“The Mountaintop” at Art West

Martin Luther King, Jr. scurries out of the rain into his Memphis motel room…just one more stop on his ever demanding speaking and rallying tour. But this stop will be his last. We all know what happened the tragic evening when he stepped out onto the balcony.

He’s bone-tired, lonely for his family, and desperate for a cup of coffee and a cigarette. He checks the phone to see if it’s wired, knowing his enemies would do anything to get some dirt on him, anything that might shut him up. Then he calls room service and orders coffee.

In comes an attractive, sharp-tongued, know-it-all maid, and so begins an emotionally taut and wrenching play you’re not likely to forget. Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton it’s a tour de force. Playwright Katori Hall has provided us a look behind the myth, a sense of Martin Luther King the man, and she does it with some of the sharpest dialog I’ve heard in a long time.

DMK45E5eZNR8yxRE7D13Qkj6s6cQ5N1wTGjpLthcC8GQ6cwaQQfASS7P475HMCc6h

Photo credit to Michael Brunk

King is exhausted, weary of living with fear for his life, outraged by marchers who loot, indignant at the demeaning lies presented in the white press, and disappointed by his failure to move faster toward his goal. The maid, Carrie May (Camae) has more than some coffee and a little wisdom to impart.

Seattle actor Reginald André Jackson creates a dignified King, reinforcing the man’s stature even as he reveals his flaws. He humanizes this noble hero. Brianne A. Hill who plays Camae, the maid, comes to us from Minnesota, and I for one want to mount a campaign to keep her here in Seattle. She is a sparkling new star on the horizon. Her Camae is self assured and cheeky. She’s a woman in charge, and she lets King know it from their first encounter. But she’s also tender and compassionate.

The interplay between these two actors is spellbinding. They draw you in, play with your emotions, shock you, and tease you. You will certainly laugh, you may well cry. Above all, you’ll walk out of the theatre so glad you didn’t miss this wonderful production.

Through Oct. 5 at Arts West Theatre, 4711 California Ave. SW, Seattle, (206 938-0339 or www.artswest.org).

Sound Theatre Company presents “Blood Relations”

Somehow, I’ve never thought of Lizzie Borden as an early feminist. In “Blood Relations” by Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock, that attribution is loud and clear. The play, based on fact and speculation, suggests that she was a woman with strong views on what a woman’s life and entitlements should be, and certainly the life she had before the death of her parents failed to meet her ideals.

We all know that the historical Lizzie was absolved of any guilt in the ax murders of her step-mother and father. Yet for the past 122 years, public opinion has doubted her innocence. In this play, we’re given strong reasons to believe that public opinion has it right.

257

Pictured (Left to Right): Caitlin Frances, Peggy Gannon
Photography by Ken Holmes

Lizzie and her sister live on the family’s Fall River farm with their terse father and step-mother. New Englanders are known to withhold their emotions, and Lizzie gets little affection and encouragement at home. She’s a headstrong woman, likes to be in charge, and refuses to play the docile female. Lizzie has little love for her step mother, whom she refers to as the “fat cow.” And when she learns that the despised woman is finagling to inherit the farm, she’s enraged. Her father won’t discuss it. Lizzie feels abandoned. Shortly afterward, the “fat cow” and her father are found axed to death, and Lizzie denies any culpability.

As the play opens, ten years after the murder, Lizzie (Caitlin Frances) is entertaining her lesbian lover (Peggy Gannon) in her farmhouse. Then quickly the scene changes to the time before the murders and Gannon assumes the Lizzie role while Frances becomes Bridget, the household maid. The whole conceit of the switched roles confused me, and once I figured it out, I couldn’t find any purpose to it. Okay, so Lizzie got the house after the deaths. There must be a less confounding way to show that her life was better. Despite this and other structural flaws in the play, the production has merit.

Director Gianni Truzzi has drawn together a well-balanced cast and production crew. Gannon captures Lizzie’s cascading flow of emotions and her firm belief that she has rights, and Frances brings sprightliness and charm to her role as the Irish maid. Bill Higham as Mr. Borden is the epitome of the terse southern New England farmer. Good supporting players complement the leads, and it all plays out on Richard Schaefer’s quintessential 19th Century New England set.

So problematic play, good production, and here we are more than a century later, where a play about a woman seeking equality still has resonance.

Through Sept. 27 at Cornish Playhouse Studio, Seattle Center, Seattle, (206-856-5520 or www.soundtheatrecompany.org).

“The Invisible Hand” at ACT Theatre

The Playbill for this production includes this quote from Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” “The Invisible Hand” is a morality play about shifting power, power and money. The issues it presents will haunt you long after you leave the theatre.

In a cell block controlled by militant Islamists in Pakistan, Nick, an American stock market wizard, is subject to the indignities of captivity. His shackles are rarely removed and physical abuse is common fare. It’s a bleak future for Nick until he comes up with the idea of paying his own ransom. He’s convinced that his brilliance in playing the stock market will allow him to raise the millions of dollars necessary to assure his freedom, and he convinces his captors to allow him to try.

Nick, like so many market gurus, is very successful. As the monies roll in, little by little life gets better for him. The shackles are removed; his cell is better equipped; his new guard and he form a strong bond. Maybe soon, he’ll be able to return to his wife and child.

ACT-The Invisible Hand - Elijah Alexander and Connor Toms and comics  (c) Chris Bennion_thumb

Elijah Alexander and Connor Toms and comics
Photo: Chris Bennion

As Nick works his financial magic, playwright Ayad Akhtar works some magic of his own. Below the story of captive Nick are serious issues. What is the nature of friendship? What is the fallout of greed, of self interest? Exactly what is the nature and role of faith in contemporary life? Do you really understand the power of money or the subtleties of history? And perhaps you should review your interpretation of international politics? These are all issues considered in the play, but it’s never didactic or preachy. It would benefit from some judicious cutting in the first act, however.

Director Allen Nause reinforces the suspense of this tale with taut direction. Connor Toms as Nick and Elijah Alexander as Bashir, his main guard, are well-matched foils for one another, navigating the dangerous quagmire between buddy and enemy with finesse. William Ontiveros brings gravitas to his role as Imam Saleen.

This is a play for the thinking man and woman. Yet it’s so tightly wound, it’s also a treat for the aficionado of suspense. Will Nick succeed? At what cost?

Through Sept. 28 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).

“Sandbox Radio”

Five! Four! Three! Two! One! And at that point the orchestra bursts into lively music, production director and emcee Leslie Law announces “Welcome to Sandbox Radio,” the audience erupts with cheers and applause, and the crowd-pleasing show begins. This treasure box of delightful surprises offers short plays, comedy sketches, and musical interludes. Not quite like anything else in Seattle, it’s one of the most creative local theatrical experiences currently on offer.

Some of the finest Seattle actors line up in front of microphones, and, just as their forebears did in the 1930s and ’40s, they create magic with their voices. Yet Sandbox’s old-timey radio variety show (very much geared to contemporary audiences) is as interesting to see as it is to hear.

On stage are a number of tables containing an enormous variety of objects used to create the sound effects. The sound effects “engineers” are the actors who don’t have speaking roles at that moment. Yet they must carefully follow the scripts to synch the sounds of footsteps, bells, traffic, flowing water, and whatever else is called for. It’s fascinating to watch the wizardry of fabricated sound.

Musical director Jose “Jucy” Gonzales gets big sound out of his small orchestra. There are also guest musical artists. The night I was there “Modern Angels” (an oh-so-sweet female trio) transported me to a bygone era with their ethereal renditions of Johnny Mercer’s “Dream” and Harline/Washington’s “When You Wish Upon a Star.

Because the show is being transcribed for a podcast, when a flub or unexpected sound interrupts the flow, everything stops to correct the problem. An unruly bell began clanging inappropriately during the performance I attended. Instead of treating it like a calamity, it was turned into extemporaneous humor reinforcing the spontaneity and verve of the whole evening.

Sandbox Radio offers one-night shows performed at ACT Theatre, and only two more of them are on the calendar this year. On Oct. 13 there will be an encore performance of Beckett on the Radio (with a four-star cast). The final 2014 show (topic to be announced) plays Dec. 29. But you can subscribe to the podcasts in iTunes and Stitcher.

Sandbox Radio at ACT, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206-292-7676 or tickets@acttheatre.org) for information: www.sandboxradio.org.

“Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika” produced by Intiman Theatre Festival

Amidst the outpouring of praise being heaped upon Intiman’s offering of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: Part 2″ I am registering a negative response. I cannot, however write a review because, for the first time in my life, I walked out before the play was over. So, I can only say that I lasted about three hours, and then with strong encouragement from my companion, agreed to give up on this overlong theatrical piece. I recognize that the two parts were a watershed theatrical experience in the ’90s when the politics of the ’80s were still horrifying a vast segment of the society and AIDS, a disease for which there was no cure, was decimating the Gay community.

Kushner’s double bill was a catalyst for social change, thus the two plays are historically important.

Through Sept. 21 at Cornish Playhouse, 201 Mercer St., Seattle, (206-315-5838 or boxoffice@intiman.org).