Archive for February 2014

“Venus in Fur” at Seattle Repertory Theatre

Poor despondent, done-in Thomas, he’s spent the day auditioning actresses for the title role in his new play, and not a one is up to the part. But then…a clap of thunder, lightening flashes outside the windows, and in walks the actress Vanda or is it actually Venus come to toy with a mortal? She enters on stiletto heels, spewing vitriol, clutching a broken umbrella, hours late for her audition for the title role in Thomas’s adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel about a painting of Venus draped in fur.

Thomas has no time to mess with this creature, but he can’t get rid of her. She rants, she swears, she undresses, puts on a gown suitable to the late 19th C. and begins to weave her spell. Somehow she knows the entire erotic play, recites the words in mesmerizing fashion, encourages Thomas to play the male role.

What transpires is a power struggle, just as so much of life is, just as male/female relationships usually are, just as actor vs. director roles are. Thomas is author/director he should be in charge. He’s not. The unstoppable Vanda confidently takes control, moving back and forth between script and real life. All too soon she’s a dominatrix. There’s a whip; there’s a dog collar. And then, with another clap of thunder she’s gone.

You won’t fall asleep in David Ives’ one act, 90-minute play. Director Shana Cooper has been given a wonderful script to work with and she does well. Michael Tisdale’s Thomas is like a fish on a line. No matter how he struggles, Vanda reels him in. Gillian Williams as the sexy, sultry, Vanda is one in-charge woman.

Is the play within the play simply sexual titillation or is it a love story? Is there really such a difference? You’ll have to make up your own mind about that.

Through March 9, at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., (206 443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org)

“Black Like Us” co-produced by Annex and Brownbox Theatres

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Florence (Chelsea Binta) & Maxine (Dior Davenport) in “Black Like Us” @ Annex Theatre
Photo by Shane Regan

When skin color is more important than family ties, when one sister is brown and the other almost white there are bound to be tensions, even heartbreaks. In this world premiere of local playwright Rachel Atkins new work, skin color trumps love and family heritage in a work that manages to be consistently funny even as it tears at your heart.

It’s the 1950s Florence (Chelsea Binta) has the opportunity to pass, to live as a white person in a racist society. She’s in love with a white man who doesn’t know her racial heritage, and she’s going to do everything in her power to make sure he never does. That means she must abandon her family including her dear sister Maxine (Dior Davenport).

But of course family secrets eventually will out. After her death, Florence’s white grandchildren come across the truth of their heritage. In our contemporary world, attitudes toward race have been somewhat modified so these young women in no way want to hide the truth. They want to seek out their black family members, make the most of their heritage, probably sing “Kumbya” together and talk of world peace.

One of the funniest scenes in the play is the meeting of the cousins in, of all places, a Starbucks in Bellevue, a locale chosen by the white girls, of course. The skepticism of the black women, the naiveté of the white women is aptly portrayed.

Under the direction of Jose Amador, the entire cast is in top form. There’s not a single weak portrayal. It’s almost unfair to draw attention to any single actor but Binta and Davenport are so splendid and Alyson Scadron Branner as Sandra, the overly enthusiastic granddaughter, runs with a role that any actress would love to play. Without using a sledgehammer, the play explores numerous issues surrounding race in America and concerning sisterhood. The only weakness is its tendency to ramble, to try to include too much. But it’s a new work, and I’m sure it will be tightened as it evolves.

Through March 1 at Annex Theatre 1100 E. Pike St., Seattle, (206 728-093 or www.annextheatre.org).

“Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus” at Book-It

Book-It is at its best when it dramatizes classic literature, and David Quicksall’s brilliant adaptation of Mary Wollstoncraft Shelley’s 19th Century novel is among the best of the best. Part horror story, part morality tale, “Frankenstein; …” has thrilled, frightened, and stimulated the intellectual curiosity of readers since its origin almost 200 years ago. This production captures all its intense emotion and highlights its morality issues.

Quicksall, who also directed the show, and his creative team (Andrew D. Smith (lighting), Andrea Bryn Bush (scenic design), and Nathan Wade (sound) have put together a spellbinding theatrical event you won’t quickly forget.

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Connor Toms and Jim Hamerlinck
Photo by Chris Bennion

Connor Toms is splendid as the tortured Victor Frankenstein, the man who reached too far, the human who dared to create as only God should do. His intellectual curiosity overwhelms him. To understand life, he must observe death. Can he put dead body parts together; can he make a man? How dare he even imagine it, much less do it? And so the monster is created, and once created how does one control it? Toms captures all the necessary emotions, all the horror.

As he tells how he constructed this living, breathing human-like being, we see his agitation, remorse and fear build. He realizes the repugnance of what he’s done, understands that ambition can be a poison. Toms, on stage for almost the entire two-plus hours, delivers the vast majority of the dialog and weaves a spell that is overpowering.

And then there’s the creature itself (Jim Hamerlinck), a large and menacing presence doomed to a life without companionship, excluded from the comfort of human fellowship. He’s horrifying, yet he had no choice but to follow his passions. Of course he’s a danger to humans, yet in Hamerlinck’s hands you can’t help but feel sorry for him. He’s the fallen angel, alone, agonized.

Powerful play, splendid acting, great theatrical effects! This is a not-to-miss production.

Through March 9 at The Center Theatre, in the Armory in Seattle Center, (206-216-0833 or boxoffice@book-it.org)

“Mr. Pim Passes By” at Taproot Theatre

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April Poland and Ryan Childers in Mr. Pim Passes By at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug

One of the things Taproot does really well is drawing room comedy. This long ignored play by A.A. Milne is one of their best. We know Milne as the Winnie-the-Pooh man. Few of us realize that he was also a popular playwright in the early twentieth century. This production, directed skillfully by Karen Lund, proves why he was so successful in the theatre.

Oh the horror for the very proper George Marden when the strange little Mr. Pim shows up at his door one day and unwittingly sends the whole household into pandemonium with an offhand comment. It leads George (dumbfounded, pompous yet naive as Ryan Childers captures him) to believe he is not properly married to his dear Olivia (smartly and precisely played by April Poland) whose first husband was thought to have been dead long before she married her beloved George but may have died only recently according to Pim.

Ye Gads! They’ve been living in sin for all these years, and what will their friends think? How can they amend the situation? George, a prisoner to the stuffy English concepts of propriety, is caught between his love for Olivia and his oh-so-narrow sense of right and wrong. The gentle A.A. Milne has embedded some not so subtle judgments about British snobbery within this delectable little drama, while Director Lund has paced it so precisely that not a nuance is lost.

Meanwhile George’s young ward, the sweet but determined Dinah (lovely Allie Pratt) is much in love with Brian, wants to marry him, and is disconsolate because her guardian forbids it. The only one in the household who maintains her sensibility and makes the most of the situation is Olivia. In the battle of the sexes, waged here with delicacy and finesse, she’s the hands-down winner.

The production is charming. The acting captures each personality. Mark Lund’s set well represents the English country drawing room, with its French doors opening onto the garden and family portraits suitably placed. Music from the twenties establishes the time frame, as do Sarah Burch Gordon’s lovely costumes.

Oh Mr. Pim! You look so innocuous, and you have no idea what havoc you have wrought. Who knew Milne wrote such witty and perceptive commentary for the theatre?

Through March 1 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St. Seattle, (206 781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org/buy-tickets/).