Archive for February 2013

“War Horse” at the Paramount

Spectacular stagecraft! What the artists and producers of “War Horse” have done is sheer magic. The production’s stunning special effects dazzle, astonish, frighten, and enthrall.

This is a story about Albert, a British farm boy and his remarkable horse. He painstakingly trains the pony he names Joey, and grows more in love with the animal as the months pass. He bonds so completely with Joey that the horse becomes totally devoted to him. World War I breaks out, and the boy’s unpleasant father sells the horse to the army for service in Belgium and France. Naturally the heartbroken boy sets off to find his beloved Joey.

The quest would seem impossible. Bombs reign down on the trenches. Brutal battle scenes are common. Cannons blast. Deadly rifle fire spits across the beleaguered land. Coils of barbed wire ensnare men and horses.

And what amazing horses they are. Created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, each horse takes about seven months to build. Eight feet tall, about 10 feet long, their tails and manes swish, their ears flick, their chests heave with each breath, and they gallop.

Two puppeteers within the horse and one beside it operate each of the five horse puppets. When Albert rides Joey you can’t believe that it isn’t a live horse on stage. Numerous puppets appear in the show including a goose with personality, birds, carrion eaters, as well as others.

To complement the sheer magic of the horses is a brilliant combination of set, sound and lights. The battlefront scenes explode with the white light of explosions. The noise of the bombs crashes through the theatre, and an ingenious scrolling panorama above stage floor level extends the devastation.

The story line of this play, adapted  by Richard Stafford from a young adult novel, is a little too sentimental but you don’t go to this play just for the story. This is remarkable theatre built around a sweet tale in a horrendous environment.

The play began at the National Theatre of Great Britain and moved from London to New York where it won six Tony’s. It is now touring on four continents. The Seattle Theatre Group and Seattle Rep are cooperatively presenting it locally. If you enjoy amazing theatre, you won’t want to miss this.

Through Feb. 24 at Paramount Theatre, 901 Pine St., Seattle, (877-784-4849 or stgpresents.org.tickets.com).

“Anna Karenina” Book-It’s Venture into Russian Society

Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” through its study of three marriages describes a society, an ethical system, and human frailty. Immense in its story and in the breadth of its moral investigations, it’s not easy to capture on a relatively small stage in just a little over two hours. Book-It’s production, however, based on an adaptation by Kevin McKeon manages just beautifully by knowing what to leave out and what to focus on.

Many of us have read the book, a heartbreaking tale of infidelity. The beautiful heroine is trapped in a stale marriage to an emotionally withholding man. She meets a handsome, sexually vibrant military officer who woos and wins her. Her moments of ecstasy are paid for with unbelievable pain and eventually death.

Meanwhile we see two other marriages. In one the wife tolerates a philandering husband. In the other a good man, a righteous man loves, loses, and then finds happiness.

Emily Grogan as Anna is luminous. Scott Ward Abernethy as Vronsky, Anna’s lustful lover, exudes sexual hunger combined with arrogance. Andrew DeRycke plays Karenin, the cuckold, as a self-interested, domineering and unlikable snob. He does show some compassion when Anna nearly dies after delivering Vronsky’s child, but it’s clear that the bargain he offers her will return Anna to the life she longed to leave behind.

This production presents Karenin less favorably than Tolstoy did, just as it presents Anna more sympathetically than Tolstoy did. It’s a reading that relates well to the social values of today rather than those of Tolstoy’s day. Anna lived in a world controlled by men, in a society that in many ways was cruel toward women. Our post-feminist culture may not have achieved equality of the sexes but we’re working toward it.

The scene and venue changes for this story are innumerable, and Director Mary Machala has achieved them exceedingly well with minimal staging. Through costume design, sound, lighting, and clever acting, the nearly empty stage is transformed again and again. It’s an ice-skating rink, a ballroom, a racetrack, a wheat field, mansions, hotels, railroad station, even a cathedral. The effects, not elaborate sets, capture audience attention and carry us through this entire sweeping novel.

Through March 3, Book-It Repertory Theatre, Center Theatre at the Armory, Seattle Center, Seattle, 206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

Endangered Species Project

Two years ago some of the best local theatre artists formed a group they called Endangered Species Project, and began offering, once a month, staged readings of great old plays that rarely get produced. They’re still doing it, and, if you haven’t become a fan, you are missing out.

On Feb. 11 they did Karel Capek’s “R. U. R.” a tale of man-made men, called by the humans who created them “robots.” This was the first use of that word. The robots were produced to take over the work that would free humans from the drudgery of life. In the end they take over the humans. Though written in the 1920s, Capek offers some remarkably apt concepts for contemporary society.

Next month (March 11) they present George Bernard Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell.” The performances currently take place in the library building’s theatre at North Seattle Community College. It’s free, but donations are requested.

This is remarkably good theatre, at a cost that can’t be beat. Put it on your list of things to try out.

www.endangeredspeciesproject.org

“Photograph 51” at Seattle Rep

It took Betty Friedan and her Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, to light the fire under the feminist movement. “Photograph 51” is the story of Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant scientist working in the early 1950s, before Friedan, before the movement. Her remarkable X-ray crystallography images of cell nuclei made it possible for Watson and Crick to unravel the structure of DNA. She got no credit. She wasn’t among the men who won the Nobel Prize.

Playwright Anna Ziegler makes it very clear that she has written a drama not a documentary. She has created characters based on research but she’s taken liberties with chronology and, of course, their personal relations.

The male scientists are, for the most part, outrageous chauvinists. But Rosalind, or Dr. Franklin as she prefers to be called, is difficult, bristly, and uncooperative. She wants to get on with her work and wants everyone else to get out of her face. You wouldn’t want to share a lab with her, though you would admire her genius. The males who surround her, never quite treat her as a colleague, yet they are capable of stealing her work and using it to advance their own. And when the honors come, when the awards are given, they see no need to recognize her role in unraveling the secret of life.

Kirsten Potter as Rosalind holds herself ramrod straight and lets little emotion break her resolve. No question she’s a driven scientist. There’s little to differentiate the five males who surround her except for Benjamin Harris’ self-important Watson.

Scott Bradley’s open set is intriguing. Rosalind is never alone. Those men who belittle and use her are always there, watching her, assessing her.

When you go to the theatre you want something that’s gripping, or hysterically funny, or amazing. This production, directed by Braden Abraham, is interesting. It should rouse the ire of feminists, but it’s just a reminder of what was, and what is still worth fighting for.

Through March 10 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, (206 443-2210 or www.seattlerep.org).

“A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” playing at ACT Theatre

Laugh! Laugh as often as you can, because life’s a joke, too painful to deal with, and you’re unlikely to find an escape. There are lots of laughs in Joe Egg, all needed to cover the horrifying sadness at the heart of the play.

Playwright Peter Nichols crafted this work in 1967, and it’s lost none of its power over the years. The current staging by Thalia’s Umbrella and ACT’s Central Heating Lab, directed by Daniel Wilson, is indeed savagely funny as it spins out its heartbreaking tale.

School teacher Brian and his wife Sheila, an appealing middle-class, English couple, struggle to care for their 10-year-old daughter who is more like a vegetable than a person, though vegetables don’t have the uncontrollable fits that she has. Atrocious medical care during and after a very difficult labor seems to be the cause. Sheila is ever hopeful, all loving. She refuses to institutionalize the child. Brian, the realist, wants his marriage and his life back.

As the play opens, Terry Edward Moore as Brian walks onto the stage and chastises audience members as if they were students in his classroom. He’s more than a little overbearing. Can it be that Moore, the consummate actor, is overacting? You soon realize that overacting or over reacting to life is the only thing that keeps Brian going. It’s a defense mechanism. At home he and Sheila playact much of their life, as they wheel the totally incapacitated Josephine known as Joe on and off stage.

Leslie Law as Sheila is stunning. Her every move, expression, kittenish posture, tender glance reveal more of her character. She and Moore play off one another to perfection.

All the acting in this production is precise. Susan Corzatte as Brian’s mother is the quintessential overbearing, opinionated English matron of a certain class. Brandon Whitehead as Freddie, the friend who visits with his wife Pam (Carol Roscoe), makes a detestable, insensitive, know-it-all with a solution to everyone else’s problem. Roscoe’s Pam exhibits a savage snobbery, completely unaware that she and Hitler have similar worldviews. Even young Aidyn Stevens successfully inhabits her role as Joe.

This is not a play for those seeking a jolly little night out. But, if you enjoy meaty plays, if you enjoy marvelously realized theatre, you’ll find much to like here, even as it breaks your heart.

Through Feb. 17 at The Bullitt Cabaret at ACT, 700 Union Street, Seattle, (206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org)