Archive for February, 2014

VENUS IN FUR

Posted: February 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

Image

 

Seattle Repertory Theatre has done it again! Their followup production to the thoughtful and engaging, “A Great Wilderness,” is the equally electrifying, and dare I say, titillating and  arousing, “Venus in Fur.” 

Adapted for the stage by David Ives from the scandalous, 1870 S&M novel, “Venus in Furs” (note the plural) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, (from whose name was coined the term “masochism”), the play received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play in 2013. And honestly, given the complexity and quality of the writing, it is a shame that it didn’t win, but I think the award went to Christopher Durang, one of my all-time favorite playwrights, so I’m OK with that, I guess…

Set in modern day New York City, the play opens with the character, Thomas Novachek, (played by Michael Tisdale), a frustrated playwright-director, who is trying to cast his new play, which also happens to be an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. 

Thus, from the very beginning, the complex layering of the script’s composition begins to take a meta-theatrical form via a structure-en-abyme in which the play that the audience has come to see is the play that is just now being cast, — a bit of theatre-within-theatre, “if you will,” that results in producing a self-conscious  and atemporal effect. (How very French! – even though Ives is from Chicago and Sacher-Masoch was Austrian…)

But to get back to the plot, Thomas is just wrapping up a day of unsuccessful auditions when Vanda Jordan (played by Gillian Williams) comes bouncing through the door, — a whirlwind of drama and chaos; in short, a hot mess!

Vanda is late for her audition, even though her name doesn’t even appear on Thomas’ list, and she seems ill-prepared for her reading, having supposedly just glanced at the sides, which we later find out was the entire script, in the train on her way there. And although at first Thomas is reluctant to let her audition, as he is tired and ready to go have dinner with his fiancée, ultimately, Vanda succeeds in persuading him to let her do so, and it is here where the play begins in earnest. 

Vanda, the character in Ives’ play who is auditioning for Wanda von Dunajew, the character in Thomas’ play/Sacher-Masoch’s novel, immediately gets the director’s attention as her delivery seems so natural and insightful, and what should have been a 3-5 minute long audition turns into an all-night power play between the two.

Undoubtedly, Williams, who plays Vanda, is by far superior to her co-star Tisdale, who plays Thomas. Part of this is due somewhat, of course, to just how well-written the role is for the female lead. The change in character when Williams is playing Vanda Jordan versus when she is Wanda von Dunajew is quite striking. And Williams easily goes back and forth between the two.

Tisdale, on the other hand, takes some getting used to. His performance in the beginning of the play is too affected and effeminate for the role, but once he gets going in his role as Severin von Kusiemski, his delivery improves. However, I do believe that the Rep could have found a stronger actor for the role in general — not to say that Tisdale was bad, but he just was not on the same level as Williams.

As the play progresses, the boundaries become more and more blurred between truth and fiction, between time and space, and between who these characters are to us as an audience as well as to each other. It is here that Ives reaches the peak of his brilliance in terms of playwriting.  

Although just an “audition,” eventually the two toss away the scripts from which they have been reading and just become the characters from the Austrian novel. The realism that had been established is abandoned as well, and we eventually find ourselves in a hybrid space, somewhere between New York City, 19th century Austria, Antiquity, and a mythological time, where ancient gods rule, especially the goddess, Aphrodite. Ultimately, what Ives gives us is a mediation on love and theatre in which he blurs the lines of character, time, and space, and makes this adaptation of a novel much more than just an adaptation. 

Director, Shana Cooper handles the material quite well, though I would still say that she could go further in terms of playing on the meta-theatricality of which I spoke earlier. Scenic designer, Sibyl Wickersheimer, also built an amazing set, and lighting designer, Geoff Korf did some amazing work with the lightning crashes and rain drops. 

My only criticism here is that I think I would rather see this show in a more intimate space, rather than in the large house that is the Seattle Repertory. A two-character show  that is set in what is basically a rehearsal studio just seems like it would play much better in a smaller venue. But as I said, nevertheless, it is a great production due primarily to great writing a very talented leading lady.  

“Venus in Fur” plays through March 9 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. For tickets and info, call 206-443-2222 or visit http://www.SeattleRep.org.

ED, DOWNLOADED

Posted: February 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

Image

The Washington Ensemble Theatre started of the new year with a regional premiere of “Ed, Downloaded,” written by Michael Mitnick and directed by Ali el-Gasseir.

Sort of a mix between “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Vanilla Sky”, the play is described by WET as follows: “Set in a future where one can purchase immortality and spend an afterlife in a digital heaven of one’s favorite memories, this soon-to-be true story tackles classic themes of love and death in a world where technological advancements bring infinite possibilities.”

This “half-live action play and half-feature film” sounds very promising, but unfortunately, falls flat due to some very clichéd writing and some bad casting.

Ed, an average Joe type character, (played by Noah Benezra), is set to be married to Selene, (played by Gin Hammond), a take-charge computer scientist who has developed the technology that allows people to download their favorite memories and put them on a loop cycle so that that  they can quasi live forever.

But everything changes when Ed meets Ruby, (played by Adria LaMorticella), a street performer/marionette/whimsical free spirit who steals Ed’s heart and becomes the source of all of his happiest memories, much to Selene’s chagrin.

As I said, the problem with the show is two-fold: first of all, there is just no chemistry between the three actors: LaMorticella is just annoying as Ruby; Benezra is unengaging as Ed; and Hammond is too stiff as Selene (though to the women’s defense, the playwright didn’t give them much to work with); and that leads to my other critique  — the writing, which  tries to take itself seriously, but is ultimately superficial and mere fluff, with no real substance. In short, I was bored and didn’t really care about the characters or the unoriginal storyline.

To WET’s defense, however, I will congratulate them for their ambition. The play, as I said, is half-live and half-feature film, and I certainly appreciate the work that that they put into realizing the filmic portions of the show. The marriage between theatre and film is an exciting and challenging endeavor, and so on this, I congratulate WET; I just wish that their hard work and talents had been used on a better script.

“Ed, Downloaded” plays through February 24 at Washington Ensemble Theatre, 608 19th Ave. E. For tickets and info, call 206-325-5105 or visit http://www.washingtonensemble.org

A GREAT WILDERNESS

Posted: February 4, 2014 in Uncategorized

Image

Walking back to my car after having seen Seattle Rep’s latest production of “A Great Wilderness,” written by Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Braden Abraham, I was left feeling perplexed and unsure about what I had just seen.

On one hand, it had some of the best acting I have seen in Seattle in a long time. The entire cast was solid, seasoned, and superb. I was equally impressed with how the script held my attention, and kept me wondering just exactly who these characters were.

But on the other hand, the charm of the script also made me apprehensive in terms of figuring out what, if any, was the message of the play, and it is on this last point, concerning message, where I am still a bit unsure and uneasy …

In short, “A Great Wilderness” takes place in a gay conversion camp for young boys up in the mountains of Idaho. After 30 years as a ‘conversionist counselor,’ Walt (brilliantly played by Michael Winters) is now ready to retire due his advancing age and to some early onset dementia issues that had apparently led to a recent accident that jeopardized his safety. (The nature of this accident remains unclear in the text).

As the play opens, he is receiving his last case, a 16 year old boy named Daniel, (played by Jack Taylor) who is the son of a pastor, and who was caught looking at gay porn on the Internet by his father. Daniel had been sent to many other camps prior to this one, and this was his mother’s last desperate attempt to save her son from his “sickness,” that apparently manifested itself very early on in his life. “He was always feminine,” she laments.

Ok, so cut to the chase, Daniel goes out for a walk around the camp and doesn’t come back, thus prompting a search and rescue effort. It is at this time we meet the other four characters of the play: Abby (played by Christine Estabrook), her second husband, Tim, (played by R. Hamilton Wright) who are co-founders of the camp, Eunice, Daniel’s mother (played by Mari Nelson), and Janet (played by Gretchen Krich), the park ranger.

Needless to say, there is a lot going on in this play: the issue of conversion therapy, the search for a lost boy, the questions of aging and dementia, and of course, the debate over the nature of homosexuality. And all the while, a forest fire is raging all around the area.

I believe that the greatest strength of the playwright is his ability to write very engaging, very realistic dialogue. Some of the scenes between the various couples, especially between Walt and Abby, who also used to be married to each other,  and the dialogue between Abby and Eunice were particularly well-written.

But my problem with the play is trifold: 1) we don’t ever get to know enough about the boy who went missing and understand what he feels and thinks; 2) there is also a bit of confusion concerning the stylistic nature of the piece (ie. does it want to be naturalist/realistic or does it want to be fantastical/surrealistic?); and most importantly, 3) what IS its message, or is does it even have one?

The ambiguity of the second and third “problems” listed above is where I have most concern. I was left wondering what exactly happened. Did that last scene really occur or was it the delusions of a man suffering from dementia? Did the whole place go up in flames or was that just setting and an attempt at dramatic flare? And most importantly, is this playwright giving credence to conversion therapy or is he demonstrating its futility? All remains uncomfortably unclear.

Now, to be fair, I am not one who has to have clarity and resolution in a play. Having a PhD in French literature, I am quite used to ambiguity and irresolution in a work of literature, film, or theatre; but so much of this particular play was so rooted in realism that the fantastical elements (if they were indeed that) seemed out of place or just confusing.

And quite honestly, the ending was very dissatisfying. I spent the whole time fully engaged in the characters, the plot, and the issues that the play was exploring, but I never felt I got an answer to anything, and THAT troubles me given what this play is about.

I was left wondering if Seattle Rep just put on a play that gives a certain amount of credibility to “conversionism” because these conversionist characters were awfully endearing in many ways.  And so, in this case, the ambiguity that I normally appreciate left me with a very unsettled feeling. So, I’m just not sure.

All of this aside, the direction was good, the technical aspects were well executed, and I would recommend seeing the show. It is interesting and perplexing, and would make for a very good post-show conversation with a friend just to try and sort it all out.

“A Great Wilderness” is now playing through February 16 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. For tickets and info, visit www.seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222.