Book-It’s Take on “Howl’s Moving Castle”

Fantasy fiction is not my thing, and I prefer theatre to opera. Given those predilections, it was unlikely that I would be charmed by Book-It’s current offering, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” adapted and directed by Myra Platt, Book-It’s founding Co-artistic Director. This is an “operatic” rendition with music by the very talented Justin Huertas. I use the term “operatic” not to suggest the vocal ranges of the performers, rather to suggest that almost the entire performance is sung.

The production is based on the enormously popular 1986 children’s book by Diana Wynne Jones. This novel has charmed young female readers for years, a readership that does indeed like magical tales and successful young female heroines. So for some audiences this will be a real winner.

The moral of the story is that a girl can achieve what she’s meant to have and to be. Ah yes there will be trials along the way, setbacks, and sometimes miraculous saves, but in the end it will all be good. This story plays out at almost three hours.

What’s really good here are the skillful production values. Andrew D. Smith’s lighting works wonderfully to set mood. His skies are breathtaking. The set by Julia Hayes Welch consists of a series of stone-like risers building up to create a mountain landscape. It’s a setting for all different environments; it’s a platform for action; it’s simple; yet it works so effectively to carry forward the plot.

Adam Quillian’s musicians (strings and keyboard) are in fine form, and the cast is well dressed in Margaret Toomey’s costumes. Sarah Porkalob as the main character Sophie Hatter is most endearing, and Michael Feldman plays her nemesis Howl with panache.

So here’s an overlong, over drawn, stage show with really fine production values within a musical that is, I’m sorry to say, somewhat tedious.

Through December 30 at Center Theatre in the Armory in Seattle Center, 206 216-0833 or Book-It.org.

“Building the Wall” Produced by Azeotrope

It’s been about two years since Seattleites were treated to a production by Azeotrope. The company has been missed! Now, their brilliance is back and especially evident in “Building the Wall” performing at 12th Avenue Arts. It’s a show you won’t want to miss. Though if you are someone who is quite happy with our nation’s current political situation, it might make you more than a little angry.

Desdemona Chiang directs this two-person tour de force by Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan. It features Tim Gouran as Rick, a convict in a federal prison during a period that is all too near the present day. Shermona Mitchell plays an historian seeking truth. To do so she must determine exactly what his crime entailed.

He’s a sullen, not well-educated guy, and not inclined to trust most people. She, however, a true professional, systematically lays out her documents on the table (the only prop besides two chairs) and begins her well-reasoned interrogation. Gouran is the antithesis of her controlled presence. He’s emotionally taut. He electrifies the stage with his performance as an undisciplined loser, a vile individual!

Then, ever so slowly the ugly truth seeps out, and as the no-nonsense historian (so well played by Mitchell) unravels the facts surrounding Rick’s case, she and the audience are horrified at what has transpired. Oh yes, Rick has committed atrocities, but he is better understood as a cog in the wheels of a corrupt system. You can’t help but think of Nazi Germany; the play’s author makes sure of that. You can’t help but reel back in revulsion as you realize how easy it is through lies and manipulation to bring about evil on that horrendous scale. You can’t help but recoil at the reminder that simple people can easily be used to fulfill the immoral plans of unethical leaders.

The acting is brilliantly nuanced. Director Desdemona Chiang has stripped the stage down to bare essentials. All focus is on the two characters whose every shrug, scratch, frown is carefully undertaken to provide the largest impact.

This is a show with a message, and it’s a message one ignores in peril: evil occurs when good men do nothing. It is then when horrors become normalized, when society is thoroughly polluted.

If you like truly compelling theatre, this one is for you.

Through Dec. 23 at 12th Ave. Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, 800 838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com. (Admission by donation).

Arts West Holiday Cast Party

Following up on a grand theatrical tradition, Arts West is offering intimate Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoon “Holiday Cast Parties.” Artistic Director Mathew Wright invites some of the well-liked performers of recent shows to sit down with him and chat about theatre, play a silly game of two (to the audiences delight), and sing to the wonderful accompaniment of Music Director Chris DiStefano on piano and Zachary Stowell on drums. It’s casual, eye-opening, funny, and charmingly intimate.

The program I saw featured Jimmie Herrod and Nick Watson, an amiable pair who offered insights into their careers as well as the Seattle theatre world. Still to come are 16 other Seattle theatre people.

Through Dec. 23 at Arts West, 4711 California Ave., SW, Seattle, http://artswest.org/theatre/buy-tickets.

“The Humans” by Stephen Karam at Seattle Rep

Here, right on this stage, we have the funny, sad, enduring life of a middle-class contemporary United States family. They have come together for the annual Thanksgiving celebration. Each member bringing his or her angst wrapped up in the good spirits the holiday requires.

Richard Thomas, Daisy Eagan, Pamela Reed, Therese Plaehnn, and Luis Vega. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

The gathering is at daughter Bridget’s new apartment shared with her lover, Richard. Bridget and Richard are thrilled with their new digs. Located in New York’s Chinatown, the place is spacious and even has a spiral staircase connecting two floors. What’s more, it’s affordable. Where in Manhattan can you find that? True, one of the floors is a basement, and there’s only one window in the entire apartment. In addition, there are loud noises reminiscent of the excavations required for the new 2nd Ave. subway. So what! For Manhattan it’s a deal.

Included in the family Thanksgiving celebration is Bridget’s older sister Aimee. She’s a lawyer who is suffering emotionally from a recent break up with her girlfriend. Meanwhile, she suffers physically from a gastric disorder. Their parents have joined them from Scranton, PA, and have brought along Dad’s mother, Momo, who has advanced dementia.

So yes, here we have a typical American family glad to be together celebrating our annual holiday of thankfulness. Yet, like so many middle-class Americans they suffer from the angst that comes along with modern life.

Aimee’s about to be laid off. Mom and Dad are struggling financially even though they have worked hard and productively all their adult lives, and what are they to do if Momo needs institutional care? Bridget loves her new apartment but her student loans hang like the sword of Damocles over her head. Meanwhile Richard has years of graduate school before he’ll be fully employed. And unbeknownst to the children, Dad has a distressing issue that we learn about late in the play.

Shouldn’t life be better? Shouldn’t there be more security? Not in this society for all too many of us. We must live carefully and avoid the mistakes that too often have serious consequences.

This is a thought provoking, prize-winning play (Tony Award, Best Play 2016) filled with funny dialog offered by a superb ensemble. Ordinary lives are presented with extraordinary precision under the direction of Joe Mantello. It comes to us straight from New York. After Seattle, this production will move on to theatres across the country.

Through Dec., 17 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, 206 443-2222 or seattlerep.org.

Acrobatic Conundrum at 12th Avenue Arts

They call it a contemporary circus. There are no animals, no clown costumes, no big top, but there are plenty of acrobatics and balletic moves, and I guarantee you will be astounded by some of the acts. A small band (bass guitar, guitar, and drums) accompanies the acrobats along with comedic introductions.

A man flies in on a rope then performs ceiling high “balletic dances” by twisting and turning on his sky-high perch. Another performer circles the stage in a gigantic hoop while juggling bowling pins. There’s lots of physical humor, and naturally there’s more than a little clowning, proving that clown costumes aren’t necessary to make people laugh.

Humor abounds with the actors playing off one another and offering smart repartee. Each weekend, there’s a small change in players and offerings.

One of the most amazing acts in last weekend’s shows consisted of Mama and Papa Gentile and their four children ranging in age from 21 months to 11 years. Not only are they all acrobats but also they have perfected the skill of foot juggling. Mama juggles everything from a table to a huge flowerpot, lying on her back while her feet madly move the goods in circles and at speed. It’s astonishing to see what she can do to that table. She also juggles her children who, amazingly, can foot juggle too. Even the 21-month old is incorporated in the act.

It may not be Cirque du Soleil but it is a fun and different night at the theatre.

Dec. 8-10 at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, www.bit.ly/acrobaticdecember.