“Constellations” at Seattle Rep

If anyone ever told me that I’d swoon over a play that was built around string theory, relativity, and quantum mechanics, I’d have laughed. “Ugh,” I’d say, “I’m a total dolt when it comes to physics and don’t need a play about stuff I don’t understand.” Well I couldn’t have been more wrong.

This award-winning gem by young playwright Nick Payne is a total joy. It’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking. It plays with the brain and warms the soul as we follow Roland the beekeeper and Marianne the theoretical physicist as they meet, fall in love or fall out of love, and face the vicissitudes of life.

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(L-R) Alexandra Tavares and Max Gordon Moorein Constellations at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Alan Alabastro

Everything’s right about this production. Directed with a fine hand by Desdemona Chiang, acted with grace and exquisitely delivered emotion by Max Gordon Moore and Alexandra Tavares, it plays on L. B. Morse’s stark but beautiful stage. A large yellow wood square serves as floor. A deep blue backdrop surrounds it. No stage props are needed. Our two characters live in a small corner of an infinite universe as they explore and experience their love, and all we need to see is them.

In real life, our relationships do offer many possibilities, but we are stuck with the choices we make. The relationship between these two characters has many permutations, think of them taking place in co-existing universes. Marianne and Roland have an opportunity to do everything again, differently, just as if the first situation never existed at all. He’s in love with her. He’s not. He’s married. He’s not. They become a couple. They don’t. She makes dumb moves. Oh no she doesn’t! As these two quirky people experience all the different possibilities of their relationship, we see it through the prism of quantum multiverse theory.

Their love story is tender. It’s intense. Moore and Tavares move easily back and forth through the different realities. They are captivating. You want their love to prevail. But plays must end, and playwright Nick Payne has left you with a quantum reality of many of the things that might happen. The universe is multiverse for Roland and Marianne.

Through Feb. 27 at Seattle Rep, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, (206 443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

“Waiting for Lefty” by Clifford Odets at Theatre 9/12

While fortunes amass today in Seattle and elsewhere, this is also a time when those left out of the boom are even more busted than ever. For some it is indeed a return to the 1930s. “Waiting for Lefty” the Clifford Odets 1935 play about striking taxicab drivers in New York explores the fate of the working class in tough times. It is both dated yet remarkably pertinent today, and Theatre9/12’s powerful take on it is bound to move you and certainly cause you to question the system as it works in our time.

Odets, like so many other intellectuals, was a Communist during the Depression years. His hard-hitting social protest plays received much favorable attention and greatly influenced the playwrights who followed.

This production begins on a crowded dance floor where energetic couples are doing the Charleston. The mood is gay, enthusiastic. Then the lights go out. When they come back on only a few couples dance, well not really dance, simply move in an exhausted, almost crippled manner. You quickly understand that this is one of those marathons we read about in history books. Couples subject themselves to this debilitating and demoralizing exercise because there is prize money for the last couple standing, and they all desperately need the money. Jobs are few. Pay has been cut back. Life is hard. There’s no safety net. What better way to begin this thought provoking play?

Director Charles Waxberg has staged it in the round with action in front of, behind and above the audience members thus, immersing them in the goings-on. And by placing the corrupt leader of the taxi drivers union, Fatt (aptly named) and his gun-toting henchman above the rest of the players, their corrosive presence is inescapable.

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Theatre 9/12 is known for the quality of its acting and this production is no exception. But amazingly one of the most powerful performers is Michael C. Robinson as Fatt’s henchman. He never says a word. For most of the play he just sits next to Fatt, toothpick dangling from his mouth, eyes alert but veiled, a rifle hung on his shoulder. He personifies evil.

Odets created the play with vignettes that speak to the injustices of the difficult Depression years: impoverished married couples, unethical medical practices, corrupt union leaders, frustrated lovers who can’t afford marriage, soulless capitalism. There’s no subtlety here. The characters are stereotypes; the message is pounded home. It would be written with more nuance today, but this is a piece of theatre history. It’s fascinating to see the agitprop of the ’30s, especially when it is presented so successfully and is so pertinent to contemporary times

Through Feb. 20 at Trinity Parish Hall, 609 8th Ave. and James St., Seattle. For reservations 206 332-7905 or www.Theatre912.com. This show is offered as “pay what you can afford.

“Silent Sky” at Taproot

The powerful “Silent Sky” gives voice and credit to an unsung heroine who made a significant contribution to science but never received adequate recognition for it. The story of the accomplishments of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (well played by Hana Lass) is also a story of her battle against sexism.

This brilliant Radcliffe graduate began working for Harvard’s astronomy department in the 1890s. Though as a female she was never allowed to go near the telescopes. We see her working with two other women as high-end administrative assistants. Their job was to record the brightness of the stars captured on the photographic glass plates that the “real” astronomers produced. But Henrietta’s curiosity couldn’t be contained. What was the meaning of these differences? Working independently after hours, she studied the variability and brightness of certain of the stars, discovering patterns, relationships that her male bosses had failed to note.

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Hana Lass in Silent Sky at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Her findings were a building block that changed human understanding of the universe. Hubbell’s work built upon the scientific papers she published. Her data, served as a building block for his realization that our galaxy wasn’t the center of the universe.

All of this is revealed in “Silent Sky,” but the play is so much more than that.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson juxtaposes Henrietta life against that of her sister (Candace Vance), a gifted musician, who chose family rather than career. Throughout the play we see Henrietta trying to balance the needs of family with those of her career. Gunderson is extremely careful to avoid polemics. Yet Henrietta’s conflicts and compromises are heartbreaking as is the recognition that that she could have done so much more in her field were woman not suppressed.

The great success of this play is the manner in which it draws together both the scientific story and the personal one with all its ramifications. As directed by Karen Lund, it’s a thoughtful exploration of the sexism of the early 20th Century and the continuing compromises required of all women in our society. Career or marriage and family? Is it possible to be fully successful at both? At what cost?

Hana Lass as Henrietta brings all the intellectual brilliance as well as the needed emotional turmoil to the role. The supporting cast members nimbly support Henrietta as she experiences success, love, loss, and despair.

Especially noteworthy are Mark Lund’s scenic projections that provide a full stage backdrop. Magnificent celestial panoramas, pastoral scenes as well as cityscapes work wonderfully to enhance the action and set the mood in this finely honed production.

Through Feb. 27 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, (206 781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org).

“Really Really” at Arts West

“Davis got laid last night!” says his roommate Cooper, to their college friends the morning after a party that evidently equaled the most barbaric bacchanal of Roman times. That wouldn’t be unusual among this group of self-serving “generation me” lay-abouts except that Davis doesn’t usually score.

Ben Brantley in the New York Times calls this a “pitiless state-of-a-generation play.” It’s author Paul Downs Colaizzo who wrote it in his twenties knows his cohorts well, and if we are to believe him, there’s little hope for the future.

He depicts “generation me” most of whose members can be describes as obsessed with sex, not usually willing to work too hard to achieve anything, relying instead on deceit, manipulation, and selfishness. Most of them are not really nice people but they make fascinating material for a playwright as talented as Colaizzo.

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

The hung over guys tap the remains of the keg the morning after, as they horse around in their apartment and marvel at the fact that Davis got laid and did it with their buddy Jimmy’s fiancée, Leigh. When Jimmy finds out and confronts Leigh she claims it was rape, provides “evidence.” But are we to believe that it’s plausible evidence? Davis was so drunk he can’t remember what happened, but it matters not. He’s called to the Dean’s office and will probably be expelled. Leigh’s sister shows up and spreads lies to protect her sister.

Meanwhile Leigh’s roommate, Grace, who was also wasted at the party, pulls herself together so she can deliver a speech to “the future leaders of America” at a youth conference. She exhorts them to focus on “me,” recognize we can all get what we want.

At the same time Davis’ friends are backing away, don’t want to get involved, are fearful the taint of scandal might sully them, willing to lie to save themselves. Friendship be damned.

Makaela Pollock has directed this production with a deft hand. The acting is uniformly powerful. And kudos to Julia Welch for her clever set that allows us to be in the girls’ neat kitchen at the same time we’re in the disheveled mess of the party apartment.

The play is not a perfect piece. The playwright introduces social class issues that are not fully explored and seem tangential to his focus. There are inconsistencies. The ending is overwrought.
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But given these weaknesses, this is a play you wont forget. It’s a potent piece of writing, and this production drives home the issues it raises. You will want to talk about it afterwards. Arts West offers talkbacks after each performance. This is a theatre experience that demands it.

Through Feb. 14 at Arts West, 4711 California Ave., SW, Seattle, (206 938-0339 or www.artswest.org).

“Crimes of the Heart” at Village Theatre

Here we are in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in the mid 1970s smack dab in a kitchen (well designed by Andrea Bryn Birch) where three dysfunctional southern sisters can’t quite get a grip on life. They’re not criminals (well one actually is by legal standards), rather their crimes are mostly self- imposed crimes of the heart.

Lenny, the oldest and dreariest, has been living here in Grandaddy’s house taking care of him. Unfortunately, he’s now in the hospital and things don’t look good. Youngest sister, Babe, is out of jail on bail for having shot her husband in the stomach. Meg, the most beautiful of the trio, arrives from California to give moral support to her sisters and love to her dying grandfather, but mostly she is also returning from an unsuccessful attempt to establish herself as a singer and hoping perhaps to re-establish a romantic relationship. Though not wealthy, these women are indeed southern belles with high-pitched voices, “men” problems (either longing for them or unable to get along with them), and deep family ties.

Rhonda J. Soikowski as Lenny creates a woman with a pitiable efficiency and loneliness, someone who has the saddest birthday you can imagine. The glamorous Brenda Joyner creates a winning and wanting Meg, and Sydney Andrews epitomizes the lonesome failure of her character, Babe.

Directed by Kathryn Van Meter, it’s a pleasant enough production but one that doesn’t soar—not quite tragic and not fully comic.

Given my choice of “three sisters” give me the Chekhov’s siblings any day. I do, however, realize that there are huge numbers of audience members who like folksy, somewhat banal tales. This Pulitzer Prize winning play has been a favorite among regional theatres for years, has seen a couple of revivals on Broadway, and was a 1996 movie (with Diane Keaton, Jessica Lang, and Sissy Spacek). Obviously it’s got enormous appeal…just not for me, or at least not this production.

Through Feb. 28 at Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah, 425 392-2202, and March 4 – 27 at Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett, 425 257-8600, (VillageTheatre.org).