Sunday, November 30, 2008

Adding Machine a great debut by New Century Theatre Company

There's a new player on the Seattle theater scene, and if its inaugural production is any indication the New Century Theatre Company is going to be around for a while. NCTC is staging Elmer Rice's 1923 play The Adding Machine, directed by John Langs, in ACT's Falls Theater through Dec. 13.

The Adding Machine is an ambitious choice for the first production, given that the cast consists of 15 actors -- a big load to carry for a company just starting out. NCTC pulls it off; The Adding Machine is a visually stark and stunning, thought-provoking piece on work, life, death, and the afterlife.

Co-artistic director Paul Morgan Stetler plays central character Mr. Zero, arithmetic whiz in a big store's beancounting department. Zero gets the pink slip after 25 years "without missing a day" -- the "title device" has made his services unnecessary. Zero offs the boss and makes no effort to cover up the crime. The jury convicts him despite his perfectly logical contention that the boss had it coming.

Stetler's Mr. Zero is tormented by a torrent of figures, never far from the top of his mind. He's oblivious to the deep dissatisfaction of his wife (marvelously played by Amy Thone) and to the fact that ditsy co-worker Daisy (Jennifer Lee Taylor) really wants him. Daisy offs herself after Zero's execution, but somehow they don't manage to hook up when they meet at the Elysian Fields, either.

The funniest performance of the show is turned in by Darragh Keenan as Shrdlu, a nervous, chain-smoking character who has killed his mother. He makes a better case for justifiable homicide than Zero did! The two first meet sitting in the graveyard (it could be that Thornton Wilder ripped off the idea from Rice for the cemetery scene in Our Town) as Shrdlu explains that he smokes to ward off mosquitoes.

In the end, the suffering souls go back to life to do it all again. We're just not sure they weren't better off when they were monkeys.

NCTC aims to be a resident theater company and currently has eleven members, including Hans Altweis, who joins Stetler as co-artistic director, Thone, Taylor, and Kennan. They're aiming for somewhere in between the big guys and the fringe theaters in Seattle. Special props to one of the big guys, ACT, for its generous support.

NCTC's mission statement says the company will let the story be king. They are committed to plays that are fearless and will not do your thinking for you, and promise "timely works of the 20th Century, provocative 'second looks' of under-produced contemporary masterpieces, and annual world premieres from some of our country's most talented up-and-coming writers."

They've scored with The Adding Machine. Weisenheimer can't wait for their next show.

Simba for the Hall of Fame

Over on The Hardball Times the other day Geoff Young posted an article headlined, "Does Ted Simmons belong in the Hall of Fame?" As a long-time Cardinals rooter and big fan of "Simba" I say, "Hell, yes!" Young spends some 2,500 words and eight charts and still can't come up with an answer, concluding:

I'm not sure that Simmons belongs in the Hall of Fame. I'm not sure that he doesn't either. My instinct tells me that if [Gary] Carter belongs, then so probably does Simmons. It's not a strong instinct, though, and I'd be receptive to hearing further arguments from either side. What I am certain about, however, is that Simmons is an eminently worthy candidate who deserved far more serious consideration than he ever received.

Ted SimmonsThat last line is the amazing one to me. Simmons ranks seventh all-time among catchers based on Win Shares, but got a measly 17 Hall of Fame votes in his one year of eligibility. Rusty Staub got more, for cryin' out loud! Maybe it was the hair....

Simmons also suffered greatly because his career overlapped that of Johnny Bench. Indeed, in my own Century League replay Simba had to play second fiddle to J.B., who did almost all of the catching while Simmons got 139 at-bats and hit .209.

I'd been thinking a bit of Simmons of late, as his name made some of the lists of potential new managers for the Mariners. He recently took a gig as bench coach for the Padres.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon dance this weekend

It sometimes feels futile to be interested in astronomy while living in Seattle. As Jupiter, Venus, and the Moon swing toward a rendezvous, it appears we in the Puget Sound area have only a slight chance of seeing the spectacle.

On those rare days of clear twilight of late, you may have spotted Jupiter and Venus drawing ever closer to each other in the southwest. Come this evening, you'll see a slim crescent Moon -- it was new on Thanksgiving day -- swing into the picture below and to the right. They're closer on Sunday night, and closest yet on Monday. The approximate positions can be seen in the map above from Sky & Telescope magazine.

We've got an outside chance to see the show on Sunday, with the forecast being "partly sunny" for the day and "mostly cloudy" in the evening. If the clouds hold off, or break fortuitously, we might get a peek. Monday's forecast is for rain, which doesn't sound promising.

If you happen to be in Europe, you might see the Moon occult Venus on Monday -- read more in this article by S&T.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Sing, Sing, ZING! Louis and Keely sparkle on stage

Up until last Sunday about all I knew about Louis Prima was that he was the big bandleader who bankrupted Primo and Secondo when he didn't show up for the lavish meal they cooked up in the delicious 1996 film Big Night. But since seeing Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles, I can't get "Just a Gigolo" out of my head.

Louis & Keely is the creation of Vanessa Claire Smith and Jake Broder, pictured at right as Prima and his fourth wife and singing partner Keely Smith. Vanessa and Jake wrote and star in the show, which is directed by Jeremy Aldridge. The production recently won the L.A. Stage Alliance "Ovation Award" for best musical in an intimate theater. Smith, Broder, and Aldridge also were nominated as best actress, actor, and director. And deservedly so.

In Louis & Keely the audience was not at the Matrix, but at the Sahara, where Prima and Smith essentially invented the Vegas lounge act. Suspension of disbelief was pretty easy, as we were really there, with not just the two leads but a smoking seven-member band, led by sax man Colin Kupka as Sam Butera.

But it's Smith and Broder who are center stage, and they are both brilliant. Vanessa Smith -- not related to Keely -- has a beautiful, sparkling voice and nails Keely's deadpan stage persona, though she gets in the occasional zinger on Prima. Though billed as straight woman and second fiddle, Keely more than holds her own. Broder gives an over-the-top performance as Prima, hyper-kinetic, musically talented, athletic, and sweaty -- we were told he loses seven pounds during each 90-minute performance.

The real Louis & KeelyBetween the marvelous musical numbers we're treated to the often not-so-marvelous off-stage life of the couple (the real ones, pictured at right). Prima was quite a ladies' man. Smith was, after all his fourth wife (he went on to a fifth after Keely bolted the act) and she put up with a lot of philandering over the years. It's hard to imagine where he found the time; they did six shows a night, starting at midnight, while at the Sahara.

They cram two dozen numbers into the show, including "Embraceable You," "I Got it Bad (And That Ain't Good)," "Them There Eyes," "That Old Black Magic," "I'm in the Mood for Love," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "I Ain't Got Nobody," and of course "Just a Gigolo." Most poignant is Keely's performance of "Autumn Leaves" near the end of the show. She'd wanted to sing it earlier, but Prima nixed the idea, suggesting that Keely hadn't experienced the proper heartbreak to be able to sing that song with the proper feeling. When she finally does, we at the Sahara know her bags are packed and it's her last with the act.

The music does not drown out the story, which is told as a comatose flashback. The play begins with Prima in a hospital bed -- he was in a coma for three years after surgery on a brain tumor before passing away in 1978. Snapping fingers signal Prima is snapping to life and back on stage, and also indicate the switches from on the boards to back stage. Back in the bed at the end, Prima admits what we know was his regret: he shoulda stuck with number four.

Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara is a truly fantastic production. It is musically entertaining, and it tells an interesting, touching story of two versatile talents.

By the way, though Prima has been gone for 30 years, Keely is still at it. She did a performance of "That Old Black Magic" with Kid Rock at the 2008 Grammys. She also just recently visited the Matrix and caught Louis & Keely.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How long since you thought of Lancelot Link -- Secret Chimp?

One of my favorite blogs is " Ken Levine" which is written, amazingly enough, by Ken Levine, who was a major writer for M*A*S*H, Cheers, and Frasier, and was a broadcaster for the Seattle Mariners for a year or two.

As you might expect, the blog is hilarious. His Nov. 16 post is a total hoot. In it, Levine talks about his first mentor, Stan Burns, who was a writer for the great Steve Allen, wrote for Get Smart, and was the creator of the legendary Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.

My favorite lines from the post:

The first time I saw THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW I thought, “Wow, bitchin’ babes like Laura Petrie marry comedy writers? I’m a riot for 12. I could do that!”

It seemed like a great life. Hang out with other funny people. Make each other laugh. Get paid for it. And attract long legged brunettes without having to master the harmonica.
Can we swap out Mike Blowers and get Levine back?

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Back in the olden days we had roadside diners, and their sole method of marketing was a giant, rooftop, neon sign: EAT.

Today the same joint, now owned by the grandkids, has a Web site (including up-to-date menus and wine lists), advertises on-line, uses the latest word-of-mouth marketing techniques to create buzz, blogs about trends in the diner industry, and pushes out word of its daily specials on twitter.

That's why Weisenheimer had to laugh out loud when walking past the Icon Grill in Seattle, which has, for the moment, gone all old-school on us with a simple, direct message on its marquee: JUST GET IN HERE!

To be sure, the Icon has always been a bit old-school. But the grill does have a Web site, and its present slogan, "Aroused Americana Cooking," was clearly not cooked up by the chef.

If you happen by Fifth and Viginia, just get in there.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Summing Up Arthur Miller

The Weisenheimer quoted my post-show reaction in his review of A View From a Bridge: "There's no one better than Arthur Miller for portraying male inadequacy. But at least he kills them in the end." I realize that was a little harsh.

In the October 27 issue of the New Yorker, Hilton Als opens a review of All My Sons by noting Miller's "obsessive attempt to show the ways in which the American male can be shaped and ultimately deformed by the pernicious dream of success."

That's what I meant to say.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Blue Sweetie

My Sweetie, the scorer, and I have been spending quite a bit of time at the Highway 99 Blues Club lately. These days we seem to be listening to more blues than anything else, and we took a blues dancing class through the Northwest Dance Network in the spring. We wound up down at Highway 99 on Halloween night and heard a couple of sets by Lee Oskar.

Weisenheimer has a couple of WAR albums on vinyl (kids, we used to get all of our music that way, and we LIKED it) but never really connected that band with Oskar, who plays regularly at Highway 99, until I Googled him after the show. I suppose I should go back and read all of my 70s albums' liner notes more carefully. Oskar has a kick-ass band and we had a great time.

This portrait of my Sweetie, the scorer, was made with a cell-phone camera during Oskar's set on Halloween. My Sweetie didn't have the blues, but she sure looked blue.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Ballard bombs away

Laurence Ballard is letting the theater establishment have it with both barrels. Ballard, the no-longer-based-in-Seattle actor, is interviewed by Tim Appelo in the October issue of Seattle City Arts magazine.

Ballard has skipped town for a teaching gig at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. The reasons are simple: a living wage, health plan, pension, and summers off. Ballard worked full-time as an actor last year, and pulled in about $25K. He's mad as hell at those who run theater companies, and blasting away.

"I don't give a rat's ass anymore," Appelo quotes Ballard, "because I've left the plantation. I can talk about what they do at the Big House now!"

What they do, in Ballard's view, is take complete advantage of actors and make it well nigh impossible for an artist to make any sort of living on the stage. As Mr. Wiggin in Monty Python's "Architect Sketch" might put it, they "don't care a tinker's cuss for the struggling artist." Or the great one; Ballard earned his meager salary as a critically acclaimed actor working at the top of the scale -- a scale that hasn't changed a penny in 15 years.

Appelo calls Ballard "one of the best actors I've seen in 30 years as a critic." Weisenheimer has only been a "critic" since starting this blog this summer, but I've seen Ballard in a great number of memorable shows in 17 years of attending Seattle stage productions. I share Appelo's assessment.

The performance that really sticks with me is Ballard's brilliant, over-the-top performance as Roy Cohn in Intiman's Angels in America productions (that's Ballard in a Chris Bennion photo from Angels above). He was also part of a hilarious Arms and the Man, a solid Measure for Measure, did a fabulous turn as George Bernard Shaw in Dear Liar, and has starred in numerous other fine productions at Intiman.

Going through old playbills at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival recently, we spotted some photos of him from his time there. I sure wish we'd seen those plays. Perhaps we'll get a chance to see him there, or in Seattle, again some day. Appelo points out that Ballard wanted to do a show in Seattle this summer, but the schedules didn't work out, and adds that the actor has been in conversations about doing a show with Intiman's Bart Sher -- but on the Broadway stage, not here. Alas.

Ballard admits in the article that he doesn't have the answers. At a minimum he says management should value the talent -- the actual product of the theater company. He also suggests many more low-cost, pay-what-you-can performances to fill empty seats. Would the model work? Might be worth a try.