Archive for January 2013

“The Seagull” at ACT produced by The Seagull Project

After nine months of working together to unravel the complexities and tease out the riches of the first of Chekhov’s four great plays, the actors who formed The Seagull Project have brought to the stage a theatre piece directed by John Langs that confounds and astounds. It confounds because of the ambiguities within the play itself. It astounds because of the beauty of the production with its nuanced performances.

At a lakeside country home in late 19h Century Russia, tortured characters play out their bitter, unfulfilled lives. For some love is unrequited. For some ambition is unrealized. For all, life, though difficult, just goes on…until they or natural forces end it.

There are moments of humor within the play, and Chekhov has called this a comedy. But he probably meant that farce is needed to cope with the tragedy of life. After all, “Wanting is one continuous torture.”

Julie Briskman as the aging, but still imperious, actress Arkadina wants continued adoration from audiences and her lover. Haughty, self centered, positively cruel to her son, she’s at that life-stage where women begin losing their allure. Her son Konstantin (played by the tortured Brandon J. Simmons) seeks respect as a writer and the affections of the young and beautiful Nina. Nina (Alexandra Tavares) longs to be an actress, not a little country girl, and she’s smitten with Trigorin, not Konstantin. Trigorin (the suave John Bogar), a successful writer, is the consort of Arkadina, but he’s not at all averse to a little side activity with Nina. Masha (Hannah Victoria Franklin), the daughter of the estate manager is in love with Konstantin, but settles for an unhappy marriage with the hapless schoolteacher.

And so it goes. No one has what he or she wants, no one but the audience. We get to see their angst play out on Jennifer Zeyl’s evocative set where minimal props on bleached wood planking conjure up both interior and exterior scenes. And we get to think about the nature of human existence as the play builds to its surprising yet inevitable climax.

This is powerful theatre. It’s theatre for the thinking person. You may well leave with more questions than you had when you walked in. But isn’t that one of the things good drama is supposed to do?

Through Feb. 10 at ACT, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).

“The Understudy” at Seattle Public Theatre

Kafka’s alive and well on the Public Theatre stage. As two actors and the stage manager do the understudy rehearsal of a Kafka play, they find themselves trapped in a Kafkaesque world. Nothing works as it should. The star’s not a great actor; the understudy is; the sound and lights flash or blast on and off because the technician is stoned; props disappear; and there’s a backstory that causes the manager to hate the understudy.

Playwright Theresa Rebeck has a lot to say about the role of economics in contemporary life, but most of all she offers a laugh filled, angst ridden look at the present state of live theatre in America. Today, big theatre roles at huge salaries are too often handed to small talent movie stars whose names alone draw large audiences. It’s an absurd world, she says, straight out of Kafka, and she inserts little Kafka references throughout her play to remind you of that fact.

The actors under the keen direction of Kelly Kitchens move seamlessly from one outsized emotion to another. They skirt minefields and then dive right into them. They are sensitive and needy or demanding and overbearing. Brenda Joyner as the stage manager seems to be so tightly wound, that it’s miraculous she can restrain her hysteria, except for those rare moments when softer emotions prevail. She’s mesmerizing.

Mike Dooly as Jake, the studly actor, and John Ulman as the new understudy are superb foils for one another. Dooly is so condescending, so superior, except when he too is forced to realize that Kafka rules the world. And Ulman is such a nerd until he finds his grace.

Rebeck’s language is witty. Her message is profound and pertinent to all culture lovers. There are some carps one can offer about the play. She tries a bit too hard to be Kafkaesque. It’s not easy to figure out exactly what Jake’s role is in the play within the play. But if you want a production that will stimulate your thought processes as it makes you laugh, you’ll find it here.

Through Feb. 17 at Seattle Public Theatre, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N., Seattle (206 524-1300 or www.seattlepublictheatre.org)

Village Theatre Is Caught in “The Mousetrap”

Any show that runs continuously for 60 years has to have some things to commend it. This one by Agatha Christie has been on the London stage since 1952. Then it was fresh and innovative. Brilliant marketing certainly gets much of the credit for keeping it going so long.

It’s the quintessential country-house murder mystery, one that has served as a model for numerous other modern mysteries, and probably also for the game “Clue.” You know the bones of the plot: eight people snowed in; one is murdered; who did it?

There’s also a subtheme of childhood abandonment, but it’s not a dynamic part of this good production of a rather musty old play. Even Christie didn’t have high expectations for it. She guessed it would run eight months and suggested that it didn’t hold a candle to her later play “Witness for the Prosecution.”

So given a somewhat slow, old-fashioned work, how did Village present it? They did it with a fine cast and a great set. The curtains open to a high ceilinged room that exudes the aura of British country living. It’s paneled in wood, rich woods, wainscoting everywhere you look, except where bare walls are that chintzy pinkish color so favored by the British. Portraits hang on the walls, an oriental rug lies on the floor, long draperies cover tall windows. Jason Phillips’ set and Aaron Copp’s lighting create just the scene and mood we want.

The acting, too, is good with Seattle favorites like Hana Lass, David Pichette, Jennifer Lee Taylor, R. Hamilton Wright, and others.

Christie is unquestionably one of the Queens of Crime. It’s just that some of her works are better than others.

Through Feb.24 at Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah, (425 392-2202, www.villagetheatre.org)
March 1-24 at Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett, (425 257-8600)

“American Buffalo” at Seattle Rep

I just love Mamet, and I love “American Buffalo” best of all his plays. I’ve seen it in three different cities, and avow that this Seattle Rep production is the best of them all with its encompassing set and in-your-face actors.

The play centers on three men who mask their low-life existence as petty criminals and wastrels under the title of “business.” They seek dignity amidst the degradation and decay that make up their lives, but they don’t achieve it. It’s a play that explores the limits of friendship and the role of ethics. It’s a funny, gut gripping play that says much about American values.

The characters speak to one another in staccato outbursts of chopped up phrases laden with obscenities. What Mamet has done here is capture the poetry of the underclass. The language is vulgar. The words are spit out in half formed sentences. But Mamet creates music from the rhythms and cadences.

Charles Leggett, convincing as the scheming Donny who owns a junk shop, thinks he sold a buffalo nickel for too little and wants to steal it back with the help of a near catatonic Bobby (Zachary Simonson playing a dope-head in a Chicago Cubs cap). In comes Teach, the operator, given to violent outbursts, repressed anger, uncouth language. Hans Altwies is breathtaking in this meaty role that’s been played by such theatre greats as Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman.

Altwies struts like a rooster and preens like a cockatoo. He never stops moving. Shoulders lift, arms flail, gesture after gesture captures barely controlled rage, epitomizes the powerlessness of little men who want to make themselves appear important.

All this plays out on Eugene Lee’s terrific set where junk fills the stage, rises to the rafters, falls from beyond the stage. How lucky we are in Seattle to attract directors like Wilson Milam and set designers like Lee to work with the extraordinary local talent we almost take for granted.

Through Feb. 3 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, (206 443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen produced by Seattle Shakespeare Company

Walk into the Center Theatre at Seattle Center and the sensation is that of being cramped, walled in. No part of the stage is open. Curtains on both sides surround a house front that juts out practically to the first row of seats. This opening set establishes the mood for a play about people shut in, living behind a facade where societal values repress and lead to deceit.

This is Ibsen’s most powerful examination of women’s role in Western society, and amazingly it came in 1879. Feminism resonates here, but the play is equally about self-delusion and the meaning of integrity. What a joy to see it so well done.

Nora gets by on her beauty, cute behavior, dependency, and obedience. She’s her husband Torvald’s little doll. He has no idea that she played a major role in saving his life shortly after they were married. Yet her innocence and ignorance about the implications of this intervention have potentially horrific consequences for their lives now.

Seattle Shakespeare’s production is a knock out. Michael Patten’s pompous Torvald is always right, always in charge, so self satisfied. You want to smack the prig. Yet Patten manages to make you feel sorry for him in the end. He, too, is trapped by the values of his society.

Jennifer Sue Johnson’s Nora is indeed her husband’s little “fritter bird,” his coy, so beautiful, empty-headed plaything. She’s almost too cute and naughty as she sneaks a sweet candy, knowing her husband forbids it, and plays hide and seek with her daughters. Yes, she acted on her own to save her husband, but even that she did with naiveté. The transition between the opening airhead and the steely woman-of-resolve at the end of the play hasn’t quite been realized, but one couldn’t find a more beautiful Nora or one that so epitomized a repressed wife.

Director Russ Banham and the cast worked collaboratively with local Sean Patrick Taylor who provided a new translation of Ibsen’s classic. The beauty of the translation is that it wraps this 19th Century work in 21st Century language. The costumes and set are true to Ibsen’s era, but the language is ours, and that makes the play more immediate, if not more powerful, as it explores convention, morality, and women’s role.

Through Jan. 27 at Center Theatre, Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., $22-$45, (206-733-8222 or www.seattleshakespeare.org)