“Daisy” by Sean Devine, a World Premiere at ACT Theatre

Pertinent! Oh my yes, coming as it does in this particular election season. ACT couldn’t have known when it selected this work over a year ago just how pertinent it would be. It is an in-depth look at the making of the unforgettable TV ad created for the 1964 election in which President Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater.

 

You know the ad. It’s the one where a little girl counts daisy petals. It ends with a nuclear countdown and massive explosion. No candidate’s names are uttered, but the message is clear. One candidate is an unguided missile, can’t be trusted not to usher in Armageddon. The other candidate is stable.

 

Most of the action takes place in the New York offices of the ad agency that created the piece, The dialog presents a realistic picture of just what goes on in those offices where the Don Drapers and creative types determine public opinion, tastes, and buying habits. It shows the initial floundering, the searching for a hook, the rancor and antagonisms that inevitably arise, the ego battles, the hard work and long hours, and the sense of triumph when a project is completed.

 

Director John Langs’ fine cast and production crew achieve good results here. Shawn Ketchum Johnson set design works well, but the outstanding element is the video backdrop designed by Tristan Roberson It consists of over 80 TVs of different sizes set in cabinet fronts from the 1960s. The effect as they play election bits and the infamous ad is overwhelming.

 

The cast gives solid performances, capturing the frustrations, excitement, and tensions inherent in their work. For me, however, there are a couple of problematic issues. I hate hearing bad New York accents, and I heard them here.

 

Kirsten Potter as the sole female ad executive gave a powerful performance but one that puzzled me. This woman is ambitious, hard working, and an idealist. Yet during the course of the play she takes credit for work that wasn’t hers. It seemed out of character. If the playwright wanted to make the point that anything goes in the ad industry, it didn’t work. I can’t tell you if the problem is the actor’s, the director’s or the playwright’s, but it is a problem.

 

So, not a perfect production but one that is amazingly topical.

 

Through August 7 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” presented by Sound Theatre Company

Jose Abaoag as Judas. Photo by Ken Holmes

Jose Abaoag as Judas. Photo by Ken Holmes

The stage set is stunning! The play rolls back and forth between being incredibly thought provoking and very funny. The acting is superb. This is a big win for Sound Theatre Company and its director Teresa Thuman. But be warned! It is very long, over three hours the night I was there.

Here we have Judas Iscariot in Purgatory on trial for betraying Jesus to the Romans, the crime seen by most Christians to be heinous, unforgivable, sickening. It all takes place in Bryan Boyd’s brilliantly rendered courtroom (one of the best sets I’ve seen this year). And it’s made even more effective with Richard Schaefer’s lighting. The accused Judas (Jose Abaoag) sits or lies almost motionless in an open “pit” front and center of the stage while various witnesses are called to provide testimony that will help the judge decide whether or not to condemn him to eternity in the fires of hell.

This is not an easy decision to make. As the testimony comes forth the judge and we are asked to consider the ambiguities and complexities of being human. Keith Dahlgren is outstanding as the no-nonsense, slightly dyspeptic judge. Caitlin Frances as the defense attorney and Yusef Mahmoud as the prosecuting attorney are wonderful foils for one another. They play off each other with finesse. She’s uptight and serious, passionate about her cause. He’s a bit of a buffoon but a legal whiz.

And then there are the witnesses. What a collection! Shermona Mitchell as St. Monica blows the roof off with her singing and her testimony. She’s a presence you won’t soon forget! In contrast to her overwhelming life force is Eloisa Cardona as Mother Teresa. She’s humble (well sort of) and somewhat wry. And you won’t forget Ray Tagavilla’s Satan. He’s one natty dude, totally self confident. He’ll get the souls he wants. After all God gave man free will.

Among the other witnesses in this trial are Sigmund Freud, Mary Magdalene, Saint Thomas and many more. Each personality is carefully portrayed, and each portrayal brings more testimony to the case, more issues to ponder.

I wish the director had shortened the final scene. It is central to all the issues raised in the play, but its significance could have been equally powerful were it much abbreviated. That said, I rate this production highly—excellent stagecraft and acting, marvelous humor, thoughtful issues.

Through July 31 at the Center Theatre in the Armory at Seattle Center, Seattle, (www.soundtheatrecompany.org)

“Big Fish” at Taproot Theatre

Every man wants to be a hero to his own son. Some achieve this status with baseballs, some with fishing poles, and still others with tall tales. Edward Bloom, the hero of this musical production is one who spins yarns, fantastic and remarkable yarns with all sorts of wizardry, yarns in which he always accomplishes miraculous feats. These tales delight his young son, Will, but then Will grows up, and things change.

The show, based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel, became a popular Tim Burton film in 2003, and went to Broadway in 2013. In this production thoughtfully directed by Scott Nolte we have all the magic of the original as well as the emotional highs and lows of family life through the years. Music Director Edd Key has assembled a four-piece combo that does Andrew Lippa’s music and lyrics proud.

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Nick Watson and Chris Ensweiler     Photo by Erik Stuhaug

Amazing characters abound here. Can you believe an agoraphobic giant who must be at least nine feet tall? He struts around the stage with incredible style, climbs stairs, and even dances a jig. Cheers to Nick Watson for pulling that off and to Sarah Burch Gordon who costumed this behemoth. Then there’s the mermaid (Carly Squires Hutchison) who seems to swim across the stage, again with the help of Gordon’s wonderful costume. There’s so much more. Even scenic director Mark Lund has a few tricks designed to delight the audience.

As young Will grows into adolescence then manhood, the ridiculous inventions are perceived as just that—absurd, tedious, even embarrassing. Fortunately, Will eventually learns that his father is quite wonderful, a hero of a sort, not the kind in his stories but one whose impact is on real live people. He realizes that we never know all there is to know about our loved ones or the truth of their lives.

Chris Ensweiler as Edward Bloom brings braggadocio, joy, enormous energy, and compassion to the role. He’s a whirlwind leaping from one end of the stage to the other as he emotes his astonishing stories. Backing up the energetic Ensweiler is Chelsea LeValley as his ever patient and always loving wife, Tyler Todd Kimmel as Will, his grown-up son, and a lively cast.

“Big Fish” is wholesome adult and family fare, probably not for very young children. It is a hearty summer treat for all others.

Through Aug. 13 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle (206 781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org).

“The Aliens” by Annie Baker Presented by ReAct Theatre

Annie Baker’s characters are capable of saying much by talking little. In some ways this play reminds me of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. Here Jasper and KJ, two thirtyish, alienated men hang out behind a coffee shop in a small Vermont town. They are highly intelligent, low energy dropouts. They drift, dream, create, and often are stoned. This is a play of long silences—some fraught with meaning, others just because there is nothing to say. Yet it all combines to create powerful theatre.

These are not tramps or druggies. One is writing a novel, the other is finding himself. Theirs seems to be a world of the moment, whatever that moment happens to be. Into it comes Evan, a high school kid who works at the coffee shop. He’s naive, jittery, nervous, unsure of himself, and even a bit intimidated by these two bodies that washed up on his shore.

He informs them that they really shouldn’t be hanging out there, but he makes little attempt to get them to go. With meager words and few common bonds the three form a relationship that grows into a caring friendship. It could even be said that Evan becomes an acolyte to KJ and Jasper.

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Cooper Harris-Turner, Curtis Gehlhausen and Alan E. Garcia

From them he gets encouragement, insights into his sexual awakening, He listens mesmerized to Jasper as he reads from the novel he’s writing. He returns from summer music camp with stories to tell them.

Sensitively directed by David Hsieh, the simple set and everything else worked beautifully. The three actors, Cooper Harris-Turner (KJ), Curtis Gehlhausen (Jasper), and Alan E. Garcia (Evan) play off one another with precision and deep emotion.

Comic yet haunting, this beautiful play may not be for everyone, certainly not for those who are fans of high action entertainment. It’s a slow moving piece that drips over you like honey falling from a spoon. Bit by bit it becomes more meaningful. By the end tears were slowly running down my cheeks, and I couldn’t tell you exactly why. It’s just that the play touched me at some deep place in my soul.

Through July 24 at West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St., Seattle (206 364-DATE or www.reacttheatre.org).

“Speed the Plow” offered by Theatre 9/12

You can always count on good acting in a Theatre 9/12 production. Their current take on David Mamet’s 1988 play, “Speed the Plow,” offers acting that is exquisite. There are only three characters, and each of them is brilliantly played. Mamet’s language is always nuanced, and here it stings and soars, especially powerful in the hands of Director Charles Waxberg and these three actors.

The play lacerates the Hollywood system where egos, sex and money drive the business. Here Bobby, recently appointed his studio’s head of production, is ecstatic because his old pal Charlie has brought him the opportunity to snag one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for his next movie. It will be a financial bonanza for Bobby, and for Charlie it’s a chance to break into the major league after years of playing in the minors.

After Bobby’s well endowed temporary secretary brings them coffee, Charlie teases Bobby, betting he can’t bed her that night. Little does he know how close that bet will come to ruining all his dreams. Danielle Daggerty as Karen the secretary brings a charming naiveté and enthusiasm. Yet you can’t help wondering if perhaps that innocence might be a cover for shrewd manipulation when she’s really determined to accomplish something.

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Robert Alan Barnett as Bobby Gould is one of those big lugs of a man, a bit awkward in his body. He can be brutal, unsure, despondent, elated. And always there’s that glad hand, but remember, nobody gets to his position in Hollywood without a stiletto close by. He is the man “who wanted to do good” but was only foolish.

Michael Oaks as Charlie Fox, the man who finally sees a potential for real success is energy restrained…almost. His performance is mesmerizing. Every muscle in his face comes into play at some time or other. His eyes widen, his mouth has its own choreography. He licks his chops, tightens his jaw, and all the while his hands are dancing to their own tune.

If you like riveting theatre, this is for you.

Through July 31, at Trinity Episcopal Church Auditorium, 609 8th Ave., Seattle, (206-332-7908 or www.Theatre912.com).