Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fond of Chicken


The recipe I get asked for the most is, strangely, chicken. I have a go-to dish that over the last year I had occasion to make for folks recovering from illnesses, injuries, and surgeries. And everyone’s better! So it must be good!

It was so well received that I finally tried it for company, even though chicken doesn’t feel “fancy” enough for company dinner. Confession: this is a quick-and-easy weeknight dish. But I’ve served it as part of a larger tapas style meal, and what do people take seconds of? Yep. Chicken.

So here it is. Except it’s not really a recipe. I can’t follow or make accurate recipes. I’m not into rules, don’t follow direction very well, and I think quantification is a sin.

It’s a technique. Braising is about the easiest cooking technique in the world, though I find there are a few key steps that people don’t know about or they skip them, and then they’re disappointed. And sometimes they add or do things that will doom the lovely sauce, and then they’re disappointed. So don’t be disappointed! Do what I do! After the jump.


Curtains for a fun theater year

2009 has been a great year for Weisenheimer theater. My Sweetie, the official scorer, counted 81 plays we've seen this year (including all 40 one-act plays of 14/48 and Death, Sex as separate plays). A couple of fun ones rounded out the year. Holiday revelry and some rare astronomy action delayed the reviews of these shows until today.

Death, Sex at Balagan Theatre
Balagan rolled out the concept of Death, Sex in February, and the concept was so funny, and successful, that bringing it back for a holiday treatment seemed a natural. Most of the six holiday-themed one-act plays were written by local playwrights especially for this production. They're a raunchy lot, and we love 'em!

The best of the six in Weisenheimer's estimation was Pillow, written by Frederick Stroppel and directed by Mike Dooly and M. Elizabeth Eller. It was the hilarious tale of Janice, a senior citizen whose revelations of sexual and chemical proclivities grew more outrageous and gut-busting as the play went along. Noelle, written and directed by José Amador, was a meeting of one character, aged 17, 25, and 36. They discussed the big-Os of their age ranges, brought on with the help of a variety of high-voltage appliances, until the eldest succumbed to the heart murmur. Consumption, Consummation by Nik Perleros and Davey Young, directed by Chris Bell, was the heartwarming tale of a praying mantis love triangle gone bad. For "Horny," played by Sam Hagen, the only down side was that his marshmallow brain was consumed twice as quickly. Terri Weagant as "mom" in I Saw Mommy (by Eric Ankrim, directed by Banton Foster) had the best line of the night, and a somewhat novel outlook on a white Christmas.

Death, Sex was great fun.

Sister's Christmas Catechism at ACT.
A spinoff of the long-running Late Night Catechism, which, inexplicably, we have never seen, Sister's Christmas Catechism is a riotous two-hour class during which audience members are scolded for chewing gum, taunted for late arrivals, scorned for talking or having their cell phones tweet, awarded with holy cards and other gifts (Christmas Kit Kats) for their knowledge of the saints, and pulled into duty as a living nativity scene to help solve the mystery of the missing gold from the magi.

Written by Maripat Donovan and directed by Marc Silvia, Sister's Christmas Catechism is a long, funny, impressive monologue for actress Aubrey Manning, who really delivers, and finds the gold in the end.

You'll learn a lot about the saints, and also that Presbyterians is an anagram for Britney Spears. Sister continues at ACT through Sunday.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Finally! A nice night under the stars

As chronicled on these pages it's hard to find weather that makes an astronomer happy. In Seattle it's usually cloudy, but then when it's clear, as it was for a week or so straight a few weeks back, it's 15 degrees outside and we don't like that, either. Then this week there were a few more wonderful, clear, and actually mild nights, but we were too busy festivalizing to get out and look at something.

Finally, though on Dec. 26 the feast days were history, the weather held, and Weisenheimer enjoyed a night of stargazing. Not that there wasn't something to complain about. There was a bit too much Moon, as it was waxing gibbous, first quarter having been on Christmas Eve. This makes deep sky objects all the more challenging to see. But the moon is itself a perfectly fine astronomical target, as evidenced by the accompanying Weisenheimer photo. I'm not really an astrophotographer; I just stuck my little point-and-shoot camera to the eyepiece and fired away (or, for the truly technical, the photo was shot with a Canon PowerShot A530 through an Orion SkyQuest XT8 and a TeleVue 24mm Panoptic eyepiece.) Even so, the results are OK.

There were other good targets out and about. Jupiter is still reasonably high in the southwest at dusk, and I got some good looks at it even before dark. A favorite at this time of the year is the Christmas Tree Cluster (NGC 2264) which really does look like a Christmas tree. Mars cleared my backyard trees around midnight. It's still a little far off, as opposition isn't until late January, and this year's apparition isn't a very good one. I didn't resolve any surface features on Mars. Also took a look at M31, the great Andromeda Galaxy. It was easily visible even with a lot of Moon right nearby. We actually saw M31 without aid of magnification from Ashland, Oregon during the new Moon in September.

I also checked off a handful of objects on the list for the Astronomical League's Urban Observing Club. Another of those has some seasonal appeal. It's the "Blue Snowball," a planetary nebula known as NGC 7662. As of today I've seen 90 of the 100 objects on the Urban Club list. Almost there!

Some high, thin clouds rolled through starting at about 12:30, and a breeze kicked up, so it got cold in a hurry. I retreated inside to some hot buttered rum and a warm bed at about 1 a.m. Not a bad evening!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mariners... Cliff Lee... Damn!

I've been a fan of the Seattle Mariners since they fired it up in 1977. Thirty-three seasons. They've finished with a winning record just 11 times, and seven of those were during the magical Lou Piniella years. It took the M's 15 years before they even had a winning season, the spectacular 1991 campaign when they went 83-79 under the leadership of Jim Lefebvre. That was the summer when my Sweetie, the official scorer, arrived in town from Southern California. Coincidence? I think not. I know that the immortal Scott Bradley would always get a hit if I visited the concession stand when he was up that season. I should have bought more beer, considering he batted .203. But his SLG was .244. So, hey.

In all of those seasons I've never had anything close to the positive vibe about the M's that I got today when I first heard the news that the deal rumored for the last several days was official, that the M's had dealt a handful of decent but hardly blue-chip prospects to Philadelphia for Cliff Lee.

What the hell? This is the Seattle Mariners! We're far more used to dealing Jason Varitek AND Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Frickin' Slocumb. Suddenly we're dealing three OK prospects for a dude two months removed from the World Series, in which he beat the evil Yanks twice, and a year removed from the A.L. Cy Young Award? These are not Bill Bavasi's M's. The combination of Lee and Felix Hernandez, while it may lack the poetry of Spahn and Sain, is one hell of a one-two punch, and certainly light years ahead of what the Mariners have EVER had at the top of the rotation. Can you remember who was second banana to Randy Johnson all of those years? Didn't think so. Even in the do-no-wrong, refuse-to-lose, fantasy year of 2001, when the M's improbably won 116 games, can you tell me who the pitchers were? Jamie Moyer, back when he was a mere 38 years old, led the staff at 20-6, and workhorse Freddy Garcia went 18-6. Paul Abbott--who?--yes, Paul Abbott went 17-4, and Aaron Sele was 15-5. John Halama, who didn't even like baseball, was the fifth starter and won 10 games.

With Felix and Lee, we might go 57-8 over those 65 starts. You don't need to do much in the other 97 games to go somewhere.

This is about the second time we've ever stolen a player. The first time was when even George Costanza knew that we'd robbed the evil Yankees by shipping them Ken Phelps for Jay Buhner, who may well have been the most important piece (OK, after Edgar) of all of those good teams of the late '90s.

There's still the small matter of the offense. Right now we have really no idea who is going to play LF or 1B, and if you go into the season with Jose Lopez penciled in as your cleanup hitter, then that's not a happy recipe for success. Opening day, however, is still nearly four months away. I have a feeling Jack Zduriencik may know what he's doing.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Twelfth Night at Seattle Shakes a bit tame

My Sweetie, the official scorer, and I have a special place in our hearts for Twelfth Night. We saw the Seattle Rep's 1991 production of the play on our first "big time" date, which included dinner at the late, great Lofurno's Restaurant. We've seen several stagings recently. The Rep did it again two years ago, GreenStage did it last year, Oregon Shakespeare Festival ran it in 2005 and is bringing it back next season, with the dee-lish Miriam Laube in the role of Olivia.

This year's production at Seattle Shakespeare Company, directed by Stephanie Shine, stands up pretty well to the rest of them, thanks especially to marvelous performances by Susannah Millonzi as Viola/Cesario, Carol Roscoe as Maria, Darragh Kennan as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and John Bogar as Malvolio. Kennan was alternately comic and conspiratorial as the not-so-brave knight, and Roscoe lit up the stage whenever she was there. It was our first time seeing Roscoe on stage. She directed the brilliant End Days at Seattle Public Theatre  back in February, and the disappointing Dead Man's Cell Phone at ArtsWest in September. That's Roscoe, Kennan, and Ray Gonzalez as Sir Toby Belch above in the company photo by Erik Stuhaug.

One beef with the play is that it was just a little too timid. Twelfth Night is one of the Bard's bawdiest, but they almost seemed to be playing down the dirty jokes and lechery. Case in point was Gonzalez as Sir Toby, who was played as sometimes a little tipsy, sometimes still a tough knight, but just not the bigger-than-life character that the role requires and we know Gonzalez can deliver. Mike Dooly was boisterous and fun as Antonio, but it's a small role and we didn't get to see nearly enough of him. We enjoyed Chris Ensweiler as Feste, the fool, but he, too wasn't nearly so amped up as he was playing another clown, Truffaldino, in The Servant of Two Masters on this same stage back in January. Nonetheless, he's a funny man.

The music was fun, and included an audience sing-along round, which we practiced in the pre-show warm-up, not knowing we'd be performing later.

Twelfth Night is a good time. It runs through Dec. 27.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Keep the snow, but give us White Christmas

We've all seen the movie version of White Christmas a zillion times, and the current staging at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, directed by James A. Rocco and David Armstrong, borrows liberally from the company's 2006 production, including casting the same actors in three of the four leading roles. Yet it isn't boring in the least. The high-energy show sparkles, and how can you get tired of all those Irving Berlin tunes?

Michael Gruber and Greg McCormick Allen are back as Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, and Christina Saffran Ashford returns as Betty Haynes. Carol Swarbrick reprises her role as Martha Watson. The significant new player is Taryn Darr, who is dynamite as Judy Haynes. Darr's dancing is amazing, she can really belt out a tune, and she's a darn fine actress, which I think is tough to pull off in a big house like the 5th. She was part of the ensemble of the show at the 5th in 2006; it's great to see her up front and center this time.

A couple of other great casting choices are Seattle stage veterans Frank Corrado as General Waverly and Clayton Corzatte as Ezekiel. Corrado is neither singer nor dancer, but he's alternately grumpy and hilarious as the general. Corzatte adds marvelous comic moments to the show, though his lines mostly consist of a long, drawn-out Vermont "aaayy-yup!"

My favorite number was "I Love a Piano," which opened the second act. It starts with Allen and Darr singing about a tiny grand piano -- think Schroeder from "Peanuts" -- and builds marvelously into a high-octane dance number featuring the ensemble dressed in either white or black, matching the piano keys on the huge red backdrop.

White Christmas is a marvelous show. It runs through Dec. 30.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sex, drugs, and chamber music at the Rep

A marvelous cast and a wonderful script make Opus, a play by Michael Hollinger directed by Braden Abraham at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, a treat not to be missed.

Opus is the tale of the award-winning Lazara String Quartet and the personal and professional relationships between the players. They're preparing for a big gig at the White House, but also auditioning for a new viola player. The "sex, drugs, and chamber music" line from the play's promotional materials is a bit of hyperbole; the sex is inferred and the drugs are mostly pharmaceutical. But another line from the Rep's flyers touting the "all-star local cast" is spot on.

First violin Elliot, a control freak and total prick played deliciously by Allen Fitzpatrick, has engineered the sacking  from the quartet of Dorian (Todd Jefferson Moore), his former lover. The players agree that Dorian is the most talented musician of the bunch, but he's also a little "buggy" and the flightiness finally gets to be too much to bear. As the show opens Grace (Chelsey Rives), a talented young woman musician, auditions and wins Dorian's seat in the group. Bass player Carl (Charles Leggett) provides the grounding for the quartet musically and personally. Second violin Alan (Shawn Belyea) has great feeling, showing concern for the well-being of the others in the group, and develops an eye for Grace. All five cast members give delightful performances.

Hollinger, a violinist himself before becoming a playwright, weaves his dialog like music, bringing the various voices together beautifully. While taking on some challenging subject matter--making art, the bickering, ambition, and egos involved, and how personal relationships can affect the final product--Hollinger does so with good humor. The show is never sappy and the ending isn't at all pat.

The music is handled well. While in general we don't care so much for the use of recorded music in live theater, it would have been impossible to find five superb string players who are also marvelous actors. So while the music is actually recordings of the Vertigo String Quartet out of Philadelphia, the choreography of the actors gives an authentic and plausible look to their playing, even though they aren't.

A spoiler here:

At the end Dorian comes back with a proposal. He, the better musician, should replace Elliot, his former lover, in the group. The quartet agrees. In a dispute over proper ownership of a prized Lazara violin, Carl smashes the instrument on a chair. Shrapnel from the shattered masterpiece flew into the audience, and Weisenheimer snagged a piece of theater prop souvenir. It's pictured in my photo above, on top of a show program!

UPDATE: With the run of the show ending tomorrow, John Levesque reports on SeattlePI.com that a total of 55 violins gave up their lives in Opus. They weren't just stage props, they were real violins, beginner models, that the Rep bought for about $30 each!

Opus runs through Dec. 6 in the Rep's Leo K theatre. Don't miss it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Weisenheimer gets new astronomy writing gig

The header of West Seattle Weisenheimer specifically calls out astronomy as one of the topics of the blog. Yet out of 138 posts since we fired this thing up in August of aught-8, I count only five with the tag of "astronomy." Three of those are mainly just whines about how crappy the weather is around here for making astronomical observations. Now, I've taken a (potentially) paying gig writing a column for Examiner.com called Seattle Astronomy Examiner.

My first post is up. It's about a talk author/astronomer Ken Croswell made at last week's Seattle Astronomical Society meeting about his latest book, The Lives of Stars. Croswell also spoke at the Pacific Science Center over the weekend. He's visited Seattle and the SAS six or seven times over the years promoting his books. That's a pic at right that I shot of Croswell signing copies of The Lives of Stars after his talk.

Part of the reason that I haven't put much astronomy here is that I was getting my astro-writing fix by editing The Webfooted Astronomer, the newsletter of the Seattle Astronomical Society. I gave that up in late summer due to time constraints. Now I'm giving some other stuff up in order to work on the Seattle Astronomy Examiner column.

It's a "potentially" paying gig because remuneration is based on traffic to the site, links to it, and other Internet stuff. So please go there, bookmark it, and spread the word to others who may be of astronomical mind. I thank you for that, and promise to try not to complain about the weather. Not too much, anyway.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Balagan men go all the way!

Shout it from the rooftops: The guys in Balagan Theatre's production of The Full Monty do indeed do the full Monty. Balagan's show, directed by Jake Groshong, is a fun and funny evening of entertainment.

I want to spread the word on the FULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY thing because I've already been scolded by a friend for not letting her know about it in big, red, capital letters. After expressing her interest in the subject matter, my friend said, "I am looking forward to seeing how they can stage that show in such a little place. And the music is SO GOOD!" Right on the latter. On the former, it's not polite to use the word "little" in a show featuring FULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY. As for the staging, the key to the space is a big turntable that rotates about one of Balagan's basement-theatre pillars. Props to set designer Jen Butler for the concept and tech whiz Ed Cook III for making it work. (Cook, by the way, is so damn good he's been snapped up by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to build sets in Ashland.)

There are the brave gents above at right, in a Balagan photo by M. Elizabeth Eller. From left to right: Butch Stevenson (Horse), Mark Abel (Harold), Austin Garrison (Malcolm), Evan Woltz (Dave), Jon Lutyens (Jerry), and Josh Whitling (Ethan). They are not exactly the Temptations, but the guys can bring it and sing it. Egging them on are the women, at left also in a photo by Eller. Left to right: Tracy Leigh (Vicky), Danielle Barnum (Pam), Christine Nelson (Ensemble), Alyssa Keene (Georgie), Hannah Schnabel (Ensemble), and Wonder Russell (Ensemble). They ARE Temptations, as you can see, but musically they are like Vandellas.

The story is familiar and the music is wonderful. Favorite numbers for Weisenheimer were Stevenson's rendition of "Big Black Man", a wonderfully touching version of "You Walk With Me" by Garrison and Whitling, the hilarious "Big Ass Rock", a touching song about murder and suicide done by Lutyens, Woltz, and Garrison, and "The Goods" by the whole darn cast.

There were a couple of familiar faces in the show. Yes, FACES. Woltz was recently in a fine production of Gutenberg! The Musical! at ArtsWest, as was pianist Kimberly Dare. Woltz is a pretty funny dude. And let's give a well-deserved shout-out for Bobby Temple, the choreographer who kept everyone stepping in the same direction! It was no small task to wedge all of the action into a small space, but it worked marvelously.

Kudos to Groshong and the cast for a great show, and to the guys for having the balls to go Full Monty. The show runs at Balagan through Nov. 28. So go!


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Dang it! We might have to make TWO trips to Ashland next year.

The 2010 Oregon Shakespeare Festival season is looking so good that we might have to make two trips to Ashland next year.

The member early ticket purchase window is about to open, and so I was nosing around the OSF Web pages. With 2009 wrapped up after record ticket sales, the site now has next season's casts listed. We'd already heard in June that Dan Donohue, who was so great as Iago in OSF's 2008 production of Othello, was coming back in 2010 to play Hamlet. But there's lots more fascinating casting news on the site now.

The most interesting nugget I found was in the cast for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Seattle favorite Michael Winters will be playing "Big Daddy" in the Tennessee Williams classic. Winters was amazing as Prospero in this year's production of The Tempest at Seattle Shakespeare Company, and did a great turn as Grandpa last year in You Can't Take it With You at the Seattle Rep. (That's Winters as Prospero at right in a Seattle Shakes photo by John Ulman.) Winters has played at OSF before, but not since Weisenheimer and my Sweetie, the official scorer, have attended.

The rub is that Cat is one of the festival's early-season plays, running Feb. 20 through July 4, while we always go in September. A May trip to Ashland may be in order.

We're also jazzed about The Merchant of Venice, which will star Anthony Heald as Shylock, Jonathan Haugen as Antonio, and Vilma Silva as Portia. We're big fans of all three. Heald and Haugen were co-winners of our "Wisey" award for 2008 best supporting actor for their performances in The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. They also were together in this year's Equivoaction, which is coming to the Seattle Rep later this month surrounded by considerable Wisey buzz. Silva, too, claimed a Wisey, for best supporting actress, in 2008. She and Heald were marvelous in this year's otherwise so-so production of Henry VIII at OSF.

Lastly, Weisenheimer is looking forward to Miriam Laube as Olivia in Twelfth Night. Sweetie isn't so crazy about Laube, but I think she's super fine!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

ACT's Rock 'n' Roll hits all the right notes

Take a marvelous script by Tom Stoppard, mix in a talented cast led by a pair of Seattle treasures, top it off with direction by Kurt Beattie, and you get a fabulously entertaining production of Rock 'n' Roll at ACT Theatre.

Anne Allgood and Denis Arndt shine. Arndt, as the Marxist college professor Max, ages 22 years in the three hours of the play. Allgood -- a most aptly named actor -- actually gets younger, playing Max's wife Eleanor, a classics prof, in the first act and their daughter Esme in the second. Arndt is a delightfully curmudgeonly old coot throughout. Matthew Floyd Miller is well up to the task as Jan, Max's student, who returns to his native Prague after the Soviet invasion of 1968, armed only with a suitcase full of rock albums.

Several other performances stand out. Peter Crook is Ferdinand, a Czech writer. Jessica Martin is a pistol as young Esme and, in the second act, Esme's daughter Alice. Alexandra Tavares burns up the stage as Lenka, Eleanor's poetry student who flirts with Max in the first act and, by the end, hooks up with him.

While it's set during the time of the cultural revolution in Prague and there are many discussions about politics, art, and culture, Rock 'n' Roll is really all about our relationships with ourselves and with each other more than it's about our relationship with the state. The play is a bit long, and occasionally a little preachy. But the pacing is right on and the performances so marvelous that the time flies wondrously. The poetry of Sappho and Pink Floyd is sprinkled liberally throughout, and the show ends at a Rolling Stones concert in Prague in 1990, with everyone living pretty happily ever after.

Weisenheimer has had a thing for Stoppard ever since reading and seeing a performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead while in college. Rock 'n' Roll does not disappoint.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

GreenStage Titus is bloody good fun

GreenStage's current production of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus includes a couple dozen murders, several rapes, one sliced-out tongue, five lopped-off hands, one chopped-off horn, two slain offspring baked into a pie and served up to their momma, abused pumpkins, wanton out-of-wedlock sex that results in an illegitimate clown child, stabbed flies, a hootenanny, and so much spilled blood that the front row of the theater is declared a "splatter zone."

It's a comedy, and one of the funniest things Weisenheimer has seen in a while.

My Sweetie, the official scorer, declares that the program for the show contains the best ever one-line summary of a Shakespeare play: "Thus begins a series of events that lead to revenge, revenge, revenge, more revenge, and then some pie." Director Tony Driscoll writes that he thinks Titus includes "some of the greatest characters and some of the best verse the Bard ever gave us." He also finds it drop-dead funny. His production is a scream. It's what you might expect Quentin Tarantino or Sam Peckinpah would have done with it. The blood and violence are entirely over-the-top, and the inspired comic touches are too numerous to mention.

Driscoll gets marvelous performances out of a wonderful cast. A couple deserve calling out. Nicole Vernon as Lavinia is probably the goopiest character ever seen on stage. After losing both hands and her tongue she oozes blood for the rest of the show. That's her in the photo at right, shot by GreenStage producing artistic director Ken Holmes. But she gets a LOT bloodier than that! Orion Protonentis is wickedly evil and funny as Aaron, the clown. GreenStage regular Erin Day is delightfully conniving as the Goth queen Tamora and as the dominating empress to Lamar Lewis, who plays Saturninus somewhat less assertively than your typical Roman leader. Tom Dewey plays seven or eight characters and every one of them gets offed, including "guy with dead pigeons."

The cast included several Balagan Theatre veterans, among them Patrick Bentley, who played Titus. Banton Foster (Quintus) and Sam Hagen (Marcus) are fresh off Balagan's critically acclaimed Elephant's Graveyard. In Titus Foster plays banjo for the second consecutive production. Let's keep the streak alive! Johnny Patchamatla (Lucius) was marvelous as Balagan's Othello, the play that got me hooked on the company. And Amelia Meckler is a riot as "Scrub Wench," a role that -- wait, let me check -- nope, it's not in the Bard's original list of Dramatis Personae for Titus. But she's absolutely necessary in the production as a practical matter. Leaving all that blood about would make for slippery footing and force the company to change its name to RedStage. And when Meckler wipes down a Roman column, that baby gets clean!

Titus Andronicus runs through Halloween night. Go see it!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The ministry of silly musicals

I was perfectly prepared not to like the 5th Avenue Theatre's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when I took Ma Weisenheimer to a Sunday matinee. While this Joseph is pretty near the silliest thing I've seen on stage (non-comedy category), I came away with a wry smile on my face from a pleasant afternoon of eye and ear cotton candy.

Three great points. Though the tale is based (loosely) on the Bible story, Elvis as Pharaoh (played by Billy Joe Huels) is the closest thing to God in the show; composer Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote quite a variety of music styles into the score, including early disco, reggae, country/western, and Rock 'n' Roll; and the production employed a large chorus of kids who were really great and seemed to be having a smashing good time. Oh, make it four points: Donny Osmond was nowhere to be found.

The audience was full of kids, too, and it's great to see young folks out at the theater. Some of them probably got a bit of an eyeful more than mom and dad expected, especially when Joseph was confronted with a stable of scantily clad Egyptian hotties when he arrived, enslaved, in that land. It's rated PG, and parents are warned about a suggestive scene with Potiphar's wife, too.

Anthony Federov sang Joseph. Federov, who placed "in the top four" on season four of American Idol, was fine as the dreamer. (But do we have to keep having these Idol folks around as transparent ticket-sales devices?) Jennifer Paz belted out her narrator tunes marvelously. Huels, of Seattle's Dusty 45s, was a treat as the King. Joseph's brothers were a great country singing and dancing troupe.

But really, the star was set designer Martin Christoffel, who came up with a wild array of gaudy, colorful sets. The coolest was the one that accompanied Elvis and included a couple of 25-foot-high, guitar-playing, graven images. The costumes, too, designed by Mark Thompson, were acid-trip colorful, save for Joseph and the narrator, who wore white. (The dreamcoat of color makes only a short, token appearance early in act one, with a cameo at the end.

My favorite number was "Go, Go, Go Joseph," which closed out the first act. Swear to God, this was an amazing technicolor ensemble doing go-go dancing straight out of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. A more colorful, strobe-lit prison cell I've never seen. The entire cast did a "megamix" reprise of the tune at the end, this time dressed in white with a bit of a hip-hop undertone.

Joseph was a lot of fun, a good entertainment for a gray Seattle Sunday afternoon.

Zastrozzi gets his revenge

Revenge was never so much fun! The Balagan Theatre production of Zastrozzi: The Master of Discipline by George F. Walker, directed by Nik Perleros, is a non-stop laugh riot of sex, swordfights, and mwah-hah-hahs that are thoroughly entertaining.

Ray Tagavilla was at the center of everything as the title character, a master criminal bent on revenge on Verezzi, played by Chris Bell. These two spent September tearing our hearts out in Elephant's Graveyard at Balagan. In this one, Zastrozzi is hunting down Verezzi for killing his mother, but somehow it all seems so lighthearted!  Verezzi has turned both artist and messenger of God. Aimée Bruneau is a ball of fire as Matilda, Zastrozzi's some-times lover. As you can see in the photo at right, their encounters sometimes get a bit rough. Bruneau is super handy with a sword, a whip, and a thick, Chermann akksent. How real is Bruneau's performance? Word is that on Thursday night, an audience member stormed the stage with offense at Matilda's brief flirtation with said spectator's boyfriend, also sitting in the front row. (It's possible the offended audience member was inebriated. Matilda had a sword.)

The rest of the cast are grand as well. Joe Ivy sparkled as Victor, tutor to Verezzi who has been keeping his charge a step ahead of Zastrozzi for three years. Don MacEllis was marvelous as Bernardo, Zastrozzi's dim-wit henchman. Monica Wulzen was gloriously ditzy as Julia, the virgin pretty much everyone else in the cast wants a piece of.

It wasn't too deep, but it was a fun evening of enjoyable performances. Go Zee Zastrozzi!

(Disclaimer: Weisenheimer is president of the board at Balagan, but it doesn't mean I'm biased! Also, you can still get Balagan season tickets. Just $100 for the remaining eight shows, including Zastrozzi.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

TPS to hand out Gregory Awards Monday


At least one Weisenheimer favorite will get some well-deserved recognition when Theatre Puget Sound hands out its Gregory Awards on Monday at Intiman Theatre. (Disclaimer: Even though the awards are named Gregory, it's not after Weisenheimer.) Terri Weagant, who was marvelous in Balagan Theatre's production of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe this summer, will be given the TPS "Members Voice" Award for outstanding actress; she received the most write-in votes in the category. Weagant won't be on hand to accept the award; she's taken Search for Signs on the road and is in Alaska.

Similarly, West Seattle's own ArtsWest will be getting the Members Voice award for best production for its staging of The History Boys, directed by Christopher Zinovitch. Weisenheimer didn't see the play, but it's good to see our local company getting some recognition. Those are the "boys" at left in an ArtsWest photo by Matthew Durham.

Several other Weisenheimer faves are also up for awards. Outstanding Actor nominees include Charles Leggett, who was super as Shylock in Seattle Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice; and Paul Morgan Stetler who starred in New Century Theatre's production of The Adding Machine. Hana Lass is nominated for Outstanding Actress for her turn as Ariel in The Tempest at Seattle Shakes.

We're lucky to live in a great theater town with so much local talent.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dunces great, with a surprise ending

A Confederacy of Dunces at Book-It Repertory Theatre was a marvelous production made more memorable by an unexpected ending in its penultimate performance Saturday evening.

About five minutes from the end of the play, a bell began ringing, the house lights went up, and a voice on the sound system suggested it was a fire alarm and we should all leave the building. We all just sat there surprised, wondering if it was part of the play, until a few seconds later Brandon Whitehead, who played lead character Ignatius J. Reilly, said, "I think she's serious." To which the voice replied, "I am serious."

We all shuffled out of the theater, which is in the Seattle Center House, and found several of the cast already out in the closed-down Fun Forest. Whitehead and Samara Lerman, who played Myrna (pronounced "Moyna") Minkoff, decided to put on the final scene for us. That's them in a Weisenheimer photo at right. They're in a car. Imagine it!

I must admit I was a little reluctant to see Dunces. I loved the book, but the characters and the activity were bizarre enough that I wasn't sure if it would translate well to the stage. Mary Machala adapted John Kennedy Toole's novel for the stage and directed this production as well, and I have to say that everything was spot-on.

Whitehead's portrayal of Ignatius was particularly marvelous, though I'm worried about him. The poor guy eats four or five hot dogs on stage for each show, and Saturday was a two-performance day. Maybe they found him some veggie dogs with a little less fat and sodium. Hope so! Also grand was Ellen McLain as Irene Reilly, Ignatius' momma. Betty Campbell was a riot as the elderly and shuffling Miss Trixie, long-time employee of Levy Pants where Ignatius worked for a brief time. Cynthia Geary, who played Shelley in the TV series "Northern Exposure," was a lot of fun in the roles of Mrs. Levy and Lana Lee.

Three cheers for Book-It for an entertaining production, and hats off to an excellent cast for being able to roll with the unexpected and finish a most memorable evening.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bob Dylan can still bring it!

"They say I'm past my prime," sang Bob Dylan performing the tune "Spirit on the Water" early in his show Monday in Seattle. "Let's see what you got; we can have a whoppin' good time." Dylan may be past his prime, but he's still writing and performing dynamite music, and we had a great time at an amazing concert at the WaMu Theater.

After opening the nearly two-hour set with "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking" from the 1979 album Slow Train Coming, Dylan pretty well split the rest of the evening between '60s classics and tunes from his latest, this year's Together Through Life, and the 2006 disc Modern Times.

"Forgetful Heart" was the one slow, quiet ballad of the set, a hauntingly soulful mourning of lost love. Shortly after that came a hard-driving rendition of "Highway 61 Revisited" that showcased some wicked guitar playing by Charlie Sexton.

Dylan has never been known for his purty vocals, and he seemed especially growly on some of the old stuff, singing "Lay Lady, Lay", "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again", and "Like a Rolling Stone" with a rather bizarre, staccato delivery. A few passages in "Lay Lady, Lay" also unfortunately reminded me of the Lollipop Guild! The approach put me in mind of Billie Holiday (no, really!) who was purported to have opined that if you sang a song the same way twice, it ain't music. Dylan sure put a different twist on some of these tunes that are more than 40 years old.

The highlight for me was the grand finale, a rendition of "All Along the Watchtower" that was--dare I say it?--Hendrix influenced! It was another chance for Sexton to turn in some searing guitar licks.

The band was great, a tight group that for the most part played a bunch of good, old blues. Sexton was joined by Stu Kimball on guitar, Tony Garnier on bass, George Recile on drums, and Donnie Herron as utility infielder. Dylan played mostly keyboards, though he did play guitar on a few tunes, and harmonica. They all, including Dylan, seemed to be having a great time jamming on some incredible tunes. Weisenheimer had a great time watching and listening. Dylan can still bring it!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Our Hearts Are Still In Ashland: Updated

We’re just past Portland on the way home but our hearts are still in Ashland. As we walked back from breakfast I asked the Weisenheimer if he smelled smoke. As we drove away we watched a terrible plume of smoke cloud the sun, clearly close by and coming from the south end of town. It’s very dry, the forecast is for temperatures in the nineties, and it’s an unusually windy day there – with the wind blowing out of the southeast, pushing the smoke – and the fire – into town.

No word yet on what has started this grass fire at Siskiyou and Crowson that quickly got out of hand and at last report reached 100 acres. It has destroyed some homes and evacuations are underway. Southern Oregon University must be at risk; because of the nearness to town and the wind pushing it north the whole little town seems at risk. Driving north we saw many engines heading down from Medford.

We’re very worried about this sweet little town that has given us so much friendship and happy memories, and about all the people who make their homes here, work here, and are visiting, and we earnestly hope for safety for all of the firefighters.

UPDATE: The news this evening is pretty good, considering. The winds eased, the firefighters say they are getting control of it, one home is lost and no reports so far of injuries or fatalities. We're relieved that it wasn't much, much worse.

Ashland: Favorite Things

We find, especially for trips of more than a few days, that we prefer the vacation rental option. B&Bs can be beautiful and are usually run by delightful folks, but breakfast at an appointed (and usually too early) hour is not my idea of vacation; nor is conversation before I’ve had my quart of coffee. Hotel rooms aren’t roomy enough on long trips for two writers and their computers, notebooks, and bags of books; they’re too expensive; we don’t need daily housekeeping service; and we like to have a kitchen.

In our five-year search for just the right thing, we haven’t had a bad experience yet. However, we also haven’t stayed at the same place twice, for one reason or another (such as those in the paragraph above). That’s about to change.

We found the Terra Cottage Inn on www.vrbo.com, listing 65608. Mark and Elizabeth are gracious hosts. They actually have two rentals on their large corner lot with beautiful gardens and a well-equipped outdoor kitchen in the middle. The structures are detached – Mark and Elizabeth’s home, the two rentals, Mark’s art studio and Elizabeth’s pottery studio – so there’s as much quiet and privacy as you want. If you venture out in the gardens to grab a hammock or chaise lounge they’re usually around for some friendly conversation and helpful advice about local restaurants and the neighborhood before you settle in for a book or nap. The Terra Cottage Inn is a two-bed, one-bath apartment over the garages, and it’s scrupulously clean and very tastefully furnished with lots of special touches like Mark’s paintings, Elizabeth’s pottery, fine soaps, plush spa robes, coffee beans for the first day, and a welcoming plate of fruit and chocolate. We’ve already made our reservations for next year, this time for the slightly larger High Street Cottage, vrbo listing 114242. No kids/pets (another plus from our point of view; we do enjoy the quiet). It’s in a lovely neighborhood north of the theatre, just a ten minute walk to the creek, park, and plaza.

As always there was good eating in Ashland. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and I am devoted to it. We tried several places this time and settled on Greenleaf as our favorite. Breakfast is hard to screw up, but it became the favorite for their creekside outdoor seating, reasonable portions and healthy options, and reliable service (meaning, my coffee cup was usually full). Bonus: they are also a deli, so we can take home what we need for coffee service and snacks.

After five years we have settled on two favorite restaurants that will always get our trade, usually two or three times during our week’s stay. Liquid Assets Wine Bar has a fun concept. Even with reservations you’re usually invited to make yourself comfortable anywhere you like…which might be in a couch by a low table, or at one of the small bistro size tables scattered around, or perhaps two of them pulled together. They have an extensive list of wines by the glass and you can make our own flight or go with their suggestions. If you drink bottles, as we do, you walk over to the corner where they have shelves of wine retail-style, pick your bottle (they are knowledgeable and happy to help), pay the retail and a very reasonable corkage, and they pour it for you in nice big beautiful crystal glasses. The menu is one short page long, and that’s all it needs to be because it’s all good. Everything is sharable, and don’t miss the sautéed wild mushrooms, beef tartare, salad nicoise, pasta Bolognese with ragu of wild boar, duck pate, or “taste of Spain” plate full of Marcona almonds, quince paste, chorizo, manchego, romesco, and olives – just a few of my favorite things.

The second restaurant we love, and one of our top restaurants anywhere, is the Peerless, consistently fine over the five years we’ve been visiting Ashland. The setting is gorgeous; we usually eat in their very elegant and romantically lit garden among beautiful landscaping and sculpture next to a formal fountain. The food is outstanding; creative preparations of the finest local ingredients without being pretentious or trendy or weird. A year or two ago they modified their menu to mostly small plates (ok, that’s trendy, but it’s a trend that I hope sticks), keeping menu favorites and adding more specials and variety. Favorites are lamb meatballs, duck breast, duck-confit-stuffed dates, squash gnocchi, clams with chorizo. I like my vegetables and they do a great job of accompanying these small plates with perfectly prepared complements, and the chef’s choice vegetable plate is wonderful. But what really shows Chef Mark Carter’s yummy food off at its best is the service. The Peerless has the highest standards for professional table service. Our servers are always knowledgeable about everything on the menu and the extensive wine list. And they have the art of perfect timing and listening, recognizing and encouraging our enthusiasm for good food and wine, and always getting us to the theater on time. An off-hand comment from me led to our server, Angie, and the kitchen putting together an impromptu cheese plate for the end of our meal one day this week. Angie also directed us to our wine of the week, Raptor Ridge Pinot Noir. On the big side for a Pinot Noir, more black fruit than red, with some of that wonderful Pinot Noir earthiness.

On the way back to the theater you pass Zoey’s Café, doing most of its business as an ice cream counter. I’m not much of a dessert person, except for maybe a fine chocolate late at night. But I think I ate as much sugar on this trip as I usually do in a month because of the Oregon Bing Cherry ice cream. Oh. My. God.

The inventory at local bookstores is a little lighter for me having come through; I think I purchased enough to affect our gas mileage on the way home.

One of my cat Archie’s favorite things is a particular toy mouse I got at the little shop Prize last year. This is the toy he carries around and brings to me when he needs attention/food or maybe in his little kitty brain imagines I need attention/food (usually 4:30 a.m.). The yarn is almost completely unwound from it, so I got a couple more this year to last until next year’s trip—just one year from today.

OSF: Don Quixote (STOS)

Don Quixote is the finale of our stay at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and it—and in fact the whole week—bodes well for better and better theater from OSF. This adaptation by Octavio Solis and directed by Laird Williamson is a highly irreverent, gut-busting, and sweetly touching play. The set, props, entire cast, and especially Armando Duran’s stalwart and sensitive performance in the title role manage to convey the disorder of Don Alonso’s mind and the yearnings of his heart with compassion. You’ll want to hug Don Quixote—and run away from him. Because this production also does not shy from the ridiculous. It revels in it.

I can’t think of another play here that has generated such belly laughs from the audience—reactions I wish we got for Shakespeare’s bawdiness if only people wouldn’t take it so damn seriously. Apparently fart jokes will do the trick. The serving wench also does the trick. And the costume department continues to redeem itself on this trip, this time with clever contraptions that facilitate mooning the audience. Duran and Josiah Phillips are a brilliant comedy duo, foils and instigators of all sorts of hilarity.

One of the joys of this performance was the outstanding puppetry. This is a theater art that we don’t see enough of, and it was perfect for conveying the illusions of reality and mania. Puppetry arts were in evidence for the enchanter of Don Alonso’s mind, wobbly geese, a two-part Rocinante, a tricycle Dapple, sock sheep (a new kind of sock puppet!), and especially an exquisitely made and performed Dulcinea, the object of Don Quixote’s chivalry. Puppet designer Lynn Jeffries worked with Bill Rauch at Cornerstone Theater Company, where she was a founding member, and we’re glad to see her work here.

Another special mention goes to actor Howie Seago in his first year with the company. I first noticed him in Henry VIII without hearing a line from him because of his stage presence. One of the marks of a really fine stage actor is knowing how to "be" on stage when not the focus of the dialogue and action. He clearly had this quality. Then came a touching scene, beautiful as a dance, between him as attendant Griffith and Vilma Silva as the dying Queen, where they communicated in sign language. ASL is such a beautiful language and they made it visual poetry. In Don Quixote, Seago played ensemble roles and was equally sensitive and just plain funny. Kudos to OSF for hiring a deaf actor and creatively incorporating ASL into productions. We hope Seago comes back for many years to come.

We were speaking this morning with Elizabeth, the lovely hostess of the Terra Cottage Inn, who had warned us that she’d heard mixed reviews of Don Quixote over the summer from guests. When we told her there were fart jokes, it cleared the air. She recognized the folks who didn’t like it as serious types. Methinks that under Bill Rauch’s artistic leadership OSF is taking itself a wee bit less seriously. They’ll get no raspberries from me for that, only applause.

OSF: Don Quixote

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza may not quite rank up with Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy,  Brooks & Reiner, Bob & Ray, Nichols & May, the Smothers Brothers, Burns & Allen, Cheech & Chong, or Newhart & the guy on the other end of the phone line in a list of best comedy duos, but Armando Duran and Josiah Phillips brought laughs and smiles to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Don Quixote on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage.

   Laird Williamson directed the OSF production, a world premiere of a new adaptation by Octavio Solis of the Cervantes novel.

It was especially great to see a more substantial role for Phillips, a 19-year festival veteran whom we've mostly seen in smaller parts. It seems he has been cast in several August Wilson plays that OSF has staged mainly in the early part of the season, though we did see him in Gem of the Ocean a few years back. Phillips' Panza had great affection for his mule Dapple, an elaborate tricycle sort of beast. Quixote's steed was an animate object: Rocinante was played by James Jesse Peck (front) and Anna-Lisa Chacon (rear). Alas, poor Peck has spent his summer inside a horse's head. At least we could see Chacon's face.

Duran was great as always; earnest and dreamy and pure as the hero of our show. (The festival photos by David Cooper show Duran, at left, with the Peck half of Rocinante, and Phillips, above, riding Dapple.)

In the end Don Quixote matches everyone up properly and rides off into his sunset. It doesn't hurt to dream.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

OSF: The Servant of Two Masters

"Comedies don't get standing O's," said my Sweetie, the Official Scorer, as she stood and applauded wildly at the end of The Servant of Two Masters, performed in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's New Theatre.

This production, directed by Tracy Young, deserved all the huzzahs it received. When the boss decides to stage Servant the eyes of the creative side of the house must light up. It's a chance for the writers to cook up lots of smart, self-referential humor and for the actors to dust off their dancing and musical skills are serve up big, thick slices of ham. The Servant of Two Masters is a laugh riot, and a most welcome one after seeing heavy stuff like Macbeth and Equivocation earlier in the week.

Young and co-adapter Oded Gross do a marvelous job of weaving sly references to the season's other productions and to Ashland locations into the script. They also do a lot with the economy; "budget cuts" are the reason they have a rag-tag collection of costumes and inadequate props.

They key to a successful Servant of Two Masters is a brilliant Truffaldino, and Young has this in Mark Bedard. Bedard is marvelous, and in the performance we saw had a bit more ad-libbing to do than usual, with Gene the chatty audience member and a wayward cell phone that another observer dropped onto the stage. (That's Bedard balancing on his two masters' trunks in the festival photo by Jenny Graham, above at right.)

Usually when I say everyone was great and I don't want to single them out, I end up naming a few, anyway. David Kelly was hilarious as Pantalone, and has a good lip on the trumpet, too. Kelly has proven himself a fine comic actor, also entertaining as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing earlier in the week. Kjerstine Rose Anderson is a good, flexible ballerina and is one of the funniest actors in the company. Kate Mulligan needed no do-overs; she was a ball of fire playing Beatrice and her own dead brother, Federigo, and set what may be a record for quickest on-stage costume change. Eileen DeSandre was cool as a green-faced, Croc-clad chef Brighella (take that, Mario!) who drew frightened responses that reminded me of Frau Blucher. Elisa Bocanegra was brassy and bawdy--and she winked at me!

OSF has proven adept at staging madcap, silly stuff as well as "serious" theater. The Servant of Two Masters was great fun.

OSF: All's Well That Ends Well

I'm not sure that All's Well That Ends Well ends well, at least from our perspective in the 21st century, when arranged marriages are not common and (heterosexual) folks are free to marry whomever they so please, not whomever the king or the parents set them up with.

In the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of All's Well That Ends Well, directed by Amanda Dehnert, Helena (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) is all ga-ga for Bertram (Danforth Comins), who hardly notices her as she's from a lower class. Bert goes off to serve the King of France (James Edmondson), who is gravely ill. Helena cures him in exchange for marriage to the man of her choice. Bertram. The King makes the match, and Bert goes through with it, but he's none too happy about it, running off to the wars in Italy rather than consummating the deal, and writing, "I have wedded her, not bedded her, and sworn to make the 'not' eternal." (That's Comins and Anderson in the festival photo by Jenny Graham, above at right.)

Helena chases her spouse down and, through some typical Shakespearean mistaken-identity trickery, winds up with both the family jewels and a child, as Betram knocks her up, thinking he's bedding Diana (Emily Sophia Knapp), a hot dish he meets on the road. All is revealed in the end.

The performances are wonderful. It was especially great to see a couple of the festival's veterans, Edmondson (34 seasons) and Dee Maaske (17) ply their craft in the intimate setting of OSF's New Theatre. Anderson is a delight with great range and super comic timing. John Tufts (Parolles) and G. Valmont Thomas are also outstanding in All's Well.

Weisenheimer liked Dehnert's movie-within-a-play twist on this production. (This is a bit of a spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you intend to see the play.) Throughout the play the director has old-style film titles projected on screens around the theater announcing scene changes. In the end, there's a "home movie" of Bertram and Helena living happily ever after with their growing child. In the closing frames of the film, the child walks away from a tree just as The Clown (Armando Duran) walks away from a tree that is the major feature of the set. It turns out the clown, a narrator of the story, is the grown son of the two protagonists, telling their tale.

Hey, I guess it really did end well after all!

OSF: Servant of Two Masters (STOS)

I'm in a little bit of theater heaven. Forget naturalistic acting psychological realism proscenium arch fourth wall bullshit. Give me a talented clown and stock characters in outrageous makeup and a theater in the round romping their way through a silly story and messing with the audience and I'm a happy girl. The theater gore was a bonus!

Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of The Servant of Two Masters was produced in the New Theater. I love the New Theatre. In this little black box the action took place on a simple platform, in and out of four identical entrances, up and down the aisles, and on platforms above the entrances in the four upper corners of the theatre. Turns out there was plenty of space for throwing food around in the meal that Truffaldino has to serve to two masters. Oded Gross and Tracy Young did a smart, up-to-date adaptation that added a whole new layer of self-referential funniness to Carlo Goldoni's chestnut.

Since I have often dissed OSF's costume design (always beautiful, not always relevant), let me start by congratulating costume designer Christal Weatherly for very smart and witty, delightful costumes. I mean, any time you can work an old LP cover of Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass Whipped Cream & Other Delights into a costume appropriately, it deserves special mention! They clearly had some fun shopping at Zappos, too, and sewing in lots of inside OSF/Ashland jokes. A brassiere cup as a pocket was a nice touch. And congratulations on designing the quickest costume change in the history of theater for Beatrice to get into a dress.

One of the delights of this particular Saturday matinee performance of OSF's Servant was the tension between players and audience. Actors have for centuries competed for our attention and appreciation with side conversations, coughing fits, nose blowing, altercations between audience members, flash photography, drunkenness, food being unwrapped, food being eaten, food being thrown, people getting up and leaving, cell phones, heckling, upstaging, inappropriate laughter, and stony silence. Actors (and theatre and set designers) fought long to define a distinct playing space and reduce distraction and competition (and in the old days, patrons fought back) before we arrived at the theater etiquette of modern times...and still someone's damn cell phone is going to ring.

We had bad audience behavior this Saturday afternoon as well as some planted and planned audience interaction, and the cast--especially Mark Bedard, very fast on his feet as Truffaldino--was equal to and above it all and turned it into smiles and laughter. To the lady in about the third row: don't take pictures of the performers, even when they're playing with you. They really mean it about no photography and recording. To the high school student with the seat at the end of the row over the entrance/exit ramp: dropping your cell phone onto the playing space is such a loser thing to do. To Gene: don't try to upstage the actors. They're funnier than you are. But you're very cool for being a good sport! To the little girl in the very back row who was so agitated by Truffaldino's candy being stolen and told him about it: I hope you get that excited about theater for the rest of your life. To Mark Bedard: You rock.

The whole cast was strong; Kjerstine Rose Anderson is acrobatic and hilarious (as she was also in All's Well), David Kelly delights and his trumpet playing is pretty good!, I'm increasingly impressed with Todd Bjurstrom (one of three porters), and I hope Kate Mulligan really was having as much fun as she seemed!

To director Tracy Young and the entire cast and artistic team: thank you for being so talented and skilled, so light and fast on your feet, for pleasing us even when we're boorish, and for making us laugh.

OSF: Equivocation (STOS)

I have in the past complained about our big theaters' seeming lack of commitment to local talent, especially in their propensity to import shows from out of town. But the Seattle Repertory Theatre is bringing Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Equivocation to town November 18 to December 13 and I am thrilled. I can see it twenty more times!

A few notes about why this is better than, say, a recent high-visibility import (the Weisenheimer was way too kind). If the Rep's Web site is to be believed, this is the real deal--the entire OSF cast, director, and entire artistic team--and they are superb. Also, this show is good.

Everything about OSF's world premiere production was pretty much perfect. Dazzling writing (Bill Cain) and directing (Bill Rauch). This play is funny, sweet, disturbing, relevant, layered, intricate, wicked smart, and moving. The deceptively simple set, costumes, props, lighting are the perfect palette for some very powerful scenes. Anthony Heald and Jonathan Haugen have long been two of our favorites here in the OSF company and they are extraordinary; Gregory Linington always quietly impresses; I think John Tufts' career is one to watch; and Richard Elmore and Christine Albright are perfectly cast; all deliver superb performances. The continuous staging and ensemble roles are seamless.

I think this is going to be an important play. Don't take the little kids; the torture and execution scenes are too intense for them, and they'd pick up some good anglo-saxon vocabulary that you might not want them to. But if I had middle-school or high school kids, I'd take them. It would be a great opening to talk about power, torture, principles, honesty, and integrity...and history....and theater...and art and writing...and family...

More from the Weisenheimer here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Interesting things seen around Ashland

Even in a forward-thinking town that hosts one of the world's great theater festivals, the vestiges of discrimination remain! This sign is in the courtyard of the inn where we're holed up for the week. I think we've been going in through the front door..



This truck has been parked down the street from our inn all week. Apparently in Southern Oregon, the deer shoot back.




It might have been these guys. Saw them just wandering through the neighborhood.



I saw this sticker on a boat parked on a trailer in our neighborhood. I'm not sure what the sticker means. Curiously, the sticker is on a flat-bottomed boat...

 

OSF: Equivocation

"I don't like theater," says Judith Shagspeare in Act I of Equivocation. Then again, she's never seen Equivocation. The world premiere of the play by Bill Cain, directed by Bill Rauch at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is the most mind-blowingly fantastic theater Weisenheimer has experienced in a while, nipping at the heels of the 2005 OSF production of Richard III as most favorite ever.

On it's surface, Equivocation is about telling truth to power and not going to the gallows for it. But it's about so much more. It's about political power, in the early 1600s and now, with themes of scheming and spying and torture front and center. It's about art's power or inability to make a difference. It's about loyalty and family and religion. It's about Shagspeare writing "The True History of the Powder Plot." It's about posterity and consequences. It's about incredibly clever writing and joyous language. It's an astounding piece of work.

Rauch gets letter-perfect performances from a small cast, most playing multiple parts. Anthony Heald leads as Shag, writing the Powder Plot, which turns out not to have a plot or an interesting ending, and to be Macbeth instead. Richard Elmore is fantastic as Richard and other characters, most notably Father Henry Garnet, who teaches Shag about equivocation -- answering the real question asked, not the one literally posed. Jonathan Haugen is amazing as the good-natured, agreeable company member Nate and as the king's enforcer, Sir Robert Cecil. Christine Albright shines as Judith, delivering soliloquies though she's not that fond of them. John Tufts and Gregory Linington are actors and conspirators and guards and lawyers and executioners. (That's Heald, left, as Shag and Haugen as Cecil in the festival photo by Jenny Graham above at right.)

The production moves deftly between rehearsal and stage, between the dungeon and the court, as Shag figures out how to equivocate on his gig to write the "official" version of history, and to tell his truth as well. It is purposely playing this season, at the same time as OSF's productions of Henry VIII and Macbeth, with which it makes a sweet trio of theater.

Equivocation runs at OSF several times each week through the end of October. It comes to Seattle in November for a run at the Rep, and the plan is to bring this same cast north. Do not miss it. I want to see it again tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow.

OSF: Henry VIII

A year or so ago the Oregon Shakespeare Festival did a survey of members, essentially asking if we would still like to see seldom-produced plays such as Henry VIII. The membership said yes. So did Weisenheimer, figuring if not at OSF, then where and when will we ever see them? Indeed even at OSF, an organization most likely to produce these plays, they're rarely seen. The current staging of Henry VIII is just the fourth since the festival opened for business in 1935, and is the first since 1984 when Seattle favorite Laurence Ballard had the role of Cardinal Wolsey.

The 2009 staging, directed by John Sipes, is a feast for the eyes and ears. The costumes are gorgeous, and performances solid all around. Vilma Silva, a multiple Wisey Award nominee and best supporting actress in 2008, is especially strong as Queen Katherine of Aragon, cast aside by the king for not bearing male heirs, and because the younger Anne Bullen (Christine Albright) happened along to a ball. Anthony Heald is appropriately conniving as Cardinal Wolsey. (That's Silva and Heald in the  festival photo at right.)

As well done as it is, as a play Henry VIII really doesn't go anywhere, and takes nearly three hours to not get there. We weren't all that jazzed about Elijah Alexander in the title role. He's not the Henry body type, but mainly he wasn't so kingly and in charge as we have come to expect our monarchs to be.

OSF has completed the Shakespeare canon three times. Now they even have a bard scorecard you can fill in. When you complete your personal canon you can get a certificate. I'm happy to check off Henry VIII, and can wait another 25 years before seeing it again.

OSF: Macbeth (STOS)

Well, that was a pleasant surprise! It's not that I wasn't looking forward to Macbeth at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; I just didn't give it much thought at all. I associate Macbeth with high school/college because I read it and saw it so often then, and several times since. But, what the heck, we're down here, we'll see what they do with it.

This production, directed by Gale Edwards, kept my attention, and was even riveting in places. This was the most violent stage production I think I've ever seen. They did really cool stuff with theater gore. The schoolkids raised on the Matrix tittered but I thought the effects were neat-o. And the fight scenes were athletic, intense, and realistic; they really did have me leaning forward in my seat and holding my breath, and I was worried about Kevin Kenerly (Macduff) even though everyone in the theater knows how it's going to come out. Not sure about the egghead-fetus-monsters that came out of the cauldron; those were a little goofy. As usual here at OSF, I have no idea what the costume designers were thinking. But overall director Gale Edwards took some risks with conventions and our suspension of disbelief and it mostly worked. I agree with the Weisenheimer that the brilliant (actually, very dark and focused) lighting made all the difference.

Good idea to have the women--Lady Macbeth and the weird sisters--be so sexual. (How can you not?) Robin Goodrin Nordli is always a treat to watch, and she was fierce and irresistible as Lady Macbeth. The chemistry between Macbeth and his Lady crackled--their sexual chemistry, the alliance and understanding between them, and the disappointment, disgust, and chasm between them. Kevin Kenerly's Macduff is a perfect foil and complement to Macbeth, showing a range of emotion and resolve that is equal to and finally believably superior to Macbeth's. Rex Young was a super creepy ghost Banquo, and I loved Josiah Phillips as the porter. (I never get enough Josiah Phillips down here; more and bigger roles for him, please!)

Before I describe my impressions of Peter Macon in the title role, a word about acting. I appreciate subtlety and understatement as much as anyone, but am not one who is allergic to anything more than, say, a flick of an eye to convey emotion. I especially appreciate actors (and directors) who can suit their acting to the stage and the style of the play. I expect something different between Balagan's tiny black box theater and a Greenstage production at Lincoln Park. Between the Lizzy and the Old Cow here at OSF. Between a fourth wall play like Hedda Gabbler and a commedia dell'arte-derived romp like Servant of Two Masters. And I do NOT expect what we get in movies and TV. I especially wonder about critics who call out mugging in productions on the Lizzy. I always want to ask them just a few questions: Where were you sitting? Have you sat in the balcony or row P? And how much TV/movies are you watching? Overacting is going to be in the eye of the beholder...and when I do think it's happening, I always wonder what's going on in the dance between actor and director.

So for me, larger than life can be just fine, and Peter Macon was that. It's so nice to see vigorous, virile, muscular, athletic performances for Shakespeare's lead characters who are, you know, military conquerers, conniving politicians, murderers, and kings. In Edwards' and Macon's hands, Macbeth's ambition, appetite, violence, and craziness send shock waves. The most important and finest thing to me in Macon's performance is that he has mastered the language and speaks it beautifully. Macbeth is almost all verse, and Macon accomplished the difficult feat of making the verse sing and rendering the meaning immediate, spontaneous, clear, and believable. I could feel (more than hear) the beat of the blank verse without it ever slipping into monotony or recitation. And I'd love to have the "She should have died hereafter..." speech recorded so I could listen to it often just to cheer me up. All of that said, I would have reined in some of the physical emoting a little bit. There were a few times when I almost wanted to close my eyes to hear his powerful and moving delivery of the poetry without the distraction of quite so much hand wringing. I'm convinced now that Macon is a wonderful addition to the company. All I would suggest is just a little less writhing. I look forward to Macon's impressive command in future performances.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

OSF: Macbeth

Wow!

From its opening sequence featuring a fast-paced swordfight that ended with a decapitation and a 10-foot fountain of blood, to the lopping off of the lead character's noggin at the end, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Macbeth in the Angus Bowmer Theatre was thrilling and exhilarating.

Gale Edwards directed the play, and scored with the casting of Peter Macon as Macbeth and Robin Goodrin Nordli as Lady Macbeth. Blood flows almost constantly during this production, but when these two share the stage sparks fly. The opening sequence, when Macbeth returns from the wars with a new title and witch-inspired ambition, is absolutely electric. (That's them in the festival photo by Jenny Graham, at right.)

While we were none too impressed with Macon as Othello last year, we can't say enough about his marvelous turn as Macbeth. Strong, ambitious, sexy, crazy, paranoid, stubborn, funny, charming, despairing, grieved, and resigned, he runs the gamut, makes the language his own, and absolutely dazzles. Nordli, who won our Wisey Award for best actress as Hedda Gabler last year, is brilliant as the lady, standing up to and lighting the fire of ambition in this dude three times her size. She runs that household and is a fine PR rep for Macbeth, until guilt and that damned spot drive her off the deep end.

The rest of the cast are mostly grand, but I'd give best supporting actor to Mark McCullough, the lighting designer for the production. McCullough bathes the set largely in blood red for much of the show, especially the first act. This cast a glow on the top of Macon's bald pate, as if he has blood on his head the whole time. I wasn't sure if this was purposeful, but it sure caught my eye. The lighting also made the curved staircase that was a prominent feature of the set into something of a mood ring for the production, going from blood red during the gory scenes to glowing gold when Duncan is about (albeit briefly) to green when Birnam Wood is marching toward Dunsinane. There was also a great scene of a solo speech by Lady Macbeth, during which her shadow loomed behind, 40 feet tall on the back wall of the theater. Cool!

Another great scene that is played as something of a comedy is the banquet at which the bloody corpse of Banquo turns up to torment his old friend Macbeth. He flails around and challenges a spectre nobody else can see -- at one point the pair tromp about on the banquet table -- until the ghost vanishes and Macbeth finally gets hold of himself and  bids the guests sit still. With perfect timing Lady Macbeth responds, "You have displac'd the mirth."

Macon is at his best near the end, despondent upon hearing of the death of his lady, and utterly convincingly delivers the brief-candle, tale-told-by-an-idiot speech from the depths of mourning, crumpled on the ground in woe.

The swordplay in Macbeth is marvelous. We found ourselves ducking way back in row J, and Sweetie fears for Kevin Kenerly, who as Macduff has spent the larger part of 2009 repeating a violent fight with a much larger man. The Scottish Play is believed by many to be jinxed. Something awful could happen. Watch out, Kevin!

One bit of costuming deserves note. Early in the second act Macbeth visits the witches for more information about the future. In the process they leave their handprints on Macon, one right atop his head, and several others on his back. These stick with him throughout the rest of the play. I get it -- the witches words have touched him and are always on his mind. But the prints thing was a little hokey. I was OK with the 20th-Century garb worn by the characters, though it's not everyone's cup of tea.

After the show, we heard a couple of patrons lamenting that Edwards had "botched" the play. We could not disagree more. Macbeth is a truly marvelous production, one of the favorites for me in five years attending OSF.

OSF: Much Ado About Nothing (STOS)

Having seen Branagh's Much Ado so many times, as the Weisenheimer mentions, and having read the play multiple times, I was aware of what Branagh left out. So it was fun to see a production that put back in some of Benedick's struggle to be taken seriously by Beatrice, the prince, Claudio, and--as played by the very funny David Kelly--even himself.

Kelly was a surprising choice to me for Benedick, but he sure had the comedic chops and also portrayed a much wider and subtler range of emotion than we sometimes get in the comedies. We saw the insecurity that lurks behind being a goofball; the sharp eye and wit that doesn't miss much; exasperation and frustration; and reluctance, resolve, and action.

Which makes the ending all the more disappointing. I assume it was a directorial choice to sprint through the last forty or so lines (I like Kate Buckley's work here and in Shrew a few years ago, but was she afraid we would all be Dodgers fans?). This is Benedick's time to shine, and in a few pithy and memorable lines Shakespeare has him take his rightful place as the only man of Padua in a restored order where all is well. These exchanges with Beatrice, Claudio, and the prince should be savored.

Robynn Rodriguez was a fierce and feisty Beatrice, as she should be, and she nails the rapid-fire timing of the banter. She is convincingly frustrated to tears by the clueless and hurtful men around her. And while I now think Peter Macon is a bit of a ham, I agree with the Weisenheimer that he was very funny as Don Pedro. Special shout out for alumnus of Seattle stages Todd Bjurstrom as Borachio.

Setting the play in immediate post-war Sicily wasn't a distraction, which it seems is as much as I can ask of Shakespeare plays set in more modern times. I do choose to speculate that the whole fountain scene was a bit of one-upmanship to Branagh, and Kate, your staging was a splash.