Archive for August, 2013

TALL SKINNY CRUEL CRUEL BOYS

Posted: August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

Seattle’s theatre starlet, Hannah Victoria Franklin, gives yet another knockout performance in Washington Ensemble Theatre’s latest production, “Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys,” written by Caroline V. McGraw and directed by Jane Nichols.

This odd, quasi-surrealistic play revolves around the story of “Brandy,” (played by Franklin), the city’s most sought-after children’s birthday party clown, who likes to entertain by blowing more than just party balloons and birthday cake candles.

Between occupying snotty-nosed kids with her clown antics and entertaining those same kids’ cheating fathers and teenage brothers with her sex act, “Brandy” is quite the busy professional, but she cannot avoid the monster underneath her bed, the one that rips and claws at her each night.

This show is all about “Brandy,” and Ms. Franklin’s hard-hitting performance is a force to be reckoned with. All eyes (and hands … and claws …) remain on the star of the show, dazzled by her seductive routine.

Complementing her performance was the set design, which includes the “claw design and construction” as well, by Pete Rush, Jake Nelson and Marc-Anthony Lee.  Once again, the tiny stage of the theatre was well-utilized so as to bring to fruition a play that could, otherwise, be quite demanding to do from a scenographic perspective.

However, the designers helped to keep the show moving with a fluid, open design, appropriately set under the ‘Big Top’ tent. And of course, the “Audrey 3”-esque monster claw that comes alive at night to devour everyone’s favorite party girl-clown, is an impressive piece of stagecraft.

The play itself is sort of a mixed bag. What I did appreciate was the self-conscious and meta-theatrical elements of its dramatic composition; the attention given by the playwright, in particular, to the notion of “performance” and the perverse exchange that takes place between the exhibitionist and the voyeur, between the actor and the audience, was well manifested in the production.

And although the play does attempt to explore a number weighty themes, it loses itself in itself; it never really advances in terms of plot or action, nor does it come to any profound conclusions or realizations in terms of the questions the playwright seems to be pondering. In short, things just kind of hang and fizzle dramaturgically.

Luckily, WET had an actress as skilled as Ms. Franklin to give the knockout punch that the playwright failed to deliver. Right away, she captures the audience’s attention and takes them away on a psychological and meta-theatrical journey into a strange and desperate world where she performs to everyone’s delight, and perhaps to her own demise.

“Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys” plays May 31-June 24 at Washington Ensemble Theatre. Visit www.washingtonensemble.org for more info.Hannah Victoria Franklin for Washington Ensemble Theatre 0048 photo credit LaRae Lobdell(1) WEB.full

THE HAIRY APE

Posted: August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

“The Hairy Ape” is Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 Expressionist drama that tackles the questions of class differences and social hegemony in American society. It follows the story of “Hank,” a manual laborer who works in the fiery bowels of a luxury steamship that transports wealthy upper-class passengers on holiday.

In the beginning, the brutish Hank is quite happy with his lot in life. He sees himself as the very essence and driving force of the ship; in many ways, he IS the ship and the ship IS Hank.

But one day his life changes when he comes face-to-face with the dainty and naive daughter of a wealthy steel industrialist who nearly faints when she comes into contact with Hank, whom she refers to as a “filthy beast”. Angered by her reaction, and puzzled by this perceived difference, Hank leaves the ship and ventures out into the world, into Manhattan specifically, where he seeks to find his place in society.  Unfortunately for Hank, the prospects are dim and he ultimately finds that he doesn’t belong anywhere.

O’Neill’s play has come to be considered a contemporary American classic. It has themes that continue to reverberate even in our own times, especially in our own times.  With economic disparity between the upper and lower classes higher than it is has ever been, coupled with a shrinking middle class and the destruction of organized labor unions, “The Hairy Ape” is every bit as pertinent today as it was when it was first written, — the early 1920s, when monopolies ruled and worker rights movements were in their nascent stage.

And this is where director Wilder Nutting-Heath sort of missed an opportunity to bridge the gap between the 80 years that separate the very first production of this play with that of his own. Instead, Nutting-Heath, who states that this production is the “culmination of [his] master’s thesis on masculinity and the collective socialization of men,” is more concerned with the loftier notions of individuation and psychology, — an approach which isn’t entirely off-base, but seems tangential to the larger, more concrete social issues presented.

Why, for instance, in a time when we have movements like “Occupy Wall Street” and “May Day” protests, would a director continue to set the play in the 1920s, where upper class characters were costumed in period style flapper dresses and old-fashioned suits?  Why not contemporize the play? Why not integrate modern technology (digital projections and video) in order to bring in images of modern manifestations of the social issues explored in the play?  Unfortunately, the director remained too faithful to the text, not really daring to stray from the original staging.

This issue aside, Ghost Light Theatrical’s production of “The Hairy Ape” is still quite interesting, thanks, in particular, to the excellent performances by two of the more mature members of the cast: Ed Gangner, who plays the drunken Irishman, “Paddy,” and of course, Richard Carmen, who plays the ape-like protagonist, “Hank.”  Carmen, especially, delivers a powerful and emotional performance in his portrayal of the leading character who seeks to find where he belongs.

The Ensemble also works well together with the stylized movements and expressionistic nature of the play. The work scenes in the furnace of the ship as well as the street scenes with robotic movement were particularly effective.

In short, this is a pretty good, though standard, production of a very interesting and thematically rich play. The company did a competent job of staging this complex work in the less than ideal setting of the Ballard Underground, but I couldn’t help but think how much better it could have been with a bit more daring direction and a lot more money for more elaborate sets, costumes, and effects.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

Posted: August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

Seattle is having an excellent theatrical season so far this year, and Balagan’s latest production, “August: Osage County,” the Pulitzer prize winning drama by Tracy Letts, might just be the icing on the cake!

With an epic dramatic structure reminiscent of those of Chekhov, combined with the piercing, psychological insight into family dynamics evocative of Arthur Miller’s plays, this three and a half hour dramatic tour de force is a roller coaster ride of emotions with so many twists and turns that it will leave you breathless by the end, but still wanting more.

At first the show starts off a bit slow, with what is basically a R-E-A-L-L-Y long monologue by “Beverly,” (played by Charles Leggett), a retired professor and poet who has hired “Johnna,” (played by Jordi Montes), a native american woman needing a job, to be the housekeeper.  We learn very quickly the problems of the household: Beverly is an alcoholic and his wife is a drug addict suffering from mouth cancer.

But once this extended prelude scene is over, things quickly pick up pace when “Beverly” goes missing, prompting the return home of his three daughters: “Barbara”, “Ivy”, and “Karen” (played respectively by Teri Lazzara, Caitlin Frances, and Kate Jaeger).

Without getting too much into the plot, which is extremely complex and filled with many surprises, suffice it to say that we very soon learn that “Beverly” has died, and the rest of the play focuses on the many secrets and strained relationships of his dysfunctional family.

By far, the most intriguing character is that of Beverly’s sharp-tongued, sometimes lucid, sometimes pill addled wife, “Violet” (played by Shellie Shulkin). Shulkin gives one of the most moving, honest and brilliant performances that I have seen in any show. She captures the abrasively resilient nature of the “people of the Plains,” and particularly those of her generation, “the Greatest Generation,” with astonishing acuity. And I contend that she should be nominated for a Gregory AND a Gypsy award as “Best Actress” this year.

Although the entire cast is top-notch as an ensemble, other very strong performances are given by Lisa Viertel , who plays “Mattie Fay,” and by Teri Lazzara as “Barbara.” Viertel, in particular, brings much comic relief into this otherwise heavy show. It should also be mentioned that John Q. Smith and Chris Ensweiler also deliver very realistic performances in their roles as husbands to “Barbara” and “Mattie Fay.”

Directed by Shawn Belyea, with Ahren Buhmann as Set Designer and Technical Director, this truly American drama is certainly worth the three and a half hours of attention it demands.

“August: Osage County” is now playing at the Erickson Theatre off Broadway on Capitol Hill through April 27. www.balagantheatre.org8623657436_2cb57918f5_z

SMUDGE

Posted: August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

“Smudge” is a new show now playing at Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET). It was written by former “Daily Show” writer (now with “Parks and Recreation”), Rachel Axler. It gets its name from a comment made when the two main characters, “Colby” and “Nick,” (played by Carol Thompson and Ash Hyman), a young married couple expecting their first child, get a glimpse at their soon-to-be baby’s ultrasound.

Something doesn’t look quite right … Is that a penis or a leg? It’s a leg; girls don’t have penises.

And thus begins Colby and Nick’s dilemma in this not-quite-funny, dark dramedy about a couple dealing with a severely disfigured, “special needs” baby.

In the beginning, it is Nick who tries most to bond with, what Colby not-so-fondly refers to as this “bunch of entrails in casing,” named Cassandra. Lovingly, he focuses on the one functioning body part over which Cassandra seems to have some control: her one, beautiful blue eye. Nick practices eye exercises with his daughter diligently in hopes of getting some response and physical engagement.

Meanwhile, Colby goes into complete dysfunctional mode, distancing herself from the baby and stuffing her emotions down with endless quantities of cheesecake, which she eats on the floor from the box.

However, it is not the cooing and doting father who finally gets a response from the “freak” lying lifelessly in the bassinet, but rather Colby, whose emotional distance seems to incite Cassandra. Suddenly, the tubes coming from the bassinet light up profusely; the steadily beeping monitor that measures all of her bodily functions begins to sound wildly; Cassandra is alive and aware and trying to reach out, and her bleeping and flashing bassinet takes on a life of it’s own, becoming what could be considered the 4th character in this 3 person show. (The third character being that of “Pete,” the older brother of “Nick,” played by Noah Benezra.

The overall feel of this show is somewhat dark and sinister, but with a splash of lighter tones. This polar dynamic is also reflected in the dark lighting and set design that is counterbalanced with the brightness of the quasi-neon flashing bassinet. Set designer, Devin August Petersen, used the tiny space of the WET stage quite well, managing to take the audience from the labor room to the couple’s home to Nick’s office smoothly and efficiently.

The acting is solid and believable with strong performances given by all. Benezra as “Pete” was particularly funny.  In short, “Smudge” is a good way to spend 90 minutes enjoying some somewhat funny, somewhat dark, quirky theatre.

“Smudge” plays through April 22 and Washington Ensemble Theatre. http://www.washingtonensemble.org

THE HEN NIGHT EPIPHANY

Posted: August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

So, basically, a “hen night” is the British/Irish equivalent of a bachelor party for brides; it is that one last hurrah when a soon-to-be-bride goes out on the town with all of her girlfriends and gets wild and crazy for one final time before tying the knot.

In playwright, Jimmy Murphy’s, 2 act play, “The Hen Night Epiphany,” things are a bit different. Instead of painting the town red with all of her ‘besties,’ “Una,” played by Colleen Carey, decides to spend her hen night in a run-down hillside cottage overlooking Dublin in the far distance with her two long-time friends, “Kelly” and “Triona,” played respectively by Kelly Johnson and Ellen Dessler, and with her future mother-in-law, “Olive,” and her fiancé’s god mother, “Anta” played by Frances Hearn and Laura Crouch.

However, early on the in the play, we get a glimpse into the fact that something is not quite right when it comes to the impending nuptials. While unpacking their bags, “Kelly” notices a large bruise on “Una’s” arm; when she asks about it, “Una” just dismisses it saying that it was an accident that occurred when she was moving some furniture. So, both women drop the subject until “Anta” reveals what she witnessed when “Una” and her fiancé were living with her for a few months.

Thus, one of the major themes dealt with in this well-written, contemporary Irish play is that of domestic violence and the secrets, shame, and isolation it entails.  However, the play isn’t just about physical abuse. Written in 2011, it also touches on the economic crisis that has hit Europe, and especially Ireland, particularly hard.  Additionally, it examines the relationships between men and women and the difficulties that often ensue.

There was a lot of good acting in this show, particularly Kelly Johnson. She was real, honest, believable, and funny. At times the Irish accents were a bit off, but weren’t distracting or totally off the mark.

The best aspect of this show, however, was the tight ensemble feel of it. Every actress was on her game and each gave some strong performances.

“The Hen Night Epiphany” plays until April 6 at Stone Soup Theatre. It is directed by Roy Arauz and produced by Arouet in conjunction with The Driftwood Players’ Theatre of Intriguing Possibilities. For more info, see: www.arouet.ushennight_sp_category

THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE

Posted: August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

Theater Schmeater has got a knock-out production on its hands with “The Gingerbread House,” written by Mark Schultz and directed by Julia Griffin.

The play tells the story of “Stacey” and “Brian,” played respectively by Sara Coates and Tom Dewey, an all-American couple who decide to sacrifice everything, including their children, in order to achieve the elusive American dream: expensive cars, a fancy high rise penthouse in the city, an express ride up the corporate ladder, and exclusive membership into “The Club,” where they can hobnob and rub elbows with the crème de la crème of corporate execs.

The creative set design by Michael Mowery is composed of numerous screens on which video and animation are projected depicting primarily scenes of Brian and Stacey’s children, whom we never actually see, at play. The video design was by Douglas Staley and Mike Jones, and the animation was done by Shawn McConaghy.

In terms of the script, it is a powerful piece of writing that touches on many profound themes, including: child-trafficking and sexual abuse, corporate corruption, infidelity, greedy ambition, and to a certain extent, the psychological ramifications that a woman might feel after deciding to give up her children.

There are a few issues, however, with the first part of the script and the end. As for the beginning, it is hard to take the whole concept of selling one’s children seriously, which the script requires the audience to do. And given the recent scandals that have shaken both Penn State and the Catholic Church in recent years, it is an “iffy” subject for comedy. Plus, it just takes a little too long to get to the meat of the of play.

The ending sort of suffers from the same problem in that it doesn’t know when to end. There was a crescendo scene that occurred about 15-20 minutes before the show actually ended, which would have been a great place to stop, but it just kept going and going and going — sort of like the Energizer bunny. But these two issues aside, the script is, otherwise, quite powerful and complex.

In addition to “Stacey” and “Brian”, the other characters who round out the show are “Marco”, “Fran”, and “Collin”, played respectively by Daniel Christensen, Lori Lee Haener, and Raymond Williams. All in all, it is a strong cast of well-seasoned actors who deliver some powerful performances. Christensen was particularly good at portraying the slimy, two-timing, child broker, and Coates was quite engaging in her role as mother and wife.

Perhaps the smarmiest of the characters, however, was that of Brian. At first, Dewey comes across as a bit stiff and unrealistic in the first scene of the show, but he quickly becomes more and more believable as the manipulative side of his character begins to surface.

In short, this is one of the best shows that I’ve seen so far this year. I commend “The Schmee” on having the courage to produce such a provocative, substantive, and well-executed piece of theatre!

“The Gingerbread House” runs through April 20th at Theater Schmeater. For more info go to www.schmeater.org.  Ph. 206-324-5801.

CEDAR AND THE REDWOODS

Posted: August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

One thing is certain: the name of this theatre company is quite fitting given the amount of love and passion that was demonstrated on the stage of the Historical Washington Center during the opening night performance of Copious Love Productions’ two-act, psycho-road-trip-drama, “Cedar & the Redwoods.”

The opening monologue by co-director, John Paul Sharp, which precedes the actual show, is a tell-tale sign of the good intentions and sincerity of the company’s passion. In his pre-show monologue, Sharp shares a very personal and tragic story about the death of his sister and the unanswered questions that continue to ensue. It fits quite well with the events and themes of the main show, “Cedar and the Redwoods,” written by Chelsea Madsen.

Briefly, “Cedar” (played by Reagan Dickey) has moved to California from Portland to escape her past and start anew. Her life has been stricken by tragedy after tragedy, which includes, a dead father, a dead uncle, a bad relationship with an ex-boyfriend, and most importantly, a dying sister. When the play begins, Cedar gets a phone call from her mother informing her that her sister has just died and she needs to come home for the funeral.

Instead of flying, Cedar decides to make the trip by car, so as to have the time to collect her thoughts and prepare herself for the reality that Portland holds. She takes the scenic route (ie. the 101) and his joined in the car by a number of voices in her head: the voice of her dead grandmother, her dead father, her dead English teacher, her dead uncle, her dead boyfriend, and most importantly, the voices of her own subconscious. These many voices are played by the other actors in the play, which includes: Geoff Finney, Sarina Hart, and D’Arcy Harrison.  And generally speaking, the cast does a good job differentiating these various characters they are required to play.

Now, the problem with this production, however, is two-fold: the writing and the staging; Briefly, they keep getting in each other’s way. The episodic nature of the writing makes a mess of the stagecraft, which is certainly ambitious and has potential, but is badly executed. There are so many (unnecessary) blackouts in between numerous scene changes that you could literally drive a mack truck through them, and this literally brings what little action that the script offers to a grinding halt. The number one rule of theatre when dealing with a play that has many scenes is to keep the action moving!

Secondly, the play is basically a road trip, which consequently, keeps 80% of the (non-)action confined to the bulky car that dominates the entire right side of the tiny stage that is swallowed by the enormous house of the theatre. A better solution for set designer, Jessica Pickett, would have been to dare to spill out of the confining proscenium and leave the main stage open for the scenes involving the “vocal visits” from the past instead.  And also, minimize the size of the car! It isn’t necessary and just caused major problems during scene changes.

Another issue with the writing is that it just stays on one level the entire time, and that level is down, depressed, and angst-y, making it difficult for the audience to maintain compassion for a character that wallows in self-pity for two hours.  I would say that some cutting and re-visioning is in order. It was a little too over-the-top for a character to be dealing with that many emotional issues in one show: a dead father and grandmother, a dead uncle who was a junky, a dead sister, an abusive relationship, an abortion, etc. It was overkill. The play needs to be shortened by about 45 minutes to an hour.

On a more positive note, I commend the company for implementing video and other effects in the technical design, and would encourage them to use more of these instead of having to physically create so many set pieces that require a backstage crew of nearly 10 to maneuver. Also, a more developed sound design would be nice.

And this leads me to my final thought on this show, and that is, I think it would be better as a film than as a staged show. I say this due to the episodic nature of the script and the lack of real action. It pains me to have to be so critical of this show, because as I said, there is a lot of passion and potential there, and with some major editing and rethinking/simplifying of the staging techniques, it could be interesting, as it does present some substantive themes. This is a company that is growing into itself and I certainly look forward to seeing future productions.

“Cedar & the Redwoods” is now showing at Washington Hall (153 14th Ave.) until April 6th. More info at http://www.CopiousLove.org