Archive for September, 2013

I guess I should start with a disclaimer and admit that I don’t really think that Rajiv Joseph is that great of a playwright. He’s good with dialogue, to be sure, and there is definitely some grit and substance to his work, but to me, his plays ultimately fall flat.

Having seen two of his shows recently, Gruesome Playground Injuries by Azeotrope and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Washington Ensemble Theatre, I can only conclude that the former is underdeveloped, while the latter is overdeveloped; the first didn’t give enough, while the last didn’t know when to stop giving. Both had the makings of riveting theatre, but both ultimately left me feeling underwhelmed.

Let’s take the latest production of BTatBZ, which opened this past weekend at WET. I had much anticipation for this show. I, generally, like the work done by the WET ensemble, and feel that they are one of the best small theaters in town. They tend to specialize in edgy, quirky, progressive plays that push the theatrical envelope — something I, certainly, appreciate!

I was also excited to see this play by RJ, which had starred Robin Williams in its Broadway production, and which had been nominated for a Pulitzer prize in 2010.  Plus, this particular production by WET starred one of my absolutely favorite Seattle actors, Ryan Higgins, and also featured Ali El-Gasseir whom I also respect. So, needless to say, my expectations were pretty high.

Now, before I go on, let me say that, as a general rule, I do not like to read anything about a show before I go see it. I prefer to experience it in its rawness, with no preconceived ideas about what its about or what will take place. So aside from the few facts I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I knew nothing else about BTatBZ.

Walking into the house of the theatre, I took my seat and waited for the play to begin. Of course, the show had already begun in ways since there was a man, who turned out to be the tiger (played by Mike Dooly), already on stage. (This is a technique WET has been using a lot lately — having characters already in place as the audience enters).

My first reaction was that the set, designed by Tommer Peterson, seemed a bit plain. Of course, I realize that WET is a tiny space and that there is only so much that can be done in terms of set design, but to their credit, I have seen them do some amazing transformations of that space, even with its confining parameters. And to be clear, I’m not saying the set was bad, it just didn’t have that level of spectacularity that I had hoped for, and which seems to be demanded by the play itself, given its large scope and broad range of locales for which it calls.

So, in terms of set design, I’ll give it one thumb up, one thumb down.

But now, to the heart of the matter: the actors. By and large, the cast was relatively strong. Higgins, who played the American soldier “Kev,” was definitely on his game as usual, but I wouldn’t say it’s the best role he has ever played. He was so much better in the Schmee’s Live! From the Last Night of My Life and Strawshop’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Perhaps it was just due to the nature of this role, but I wasn’t as moved by him as in the past — although he was still quite good.

His army buddy, “Tom,” (played by Jonathan Crimeni) was standard in his portrayal of the opportunistic soldier who tries to capitalize on all of the death and destruction around him. He was believable in his stoicism and gave a heart-wrenching performance in his final scene.

Erwin Galan, who plays the Iraqi translator, “Musa,” also did a fine job in his role. He had a certain innocence, intelligence, and sincerity about him that was engaging and endearing.

But the best performance by far was that of Ali El-Gasseir in his role as Saddam Hussein’s diabolically evil eldest son, “Uday.”  I actually didn’t realize it was El-Gasseir playing the role until I looked more closely at the cast list during intermission. He was both funny and scary all at once, and did a wonderful job capturing the despotic Middle Eastern autocrat who had a fondness for brutally raping women and mindlessly and indiscriminately torturing and killing others — a true modern day Caligula. I suspect El-Gasseir will be receiving a nomination for best supporting actor for his work in this show.

As for Mike Dooly’s performance as the tiger, I wasn’t as impressed. He was pretty stiff in his body — there was nothing that said “tiger” about him. And the humor, which is apparently called for in the role, just didn’t strike me as funny. I’m not saying he was terrible, I just felt ambivalent toward him. And since the play gets its name from this character, I don’t think we should be left with a feeling of ambivalence.

But all in all, the talent was there among the cast, crew, and designers, but what wasn’t there was the writing, as I mentioned before. There were some good moments, some substantive moments, some beautiful and terrifying moments, but there were also a lot of “preachy” moments, clichéd moments, and unnecessary moments. And the biggest problem is that the playwright just didn’t know when to quit. There were so many times toward the end of the play when it could have ended and everything would have been beautiful. But instead, RJ just kept going on and on and on and on and on. The last 10-15 minutes of the show were completely unnecessary. And given how hot it was in that tiny theatre by the end of the 2 1/2 hour run, I started feeling like I WAS in the Iraq war: a never ending hell!

And that leads me to the final issue I have with this play: it is just too big for its own good, and its definitely too big for the tiny space of WET. They did a good job with what they had and the resources at their disposal, but they can only be as good as the material with which they are working, and to me, this play just isn’t that interesting or profound. And I cannot for the life of me figure out why it was ever nominated for a Pulitzer!

So kudos to WET, but rotten tomatoes to Rajiv Joseph!

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo runs through October 7 at Washington Ensemble Theatre, 608 19th Ave E. For tickets or more info, call 206-325-5105 or visit http://www.washingtonensemble.org

 

SOFT CLICK OF A SWITCH

Posted: September 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

In a press release for Map Theatre’s latest production, “Soft Click of a Switch,” director Peggy Gannon paraphrases Anton Chekhov in order to explain her approach to staging the complex and dark world presented in this 1998 play written by Carl W. Lewis, and which is now playing at West of Lenin in Fremont. Unknown

She quotes: “It’s not our job to tell you that horse thieves are evil, but rather to show you what these particular horse thieves are like.”

And a fine job of “showing” Gannon does as she presents audiences the gritty, isolated, and inert lives of the play’s two main characters, “Ed and Earl,” — a mismatched couple of down-and-outs who ultimately want to make their mark on the world, albeit a destructive one.

“Ed,” (played by Brandon Ryan), is a lonely, disillusioned, and restless young man who spends most of his time spying on his next door neighbors through a tiny crack in the wall in his rundown studio apartment.

“Earl,” (played by Mark Fullerton)  is a divorced, childless, alcoholic, middle-aged man who now lives in his car and spends his days downing bottles of gin at a dive bar when he is not seated behind the desk at his soul-destroying, dead end office job.

When this oddly matched couple meet by chance one day at a dark and dank bar nearby the Mall of America in Minneapolis, they ultimately end up forming a relationship that delivers them from their inertia and gives them purpose and ambition.

Of course, one of the things that drives them is the building of kitchen table bombs made out of random air conditioner parts, which they use to blow up unattended drive-through ‘fotomats.’ (Remember, the play was written in 1998, a time before the massive onslaught of the digital age in which we now live).

But the deeper drive is their desire “to do SOMETHING: to forcefully create value for themselves where none seems to exist […] Each man alone may have remained inert, but their chemistry together is explosive,” explains Gannon in the program’s Director Notes.

Indeed, there is much chemistry between Ryan and Fullerton in their respective roles. Ryan is both hardened and vulnerable at the same time; his energy is high-strung, twitchy, and restless just as it should be.  Fullerton, on the other hand, is slower-paced, calculating and exact; he comes across as a very cerebral functional alcoholic, one who has lived a hard life and who sees clearly the sad and empty world that surrounds him.

So, part of the “showing” that the director does is to let these two skilled actors work their magic, allowing them to build a camaraderie that in many ways becomes a love story between the characters.

She also “shows” instead of “tells” by keeping things simple in terms of the scenography. The set design by Suzi Tucker is quite minimalist and functional as it represents four primary spaces: the bar, Earl’s office, Ed’s apartment, and the next door neighbors’ apartment, which we actually don’t see, but rather just peek into. Although a more elaborate set design would have been nice, it wasn’t necessary, as it allowed the focus to remain on the acting.

The lighting design by Terra Morgan and the Costume Design by Julia Evanovich were also subdued.  In terms of the lights, the ambiance remains rather dark and somber throughout, which, again, is appropriate. And the costumes were basically just plain clothed, everyday garb.

There were some interesting things going on with the sound design by Shane Regan. The muffled sounding music selection, comprised primarily of late ‘60s & early ‘70s rock, at first gives the impression that there is something wrong with the speakers, but I suppose it was done on purpose.  And the intermittent voice of an invisible bartender calling drinks and reprimanding rowdy patrons was a nice added touch.

In short, I enjoyed the “showing” of this strange and “darkly comic platonic love story about two strangers” (to quote the press release), who meet at a bar one day and decide to blow up things.

Soft Click of a Switch runs through September 28 at West of Lenin, 203 North 36th St., in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. For more information or tickets call 1-800-838-3006 or visit http://www.map-theatre.com

MIDDLETOWN

Posted: September 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

Middletown, the 2010 play by Will Eno now showing at ACT, has been described by many as a contemporary take on Thornton Wilder’s American Classic, Our Town.  And there is some truth to this statement.

The set design by Jennifer Zeyl is a bit more elaborate than the ladders, benches, and chairs typically used to symbolize the various locales of Grover’s Corner in Wilder’s play.

However, the simplicity is still there in the bare-framed outline of houses that serve as home to the play’s two main characters, “John Dodge” and “Mary Swanson,” and also in the large rock that sits center stage, and which serves as the town’s principal monument.

The rest of the stage remains primarily open, and only small set pieces are brought in to  take audiences to various other locations in town, such as the library, the hospital, and even beyond, into outer space.  All in all, the design is minimalist and functional, which is as it should be, not overshadowing the real focus of the play: Middletown and its inhabitants (to include librarians, cops, mechanics, tourists, tour guides, doctors, nurses, and an astronaut).

Director, John Langs, has assembled a fine cast for this philosophically laden and metaphysically oriented drama that is “about the poetry of everyday life.” Like Our Town, the play is not heavy on plot or action; it is quasi non-narrative, although a relatively simple story does unfold over the course of approximately 9 months, — the span of time in which town newcomer, “Mary,” (played by Alexandra Tavares), goes from the early days of her pregnancy to the birth of her firstborn son.

Along the way, glimpses into the lonely and isolated lives of other “Middletonians” are also given, with particular attention on the town cop (played by Matthew Floyd Miller), the town librarian (played by Marianne Owen), the town mechanic (played by Ray Tagavilla), and most importantly, on “John Dodge” (played by Eric Riedman).

Rounding out the cast is a number of actors who play a variety of roles.  They include: Aaron Blakely, Renata Friedman, Sarah Harlett, Sarina Hart, and R. Hamilton Wright. Strong performances are given by all, and the entire ensemble is to be commended for the work.

However, Riedmann, in particular, is outstanding in his role as the shy, neurotic, and depressed neighbor, “John.” He offers a very real, honest, natural, and endearing portrayal of this emotionally tormented and complex character.

Although the play is rather serious, as it delves into the existential angst and isolation of modern life, it does have many humorous moments as well. Many of these moments come from the hilarious performance of R. Hamilton Wright, particularly in his roles as “The Public Speaker” and the “Doctor.” Wright is a regular at ACT, and he never fails to deliver top notch performances in whatever roles he chooses to undertake.

So, much like Wilder’s 1938 American classic, Middletown’s focus is on the larger questions of life and death, on the connections between a people and their town, but this is where the comparisons end.

In fact, in an interview with with the playwright that appeared in the Boston Globe this past February, Eno talks directly about the connection between the two plays, stating that: “That play [Our Town] had a great effect on me, but I never felt it needed an ‘update’ or a ‘newer version.’ So, if anything, I made conscious efforts to make sure Middletown went a separate way.”

Instead, the playwright credits other writers, like Beckett, DeLillo, and Albee, as his major influences. This is reflected in the play by the attention it gives to the arbitrariness of language, the instability and relativity of identity, and by its metaphysical meditations on the dissociative effects of the human condition.

“I think Middletown tries to look at the accumulation and effect of the tiny moments that make up our lives — and how we are constantly vulnerable to these tiny moments, which may in fact change the angle of our entire life, or not,” adds Eno during the interview.

In any case, what the playwright has written is a substantive piece of dramatic literature that dares to ponder the mystery of life, and he does so in a very poetic and engaging fashion.

There are a few scenes that seem superfluous, however, (such as the pre-intermission theatre-within-theatre segment), and at times, the characters’ language can be a bit erudite, and may even seem to pretentious to some, but it is not. Rather, it reflects an honest, articulate playwright asking honest, probing questions about the nature of the world, its people(s), and his role in it.[Name]

Middletown runs through Sept. 29 at ACT, The Falls Theatre, 700 Union Street, downtown Seattle. For information or tickets call 206-292-7676 or visit http://www.acttheatre.org.