9 CIRCLES

Posted: June 13, 2016 in Uncategorized

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9 CIRCLES

 

Proving that simpler is often better, Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s latest production of Bill Cain’s 2010 military drama, “9 circles,” is a wonderful example of how complex situations and ideas can be best presented theatrically with a minimalist approach.

Directed by Greg Carter, this most excellent play takes place in the round and uses only a long, rectangular table and a few simple chairs to bring audiences into the tortured world of PFC Daniel Edward Reeves (played brilliantly by Conner Neddersen), a soldier who has been accused of the heinous crime of raping and burning to death a 14 year old Iraqi girl as well as killing her family.

It soon becomes all too clear that Reeves is being used as a scapegoat, in many ways, by the military to cover up the atrocities that were carried out during the Iraqi war. He is portrayed as a pawn in a much more complex military cover-up that hints at the Iraq war being nothing more than an act of senseless violence with no real strategy or intention of ever truly being won. Reeves is a true patriot who believes in his country, in the cause of the war, and in the propaganda and dogma that was fed to him (and to Americans) in order to justify going into Iraq in the first place.

What is most brilliant about the play is how it does not give simple answers. On one hand, the actions carried about by the soldier depict him as callous and incapable of caring for another human being; on the other hand, the playwright (as well as the director and actor) does an excellent job of humanizing the soldier and showing the numerous, complex factors that contributed to his atrocious act. It is truly a very well-written, well-directed, and well-performed play.

Although the performance by Neddersen is certainly the primary focus of the play, the rest of the cast (which includes Norah Elges, Sam Hagen, and Sylvester Kamara) also does a great job in their performances as well. They play multiple roles, from lawyers, psychiatrists, lieutenants, and pastors, and very successful differentiate between them. Sylvester Kamara, in particular, was very effective in his dual roles as Army Attorney and Pastor, and I believe that this doubling of roles played by the same actor added an extra layer of richness and complexity to this already riveting story.

As for the technical aspects of the show (lighting, costumes, sound, etc.), things were kept appropriately minimal and functional, thus allowing the focus to stay where it should be: on the twisted tale of PFC Daniel Edward Reeves; and the intimacy of performing in the round and on a minimalist set was ultimately a very effective directorial choice.

But again, the star of this show was Neddersen. His performance in the role of PFC Daniel Edward Reeves was extremely touching and proved what a mature and talented actor he is. This is a production that is not to be missed!

“9 Circles” is playing at the 12th Ave Arts Center on Capitol Hill through June 25. For ticket information, visit their website at www.strawshop.org.

 

 

 

MR. BURNS, a post-electric play

Posted: October 25, 2015 in Uncategorized
Photo by Chris Bennion

Photo by Chris Bennion

Post-modern, pop culture drivel! Intellectual inanity! Misguided creative energy! Random theatre for the attentively deficient!

I am not sure how much I can temper my disdain for the latest faux-intellectual piece of garbage that is now wasting space on the stage of the Falls Theatre at ACT.

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play is perhaps one of the worst plays I have ever had the displeasure of attending. Fifteen minutes into it and I was struggling to keep my eyes open for the rest of this bizarre three-act snooze fest.

My problem is not with the production itself, (which is fine!), but rather with the playwright who ever thought this was a good idea, with the editor for not stopping her from writing it, and with the artistic director who chose to include it in the company’s season.

The script lost my interest from the get-go when characters, apparently survivors of nuclear disaster, spend the better part of the first act talking incessantly about an episode of the long-running, animated sitcom, The Simpsons. Having never been a major fan of the celebrated TV show, I found it hard to care about the characters or pay much attention to the dialogue.

The mind-numbing experience intensified with an extended sequence in which the characters spent way too much time comparing their lists of names in search of lost loved ones. Thus, the whole first act consists of establishing the fact that the characters are in living in a post-apocalyptic world, and of them being inexplicably overly concerned with and distracted by the trivial events of popular TV show.

One act down, and I still wasn’t feeling it!

Act two starts with no intermission, and we are now 7 years further into the future. The cast of characters has taken their obsession to all new levels, having founded a theatre company specializing in productions of episodes from The Simpsons. In my struggle to remain awake, I somehow missed the supertitle that indicated we had now moved 7 years into the future, and so I was verily bewildered and confused by the time intermission finally rolled around none too soon! It was only after consulting with my companion for the evening that I even understood what took place in the second act.

Although there was a part of me that didn’t even want to come back after intermission, I have to begrudgingly admit that the 3rd act was somewhat more interesting from a theatrical standpoint.

Act Three transports us 75 years into the future. The survivors have now made a veritable religion of their performance ritual. The particular episode that consumed the minds of the characters in the first act has now been elevated to the level of a Brechtian style opera or epic musical in which the battle between good and evil plays itself out in a dystopian nuclear wasteland of blackened, poisonous waters and charred, barren earth.

It is an interesting third act, but not interesting enough to make up for the boring and confusing first two acts, nor for the random premise on which the play is based. Obviously, there was great creative impulse on the playwright’s behalf, but one that needed more latitude and scope in its focus. For someone like myself, who has rarely ever even watched The Simpsons, it is really difficult to relate to this play.

This said, I will congratulate the cast and crew for their artistic execution. Deb Trout’s costumes were as creative as they were fantastical. The scene design by Matthew Smucker was both functional and versatile. John Langs’ direction was inventive and effective. And the ensemble cast was strong and talented. Adam Standley was particularly entertaining in his role as Mr. Burns.

In the end, however, I feel that the creative energy of these stage artists could have been better spent on a more universally engaging play, rather than one so obtuse and singular in its focus and structure.

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play is now showing through November 15 at ACT, 700 Union St. For tickets and info, see www.acttheatre.org or call 206-292-7676.

THE THREE SISTERS

Posted: January 23, 2015 in Uncategorized

Seagull Project--Three Sisters  361 (c) Chris Bennion

I found it most curious that the audience on Thursday night’s performance of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” by The Seagull Project at ACT did not give a standing ovation to the cast and crew. Typically, local audiences are so quick to jump to their feet and applaud practically anything and everything that is trotted out on stage in front of them, no matter its quality or merits. But for some reason, this did not happen on Thursday night, and I was quite honestly taken aback because, for me, this was one of those rare productions that truly deserved such accolades.

Perhaps it is the weightiness of Chekhov’s work that dissuaded them. I suppose the canonical Russian playwright can be difficult to digest and appreciate for contemporary audiences who are more accustomed to a modern theatrical style that derives its aesthetics from the likes of Disney films and Hollywood blockbusters, where hyperbolic spectacle and flashy stagecraft trump complex character development, subtlety, and profound ideas.

In short, in a world ruled by 15-second sound bites, 140 letter character limited Tweets, instant text messages, and cute kitten Youtube videos, what chance does a play that was written over a hundred years ago in another language and another culture, and during which nothing really happens but a lot of philosophizing and lamenting, really have in competing for the micro-sized attention spans of today’s highly distracted public?

And to top it all off, the company has the audacity to ask audiences to sit through nearly three hours of such a production without the benefit of an over-the-top, ornately decorated set on which to fix our distracted gaze! Indeed, set-designer, Jennifer Zeyl, kept things minimalist and functional rather than extravagant and opulent, and I want to give her and the director my own standing ovation right now for having done so! (Insert applause, applause, applause here: ___________.)

In this production, the focus remains, as it should, on the characters, on their relationships with each other and the world in which they live; it focuses on the ideas, the passions, the struggles and disappointments of life; it focuses on the mystery and the misery of existence, highlighting the fragility and precarious nature of the human condition.

Under the superb direction of John Langs, “The Three Sisters,” which is the second installment of the company’s projected plans to produce all four of Chekhov’s major theatrical works, is a rock-solid ensemble production with a fantastic cast and technical design team.

Langs keeps the (non)action moving at a good pace as he draws upon both traditional and contemporary directorial techniques. I appreciated particularly the way he handled the transitions between the acts. At the end of Act One, for example, Langs communicated the passage of time and the ensuing events that took place in the 21 months that separate it from Act 2 quite adeptly. A reconfiguration of set-pieces carried out by the actors and an ostensible slip of a ring onto a finger by Natalya (played by Hannah Victoria Franklin) communicated with efficiency and ease the changes that had taken place.

I also appreciated how the director dared to break the 4th wall at times, allowing the characters to speak directly to the audience on certain occasions. The scene at the end of play, when Andrey, (played by John Abramson), the brother of the three sisters, stepped off of the stage and into the house in order to question the audience directly about the absurdity of life, was a particularly poignant moment.

Langs experiments with a variety of techniques, both new and old, both Russian and American, to retell the “story” of the three sisters. I put quotations marks around the word “story” because, in actuality, the play does not really tell a story in the traditional sense. It is more like a precursor to the Theatre of the Absurd, fifty years before it came into vogue.

Like the so-called Absurdists, nothing really happens in Chekhov’s play: people talk, they eat, they drink, they argue, they gamble, they play with cards and toy spin tops, and most importantly, they wait; they wait for something to happen, they hope for something more, wishing something would come, but it never does. And perhaps it was this static nature of everything that confounded the audience and impeded them from giving the standing ovation that was deserved.

Brilliant performances were given by practically the entire cast. Julie Briskman as Olga, Alexandra Tavares as Masha, and Sydney Andrews as Irina, were very well cast in their respective roles as the sisters. Other standouts among the cast included: Brandon J. Simmons as Kulygin, CT Doescher as Tusenbach, and Hannah Victoria Franklin as Natalya.

I was somewhat less impressed, however, by David Quicksall’s performance as the highly philosophical, love-stricken lieutenant-colonel, Vershinin. His pacing was way too fast, and the words came flying out of his mouth without much expressivity or intonation. At times this worked to his advantage, especially near the end of the play when he is, once again, getting ready to go on one of his long, philosophical tirades, but gets interrupted before getting started by the entrance of his love-interest, Masha, – much to Olga’s relief. But overall, the rapidity of his lines often made it feel like he didn’t really understand what he was saying. Perhaps this was a directorial choice, given the verbose nature of the character, but the quick delivery just didn’t work for me. But to be clear, he did have some good moments in the show.

Nevertheless, this is a stellar production of a powerful play that challenges audiences to slow down and think. It is both humorous and sad. And although it is more than 100 years old, it is still as relevant and moving today as it was when it was first conceived. So go! “To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow! …”

“The Three Sisters” plays through February 8th at ACT, 700 Union St. For tickets and info, visit www. ActTheatre.org or call 206-292-7676.

SPRAWL

Posted: January 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

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Washington Ensemble Theatre (aka. WET) is starting the new year in a new space with a new play by Joshua Conkel that deals with the ever-so pertinent topic of gentrification.

Performed in an over-the-top campy style, the play is basically a spoof on B-rated science fiction movies, complete with killer zombies, alien insectoids, ground-splitting earthquakes, giant explosions, coke-snorting real estate agents, domesticated gay and lesbian couples, pregnant middle-class suburbanites, bumbling cops, and a locally famous drag queen.

The show is creatively directed by WET’s Lead Producer and Co-Artistic director, Ali Mohammed el-Gasseir and features a strong cast to include, among many, Seattle’s favorite “gender-blending ‘boylesque’ sensation,” Waxie Moon (aka Marc Kenison), who gives a very funny performance in his role as the mayor’s wife.

Granted, camp is not a performance style appreciated by all, and it can be difficult to pull off, but when done well, it can result in sidesplitting laughter and brilliant insight into the follies of human nature and society in general.

Does “Sprawl” succeed in this? Yes and no. There are moments of hilarity to be sure, but there are also times when the farcical comedy lags and you find your attention drifting elsewhere (never for too long to be clear). And to be honest, the play’s themes are a bit tired and cliché, but all in all, it’s still good fun.

My biggest critique would be that the playwright should have probably focused on inner-city gentrification rather than urban sprawl. Given how the demographics of Seattle (and of Western cities, in general) are changing, where more and more over-priced condo rabbit hutches are going up incessantly, and where vacuous, high-end warehouse shops are opening every day to cater to the influx of wealthy technocrats, it seems that the real problem lies in the very kind of neighborhoods where the theatre now finds itself (aka neighborhoods like Capitol Hill). In other words, Kent is not the problem, Capitol Hill is. Unfortunately, this point is missed by the self-proclaimed “navy brat from rural Washington State” playwright, who prefers, instead, to critique suburbanites rather than looking into the mirror.

This said, I enjoyed the show; it’s serious, but not too serious; wacky, but not too wacky; slow at times, but never for too long; and it is definitely well-directed with some good performances given by the cast.

“Sprawl” plays through February 2nd at the newly opened 12th Avenue Arts Center, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, WA. For tickets and info, visit: www.WashingtonEnsemble.org or call 206-325-5105

THE SCHOOL FOR LIES

Posted: August 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

Dylan Smith, Page Byers, Corey Spruill, Paul Barrois - PHoto by Ken Holmes

First of all, I want to congratulate Sound Theatre Company for its recent and well-deserved Gregory nomination in the “Best Theatre” category. I have sung the praises of Teresa Thuman and her cohorts at STC many times in my past reviews, and I am so happy to finally see them get the recognition they deserve.

The company always chooses challenging and substantive works to perform, and normally executes them with a high level of artistry and professionalism (AND, I might add, on a budget that is MUCH SMALLER than those of the bigger and better known houses in town!). They are slowly but surely becoming a force with which to be reckoned in the Seattle theatre community, and they deserve all the love that is being thrown their way by the Gregory’s!

This said, however, I was somewhat disappointed with their most recent production of “School for Lies,” (Co-directed by Teresa Thuman and Ken Michels), a contemporary adaptation of Molière’s “The Misanthrope,” written by David Ives, who is probably best known for another of his adaptations now being turned into a film, “Venus in Fur.”

Although the inspiration was certainly there, the show fell sort of flat for two primary reasons: a relatively weak cast combined with a directorial unwillingness to truly embrace the contemporaneity of Ives’ work. Unfortunately, this resulted in turning what should be a raucous and bawdy farce into a relatively bland light comedy.

But to be fair, perhaps some of the fault lies with the playwright himself, who decided to use contemporary American English (written in verse), but kept the play set in Paris of 1666. In any case, the show came across as a very traditional production of a Molière play with a few allusions to modernity thrown in for good measure; but I felt like it should have been just the opposite: a very modern production with a few allusions to 17th century France thrown in instead.

The show takes place in one of the wittiest salons in Paris, that of Celimène, (played by Page Byers), a widow who is being sued for her slanderous portraits of well-to-do Parisians. Since her husband’s death, she has been profiting from the attention of three bumbling suitors: Oronte, Clitander, and Acaste (played respectively by Dylan Smith, Paul Barrois, and Corey Spruill).

However, Celimène’s world changes quickly when an acerbic, quick-witted misanthrope from England named Frank (played by Frank Lawler) strolls into town. Soon, love and lies abound in Celimène’s household, and everyone gets in on the action. Rounding out the cast is Philinte (played by Matthew Gilber), Eliante (played by Marianna DeFazio), Arsinoé (played by Alysha Curry), and Dubois/Basque (played by Henry James Walker.

Although the two leads, Celimène and Frank, do a suitable job in their roles, they just don’t quite manage to truly deliver the sauciness and quick-paced physicality required. And the same goes for the rest of the cast with the exception of DeFazio and Walker. Indeed, it was these two secondary characters, Eliante and Dubois/Basque, who brought most of the laughs from the audience. They each took what few scenes they had and made them the most memorable moments of the show, while the rest of the cast remained rather unexciting, giving merely standard performances.

And this leads to my second issue with the show: the unwillingness to truly embrace the modernity of the text. Aside from a few cell-phones being thrown in and some entertaining portraits being sung in contemporary style, the show missed the mark in terms of seeming to be contemporary.

Although the costumes by Linnaea Boone Wilson were quite beautiful to look at, they were still too rooted in 17th century garb and lacking in contemporary style. With their bright pastel colors, bold wigs, and exaggerated accessories, the costumes were more like a mixture of circus clown clothing and traditional dress, complete with long petticoats and wigs. I would have liked to see a more sleek, modern costume design set against a more classical and traditional set design.

And the same goes for the sound design (by Joshua Blaisdell) and set design (by Suzi Tucker) as well. Molière’s plays were historically full of music, but I felt that there was a serious lack of sound in the play; and the original music (by Jesse Smith) was also lackluster. It wasn’t fun or pulsating, but rather somewhat tired and unenthused instead. And the set could have benefitted from projections, especially during the “portraits” scenes that were performed to music and dance. There was just a level of spectacle that was lacking overall, which was unfortunate, because this play needed flash!

Again, much of this could be the playwright’s fault; but in my opinion, things were done in reverse order of what they should have been. I wanted to see a modern Molière with allusions to the past. Spare me the over-the-top wigs, the tights and petticoats, and the long flowing dresses! I want some gaudy high fashion, some De La Croix “dahling!”, some Givenchy, Gaultier, Hermès, and Yves Saint Laurent!

To be clear, I do NOT think this was a bad show. In fact, as things went along, it did become more engaging. However, knowing the high caliber of work usually done by STC, I felt that this one fell short.

“School for Lies” plays through August 24 at The Armory/Center House Theatre, 305 Harrison St. For tickets and info, visit http://www.SoundTheatreCompany.org

A SMALL FIRE

Posted: June 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

Gordon Carpenter, Teri Lazzara photo by Ken Holmes A Small Fire

Sound Theatre Company has assembled a stellar cast in their latest production of “A Small Fire,” written by Adam Bock and directed by Julie Beckman.

The bitter sweet drama tells the story of Emily Bridges (played by Teri Lazzara), a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense, general contractor “boss lady” who slowly starts to lose her senses due to a mysterious illness.

As the illness progresses, she gets more and more cut off from the others around her, and is forced into an isolated world void of everything that normally connects us to life: vision, sound, smell, and taste. In time, however, through the strength of her relationship with her husband, John, (played by Gordon Carpenter), she comes to discover the power of touch and its ability to arouse even deeper senses of love, passion, and connection.

Although this is a short play, a one-act with a 90-minute run, it does require quite a bit of scenery changes: construction sites, a wedding reception, an outdoor nature setting for birdwatching, and of course, the home of Emily and John, specifically their living room and bedroom where the majority of the play’s action unravels.

To succeed in creating such diverse settings in a space as small and confining as that of New City Theatre, (where the show is currently running), is no easy feat to achieve. But scenic/costume designer, Montana Tippett, has done a good job of doing so. Her pragmatic and flexible set-design managed to give more depth to the tiny space than what ever seemed possible.

Granted, seeing this show in a larger, better equipped space would have been nice. But the close proximity actually allowed for a greater sense of connection to the characters, which may have been lost in a larger space. The intimacy of the show benefitted actually from the intimacy of the space.

There were a few minor glitches, however, with some of the sound cues. In particular, there were a couple of times when it felt like the actors may have been waiting a little too long for a phone to ring (and other cues of that nature), but none were too, terribly, glaring.

As for the actors and actresses, the ensemble of four give solid performances in their respective roles. At first, I had some difficulty trying to figure out Lazzara’s character at the beginning of the show, but it became clear rather quickly that she was working on many levels with her character. At first glance, she seems one-dimensional, but by the end of the play, although her character has been reduced to a world of darkness and silence, Lazzara manages to pull her audience in and keep them focused on her with just blank stares and hand squeezes that she uses in order to communicate.

Carpenter also gives an outstanding performance in his role as Emily’s husband, John Bridges. His portrayal is honest, sincere, and endearing. And both he and Lazzara are to be commended for handling the potentially awkward challenges presented by the play’s final scene with sensitivity and commitment. Neither of them held back, but instead exposed raw emotion and vulnerability in that touching final scene.

Rounding out the cast are the play’s two other characters: Jenny Bridges, (played by Sara Coates), the engaged daughter of Emily and John, who is much closer to her father than to her mother; and Billy Fontaine, Emily’s employee and good friend (played by Ray Tagavilla).

Both gave very believable and engaging performances as well in their respective roles. Coates did a great job of showing the effects of living with such a headstrong and, (on the surface anyway), unfeeling mother all of her life. Tagavilla, on the other hand, showed impressive versatility as an actor, and was surprisingly nuanced in his role as Emily’s main foreman.

Yes, the play is a little on the sad side, I suppose, but I felt that it was very emotionally honest and complex over all. Director Julie Beckman manages to maintain the right balance between lightness and gravity, and she keeps the pace clipping along quite nicely.

“A Small Fire” plays through June 21st at New City Theatre, 1406 18th Ave. For tickets and info, visit http://www.SoundTheatreCompany.org.

THE GRIMALDIS

Posted: May 16, 2014 in Uncategorized

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“The Grimaldis” is an ambitious “ghostly musical” now playing at Hale’s Palladium, the performance space found in the lower level of Hale’s Brewery in Fremont that is best known for hosting the highly popular “Moisture Festival.”

Produced and Written by Dane Ballard, who specializes in popular forms of performance art from decades and centuries past, (forms such as burlesque, cabaret, vaudeville, variety shows, and circus), “The Grimaldis” is exactly that: a meta-theatrical journey into the history of spectacle.

There are magicians, trapeze artists, ballerinas, gypsy dancers, actors, singers, and performers of all stripes and persuasions who liven up the the non-traditional warehouse space that is Hale’s Palladium.

Directed by Kerry Christiansen, who served as Artistic Director for the Little Red Studio for three years, and who has directed and choreographed in a number of local theaters over the years, including Theater Schmeater, Centerstage, Annex, Seattle Shakes, and Wooden O., the show is a definite crowd pleaser for people of all ages, and comes complete with some amuse-bouches; that’s a fancy French term for appetizers.

The stage is set for an auction of the Grimaldi Family Estate, where the “bidding will begin promptly at 9am tomorrow.” As the Grimaldis were a family of performers with a long, rich history, there are a number of items belonging to them on which audience members may “bid,” items such as: magician’s cabinets, circus costumes, ornate lamps, musical instruments, and other objects that a family of performers might acquire over the years.

As the show progresses, a plot develops eventually, one in which the last survivor of the Grimaldi family, Walter Sutter, (played by Dustin Guy Jackson), comes to realize his family’s legacy and his own birthright as a performer. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that Walter comes to embrace his family history and his own love of performance.

There were many wonderful performances given by the large cast of fourteen performers, but some of the highlights include: the aerialists, Annabelle and Ariel Grimaldi (played respectively by Hannah Birch and Katherine Grant-Suttie); the magician, Lazarus Grimaldi (played by Marcus Wolland); the ballerina, Babette Grimaldi (played by Rachel Brow); and, of course, the singing patriarch and matriarch of the family, Jack and Lois Grimaldi (played by Brian Pucheu and Lara Fox). They were joined by a number of other cast members who also gave entertaining performances.

There were two things in particular that I really liked about this show: 1) it’s experimental nature, and 2) the sense of heartfelt authenticity from all the cast and crew. As for the first of these, I appreciated the writer’s and director’s willingness to use the entire space, to engage the audience in the performance by having us interact with the characters, as well as the use of video and other technology in the stagecraft. And in terms of the second aspect, the authenticity, I really felt like all the actors and actresses were enjoying themselves and that the director and producer were excited about staging the show.

Granted, there were a few hiccups on preview night with some of the technical aspects of the show, especially with the lights, which probably need a better design, but overall, it was a fun night of theatre. The show is a little bit like a low-budget Teatro Zinzanni production, but with a lot more authenticity and heart and a lot less taxing on your wallet.

Oh, and did I mention the live band that plays throughout?! It is composed of Ben Dobyns, Steve Steele, Jason Hershey, Rosalynn DeRoos, and Brian Platino. They do a great job!

In short, kudos to the entire cast, crew, and band on a fun and entertaining show! Definitely worth seeing, whether you’re 1 or 101!

“The Grimaldis” plays through May 25 at Hale’s Palladium, 4301 Leary Way NW in Fremont. For tickets and info, visit http://www.TheGrimaldisAreDead.com or call Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006.