Tuesday, December 2, 2014

OSF good fun: Cocoanuts and Comedy of Errors

The acting company at Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a supremely talented bunch. We continue to be amazed at how absolutely hilarious they can be. The laugh-meisters had ample opportunity to show their stuff this past season in two outstanding comedies: Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and the Marx Brothers classic The Cocoanuts.

Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, and Mark Bedard as the Marx
Brothers in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of The
. OSF photo by Jenny Graham.
The Cocoanuts was adapted by OSF's own Mark Bedard, from the original book by George S. Kaufman and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Bedard even did some extensive sleuthing to turn up some original Berlin tunes that had long been separated from the stage script of the show.

The production, directed by David Ivers, was a reunion of the cast of the Marx's Animal Crackers staged at OSF in 2012, bringing back Bedard as Groucho, Brent Hinkley as Harpo, John Tufts as Chico, and K.T. Vogt as their Margaret Dumont-esque foil.

The show includes a couple of the brothers' best bits: the Why a Duck discussion between Groucho and Chico, and the wild, two-bedroom chase scene featuring the brothers, con-woman Penelope Martin (played by the also-hilarious Kate Mulligan), and the bumbling Detective Hennessey, portrayed by David Kelly, who may well be the most hysterical actor of the group. It has been nearly two months since we saw the show as I write this, and Kelly's rendition of the tune "The Tale of a Shirt" continues to work its way into my head. It is most welcome there.

David Kelly, center, as Detective Hennessey, who really wants
his shirt, with the rest of the cast of The Cocoanuts. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
While the story and characters are familiar, there was plenty of ad-libbing and playing off, and in, the audience, from which the brothers swiped a variety of personal items to use in their schtick. At the performance we attended they came away with some gaudy green sunglasses and some snacks. A festival insider tells us that at one performance they lifted a rather intimate toy from the handbag of a teenaged girl in the crowd, yet somehow resisted the urge to make her the butt of jokes.

If not for Water by the Spoonful, this production of The Cocoanuts would have been our choice for best-of-festival. hands down.

The other great comedy of the season was Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, directed by Kent Gash. Instead of Syracuse and Ephesus, the two sets of long-separated twins reside in Harlem and Louisiana at the time of the Harlem renaissance in the late 1920s.

Tobie Windham, left, as Antipholus, and
Rodney Gardiner as Dromio, in OSF's
Production of The Comedy of Errors. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
This production featured Rodney Gardiner, who played both Dromios, and Tobie Windham, who portrayed both Antipholuses. (Antipholi?) Tyrone Wilson was marvelous as Egeon, Bakesta King a delight as the Courtesan, and R.J. Foster cut an authoritative figure as Duke Solinus. All were delightful in romping through the twists and turns of mistaken identity, missing necklaces, purloined purses, and the like. Fitting to the era, the music of Harlem swing kept our toes tapping.

The one slight mis-step in The Comedy of Errors came at the end, with the big reveal that the two sets of twins had been reunited. As the same actors played both twins, and did an amazing job at somehow turning up immediately after an exit in a completely different corner of the theater, I'd wondered how Gash would pull this off. He simply introduced two more actors at the end, dressed the same as the other Dromio and Antipholus. I was hoping for something a bit more clever.

That said, this Comedy was also a lot of fun. It's good to mix in some laughs with some of the heavier plays in the festival.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

eSe Teatro / Central Heating Lab: Don Quixote & Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle

You would think coming home from two weeks at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we would have had our fill of theater. You would be wrong. The Weisenheimers never get enough of theater. Plus, some artists we know, respect, enjoy, and admire—along with some artists we were about to be introduced to—were putting on a show. So we went. 

That show was Don Quixote & Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle, by Rose Cano, directed by David Quicksall, by eSe Teatro and the Central Heating Lab at ACT, and starring José Amador and Will Rose. It was every bit as beautiful, butt-kicking, and bold as the best of what we saw in Ashland.  

The play is structured the way Cervantes' novel is: an episodic journey. What holds the story together is less a narrative "arc" and more character and theme. Which is fine by me. Something interesting should happen to someone interesting; beyond that, plot is overrated.

Rose (left) and Amador share a sandwich in eSe Teatro's
production of Rose Cano's Don Quixote & Sancho Panza:
Homeless in Seattle
. Photo by Stephanie Mallard Couch.
This play's two primary characters are strange bedfellows who rescue each other in Seattle and stay connected on the streets in a sort of weak molecular attraction (by which I mean, rather strong) until their paths irrevocably fork. The themes are chivalry (by which I mean something so much more than men perfunctorily holding doors open for women); virtue, morality, manliness, being a gentleman, being a caballero. Also, friendship. And, the porosity of all sorts of boundaries: time; spaces indoor and out, public and private; bodily integrity; sanity. Some of these episodes were heartbreakingly hilarious (like, working a day job walking around a conference as wi-fi hotspots); some were just heartbreaking.

The performances by, and chemistry between, Will Rose and José Amador were riveting. Rose as Don Quixote brought a taller-than-life, naive, tender courtliness to every moment, delivered entirely in Spanish. My high school Spanish cannot take the credit, it was Rose's performance (and undoubtedly Cano's writing and Quicksall's direction) that made the story and meaning so clear, even as I picked up every few words and some of the grammar. Rose's language, body and voice, was exquisitely lovely to hear and see. 

Amador as Sancho Panza played translator, foil, protagonist, protector, interpreter, chorus, conscience, sidekick, muse...shit, he was busy. He grounded Rose's Quixote's loftiness and provided heat for his light. Every moment, he was so alive, so observant, so quick, and so present, even as Quixote became more remote. 

This play landed. It was simply impossible to watch it without thinking of the person I see once or twice a week at a downtown intersection and exchange pleasantries with while waiting for the green light, but whose name I do not know. Without thinking of the people I never knew who have died or been hurt here at the hands of police violence but whose stories have become like memories. Without thinking of the people I know well who suffer from illnesses of body and mind with few options for help, and plenty of exposure to judgment. 

I would love to learn more about Cano's process writing this play. My understanding is that, in addition to drawing on her own experience as an interpreter at our local ERs, she held readings and workshops with people who live in Seattle without a roof to call their own. 

The attention to detail in the set, props, costume helped make the most of the tiny, intimate space in the Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space at ACT. And the ensemble supporting cast did an outstanding job: Ian Bond, Steve Gallion, Angela Maestas, Xochitl Portillo-Moody were nurses, sirens, street kids, medics, memories, and more as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza made their way through dreams and reality in a play that hit home.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

ArtsWest: The Mountaintop

We have had a long and bumpy relationship with ArtsWest. In the beginning, we did everything we could to support the theater, giving 'til it hurt, subscribing, inviting our friends and hosting after-show parties. However, ArtsWest has had a lot of ups and downs in its artistic choices and direction, and we have not subscribed for many years, choosing instead to attend individual shows that looked like they might be substantive. 

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall and directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton is indeed substantive, nourishing theater. This entirely absorbing, two-character, 90-minute play speculates on the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life, and poses the question: what if god sent a messenger to help Dr. King as he is called home? What if he knew his life on earth was about to end? What would he say?

Camae (brianne a hill) and Dr. King (Reginald André Jackson)
in ArtsWest's production of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall.
ArtsWest photo by Michael Brunk.
That sounds a bit lofty, but in fact this play is down to earth. brianne a. hill plays the potty-mouthed, sassy, street-tough angel whose first assignment (she was murdered just the night before) is to escort Dr. King to the other side. The writing and the pitch-perfect performance by Reginald André Jackson cut through the hagiography around Dr. King so that he could be portrayed as a real man—a brilliant, extraordinary man, but in the end, a man. 

The play is set on the night of April 3, 1968 in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. King spent the last night of his life and where, the next day, he would be shot on the balcony. The set, designed by Burton Yuen, made us voyeurs into this room, with the door and window to the balcony as backdrop. We understand it was a faithful recreation of the Lorraine, and the many small details helped ground the play, making the setting vivid and helping to make the characters human by contrasting the ordinary and mundane with the weighty themes of the play. 

As the play opens, Ralph Abernathy has just stepped out for cigarettes, and Dr. King calls room service for coffee. Camae is the lovely maid who brings the coffee and handles Dr. King's flirtations, rants, arrogance, anxiety, and grief with aplomb. 

This is a very funny play, and the timing and energy from hill and Jackson bring out that humor. It is also a painfully serious play, as Dr. King wrestles with his failings, his mortality, and his god. I found the scene where the angel Camae shows Dr. King the future in fierce and flawlessly delivered poetry to be especially moving. 

I'm going to have to stop saying I categorically dislike video in plays. The use of a video montage to show Dr. King the future was appropriate and effective. We were talking about video in plays recently with a friend of ours who works in theatre, and he said people are learning how to incorporate video into plays well. The design team for this production certainly did it well.

Sadly, our experience was not quite as entirely absorbing as it should have been based on the artists' efforts. A man in front of us, in the front row, chose to converse with his seat partner through the show in a perfectly audible stage whisper. So disrespectful to the actors, and so distracting for people around him. What would you do—complain to an usher? Well, here's the thing: he was an usher. Doh. Dear ArtsWest: please ask your ushers not to converse during the show. Thank you.  

ArtsWest has a new artistic director, and their tagline is "fiercely compelling theatre." Sounds audacious, but hey, audacious is good. The Mountaintop is certainly that kind of theater, and we hope to be back many more times.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

OSF: Water By The Spoonful

Would you be interested in a play set in an internet comment thread? Sounds dreadful, right? Before seeing Water By The Spoonful, directed by Shishir Kurup at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I probably would have said that a website is not good dramatic material. Ugh. Don't go there.

Well, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes went there, with exquisite, beautiful results. 

The design roles are often the last to get mentioned in talking and writing about theatre, if they're mentioned at all, which is really a shame, because the design elements—the shape of the stage and its situation relative to the audience, the set, the costumes, sound, lighting, props—all have so much to do with the experience of theatre. Theater is enacted in physical time and space, and it is one of the most collaborative arts. 
Daniel José Molina in OSF's Water by the Spoonful

So I'm going to start there. In Water By The Spoonful, Sibyl Wickersheimer's set was nothing short of genius (she also designed the fantastic Unfortunates last year). It was abstract, spare, and simple, and added so much to the storytelling. The set consisted of 13 simple, illuminated squares, with the space of a narrow path between them. The boxes upstage were cantilevered like an open laptop. The row that formed the backdrop displayed the website community members' avatars when they were online. All of the boxes were illuminated with a shimmery and, yes, watery blue until they were needed to evoke the setting of a particular scene in watercolor washes. 

It was fascinating to watch how director Kurup used the spaces in between the squares and the spaces on the squares to create a sense of space, distance, and connection, and to help make it abundantly clear when people were interacting online and when they were interacting in person. Geoff Korf's lighting was integral to the physical set and the story, and he and Wickersheimer collaborated on video design that helped make the story come alive. The sound by John Nobori also helped make clear the distinctions between in person and online, indoors and outdoors. And costume designer Raquel Barreto avoided the OSF goofy costume trap. The costumes were appropriate and relevant, and the characters seemed comfortable wearing them.

All of these design choices were critical because the story weaves together the lives of the members of an online recovery website founded by "Haikumom" with Haikumom's family and their history. It is a powerfully moving story about some of the incredibly tough barriers that keep us apart and traces these very human characters' superheroic attempts to connect anyway. I'm not going to do a synopsis here because I'm not going to forget the story, almost anything I could say would spoil its unfolding, and really, you should drop everything and see it if it plays anywhere near you, or even read it

When you do see it, I hope you see performances as outstanding as we saw. Each character has demons and in the course of wrestling them each character is awkward, brave, annoying, heroic, clueless, wise, tragic, comic. Each actor embodies and portrays their own particular character's particular demons and journey. Vilma Silva as Haikumom gives an indelible performance of a character who is unforgivable and forgiven, irredeemable and redeemed, unfit and a blessing. Daniel José Molina's acting is like jazz; he's playing with more notes, more chords, and more combinations under his fingers than most actors. His Elliot gives the story energy and forward motion. Bruce A. Young is heartbreakingly adorable as Chutes&Ladders, and Celeste Den as Orangutan makes you want to shake her and hug her. Barret O'Brien is appropriately cringeworthy as Fountainhead and it's fascinating to watch him become a "real" person as John. Nancy Rodriguez is back after several years' absence from OSF, and we enjoyed her return as Yazmin, Elliot's cousin. 

Water By the Spoonful is actually part two of a trilogy. I don't know why OSF didn't start with the first play, Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue, but we're looking forward to the third play, The Happiest Song Plays Last, at OSF in 2015. As part of her research for these plays, Hudes interviewed her cousin Elliot, an Iraq war veteran, and other family members and wove these fictional stories out of the emotional truth of her family's experiences and relationships. The process sounds fascinating. The results are great art.

Monday, September 29, 2014

OSF: Two Gents, Tempest

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced The Tempest and Two Gentlemen of Verona this year and they were....ok. But we've noticed a bit of a trend. Of the four Shakespeare plays each year (and OSF is dropping down to three next year), one or maybe two of them is great, and the others are just....ok. One shines and the others fizzle. How can that be? Are they economizing with some of the Willy shows on preparing, thinking, creating, and rehearsing time? They wouldn't do that....would they??? Or is it just one of those things?

Dennis Arndt in OSF's The Tempest.
We wouldn't have missed The Tempest, directed by Tony Taccone, out of gratitude to Dennis Arndt for many years of great performances in Seattle (he's an OSF alumnus, but this is our first time seeing him in Ashland). He brought a sensitivity and totally believable pathos to the role of Prospero. However, the production did him no favors. The casual, conversational approach to speaking Shakespeare's lines might have worked well in the black box Thomas Theatre, but didn't quite carry in the Bowmer. 

And nothing about the set helped him out. It started out promising enough, with a dramatic and beautifully set tempest scene. I liked the idea to create an expansive, abstract landscape, and it was a lovely shape, curved up at one corner to be a hill or what have you, and clever traps throughout. But once the clouds and waves magically rolled away, we were left with...wine colored shag carpeting. It didn't exactly transport me, at least not anywhere I wanted to be, and it made the actors seem small. 

The costumes were goofy and sometimes distracting. For example, the magic robe of rope for Prospero seemed to distract him, and us. I was especially annoyed that the Incredible Hulk green-yellow powder (what is that foul stuff??) distracted from an energetic and compelling performance by Wayne T. Carr as Caliban. And while I love meta humor as much as anyone, nods to other work (like Angels in America) seemed out of place in this show.

We saw Two Gents outside in the Elizabethan Theatre, directed by Sarah Rasmussen and cast with all women, and as I mentioned in my Richard III post, the ladies did not entirely nail it. Some of the actors couldn't make themselves clear even with the amplification, and several potentially dramatic moments were swallowed. The Weisenheimer's comment was that the whole production was "beige."

Christiana Clark as Proteus and Sofia Jean Gomez as Valentine
in OSF's Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Here are some highlights, though: Erica Sullivan, supremely skilled and talented, as Julia. Judith-Marie Bergan as Lucetta. Vilma Silva as Antonio. And the whole all-women endeavor was worth it to give K.T. Vogt some meaty stage time as both Launce and the Duke. She has been fantastic in everything we have seen her do here. Kjerstine Rose Anderson also brought the funny as Speed. But, man, Vogt and Anderson had to sweat bullets for every laugh. I don't know if our late September Tuesday night audience was especially soporific or what. Even Picasso, playing Crab, seemed to be half asleep. I think Vogt and Anderson were putting out 60 watts for every candlepower by everybody else at the Lizzie that night. Ladies, I appreciate your labors.

The thing is, Wooden O's Two Gents this summer in the park, directed by David Quicksall, kicked OSF's ass. As did Seattle Shakespeare's Tempest in 2009 with Michael Winters as Prospero, Hana Lass as Ariel, Kerry Ryan as Trinculo, and Peter Dylan O'Connor as Caliban. It's wonderful that we're able to see Shakespeare done well right here in Seattle by the O, Seattle Shakespeare Company and GreenStage. We still love OSF; they've given us a chance to see plays—Shakespeare, other classics, and new work—that we likely wouldn't have had a chance to see otherwise. But it's just a reminder that OSF is not a gimme, and there's some wonderful work being done by small, local companies, presumably on a fraction of OSF's budget.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

OSF: Richard III

We've been looking forward to Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of Richard III all year, and especially Dan Donohue's turn in the titular role, and we were not disappointed. Richard III was the high point of our first time here ten seasons ago, and we enjoyed seeing another interpretation.

In this production directed by James Bundy, Richard is a comedian; and I absolutely mean this as a compliment. He sees into and through the dark humor of court politics. Just as a comedian sometimes skewers his audience, Richard skewers those around him, and channels his hostility into a deadpan "can you believe this guy?" and "I can't believe I got away with that" incredulity. He mugs for the audience in his constant asides, and drew more laughs than one or two of the comedies we saw here. Something was niggling at me through most of the first half of the play, and at one point shortly after intermission, some combination of gesture, mannerism, a set of Donohue's jaw, and a particularly meaningful look at the audience, and it came to me in a flash: it was as though he was channeling the brilliant Robin Williams. Of course, this was Donohue's show, and he was riveting. I wouldn't have missed a single turn of phrase and gesture. He held us in the very palm of his withered hand.

Dan Donohue as Richard III. OSF photo.
Most of the women in this production turned up the heat on Richard with sparkling performances. Robin Goodrin Nordli might just be the best Queen Elizabeth I've seen across four productions, three of which were very good (this one, OSF 2005, and GreenStage 2007; Intiman's 2006 directed by Bartlett Sher was completely forgettable). Nordli absolutely nailed the scene where Richard courts her daughter, fooling him but not us, and obviously having no intention whatsoever to give her to him. Judith-Marie Bergan was blistering as Richard's mother. And they didn't get fancy with Queen Margaret, making her all sepulchral or anything. She was played with straightforward venom by Franchelle Stewart Dorn. Tess Hemmerling just about made off with the show as Richard's younger nephew, the Duke of York.

I appreciated the restraint in the set designed by Richard L. Hay. There are very few places where you can see theater outdoors in the tradition of a stage that is shaped the way the Elizabethan is, with its multiple levels, pillars, trapdoor, thrust configuration, and, instead of a backdrop, entrances and exits upstage rather than (just) the wings. The design of the theatre causes the actors to interact differently with each other and with the audience than in a proscenium arch theatre, where the actors are little figures in a diorama. It's not so much that Shakespeare was breaking the "fourth wall" all the time—and never more than in Richard III—as that there was no fourth wall then.

Actors, directors, and designers often don't seem to know how to do theater outside. And to be fair, why should they have that training, since there will be so few opportunities to work outdoors. Which is a bummer for people like me who have seen how wonderful really good outdoor theater can be.

One of the consequences of the lack of training for the outdoor theater is that OSF finally capitulated and installed a fancy schmancy sound system in the Lizzie, a development we were not looking forward to. Based on Richard III, we were relieved. It could have been a lot worse. The amplification was subtle and skillful. Spoken lines still sounded like they were coming from the actor's location on stage, and they wisely refrained from playing around with all the bells and whistles I'm sure the system gives them, only getting woo-woo during the ghost dream scene.

Two Gents a few days later proved that amplification isn't enough if the actors don't have the skills to be clear. Several of the younger cast, though miked, were difficult to understand. Most of the principal actors in Richard III have played that stage for many years and know what they're doing, so they were easy to understand. They created characters and scenes and drama and told a thrilling story, not with technology, but with their voices and bodies and skill; and for that: bravo.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

OSF: A Wrinkle in Time

It is a bonus when our interests in theater and astronomy intersect, and that is happening this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with its production of A Wrinkle in Time, based on the 1962 novel of the same title by Madeleine L'Engle. The OSF play is a world premiere adapted and directed by Tracy Young.

Alejandra Escalante as Meg Murry in Oregon Shakespeare
Festival's production of A Wrinke in Time.
In A Wrinkle in Time math whiz Meg Murry (Alejandra Escalante), her über-genius little brother Charles Wallace Murry (Sara Bruner), and pal Calvin O'Keefe (Joe Wegner) zip around the universe in search of missing papa Murry (Dan Donohue). They accomplish their travel by bending time and space in a tesseract, or "tessering," as explained by the helpful science fair project by Science Girl (Jada Rae Perry).

Kids traversing the universe make for some imaginative and wonderfully silly stage effects and costumes, and we think especially of the multi-tentacled Aunt Beast (Daniel T. Parker), for whose costume a good half-dozen vacuum cleaners must have given their lives, or at least their hoses.

The performances are top-notch. We single out Escalante and Bruner especially, as well as Judith-Marie Bergan, who was much fun as Mrs. Whatsit, something of an intergalactic tour guide for the adventurers. Bergan, we think, can play anything, from the comic to the manic (as we note my Sweetie, the official scorer's, recent review of last year's production of The Tenth Muse.)

For all of its goofiness, the play takes on some serious themes about the mysteries of the universe, the nature of time and space, the dangers and advantages of technology, and of the strength and importance of family ties and love. The science isn't so heavy that you need to be a cosmologist or physicist or a math geek like Meg to get it, though a bit of sci-fi familiarity with the concept is helpful.

According to the program notes the book took criticism from all sides when it came out, some charging it with being too religious and others saying it is too secular. That feels like it hit the right spot! The book also has some Cold War undertones about how things would look under a totalitarian society.

We've not read the book but plan to pick it up when we return home from Ashland. The play runs at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through November 1. It's great fun; check it out!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Best of Festival, 2013 Oregon Shakes: The Tenth Muse

We have arrived at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2014, and I haven't even published a review for my vote for Best of Festival 2013. It's time to gather up my notes, my re-reading, my re-living of this play from the last year and post the review that took a year to write.

The Best of Festival among the eleven shows mounted by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2013 (yep, we saw 'em all, some more than once) was a new play commissioned by and developed at OSF by Tanya Saracho: The Tenth Muse, directed by Laurie Woolery.

L-R: K.T. Vogt, Sabina Zuniga Varela, Vivia Font, Vilma
Silva, and Sofia Jean Gomez in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's
2013 production of The Tenth Muse. Photo: Jenny Graham.
This play is a classical coming of age, hero's journey on eternal themes of growing up, finding your voice, and making choices about what matters most to you. In this respect it belongs to a long tradition of theater. It augments that tradition by taking women as its characters, art by women as its subject, and a convent in inquisition Mexico in the early 1700s as its setting. It only reinforces the play's themes about what—and who—"count" and may be heard that its silent muse is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a giant of Mexican culture that few (at least non-Latino) North Americans have heard of.

The play opens about 20 years after Sor Juana's death. The convent was once a center of culture where Sor Juana had presided over one of the largest libraries in the new world, wrote poetry and plays, and shared them with the people of what will become Mexico City. By the time our play opens it has become closed off and quiet under pressure of the inquisition in Mexico. Sor Juana herself died of the plague at the age of 46, two years after renouncing her writings and swearing never to write again.

Our play opens with the arrival of Jesusa, a young orphan Mestizo ("mixed") girl in the caste system of the time, sent over from another order's convent to work at the Convent of San Jeronimo; and Tomasita, a young Nahua girl, even lower in the caste system than Jesusa and brought there by her desperate mother to be a servant; a slave, really, but with some presumed measure of safety. There they meet Manuela, a Spanish family's daughter who has been sent to the convent for several months, to hide the increasingly obvious reason.

These girls encounter an older generation of nuns, all of whom remember the time before the inquisition shut down their life of culture, music, and letters, and most of whom collude in their silencing for their safety. The younger generation disrupts this safety, with the help of Sor Isabel, the convent's most dangerous nun for being its closest link to Sor Juana and keeper of the convent's institutional memory. Together they discover some of Sor Juana's papers, long thought to be burned, and explore what is forbidden and precious. Forbidden to them are, to us, "harmless" activities we take for granted like reading, playing music, writing, putting on a play, wearing "men's" clothing, befriending someone outside your group. For these characters, daring to do these things means great risk to themselves and their community.

There's a scene that moved me to laughter and tears where the young women are trying on men's clothes, costumes for acting out the play of Sor Juana's that they found. Imagine living in a world where just putting on pants was so transgressive and where the feeling would be so new and so odd. This playful, joyful scene turns out by the end of the play to be a very important dress rehearsal.

Saracho shows us the devotion, love, and sacrifice that women can extend to each other. She is also unflinching in her treatment of women who protect the status quo and cooperate with injustice in the name of protecting other women.

For example, the Mother Superior, fiercely played by Judith-Marie Bergan. We love Bergan's performances. We've seen her in many goofy roles and she's hilarious. I like to think she's probably a sweetheart in real life. But as this Mother Superior, I wanted to storm the stage and knock her over. And my impotent rage was amplified by being grudgingly convinced that she really believed her cruelty would protect the sisters in her care from something much worse than the deprivation of art, music, soul, and voice: the very ability to breathe. But breath that can never animate a song, a musical instrument, a poem, a play, a shared language, a forbidden friendship.

Saracho is also deft in putting together the various "us and thems" of this colonial "new Spain" world: occupier and occupied; nun and not; the caste system; different religions and religious orders; women and their role relative to men. She doesn't preach, she portrays, weaving together a world that has all of these different dynamics in it and forcing her characters to make their choices.

The three younger characters forged forbidden relationships with joyful performances from Vivia Font as Jesusa, Sabina Zuniga Varela as Tomasita, and Alejandra Escalante as Manuela. Font gave Jesusa all the wide-eyed bubbliness and naivete the role needs. Zuniga Varela's performance spoke volumes more than merely the spoken lines of the play, allowing Tomasita, the most vulnerable and consequently the most realistic, to blossom slowly and carefully. And Escalante showed us a brat-girl-woman teetering already on the consequences and disillusionment of privilege, a sheltered life, and very limited options. The extraordinary Vilma Silva as Sor Rufina and Wilma Bonet as Sor Filomena furnished their characters with distinct and fully formed personalities, women with their own very different ways of coping with the silencing of the convent and their lives.

How wonderful and all too rare to have a play with seven good roles for women; seven good roles for Latina women; and four of them that could be cast by older women. Indeed, I think they should be cast with—what's the euphemism, "mature" actors? This is my only quibble with this production. I wish Sor Isabel could have been played by an actor of more years than the lovely Sofia Jean Gomez, for all the gravitas she brought to the role (I would travel anywhere at any cost to see Gomez play the role again some years from now). Sor Isabel is the cultural and emotional memory of the Convent of San Jeronimo, and the elder who passes on what is precious to a younger generation. She has a lifetime of history and relationships with the other sisters, going back to her aunt Sor Juana. How I would love to see this play cast with all Latina actors, and four of them older.

In addition to being a good story well told, the production was beautiful. Jesusa's inclination and talent is for music. Composer and sound designer Rodolfo Ortega used music—live lyre and singing as well as recorded music—to enhance and expand the character and story. I wish there was a soundtrack or sheet music so I could hear that music again. And there was more music in the way Sor Juana's poetry and the Nahuatl language were woven into the story. The use of papers, lost, found, and lost again, was entrancing. I wanted to rush the stage and pick up and save the precious falling papers myself (after knocking over Judith-Marie Bergan).

My understanding is that Saracho was originally commissioned to translate and bring a play of Sor Juana's to the stage. Instead she asked: what happened next? I would still love to see a play by Sor Juana, but I'm thrilled the world has this new play. I'm curious how it may have developed in the course of the production. The opening was a bit later than planned, we heard from local folks that it continued to evolve after the opening, and comparing what I saw to the script from the Tudor Guild bookshop, there are some salutary changes. I'm fascinated by the process of allowing a new play to develop in response to real audiences and the artists' experience of producing it. By the time we saw it very late in the run, it was a finished, polished thing of beauty. OSF's choice to take risks on new work and give artists a home to develop their art is a huge part of why we keep coming back year after year.

The play resonated on so many levels and was so beautiful—visually, musically, poetically, intellectually, emotionally—that I came out of this production trembling and weeping, and I wasn't the only woman in the Bowmer Theatre bathroom afterward trying to get recomposed. The ovations both times we saw it were enthusiastically appreciative even by generous OSF audience standards.

What would happen if you were deprived of art, beauty, voice, home, family, friends, everything lovely and precious to you? This story gives a few glimpses into that eternal dramatic question: what happens next? Things aren't going to be any fun for the sisters or Manuela inside the convent. The recovered papers are burning. Jesusa and Tomasita are embarking on a very risky journey with the last of Sor Juana's papers. It is one of the most satisfying of endings for being so open-ended, pointing to a future full of hope and possibility and undoubtedly pain and disappointment. The final curtain is—literally and dramatically—breathtaking.

Friday, September 19, 2014

OSF: The Great Society

There are two sides to every story, and this year at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival we're witnessing the dark side of the tale of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Two years ago OSF produced Robert Schenkkan's All the Way, the triumphant story of LBJ's first year in office and his principled stand and political prowess that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The play had its world premier in Ashland before making it all the way to Broadway and a Tony Award for best play.

This year, OSF presents the second part of Schenkkan's narrative, The Great Society, which covers the four years after LBJ's re-election, exposes Johnson's tragic flaws and weaknesses, and gives us front row seats as the expense and the unpopularity of the war in Vietnam lead to the dismantling of the Great Society programs that the president championed, and to his decision not to seek another term.

Kenajuan Bentley, left, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and
Jack Willis as President Lyndon Johnson, in the Oregon
Shakespeare Festival production of Robert Schenkkan's
The Great Society. OSF photo by Jenny Graham.
Directed by OSF artistic director Bill Rauch, The Great Society brings back many of the cast members from All the Way, including Jack Willis as LBJ, Kenajuan Bentley as Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Elmore as J. Edgar Hoover, and Jonathan Haugen as Alabama Governor George Wallace. This time Haugen also plays Richard Nixon.

It's a fantastic cast all the way through, but Willis's performance is a tour de force. He spends most of the three-plus hours of the play onstage, and marvelously captures the many moods of Johnson, from power broker to charmer to vulgarian; from champion steer to beaten horse. Sometimes all at once.

The set, designed by Christopher Acebo, was simple yet marvelous, several rows of desks and chairs resembling the senate chamber. Often characters would be lurking in the seats in the background as they were considered by or awaiting a call from the president. In particular, Bentley as King and Danforth Comins as Sen. Robert Kennedy spent a lot of time in the seats, a nod to the fact that they played such pivotal roles in the events of the day even when not front and center. In act three parts of the set are dismantled, upended, and smoking, representing that both the war and the Johnson administration are in ruins.

The production also made constant use of projections, designed by Shawn Sagady. Video and still images of newspaper headlines and photographs; of key scenes such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday conflict during the march from Selma to Montgomery; and of frequent updates of the ever-mounting toll of casualties from the war were projected on the large, back wall of the set. As Johnson watched a television newscast of Walter Cronkite declaring his conclusion that the war was bad policy, a video clip of the report was projected on the wall. We don't often like projections, which can be a distraction, but in this case they added to the effective storytelling.

It's a thought-provoking play. The Pettus Bridge is now a historical landmark and the President of the United States is an African American, suggesting that we have come a long way. On the other hand, the depiction of the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson can't help but evoke more recent images of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, suggesting that we have a great many miles yet to go in our march toward becoming a great society.

The Great Society is part of OSF's American Revolutions U.S. history cycle, and was commissioned and co-produced by the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It plays through November 1 at the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland. Both All the Way and The Great Society will then play in repertory at Seattle Rep from November 14–January 4, with most of the OSF cast. There are a half-dozen weekend dates during the run on which you'll be able to see both plays back-to-back. We recommend it wholeheartedly.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Intiman production of Angels in America soars

When Intiman Theatre announced last fall that it would produce both parts of Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America this summer, my reaction was, "Meh." We'd seen the Warner Shook-directed production at Intiman 20 years ago and it was brilliant. I'd recently watched the 2003 HBO version and it was good. Even though playwright Craig Lucas, who was Bart Sher's right hand while he was artistic director at Intiman, called Angels "The best American play in forty years" I just wasn't sure I needed to see it again.

Then back in February Intiman started revealing the cast day by day. Charles Leggett as Roy Cohn. I'm in already. Anne Allgood as Hannah Pitt. Marya Sea Kaminski as the Angel. You don't need to tell me any more. Ty Boice as Joe Pitt. Quinn Franzen as Louis. Timothy McCuen Piggee as Belize. Adam Standley as Prior Walter. And new-to-Seattle Alex Highsmith as Harper. A ho-hum transformed into a must-see in the space of a week.

Marya Sea Kaminski as the angel and Adam
Standley as Prior Walter in Intiman's production
of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Intiman
photo by Chris Bennion.
This Angels in America, directed by Andrew Russell, did not disappoint. My sweetie, the official scorer, and I saw both parts during an Angels in America marathon on a recent Saturday: close to seven hours of theater, plus four intermissions and a generous three-hour dinner break. That's a lot of theater for one day, and it is telling that with these plays, this cast, and this production it never dragged. Well, perhaps a bit when Belize was on stage…

It's also worth noting that the material doesn't seem the least bit dated, even though the events depicted began almost 30 years ago. Though there were were a few chuckles, notably at the missed prediction by characters Cohn and Martin Heller that the GOP had the White House locked up for at least a generation, the play and its ideas remain relevant today.

Allgood, Kaminski, Leggett, and Piggee are Seattle treasures whom we've seen in many a wonderful performance, and there wasn't a weak link in this cast. We were especially impressed with Standley, whom we haven't seen much of apart from an appearance in the cast of Seattle Shakespeare Company's Antony and Cleopatra in 2012. He was fabulous in the role of Prior, with all of the pain, suffering, anger, forgiveness, and vision that the role requires. We're looking forward to seeing more of him.

We're still trying to decide if the set, designed by Jennifer Zeyl, was a bug or a feature. Largely stark and on the steps of the courthouse, which shifted in and out to meet the needs of various scenes, it gave the audience a sometimes distracting look backstage. This was particularly true in part two, Perestroika, when we could see everything, including a huge ladder and a spare hospital bed and spent too much time wondering when they would be put to use. We also had a full view of the two guys working the ropes and pulleys that made the angel fly. Perestroika happened at the time of glasnost, which translates as openness, but I-I-I am not so sure that this much openness added to the show. It was interesting, if distracting, to watch how they flew the angel about, particularly her airborne copulation scenes with Prior, which seemed fraught with opportunity for a crash but came off perfectly.

Angels in America has sometimes been called "the AIDS play," but we think it's far more than that. It's about politics and public policy and religion and how they interact. It's about how we relate to and care for each other, as individuals, as partners, and as a society.

Angels runs through this weekend at Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, with "marathon" performances of both parts on both Saturday and Sunday. It's worth a look.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Death and the Maiden, Latino Theatre Projects

My ticket to Death and the Maiden was also my summons to jury duty. Ariel Dorfman's play conscripts us in a courtroom drama made all the more riveting because the trial is private, not public. In the opening night production by Latino Theatre Projects and directed by Emma Watt, the audience held its collective breath, witnessing and judging as the unspeakable was spoken.

The play is set in a new democracy where dictatorship is an all too recent and vivid memory. It's drawn from Dorfman's experience as a Chilean, but it could, by design, be any country in the birth pains of democracy, where torturers and the tortured, prisoners and the imprisoned, deposed and the silenced, are uneasily trying to figure out what comes next.

Fernando Luna, left, and Tonya Andrews in
the Latino Theatre Projects production of Death
and the Maiden. Photo by Michael Brunk.
What comes next in this story is that Paulina's husband Gerardo is late coming home, and she is alone and anxious. He finally arrives after a kind stranger named Dr. Roberto Miranda stops to help with his flat tire. Gerardo invites him in, with promises of his wife's excellent margaritas. Paulina recognizes the doctor's voice, his skin, his smell, as the doctor who raped and tortured her when she was a political prisoner in the days of the old regime. She knows her reasonable husband will have difficulty believing this of the kind stranger (after all, she may not be quite altogether well). She prosecutes a private trial at gunpoint, with Gerardo functioning as the doctor's defender. 

The three-actor cast is outstanding. Fernando Luna as Dr. Miranda manages to do the nearly impossible—be utterly despicable and loathsome, and at the same time make me want to hear more. There are scenes where he is bound to a chair and gagged, and his eyes give the scenes depth as we hear revelation after revelation.

The one place where I expect the play will only get stronger as the actors feed on the ensemble's energy is in Frank Lawler's performance. He has a wickedly difficult role to play. Gerardo is a lawyer, personally and professionally committed to the rule of law, he has hopes for his country, and his star is rising. He has just returned home from being appointed to head a commission investigating the crimes of the old regime. And he is a husband whose own wife has been harmed by the old regime, to an extent he can only imagine at the beginning of the play. Navigating his principles, hopes, and interests proves tricky. 

His defining feature is reasonableness. And yet, there's an explosive scene where the doctor pokes his fingers right into the sorest spots, and from Gerardo I would have liked to see a little less outrage and dismay, a little more shattering in frustration and pain. It's important to the drama and the ending that Gerardo's hold on his gossamer principles and hopes be very, very tenuous. He is the caged one, and we need to smell his fear over everything he could lose.

Paulina, on the other hand, doesn't have so much to lose, and might have something to gain, depending on the choices Gerardo makes. Tonya Andrews gave a fierce performance, making her character walk a knife's edge between strength and debilitation, decision and resignation, power and mercy. Gerardo gives the play its slipperiness and fragility; Paulina gives the play its gravitas and heartbreak.

Together these three outstanding actors managed to evoke a stew of emotions, base and noble, each of the three characters forcing me to confront the question moment by moment: what would I have done?

Props to everyone involved in the set, lights, and sound. Kristina Hestenes-Stimson's set and costumes and Zanna Paulson's lighting were integral to the show's action and meaning, arrivals and departures, creating the setting's essential privacy. I loved the way director Watt made use of the upstage to make us feel like voyeurs and downstage where she put the action practically in our laps. Sound designer Joshua Blaisdell's job was crucial, as the plot pivots on sound many times, including playback of tape recordings. The timing and functioning in every case was flawless. 

Death and the Maiden is very good theater. It's dramatic, thought-provoking, brilliantly performed, and deeply moving. Go see a play, and make it this one! We enjoyed it so much, we plan to see it again. Shows are Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons through September 29, at the Ballard Underground. See you there.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Summer plays abound and delight

When it's nice in Seattle in the summer you just don't want to go indoors. We're eating most of our meals outside and enjoying what has been, for the most part, a pretty dry and delightful couple of months.

Luckily, the desire to be outdoors has not greatly reduced the opportunities to see plays. We have not written much at all about anything of late; just one baseball post by me, and a review by my Sweetie, the official scorer, of Marisol by The Collision Project back in March. But I've been lollygagging my way through a delightful Sunday afternoon, computer out on the deck, and thinking about the now-concluded outdoor theater season, and simply had to share.

L-R: Heather Gautschi, Jaryl Draper, Alex Matthews, and Adria
La Morticella (as both fish and penis). 14/48 photo by Joe Iano.
For us, 14/48, the World's Quickest Theater Festival, is not to be missed. We block out the dates on the calendar as soon as we know about them, and it's rare that anything else can muscle in on those weekends. Held on two consecutive weekends twice each year, the festival each weekend features 14 world premiere one-act plays in 48 hours. The plays are written overnight and rehearsed and performed the next day. The last two weekends the festival was held at the Seattle Rep--in its parking lot and right in front of a giant dumpster. This is totally keeping in line with the 14/48 meme of doing theater outside the norm.

As always, the festival was loaded with gems. I think my favorite was Scot Auguston's hilarious play, Candiru Means I Love You, directed by Peter A. Jacobs. It's all about a guy who has a fish living in his willie. You really had to be there.

Weisenheimer has a birthday coming up, and as a present my Sweetie, the official scorer, signed me up as a member of the 14/48 Projects Wine & Stein Club. This is a gift that give the company a little chunk of change with which to do its thing, and gives the bearer of the specially engraved wine goblet special access to the theater and unlimited vino. Everyone wines. Wins, I mean.

Another hands-off weekend is the one on which the Seattle Outdoor Theater Festival is held, typically the weekend after the July 4 weekend. We try not to miss it! This year eight different companies did a total of 14 performances at Volunteer Park.

Johnny Patchamatla and Libby Barnard as Othello and
Desdemona, in the giddy, newlywed phase before things
went south. GreenStage photo by Ken Holmes.
My favorite of the summer was GreenStage's Othello, directed by Teresa Thuman. Johnny Patchamatla had the title role and was just grand. Martyn G. Krouse was a deliciously wicked Iago. Libby Barnard was fantastic as Desdemona. After seeing her mostly as kooky chicks and cartoon characters, it has been great to see the fierce side of Barnard in this and Marisol. Ashley Flannegan Russell was wonderful as Emilia, Craig Peterson tremendous as Cassio, and Michael Ramquist played Brabantio with a seething bile about his daughter's marriage to the Moor.

GreenStage also performed Love's Labour's Lost, a great outdoor slapstick directed by Vince Brady, who was so delightful as Lear last summer. The entire cast were most entertaining and their frequent quick costume changes were amazing. GreenStage's condensed, hour-long Backyard Bard shows play in smaller parks and are really engaging audiences. We saw a double feature of All's Well That Ends Well and The Comedy of Errors with a really delighted audience at David Rodgers Park on Queen Anne.

Terri Weagant's Antony says a few words over Caesar's
corpse. Wooden O photo by John Ulman.
Seattle Shakespeare Company's Wooden O did a fun version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, directed by the incomparable David Quicksall and complete with a five-member doo-wop band. Their Julius Caesar was a fine show by an all-woman cast directed by Vanessa Miller. Terri Weagant as Mark Antony rocked it at Caesar's funeral. A truly delightful cast that we are most grateful did not perish of heat stroke. It was in the mid-90s the day we saw it, and it became pretty uncomfortable just watching in the mid-day sun; we expect it was even warmer for those wearing leather armor or long overcoats in the rainy, stormy scenes.

There was just a bit of indoor theater this summer as well. Book-It Repertory Theatre did a rollicking, ambitious, five-hour version of Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, directed by Myra Platt. Jeff Schwager wrote the abridged stage version of the 600+ page novel and managed to keep the play to about five hours. The run time included three intermissions, one of them a 40-minute dinner break.

Frank Boyd, Opal Peachey, and David Goldstein in The
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Photo by John Ulman
David Goldstein, who played Sammy Clay, told us during a conversation at 14/48 that the cast and crew were a bit skeptical at first about taking on a project with such great length, and Goldstein in particular spent a huge percentage of that time on stage. But it totally worked; the show never felt too long.

Frank Boyd played Joe Kavalier, Opal Peachey portrayed Rosa Saks, and a top-notch supporting cast made this show a delight.

Book-It's mission is to inspire audiences to read, and it's working. I've started Kavalier & Clay myself, and am already up to about page 30.

Lastly, Theater Schmeater debuted its new, Belltown digs with a most entertaining production of The Attack of the Killer Murder... of Death! written and directed by Wayne Rawley. It's a hilarious, noir-ish gumshoe spoof set on the set of a '50s sci-fi flick. Even the character names are hilarious: Kitty Curvey, Martin Van Handsome, Desdemona Sunset, Beauregard "Red" Andrews. Rawley's Live, From the Last Night of My Life was one of our favorite shows of whateveryearitwas, and Killer Murder was killer, too.

The Schmee also did a fun outdoor show that was super kid-friendly. Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf wasn't afraid to mix metaphors or fairy tales. Lyam White was a delight at the Wolf, and pigs Aaron Allshouse, Amelia Meckler, and Pilar O'Connell were more than his match.

Though the Seattle outdoor theater season has wrapped, we're still going outside to play. We'll be visiting Ashland and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in September.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Albuquerque 3, Tacoma 2

"Strike the traitor out! Strike the traitor out!"

The youthful hecklers at Cheney Stadium on this gorgeous Sunday afternoon had frequent opportunity to use this chant, as the lineups for today's game between Tacoma and Albuquerque were littered with former Rainiers and former Mariners. The highest volume of razzing was reserved for one Carlos Triunfel, once a consensus top prospect with the M's who spent the bulk of the last two seasons playing at AAA Tacoma before being waived by Seattle this spring.

"Strike the traitor out!" Carlos Triunfel bats for Albuquerque
in the ninth inning against Tacoma June 8.  The former M's
prospect went 1-for-4 for the Isotopes, who beat the Rainiers
3-2 on Armed Forces Appreciation Day at Cheney Stadium.
The rancor toward Triunfel is understandable, even (or especially) from nine-year-olds; my Sweetie, the official scorer, and I saw him in a game last year in which he made three actual errors, a handful of additional mental ones, and generally came off as pouty nut case. If Nuke LaLoosh is ever displaced from being the epitome of the five-cent-head, we expect Triunfel could be a worthy replacement. Oddly enough, at a game back in April at Cheney, Triunfel hit a couple of doubles, drove in two runs, and seemed to haunt his former mates. This turned out to be something of an aberration. In 47 games with the Isotopes this season Triunfel is batting .213 and has just six doubles and one home run. The Mariners are not exactly known for their clever personnel moves (who can forget Jason Varitek AND Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb?), but it seems unlikely that anyone is going to regret the waiving of Triunfel any time soon.

Former Mariners and Rainiers Alex Liddi and Trayvon Robinson are also on the Albuquerque roster, making one wonder why, with all of the dough the Dodgers have, they have to rely on Seattle outcasts to fill their AAA roster. The Rainier roster is laden with ex-M's too, of course. We're not sure what Nick Franklin has left to prove at this level, as he's batting .364 for the Rainiers with an OPS of 1.079, though he's hit just .128 in a handful of at-bats with the big club so far in 2014. Abraham Almonte, Jesus Montero, Logan Morrison, and Humberto Quintero joined Franklin as ex-M's in today's lineup.

Alas, our vocal young fans only kept up their patter of hey-batter-batter for about two innings, when either their vocal cords gave out or the effects of the Captain Crunch wore off. But they were entertaining while they lasted, even though they wanted a pitcher and not a belly "scratcher" in a clear yet incomprehensible departure from official chatter.

Of the former Seattle prospects on the Isotopes roster it was Robinson who did the damage today. He led off the game with what the Tacoma scorer charitably called a double, but what my Sweetie, the official scorer, properly identified as E-7: an easy popup that Tacoma left fielder Xavier Avery lost in the Sun that went for two bases. After the play a Tacoma player ran out some sunglasses for Avery, who apparently didn't realize it was sunny out as the 1:35 p.m. game began. Robinson scored later on a legitimate two-bagger by Clint Robinson.

Almonte tied the game with a home run on the second pitch in the home half of the first, and it remained 1-1 until Trayvon Robinson connected on a two-run homer in the Albuquerque fifth.

It remained 3-1 until the ninth, in large part because of Liddi. Tacoma loaded the bases with two out in the bottom of the fifth, but Montero grounded out to the former Mariner at the hot corner. Then in the bottom of the eighth the Rainiers had a runner on first with one out when Montero smoked what looked for all the world like a double headed into the left field corner. But Liddi made a sprawling stop at the bag, whipped the ball to second for a forceout, and Montero barely beat the relay to first to avoid the twin killing. Ty Kelly followed with a single to right, on which the notoriously slow-footed Montero made it to third. But Avery, who still owes us something to make up for the botched play in the first, whiffed to end the threat.

In the bottom of the ninth, with the bulk of a large Armed Forces Appreciation Day crowd already departed for wherever is considered a better place than the ballpark on a sunny Sunday in Tacoma, Jabari Blash led off with a Texas-league single to right. Gabriel Noriega, however, followed by grounding into a 6-4-3 double play. Naturally, Quintero then hit a homer that would have tied the game had a runner remained on base. Almonte singled to keep hope alive, but Morrison grounded out feebly to end the contest and the Isotopes won 3-2.

Weisenheimer admires the kids who called out Triunfel as a traitor, even though, technically, the M's cut the guy loose. In this day and age when we're planning special events to honor the enemy (is anyone else sick and tired of the hoo-ha about Derek Jeter? I say good riddance to Yankee rubbish.) it's good to see that some of the young people of today recognize that one should root, root, root for the home team.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Marisol, The Collision Project

Imagine living with layer upon layer of existential threat. Imagine that your very own guardian angel pulls a Lucifer and goes rogue (at least she seems to have a good reason). And all heaven breaks loose. Imagine inside is outside, you're totally exposed, the people you love can't remember your name, you're not sure if you're dead or alive, you have to take sides, but the sun is rising in the south and setting in the north, and you can't get there from here.

That's Marisol, by Jose Rivera, directed by Ryan Higgins, in the inaugural offering of The Collision Project

After seeing a lot of your standard psychological realism fare lately (and some of it, sadly, not very good), a few hours of magical realism with tropes and themes and archetypes and symbols and poetry and graffiti and all sorts of other dramatic deliciousness went down smooth. 

Carolyn Marie Monroe and Ben McFadden in Marisol.
For one thing, the play dances circles around more thorny theological questions than you can shake a thurible at. You can find a lot in this play; one of the ways I enjoyed it was as a send up of the end-days left-behind crowd I knew growing up in the evangelical world. What if people who actually are the outliers in our society—people who have immigrated, people who can't afford to live where they work, people with brown skin, people who can't hold down a job, people who are overdiagnosed and overmedicated, people in debt, people who love the wrong people, people who are losers (according to the capitalist winners), people who march to their own drum, people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time—are the people who are invited into the revelation delivered by a fulgent messenger, invited into the light. (Yeah, I know, that's actually really biblical, which makes Rivera a better theologian than Tim LaHaye. Go figure.)

For some intellectual fun, the structure of the play is like a slinky. Mobius magic, as it spirals and twists in on itself and somehow ends up getting from here to there. It's like music; you have to be able to hold a theme or two in your head and recognize when the artist is restating, recapitulating, stretching, bending, and playing around with it. It's a fugue, not a ditty.

The play has serious roots; for antecedents there's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of course; a generous dose of theater of the absurd; Dostoyevski, I think; evangelical catholicism, obviously; and a good hit of the kind of high Apostle John must have been on at the island of Patmos when he went all war-of-the-worlds. Awesome!

OK, so I like Rivera's play. And The Collision Project's production? I liked it too.

A lot of my appreciation for the production comes from the play's effect on me. This was one of the most absorbing, riveting, and upsetting evenings of theater I'd been to in a while. I have a bit of a tendency toward anxiety (ahem) and this play played on that tautness like sympathetic vibration on a well tuned guitar. I found myself feeling strung and checking in with myself during and after the play to remind myself that everything's pretty much ok for right now in my little world, and, so far as I know, the world is not coming to an end just yet (right?). Given that dramatic excitement-and-relief, it was a satisfying evening of theater; something to feel, to sink my teeth into, to mull over, and to talk about for days with the Weisenheimer.

So how'd they do it?

Dramatic art, baby, dramatic art. The set: staged at Seattle Inscape, now a history, arts, and culture facility, formerly an INS facility. The stage oddly L-shaped and "marred" with doorways that turned out to be integral to the play. Smart. The lighting: parsimonious, which is to say, brilliant. The performances: Ben D. McFadden was indefatigable, indestructible, indelible, and creepy. We've seen Carolyn Marie Monroe in a number of very different roles over the years (including Juliet in R&J, Rachel Stein in End Days) and to all of them she brings a sweet steeliness. This play needs it. The vulnerability, credulity, and faith in her portrayal of Marisol make the whole improbable thing possible. And she gets herself all the way around Rivera's poetry. Libby Barnard; we had no idea she could be so fucking fierce. Shermona Mitchell was a grounded angel, even before she fell to earth; and Jill Snyder-Marr was unhinged as the Woman in Furs. Finally, Carter Rodriquez is now giving me nightmares with his vivid portrayal as Scar Tissue, seared in my memory. He laid down a rhythm with his physicality, pathos, penache, and humor.

And, of course, it all comes back to the play itself, the story. Like all the best plays, it's about big fat juicy questions. Safety and protection vs threat and exposure. Loyalty and fidelity vs righteous rejection. Roots and heritage vs coming completely unmoored. Revelation, and how the hell you'd recognize it. What side of the battle are you on. And all done with craft and skill; imagination and verve; creativity and hope. I would like more theater like this, please.