ArtsWest Cabaret Series—After Hours with Mathew Wright

Broadway may have Kristin Chenoweth, but Seattle has Jessica Skerritt who is just as talented and vivacious—and she has longer legs! Last night (July 27) she was on stage at ArtsWest singing, laughing, and dishing with ArtsWest Artistic Director Mathew Wright, and what a treat it was.

This was the second in the theatre’s new summer Monday night cabaret series, and if the remaining three are nearly as good, you shouldn’t miss them. August 3 brings Cayman Ilika to the stage. Laura Griffith and Katherine Strohmaier appear on the following Monday nights.

The charm of the program is the easy banter that takes place between Matt and his guest. Last night they shared stories of their theatre history both in Seattle and elsewhere, talked about growing up and getting into the “business,” revealed some of the incidents they’d rather forget as well as some of their favorite experiences.

When they aren’t talking, they make music. What many of us didn’t know was that Matt is a highly trained and superb pianist. Together they brought alive songs from the musicals that Jessica most enjoyed as well as some numbers “we listened to when we were kids.”

It’s an intimate and informal program. The first two evenings in this series sold out, so if you are interested, you might want to order your tickets ahead of time.

“After Hours with Mathew Wright” at ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave., SW, Seattle, (206 938-0339 or www.artswest.org)

“Hold These Truths” at ACT

Imagine if you will, a bare stage. Its square floor of polished wood is empty but for three wooden chairs. A large white projection screen serves as a backdrop. That’s it! Just about as minimalist as you can imagine, but with brilliant lighting effects and one gifted actor, this show will grab your emotions, and its content will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.

Most of us hang our heads in shame when we are reminded of the forced removal and incarceration, of our fellow citizens, our Japanese neighbors, during World War II. “Hold These Truths” by Jeanne Sakata and directed here by Jessica Kubzansky, tells the story of the young man who refused to comply with this unconstitutional legislation. Gordon Hirabayashi, a University of Washington student, knew his Constitution and knew his rights. The exclusion order was racially discriminatory, and he refused to go along with it.

Gordon went to prison, appealed his conviction all the way up to the United States Supreme Court where he lost his case. His conviction wasn’t overturned until 1987 long after he had obtained his Doctorate and was a professor of sociology.

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Photo by Michael Lamont

We know this tale. There’s little new here, but its presentation is compelling. The story with all its pain, fear, outrage, and sadness comes to life on this unadorned stage. The excellent Ryun Yu makes us feel the bewilderment, even naiveté, of Gordon as this inconceivable law is pronounced and then acted upon. We understand the fear and grief of his parents. We recoil at the prejudice he encounters at school in the early days after Pearl Harbor. We are awestruck by his bravery. We even laugh at the humor the author embeds at certain points.

The lighting by scenic and lighting designer Ben Zamora is as significant a part of this production’s success as the story and acting. He creates not only mood and emotion, but place too. And he does it all with color.

The low points in American history are as important to remember as are the triumphs. Here you’ll find a gripping exploration of one of our country’s least admirable actions.

Through August 16, at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or acttheatre.org)

“…and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi” produced by Sound Theatre Company

Here we find slashing, biting commentary on slavery in the American south, but it’s wrapped in a mythological mist that clouds meaning and causes one to lose one’s way. I didn’t research the play before seeing it, and was confused about much that I saw on stage. It wasn’t until I went home and read extensively that it all fell into place.

But should one have to do preliminary study to fully understand contemporary theatrical dramas? I think not. That’s off-putting, and what a shame! This is such a powerful production dealing with one of the two great tragedies of American history (the other is our treatment of Native Americans) that it’s a play everyone should experience. Because of its surrealistic qualities I fear many will back away.

Lindsay Zae Summers and Sunam Ellis Photo by Ken Holmes

Among the numerous outstanding performers is Santiago who plays Demeter, the man who survives the lynching that emasculated him. In Greek myth, Demeter was the mourning mother of poor Persephone carried off to the Underworld by Hades. Santiago elegantly captures Demeter’s strength, her mourning, her wisdom. Lindsay Zae Summers is just right as Perephone’s stand-in here. Little black girl in white face, she is Santiago’s granddaughter living as the twin sister of Caucasian Blanche (well played by Sunam Ellis) with her white family (ah the lies we tell ourselves!)

Kathya Alexander as the great Mississippi River is a power! And Shermona Mitchell makes a most accessible Jesus. Actually kudos go to the whole cast under the direction of Tyrone Brown.

The production values are outstanding. Roughed out, back lit buildings made with a few boards nailed together suggest a war-torn southern town. A lynching tree composed of patchwork quilts makes one think of a long history. The open meandering central area forms a waterway for Miss Sissippi who moves along it singing her lamentations garbed in a hodgepodge of flowing fabrics in shades of blue.

This is a surrealistic theatre event with outstanding production values. Do the preliminary research and let it wash over you. Be moved by the pathos and bravery; be repelled by the heinous and hateful. But most of all be glad you live in an area where you can be exposed to this sort of intellectual challenge.

Through Aug. 2 at Center Theatre in the Armory at Seattle Center, (brownpapertickets.com, www.soundtheatrecompany.org).

“Orpheus Descending” by Tennessee Williams presented by The Intiman Theatre Festival

This is one of Williams’ least performed works. It had a very short run in New York when first produced in 1957 and enjoyed only modest success when remounted on Broadway in 1989. Though it did have some critical success on British stages. There’s a reason for the mediocre reception given this work. It is not an easy play. This production doesn’t make it easier.

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Photo by Jeff Carpenter

The story is that of a young drifter (our Orpheus), Val, who enters Hell, here represented as a general store in a small southern town. Lady Torrance runs the store for her much older and debilitated red-neck husband who is far too ill to do almost anything. He was, however, some years back able to play key roles in Klan activities.

This is the south as Williams perceives it. A hell filled with corruption, small minds, gossip, racism, arson, murder, and lonely ladies. Oh, and a fair dose of Christian symbolism. As conceived in this production it is also a place where men play women’s roles and blacks play white roles, something that confused me initially rather than adding gravitas to the production.

Shortly after it begins, Val enters carrying an accordion and ready to make sweet music and sweet love. The instrument is however, referred to throughout the play as a guitar (that’s what the script calls for, but guitar/accordion . . . that’s the least of the confusions here). Poor Val is like the mythological Orpheus; this is not going to end well for him. He sees the racism, repression, loneliness, corruption, and desire of this particular hell and experiences its violence.

If you are a passionate fan of Tennessee Williams, you won’t want to miss this. You’re not likely to see this Williams’ play soon again. If, however, you like your theatre straight forward and easily comprehensible, this may not be for you despite its fine cast and good acting.

Through August 2, produced by Intiman Theatre Festival at 12th Ave. Arts Theatre, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, (intiman.org)

“Six Characters in Search of An Author” Presented by Seattle Theatre Works

The reason I love Pirandello so much is the manner in which he plays with reality and illusion. And I think his best play is “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” Until July 25 you can see this masterful piece at the Erickson Theatre. If you, as do I, love theatrical brain-games, theatre that teases as it titillates you’ll find lots to like here.

Daniel Tarker, who directed the work, has also made some adaptations that set it squarely in modern times and in Seattle. The local and contemporary references come when least expected, and add immeasurably to the fun. But you must realize that this is as thoughtful and philosophical as it is fun.

It’s a play within a play within a play. It opens as actors and their director and stage manager arrive on an empty stage for early rehearsals of their next production. In it they will play avatars as in online games. They will wear masks. In this upcoming production real humanity will be hidden layers below what appears.

But then an oddly clothed, group of six “characters” suddenly shows up and disrupts the activity. Turns out they are indeed characters, not real people, and they need an author so that they can be accurately presented on stage. This is an absurdity. How can characters precede the play? Where’s the reality in this confusion?

The question of what in our lives is real and what is illusion hovers over the whole production. The characters spin out the story of their lives as the astonished actors try to make sense of it all. They try to interfere, but the characters insist on telling their story. So the actors listen and provide the needed props. The unreeling of the characters’ story goes on a bit too long, but the intellectual gamesmanship compensates.

Fine acting marks the production. Among the troupe, a couple of standouts must be mentioned. Sarah Milici as the character Stepdaughter is simply amazing. She’s like a vulnerable bird, but, when called for, she displays a tenacity and fierceness that you wouldn’t want to challenge. Peter Cook as the character Father brings reason and passion to his account of dirty doings. Such a nice man couldn’t possibly be vile . . . or could he?

Reality! Illusion! There’s so much to please you in this production of Pirandello’s masterpiece. Although he’s not as well known today as are some of his contemporaries, he did win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1934.

Through July 25, at The Erickson Theatre, 1524 Harvard Ave., Seattle, (seattletheatreworks.org)