about one set of characters, we come back from intermission, get a little exposition about what happened to them, and are introduced to a new character. We don't have a lot of time to get to know and care about Bristol. We care about her largely because we cared about her mother and aunt; because she is seeking their story, seeking answers to their questions, and seeking justice for them. In general, the play is stronger when it is showing rather than telling (and aren't most plays?). Kwei-Armah and the design teams did a great job of finding ways to strengthen the script by emphasizing the showing.

For instance, I appreciate the playwright and director's willingness to make us squirm in Wallace's story about disgusting events in our history using very specific, grotesque details. One example is the good work the set, lighting, and costume folks did to make Cranston's affliction with guinea worm uncomfortable for us (google it; don't say I didn't warn you). 

Bakesta King was fantastic as Risa in Two Trains Running earlier this year, and even with my playbill right in front of me I did not make the connection; she so completely embodied such different women that I did not recognize her. Well done. I don't know how Danforth Comins does it, playing some really vile characters all year this year including Cranston. And he does it so well! I think if I'd met him in a dark street in Ashland I might have jumped in fright. But then I hope I would remember how cute and goofy he was as Orlando in As You Like It a few years back and have the presence of mind to tell him how much I enjoy his work. Especially when he's playing creeps. Newcomer to OSF June Carryl was mesmerizing as Adjua. I think Kimberly Scott can pretty much do anything on stage; Scott turned in a bravura performance as Dembi. 

On the day we saw The Liquid Plain, there was a power outage in the Thomas Theater. This gave us the opportunity to get yet another glimpse into the magic of theater making. We realized how startling such an event must be for the actors. For us in the audience, we don't know what's going to happen from moment to moment, and it's plausible that the line Scott had just delivered was so momentous that it caused lightning and thunder and darkness. That is, until the exit signs clicked over to backup power and it stayed otherwise dark a little too long. But for the actors, who must come to absolutely trust that all the lights and props and sounds are always going to be exactly where they should be, at exactly the same time each time, it must have been a jolt. When the backup generator kicked in and the lights came up, Kenerly was laughing and I suspect Scott may have ad libbed a choice word or two. The actors filed off the stage, and the operating crew thoroughly checked everything over during an unscheduled intermission, running every mechanical part of the show through its paces. Then, they got us back in our seats, the actors filed back in, picked up just a few lines ahead of where the lights had gone out, and didn't miss another beat. Given how emotional the play is and the way the story was building, I was a bit surprised how little the event marred our experience. We all fell right back into our roles. 

Naomi Wallace is a distinguished American playwright, with a resume full of accomplishments and awards and grants. She wrote a fine play in The Liquid Plain. And what's really cool is that the other two world premiers commissioned by OSF from less well-known (so far) artists absolutely held their own with Wallace, Tennessee Williams, Lerner and Loewe, and William Shakespeare. More on these new plays soon.

The Liquid Plain is part of the American Revolutions cycle, OSF's 10-year program to commission 37 new plays (the number of plays in the Shakespearean canon) about moments in United States history. I wish more people knew about this cycle, and I hope OSF becomes as well-known for commissioning exciting new work as it is for Shakespeare. We've seen five of the six American Revolutions plays that have been produced so far, and we missed one only because it was produced in Chicago at Steppenwolf. We are pretty close to completing the Shakespearean canon. Based on what we've seen so far, we would love to complete this canon as well.