Indian Ink by Tom Stoppard presented by Sound Theatre Company in association with Pratidhwani

Tom Stoppard is not for those who think FOX sitcoms represent the epitome of entertainment. He’s a thinking person’s playwright, and “Indian Ink” is an intellectual encounter wrapped in exotic staging and glorious language. It’s a broad reaching play, perhaps too broad given that it addresses: Indian/British relations, the impact of the Raj on both countries, the nature of art, the elusiveness of truth, eroticism, and the personal story of a single woman’s experience in torrid India as well as her younger sister’s encounters with her past. Whew!

It’s main character the fictitious British writer Flora Crewe goes to India in the 1930s after contracting TB. She’s one of those genteel intellectuals of the Mitford sort. Like some of those Mitford sisters, her background is a bit racy as evidenced by the fact that she posed nude for Modigliani.

In India she hobnobs with the English gentry and Hindu royalty and becomes caught up in the tensions of the times. The attractive Flora has many admirers including Nirad Das, a painter who, of course, paints Flora in a most provocative manner.

The story of Flora is juxtaposed to the story of her how her much younger sister, now an old woman in the 1980s, deals with the son of the portrait painter and others who wish to gain access to Flora’s writing and memorabilia. Both tales reveal the clash of cultures.

It’s a play that provides a wonderful opportunity for collaboration, and this co-operative venture by Sound Theatre and the theatre wing of the local South Asian arts organization, Pratidhwani, has much to commend it. The audience is treated to authentic Indian accents to contrast with the precise British English. Graceful Indian women offer traditional dances and music. There are exotic Indian scenes in contrast to the tidy British home of Flora’s aged sister.

Caitlin Frances makes a perky (and foxy) Flora. She’s self possessed and open to new adventure. She knows how to intrigue men, use them, and delight them. Betty Campbell as her younger sister in old age mixes gravitas with warmth. Dhiraj Khanna as Nirad Das covers his passion with impenetrable dignity. The entire cast is in top form.

There’s a wealth of ideas here and those ideas are presented in the elegant Stoppard prose. It is, however, almost three hours long, not fare for the timid theatregoer. But if you enjoy intellectual challenges and good staging, give it a go.

Through Sept. 30 at Center Theatre, Seattle Center Armory, Seattle, (www.brownpapertickets.com or 800 838-3006)

“John Baxter is a Switch Hitter” Presented by Intiman Theatre Festival

The Seattle Fireflies (Charles Leggett, Drew Combs, Brace Evans, Adam Standley, and Tyler Trerise. Photo by Chris Bennion

The Seattle Fireflies (Charles Leggett, Drew Combs, Brace Evans, Adam Standley, and Tyler Trerise. Photo by Chris Bennion

Gay or straight, playing ball brings enormous satisfactions. In this production, members of a gay softball team, “The Seattle Fireflies,” are elated to host and possibly win their league’s national finals, the Gay Softball World Series. Meanwhile in San Francisco, another team is elated to encounter a stupendous ballplayer who agrees to join that team. With him on their side, they are sure they’ll win the series.

What the San Franciscans failed to do was ask him if he is gay. He never mentions his sexual orientation, and on they go to the final game of the play-offs. Thus begins a tale of prejudice and exclusion where the immediate victim is a white guy perceived as straight, but, of course, as in all hateful situations, the larger group is equally damaged. It’s a story of the dangers of preconceived notions. It’s a revelatory production loaded with heartbreaking truths, yet equally replete with humor.

In this, the play’s inaugural presentation, director Rosa Joshi and her production team have performed some amazing theatrical feats. On the open stage they create a realistic ballpark as well as intimate scenes. There are rowdy locker rooms and sweet marriage preliminaries. When you hear the crack of the bat, you can almost see the non-existent ball soar out over the audience’s heads.

The playwrights Ana Brown and Andrew Russell (artistic director of the company) have cleverly divided the play in two. Act 1 is the set-up, here you get a lot of inside gay jokes, gestures, and language. It establishes the stereotype perhaps a little too repetitively, but always with humor. The second act leaves much of the humor behind. It’s here that the cruelties and heartbreaking realities are revealed. It’s here where the audience is asked to consider both the subtle and overt manifestations of prejudice. It’s in the second act where gay personal histories and heterosexual revelations bring one up short.

The acting is uniformly good. The 18-member cast is enormous by local standards, and there’s not a weak member in it. You’ll walk away from this production having had a great theatrical experience and quite a lot to think about.

Check Intiman Festival website for dates, at Cornish Playhouse, Seattle Center, (206-315-5838 or www.intiman.org)

“The Tumbleweed Zephyr” presented by Pork Filled Productions

Return to the wild west of the late 19th C. where the steam powered Tumbleweed Zephyr heads across country from the tame east to the wilds of the Western Territories. Prepare to meet a couple of naive travelers as well as the train’s equivalent of “ladies of the night,” card sharks, a pompous conductor, and bandits who arrive via airship. Amy Poisson directs this crazy mix of characters and makes the most of all the surprises in this charming and silly steampunk experience that manages to offer a few lessons too.

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The Hernandex brothers, Kai and Atticus (Manuel Cawaling and Kevin Lin) wait for The Tumbleweed Zephyr.

Even more significant than the story of two brothers on a mission, is the crazy tom-foolery they encounter on the train. The cast members work well together. Special kudos go to Costume Designer Jocelyne Fowler who dresses them all in charming Victorian garb. Her most impressive work presents itself on Linnea Ingalls and Madison Jade Jones, the ladies of pleasure. Their low-cut dresses appear to be held up by nothing more than divine forces. They defy the laws of gravity.

The production crew too deserves praise. The train car is wonderful, and its wheels are a delightful surprise when they appear. Then there are the creative projections that provide a sense of moving across the country during day and night.

Playwright Maggie Lee wrote this as a spin-off from “The Clockwork Professor” another steampunk, science fiction piece she wrote that premiered in Seattle a couple of years ago by the same theatre company. Pork Filled Productions is an Asian American Theatre group that prides itself on its multi-cultural productions.

This is a production aimed to amuse, no serious intellectual challenges here, just good fun.

Through August 29 at 12th Ave. Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, (206 486-0375, http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/press/1388227

“The Passion As Told By Antigona Perez” Presented by Thriving Artists

This moving production by Thriving Artists, a less-than-a-year-old Latino theatre company makes me want to see more of their work. Spotlighting Seattle’s Latino talent in all aspects of theatre production, “The Passion As Told By Antigona Perez” has much to commend it.

Antigona Perez is a stand-in for Antigone, the heroine of the Sophocles play named for her. She was the sister who refused to let her slain brother be consumed by carrion eaters as he lay unburied and unsanctified where he fell in battle. Creon, the new king, had decreed that most heinous punishment as a warning to all others against insurrection. For daring to disobey Creon’s orders by burying her brother, Creon sentenced Antigone to be buried alive in a cave.

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Javonna Arriaga, Photo by Marquicia Domingue

“The Passion as Told By Antigona Perez” opens on a sparse stage where Antigona) stands in solitude speaking for those who grow up where true freedom and equality don’t exist. She has indeed disobeyed her nation’s dictator, and he has decreed that she will pay dearly for her insubordination. She represents justice; he represents repression, mouthing platitudes, secure in his power, supported as he is by armies and henchmen.

Throughout the play, the action is interrupted by on-line media coverage. A large screen above the stage projects the faces of multiple reporters presenting the news, rather the official “news.” The reportage of this “Greek Chorus” causes one to reflect on the ability of all media, new and old, to manipulate truth.

Exchanges between the dictator and Monsignor, the head of the church, make clear the collusion between state and church. Meanwhile, scenes in the boudoir of the First Lady of the Republic speak to the enormous wealth of the few in a society where the many are so less privileged. Much is implied by the wonderful contrast between this elegant, beautifully clad woman, and the dirt smeared, ragged looking Antigona.

Social commentary is front and center in this earnest play by Puerto Rican playwright Luis Rafael Sanchez, translated by Arlene Martinez-Vazquez who also directed this production. Fortunately, it avoids being a harangue. The acting is powerful. The lighting creatively defines spaces and highlights mood. I had some trouble hearing everything said by Javonna Arriaga who plays Antigona with both power and subtlety, and that was a real loss.

It’s an ambitious production well realized, a remarkably good first effort.

Through Aug. 30, a Thriving Artists production at 12th Ave. Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, (brownpapertickets.com or arlene@thrivingartists.org)

“I Taught Myself” at the Greg Kucera Gallery

“Outsider art,” “folk art,” “naïve art”—call it what you will. I have a hard time making clear distinctions among the terms, and so, evidently, does Greg Kucera whose gallery is featuring a show called “I Taught Myself.” It includes work by the most esteemed contemporary and deceased artists of these traditions. Their work has whimsy, beauty, humor, and surprise

Among my favorites is Henry Darger. Born in 1892, Darger had a life history that moves one to tears. His early years were spent in a Catholic boys home before he was institutionalized in a home for the “feeble-minded.” He escaped in 1908 and became a menial hospital worker, a job that supported him for most of his life. By 1930, he moved to a one-room apartment on Chicago’s near north side where he lived in solitude until he died in 1973.

His own experiences gave him great empathy for abused and neglected children; a concern that manifested itself in the 15,145-page book he wrote and illustrated that was discovered only after his death. The heroines of this tome are the Vivian Girls. Their adventures unfurl in “In the Realms of the Unreal” that consists of watercolors, drawings, tracings and collages, many of the images taken from comic strips of the time.

Often depicted nude, the Vivian Girls all have penises. Some suggest that is related to homosexual instincts in Darger. Others suggest that he may never have seen a female nude body and just didn’t know it was different from his own. There are two large Dargers in the show.

Another treat are some images by Grandma Moses. It’s the landscape done in wool embroidery that is particularly interesting to me. It depicts the bucolic rolling countryside and stunning skies typical of her paintings of the upstate New York farmlands she knew so well.

Then there’s Gregory Blackstock, Seattle’s own self-taught artist. The Kucera Gallery represents Blackstock so has many of his pieces. Mr. Blackstock, an autistic savant, worked most of his life at Seattle’s athletic club as a dishwasher. In his spare time he created visual lists using graphite, markers, and crayons on large sheets of paper. From birds to balls, from trucks to shoes, his “picture lists” consist of exact depictions of all varieties of his chosen subject. You like dogs? He’s got a large depiction of various kinds, so too windmills, knots, and so much more. The breadth of subjects is astounding.

The exhibition also includes works by Bill Trayler, the emancipated slave who became an artist as a street person in latter life. Charles Shannon, an artist himself, noticed his talent and provided art supplies for him. Trayler’s first show was in 1942, and his work, typified by an elegant simplicity of line and form, is in a number of major museums today.

Included also are works by noted woodworkers, quilters, and bead artists.

This is a gem of a show.

Through Aug. 29, Greg Kucera Gallery, 212 Third Ave. South, Seattle, Tues.-Sat., (206 624-0770 or www.gregkucera.com).