Archive for April, 2014

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Edward Albee, renowned author of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?,” the 1962 classic now playing at Seattle Rep, is often associated with the notion of Absurdism that came to influence European theatre, especially that of France, during the 50s and early 60s.

However, this is an erroneous association for one primary reason: Albee has more in common with the Existentialist predecessors of Absurdism, such as Camus and Sartre, than he does with the likes of Absurdists like Beckett and Ionesco.

The main difference between the two camps (ie. Absurdists vs. Existentialists) is that the Existentialists were content to depict the meaninglessness and irrationality of life in very rational, psychological ways; whereas the Absurdists insisted on the plasticity of the stage in order to theatricalize the isolation, fragmentation, and relativism of the human condition.

The Existentialists brought audiences living room dramas, shrouded in heavy psychologism, rational discourse, and dialogism in which fully developed, ‘well-rounded’ characters eloquently and objectively expressed the absurdity of life ; the Absurdists, on the other hand, often abandoned the rationality of language, preferring instead images, movements, sounds, and symbols to communicate the impossibility of communication.

I make this distinction because I think it is important to view Albee’s work within proper context. Albee is no Beckett or Ionesco, though the three are kindred spirits. Albee is a bit more interested in psychology than his truly Absurdist counterparts, and it is this aspect of his work that sets him apart as a writer, and which makes a play like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” so fascinating in its modernity.

Of course, it is Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who made the characters in Albee’s play, George and Martha, so well-known. The 1966 film was nominated for thirteen academy awards, and won five of them, including Best Actress for Ms. Taylor. Thus, there are some big shoes to fill when a theatre company decides to mount a production of this American classic, and for the most part, I would say that director Braden Abraham has succeeded in delivering a strong, but not too terribly innovative, production of the show.

The director has assembled a strong cast of actors and actresses, which includes Seattle favorite, R. Hamilton Wright, in the role of George, Pamela Reed playing Martha, Aaron Blakely as Nick, and Amy Hill as Honey. They are each strong actors in their own right, however, I do believe a more age-appropriate cast could have been found.

Not to detract from the solid performances given by Wright and Reed, but it was a bit much to believe that the couple were in their 40s, and this significant age difference between the older couple and the younger couple weakened the sexual energy and tension that should have been there between them. Nevertheless, all four performers do good jobs in their respective roles despite this casting issue.

The only other major negative criticism that I have for this production, aside from a few strange issues with blocking in a couple of scenes, is that it is WAY TOO LONG! With a total running time of nearly three and a half hours, to include two intermissions, the show is too slow in its pacing.

I always understood that in theatre ‘you have to buy your pauses,’ meaning you shouldn’t take too many of them so as to avoid ‘losing your audience.’ ; you have to keep gliding along at a decent speed, generally, so that you can take the time for those few ‘tender moments’ when things can slow down.

Unfortunately, I think this is what happened here; there were too many pauses, and the excessive accumulation of them led to a running time that risked losing the audience. Luckily, they didn’t lose us, but there were times when they came close, especially by the third act!

But seasoned actors combined with a skillful playwright can usually keep an audience’s attention for the duration, and if there are any moments in which we wander off momentarily in our own world, we are quickly brought back to the home of the dysfunctional, alcoholic couple, George and Martha, and their poor, unsuspecting younger guests.

And what a beautiful home it is regardless of the mess that lives inside! Scenic Designer, Mathew Smucker, delivers exactly what one would expect in his rendition of the interior of a late 1950s/early 1960s New England home of a relatively wealthy academic couple, whose father/father-in-law is the president of the private college where the husband teaches history.

There is lots of dark wood, antique furnishings, ornate wallpaper, custom-made cabinets and desks cluttered with books, papers, and all the tell-tale signs and trappings of an academic life. The set is vast and smartly illuminated by Lighting Designer, L.B. Morse, who takes us from the darkest moments of a heavily drunken night to the first hungover rays of a breaking dawn.

It is in this traditional living room setting, inside the home of George and Martha, that Albee explores some of the same questions that preoccupied the minds of his contemporaries and predecessors, the Existentialists and Absurdists. He makes audiences question the difference between reality and illusion; he confronts them with their own isolation; he peels away the falsities of social manners and conventions to reveal the teeth and claws of the human animal and the games we play to tear each other apart.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” plays through May 18th at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. For tickets and info, call 206-443-2222 or visit http://www.SeattleRep.org.

ERNEST SHACKLETON

Posted: April 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

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“Ernest Shackleton loves me,” and quite honestly, I kind of love him too, at least the hunky, virile portrayal of him by Wade McCollum in Balagan’s latest production of the newly conceived musical by Joe Dipietro, Brendan Milburn, and Valerie Vigoda.

Admittedly, this is probably one of the strangest musicals I have ever seen! (And that’s saying a lot given the absurdist landscape that the contemporary American musical has become in recent years!) But it was, nevertheless, curiously and pleasantly entertaining once Mr. Shackleton took stage with his winter-fresh smile, rugged masculinity, and boundless optimism.

Set in modern-day NYC during the winter, the play actually oscillates between two realms: that of Kat’s cold, small apartment in Brooklyn where she spends her days in an insomniac haze creating music and taking care of her new born baby, and this other fantastical, historical realm in which we journey with Kat, Mr. Shackleton and his crew through the cold, barren wasteland of the Antarctic on an exploratory adventure to cross the icy continent that lies at the bottom of the Earth.

Much like the real life Ernest Shackleton pushed boundaries in his expeditions to Antarctica, this musical also pushes the boundaries in its experimentation with various mediums to tell its story, especially the medium of digital video projection, which I applaud.

Indeed, Ernest first appears to us in digital format, with his glowing smile, snow-covered beard, and his Polly-Anna-I-can-do-anything ambition. He inserts himself into Kat’s world cybernetically as they Skype themselves through snow storms, hurricanes, rough waters, starvation, and alpine barriers. And all of this is expressed primarily through music, for which Vigoda, who plays Kat, wrote the lyrics and plays on her keyboards, drums, and electric violin.

Thus, what the musical represents is a mishmash of stories and mediums: the story of Kat and her struggle to survive as an artist, combined with the story of Ernest and his struggle to survive as an explorer, all told in a literal flurry of electronic images and sound.

This strange brew of a show is an ambitious endeavor even if it does involve only two actors. The technical aspects were quite amazing and reflected a serious amount of thought and work on behalf of all the designers. The work that went into the video projections, in particular, was nothing short of amazing and did much to enhance this production that, otherwise, could have been a bit lackluster.

And on that note, it should be said that the first 20-25 minutes of the show are probably the weakest. It involves only Kat on stage for the most part as she sings about her struggles as an artist, and this becomes really annoying very quickly. But fortunately, things pick up once Ernest appears and the show starts to earnestly (no pun intended) focus on the themes that reverberate: perseverance through struggle, exploration, and experimentalism.

I wouldn’t say that the music and lyrics are the best I’ve ever heard; no songs really jump out and stick with you, but the amount of talent that was demonstrated on that stage was still quite evident, from the scenography to Vigoda’s impressive talents as a musician to McCullom’s commanding stage presence. All of the technical components were there to make this show work.

However, the two main hindrances to this production are the imbalance that exists in terms of the quality of the two actors (he is a much stronger actor than she), and also the storyline itself, which is very strange and almost comes across as two separate plays: that of Kat and her struggles as a modern day musician, and that of Ernest and his quest to conquer a continent. It all just combines into a very bizarre, very puzzling, yet still captivating theatrical experience.

In the end, this musical kind of stuck with me afterward, not because of the music itself or the storyline, but rather because of its quirkiness, its experimentalism, and of course, because of the brilliant performance of McCollum as Shackleton. He was a very versatile actor, not only in his role as the lead character, but also when he played the role of Ponce de Leon as well, which was even more brilliant. I would have loved to see more of those two characters and less of the whining that went on with the character, Kat, at the beginning of the show.

But all in all, this is an interesting show with lots of potential, and again, McCollum was nothing short of brillant!

“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” plays through May 3rd at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. For tickets and info, visit http://www.balagantheatre.org or call 206-329-1050.