“Life=Play” Four Short Works by Samuel Beckett at West of Lenin

Samuel Beckett Art by Kathryn RathkeDon’t you love living in a place where theatre is dynamic, there’s lots of it, and it takes chances? How many cities of Seattle’s size can mount or would even consider mounting a Beckett Festival? The Seattle Beckett Festival that runs through November and involves 16 arts organizations opened this past weekend at West of Lenin with four of the master’s short works. If this presentation is any indication of the quality of the performances and conversations coming up, we have a lot to look forward to.

“Come and Go”, the shortest of the pieces and most inscrutable, features three young women (Rachel Delmar, Kate Kraay, Kate Sumpter), all dressed in similar long coats, all with faces partially covered by stylish cloches. Each has something to whisper to one other; each is the recipient of only one intimacy. You are left to speculate about these secrets and their meaning as the women link hands at the end.

“Rockaby” features a woman (Susanna Burney) slowly rocking in a chair that seems to move by some supernatural force on a darkened stage. Even she is somewhat shadowed. This quiet, dark work brings thoughts of Whistler’s “Mother”, of Bishop Berkeley’s “to be is to be perceived”, and that old spiritual about rocking right up to those Pearly Gates. It’s the genius of Beckett that so very much is implied by so very little.

In “Act Without Words” Ray Tagavilla is “every man” tormented, teased, and tricked by life. It’s a wonderfully funny work that symbolically expresses human frustrations. It’s delightful clowning, and can be enjoyed as such. But of course, there’s so much more for anyone who wants to mine this pantomimed piece for its philosophical depth.

And finally, the longest work, “Krapps Last Tape” performed by M. Burke Walker. Originally written in English, this is performed in Beckett’s French translation with English supertitles. It’s a breathtaking, mesmerizing work, presented here with great finesse, one of those experiences that won’t easily be forgotten. Its every gesture, its silences counterposed with random acts and jumbled memories are loaded with meaning. Simply thrilling theatre.

Acting in each one of these pieces is superb as are production values. High praise goes to Directors A. J. Epstein (“Rockaby” and “Come and Go”) and Carol Roscoe (“Act Without Words”) and M. Burke Walker (“Krapp’s Last Tape).

Go! You’ll be amused, tantalized, puzzled, amazed, and so glad you had the experience.

Through August 24, West of Lenin, 203 N 36th St., Seattle, (Brownpapertickets or www.seattlebeckettfest.org)

Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches, produced by Intiman Theatre Festival

In 1991 when Part I of Tony Kushner’s two-play cycle, “Angels in America” burst upon American stages its impact was deafening. The modern era of the Gay Rights movement was in its early stages, in many respects driven by the horror and heartbreak of the AIDS epidemic that was still a medical conundrum and little understood by the general public. Here was a play that dealt with that tragedy, and it won a Pulitzer, a Tony and just about every best play award possible.

But “Angels…” is about far more than the impact of AIDS. It’s about loyalty and selfishness; its about the price of having to live a life of lies; it’s about the diversity and number of our non-heterosexual neighbors both the powerless and the powerful; and it’s about justice and compassion. For me, it isn’t the bombshell it was when first produced. Society has, in many respects, moved on, and this play is one of the reasons it has. It’s shock and awe are not quite as explosive, but it is still good theatre with resonating issues beyond the AIDS epidemic. It is, however, a bit too long, and we still have Part II “Perestroika” to look forward to.

Intiman’s production, directed by Andrew Russell, plays out on Jennifer Zeyl’s spare stage on which elegance is combined with adaptability. Kushner wanted that effect and he certainly got it here. The open stage with its grey walls, platforms, and massive doors is bleak yet a space of power.

The characters include Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg as well as fictional people. Many of the actors play numerous roles, just as Kushner’s instructions demanded, and overall the acting is sound. Especially good are Adam Standley as Prior Walter and Timothy McCuen Piggee as Mr. Lies and the flashy Belize.

I’m sure Charles Leggett and Director Andrew Russell conferred long and hard about how to present the Roy Cohn role. What they came up with didn’t work for me. Cohn in life was quintessential New York. Here he’s angry, powerful, and used to getting his way, but he hasn’t got that New York crispness. The other weakness was Alex Highsmith who plays two roles. She makes a better wife than man.

When the end finally comes and the angel floats down from the heavens, we all know it’s coming. But Marya Sea Kaminski, the magnificently garbed angel just takes our breath away.

Whether you saw it before or are seeing this play for the first time, you won’t leave the theatre unaffected.

Through Sept. 21 (playing in repertory with “Part II Perestroika” from Sept 3) at Cornish Playhouse, 201 Mercer St., Seattle (or 206 315-5838 or boxoffice@intiman.org).

David Ives’ “The School for Lies” produced by Sound Theatre Company

The clever people at Sound Theatre have chosen to produce one of the marvelously witty works by one of my favorite contemporary playwrights, David Ives. Not every theatre company could pull it off, but this production directed by Teresa Thuman and Ken Michels has everything just right. If you are fond of intelligent theatre wrapped in bodacious humor, you’ll find it here.

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Frank Lawler surrounded by three fops

“The School for Lies” is based loosely on Molière’s 17th C. romp, “The Misanthrope.” Here it’s presented on a glorious period set ( by Suzi Tucker) with massive royal blue satiny draperies, ivory and gold period furniture, and all the elegance of a bygone era. And, as Ives is fond of doing, it’s written in verse. Few contemporary playwrights could accomplish that, but Ives is a master at it. Using the most erudite vocabulary, he bombards his audience with clever lines and humorous rhymes.

The cast, decked out in sumptuous costumes by Linnaea Boone Wilson, prances and preens about as they flirt, misinform, misunderstand, connive, and appeal to the law. Early on, in comes the star, Frank Lawler as the honest man, the sane man, the man dressed in somber black surrounded by an assortment of fops, fools and two women (played deliciously by Page Byers and Marianna de Fazio) who each think he’s theirs.

The entire cast deserves praise, but I have to mention Dylan Smith, Paul Barrois and Corey Spruill who play the fops. With Betty Boop lips, fey gestures, phony lisps, and massive wigs whose curls they toss with appropriate righteousness, they light up the stage with their tom-foolery.

There are love triangles, and there’s jealous vindictiveness too. There are also splendid bits of physical humor. There’s so much to like in this production. If you are looking for summer fun, you’ll find it on stage at the Center Theatre.

Through August 24 at Center Theatre in The Armory at Seattle Center, Seattle, (www.soundtheatrecompany.org/buy-tickets/ or brownpapertickets.com/event661165

“Time Stands Still” Produced by ReAct Theatre

Home from the warfront, Sarah and James find themselves embroiled in a domestic war, one that affects them more powerfully than the war they were covering in Iraq. James, a journalist, came back before Sarah the photographer. He could take no more. She perseveres in her effort to document the carnage but then is seriously wounded and scarred by a roadside bomb.

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The cast in a scene from in ReAct’s Northwest Premiere of
Time Stands Still.
Photo: David Hsieh.

Playwright Donald Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Dinner With Friends,” was a Tony- nominee for this 2010 play. Margulies is a master at subtle explorations of significant issues, and Director David Hsieh presents the play in low key. There are no real histrionics on this very fine set. There are conversations, mostly quiet ones, yet they release bombshells in their explorations of love, friendship, and professional success—its costs and its morality.

Sarah (Maria Knox) and James (Brian Pucheu) share an editor Richard (John Bianchi), who is also a good friend. Of course Richard comes to visit as soon as James brings wounded Sarah home. But he’s not alone. With him is his current love interest, the much younger Mandy. Mona Leach as Mandy has the job of lightening up the stage, and she does it with verve. She bounces in with two silver balloons, naiveté, juvenility, and a bouncy “let’s make it all better” attitude. It’s not a persona that resonates with the scarred Sarah.

As the couples work out (or can’t work out) their issues, the audience is forced to consider some tough questions. In war can there or should there be observers, those who watch, make notes or photograph instead of helping when their help could save lives? Is telling the story more important than a single life? How does one negotiate between the demands of career and family? And that ubiquitous issue: what does it take to make a marriage work?

You’ll leave the theatre with much to think about.

Through August 24 at UW Ethnic Cultural Theatre, 3940 Brooklyn Ave. NE, Seattle, (206 364-3283 or www.reacttheatre.org or timestandsstill.brownpapertickets.com)

“Balconies” at Annex Theatre

If gaming is your thing and you can’t wait for Comicon, you’ll find much to like in this hip new play, written and directed by Scotto Moore, now in its first theatrical presentation at Annex Theatre. It’s certainly no “Big Bang Theory” but it captures much of the world-view of that subculture.

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Dangerpants Photography

And, if you’ve been fascinated, indeed mystified, by the relationship of some of Hollywood’s leading stars with the Church of Scientology, you’ll find much to snicker at here. Just as “Book of Mormon” does a number on the Mormon Church, this play makes fun of the Scientologists, especially their leader. And I should mention that it also has something to say about politicos and the unseemly collaborations they sometimes make all in the effort to be reelected.

Imagine the potential for chaos on two connecting balconies when one is the locale for a political fundraiser and the other for a costume party for the creators of a hit new mobile game. It’s a funny play studded with clever lines, though it is sometimes tedious. There are fantastic costumes (Comicon, remember), creative lighting effects, and a tendency to run on too long, way too long for me.

The acting is uneven, but the two leads, Drew Highlands as Cameron, the creative gaming genius, and Katherine Karaus as Annalise, the new neighbor whose mother is running for reelection, are both up to the various emotional ups and downs of their roles.

Like oysters or frogs legs, this isn’t fare for all audiences, but, as I said, all you gamers out there will probably like it.

Through August 30, Annex Theatre, 1100 E. Pike St., Seattle, (206 728-0933 or info@annextheatre.org).