Archive for April 2013

“Assisted Living” at ACT

There are few people in The United States who would deny that health care costs, especially for seniors, are rising at a level that will soon become unsustainable. As a compassionate nation we want to provide care for our aging population, but how we pay for it is a question that has stumped us all. Health care for the aged in the near future is what local playwright Katie Forgette’s humorous play is all about.

Unfortunately this ham-handed effort to treat that subject is trite, silly, and a bit vulgar. Even the considerable talents of Director R. Hamilton Wright can’t save this play.

Too bad, because it has a star studded cast and an elegant set. Julie Briskman plays Nurse Claudia as if she’s a commandant in a Nazi prison camp. There’s not a humane bone in her body. The elders subjected to her unsympathetic officiousness (Kurt Beattie, Laura Kenny, Marianne Owen and Jeff Steitzer) all have grit and gumption. The world they are trapped in may be against them, but they know how to fight back. Each is a distinctive personality yet they all meld well together.

Important concepts are touched on here. Can we afford to provide care that respects the dignity of all, that doesn’t dehumanize those least able to fend for themselves? How do we balance social vs. personal responsibility. Should society pay for someone who abuses his or her body, drinks or eats to excess, smokes, or doesn’t follow medical advice? Important questions all, and they can be addressed with humor as this play does. If only they had been handled in a more sophisticated manner.

Through May 12 at ACT, 700 Union St., Seattle; (206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org)

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Uncensored” à la Book-It Repertory Theatre

We all know this story; we read it in school; we’ve seen it on stage or in the movies before, so why would we want to see it again? Because Book-It makes it so powerful and so poignant that’s why.

This is the “uncensored” version, meaning that the word “nigger” that was excised from the text in the early years of political correctness has been used throughout this production. It’s a vile word, conjuring up the evil of slavery and the persistent malevolence of prejudice. Yet, as Book-It realized, the word belongs here. It reinforces the message Twain was presenting. He chose it carefully. One cringes each time it’s said as the noble Jim is subjected to the many degrading encounters and each time Huck struggles with his crisis of conscience over his relationship with Nigger Jim.

Adapted by Judd Parkin and directed by Jane Jones, this is a production that does just about everything right. The Center Theatre stage at Seattle Center offers modest resources for even the most brilliant production staff. Despite that, scenic designer Andrea Bryn Bush manages to create some absolutely magical effects, especially the raft.

Christopher Morson as Huck is enchanting. He’s got energy, insouciance, wiliness, yet innocence and gullibility. Geoffery Simmons as Jim exudes dignity and commands our empathy. Russell Hodgkinson is as evil as one can be as Pap. He and Peter Jacobs as King and Duke are marvelously funny, though this adaptation allows them to occupy a little too much stage time. There’s not a weak actor in this production, and Theresa Holmes’ music reinforces the action without overwhelming it.

This is a real winner. Go, take your children; discuss it afterwards; you won’t be sorry.

Through May 12 at Center Theatre at the Armory in Seattle Center; (206 216-0833 or www.book-it.org)

“August: Osage County” produced by Balagan Theatre

Don’t miss this!

It’s a Pulitzer and Tony award-winning play given a production that is, in a word, superb. I saw the play when it was on Broadway and I saw it again when it came to the Paramount here in Seattle and starred the inimitable Estelle Parsons. The Balagan production is as good, and in one way a little better.

This is a play about family disharmony; a play where long-held secrets are revealed and few characters get through it unscathed. It’s a play about intimacies, and as such, it is at its best taking place in an intimate environment. Balagan’s 151-seat theatre is just the right intimate environment, a much better one than the mammoth houses where audiences are removed from the action.

Playwright Tracy Letts is the master of dysfunctional families, families where conversations are like two ferry boats passing each other going in opposite directions. He’s the poet of provocation, and a master comic. He’s particularly skilled in clothing heartbreaking tragedy in hysterically funny dialogue. There’s a family dinner that’s the quintessential family disaster. It’s outrageously funny, even though it’s painfully cruel and sad. Like so much of the play, we can’t avoid relating to it.

Director Shawn Belyea has pulled together an accomplished cast to play the members of the Weston family gathered at the family home northwest of Tulsa, Oklahoma because Dad has disappeared. There’s not one of them who doesn’t have problems. The biggest problem of them all is Violet, the prescription-drug-addled mother of the clan who staggers about, screaming obscenities and hateful words. Shellie Shulkin as Vi is spellbinding in a role that demands she be malicious, vengeful, self absorbed, yet needy.

Teri Lazzara excels as Barbara, the daughter who is left to pick up the pieces. There’s not a weak actor on this stage.

At the very beginning of the play, Bev Weston, the man who all too soon goes missing, says, “You have to admire the purity of the survivor’s instinct.” It is up to you to decide if you can admire—or even if there really are any survivors.

Through April 27 by Balagan Theatre at Erickson Theatre 1524 Harvard Ave., Seattle, (206 329-1050 or www.balagantheatre.org)

“The Whipping Man” at Taproot Theatre

Slavery, the stain that sullies American history, the evil whose consequences are with us still—that is the heart of “The Whipping Man.” It takes place in a ransacked southern plantation house at the very end of the Civil War. And there we view slavery from a broader yet no less horrific perspective.

The white family has fled to safety. Two of their slaves, now free men, have stayed behind. They are joined by the family’s only son, a badly wounded Confederate soldier; home, he says, from Petersburg, home from Hell, home to a vastly changed relationship with his former slaves.

This is a Jewish household where the slaves were raised in the religion of their masters, and it’s time for the annual celebration of Passover, a commemoration of the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The unlikely threesome manages to pull together the ritual foods necessary for the Passover meal and as it takes place, we are reminded of the indignities of slavery wherever it is found.

Directed with a sure hand by Scott Nolte, the play demands our consideration of contemporary issues of human rights and notions of equality. Simon, the older former slave hasn’t yet come to a full understanding of the promised new world. He has patience and is respectful. William Hall, Jr., is magnificent as this elder caught between two worlds.

John AKA “Nigger John” is younger, more volatile. He knows what freedom means. As Tyler Trerise portrays him, he’s impatient, high spirited. He’s doesn’t think he’ll wait around for an eventual social reorganization. But he too is trapped.

The great strength of this production is the way these two play off one another as they deal with Caleb (Ryan Childers) their horribly wounded former master who is now dependent upon their kindness. Loyalty doesn’t really count in this new world as the somewhat bewildered Caleb learns.

This is a really fine production on a truly thought provoking subject.

Through April 27 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, $15-$40; (206 781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org)

“Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” at Seattle Public Theater

Sixteen is awfully young to be in charge of the family, especially if it includes a charming but willful 12-year-old. That’s the responsibility young Kenny has in “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them,” a bittersweet tale of love and angst, directed here by David Gassner.

Edith and Kenny are the Filipino brother and sister who face more than their share of adversity in this rather contrived play written by A. Rey Pamatmat. They live pretty much alone on an isolated farm. Mom died a few years ago, and Father has effectively abandoned them. He does provide money, when he remembers, and is an offstage presence from time to time giving orders or reprimanding them over the phone or from his unseen car.

Kenny (played with sensitivity by Jose Abaoag) is a loving brother and an extremely creditworthy one. He does all in his power to make a normal home for his sister and himself. But his life is somewhat confused right now, confused because he has become infatuated with his study mate, Benji. Where Kenny is buff and competent, Benji is a nerdy mama’s boy. Tim Smith-Stewart as Benji has just the right shoulder stoop, reticence, and sly impishness the part calls for.

Unlikely as the romance is, it flourishes. The blossoming relationship between the two young men is one of the strengths of the production. It’s sweet, marked by the naiveté, uncertainties and tenuous moves typical of all first loves. The two actors make us all remember our own first romantic endeavors.

Sara L. Porkalob is marvelous as 12-year-old Edith. She talks to her large stuffed animal, making it a conspirator in all her plans. She jumps, and twists, she wiggles and moves from joy to anger in a minute. She’s bratty; she’s emotionally insecure. And of course she’s rash, a spunky little girl without an adult to help her grow up.

It’s this rash behavior that finally leads to big trouble for Edith, and this time Kenny can’t save her from their father’s wrath. But fear not, the author provides a happy ending.

“Your dad doesn’t care enough. My mom cares too much,” says Benji at one point. What we are reminded of here is that ethnicity, sexual preference, location . . . none of these are as important as parental love.

Through April 21, Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse, 7312 W. Green Lake Drive. N., Seattle; $20-$30 (206-524-1300 or seattlepublictheater.org).