“The Things Are Against Us” produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre

Playwright Susan Soon He Stanton likes a crammed script and her script for this play is certainly crammed. Within it you’ll find farce, a ghost story, horror, melodrama, romantic comedy, mystery/thriller, fantasy, a heavy dose of surrealism, and perhaps other aspects I’ve failed to mention. If you suspect that’s too much, you are right.

That’s not to say there aren’t enjoyable elements within this production directed by Bobbi Ramsey. As is so often the case with WET presentations, the acting is really good. Allison Stanley and Samie Spring Detzer are compelling as the two sisters at the center of the play who exist in two centuries in two locations, New York and Massachusetts.

Then there’s Robert Bergin wonderfully droll as Caspar, the taciturn woodsman who can do much more than split wood. Trying to make sense of it all is Jeffrey Azevedo as Yusef, the grandson misplaced in time and place. Meanwhile Jany Bacallao, dressed in white, exudes a suave superiority playing the poet Federico Garcia Lorca. We’re left to wonder if he’s collecting material for his own writing or reminding us of the surreal nature of all this.

Julia Welch’s set combined with Tristan Roberson’s lighting and projections work well to create an ambiance that’s both spooky and historical. A big, old New England house that might be a model of the home where Lizzie Borden did or maybe didn’t do her dirty work looms over the entire stage. Extra windows hang from the rafters creating a backdrop for all the vignettes that make up this jam-packed play. And I must warn you that there’s a big, old claw-footed bathtub that is up to no good.

The sounds are eerie. The play itself is avant garde in the manner of Ionesco. So if you like your theatre cutting edge, if you don’t mind theatre that’s confusing but stimulating, this current WET production is for you.

Through May 16 at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, (206 325-5105 washingtonensemble.org).

“Death of a Salesman” at Arts West

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Delusion as a way of life—that’s much of what this brilliant Arthur Miller play is about. And brilliant it is, especially as presented in this production.

No fancy staging here. Instead Director Matthew Wright and Scenic Designer Christopher Mumaw have given us a bare-bones set that simply defines interior spaces. For this production all attention must be directed to the actors and the words. We expect the words to be powerful, after all the play won the Pulitzer Prize and numerous Tony’s when it debuted in 1949. So it’s a delight to see that this cast can deliver those words with such passion.

This is one of the best ensembles on Seattle stages in recent years. David Pichette as Willy Loman, the aging traveling salesman brings passion, nuance, false gaiety, and despair to his portrayal of a man who has thrown his whole life away on a piddling job and is now about to be thrown away himself.

His reality is replete with delusions, denials. To him happiness equals wealth and popularity. Ah, isn’t that the American dream? Perhaps denial is the only strategy for one who faces failure (however it’s defined) especially when one is surrounded by success.

Willy has raised his son Biff to buy into his delusion. No matter what Biff wants in life, he’s tethered to the line Willie has fed him. Drew Highlands’ Biff is enthusiastic but not bright enough to free himself from Willy’s fantasies until it’s almost too late. Watching his demise is heartbreaking.

And then there’s Happy (Kyle Anton Johnson). Oh yes Willie has two sons, but despite playing the acolyte, Happy is never the anointed one, though he does accept the family delusions.

Eleanor Mosely as Linda, the mother of this sad family is another standout actor. Her adoration and support is unending and tragic. Because she so loves Willie, she accepts his fantasies, reinforces them, and refuses to move beyond them. Her response to his death is heartrending.

At his grave she says, “Forgive me, my dear, I can’t cry.” You’re a stronger theatregoer than I if this production of this play doesn’t move you to tears. A must see!

Through May 29, at Arts West, 4711 California Ave. SW, Seattle (206 938-0339 or www.artswest.org).

“Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem”

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Alex Matthews (The Pinkerton), Andrew McGinn (Dr. John Watson), Darragh Kennan (Mr. Sherlock Holmes) and Christine Marie Brown (Miss Phoebe Anne Moses) in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Sherlock Holmes and The American Problem. Photo by Chris Bennion.

This delicious confection doesn’t come from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; rather it’s the inspired work of Seattle’s own R. Hamilton Wright who began enjoying Doyle’s books when he was but an adolescent. In this work, our Seattle Conan Doyle connects the mystique of the American West with the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Off to England go Annie Oakley and the cowboys and Indians of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Sure enough, soon after they arrive Annie is forced to call on Sherlock for his assistance.

Under the direction of Allison Narver, there’s never a slow moment in this audaciously staged production. Darrah Kennan makes an astute and oh so British Sherlock. He captures the wiliness and self-assurance that define the man. Andrew McGinn’s always helpful Dr. Watson is played very much in the manner of Nigel Bruce, the famed Watson of radio and film in the mid twentieth century—a bit dim perhaps but always there when Holmes needs him. Marianne Owen as Holmes’ housekeeper has exactly the right deference mixed with a will of iron. She will not allow anyone to underestimate her importance in this ménage.

And, of course, what would a Sherlock Holmes piece be without including his older brother, Mycroft? Here he’s the appropriately reserved Charles Leggett. Christine Marie Brown as Annie Oakley plays her with strength and subtlety. She’s the star of the Wild West Show, but her all-American vitality and verve are as important as her shooting ability.

The acting in this production is worthy of praise, but for me, the real star of the show is its brilliant scenic design created by L.B. Morse. Morse places you, the audience, into the posh quarters of Holmes looking out over the row houses and chimney pots across the street. But even more impressive are the dark streets of 19th C London. Through the combined use of stage-scaled period photographs, multiple moving images, and traditional props he creates magical stage effects. The projections are stupendous. There are waterfront fight scenes, eerie chases, murders, and of course a crime lord. The extraordinary multimedia effects took my breath away.

Even for those who have never been fans of the Sherlock Holmes stories, this production is a crowd pleaser. For Sherlock enthusiasts it’s a must see.

Through May 22, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, (206 443-2222 or seattlerep.org).

 

“My Name is Asher Lev” produced by New Century Theatre Company

With “My Name is Asher Lev” New Century Theatre Company lives up to its reputation of consistently offering some of the best productions on Seattle stages. Based on the best-selling book by Chaim Potok, this adaptation by Aaron Posner thrusts audience members into the dilemma of self-actualization vs. community tradition. The conflict is especially well presented in this production directed by Sheila Daniels.

Asher was born to be a painter but sadly born in the wrong family. He’s a Hasidic Jew, son of deeply religious parents, member of a Brooklyn, NY, congregation. The Hasidic tradition views artistic aspirations as inappropriate. No matter Asher’s talent, an artist’s life is not allowed. But Asher can’t ignore his drive to create. Thus he steps beyond the mindset of his community and causes his parents excruciating anguish.

We first meet him as a precocious and artistically talented five-year-old who is not encouraged to draw but not punished for it. His family’s connection to the Synagogue is strong, however. His father is called by the Rebbe to take a leading part in the Congregation’s efforts to aid their Russian brethren who are being subjected to intense persecution. This, of course, convinces Asher’s father that he must firmly forbid his son to persist with his art. Both parents see Asher’s obsession with art as antithetical to their faith. Asher, in all other ways an obedient boy, can’t obey.

Throughout the play as Asher matures, the conflict between Hasidic values and Asher’s artistic imperative increases in intensity. Asher is a true and gifted artist, and, as such, he must fully explore the depth of his God-given talents.

As the dramatic tension builds, the audience has the opportunity to see three highly gifted actors in bravura performances. Connor Neddersen as Asher captures all the torment of a loving son who has no choice but to go against his beloved parent’s wishes, and in the process to break their hearts. Bradford Farwell powerfully plays three roles: Papa, the Rebbe, and Jacob Kann (the artist who guides Asher’s artistic growth). He loves his son, but his son is flouting the traditions, the rules, and he can’t let him do that. Farwell captures the anguish as well as the anger, Amy Thone (straight off her remarkable performance in “The Other Place” at Seattle Public Theatre) is heartbreaking as the mother, the mother who adores her son, agrees with her husband, and is emotionally brutalized by this heartbreaking dilemma. She too plays additional roles, though these are minor.

The conflict is unresolvable. The heartbreak is crushing. You will not leave this theatre unmoved.

Through May 21, 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, tickets at WEARENCTC.ORG

Cafe Nordo: “To Savor Tomorrow”

Among my favorite unexpected pleasures in today’s Seattle’s theatre world are productions presented at Cafe Nordo. Before I write about the current show, perhaps a little explanation is required.

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Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom

Cafe Nordo has for the past year occupied one of Pioneer Square’s marvelous historic buildings. Here great food is combined with the theatrical arts. “Dinner theatre? Oh, not for me,” you might say. “Forget traditional dinner theatre,” I say, because these productions are captivating experiences unlike anything you might see produced in old-style venues. The creative menu offers the delicious and unexpected, and the productions I’ve seen are cutting edge. The site is already appealing to in-the-know theatre buffs, but it’s also become a pleasure for the more adventurous souls who pretty much ignored traditional theatre in the past.

In the current show “To Savor Tomorrow” (directed by Keira McDonald) airline hostesses in their pillbox hats and very sexy uniforms welcome patrons into a 707 Stratocruiser for flight 892 which, you’ll soon realize, is a hotbed of intrigue and espionage. The fuselage of the aircraft rises on both sides of the cafe. Instead of rows of traditional airplane seats within it, dining tables follow the contour of the plane. Terry Podgorski gets credit for the script and set.

Passengers are welcomed with a Bloody Mary Jelly Shot as they take their seats and prepare for an evening of gluttony and adventure with a 1960s edge. The actors double as wait staff, so this is indeed an up-close and personal experience for all. Your captain (Mark Siano) will be serving as will Svetlana Romanova (Opal Peachy) and those leggy and charming stewardesses Alyssa Norling and Heather Refvem. Even agents Jiang Ping (Sara Porkalob) and AKA (Richard Sloniker) double as servers as does the mysterious scientist (Evan Mosher).

As passengers enjoy Head Chef Erin Brindley’s four-course gourmet meal pared with ’60s-inspired cocktails, intrigue swirls around them. Secret agents from the U.S., Russia, and China vie for the food and agricultural secrets that will be the hallmarks of the 21st Century. There are double agents, there’s a phone in a shoe, important briefcase capers, and it all spins out with the songs and musical accompaniment of a four-piece orchestra led by Anastasia Workman who wrote the music.

This is a show about the world in the verge of a “New Age,” “an age when nothing is impossible.” Today we can smile at that naiveté, but it certainly is fun to feast and see it play out on this stage. Don’t expect highbrow theatre here. Instead you’re immersed in a bygone milieu that’s replete with plenty of humor and great food.

Through June 5 at Cafe Nordo (www.cafenordo.com), 109 S. Main St., Seattle.