Sunday, April 21, 2013

Three great shows: August, LLL, and Two Trains

Weisenheimer has been pretty quiet of late, but we've seen three fantastic plays over the last month and just had to share.

Top of the list is Balagan Theatre's incredible production of August: Osage County, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, directed for Balagan by Shawn Belyea. It's not just the play of the month, but possibly the best show I've seen in at least the last couple of years. It's a great text, and Belyea gets outstanding performances from a cast of 13 that includes some of our favorite local actors.

Shellie Shulkin as Violet Weston, left, dispenses some truth
to daughter Barbara Fordham (Teri Lazzara) in Balagan
Theatre's production of August: Osage County. Balagan
photo by Truman Buffett.
Everyone is so good that it feels a bit unfair to single anyone out, but I must. Charles Leggett is outstanding as Weston family patriarch Beverly, though he's only around for the first 20 minutes or so and spends the next three hours offstage either at the bottom of the lake or in the morgue. Teri Lazzara is dynamite as eldest daughter Barbara Fordham, returning to the old homestead to take charge now that dad is gone. A trio of folks who I tend to think of as great comic actors--Chris Ensweiler, Lisa Viertel, and Kate Jaeger--turn in superb, mostly serious performances (though there's plenty of comic relief in Osage County and Jaeger in particular has some funny lines). Gordon Carpenter is charming and totally creepy as Steve Heidebrecht, fiancé of Jaeger's character, Karen Weston.

Even given this great cast, the show belongs to Shellie Shulkin, who is an absolute tour de force as the pill-popping, chain-smoking, truth-telling matriarch of the clan, Violet Weston. Playing drunk or stoned is tough; it's easy to wind up just goofy or sloppy. But Shulkin nails it, and I expect the family likes her better when she's wasted, because in her more lucid moments she's blunt, vicious, and just high-octane mean. It's a truly remarkable performance.

Hats off to everyone; I'm tempted to rate August: Osage County as the best among the many great shows Balagan has done, though I remain partial, too, to Elephant's Graveyard of 2009 and to the very first Balagan show I saw, Othello in 2008. Longtime readers of this blog may recall that Weisenheimer serves on the board of Balagan Theatre, but this doesn't make me biased. Still, go see for yourself; the show runs through April 27 at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway. Tickets here.

Mike Dooly was oh-so-creepy as Costard
in Seattle Shakespeare Company's Love's
Labour's Lost
. Photo: John Ulman.
Across town at Seattle Shakespeare Company they put on a really fine production of Love's Labour's Lost, directed by John Kretzu. We were especially pleased that, at the end, we were pretty sure the women weren't going to come back in a year and hook up with King Ferdinand and his dumb-ass team of frat boys. We thought that Samara Lerman was super as the princess of France.

Some of the most shining individual performances came from the supporting characters. Mike Dooly was amazing, creepy, yucky, and totally creepy as Costard, the clown. Clowns are scary anyway, but this one is one of the toppers yet. Believe us, kids, when we say you don't want to find Dooly under your bed. Outstanding in a more comical and lighthearted way were George Mount as Sir Nathaniel and David Quicksall as the goofy Spaniard Don Adriano de Armado. Quicksall, in fact, came out as top character in Seattle Shakes' bracket battle, their version of the March madness meme, this despite my vote for Costard over the Don in the quarterfinal round.

Kretzu made some great choices as director and created a marvelous and memorable show. We hope he will be back at Seattle Shakes again. Love's Labour's Lost closed up April 7.

Finally we saw August Wilson's Two Trains Running directed by Lou Bellamy at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The top-notch cast included some OSF favorites (Kevin Kenerly, Josiah Phillips, Kenajuan Bentley, and Tyrone Wilson) and some Ashland newcomers (Terry Bellamy, Bakesta King, and Jerome Preston Bates.) Bellamy was fabulous as Memphis, the owner of the diner where the action takes place. King was grand as his comically slow-moving waitress. Kenerly amazed as usual with his character Sterling, the ambitious ex-con who finally gets the ham for Wilson's character Hambone.

Two Trains Running was pure pleasure, a marvelous story, expertly directed, with a strong, professional cast. Kudos to set designer Vicki Smith for creating the diner in the condemned building. It worked beautifully. It's the kind of home run that happens often in Ashland.

You've got time to see this one; it runs at OSF through July 7.

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