“Crowns” a Rollicking Musical at Taproot Theatre

I must begin with a disclaimer. I love gospel music, have been a fan for years and have seen performances on the East Coast, in the Midwest, and now in Seattle. This Seattle production wraps a story around the music, and that theatrical effect gives the overall presentation an opportunity to incorporate humor and plot into the evening. But the story is really secondary. It’s the music (directed by Aaron Norman) that overwhelms, causes you to bounce around in your seat, and provides the greatest pleasure.

Director Faith Bennett Russell, wisely focuses her cast throughout the production around the music. Six women and one man know this music and have personal experience with its power. They belt it out with an infectious joie de vivre. I defy you to sit quietly in your seat. If you aren’t yelling out your “huzzas”, you’re tapping your feet and wriggling in your seat to match the tempo.

Be Russell, Bethanie Willis and Tracy Michelle Hughes. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

The story is a simple one. Black women have a history with hats. Hats define them, connect them to their community and its past, give them status, and, on this stage, assist in their efforts to mend the heart and mind of Yolanda, a young woman going through a difficult period in her life. Hats are de rigueur for church on Sundays, and have been for centuries. You can tell a lot about a woman by the hat she’s wearing, and the women in this musical presentation have an enormous variety of amazing chapeaux to select from.

In their hats, this chorus belts out those gospel harmonies, blues notes, and religious verities. They dance, they praise the lord, and they fill their audience with a sense of wellbeing and appreciation. It’s toe tapping, arm waving, robust music whose appeal is hard to ignore. You certainly don’t have to be African American to find it mesmerizing. And of course, we can’t forget that it was an enormous influence on the greatest musical stars of the ’60s.

So, if you are looking for an evening at the theatre that will gladden your heart and fill you with positive spirits, consider Taproot’s current production.

Through April 28, at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, 206-781-9707, taproottheatre.org.

“The Impossibility of Now” presented by Thalia’s Umbrella

What do you do when your husband develops amnesia? His memory is totally gone, and he really needs you, really, really needs you though he doesn’t know you or anything else about his past. And what if he hasn’t thrilled you for some time, not nearly as much as your new lover does? If you are a decent person, you take care of him, and so, this play opens as Miranda guides her empty-minded husband, Carl, home after his extended hospital stay.

Director Daniel Wilson wisely let’s its subtleties seep out; no great burst, just a gentle buildup, moment by moment. This is a production in which the acting is first rate. Terry Edward Moore captures Carl, the man without a past, from the moment he shuffles onto the stage and into his home. He’s vacant. There’s no there there. And Miranda, well played by Betsy Schwartz, is the wife who, as she leads him into their apartment, begins to understand just what she is up against.

“Why did I want to live here?” he asks. “I am erased.” She tells him she’s trying to put him back. Moore makes his character so believably impaired, with his halting speech and incessant questions.

The mere idea of losing one’s mind is such a horrifying thought that seeing its consequences played out before you could be truly disturbing, but it’s not. Moore’s skilled acting makes it fascinating. Poor man! But how can Miranda stand it, cope with it?

There’s nothing like a lover to make life’s tribulations just a little easier to deal with, and Miranda has a lover, a dentist (Joshua Carter) she’s been seeing for some time. He too is married, but, as lovers do, they have something really good going on. You’ll never again think of a dental chair in quite the way you used to!

Betsy Schwartz plays Miranda with just the right combination of sympathy and eroticism. She’s stuck with this brain-damaged man, realizes that she owes him compassion and affection, yet her thoughts are elsewhere. Caught between past and future, she finds it difficult to live in the now.

Meanwhile Carl perseveres in his limbo, and even manages to find some happiness in his “now.” After all, “now” is all he has. Yet for Miranda there’s more to life. There’s that dentist’s chair and the generosity of her lover.

Bumbling humans! Trying to make life work for them. Both Carl and Miranda were or are writers. Will the written word offer salvation? This well acted production will leave you with much to think about.

Through March 31 at 12th Ave. Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, tickets: https://theimpossibilityof now.brownpapertickets.com/

“Hir” at Arts West, presented in collaboration with Intiman Theatre

It’s certainly not my family! And if it’s the family of the future, I’m glad I won’t be part of it. But it’s a family that electrifies the stage. The play grabs your gut, and the acting intensifies the experience.

Look at the word “Hir.” Note that it’s a combination of “him” and “her.” Playwright Taylor Mac suggests that there could be a future when sex roles and gender stereotypes simply won’t exist. Ideally there will be a melding. But getting there demands a war, and in this play it’s a gender war, a family war: a war against those assumptions and stereotypes.

Onto the stage and into his home blunders the newly discharged soldier/son Isaac (Evan Barrett). He’s stunned! He’s seen battlefields, but he’s never seen anything like the home that awaits him. It’s a combat zone. It’s in total disarray with clothing, detritus, kitchenware and garbage strewn over the entire stage. (Kudos to set designers Julia Welch and Timothy White Eagle for creating this almost unbelievable mess.)

Isaac’s father, dressed in a nightgown, his face smeared with lipstick, sits drooling in one of the few chairs that are upright. In comes Isaac’s “sister” (Adrian Kljucec) who appears to have had a sex change. Ruling over this catastrophe is his mother waging her war against the assumptions and stereotypes of a male dominated society. To her this unbelievable mess is definitely not a disaster. It is, perhaps, the cataclysmic requirement necessary to achieve gender-neutral society.

Gretchen Krich as Mom, the orchestrator of this revolting mess, is spunky, determined, and single minded. She thrives in the chaos she has deliberately let happen. Her husband, the drooling, seemingly demented, powerless male doesn’t do so well. It’s a terrible character to play, and Charles Leggett plays it brilliantly. I almost couldn’t bear to look at him.

So . . . have we here a look to the future? This production will certainly force you to think about that.

Through March 25 at Arts West Theatre, 4711 California Ave. SW, Seattle, 206-938-0339.

“You Can’t Take It With You” at Center Theatre presented by Sound Theatre Company

Oh, the continued pleasure offered by some of those charming 1930s plays! Sound Theatre has revived “You Can’t Take It With You” by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. Truly an oldie but goodie, it first appeared on Broadway in 1936, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937, was adapted for the screen and won an Academy Award for “Best Picture.”

 

If you like crazy humor, you’ll like this production directed by Teresa Thuman. It features a large cast (17 players), most of them playing members of the same eccentric family. It’s a family of nut cases. There’s Grandpa wonderfully played by Teotha Dennard. He’s a voice of reason yet a man with his own idiosyncrasies. He has never paid his income taxes, and he collects snakes and keeps them in the house.

 

He lives with his daughter Penny (who has her own peculiarities). Penny, played with verve by Shermona Mitchell is married to a man who builds fireworks in the basement. Don’t be surprised to hear that some of them explode unexpectedly from time to time.

 

My very favorite role is that of Essie. Essie is Shermona’s daughter, a young thing obsessed with ballet. She always wears ballet costumes and shoes and spends most of her time practicing her kicks, pirouettes and ballet positions. She’s very feminine and prances about with a girlish enthusiasm. The only strange thing about her is that Bo Melliger who plays her happens to be a young man. He makes a good ballet dancer and a pretty young lady!

 

That cross-dressing is simply one hallmark of this production. The cast has been selected to represent the breadth of humanity. There are players of all colors and all sizes and not all of them are in roles one would expect. There is even a wheelchair bound woman who turns out to be quite agile and a good actor. No stereotypes here, except possibly Mr. Kolenkhov (Chris Shea), the ballet teacher. He’s more Russian than the Tzar himself, charmingly so.

 

These various sane and not so sane individuals carry out their insanities absurdities in a well-appointed 1930s home, filled with the knickknacks, pictures, and paraphernalia of the time. Credit goes to Robin Macartney for the really fine set.

 

The production starts off a little slowly, partly because the audience is so unused to the amazing diversity of the actors and the roles they assume on this stage. Thus it is actually a bit distracting. The Company has very deliberately made this work an exercise in “inclusion.” We Seattle audiences don’t see that often. It takes a little getting used to for most of us. This is a production that breaks stereotypes. Fortunately it’s so well mounted and so funny that color, size, gender, and physical ability of the actors are not issues that demand attention. A great play well produced is what captures our interest, and that’s what we get here.

 

Through March 11 at Center Theatre, Seattle Armory, Seattle Center, www.soundtheatrecompany.org

 

 

“Peerless” at Arts West

“Peerless” at Arts West

“Peerless,” written by Jiehae Park, is described by many as a dark comedy. It’s all about the angst and murderous competition today to get into one’s college of choice, especially if applications are being made only to the very top ranked schools in the nation. It’s an interesting concept, and reviews of previous productions of the play are laudatory. Unfortunately I found this production to be somewhat cartoonish.

The central characters are high achieving twin Asian girls out to get early admission to “the college,” think one of the most prestigious universities in the nation. They will do anything to achieve their goal and that includes knocking off any serious competitor. For that reason, the play as produced in other cities has been likened to “Macbeth.” Again, I found that to be a bit of a stretch, but there it is. The “mean girls” meet “Macbeth” just didn’t resonate for me on this stage as it apparently has elsewhere in the country.

Direction here is provided by Sara Porkalob, one of Seattle’s stars in the firmament of new Seattle talent. Working with scenic designer Reiko Huffman they’ve created a minimalist set. There’s a central riser in front, a stage-long platform in the rear. Floating oblong panels lined up equidistant from one another form the backdrop. It works.

Maile Wong plays “l” (get it, “El”?) and Corinne Magin plays her sister “M” (get it “Em”?). Christopher Quilici as “D” is the Native American who represents the greatest threat to the sisters in their quest for admission to the nation’s most respected university.

The show has been extremely popular with young people who are now enduring or recently have endured the horrors of college admissions. It’s a theme to which they can readily relate.

Through Feb. 11 at Arts West, 4711 California Ave., SW, Seattle, http://artswest.org/theatre/buy-tickets