Sunday, October 13, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: A Streetcar Named Desire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 11, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: The Unfortunates

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Liquid Plain

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 4, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Shrew, Robin Hood, Midsummer, My Fair Lady

In between plays about abdication, death, murder, the plague, prison camps, the slave trade, torture, madness, rape, and book burning (more on those gems in upcoming posts!), we appreciated some pleasant and entertaining romps in this, the strongest season we've seen in nine years of coming to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The Heart of Robin Hood set and cast. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
The Heart of Robin Hood directed by Joel Sass in its US premiere is a recent project of playwright and director David Farr that premiered at London's Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011. Farr collected the various Robin Hood legends and assembled them into a story that is, not surprisingly, somewhat Shakespearean, with its silly men, a journey into the forest, and a cross-dressing parentless woman who calls her man to his better self. Some of our favorite actors were in this production—John Tufts, Kate Hurster, Michael Elich, Jonathan Haugen—and all turned in fine performances. Erica Sullivan was delicious as the horrid sister. The acrobatic business with a ring that served to evoke Robin's perch in the trees was cool. There were sword fights. It was fun.



Nell Geisslinger as Kate. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
I've said most of what I want to say about the play itself Taming of the Shrew in my review of GreenStage's excellent 2012 production directed by Mark "Mok" Moser. Since then, Seattle Shakespeare Company's production set the bar for Shrew earlier this year in a production brilliantly directed by Aimée Bruneau and starring Kelly Kitchens as Kate, David Quicksall as Petruchio, David S. Hogan as Grumio, and Brenda Joyner as Bianca. It was set in a trailer park—which, let me tell you, worked. OSF's production directed by David Ivers and set at a boardwalk in the 1950s was fun but not as satisfying as either of those Seattle productions. The strongest feature here was Nell Geisslinger as Kate. We have been curious to see her in a leading role after several years of watching her carry off smaller parts, and she rocked it as Kate. Sadly, her Petruchio was not her match. John Tufts as Tranio and David Kelly as Gremio once again put their outstanding comedic chops on display. Jeremy Peter Johnson as Hortensio and Christiana Clark as Biondello also held up their end of the funny business. The set and costumes were a kick, and the family wedding/vacation album slideshow at the end was worth lingering for.



Rachael Warren belts one out.
OSF photo by Jenny Graham.
People love, love, love Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. I don't get it. The story is an "insult to womanhood and manhood from the first word to the last" (with apologies to Shaw, who said that about a production of Shrew). I don't like the ending, and Shaw wouldn't have either. The high school kid next to me fell asleep, and I almost put my head on his shoulder for a little nap myself during some of Eliza's more boring numbers. (To be fair, I believe Rachael Warren was about as terrific an Eliza as there could be.) 

We rushed tickets thinking what the hell, we are so close to seeing the entire 2013 lineup, plus the Weisenheimer likes musicals more than I do, and the holy trinity of Jonathan Haugen, Anthony Heald, and David Kelly is not to be missed reading the phone book aloud, and this is bound to be better than that. 

It was, even though Haugen couldn't make the show. We heard that he was injured in a fall on the wet set the rainy night we saw him in Robin Hood, and that he's going to be ok, which is a relief. Get well soon. Haugen, Heald, and Kelly are so talented, and so funny, and have worked together so long, and have such good timing, that we're sure we missed a lot of really outstanding performing. Haugen's a classically trained singer and his voice is amazing. But I bet most folks in our audience never knew what they were missing. Kelly stepped in for Haugen as Henry Higgins, and was completely convincing and absolutely outstanding. We know Kelly is a brilliant actor, and this just increases our awe and respect for his talent. I also hadn't realized he is such a good singer. The understudy for Kelly's usual part, Colonel Pickering, was Mauro Hantman, and he acquitted himself well. 

The "Get Me To The Church On Time" number featuring Heald as Alfred P. Doolittle and the ensemble in some truly joyful dancing delighted me. And I loved the choice by director and music director Amanda Dehnert to set the show in a period theater, which meant we were seeing some of the business of theater like actors warming up and getting into and changing costume. The ensemble stayed on stage throughout most of the play, sitting on risers immediately behind the primary action, sometimes like observers, sometimes like a choir, and sometimes interjecting a bit of business in character. This production used the score for two pianos. The pianos were hiding in plain sight in the middle of the stage. (As we settled in, I was searching the perimeter of the set and muttered, "Where'd they put the pianos?" The Weisenheimer laughed and said, "You mean those two big black pieces of furniture in the middle?") All of the action happened around, behind, between, and on the instruments, and pianists Matt Goodrich and Ron Ochs, in addition to playing brilliantly, were unflappable. 

And, yes, with the possible exception of me and the sleepy kid next to me, the audience loved it. 



The Midsummer cast. OSF photo by Jenny Graham.
We saw A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Christopher Liam Moore outside on the Elizabethan stage on a decidedly unsummery night. This was the coldest night of our outdoor shows in this unseasonably early fall weather here at Ashland, and there was little in the play to keep us warm. As the Weisenheimer observed, they wrung all the eroticism out of it. The play was set at a Catholic parochial school in 1964. I read later that timing was intended to be Vatican II by way of explaining the headmaster priest (Theseus, played by Richard Howard) and head nun (Hippolyta, played by Judith-Marie Bergan) shuffling off collar and habit and getting married. Give 'em an English mass and they'll take a mile, I guess. The schoolgirls and boys Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander were too childish without ever seeming to grow up. The fairy costumes were silly even by Midsummer standards, even by OSF standards, and Titania's costume just plain malfunctioned. Terri McMahon did a great job of literally holding it together. 

A challenge in Midsummer is integrating, or contrasting, or doing whatever you're going to do with the fairy world and the people world. This is basically Puck's job. Gina Daniels was a spunky Puck, but all the work fell to her as the rest of the fairies were cast with children, one of whom at least really needed to be tucked into bed, poor little guy. I'm skeptical of video in plays, and projecting a video of Daniels around the facade to convey Puck flitting around the forest at her work was one of most egregious examples of how not to use video in a play that I've ever seen. And throughout there was some sort of white noise going on that might have been a malfunction in the sound system, or might have been intended to be crickets and such, but sounded to me like a poorly loaded dishwasher running. 

Fortunately, the play was saved by a merry band of teachers, coaches, lunch ladies, and janitors who put on their own school play to celebrate the solemnities. Here, the costumes and props were delightful as they used whatever was at hand—cafeteria trays, colanders, basketballs, mops—to adorn themselves and their theatrical. It was wonderful to see Brent Hinkley in a role with a good amount of stage time, as gym coach Nick Bottom, and he took all the stage time in the world to die as Pyramus, going through pantomime after pantomime of nasty ways to go, keeping the audience in stitches. Jon Beavers was a wonderfully nerdy Francis Flute, and I loved the choice to have the character actually be so moved by playing Thisbe that he forgot himself, found a voice as an actor, and turned in a touching performance. K. T. Vogt continues to steal every single scene we have ever seen her in. As Pam Snout playing Wall, she too found her voice and overcame her stage fright with the help of the cellist (yay for a live musician, Michal Palzewicz, on stage!) by turning her lines to song, set to that famous bit from Carmen

The opportunity to see all these plays is a dream, and so in the end these four plays, in words from Midsummer, need no excuse, and all is mended. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: King Lear

Director Bill Rauch cast two actors we admire as King Lear, splitting the grueling 130-show Oregon Shakespeare Festival season between them. We never miss Michael Winters's work in Seattle as well as at OSF if we can help it, and we have enjoyed Jack Willis in the past couple of years that he has been performing here at OSF. When tickets became available, the Weisenheimer secured seats for performances by each actor, and we looked forward to it all year. We were not disappointed.

Asking which Lear was "better" is like knowing two old men with different but fatal ailments and asking who is sicker. We saw two different characters named "King Lear," but each within the bounds of the same story and a cohesive vision for the production by Rauch.

We saw Willis's Lear on our first afternoon here. His Lear was choleric, bombastic, snide, entitled; a hard-drinking, hunt-loving, bull-in-the-china-shop man's man. He was remote from those around him from the start and only became more so as his private demons, including sexual frustration and inadequacy, dragged him further into his personal hell. Willis's interpretation took some risks and stretched the elasticity of the text, to mostly persuasive and effective results. This Lear did not go gently into that dark night. He succumbed with rage and at the end a touching resignation.
Daisuke Tsuji as The Fool and Michael Winters as Lear in
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of King Lear.
OSF photo

Two days later we saw Winters play Lear. This Lear was vulnerable, befuddled; seemed genuinely well-intentioned and surprised, as well as furious, when his "retirement party" didn't go so well; and fought against the darkness closing in with bursts of a range of emotions and attempts to grasp at those around him. This Lear was probably just holding it together and maybe could have continued to do so until the pins were knocked right out from under him and he could not get his balance back despite lurching and pinwheeling his arms to try to right himself. Winters hewed more closely to the text and its ambiguities, especially that balance between flaws of mind, body, and character that must be so challenging for an actor, and crafted that balance brilliantly. This Lear finally fell with heart-bursting anguish.

For the rest of the ensemble playing to these two different men, we thought we detected more wariness and determined loyalty to Willis's Lear; more frustration, affection, and physical interaction with Winters's.
Jack Willis, pictured above, alternated with Michael
Winters in the title role of King Lear. OSF photo.

A moment that exemplifies the differences between these Lears is near the very end: Cordelia and Lear's reunion before they are captured. The line is, "Do not laugh at me, / For, as I am a man, I think this lady / to be my child Cordelia." Willis says this over his shoulder "confidentially" to Kent, and it is endearing and plays for a bit of a laugh. Winters says the line looking directly at Cordelia, with his arms outstretched to her, with aching loss and hope.

The rest of the ensemble is as glorious as the two brilliant actors playing Lear. The two characters I was most interested in are Kent and the Fool. They interact the most with Lear, and are loyal to him even as they see his folly clearly. They are the truth tellers in the play and I find those characters fascinating—especially Kent in his predicament, as he has to dissemble and disguise in order to continue to be true to Lear after telling the truth to him and getting banished.

Daisuke Tsuji was a wonderful Fool; we know he has outstanding clown skills. He's Lear's conscience, needling him, trying to distract him, and trying to call him to a better self when he rages. Tsuji starts the play in a seat as part of the audience, and it was hilarious to watch the people around him get increasingly annoyed as he got increasingly restless and finally burst forth with inappropriately loud and long laughter, just as he got up and joined the action. Armando Durán's Kent was everything I had hoped for from a Kent. He is the counterpoint to Lear, the person who is behaving as a king should but this king doesn't, with a proper understanding of duty, loyalty, his station, and his responsibility to protect.

We've been coming here long enough to know that Vilma Silva and Robin Goodrin Nordli are outstanding actors, and it was a delight to see them so well-matched in the major roles of Goneril and Regan, respectively. They nailed it. Silva's Goneril is a frustrated leader, someone who could have and probably should have been wearing the pants in the family if that had been allowed. As exploitative as she is, you can almost sympathize, certainly understand, her temptation to seize an opportunity to exercise her talents. Nordli's Regan is babied, not too bright, supremely manipulative, usually drunk, and probably a little nuts. In other words, her father's daughter.

There is so much more to a production of a play than the text, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of seeing a play is watching how the artists bring the text to life. There were a number of smart additions to, or interpretations of, the text. For example, there was a lovely bit of symmetry as disloyal son Edmund picked Gloucester's pocket for his keys in order to betray him. Later, faithful son Edgar surreptitiously replaced blind Gloucester's money in his pocket, refusing to accept it for guiding and protecting him. 

One change to the text—well, stage directions anyway—provided an elegant solution to the Fool's disappearance. The text indicates that the Fool and Kent help Lear off the stage in act 3 scene 6, and after this the Fool does not appear again. In this production, Lear accidentally and without noticing mortally wounds the Fool in a tussle as the Fool and Kent attempt to restrain Lear in his frenzy over an imagined Goneril escaping justice. The Fool dies without Kent or Gloucester noticing in their haste to rescue the King; Edgar discovers it which only adds to his horror, and he removes the body at his exit ending the scene. 

As effective as these interpretations and additions were, there were changes to the text that were not so salutary. There were a number of times when a line or word just sounded jarringly wrong, and I found myself thinking "Did Shakespeare really write that?" After the play I looked up all of these moments that I could remember and, it turns out, no, Shakespeare did not write that. Now, I recognize that the text of King Lear is especially problematic (basically two different versions have come down to us). And I'm not such a purist that I cannot abide any fiddling around with the text. Deletions and rearranging the sequence of scenes and speeches are par for the course. However, if you are going change the author's words, there should be a good reason—and you want to be sure your writing is on the level of the author's. Whoever was changing the text in this production is no Shakespeare. And the only reason I can suppose for the changes would be to try to make the language more accessible to today's audience. Just one very small example: Kent is railing against Oswald, Goneril's steward, and threatens to "daub the walls of a jakes with him" after treading him into mortar. In this production, it was "daub the walls of an outhouse with him," which is a startling introduction of American English into the middle of a (mostly) unadapted Shakespeare play. "Jakes" is a fine old word. Armando Durán, playing Kent, is an excellent actor. Did Rauch really think we would not get Kent's meaning? That shows an unjustifiable lack of confidence in his actors, and an unnecessary lack of confidence in the audience. 

We were in the Thomas Theater (which I still think of as the New Theater) in the round, in contemporary time, and the set was beautifully spare and simple, making small details even more effective, such as Lear tearing a map into three unequal portions (the largest intended for Cordelia) and the crumpled pieces of paper reappearing over and over again throughout the play, a tangible reminder of Lear's folly. The scene where Lear is shut out in the storm was marvelously stirring with some flashlights and a fan, all manipulated on stage by actors and stagehands. At OSF, where they have the resources to get fancy, it was delightful to see some good old-fashioned theatrical magic made with the simplest of props and the talent of the cast and crew. The lighting and sound throughout were extremely well done. The design choices helped ensure that there would be little separation, physical or emotional, between us in the audience and the characters on stage. Both productions we were in "terrible seats" (as we overheard an actor from the production describe them), directly, and I mean directly next to the throne set midway up a stairwell from the stage proper to an exit at the top of the theater. A good deal of action, not just entrances and exits, happened on this stairwell, and while it did mean a little bit of craning our necks, we didn't mind. It was worth it to be terrified by Goneril, who was close enough to pluck my eyes out. 

Finally, a wish. I would love to see a production of King Lear that casts the same woman as Cordelia and the Fool. There are relatively few good parts for women anyway (compared to the number of roles for men), and Cordelia really is a crummy part by itself. But playing both Cordelia and the Fool would make it an amazing role, especially for a woman who has terrific clown skills (there are some!). It makes sense logistically. The Fool does not appear until after Cordelia's exit for France, and Cordelia does not appear again until after the Fool mysteriously and permanently vanishes. In fact, knowing that the younger actors played the parts of women and of fools, it seems entirely possible that the role was played by the same boy in Shakespeare's time. It also makes sense artistically, as we the audience recognize the same actor who played Cordelia returning to continue to be the King's conscience and darling in another guise. It would make one of Lear's last lines especially poignant: "And my poor fool is hanged." 



Friday, September 27, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Cymbeline

Here's my fantasy about Cymbeline: Shakespeare, at the end of his career (1610ish), wrote act V, scene v of Cymbeline as a sort of technical exercise in plot and threw it over the fence to Fletcher and said, here, upstart, you write the rest. And he was showing off. And then Fletcher wrote three hours of soap opera to cover everything that happens at the end. I know, heresy...but you never know...

The end of Cymbeline unravels 19 plot points by my count one right after another. It's like being at a bar sitting through some guy's three hour set up for a 19-punch-line joke. I do love a good long set up, and as long as the wine is flowing, what the hell. Whether you're reading it or watching a performance, if you can slog through the first four and four-fifth acts, the ending is a hoot.

I think the director's job in Cymbeline is to make sure everyone can keep it up right through the end; the resolutions need punch to prompt our laughter as it all just gets so silly and the ending is entirely happy. ("Oh, I forgot to tell you! I gave the queen fake poison." "Hey, he's a girl! And our sister!" "Oh, I can tell you that. I killed him." "Hey King, I stole your kids after you were such an asshole to me. Here's the bill for raising them." "Thanks for saving my life and all, but I have something better to do than save yours right now." "The soldier who saved your life? Yeah, that was me." And on and on.) 
Anthony Heald as Dr. Cornelius and Robin Goodrin Nordli
as The Queen in OSF's production of Cymbeline. OSF
photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Director Bill Rauch's Cymbeline at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was high-energy, even on a cold night, between raindrops, to a half empty house as relatively few of us braved the elements for a rarely produced Shakespeare play. The cast wrung belly laughs out of the small, damp audience. I even got a kick out of the silly costumes. Seriously, I never seem to know what the designers are thinking when it comes to costumes at OSF. It seems like they do stuff just because they can. This year, they apparently had a bucket of pointy ears to use up donated from the set of Lord of the Rings. I suppose it was all a bit of pop-culture-reference fun, as there were also broad references to Disney's Snow White and other iconic fairy tales.

I have no complaints about any of the performances. Everyone played their symbolic and one-dimensional characters to the hilt and all were thoroughly entertaining. I am going to call out Robin Goodrin Nordli as the wicked queen. We know she has comedic chops; lately, though, she's been delicious playing Shakespeare's evil women: a note-perfect Lady Macbeth a couple years ago and a particularly revolting Regan in this year's King Lear. The nameless queen in Cymbeline is the archetype of myths, and she plays it up to be the stuff of childhood nightmares after reading too many Grimm's fairy tales. 

Also, Peter Frechette was terrific as the royal interpreter of American Sign Language (ASL) to Howie Seago's Cymbeline; skillful and often moving, without competing with Seago's fine performance. I loved what they did with ASL—in particular, having the wicked queen and her horrid son Cloten (a hilarious Al Espinosa) communicate with Cymbeline in gross, hackneyed hand gestures, clearly never having bothered to learn his language even as they joined his family, while those who love and are loyal to him never fail to communicate in proper and fluent ASL when Cymbeline is present, even when he's being a dick.

I suspect Rauch chose to do Cymbeline in the same year as King Lear to highlight the relationships between parents and children, their duties and loyalties to each other. In this spirit, Rauch expanded on Shakespeare's apparitions, adding ghost moms for Imogen and the princes in addition to the ghosts of Posthumus Leonatus's parents. That's fine. It didn't detract, but I can't read too terribly much depth into Cymbeline no matter how many dead parents you throw in. Shakespeare wasn't covering any new ground with this one. Indeed, it's a bit of a pastiche as shadows of finer characters from Shakespeare's career make a curtain call. With Cymbeline, it's best to go big or go home, and OSF went big for an entertaining, satisfying evening.



Thursday, September 26, 2013

Seattle Fringe Festival 2013, Waiting for Godot and Aisle 9

While I was galavanting to San Francisco and back on business, the Weisenheimer saw two of this year's Seattle Fringe Festival offerings: Waiting for Godot and Aisle 9. He was so impressed that he got tickets for me to join him on Saturday, during the 60 hours I was home between business travel and fun travel. 

We are indeed here in Ashland now, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for our ninth year. But I loved kicking off 14 shows in 16 days with Beckett back home. One World Theatre's Waiting for Godot is a kick in the pants, and these guys know what they're doing. They should, as three of them—Shawn Belyea, Jeff Page, and K. Brian Neel—played these parts 23 years ago. A Seattle Weekly review praising that 1990 production griped only that the actors were 20 years too young for the roles, thus providing the inside joke for this revival.

The cast of Waiting for Godot.
Clockwise from upper left: Belyea,
Page, Neel, and Moore.
I think of Godot as our time's mystery play for post-Christian people. Ok, for me. It is dripping with references to scripture, salvation, sacrifice, torture, slavery, faith, redemption and, natch, waiting for someone who never happens. It is elegantly simple, highly structured and ritualized, and practically liturgical (liturgy=work of/for/by the people) as the cast milled around in costume but not necessarily in character before curtain and during the intermission, interacting with the audience, talking about and playing with hats, and generally creating the sense that we had come together to do the Beckett. (Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to do some Beckett...in the name of...um...where two or three are gathered in...aw fuck it. Nothing to be done.)

I loved the clowning, the ramshackle Laurel-and-Hardyesque funny business, the outrageousness of everything that happened, even as nothing happened—twice (in Vivien Mercier's famous assessment). Gogo is aimless, and Belyea played him with a wonderful agelessness, as a lunk of a kid and a sleepy old man. Page's Didi was piercing and frowny, as if there was always something just beyond his grasp. Neel was squirmy disturbing as Lucky, and Moore was perfectly pompous and anguished as Pozzo.

Alas, I didn't see it 23 years ago, but I like to imagine Belyea, Page, and Neel are even funnier and more grotesque than they were then. As Page said in a lovely quote in our playbill, "We don't have to be precious to the Beckett, we have to be precious to the funny." I hope they and Moore do it again in another 20 years. 


Plays that delve into the conduct of people's broken romantic relationships generally aren't my favorite thing. Turns out, I'm afraid of Virginia Woolf and some of the other stuff Edward Albee has written. We walked out of ACT's Rapture, Blister, Burn at intermission in large part because the relationship stuff between exes was so boring. Radial Theater Project's Aisle 9 is about a couple's relationship at three points in their lives, and I'm glad the Weisenheimer chose it because, even though it might not be my favorite subject matter, I liked everything else about it. Not a surprise, given that Aimée Bruneau was involved, conceiving and directing the project.

This play was written by three different playwrights. K. Brian Neel (yes, Lucky in Godot; talented guy!) wrote a quirky-funny, engaging first act, where our characters Ben and Oona meet in aisle 9 of a grocery store in 1983. Keri Healey wrote the present-day act in which Ben and Oona bump into each other in the same aisle of the same grocery store, shortly after their divorce, and loop through multiple versions of that meeting—real or imagined? And Wayne Rawley closes the play with Ben in the ruins of the condemned grocery store meeting one last time with Oona's spirit and memory, a touching close, with some futuristic Twitter funny business. 

Erin Stewart and Sam Hagen in Aisle 9.
Photo: Truman Buffett.
Bruneau weaves these separate acts together into one whole, using lovely ideas like costumes and the act of dressing and undressing to mark the changing years and relationship roles; shopping cart bumpercars and ballet; and grocery baskets that seem to carry the stuff of years. I'm so curious what the process was. How much discussion did each playwright have before writing, with Bruneau or with each other? Did they read each other's plays? However Bruneau and the playwrights did it, it all gelled.

The performances from Sam Hagen as Ben and Erin Stewart as Oona had everything to do with the play being so enjoyable. Ben and Oona are barely likable characters, but Hagen and Stewart made them vulnerable and human, and made us care. Their performances took what could have been an interesting idea and experiment with some snappy writing and smart direction and turned it into a living, breathing play. 



Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Even better than the first time...Beauty of the Father, Burien Little Theater, Latino Theater Projects

The Weisenheimer and I are such theater nerds that, when we can manage it, we enjoy seeing productions we like more than once. Good art always has something more to say with each engagement, and all the more so with live theater, where it's never the same twice. We were richly rewarded seeing Beauty of the Father a second time, directed by Michael D. Blum at Burien Little Theatre and co-produced by Latino Theatre Projects, playing for one more weekend, through August 25.

Nilo Cruz has written a very wordy play (occasionally ponderously so) where, as the characters themselves declare at crucial moments, "Nothing has happened." Nevertheless, the Weisenheimer and I agreed that the drama has been dialed way up since we saw the play early in its run. The tension and emotions were simmering and from time to time spilling over as these fascinating characters created tenuous lifelines across the bumpy distances that divide them.
Santino Garcia plays the
Ghost of Lorca in Beauty
of the Father
.

The biggest revelation for me the second time through was the relationship between Lorca's ghost and Emiliano. This time I saw it as central to the play and the most interesting dynamic of all of them, with real chemistry between Lorca, played by Santino Garcia, and Emiliano, played by Fernando Luna. I found Garcia's portrayal moving and fascinating, expressing a wide range of emotions as Lorca tries to bridge his own early, violent death in a time and place that could not accept him with the powder keg of the family Emiliano has cobbled together. Garcia's ghost of Lorca is by turns exasperated, anguished, amused, angered, delighted, and moved by this unconventional family as he is relegated, like that other theater ghost father, to observing and exhorting. Given those limitations, he tries everything he can to inspire Emiliano to be his best self—lecturing, teasing, distracting, poking, provoking, comforting, advising, guiding, and finally, sacrificing. It was touching to see how Emiliano summoned and dismissed the longsuffering and unshakable ghost the way a boy might alternately turn to and reject a father he still needs as he tries to be grown up. To answer my own questions from my first review, Lorca is Emiliano's conscience, confidante, mirror, kin, idol, second self, trusted friend. Lorca has been "beckoned back to life" by Emiliano's art and imagination, and Emiliano is Lorca's hope for being the man that Lorca was born in the wrong time and place and died too young to be. They long for the best in each other and therefore themselves.

This one keeps getting better. Closing weekend will be great. "Go see a play." Make it this one.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Beauty of the Father, Burien Little Theatre, Latino Theatre Projects

My acquaintance with the poet Federico García Lorca is through my copy of Three Plays, and I still haven't seen a play of his produced. This weekend, though, Lorca and I were at least introduced through Latino Theatre Projects' production of Nilo Cruz's Beauty of the Father at Burien Little Theatre, directed by Michael D. Blum. And the pleasure was mine.

Lorca and his history, and the history of Spain, haunt this story and its characters. In this context of conflicts, betrayals, loss, and suppression, when is it safe to be yourself? 

The story revolves around Emiliano—father, artist, lover, companion—at the center of something of a multigenerational and crosscultural love...square?....as he gains, loses, and tries to keep those he loves. He wears the mantle of fatherhood uneasily. As the people in his life look to him he must learn when to speak and when to be silent; when to be vulnerable; and when to let others find themselves.

Giving Emiliano counsel is the ghost of Lorca. Lorca is Greek chorus, mediator, and interpreter to us. And...something else, to Emiliano. But what? Sardonic gadfly? Conscience? Father figure? Son? (Lorca was 38 when he was murdered.) Does he merely observe, comment, and dabble? Or does he feel anguish with and for these living humans? What does the ghost desire? I would like to see this play again before the end of the run (August 25) to watch and listen and think more about this. There's a lot you can do with a ghost hanging out in your play. 

Another challenge of Cruz's play is that there isn't much "action" for those who care about such things; the relationships are all played out through the language of voice and body and there are only two locations, Emiliano's studio courtyard and a picnic on the nearby beach. 

That's ok. One of the strengths of this production is its rising cadence, making me almost hear and feel the tides of the coast outside Emiliano's door in Salobreña. Blum and his cast create a music that is expressed as much physically as it is through the language of the play. In particular the bodies and voices of Fernando Luna as Emiliano, Matt Aguayo as Karim, and Heather Ward as Paquita kept perfect rhythm, lithe and graceful, as this dance unfolded. 

The set by Maggie Larrick and art by Jim Barnia took me far away from Washington State, despite the limitations of the elementary-school-turned-theatre. 

Congratulations to Blum and all the cast and crew on a fine production, making theatre on I suspect a shoestring budget and a great deal of hard work. It was a pleasure to meet Robert Harkins, executive director and production manager and to shake hands with Luna, artistic director of Latino Theatre Projects as well as one of the stars of the show. Latino Theatre Projects will be on our list of companies to watch from now on and we look forward to seeing more from them.  

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Rapture, Blister, Burn, blah

My Sweetie, the official scorer, and I have probably seen more than 500 plays in our 22 years of going to theater together. We racked our brains, but could not come up with a single time we had left one before the end. Until yesterday. We couldn't escape ACT quickly enough last night at intermission of the truly awful Rapture, Blister, Burn.

It's probably not fair to review a show we didn't see through to the final curtain. The second act may well have redeemed the play, but the first act gave us no reason or desire to stick around and find out. The script by Gina Gionfriddo, inexplicably nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, is preposterously contrived, and the characters one-dimensional deliverers of a particular viewpoint. Other reviewers have found the script hilarious, and ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie calls Rapture, Blister, Burn "wickedly funny" and "comically distinctive." Well, sense of humor is a highly personal thing. While there were a few good lines in the first act, I mostly found the show intensely boring.

L-R: Kirsten Potter, Priscilla Lauris, Mariel Neto, and
Kathryn Van Meter in the classroom of Rapture, Blister, Burn
at ACT. Photo by Chris Bennion.
I don't blame the artists so much for this. Director Anita Montgomery and the cast don't have much to work with. Kirsten Potter is fine in the lead role of Catherine Croll, a rock-star academic. Priscilla Lauris as her mother has some nice moments and mixes the martinis. Would that the audience could have imbibed as well.

My Sweetie, the official scorer, pointed out an interesting coincidence. Potter also acted in the Seattle Rep's production of Or, by Liz Duffy Adams and directed by Allison Narver, in March and April last year. Or, won several Gypsy Rose Lee Awards from Seattle Theater Writers and took on many of the same issues of women's "proper" role in society, life expectations, and love, but managed to do it in a highly engaging and entertaining way.

If you want to learn about the history of feminist literature, rather than attending the "fourth-rate liberal arts college" of Rapture, Blister, Burn, you would do better to enroll in a survey course at your local community college. You could participate in the discussion instead of just watching, you would earn three credits, and you wouldn't burn an otherwise perfectly pleasant summer evening on a dull and pedantic show.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dandies, the cult of the closer, and who the frack are you?

Baseball can be a cruel and unforgiving sport.

Mariner first baseman Justin Smoak has been the object of some derision from Weisenheimer, being tagged with the nickname "The Great Smoak" almost since the moment of his acquisition as the big prize in the trade of Cliff Lee, which was followed immediately by his nosedive from über-prospect to just-another-player-who-flopped-upon-arrival-in-Seattle.

The Great Smoak. Photo by
Keith Allison, Wikimedia
Commons.
Smoak has been enjoying a modicum of redemption this summer. While his figures (.266, 9 HR, .793 OPS as of this writing) aren't exactly Ruthian, they dwarf 2012, in which Smoak batted .217, with 19 homers that boosted his OPS all the way up to .654. (Even Brendan Ryan, the M's recently deposed sub-Mendoza-Line shortstop, has an OPS of .521.) My Sweetie, the official scorer, and I were at the Mariners game Monday night, a 2-1 win over Cleveland. Late in the game Smoak came to the plate, and, as if to emphasize that the player was not yet a household name, a kid sitting several rows behind us bellowed, "Get a hit, number 17!" Were kids in the Bronx in 1927 hollering, "Sock one, number three!" when the Bambino came to the plate? Was Stan the Man ever encouraged to "Knock one, number six!"? I think not. Smoak has a ways to go to win the hearts and souls of the fans.

The 2-1 game qualified as a "dandy" as defined by my Sweetie, the official scorer, who as official scorer is the ultimate arbiter of these things. I have to say, though, that after some 22 years of going to games together (as of next month), we may have arrived at somewhat different understandings of the standards under which a "dandy" can be declared. I'd always thought that a dandy featured five runs or fewer scored, with a final margin of no more than two. Thus, a 3-2 game could be a dandy. But recently I was informed I was mistaken, and that five runs are too many. So a 3-1 game could be a dandy, but a 3-2 contest was a little wild. In addition, it's not a dandy if any errors are committed. The margins were clear on Monday and the game was officially determined to be a dandy. (Don't even ask me about the definitions of "beaut" and "humdinger".) Plus it was a gorgeous night out for baseball and for a ride on the Water Taxi to get home. We had a lovely time out at the yard.

The dandy-ness was nearly botched by the appearance of M's closer Tom Wilhelmsen, who lost that gig for a while because he stunk, and now has it back despite the fact that he doesn't smell any better now than he did in June. Wilhelmsen "saved" Monday's game by allowing a one-out double (though we might have to cut him some slack on that one because 41-year-old Raul Ibañez was playing left field and, while he's having a bang-up year at the plate, Raul doesn't cover as much ground as he used to) and then an inexplicable walk to Jason Giambi, a once-feared hitter who is now 42 and batting .192, before getting the final out on a long fly to right field.

Wilhelmsen had relieved Charlie Furbush who had relieved starter Aaron Harang, who pitched seven innings while allowing just four hits, walking one, and giving up one run on a first-inning homer. He'd also retired the last nine hitters he'd faced, ripped through the sixth and seventh innings on just 11 pitches, and had thrown just 99 for the game. Weisenheimer is admittedly old-school, having grown up watching Bob Gibson and others who would bean the manager if they tried to take them out of a 2-1 game. I leave a guy in there if he's retiring the side in order on five pitches.

Admittedly, we don't know what else might have been going on. Perhaps Harang was truly out of gas, or overcome with emotion at the birth of the royal baby, but all things being equal I leave him in.

The Goose. Now that guy was a
closer! Photo by Bbsrock, Wikimedia
Commons.
What's even more annoying than the automatic, by-the-book summoning of the closer is the ridiculous production number that heralds his entrance into the fray. For Wilhelmsen the M's have concocted a video presentation based on an ear-splitting rendition of the Hendrix version of "Voodoo Child," which at least shows good musical taste, but for gawdsakes it's as if we had Ricky Vaughn or Goose Gossage coming in rather than a guy who brings back nightmares of Bobby Ayala and Heathcliff Slocumb.

By the way, as I sat down to write this, Wilhelmsen was notching another save Tuesday, during which he gave up singles to the first two hitters to put men on the corners with nobody out in the top of the ninth. A truly boneheaded baserunning move helped the M's turn the rare 5-4-2-6 double play, the last guy whiffed, and the M's had won their eighth straight.

Wilhelmsen has me in mind of a story from my friend Chuck, who tells of drafting Claude Raymond of the Expos in an APBA league after he had notched 23 saves for Montreal in 1970. When the year's cards arrived, Raymond was rated among the worst pitchers, thanks to an ERA of 4.43. Here's hoping no 13-year-olds are duped by "The Bartender's" saves this off-season.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Bard's kings rule the summer stage

It's good to be king! There are some nice shows touring on the summer outdoor stages in the Seattle area, and the ones featuring the Bard's monarchs are the best of the bunch.

Vince Brady, left, as Lear and Sam Hagen as the Fool in the
GreenStage production of King Lear. Photo by Ken Holmes.
GreenStage is running King Lear, directed by Erin Day and featuring Vince Brady in the title role. Brady turns in a stunning and memorable performance as Lear, heart-rendingly depicting the aging ruler's flip-flops from monarch to mental case, from vengeful tyrant to doting dad. Brady is at home with Shakespeare's language, but it's also an intensely physical role. Apart from (spoiler alert!!) lugging the dead Cordelia at the end, he has to play the tics and twitches of age and infirmity, the strength of the king in his more lucid moments, physical hardship in the storm, and he's just on stage all the time. A truly marvelous performance; he's every inch a king.

The rest of the cast is grand as well. Sam Hagen is jaw-dropping in his portrayal of the Fool, truth-teller to the king. It's magical how Hagen makes the wise and hilarious simpleton utterly believable. Daniel Wood is amazing as Edgar and his undercover alter-ego, Poor Tom. Wood often winds up barely clothed in these things, as he did while wearing Superman underwear as Stephano in The Tempest two years ago. Lear is fabulous. Don't miss it!

(Full disclosure: Weisenheimer is marketing director for GreenStage, but it doesn't make me biased!)

David S. Hogan is commanding in the
title role of Wooden O's Henry V. Hogan
is pictured here with Annie Lareau as
Bardolph. Seattle Shakespeare Company
photo.
At the other end of the royal spectrum from the aged Lear is the young whippersnapper Henry V. Seattle Shakespeare Compnay's Wooden O is performing Henry this summer, directed by George Mount with David S. Hogan in the title role. Hogan rocks this great character, whether he's giving the Saint Crispian's day pep talk, whacking one of his old drinking buddies for stealing, or skulking among the common soldiery the night before the big battle. I especially enjoyed the great scene where he and Carolyn Marie Monroe, as Katherine, try to overcome the language barrier as they court in court at the end.

Henry had some great special effects, including a couple of explosions, one of which took down a wall of the fortress. Also, at one point during a battle the air cover flew overhead (yes, set in modern times!) and I was looking around for the real plane--jets often fly over Volunteer Park during the shows. The "sense-surround" really worked. Henry V included a strong supporting cast with many favorite actors. And Terri Weagant as Bishop of Ely? I confess!!

GreenStage also is reprising A Midsummer Night's Dream, the fourth time they've performed the popular Shakespeare comedy in their 25 years cavorting in Seattle-area parks. The silver-anniversary version, directed by Ken Michels, is great fun from start to finish. Gina Marie Russell and David Rollison are fantastic as Hippolyta/Titania and Theseus/Oberon and Taylor Davis enchants as Puck. I found the Rude Mechanicals to be especially hilarious. Led by Michael Ramquist as Peter Quince, the director of Pyramus and Thisbe reminded me a bit of Buddy Bizarre, and Ramquist said there may be a touch of Harold Hecuba in there as well. Danni Krehbiel is a hoot as Robin Starveling, and Luke Sayler a riot as Bottom.

Wooden O also is putting on The Tempest, directed by Kelly Kitchens, with Amy Thone in the role of Prospero. Thone is amazing, with a string of lead Shakespearean roles of late, including Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus. Kitchens took a bit of a different tack with Caliban than we usually see, with Brian D. Simmons playing the slave as a crew-cut, t-shirt-wearing, but gouged up human. It was an interesting way to go with the character. I loved the comic relief between Mike Dooly and Donna Wood as Stephano and Trinculo; as we left after the show we heard several patrons proclaim that "the drunk guy was really good!"

In this show Wooden O's effects did not work as well. They had trouble with the sound system and there was some background hum and feedback for a good part of the performance we saw, and with microphones all over the set, some of them delivered louder sound than others, which was a bit distracting. I hope they get those ironed out as the summer goes along.

The kings rule, but all four of these shows are worth a look. They're playing in parks all over the area through mid-August.

GreenStage calendar
Wooden O calendar

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Catching up on theater reviews

For some reason I'm always a little surprised to learn that the West Seattle Weisenheimer has actual readers, and even more taken aback to find out that some of them miss our rantings when we go quiet (as we did for two months between our essays on the Mariners and double plays in late April and the 14/48 festival in late June.) Not even my mom reads this blog; Ma Weisenheimer is not an Internet user. Yet when our writeup of the first evening of 14/48 was posted, several folks that evening mentioned that they were glad we were back.

There's no accounting for taste!

Well, we have been going to theater these past few months. Here are some quickie reviews of a half dozen shows we liked, and one that was not so great.

Photo by LaRue Lobdell
ACT's production of Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Victor Pappas, was a marvelous show, featuring sparkling dialog delivered by some fine actors. We were especially impressed with Pamela Reed as Polly Wyeth, well-to-do mom of a Palm Springs family experiencing some strife during the holidays, and with Marya Sea Kaminski as daughter Brooke who plans a tell-all book about how horrible it was growing up with those parents and how they killed her brother. A great tale of family history, politics, and the varying stages of truth. My Sweetie, the official scorer, was bugged all evening trying to figure out where she had seen actor Kevin Tighe, who played father Lyman Wyeth. An Internet search revealed she remembered him from the '70s television series "Emergency."

Dogg's Hamlet/Cahoot's Macbeth, by Tom Stoppard, directed by Teresa Thuman for Sound Theatre Company. Pairing two lesser-known Stoppard one-act plays based on the Bard made for an interesting evening. In the first English schoolboys preparing for their presentation of Hamlet befuddle everyone with their made-up language. By the end we begin to understand what they're talking about, and are laughing out loud at the slapstick juggling of virtually every prop and set piece on the stage. In the latter a power-mad police inspector in cold-war Czechoslovakia keeps a close watch on a group of actors performing Macbeth on the sly in a private home. Robert Hinds played the inspector with malicious glee. Props to a great cast and the usual fun word play from Stoppard.

Often times these days we're choosing our plays because of who is in them. The Language Archive by Julia Cho directed by Shana Bestock at Seattle Public Theater is one of those, and Mike Dooly was the who. Dooly was great as always, this time as a linguist who, ironically, can't find the words, any words, to salvage his crumbling marriage. Julie Jamieson and John Murray were delightful as the last two speakers of a near-dead language, on the critical list because they're not speaking to each other, either! Candace Vance was marvelous as Dooly's frustrated spouse who finds her calling as a baker, and Heather Persinger was a delight as Dooly's lab assistant who is madly in love with him but—of course!—can't find the words to tell him. Seattle Public Theatre had a fine 2012-13 season that also included Superior Donuts and The Understudy, another show featuring Dooly that we didn't review but did enjoy.

The cast of Smoked! Photo
by John Cornicello.
Café Nordo's Smoked! was dinner theater, but in a good way. In our experience neither the dinner nor the theater are much good in these situations, and we would have given Smoked! a miss except that Ryan Higgins and Ray Tagavilla were in the cast. That turned it into must-see theater, and we were pleased with both the show and the food. The play was a send-up of the spaghetti western, and we as the audience were folks who had come into town for tomorrow morning's hanging. While feeding up at the local saloon we saw first-hand the conflict between the baddies from the big agri-business firm that was running the town and the silent stranger who rode in to set things right. The food was tasty and all locally sourced. The drinks were delicious creations, too, and Weisenheimer's home bar now serves up a reasonable re-creation of saloonkeeper Clara Still's concoction "The Pine Box." We'd never heard of Douglas Fir liqueur before!

Weisenheimer is often teased as being a soft touch as a theater reviewer. This recent piece from The Guardian takes to task reviewers who are too quick to rave about mediocre shows. I'll admit that I am way more of a booster than a critic. So it pains me to say that the Eclectic Theater production of Othello, which I'd eagerly anticipated because the wonderful Michael D. Blum was cast in the title role, was an extremely disappointing show. Fittingly for a performance of Othello, we blame it all on Iago. Rik Deskin, who is the company's managing artistic director, was cast in the role despite the fact that he is having memory issues that leave him unable to recall his lines. There was quite a dust-up on Facebook over this, but we decided to go anyway and see how it was handled. Sadly, not well. Director Kim Deskin's attempt to make Rik's memory seem like a feature rather than a bug was clumsy and distracting. Worse yet, even though he was on book Deskin was still flubbing lines, and we saw the show near the end of its run. And the biggest sin of all was that Deskin really didn't do anything resembling acting. With a cardboard Iago Othello just falls apart. The cast was valiant, and kudos to them all for soldiering on, but they couldn't overcome the sore middle finger on the stage.

L-R: Richard Nguyen Sloniker, Mark
Bedard, and Angela DiMarco in Boeing
Boeing
. Photo by Chris Bennion.
Boeing Boeing at Seattle Rep was a wonderful farce with a great cast. The play by Marc Camoletti, translated by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans and directed by Allison Narver, is the tale of a '60s swinger, played by Richard Nguyen Sloniker, who is dating three stewardesses, played by Bhama Roget, Cheyenne Casebier, and Angela DiMarco. When the flight patterns get tangled up and all three arrive at the bachelor pad at once, hilarity ensues. Further comic relief is provided by the brilliant Anne Allgood, who plays the maid who somehow helps keep the secret, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival favorite Mark Bedard, who plays a school chum from Wisconsin who isn't so used to this swingin' Paris lifestyle. Great set and "futuristic" gadgets helped make this a fun show.

The cast of The Taming of the
Shrew
, trailer park version. Photo
by Chris Bennion.
Seattle Shakespeare Company closed out its season with an indoor remounting of its Wooden O production of The Taming of the Shrew, set in a trailer park. Aimée Bruneau directed, David Quicksall and Kelly Kitchens were marvelous as Petruchio and Kate, David S. Hogan sparkled as Grumio, and Karen Jo Fairbrook was over the top as Mama Baptista Minola, the reigning queen of the trailer park.

Now you're up to date! We're looking forward to the Seattle Outdoor Theater Festival next weekend!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Thanks, virgins!

Alas, 14/48, the world's quickest theater festival, is finished for the year. But one of many reasons that 14/48 is better than Christmas is that it happens more often. The festival will next be at ACT in January.

Saturday night's seven plays, based on the theme "The devil is in the details," went out with a bang. Ahem. The final play of the evening, "Kids. Today." written by Nik Perleros and directed by Julia Griffin, featured a wild sex scene between the characters plays by Mark Waldstein and Sandra Ponce. The scene was more than a little awkward. It's tough to maintain modesty during frantic stage copulation followed by the immediate arrival of three fully-grown, slimy, and demonic offspring. You really had to be there.

Weisenheimer has had a difficult time picking a favorite play of the evening. It was either "The Importance of Beauty" written by John Farrage and directed by Justin Alley, or "Hot Tub" written by Brandon Jepson and directed by Agastya Kohli. The former featured Daniel Wood as da Vinci and Emily Grogan as his model for the Mona Lisa, David Nail as the modern-day art professor who doesn't understand the painting, and Rebecca M. Davis as the student who does. The latter was a bit less subtle. Zach Adair and Meaghan Halverson played a couple being cooked up in a cauldron by witch Erin Pike. They were in the predicament because Adair's character forgot the map. They got out of it because Cody Smith, a lovable troll who is friends with the witch (he calls himself a "hag hag"), let them go, as he usually does with dinner. He's turning vegan.

We couldn't find any photos from last
night to steal! Everyone must have been
too exhausted to post any! Here's
Weisenhimer's pic of the opening screen.
We also enjoyed "The Ceremony" by Kate Jaeger and directed by Debra Pralle, in which the world is destroyed by a super demon because someone forgot the salt. There was a lot of creepiness this weekend, including Rob MacGregor's performance as the title character in "Oscar Clyde Denman," a controlling butler who didn't want Rachel Glass to go off to the extreme dangers of college. The play was written by Jennifer Jasper and directed by Alyson Soma. "Alfred" by Holly Arsenault and directed by Maria Glanz, was an oddball knife salesman who encounters two similar, yet very different, women at a bus stop. As for "My Cat From Hell" by Dave Clapper: while my Sweetie, the official scorer, is a Jackson Galaxy fan, Weisenheimer doesn't think any plays should be based on naughty cats.

We'd like to think everyone who participated in this weekend's 14/48 is no longer a virgin, but this may not be the case. As co-founder Jodi-Paul Wooster noted during his curtain speech last night, "You're deflowered when I say you're deflowered."

See you in January, blossoms!