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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.

ROYAL BLOOD

Posted: March 26, 2014 in Uncategorized

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The first thing you will notice when you enter the house of West of Lenin to see the latest production of “Royal Blood” is the amazing transformation that has taken place in the small space.

Gone are the small, uncomfortably padded seats stacked tightly together on dubious high risers that perch above the stage below. Instead, audiences are welcomed into what feels like the seating area of an English garden, with various types of chairs (adirondack, folding, wicker, etc.) from which to enjoy the show.

Scenic Designer, Jennifer Zeyl, has raised and extended the stage to set the scene just outside of the home of Cliff and Deb, (played respectively by Todd Jefferson Moore and Amy Love), an aging, cantankerous widower and his 42 year old special needs daughter.

As the play opens, Deb comes bouncing out of the house to greet the day with a flower watering can in hand while light music plays in the background. Pouring the water into the pots as she walks, she heads toward the little plot of grass placed just behind the white picket fence and begins to dig a hole in the ground with the shovel that has been propped up against the wall. It is soon learned that she is digging a grave for her dog, Lady Di, that has just died.

Strolling up to the house, and freshly back from Europe, comes Dorothy (played by Mari Nelson), Deb’s older sister. She is a chicly clad journalist, sporting a fashionable hat and dark sunglasses. She is divorced and has pursued her moderately successful career at the cost of her family. She is back in town to deal with the death of her gay brother who has just committed suicide; additionally, she hopes to persuade her dying father to allow her to have Deb admitted into a home where she will be taken care of after his death.

Rounding out the list of characters is Cassiopeia (played by Nicole Merat), Dorothy’s 16 year old daughter, and Adam (played by David Hsieh), the Asian-American neighbor/friend-of-the-family/ and former lover of Dorothy’s now deceased brother.

Scenographically speaking, I was very impressed with the high quality of the stage design. It surpasses all other set designs that I have ever seen from any other show at West of Lenin. (And the investment in what appeared to be a new lighting system was a good move!)

Additionally, I was equally impressed with the casting decisions, – as this family really did look like a family; and it is a very strong cast! Moore gives the strongest performance in his role as Cliff, the family patriarch, but Nelson and Love are convincing in their roles as well. Merat, who plays Cassiopeia, brings a lot of energy and some much needed comic relief in her role as the Dorothy’s daughter.

Thus, in terms of production qualities, “Royal Blood” ranks rather high in my opinion, but my biggest problem with the show is the script itself. To me, it seemed like two hours of exposition for the most part. I never really felt like I understood this family and who they were, and I DON’T think this was the actors’ fault.

There were just too many plots and subplots going on: a dead brother, a dying father who is also racist and emotionally abusive, a special needs adult, a career-obsessed mother, a sexually active runaway teenager, and a gay Asian neighbor whose lover just committed suicide. It was all just a little too much in terms of thematic material, and just could not be adequately handled by the playwright in one 2-hour piece.

There is certainly potential in the script, (ie. good ideas, good dialogue, etc.), but some editing and revisions are in order, especially in terms of fleshing out the details between the dead brother and the lover/neighbor; their whole relationship remains unclear to me.

“Royal Blood” plays through April 4th at West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St. For tickets and info, visit http://www.OnwardHoProductions.com

THE SUIT

Posted: March 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

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Legendary film and theatre director, Peter Brook, best known for his minimalist, collaborative-driven, and physically-oriented style of directing that broke all of the traditional rules of theatre, along with co-adapters, Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk, have brought South African writer, Can Themba’s, short story, “The Suit,” to the Seattle Repertory stage.

The play tells the story of a black couple (played by Ivanno Jeremiah as the husband and Nonhlanhla Kheswa as his wife) living in South Africa during the time of apartheid. When the husband finds out that his wife has been cheating on him with another man, he requires, as a punishment, that she pay respect and honor to her lover by taking care of her lover’s suit, which he left behind while hastily fleeing the couple’s house after having been discovered by the husband who came home to find his wife in bed with the other man.

The husband requires that they have meals with the suit propped up at the dinner table, that they take walks with the suit through town, that the suit remain in their bedroom, well taken care of by the wife, so as to serve as a reminder of her infidelity. But any sympathy that we feel for the husband is quickly erased by the humiliation and control he comes to exert over his wife; his cruelty and inability to forgive ultimately lead to the demise of his wife, and by default, his marriage.

Thus, “The Suit” presents audiences with a relatively simple story about betrayal, forgiveness, and control. It is set to music that adds much to an otherwise minimalistic plot-line and staging. The set consists primarily of chairs and wardrobe racks that can be easily used and manipulated to become symbols of other objects (ie. doors, beds, closets, etc.) The costumes (designed by Oria Puppo) also maintain the minimalist aesthetic. In short, the focus here is on the acting, the music, and the storyline more than it is on stagecraft, and the show does excel in this domain.

The actors and musicians are all on their mark and deliver strong performances, especially that of Kheswa, who plays the wife. The musicians (Arthur Astia, Mark Christine, and Mark Kavuma) were also an added benefit in their musical roles as well as when taking on the roles of secondary characters. And the two male leads (Ivanno Jeremiah and Jordan Barbour) were also equally good.

Personally, I enjoyed the show. It was short, simple, and well-executed. The story, itself, is a bit lackluster and somewhat difficult to understand in terms of what it is trying to say, but overall, this is a good traveling production that would probably play better on college campuses, in ways, more than it would in large, professional houses. I say this, simply because of the directorial style, which as I said, is very minimalist and overtly symbolic. But with a short running time of only 75 minutes, the play clips along quite nicely so that one never loses interest despite the underwhelming story and staging.

“The Suit” plays through April 6 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer Street. For tickets and info, see http://www.seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222.

VENUS IN FUR

Posted: February 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

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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

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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

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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.