“Dirty” Presented by Washington Ensemble Theatre

Laissez-faire capitalism as well as porn begin with titillation and then often end in someone getting screwed. That pretty well describes what happens in the clever and thought provoking “Dirty” directed by Michael Place and now playing in the Bullitt Cabaret in ACT Theatre complex.

Our main character Matt is a finance man, an investment wolf who circles dying companies and knows how to make the kill along with the big bucks. His wife Katie is pregnant. Life is good, until he has a falling out with his boss Terry. What to do? Without a job, how is he to maintain his high living lifestyle? The answer is porn, philanthropic porn, sex without degradation and a huge chunk of the profits going to esteemed women’s charities, just like the one his wife works for. It will be porn for “the Whole Food” set.

It’s an idea that can’t lose, only he needs $10 million to set it up, and that’s how his ex-boss gets involved. Needless to say, it doesn’t work out as planned. They find the ideal porn star for their venture, a ΦΒΚ law student who wants the money to go to a center for girls who have been trafficked. Lovely thought! Capitalism working for a good cause, but is capitalism really about good causes? It’s about making money, and capitalism is what this play is about.

I loved the pristine white set by Tommer Peterson. Its symbolic purity is in stark contrast to the greed of these characters.

Anthony Darnell as Matt and Ali Mohamed el-Gasseir as Terry are taut with their enthusiasms and avariciousness. Leah Salcido Pfenning makes a wily Mikayla the law student cum porn star who uses her smarts to become her own little venture capitalist. Wife Katie is something of a cipher but that may be as much a fault of the play as of LoraBeth Barr.

Playwright Andrew Hinderaker wraps a whole lot of significant questions in this seemingly light work that’s actually a morality play. It still needs a little work, but you’ll leave with a lot to think about.

Through June 29 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street, Seattle, (206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).

“Threesome” at ACT

In pre-play publicity this is called a “provocative” play, and it’s certainly that, but it’s also brilliantly conceived and skillfully rendered. Playwright Yussef el Guindi begins this work as a comedy yet by the time it’s over, you may well be moved to tears. In the least, you’ll be forced to confront issues related to women’s place in society and the conflicting worldviews of East and West.

Threesome Cast Vertical - photo by Sebastien Scandiuzzi_thumb

Doug, Lila, Rashid photo by Sebastien Scandiuzzi

Director Chris Coleman and his production crew begin “Threesome” in an elegant but minimally appointed bedroom. The bed overwhelms the stage, and well it should. Leila and Rashid, a highly educated, professional Egyptian-Arab-American couple, are waiting for a third party to join them in that bed for a threesome.

The atmosphere is tense, nervous, uncomfortable. They’ve never done this before. In walks naked Doug, all ready to go. He’s not at all uneasy. In fact he’s ready to jump in and get this tryst underway. Leila and Rashid don’t quite know what they expected or how it would develop, but clearly this is a bit more than they had in mind.

The confusions, embarrassments, misunderstandings, and sexual awkwardnesses are all designed to make the audience laugh, a bit uncomfortably perhaps, but they work very well. These are consummate actors all. Alia Attallah as Leila, Karan Oberoi as Rashid, and Quinn Franzen as Doug bring every emotion to their roles, knowing just how far to take the moment.

Act II is a photo-shoot for the cover of the book that Leila’s written. Her publisher has arranged it. She’s excited about the thought, but unprepared for what’s actually been planned. The scene has been set to suggest an opulent sultan’s palace. Rich red and orange Oriental rugs are draped over and under a raised platform. Boldly embroidered pillows lie in stacks on the floor and the platform. There’s even a burqa hanging on the back wall. The set screams “stereotype,” “Oriental retro fantasia.” It speaks to assumptions about women and their role in society. Leila wants no part of it. The tone in this act is somber. Revelations are made. Personal wounds are revealed.

All three of these characters have experienced pain, and we can’t help but be moved as their scars are revealed. Most wounded of all is Leila, the elegant, successful woman. As her story unravels, so do our emotions. Slowly but surely, the author has turned his light comedy into an incredibly powerful commentary on the place women hold in societies east and west, and the stereotypes that blind us and bind us.

This is powerful theatre, too good to miss.

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

“Slaughterhouse-Five” at Book-It

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Erik Gratton, Todd Jefferson Moore and Robert Bergin. photo by John Ulman

As our country once again must decide how many troops it’s going to send to the Middle East, how very appropriate for Book-It to mount a stage adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal antiwar novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five.” And how marvelous that this production is so good! Adapted and directed by Josh Aaseng, it captures the novel’s black humor as well as its horror, and it raises all the difficult questions. What actions in war are justifiable? What is the cost—for the living as well as the dead? And perhaps most of all—why?

Vonnegut was in a prisoner of war camp in Dresden in WW II when the allies bombed the city to oblivion killing tens of thousands of civilians. His central character, Billy Pilgrim, was also in Dresden during that horrific night, but, in Vonnegut’s book and this play, because Billy has become unstuck in time, we also meet him at home in New York, and on the alien planet of Tralfalmadore. Book-It cleverly presents him in these different places, at different life periods in the form of three accomplished actors: Robert Bergin, Erik Gratton, and Todd Jefferson Moore.

The work of Kent Cubbage, Lighting Director, and Matt Starritt, Sound Director, deserve special praise. Any good play that includes war scenes requires some truly dramatic effects, and you get them here. You also get creative scenic design (Catherine Cornell) as the action shifts backwards and forward in time and place, and you watch Billy move back and forth between youth and old age.

As Billy understands and tries to make clear to us, even the Great War waged against the greatest evil by the greatest generation has moral ambiguity. It’s all captured here in a riveting production where tragedy is wrapped in humor, and Billy Pilgrim, who survives the war, becomes an optometrist, doing what he can to open our eyes. “And so it goes!”

You’ll do well to go see this production. (Be aware that the production includes nudity.)

Through July 3, The Center Theatre at the Armory, Seattle Center, Seattle, (206 216-0833 or www.Book-It.org)

Leo Saul Berk Structure and Ornament at the Frye Museum

When most of us think of architecture in and around Chicago, the first name that comes to mind is Frank Lloyd Wright of course. But northern Illinois architecture is so much richer, and the current exhibition at the Frye Museum introduces us to the Ford house, an architectural wonder not far from Chicago that few know about. It is both living space and art object created in the mid-twentieth century by Bruce Goff, artist, architect, musician, and savant.

The Ford House is unlike any other. Dramatic use of light and color, unconventional shapes, and radical use of materials are its hallmarks. Much of its glory has been recreated or reimagined at the Frye by Leo Saul Berk.

Berk came from England with his family as a six-year old and quickly settled into this extraordinary house in Aurora, Illinois, a few miles west of Chicago. There he lived for much of his childhood, immersed in a creative ambiance like no other. He firmly believes this experience heightened his artistic sensibility, honed his imagination, and in many ways shaped the artist and person he is today.

The Frye exhibition consists of Berk’s reproductions of decorative elements in the house, new works based on Berk’s memories of his experience in the house, and videos of many of the iconic architectural components that defined the house.

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Heat-Signature__Leo-Saul-Berk-

This is a building that was not conceived primarily with comfort in mind. Using structural pieces from World War II Quonset huts, it had many limitations. It was blazing hot in the broiling Midwest summers and bitter cold in winters. Berk remembers his family using sleeping bags on top of the rug on the radiant heated floor. In this exhibit, a noteworthy yellow, red, black and white wool carpet is displayed. Fabricated in Nepal its design is the thermograph pattern that Berk made of a segment of that floor. It’s a stunner.

Wind Jangle_Leo Saul Berk-install2-MarkWoodsAnother imposing piece, “Mortar and Marbles,” represents a section of the curved walls of the house. Made of canal coal and mortar, Goff insisted that glass marbles be embedded in the coal to catch and reflect the light. Berk’s to-scale representation traces the mortar and leaves the irregular forms of the uneven bricks vacant. At 142 inches long and 78 inches high, it provides the viewer with a sense of the space within the house.

Goff, as musician as well as architect, drew ornamental “wind jangles”—decorative hangings that played with concepts of light and sound. Though he never installed one at the Ford House, Berk has taken the idea and created one. It is suspended from the elliptical oculus in the Frye rotunda. Goff’s wind jangles were made in the pattern of actual piano rolls. Berk has taken Goff’s piano roll concept and imitated it by inserting large black rounds between smaller aluminum rounds hung on strands of fine fishing line. This overwhelming introductory piece cannot be ignored. It’s a fine announcement of what’s to come.

The Ford house was not a terribly workable home, but what an awesome space! Clearly its influence on artist Leo Saul Berk was profound.

Through Sept. 6 at the Frye Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle, always free and free parking, (206 622-9250 or fryemusum.org).

Paintings that play with reality

See my Article in The Seattle Times.