Saturday, December 22, 2012

Wisemen on the case

Weisenheimer continues to court divine electrocution by partaking of theatrical productions that treat the events of Dec. 25, 4 B.C., with something short of reverence. So far, we've made it through Three Men and a Baby Jesus, Inspecting Carol, the Mayan-predicted apocalypse, and now Wisemen without getting singed.

L-R: Matt Fulbright, David Bestock, and Gavin Cummins are
associates of the law firm investigating the paternity of the baby
Jesus in Wisemen. Photo by stone photography.
Wisemen, written and produced  by David Bestock and Eli Rosenblatt (Rosenstock Productions) and directed by Mathew Wright, is a hilarious musical comedy. The premise is pretty simple. Joseph (Rosenblatt), not sure he's buying Mary's immaculate conception story, sets out to find the real father of the baby Jesus. He enlists the help of the Wisemen law firm and its associates Goldberg (Bestock), Frankenstein (Gavin Cummins), and Murray (Matt Fulbright).

Through their investigation the Wisemen learn that Mary (Dorcas Lewis) has "known" just about every guy in town, so there are plenty of candidates for the papa. They also encounter the Pope and a gangsta-rapping Easter Bunny (both played by Bestock), and a cutthroat CEO Santa (Cummins). A madcap trial scene at the end has the actors making rapid on-stage costume changes to hilarious effect. The three wrangle a surprise confession from the real father, but Judge Santa throws out the case on the grounds that Christmas is all about toys.

The original score is great and draws from a variety of styles, from salsa to hip-hop, and the band (Rosenblatt, Sam Esecson, Bryant Moore, and Cameron Peace) is top notch. The Wisemen are good singers, too, and Lewis can really belt out a tune.

We had a great time at Wisemen, and I wish I could tell you to go see it at ACT. Sadly, today is the last performance; they're probably about to intermission as I write this. They debuted the show at ACT last year. Let's hope it comes back for 2013.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Re-Inspecting Carol

I saw Inspecting Carol at the Seattle Rep again last night. As noted in my previous review, I enjoyed the show when I saw it a couple of weeks ago, but my Sweetie, the official scorer, had to be out of town that day. So we went to see it together and I enjoyed it again.

I'm prompted to write a second time because the Rep is doing some interesting marketing around their shows these days. For one, they do follow-up emails with patrons asking them to spread the word. One of the ways they try to get you to do it is by offering discounts to future shows for your friends. So, as a friend/reader of Weisenheimer, just follow this link for a $10 discount on tickets to Inspecting Carol, which runs through Dec. 23. You're welcome!

The cast of Seattle Rep's Inspecting Carol.
Photo by Chris Bennion.
Along with this offer, the Rep encourages patrons to post their own reviews of Inspecting Carol on its blog. One of my favorite curmudgeons, H.L. Mencken, once wrote that "democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." In this case, the Rep is getting it good and hard in this self-inflicted review section. I count 24 reviews on the page as of this afternoon, with the vote running 20 against, just four in favor (and Weisenheimer is one of the four.) Four commenters claim to have left at intermission, and three threaten to cancel their subscriptions or never see another show at the Rep if this sort of rubbish keeps up.

Now, Weisenheimer has been teased by theater-type friends for being a soft touch on reviews, and I'll fess up: I don't consider myself a critic; mostly I (and my sweetie) write because we're writers, because we like theater, and we're boosters for a lot of good work that's happening in the city. I enjoy pointing out what we liked about things. The blog is also our own little scrapbook of theater adventures. We're glad you like it, too!

That said, I think that, as with the comments sections of news sites (which are best avoided, lest one risk losing all hope for humanity), the haters are more likely to take time to write than the praisers. Last night's performance got a lot of laughs and a nice round of applause at the end. We didn't see any sort of exodus at intermission. On the other hand, the balcony was pretty much empty for a Friday night show, so it's safe to say that Inspecting Carol isn't getting the sort of buzz and holiday traffic they might have hoped for. (For the record Misha Berson in The Times rated Carol pretty well, Seattle's Child liked it (except for dirty words!), Crosscut not so much, nor Seattle Met.)

The I'll-never-go-again response is also an interesting one. Weisenheimer admits to a gut reaction along those lines on occasion. We've attended the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the last eight years. In that time, we've probably seen about 70 plays, and exactly two of them have been stinkers. They were legendary, horrible, painful-to-watch, dammit-why-did-I-get-seats-in-the-middle-of-the-row-so-there's-no-escape bombs, but there have been only two of them. As my Sweetie wrote about Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella at OSF this year: "I'm willing to have a clunker now and again (not too often...these tickets are expensive) if it means we also get plays like Party People and The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler and Equivocation." The theater that takes no chances just stages Guys and Dolls every year.

So. Inspecting Carol is not high art, but it is a lot of fun. Now, with the Friends of Weisenheimer $10 discount you can get in for as little as $15. Don't leave at intermission.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A half dozen quick reviews

We see a lot of theater, and some folks find this strange.

A few weeks back I was loitering outside The Sitting Room waiting for my Sweetie, the official scorer, to arrive for our dinner before seeing a show at Seattle Shakespeare Company. Ma Weisenheimer happened to call on the phone at that moment, and in the course of our conversation I told her that we were headed for a play that evening and had another one on the calendar for the next night. Ma W. seemed shocked that we would go out two nights in a row, though it should be noted that, at age 85, she now views a trip out to the mailbox as a major excursion. I also noted that mom watches television every night, but it didn't seem to stick.

Weisenheimer has attended 10 plays since returning from the annual pilgrimage to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (nine plays in 10 days) but, until writing about Inspecting Carol a few days ago had not reviewed any of them. Here, then, are my quickie reviews of recent shows seen, starting with the most recent.

Cardenio, GreenStage. A show so nice, we saw it twice! Cardenio was directed by Tony Driscoll, the sick genius who gets credit (or blame!) for cooking up GreenStage's Hard Bard concept. The shows have become an annual Halloween treat, starting with a wicked Titus Andronicus in 2009, taking violent, bloody plays right over the top with blood splattered everywhere! We saw the opening and closing performances, and it really improved as the actors became more comfortable with the roles and their various blood-squirting devices. Plus, my Sweetie, the official scorer, says she now cannot eat a chicken drumstick without feeling a little dirty. Fantastic, bloody fun! By the way, even though Cardenio closed on Nov. 17, you can still get a Hard Bard Hoodie here. They make great Christmas presents, and support GreenStage and its FREE performances. (Full disclosure: Weisenheimer is the marketing director for GreenStage, but it doesn't make me biased.)

Antony and Cleopatra, Seattle Shakes. A killer cast led by real-life spouses Amy Thone and Hans Altweis in the title roles drew us (twice!) to Antony and Cleopatra, directed by John Langs for the Seattle Shakespeare Company. They were backed up by other outstanding Seattle favorites Mike Dooly, Allison Strickland, Terri Weagant, Darragh Kennan, and Charles Leggett. Just a couple of quibbles. First, we didn't really like the set, especially the goofy, hanging platform that served as Cleopatra's monument where everyone went to die. (Sorry for the spoiler!) It made a lot of noise while being cranked into place, and, when seated in the front row, all we could really see was the bottom of the platform. Second, Weagant and Strickland looked great but didn't have nearly enough to do! Thone and Altweis have great stage chemistry; there were super performances all around.

Avenue Q, Balagan Theatre. I often say that I'm not much into musicals, but I keep finding myself enjoying them. Such is the case with Avenue Q at Balagan Theatre, directed by Eric Ankrim. It's the third collaboration Balagan and Ankrim, and it seems to be working. He directed and played the title role in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog in 2010, and directed Spring Awakening last year; both were successes. Ditto for Avenue Q, which has received great notices and is entirely sold out through its run that ends Dec. 16 (though you can still sign up for the wait list an hour before each day's performance.) Avenue Q swept the Tony Award triple crown in 2004, though the show feels slightly dated today. Does the younger generation of theatergoers know who Gary Coleman was? Is "Diff'rent Strokes" still in syndication? Great performances here, too; we'd single out Justin Huertas, Kate Jaeger, Kirsten deLohr Helland, Rashawn Scott, and Diana Huey. (Full disclosure: Weisenheimer is on the board of Balagan Theatre, but it doesn't make me biased.)

Ramayana, ACT. This epic tale of romance, war, and intrigue from south and southeast Asia was marvelous! Directed by Sheila Daniels and Kurt Beattie, the ACT production featured superb performances, gorgeous costumes, some elaborate yet easily swapped sets, and a great story. My one beef: at three hours with two intermissions, it was too long! This one, too, included a list of Seattle favorites, with Anne Allgood, Cheyenne Casebier, Tim Gouran, Todd Jefferson Moore, Richard Sloniker, and Ray Tagavilla. Oh, another beef: RayTag didn't have enough to do.

The Glass Menagerie, Seattle Rep. I saw the Tennessee Williams classic, directed for Seattle Rep by Braden Abraham, on Halloween night. It was a super production of the play, staged in the Rep's smaller Leo K theater. It really worked there, set in the Wingfield living room, an entirely claustrophobic place to be. Suzanne Bouchard was a tour de force as Amanda Wingfield, with seamless switches between southern belle, manipulative bitch, and violently angry momma. Ben Huber was marvelous as Tom, Brenda Joyner superb as Laura, and Eric Riedmann delightfully smarmy as the Gentleman Caller.

Pullman Porter Blues, Seattle Rep. This world premiere from Cheryl L. West, directed by Lisa Peterson, was a must see for me and my Sweetie, as we both love trains and the blues. The production was a fine spectacle of blues performances set on the Panama Limited train, where three generations of porters worked together, remembering their pasts and trying to change the future. The live band was great and there were wonderful performances all around, but the show especially sparkled when "Sister Juba" (E. Faye Butler) and "Monroe" (Larry Marshall) were on stage singing.

Superior Donuts, Seattle Public. We really loved this show by Tracy Letts, directed by Russ Banham. The burned out, draft dodging, Polish, second-generation operator of a Chicago donut shop has his life altered in many ways by the appearance at his shop of a young African-American would-be novelist looking for a job. Franco gets the gig but also has big debts to gamblers that lead to a horrifying confrontation and an unexpected partnership. Especially powerful performance from Charles Norris as Franco.

Titus Andronicus, upstart crow collective. Titus was the first production in six years for this all-female collective, and it kicked ass under the direction of Rosa Joshi. Amy Thone was fantastic in the title role, and Nike Imoru was riveting as the Goth schemer Aaron. Also Peggy Gannon and Sarah Harlett were immensely creepy as Chiron and Demetrius, who kidnap and rape poor Lavinia and then chop off her hands and tongue. Which made it an especially difficult month for Brenda Joyner, who followed up Lavinia by being daughter to Tennessee Williams' mom in Menagerie. Two beefs: the slo-mo, chamber music, strobe light ending of the banquet where everyone dies didn't really work for me; and Terri Weagant didn't have enough to do.

Take and eat...ewww!

At the risk of being struck by lightning I attended a performance of Three Men and a Baby Jesus, the current late-night offering at Balagan Theatre. I'm happy to report that there were no electrocutions and a lot of laughs at the one-act show, written by Balagan company member Matt Smith and directed by artistic director Shawn Belyea.

L-R: Ray Tagavilla, Ashley Bagwell, the Savior, and
Curtis Eastwood in Balagan Theatre's Three Men and a
Baby Jesus.
Somehow they remind me of Steve
Guttenberg, Tom Selleck, and Ted Danson.
The cast is a quartet of Balagan regulars: Ashley Bagwell and Curtis Eastwood, who head up the company's late- and off-night programming efforts; the fabulous Ray Tagavilla; and the hilarious Megan Ahiers.

Bagwell plays the CEO of a toy company, worried for his job on Christmas Eve because an ill-conceived marketing ploy has led to a sizable shortfall in the firm's books. Eastwood is the corporate attorney, whose answer to every problem is booze and strippers. Tagavilla is the newbie from sales who they bring in to try to fix the books. The character is Jewish, so doesn't mind working on Christmas Eve; he lives with his mother and has questionable social skills and some decidedly odd quirks.

Santa Claus (Ahiers) leaves the baby Jesus to this trio's office on the big night, with the task of protecting the savior from the forces of evil while she is out prowling chimneys. Ahiers also portrays a couple of those forces: the corporation's board chair who has the goods to soothe the child, but who also swings between promoting and sacking the lot of them; and a surprise super-demon that is one of the funniest and fowl-est villans yet seen on stage.

The three wise guys are skeptical of the baby's divinity, but are later convinced largely through Smith's interesting interpretation of the Eucharist. But let's face it: bodily functions are what infants are all about. Even so, they find it hard to resist making the kid the center of the ad campaign to save the foundering company. Even though Santa suffers a horrible demise, the show has a decidedly uplifting ending. This fun and funny play is a great alternative to sappy holiday theater fare.

Three Men and a Baby Jesus plays this weekend and next at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway. Shows are at 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights. Tickets are $10 (though anyone with an Internet connection has probably heard of the password to get in for half price. If you haven't, the box office is always willing to offer hints.)

Check it out!

Full disclosure: Your author is a board member of Balagan Theatre, but it doesn't mean I'm biased!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"Inspecting Carol" good fun at Seattle Rep

Call me Ebenezer.

I pretty much detest "the season." I get the willies when the holiday decor and detritus show up around Columbus Day. I get grumpy when "Holly Jolly Christmas" is playing in the background at my favorite breakfast café, intruding on an otherwise delightful and lazy 1 p.m. breakfast on a semi-sunny Dec. 1 on Alki. It annoys me to no end when my mailbox is overstuffed with catalogs daily from Halloween through Dec. 23 despite avid participation in Catalog Choice (113 cease and desist requests to 73 different catalogs and five phone books so far. And seriously, why does feel the need to send out a dead-tree catalog? It's Art DOT COM!!! That's in Internet thing!)

It's not that I'm anti-Christmas. I'm perfectly willing to hang up a few lights around the house and bust out the Santa suspenders on Christmas Eve, but I don't really want to be beaten over the head by this stuff for four months every year. I am no longer Ralphie.

Which brings us to the concept of the holiday play. The Seattle Times recently ran a listing of plays in the area for the holiday season. There are 46 of them, and I'm guessing the paper didn't include them all. Four of the shows are straight-up productions of A Christmas Carol, and seven others are some sort of riff on the Dickens tale. (Another parenthetical rant: Why do most of these "holiday" shows close down before Dec. 25? As a congenital Lutheran I know my liturgical calendar, and right now it's Advent; the Christmas season, the 12 days you've heard so much about, runs from Christmas Eve until Epiphany. Not only that, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is chock full of obligations, and all of the shows run during this time. Starting Dec. 26 many people are off school or work with little left to do but take the wrapping paper out to the recycling, and what's going on in the theaters? Crickets. Just nine of the 46 shows on the Times list run after Dec. 25. Harumph.) Most of the 46 have an Xmas theme, a few are light-hearted, such as The Wizard of Oz or The Music Man, but nobody seems to be doing Mamet or Tennessee or Arthur Miller or O'Neill or Sophocles any time after Veterans Day.

Reginald André Jackson, left, and Ian Bell
in Seattle Rep's production of "Inspecting
Carol." Photo by Chris Bennion.
So, here we are in paragraph five and I finally get to the point. If I'm going to a holiday show these days, I want it to be one that sticks a thumb in the eye of the concept, at least a little bit. That's why I was drawn to Inspecting Carol at the Seattle Rep. The show, directed by Jerry Manning, depicts the inept Soapbox Playhouse, a regional company on the brink of bankruptcy and hoping for a government grant to bail them out. They're doing their 12th annual production of A Christmas Carol with little creative oomph (save for the Scrooge character's unilateral decision to do his lines in Spanish one year.) Let's face it: They totally suck. And the Inspector from the NEA is going to be there on opening night to check them out. Kiss your grant goodbye!

The Rep cooked up this show back in 1991. It was written by Daniel Sullivan, artistic director at the time, along with other resident members of the company. They haven't performed it since 2001, though it's become something of a go-to holiday show in itself and is being produced in several other cities around the country this year.

The story builds slowly, with many a good joke during the first act and a half, though I often found myself the only person in the audience guffaw-ing, which always worries me; did I have one martini too many at 10 Mercer before the show? There are plenty of inside jokes about life on and off stage. The last 30 minutes or so are an absolute riot as the play within the play quite literally falls apart.

The fabulous cast is a great draw for this show. Reginald André Jackson is hilarious as the various ghosts. His character Walter Parsons is a newcomer to the production who never gets to learn his lines and who, as the only African-American member of the cast, serves as the embodiment of the company's weak-ass multicultural initiative. He also gets all of the best costumes. Ian Bell is enjoyable as Larry Vauxhall, the character who plays Scrooge in the ill-fated play. Peggy Gannon is great as the stage manager MJ, though somewhat less menacing than she was in her recent role in upstart crow collective's Titus Andronicus. Chris Ensweiler is one of the funniest guys around, and his Phil Hewlit plays Bob Cratchit despite his bad back and worse attitude. And it's always a treat to watch Michael Winters, who plays Sidney Carlton, the actor who portrays Marley in the play within the play. We're giddy with anticipation because Winters is one of two actors sharing the title role in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of King Lear next season.

I probably would not have gone to this show in November except for the fact that when I bought the tickets it was a part of a "spiked punch party" package, including cocktails and appetizers before the show. The Rep subsequently bagged the spiked punch, but the show must go on.

Inspecting Carol is a fun and amusing night out at the theater. It runs at the Rep through December 23. The Rep's video trailer for the play is below.

Oh, and true confessions: I'm going to A Christmas Carol at ACT this year. On Dec. 28. I'm also looking forward to Wisemen at ACT, which opens during Hanukkah and ends before Christmas.