Treasures and Delights at the Bellevue Arts Museum

Each time I venture across the lake and visit BAM I’m reminded of how much I love that place. Invariably it has a number of exhibits that delight and amaze me. The current selections are among the very best.

Unless you go this weekend you’ll miss Chris Antemann’s amazing porcelain installations created in collaboration with the renowned Meissen Porcelain Manufactory in Germany. The highlight is a long panorama of miniature semi-clothed men and women feasting—on each other and tiny varieties of fruits, wines, cakes, and other delights. It’s reminiscent of the decadent and romantic works of the painters Watteau and Boucher. Each figurine is carefully painted; each face reveals sly, coy, or hungry emotions. It’s a mesmerizing miniature world that combines the comic with the historical. You won’t be sorry to make a special effort to get to see it before it closes.

But there’s more, so much more. The largest exhibit is “Inspiring Beauty 50 Years of EBONY Fashion Fair.” Here you’ll find manikins garbed in the most luxurious and beautiful fashions imaginable. I just returned from New York where I visited the Metropolitan Museum’s current fashion show. The Bellevue show is far, far better in all respects. The exhibition was organized by the Chicago History Museum in cooperation with the black-owned Johnson Publishing Company LLC.

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Stephen Burrows (United States) Evening dress, ready-to-wear, spring/summer 2007 Rayon jersey Photo: John Alderson © Chicago Historical Society

Eunice W. Johnson, co-founder of the company, initiated the Fashion Fair to bring attention to black designers by showing their work in association with garments by the world’s most highly lauded designers: Givenchy, Balmain, Ungaro, Dior, Missoni, Yves St. Laurent, Blass, you name the haute couture icon and his or her work will be represented in this show.

The fabrics are luscious, opulent, audacious. There are furs, chiffons, silks, taffetas, beaded pieces, jerseys. Sexy sheaths hug the body. Flowing saris and kimonos contrast with sleek metal numbers. The use of buttons will astound you. What is particularly interesting is that even the 50-year-old pieces still look great today, not dated.

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Givenchy by Alexander McQueen (France) Evening dress, haute couture, fall/winter 1997-98 Synthetic raffia mounted on silk gauze Appeared in The Jazz Age of Fashions Photo: Courtesy of Johnson Publishing Company, LLC

In addition to providing a banquet of beautiful design and materials, the exhibition tells the story of changing attitudes toward race in the past 50 years. Initially designers were hesitant to submit their work to Ms. Johnson, worried that it’s placement in an “Ebony” show would turn white customers away.

Of course it didn’t. What it did was provide a vision of what was possible for African American women. The fashion show was a major event in all the cities it visited. The drama of the runway was accompanied by music. Funds were raised for local charitable causes (more than $55 million for civil rights groups, hospitals, community centers and scholarships). These were glorious clothes for good causes, and their history is well worth knowing.

And there’s more to see at BAM right now. Don’t miss the Kara Walker show. Her silhouettes challenge and delight. And certainly don’t miss Seth Rolland, the wood artist who appears to do magical things with wood.

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Seth Rolland Dreamcatcher Hall Table, 2016 The base is a single block of wood Photo: Frank Ross

His particular brilliance is “kerfing.” Kerfing is an old, but terribly difficult technique for bending and expanding wood. It makes possible musical instruments such as violins and guitars, and in Rolland’s hands it expands the wood.

By making precise, closely placed cuts in a solid piece of wood, he can create open spaces between each cut. Thus expanded, he fans the piece out to serve as the base for tables, sculptures, and wall hangings. His pieces and their shadows seem impossible to realize. Yet they serve utilitarian needs as well as being art objects.

The final exhibition currently at the Museum is “Atoms + Bytes: Redefining Craft in the Digital Age.” This collection draws on artists from around the world. Sadly, I didn’t have time to see it when I was there. That just goes to prove that BAM has such a wealth of exhibitions with such a diversity of offerings that just one visit isn’t enough. Do check it out.

Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, (425 519-0770 or info@bellevuearts.org).

“The Brothers K” staged at Book-It

Overwrought, overlong, underwhelming!

Book-It is one of our local theatres always ready to tackle big projects, ready to take big risks. Most often they do it with great success. Inevitably there will be some unsuccessful ventures. For me, this is one of them.

“The Brothers K” plays out in two separate productions, each almost three hours long. It’s a story of a family with two religions—Seventh Day Adventism and baseball. (In this instance baseball exactly fits the definition of religion offered by French sociologist Emile Durkheim).

Of course, a play titled “The Brothers K” causes us to think of Dostoyevsky but we must also remember that a “K” is a strikeout in baseball. Thus a double meaning. The novel by Montana writer David James Duncan from which the play was adapted by Book-It’s co-founder Myra Platt was well reviewed when first published.

Set in Camas, Washington, in mid Twentieth Century it examines the lives of the Chance family. Mother is the ardent Seventh Day Adventist. Father worships baseball. He was a former minor-league baseball player whose career was cut short by an industrial accident, but baseball continues to be at the center of his life. As their four boys and two girls grow up, world events and the sons’ intellectual awakenings bring tensions and family strife.

The Chance Family in "The Brothers K" photo by Chris Banning

The Chance Family in “The Brothers K”
photo by Chris Bennion

No family is without conflicts, of course, but the Chance boys come of age during the Viet Nam era, and that has a significant impact. The baseball pitches, strikes, and hits continue as a motif throughout both parts of this double header, but the horror of the war intrudes both physically and spiritually. Despite the intellectual discord and the spiritual differences, here family love conquers all, and the audience is rewarded with a happy ending.

Gavin Hoffman as Papa is appropriately laid back as he deals with his growing family, his baseball passion, and his dearly beloved wife. He gives the role both gravitas and humility. Equally outstanding is Alexandra Tavares as the mother of this brood. She exudes love and understanding despite her religious fanaticism. The cast is huge given the fact that the children grow over the story’s twenty odd years, and there wasn’t one weak member in it.

Book-It has a special affection for western authors, and this prize-winning book had great appeal for Book-It’s co-director Myra Platt. Unfortunately it’s a better book than play.

Through June 26 at Center Theatre at the Armory, in Seattle Center, (206 216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

“Caught” at Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse

You know, it’s not always a bad thing to leave the theatre puzzled, wondering if you really got it, or got most of it. You will probably leave Christopher Chen’s “Caught” as I did, somewhat confused but delighted to have been exposed to that sort of mind-bending theatre.

Its director, Jon Kretzu, calls it “an enigmatic puzzle piece…an intricate, intellectual puzzle farce; a fascinating and disturbing study of deception; a theatrical card trick composed of smoke and mirrors, and containing neither.” The script won the Barrymore Award for Best New Play in 2015. It focuses on Lin Bo (played by Kevin Lin), a Chinese dissident artist who was imprisoned by the government for a single work of art. Through his real or imagined experiences we are forced to examine the question of “truth.”

Where does truth lie? If things are not always what they seem where do we find truth? Can only I be the arbiter of my own truth? How close is “my truth” to reality?

Lin’s jail experiences as described in the play include meals of cabbage soup and beatings by guards who know he’s innocent but claim they have to do it because it’s ritual. How real are his memories, and how much has he invented/imagined?

Where was the truth in the Pam Heller “New Yorker” story about him? And, of course, the playwright wants to remind you of the Mike Daisy incident. Remember that? The monologist/actor visited China and came back with horrific tales of working conditions for Chinese workers in factories producing parts for Apple products. Ira Glass of “This American Life” took up the banner and made the story a major feature on his program. His vast audience was given a sordid picture of that Chinese factory that was proved to be based not on truth but on Mike Daisy’s imagined-embellished-misunderstood story.

Oh, there is much to engage the mind on this stage. Set designer Craig Wollam has configured the space in the round with the action playing out on a large raised circle in the center. Works of art by contemporary Chinese artists are on display throughout the theatre. These are for sale through ArtXchange Gallery and Malpina Chan.

Shana Bestock, the Artistic Director of Seattle Public Theatre suggests that the Sino-American relationship is made up of many complex relationships that, of course, cannot be contained in one story. “Caught” will, however, capture your intellect and give you much to think about.

Through June 12, at the Seattle Public Theatre at the Bathhouse, 7312 West Green Lake Dr. N, Seattle, (206 524-1300 or seattlepublictheater.org).

“Romeo and Juliet” by Seattle Shakespeare

Playing at Cornish Playhouse, Seattle Shakespeare has produced this show a little differently. Every audience member has a stage seat in the current production of “Romeo and Juliet.” They share the space with the performers, closed off from the vast auditorium by heavy stage curtains. Director Vanessa Miller has placed you and the actors in an unusual juxtaposition.

Bleachers run down both sides of a long alley in the center of the Playhouse stage. As if they were at a football match, the audience members watch as the action moves back and forth in front of them from end zone to end zone. It’s a unique presentation and works effectively in most ways. Sadly, as the action moves the sound deteriorates, and if you are not seated mid-alley, you’ll lose some of the dialog.

If you know the play well, as most theatregoers do, the machinations of the plot are not lost as the dialog loses its clarity. What is gained is flow. The action sweeps back and forth covering much more length than would be possible in more traditional presentations.

The production team has made the most of this opportunity. Special effects are magical. When Romeo meets Juliet strings of lights descend to encompass them in a magical glow (lighting by Tim Wratten). Sword fights move from one end of the extended stage to the other giving them a reality that is often missing. The balcony scene is treated with minimal scenery yet it loses nothing in its emotional power. The sound effects powerfully enhance mood (Robert Witmer).

We have music here as well, music composed by Justin Huertas. Acoustic piano, cello, violin, and guitar joined with glock, cajon, and typewriter are effective in heightening the drama. It’s almost impossible to imagine this production without the music.

Of course, to make this play really work you must have a good cast. Outstanding is Anastasia Higham as Juliet. She’s certainly the best Juliet I’ve ever seen. Her Juliet exudes innocence, childlike enthusiasms. She captures the rapture and heartache of young love. She’s a nymph gamboling along the stage whose joy all too soon turns to unrelieved sorrow.

“Romeo and Juliet” is one of those Shakespeare plays that is done so often and sometimes not so well that many of us are hesitant to see it still one more time. This “Romeo and Juliet” is fresh, sparkling, and well worth seeing.

Through May 22 at Cornish Playhouse, 201 Mercer St., Seattle Center, (206 733-8222)

“The Realization of Emily Linder” at Taproot Theatre

Now I’ve encountered some pretty irascible mothers during my lifetime, but believe me, Emily Linder, the mother at the center of this play, is about as bad as they get. She’s a crotchety, domineering, rotund old lady in bad health. She issues orders, bizarre orders, to her two daughters in the manner of a Marine drill sergeant, and she is accustomed to being obeyed. As played by gravel voiced Laura Kenny she’s a force to be reckoned with

So when she announces to her daughters that she is going to die on the coming Friday, they don’t laugh; they don’t tell her she’s lost her mind. No, they suggest that one doesn’t know when one is going to die, and that, though she is in poor health, it’s unlikely that Friday’s the big day.

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Charity Parenzini and Laura Kenny Photo by John Ulman

Of course she ignores them. She tells them she’s had a vision, knows she’s going to die, and has instructions for them. Then she delivers her wacky directives. They know better than to cross her so they faithfully attend to her requests.

Director Nathan Kessler-Jeffrey guides this comedy with a sure hand. Laura Kenny inhabits the role of Mother Emily with a ferociousness that’s palpable. Barking out her orders, dismissing all objections, scowling angrily at any who would dare to question her, she takes a very funny script and makes it more so.

Charity Parenzini and Helen Harvester as the daughters play off each other with finesse. They are particularly successful at defining sisters who have opposite talents and life styles. They too have mastered the comedic elements of the script and make the most of its insights into sibling rivalry. All three of the central actors have the timing down perfectly, and their body language says much.

The final cast member is Annelih GH Hamilton as the home health aide brought in to assist the tyrant mother. She excels at portraying the quiet one, the thoughtful, probably least important one. But watch her carefully. She knows more than any of them.

This delightful comedy incorporates within it, so much insight into the human condition—coping with end of life issues, the parent/child relationship, as well as sibling rivalry. No matter what your own family dynamics are, you’ll find something to relate to and laugh at in this well presented play.

Through June 11, at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85 St., Seattle, (206 781-9707 or
http://taproottheatre.org/buy-tickets/).