Archive for October 2012

“Demon Dreams” at West of Lenin

Right now in the West of Lenin black box theatre that is such a welcome addition to Seattle’s performance spaces, demons and immortals meet sometime in the future in a broken down temple to argue with each other about the human race. Wicked or good? “Demon Dreams” asks us to assess the human presence on earth?

The horned demons, dressed like figures in Japanese wood block prints are male. The female immortals are visions in white, white from head to toe, white except for dramatic face makeup that accentuates every feature.

This is not conventional theatre. This is theatre that takes risks, blends genres. It fuses traditional Japanese story telling with a bit of hip-hop and a bit of percussion. It mixes humor with philosophical exploration.

The sound of raging winds ushers in clever morality tales of animals and humans. Each story exposes some human emotion or facet. Hatred, greed, lust, jealousy, forgiveness, friendship, virtue, sacrifice, compassion, love. They are all there, wonderfully explored by the skilled actors.

Written by Tommy Smith and directed by AJ Epstein (the impresario who has brought us West of Lenin), this is a thought provoking and satisfying exploration of the contradictions inherent in human life.

Through Nov. 10 at West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St., Fremont, Seattle (206 352-1777 or www.westoflenin.com or www.BrownPaperTickets.com).

“Ramayana” the Great Hindu Epic at ACT

The ACT production of Ramayana transports its Seattle audiences to the allegorical world of ancient India and southeast Asia. It’s a world of brilliant colors, human tribulations and victories, a world of magical happenings, demons, and monsters. It’s a saga of heroic acts, undying love, and honor pitted against jealousy, evil, and supernatural powers.

For those willing to be transported to another reality, to be introduced to one of the world’s great religious epics, this is a theatrical must see.

Directors Kurt Beattie and Sheila Daniels draw us in at the first instant when the charming child actor Akhi Vadari enters the stage and sings a praise song for Rama, the hero of this beloved Hindu tale. As the story begins we learn that Rama’s father needs a little supernatural intervention to impregnate any one of his three wives. He gets it, and winds up with four sons.

Son Rama is destined to succeed the king, but the jealous mother of his brother Bharata makes sure that doesn’t happen. Instead Rama is banished to the forest for 14 years. His steadfast wife Sita joins him, and thus begins the heroic tale in which good eventually triumphs over evil.

The script adapted by Seattleites Yussef El Guindi and Stephanie Timm is carefully structured to give audiences full understanding of the story, its meaning, and its moral lessons, of which there are many. They make this epic from another culture fully accessible. Matthew Smucker’s scenic design and Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting and the work of the rest of the production staff make it magical.

You’ll gasp; you’ll laugh; you’ll wince; you’ll nod in approval. And if you’re like me, you’ll thoroughly enjoy this cross-cultural experience that proves that basic human values are essentially the same in all social groups.

As an added attraction, the theatre has invited a number of Seattle’s South Asian and Southeast Asian communities to enrich the experience of the Ramayana by offering Asian markets and food stalls in the lobby space before and after the performance. And don’t forget that the Seattle Asian Art Museum is currently featuring a series of exhibitions that focus on Rama and his extraordinary adventures.

Through Nov. 11 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle (206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).

“Pullman Porter Blues” opens Seattle Rep’s 2012-2013 Season

This is a production with a superb cast, great music, and a stunning set. Yet it left me irritated by a book that lacked subtlety. Here a number of good black people cope with one bad white man. The story focuses on an important episode in American history, but it is told in the manner of old western movies where heroes and villains were formulaic characters and their diversity and complexity were left out. In real life, not all cowboys were honorable; not all Indians were villains.

On this stage we encounter a contemptuous white conductor (well played by Richard Ziman). He’s a cruel liar, a cheat, thief, obsessive drinker, and even a rapist. The black porters are hardworking, honorable men. They meet, if not anticipate, every need of their white passengers, despite the fact that they are underpaid, overworked, and rarely treated with dignity by crew or passengers. It all plays out on a stage that is an ingenious recreation of a long distance train in 1937, the sort that traveled cross-country before prop planes and jets took over. Projections behind the train effectively recreate history and geography

Within their own community in those days of outrageous segregation Pullman Porters were men of status. They were men who encouraged the great migration north. They inspired their sons to follow in their footsteps despite the fact that the railroads and George Pullman exploited them just as Pullman exploited all his workers white and black. Pullman, who died in 1897 is buried even to this day beneath many layers of protective armor to prevent the workers who hated him so from unburying him and desecrating his remains.

What I loved about the script was the interplay between the three generations of porters. Larry Marshall as the grandfather, Cleavant Derricks as his son, and Warner Miller as his grandson give powerful, uncompromising performances. In their responses to authority and their attitudes toward career and life we are given a brief history of African American experience in the 20th C, including too many years when the men were helpless against injustice and the women were victimized. But their internal family struggles are typical of those that conflict the generations in all American households.

The on-stage musicians provide stirring backup for E. Faye Butler as Sister Juba who offers roof raising renditions of blues standards. She’s captivating and heart breaking, a lady with attitude that just won’t stop.

Lots to like here, but why oh why does it have to be so black vs. white?

Through Oct. 28, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. Seattle, (206 443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

“The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls” produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre

It’s not the onion-domed churches or the hefty babushka-wearing older women you first notice when you visit Russia. Oh no, what catches your eye is the bevy of lithe, long-legged Russian beauties. They are everywhere, and Washington Ensemble Theatre has brought them to the Seattle stage, mostly in a series of costumes that leave little to the imagination and much to desire.

These Russian women are caught up in a world where magical realism rules, specifically where life in modern Russia collides with its traditional fairy tales. The play is so creatively presented that it doesn’t really matter that, at times, you will probably be a bit confused. Award-winning playwright Meg Miroshnik wants it that way.

It all begins when Annie, an American, returns to the land where she was born to study the Russian language in an effort to get rid of her accent. She boards with the old hag Baba Yaga who, Annie realizes quite early on, may be a girl-eating witch. Her neighbors, the long-legged Russian beauties add adventure and some terrifying moments to her Russian experience.

Samie Spring Detzer as Annie brings just the right amount of naiveté and spunk to her role as the overwhelmed, mystified, but unendingly game American. Libby Barnard, Shannon Olivia Campbell, and Leah Pfenning as the Russian beauties swagger and prance with just the right insouciance, delicious to watch as they lure Annie deeper and deeper into both realities. Kudos to Katie Hegarty for the costumes that add so much to the production.

Kudos too to Director Ali el-Gasseir for including the charming shadow puppetry that bridges the real and the make believe. Under his guidance, wit and sophistication mark the entire production.

Through Oct. 22 at Washington Ensemble Theatre, 608 19th Ave. East, Seattle (www.washingtonensemble.org or 206 325-5105).