Archive for February 2011

“The Threepenny Opera” produced by Seattle Shakespeare Company

Seattle Shakespeare Company has taken a bold step (and a brave one considering current economic realities) with its production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s classic theatre piece. It’s their first musical, and they’ve staged it in what is for them an enormous space—Intiman Theatre. Well, cheers! It’s a terrific mounting of this classic, and if you haven’t already got tickets, go for it.

First seen in Germany in 1928, “Threepenny…” was a revolutionary change from the saccharine operettas of the time, both in production values and subject. The raw intensity of the music was shocking as was the theme that revealed Brecht’s growing interest in Marxism. By 1933 the Nazi’s had banned all works by the duo and both men had to flee.

But “Threepenny…” couldn’t be stopped. It has been consistently produced for the past 60 years. Why? Man’s cupidity and dishonesty seem ever present, and this play that looks at corruption from the highest levels to the lowest seems always pertinent.

This Seattle Shakespeare production boasts a superb cast, all local talent, and forceful staging. The set is minimal; there’s much foreboding darkness. The lighting by Andrew D. Smith is wondrous. His use of red reinforces mood. The shadows are more powerful than sets. Thrown against the concrete back wall of the theatre, they hover like spectres over the action.

But don’t think it’s all dreary politicizing. There’s more than enough humor in the characterizations and the droll depictions of the human foibles of high officials and low prostitutes. There’s love and longing. There are celebrations and silliness.

The music would have benefited from a combo rather than just a piano with a bit of occasional percussion played by various cast members, but aside from that it’s thrilling theatre.

Director Stephanie Shine does it again!

Get there a bit early, settle in your seats and enjoy the pre-play cabaret action. Actors wander about, chatting with one another, joining the lone piano player for a song or two, setting the mood of another time, another place. You’re primed when the curtain does rise, and I’ll bet you won’t be disappointed.

Through March 6 at Intiman Theatre in Seattle Center. (206 733-8222 or www.seattleshakespeare.org).

“The Odyssey” at Taproot Theatre

Oh that Mary Zimmerman! How can one resist her marvelous adaptations of classic epics? Taproot Theatre opens its season with her take on “The Odyssey.” Their production does her proud. If you want to refresh your own memory of Homer’s masterwork or introduce it to your children (8 years and older), make your way to 85th Street and be ready to gasp at poor Odysseus’ trials, cheer at his heroics, marvel at his quick thinking, and despair at his occasional lapses in judgment. Happily, you’ll be able, finally, to rejoice in his success.

The production has been cleverly staged and directed by Scott Nolte. The costumes by Sarah Burch Gordon are lovely and witty (look closely for inside jokes like the feathers on Hermes shoes). And I loved the way music and special effects had been incorporated.

The acting isn’t consistently up to the level of the rest of the production, but there are some outstanding performances. Nikki Visel as Athena is terrific. There’s no question she’s a Goddess and a powerful one at that. Mark Chamberlin as Odysseus is masterful. He can be convincing as hero or fool. And somehow he captures the spirit of the mighty as well as that of everyman.

Through March 5 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th Street, Seattle. (206 781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org/buy-tickets/)

“How I Learned to Drive” at Stone Soup

There are times when less is more. Stone Soup’s “How I Learned to Drive” is minimal in terms of stage props and set, yet it is overwhelming in its impact.

The main character Li’l Bit grows up within a dysfunctional, cracker family–a mother who lacks control, a sexist grandfather, an old-fashioned harpy grandmother, and an aunt who can’t face reality. The only person who takes an interest in her is her Uncle Peck. But like Humbert Humbert of “Lolita” fame, his interest is self serving. He craves her sexually, can’t wait until she’s past the jail-bait age.

The metaphor of learning to drive has to do with gaining control. It’s Uncle Peck who teaches Li’l Bit how to drive, and thus it’s Uncle Peck who gives her freedom, but at a heavy price. And that’s the conundrum that guides the play.

I saw a much more elaborate production of this play a few years ago in one of Seattle’s major houses and left unimpressed and unmoved. Stone Soup’s nuanced approach to the script works on a much deeper level. Director John Vreeke has successfully taken what some want to perceive as a rant against pedophilia and turned it into a psychological exploration of troubled souls. That’s what I think the author Paula Vogel has in mind.

Here we have a superb acting ensemble, each performance noteworthy. The set, minimal as it is, evokes both the roads that lead to freedom as well as the narrow, dark spaces that hobble a soul. Give this show four stars!

Playing through February 27 at Stone Soup Theatre, 4029 Stone Way N, Seattle (206 633-1883 or stonesouptheatre.org

“Great Expectations” at Book-It

The reach of “Great Expectation,” one of Charles Dickens’ most popular and most autobiographical novels, is broad. This is a coming of age tale that features a scathing assessment of the British class structure. It demands much when re-imagined as a stage play. Book-It’s production makes a valiant effort but the task is just a little too daunting, even for a company as good as this one.

This production is too long, and demands a bit too much scurrying.  Despite that, Director Kevin McKeon pulls out some neat tricks to accommodate the numerous changes of scene and time. Using clever but simple props and sounds he recreates gardens, streets, a forge, a school, a dismal swamp, and homes that range from hovels to grand mansions.

The cast is terrific, and Lee Osorio as Pip offers a bravura performance. He’s on stage for almost the entire two and a half hour running time. As a little boy he’s entirely believable, and, as he passes through life’s stages, moving from lower-class urchin to wealthy gentleman, he’s truly compelling.

This isn’t One of Book-It’s best novel-to-theatre pieces, but even so-so Book-It productions are better than lots of other fare you’ll find in Seattle. If you loved the novel, you’ll find much to appreciate in this adaptation. If you’re one of the few who’s never read it, go on-line and read a synopsis before you get to the theatre. Then go home and read the novel. Oprah’s doing just that.

Through March 6 at the Center House Theatre, Seattle Center. (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org)

“Shadows of a Fleeting World” at the Henry Art Gallery

Naturalistic, soft focus photos, photos intended to evoke emotions, photos with the aesthetics of paintings. Approximately 100 of these are at the Henry right now, and they offer a fascinating look at Seattle’s history as well as the artistry of their creators, mostly Japanese men, immigrants to the region.

In the 1920s they established the Seattle Camera Club devoted to pictorialism, or art photography. The group quickly opened its ranks to photographers male and female of any ethnicity. They were passionate about their work, and the members competed with one another, sponsored exhibitions, and exchanged photos with other camera clubs around the world.

No you won’t find work by Northwest photographers like Edward Curtis or Imogen Cunningham here. What you will find are images that compete with those done a decade earlier by the eastern pictorialists whose work often found its way into Alfred Stieglitz’s famous Fifth Avenue gallery 291. There are beautiful landscapes, carefully composed still lifes, powerful industrial scenes, but my favorites are the spectacular images of Pioneer Square, and the tantalizing nudes. In many of these works, the photographers’ subtle use of light and shadow and their careful compositions are equal to anything done by their more famous contemporaries.

As important as the exhibition’s artistic value, are the interesting insights into the cultural life of the city between the World Wars. It illuminates the important role played by Cornish College to enhance the arts in Seattle, and it documents the appearance here of celebrities like Pavlova.

These remarkable photos have been hidden away for far too long, some for 70 years, in the archives of the Special Collections section of the University’s Library. How lovely to see them now. They allow us to appreciate old Seattle in a bright new way.

Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, through May 8, 2011