Archive for September 2013

“She’s Come Undone” offered by Book-It Repertory Theatre

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Betsy Swartz & Jocelyn Maher, photo by Alan Alabastro

Oh what a lovely job Book-It almost always does of transforming a book into a theatrical event. The company hires fine actors and directors. Their sets are usually ingenious in the manner they evocatively serve so many locales. And all of that is true for “She’s Come Undone.” If only the story moved beyond the maudlin, rose somehow above the level of soap opera.

I must make a disclaimer here. I am no fan of soap operas and I detest maudlin; therefore I was not predisposed to like this production adapted and directed by Kelly Kitchens. I tried. Jocelyn Maher is a fine actor and she nailed the role of the central character. Her fellow actors brought depth and sincerity to their roles. The minimalist set and careful lighting reinforced the action nicely.

But the story strained my credulity and too blatantly tried to pull at my heartstrings. Let me provide for you a list of the tragedies that befall the heroine and her family: infant death, divorce, rape, bullying, student abuse by a teacher, obesity, suicide attempt, emotional/mental breakdown and hospitalization, wife abuse, abortion, infertility, infidelity, death, and even AIDS. And it has a happy ending!

Those with a more open heart than I evidently have might well find this mawkish tale of unrelenting disappointment and grief, this catalog of human woes a powerful night at the theatre. I didn’t.

Through Oct. 13 at the Center Theatre at the Armory, Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St., Seattle, (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” at Taproot

Oh that Dolly Levi! Master manipulator, twister of words, quintessential earthbound cupid. If anyone can create or advance a romance, it’s Dolly Levi, and Pam Nolte on Taproot’s stage is Dolly incarnate. With a sly glance, a twist of the head, a demure chuckle, and an uncontrollable insouciance Nolte makes Dolly unstoppable.

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Pam Nolte as Dolly

Though an earlier version of Thornton Wilder’s play bombed, this later version was an instant success when it premiered in New York in 1955. Set in Yonkers and Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century, it follows the romantic aspirations of three, maybe four, couples and their clumsy efforts to achieve amorous bliss. But of course the indomitable Dolly brings all to a happy conclusion. It’s a farce with mistaken identities, deflated pomposities, slammed doors, men disguised as women, and characters in hiding.

Director Scott Nolte’s Taproot cast, dressed elegantly in Sarah Burch Gordon’s lavish period costumes, has the timing right for farce and their faces are as elastic as if they were made from silly putty. There are many fine performances but special mention must be made of Kim Morris as Miss Flora Van Huysen whose imperious ignorance is simply delicious. It all plays out on Mark Lund’s clever set with its evocative backdrop.

“The Matchmaker” was given new life in 1964 as the musical “Hello Dolly.” But this non-musical oldie is still a goodie.

Ah, where is Dolly when we need her. If only she were in D.C. right now! She’d clear up that mess long before the Oct. 1 deadline!

Through Oct. 19 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, (206 781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org)

“Soft Click of a Switch” Presented by MAP Theatre

You’ve encountered the loners, the outsiders, the disaffected, those whom society pushes to the margins. “Soft Click of a Switch” offers a window into the lives of two of those misfits. We’d normally ignore or steer clear of Ed and Earl, but here, under Peggy Gannon’s deft direction, we are touched by their hesitant and difficult friendship and even develop compassion for them as we watch them slip into criminal behavior.

Ed (Brandon Ryan), single, seemingly unemployed, is obsessed with doing something big. His chief interest in life is spying on his next-door neighbors, but if only he could blow something up; man what a high that would be. That would make him more than a cipher. Earl (Mark Fullerton) is a loner. Maybe married, maybe not any more, living in a new city, tied to a desk and a job that doesn’t excite him, he drinks, drinks to blot out reality.

As Earl sits drinking himself to oblivion at a bar, the intrusive Ed won’t leave him alone. Despite his efforts to rebuff Ed, Earl is drawn like a fly to the spider, not to be eaten but to be a conspirator. Alone they are nothing, together they are dynamite—literally and figuratively.MAP-SoftClick-HeadExplode

The two actors play their roles with just the right push/pull, sanity and madness, hope and depression. They are perfectly cast to play off each other, and they do it so very well. The power of friendship! Alone neither man could move beyond inertia. Together they are explosive. It’s rather frightening.

Playwright Carter W. Lewis has captured here something quite moving, even funny at times, and indeed pertinent, but he attempts a bit too much. The plot is overloaded and plays out over too long a period. The play would have been better 15 minutes shorter. Despite that, it’s theatre that you won’t easily forget.

Through Sept. 28, at West of Lenin, 203 N. 36 St. Fremont, Seattle, (All performances are pay what you can: www.map-theatre.com, www.brownpapertickets.com)

“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre

More bizarre even than the idea of a tiger waxing philosophic on the morality of eating children for sustenance is the reality of the American invasion of Iraq. It is this latter absurdity that is central to Rajiv Joseph’s gripping, thought provoking, even funny, wonder of a play.

Baghdad is a confused and frightening place in 2003. American soldiers are jumpy. Iraqi translators are befuddled. Iraqi people continue to be victimized.

In this play, two young American soldiers are assigned to guard the zoo. Kev (Ryan Higgins) is immature, cocky, and somewhat stupid. Tom (Jonathan Crimeni) more mature and more self interested, brags about looting the Palace of Uday Hussein and coming away with a gold-plated gun and toilet seat. His postwar financial security is guaranteed, he thinks. But of course it isn’t. This is war and terrible things happen in war. Predatory beasts and armies have much in common.

Throughout the play the living and the dead roam the environs of Baghdad interacting with one another. The tiger (played with quiet dignity, intelligence and fine timing by Mike Dooly), is killed early in the piece, but his spirit continues to offer erudite commentary about what’s going on, forcing the audience to consider profound questions more frequently addressed by philosophers and historians.

Michael Place directs this regional premiere, with finesse. Profoundly moving and not easily forgotten, it’s offered on a simple set and acted by superb performers who seem fluent in Arabic as well as English. Consider it a good bet for thoughtful theatregoers.

Through Oct. 7, Washington Ensemble Theatre, 608 19th Ave. E., Seattle, (206 325-5105, www.washingtonensemble.org).

Balagan’s Remarkable “Les Misérables”

Even if you’ve seen “Les Miz” before, seen it in a huge theatre with a Broadway cast, you’ll find this intimate and stunning production worthy of a second look. And if you’ve never seen it, this is your opportunity to see a fine rendition, and at a bargain price.

On stages for 28 years, “Les Miz,” recipient of numerous theatre awards, is the world’s longest running musical. It’s been produced in 42 countries and seen by more than 65 million people. Doesn’t that suggest this is rather a remarkable work? It’s Boublil and Schönberg’s musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s tale of love and hate, valor and treachery, mercy and vindictiveness, revolution and prostitution. It’s Paris in the 19th century where a man can be condemned to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child. It’s the story of the honorable Jean Valjean, finally released from prison after 19 years only to be hunted and haunted by the vindictive Javert for breaking parole even though he is now an upstanding businessman, mayor and surrogate father of the lovely orphan Cosette.

The Balagan production provides all the emotional ups and downs on Ahren Buhmann’s well-wrought stage. It works as prison, whorehouse, pub, city streets, sanctuary, and even revolutionary barricade, making the most of the theatre’s space. Space was the problem that Balagan had to overcome. This is a huge production. The Erickson theatre is of modest size. It took ingenious engineering to make it all work. And they accomplished that remarkably well. The only carp one can make is that sometimes the sound overwhelms the space.

But the production needs big sound, and the orchestra directed by Nathan Young and hidden behind the set amply provides it. The accomplished cast can belt out the brassy numbers and tenderly emote the intimate ones. Louis Hobson (Balagan’s artistic director recently returned from NY and Broadway) makes a powerful and sympathetic Jean Valjean. And I didn’t see a weak performance in the entire cast though, in some cases, high notes were a stretch.

Balagan’s Executive Director Jake Groshong is the mastermind who put this production together and made it work. What an accomplishment!

Through Sept. 28 at the Erickson Theatre, 1524 Harvard Ave., Seattle, (206-329-1050 or www.balagantheatre.org).