Sunday, February 28, 2010

Glengarry Glen Ross is the boss!

Whether you like David Mamet or not, you just knew the Seattle Rep's production of Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by Wilson Milam, was going to be brilliant just for the incredible cast.

Start off with three Seattle legends: R. Hamilton Wright as Ricky Roma, in his 45th play at the Rep since 1979. John Aylward as Shelly Levene, 47 productions at the Rep since 1970. Charles Leggett as Dave Moss, whose Rep performances aren't enumerated in the program, but who has run up a string of great performances of late, topped by his Shylock last year that garnered him both a Wisey Award for best actor and a Theatre Puget Sound "Gregory" (no relation) award for outstanding actor. Mix in a couple of future legends, MJ Sieber of the promising New Century Theatre Company and Shawn Belyea, who is executive producer of 14/48 and artistic director at Balagan Theatre, among other pursuits. Throw in solid performers Ian Bell and Russell Hodgkinson, and you've got a bunch of guys you'd pay to watch reading the phone book.

A couple of scenes really stick with me. There's one early between Hodgkinson and Leggett (L-R at right), talking in the Chinese restaurant, in which Moss is trying to convince George to rob the office and steal the leads. The dialog is so crisp, the banter so letter perfect and razor sharp, and Leggett's use of the shoulder poke and emphatic control of cigarette smoke so incredible that you're totally drawn in. Amazing timing, incredible precision. The second comes later, when Bell's character James Lingk comes in to the office to try to get out of a deal he made with Wright's Roma. Aylward and Wright work to dupe Bell, Sieber screws it up, and the tantrum Wright throws is priceless. In fact, there are a number of great tantrums in the show, with chair throwing, chair kicking, file box kicking. And it's all done with great verve and energy.

This is a short show. Curtain was at 7:30, and it finished at about 9:10 -- WITH INTERMISSION. I know, I know, you've got to sell a few cookies and glasses of wine, but the intermission messed with the flow of the show. We've seen enough great one-act plays and short productions, e.g. Balagan's great staging of another Mamet piece, Edmond, earlier this year, to come to think that intermission is the work of the devil. Maybe if you're doing full-text Hamlet you need a break, but even Americans can sit still for an hour and a half for some gripping, compelling theater.

Interestingly enough, Gary Cole was originally cast as Roma, with Wright as Dave Moss and Leggett as Lingk. Cole had to bow out just at the start of rehearsals because of a family emergency. I think director Milam lucked out. Right now it's about as hard to imagine anyone but Wright (OK, maybe Al Pacino) playing Roma as it is trying to imagine Ronald Reagan playing Rick in Casablanca. Leggett is an incredible actor and was fabulous as Moss. Trust your local talent!

All in all, Glengarry Glen Ross was great theater. I'd like to see it about five more times. Alas, it closed today.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Janiva Magness. WOW!

As a general rule Weisenheimer buys into the notion that live music beats the recorded variety. In the case of Janiva Magness, the CDs are marvelous, and we own several of them, but we learned this week that her live show is mind-bogglingly fantastic.

Magness played at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley Tuesday and Wednesday, turning the place into Smokin' Hot Blues Alley for a couple of nights. And damn, Magness is an incredible talent. A three-time winner of the Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year award from the Blues Foundation, she's up for the award again at the 31st annual Blues Music Awards coming up in Memphis in May. It's easy to see why. Magness has incredible pipes, passion, and range in her singing, and a great stage presence to boot.

I wasn't keeping notes, but a couple of moments stood out. First was the moving ballad "You Were Never Mine" from her 2006 album Do I Move You? Second was a great story she told about Taj Mahal and his opinion about the muscle tone of her arms. Third was the finale of her set, an incredible story about and tribute to Koko Taylor during a rollicking rendition of the classic "Wang Dang Doodle." The tune highlighted Magness' ability to tell a great story, and put on a theatrically great performance, with the band gradually picking up in volume as Janiva described Taylor climbing to the stage for one of her final performances. Taylor, Queen of the Blues, passed away last June. It was an amazing piece and wrapped up one of the most entertaining live music shows Weisenheimer has ever attended. I certainly pitched a wang dang doodle all night long!

Don't despair for missing these shows. Magness will be back in Seattle for a show at Highway 99 Blues Club April 17. Her new album, The Devil is an Angel Too, will be released April 13 on Alligator Records.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Yonkers, Trout Stanley, Schmorgasborg add up to fun theater weekend

We took in a great triple-header of fun theater this weekend.

Friday we made our first-ever trip out to the Village Theatre in Issaquah, where we saw Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, directed by Brian Yorkey. The play is the story of two teenagers left to live for a year with their difficult grandmother while their Pop, Eddie, goes off around the country selling scrap metal during WWII in order to make enough cash to pay off a couple of loan sharks. Along the way we meet a couple of their ditzy aunts and Uncle Louie, a small-time mobster. Each is doing his or her best to escape the reach of Grandma Kurnitz, a battle-axe of a candy and ice cream shop owner whose picture is in the dictionary next to the definition of “tough love.”

Special kudos to Jody McCoy, the understudy who stepped in to play Grandma Kurnitz in place of regular cast member Suzy Hunt Friday. As near as we could tell McCoy nailed it. Also fabulous was Mike Dooly as Uncle Louie. Dooly always has a kick-ass stage presence, and he was bigger than life as Louie. He's one of our favorite actors and the main reason we ventured out to Issaquah for the show (along with the opportunity for a double-date with our friends Heidi and Steve.) Nick Robinson was especially fine as Arty; Robinson is a fine young actor. Jennifer Lee Taylor was compelling as Aunt Bella, a kind spirit if she’s not necessarily the brightest. Collin Morris as Jay, Bradford Farwell as Eddie, and Karen Skrinde as Aunt Gert also were wonderful. (That's the cast above at right. Seated L-R are Morris, Hunt, and Robinson; behind the couch Taylor, Skrinde, Farwell, and Dooly. Not sure who took the photo; I lifted it from Dooly's Facebook page!)

Lost in Yonkers is highly recommended. It plays in Issaquah through Feb. 28, then moves to the Everett Performing Arts Center for a run from March 5-28.

Balagan Theatre’s production of Trout Stanley by Claudia Dey, directed by David Gassner, is a sweet-yet-disturbing tale of twin sisters whose solitary lifestyle is broken up by the appearance of the title character, a roast-eating, whiskey snitching, slipper sniffer if there ever was one. Wisey Award-winning director Ryan Higgins plays Trout with a certain degree of subtlety, though the character is not the least bit understated. He also gets to wrestle with sister Grace Ducharme (Sarah Budge) and smooch with sister Sugar Ducharme (Angela DiMarco) with whom he eventually runs off. DiMarco was a revelation as Sugar, displaying a wide range of emotion in a challenging role. We enjoyed her work at 14/48 last month, but missed well-received performances in Abe Lincoln in Illinois at Intiman and in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Village. We’re certainly looking forward to seeing more of DiMarco's work. (That's Higgins, DiMarco, and Budge in the Andrea Huysing photo above at left.)

As for the play itself, the story was interesting, but there sure was a lot of speechifying, with some long soliloquies. Those could have used a little editing, though my Sweetie, the official scorer, opines that Trout’s what-I-believe speech rivals that of Crash Davis from Bull Durham in this category. Trout Stanley runs at Balagan through March 6. It's been getting lots of great reviews, so go see it.

Following the show was Balagan’s monthly late-night cabaret mash-up, Schmorgasborg. It’s free, but hostesses Terri Weagant and Julia Griffin would be well worth the price of admission on their own even if it were substantially higher. Griffin was assistant director of Trout Stanley, and Weagant is directing Balagan’s next production, The Jammer. Billed as “the King Lear of Roller Derby plays,” The Jammer opens March 11 and runs through April 3.

Favorites Bucket of Honey, the Vaudevillians, and Fanny Tragic were on the Schmorgasborg bill. So were Higgins and Chris “Sloop” Bell, who both proved again that they are sick and twisted. We love them for it.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

No arguments with the Rep's Speech and Debate

The Seattle Repertory Theatre production of Stephen Karam's Speech and Debate, directed by Andrea Allen, is a marvelously entertaining presentation of a fantastic, witty script and provides some great opportunities for a trio of superb, young, local actors.

Erin Stewart as Diwata is at the center of the action from the beginning, when she concocts a musical podcast diatribe against the clearly clueless drama teacher who failed to cast her in the lead of her Salem, Oregon high school's production of Once Upon a Mattress. She becomes the leader of a small ring that includes Solomon (Justin Huertas), a cub reporter miffed because the school paper won't let him publsh his story of a sex scandal involving the mayor; and Howie (Trick Danneker), the openly gay, new kid in school who wants to start a gay-straight alliance. That's Stewart in the foreground, with Danneker (at left) and Huertas in the Chris Bennion photo above right.

Diwata is completely annoying; a bossy know-it-all who doesn't yet care what others think of her, and Stewart plays her with great flair and sensitivity and even a hint of vulnerability. Solomon is a total dork who is really pushing that story. "I'm a journalist," he says while sticking his digital recorder in everyone's face. As a journalist, he's not so hard-boiled; he gets out of sticky situations by declaring, "My dad is waiting for me outside." Howie is a little high-strung and nervous, and Danneker nails the character.

In the end, they get around the censors by forming a speech and debate club at the school. They present their story in a Group Interpretive performance ("Group Interp" is what the cool kids call it, Diwata informs us). Their interpretation of the story includes a strip and dance to Diwata's original composition. OK, they're wearing flesh-colored body stockings, but I bet they got the school board's attention.

The three manage to take us through a discussion of teenage angst and sexuality, free speech, politics, and fighting with "the man" without scaring away everyone over 23. In fact, they draw us in with wonderful performances of this funny and touching script.

The show is free of adults save for Amy Thone, who plays both the weary journalism teacher at the school, and the local NPR reporter who does a story on the team and promises Solomon she'll try to get his story into the Oregonian -- which we're sure she'll do if she can just stop plugging the new edition of her book for a minute.

Stewart has earned some measure of appreciation on the Weisenheimer pages for being the author of the incredibly sick Mr. Jibbers, performed at last summer's 14/48 festival and for which Stewart earned a Wisey nomination for best writer. Danneker played the title role in Picasso at the Lapin Agile last year at Balagan Theatre.

Speech and Debate is a great production. We're a little worried that it's a hidden treasure, as there were way too many empty seats in the Rep's Leo K Theatre at Friday night's performance. It runs through Feb. 21, so get out there and see it while you can!

Sunday, February 7, 2010


The other evening I had a queue of music on from the late romantic era; all lovely, lush, like a warm bath. Very nice. For whatever reason I'd capped off the queue with some Handel. And the moment the baroque came on it was like a breath of fresh air; invigorating, muscular, strong, straightforward stuff, and I perked right up. Wonderful.

I feel that way about Seattle Shakespeare's production of Electra. No complaints about the theatre we've been seeing lately. Lots of well-done stuff, some experimental, some feel-good, some fun stuff. But Electra was a bracing eighty minutes of breathtaking theatre. The Greeks didn't mess around, nor for that matter did Frank McGuinness in his adaptation. They got right down to business.

I'm not sure I moved during the whole uninterrupted play. By the end I had to just sit for a minute. The rest of the audience did too. I'm quite sure it was one of the actors who signaled the end of the play by clapping, as we sat sort of stunned in the darkness.

Electra's is a timeless theme, about the next generation's disappointment in and disgust with their parents. And their idealization and idolization of their parents. The kids are righteous and they take it upon themselves to work justice and then find out it's a pretty messy business, and they just might have some explaining to do to their children later on. There's a lot in common between Greek tragedy and the best episodes of The Sopranos.

Frank McGuinness's language is lovely and, yes, musical. Director Sheila Daniels complements it with judicious use of dissonant music throughout. The language is by turns lyrical, bombastic, with crescendos, silences, wailing, discord, movement, and finally resolution. Favorite line: "Your mother will no longer displease you."

OK, kids, now what?

Ritual and movement were beautifully choreographed throughout on a spare set with chain link fencing. For instance, at the moment Orestes kills Aegisthus, Electra splashes water over herself, and in that instant the wall behind her is splashed with blood.

There wasn't a weak link in the cast, but it is Marya Sea Kaminski's show in the titular role. She is fierce, and leaves all her blood and guts on the stage. An extraordinary performance. (That's Kaminski in the John Ulman photo at right.) Susannah Millonzi's performance as sister Chrysothemis is equal to Kaminski and their arguments give off sparks. Todd Jefferson Moore is perfectly grounded as the faithful servant and touches lightly and smoothly on what very, very little levity the play has.

This play messes with all kinds of expectations we have of theater in this day and age. It's an old play. Its assumptions and pace are very different from what is usually produced today. But it has its own internal logic and structure that is utterly convincing, inevitable, and beautiful. Sheila Daniels' production was note-perfect.

p.s. Wouldn't you be sort of curious to go back in time and meet Sophocles' mother? She must have been one hell of a piece of work.

The State of Our Souls

One of us asked the other at dinner tonight, "Do you miss church?" Naturally that prompted a wide-ranging conversation. Luther, Calvin, Knox, Bach, and Zwingli were mentioned, for starters. And Shakespeare, George Carlin, and baseball. Consubstantiation, several unpopular Bible passages, and the 1941 Lutheran Hymnal. Alzheimer's. Grandkids. Estate planning. Jell-o and macaroni salad. Memorizing poetry. Yes, there was a bottle of wine involved (a 1998 Syrah).

And by the end of it we were playing the track "Ain't But the One," Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, loud enough to rattle the windows. And there was some smokin' triple-step swinging and gettin' down.

And then we did dishes.

I think we're irredeemable.

Apocalypse is hilarious in Harlequin's End Days

We ventured down to the state capitol Friday to catch the Harlequin Productions staging of End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer, and a marvelous show directed by Linda Whitney made the trip well worth the effort.

Superb, nuanced performances by Ann Flannigan as Sylvia Stein, born-again Mom bent on saving as many sinners as possible before the rapture on Wednesday, and Scott C. Brown as Arthur Stein, her spouse who has been virtually comatose since surviving the 9/11 attacks while most of his co-workers perished, were the centerpiece of the Harlequin production. That's them at right in a photo lifted from Brown's Facebook page.

The kids were all right, too. Amy Hill was great as the eternally angry goth chick Rachel Stein, their daughter. Rian Wilson played new neighbor Nelson Steinburg, an uber dork with a crush on Rachel, and who flips if he's not wearing his Elvis costume. Rounding out the cast was Robert McConkey, who plays both Jesus Christ and Stephen Hawking, who appear only to Sylvia and Rachel, respectively.

This is a hilarious play that takes on serious themes of religion, science, commitment, generations, and family. We saw the Seattle Public Theater production a year ago and it knocked our socks off,  earning Wisey nominations for Best Play, Actress, and Writer. The Harlequin production was also wonderfully entertaining. We especially liked Whitney's and Flannigan's decision to play Sylvia for more laughs, the comedy of her rants enhanced by her eyeball-rolling straight man, Jesus. We've seen Flannigan in several plays at Harlequin over the years, and she always delivers. Conversely, we thought Wilson put a little too much self-confidence into Nelson, who is constantly pelted by milk cartons and regularly whomped at school.

We could have done without the odd, acid-trip effects projected on a large screen at the back of the stage during scene changes and such. While it was a cool effect for the storm that blew through town at one point, mostly it was a distraction.

Harlequin is doing some great work, and End Days is a great play with a strong cast. Get thee to Olympia and see it, playing through Feb. 20.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

South Pacific entertaining, but falls way short of the hype

The much Bali Ha'i'd -- er, ballyhooed -- Lincoln Center Theater production of South Pacific sailed into the 5th Avenue Theatre last week. While a perfectly entertaining show, it left Weisenheimer thinking, "THIS is what Bart Sher has been doing that has the Big Apple all ga-ga?"

It's hard to go terribly wrong with South Pacific. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is chock full of great tunes that everyone knows even if they don't know what they're from: "Some Enchanted Evening" (performed about 20 times), "A Wonderful Guy," "Bali Ha'i," "Happy Talk," and "Honey Bun" are marvelous familiar songs. The best numbers of the show were two others, the Seabees' lusty rendition of "There is Nothin' Like a Dame" and the nurses' "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," both performed with high energy, snappy choreography, wit, and humor. The Thanksgiving Follies scene was also a lot of fun.

Carmen Cusack (pictured above) was a delight as the cockeyed optimist, Ensign Nellie Forbush. Cusack played the role with joy and emotion and energy. You just had to watch her when she was on stage. Matthew Saldivar was marvelous as Luther Billis, Rod Gilfry is an opera dude who really belted 'em out as Emile de Becque, and Keala Settle was a total scene stealer as Bloody Mary.

Somehow, though, the show really dragged at times. Sorta reminded me of the old Noel Coward bit: "She stopped the show. But the show wasn't really traveling very fast." Perhaps it's unfair to note that the show didn't live up to its hype. No show could. And one should take Tony Awards with a large grain of salt (witness the accolades heaped on the boring and pedestrian Light in the Piazza.) Despite its length, South Pacific was pretty entertaining. But I'll be glad to wash Bart Sher right out of my hair and send him on his way.