Archive for November 2014

“All the Way” at Seattle Repertory Theatre

Electrifying! That’s what “All the Way” is, simply electrifying. It’s all about Lyndon Johnson in his early years as President. He’s shown as a whirling dervish with a will of iron. a man of enormous compassion for underdogs and a political manipulator and bully capable of almost anything to gain the oppressed their rights.

His language is laced with words and concepts no gentleman would express, but he uses them to his advantage at every opportunity. Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan captures the essence and greatness of the man and the difficulty of his times in this finely polished work where there’s not a word too many or a word too few. And Jack Willis, despite the fact that he doesn’t look like Johnson, is so convincing in his portrayal of the man, in his speech and body language that it’s as if LBJ had been reincarnated.

Schenkkan’s script, Bill Rauch’s direction, Jack Willis’s portrayal, and the entire cast (many of whom were in the original production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland where the play originated) make this a must-see event. The play won a Tony in its Broadway run, where President Obama saw it.

Think of President Obama watching Johnson face a Congress determined to thwart his programs. What must he have thought as on stage the ’60s Senators and Representatives of the South railed against the Civil Rights Act and other Johnson legislation, calling it unconstitutional, referencing “the values of our nation” in their efforts to block any legislation that sought equality for all Americans? What must Obama have thought as he saw the actors portraying legislators sitting in a Congressional meeting room that had a sign on the wall “White Members Only”?

As Johnson sought to prevail, so too did Martin Luther King. Schenkkan makes sure we see the battles he had to fight within his own organization. A number of the Civil Rights leaders did not embrace King’s peaceful strategies. Meanwhile J. Edgar Hoover hovers in the background doing his dirty work. What a lesson this play is in the art and slipperiness of politics.

Within this remarkable play we have the portrayal of a giant of a man. Johnson combines the compassion of Mother Theresa with the gamesmanship of Machiavelli. Oh he was a Man! And this play celebrates all aspects of his greatness before the Vietnam debacle.

But it is so much more than a testimony to Johnson’s greatness. Equally valuable are insights into the wrangling of the 1960s: within the Civil Rights Movement, within Congress, between Congress and the President. We gain insights into the difficulties of arriving at compromises. We are reminded that effective democratic governments require much of their leaders, just as they require attention and oversight by the public. Neither are easy to achieve.

This is part one of Schenkkan’s Johnson epic. Part two, “The Great Society” opens on Dec. 5. Both plays will be offered in repertory from Dec. 5 to Jan. 4. This is a gift for anyone interested in the origins of our current political landscape, interested in the early ’60s or the civil rights battles that have shaped our nation, and especially for anyone who loves theatre.

Through Jan. 4, 2015, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, (206 443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

“Fangs by Jim Moran produced by Eclectic Theater Company

Over wrought, over acted, over written—this earnest effort needs more time at the drawing board. The concept has promise, but it hasn’t been fulfilled.

The setting is a cabin in stormy, wintry Idaho. Riley (Chris Macdonald), an ambitious state politician in a heavily Mormon state, is busy on the phone lining up support for his anti-abortion bill, pulling in his chits while his young aide Toby (Shane Regan) takes orders. Toby is a devout Mormon (except here he drinks tea and beer). Riley’s second wife Karen (Samantha Routh) sits by while the politicking goes on.

The plot thickens when Madison (Rachel Anne Godbe), Riley’s liberal daughter by his first wife staggers in to announce she’s going public with the fact that she had an abortion. Whoa! We have trouble here. Then enters Ed (Ashley Bagwell), the seemingly slow-witted game warden, who has given her a ride to this wilderness cabin.

This set up in the first act works well enough, but the second act implodes. Volatile family feuds erupt. Toby ingests a substance that causes him to lose his mind. A rifle appears as does a dead animal. More secrets are revealed then pandemonium reigns.

The scenes between Riley and daughter Madison work, and Ashley Bagwell gives his character Ed an interesting persona without unnecessary exaggeration. Most of the rest of the play needs to be toned down.

This is the month for political explorations on Seattle stages, and certainly the question of women’s rights deserves all the attention it can get. I just wish this piece had been given a little more development time.

Through Dec. 6 at the Odd Duck Studio, 1214 10th Ave., Seattle (206-679-3271 or www.brownpapertickets.com or  www.eclectictheatercompany.org)

“Mary Poppins” Produced by Village Theatre

Cayman Ilika and Greg McCormick Allen Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Cayman Ilika and Greg McCormick Allen
Photo by Mark Kitaoka

I’ve read that technical problems plagued the opening night performance of “Mary Poppins.” Well I assure you that whatever technical problems existed then were mostly corrected later in the week. The show I saw soared, despite a couple of minor glitches. Mary flew down, then up and finally she flew above the entire audience. Even her two young charges took a turn in the air much to the delight of the entranced children and adults.

Village did well in offering their take on this favorite for their holiday show. It provides a good contrast to the more traditional Christmas shows yet suits audiences both young and old. This Edwardian story by P.L. Travers was written in the 1930s. The songs are long-time favorites, first introduced in the Disney film of 1964. The stage musical version opened in London in 2004. This production has a bit of all of them, and Village has pulled out all the stops—numerous luminous stage sets by Scott Fyfe, period-perfect costumes by Cynthia Savage, and sparkling dancing choreographed by Kathryn Van Meter who also co-directed with Steve Tomkins.

The entire cast is in top form. Cayman Ilika gives Mary Poppins an authority coupled with a smile that makes you want to do whatever she asks, and wow, can she sing. Mae Corely as little Jane and Jeryn Lasentia as her younger brother are seasoned actors who bring wonder, joy, and even a bit of petulance to their performances.

Then there’s the talented Greg McCormick Allen playing Bert, the sweep. He literally sweeps the rug out from under you with his dancing and acrobatics. Lots of good dance numbers here.

The large cast hasn’t a single weak member. From gruff Father Banks and gentle Mother Banks to the statues that come to life, the Admiral who wanders through, the flustered Mrs. Brill, and all the other minor roles. Every actor inhabits his or her role with panache.

It’s a long show, but I didn’t see any of the younger audience members wiggling or demanding to be let out. Actually, I think there was general disappointment throughout the theatre when this magical confection was over.

Through Jan. 4 at Francis J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah (425 392-2202) and Jan 9-Feb. 8 at Everett Performing Arts Center (425 257-8600), www.villagetheatre.com.

The Fierce Urgency of Now” Presented by Arouet

You know you’re in New York the moment you step into the small black box that is Stone Soup’s Downstage. The frieze that runs along the whole of the back wall depicts a crowded city with the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building clearly visible. It’s the Big Apple, where the advertising industry plays a major role. And this is a play about the hell that pervades so many advertising agencies wherever they are.

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Evan Louis Thomas (Kyle) and Laura Crouch (Dodo) photo by Michael Brunk

Written by Doug DeVita, this world premiere, directed by Roy Arauz, doesn’t hold back. Jealousies, back stabbing, impossible deadlines, even more impossible clients, outrageous demands, long hours! Yet within that circle of Hell, can be found compassion and friendship.

At its center is Art Director Kyle. His world is in disarray. Neil, his great love of the moment, breaks up with him, and his boss, the double-dealing, conniving, castrating Kate the Dragon Lady, is out to get him. But an angel, in the person of Dodo, is assigned to work with him, and Neil’s life changes in the most extraordinary way.

The playwright is skilled at revealing a nasty world within a script heavily dosed with humor. It’s filled with laughs. The writing is fresh, funny, and smart without striving for hilarity. It hits where it’s meant to hit.

The acting of the entire cast captures both the poignancy and humor of the play. Evan Louis Thomas as Kyle can be as feisty as a caged bobcat and as broken as yesterday’s toy. Lisa Viertel as Kate is as loathsome as the part demands. Laura Crouch as Dodo is the friend we all want to have.

It is interesting to note that the title “The Fierce Urgency of Now” is a line taken from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Perhaps the message here is that whatever life throws at you, it’s in your interest to act, to address it. Complacency is not an alternative.

Through Nov. 22 at Stone Soup’s The Downstage Theatre, 4029 Stone Way N., Seattle, (800 838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com)

“I Never Betrayed the Revolution” at West of Lenin

Christopher Danowski’s “I never Betrayed The Revolution” places us in an unnamed Eastern European country reeling under the unjust rules of its corrupt government. Inspired by events in Poland in the late 1980s, the play, which has been under development for 25 years, addresses brutal, demoralized governments wherever they are.

Director A. J. Epstein was drawn to this work not only because of its political message, but also because, as he says, “The script is one of the finest examples of contemporary Absurdism….” This is its world premiere production realized with minimal props and set.

We find here all the components of repressive government. There are the subjugated, hungry peasants willing to fight over a single potato while they wait for promised reforms. Power resides in callous petty bureaucrats. Ill equipped politicos rise in station. The people say they are “like butterflies who must be rid of our shackles.” It’s all here. Unsurprisingly, there’s an overthrow of the government that fails to achieve its higher purpose. Hope! Expectations! And then it’s right back where it started. But now, even the cow is gone.

An interesting element in this portrayal of a timeworn tale is that the leading revolutionaries are women. But the woman who most impressed me was Kate Kraay whose main role is to walk out onto the stage, in a slinky black dress and high heels, her long black hair falling below her shoulders. Her face is a mask or solemnity. She carries a signboard. Time and again she appears, stands soberly in front of the audience, turns her sign board for all to read how much time has passed between the last scene and the next. Then she retreats into the wings as mysteriously as she appears.

The creative costumes by Sarah Mosher are praiseworthy, and the rousing Russian male-chorus military or political songs that occasionally fill the theatre provide just the right atmosphere. Overall, however, I found the production to be slow going despite the farcical elements. The Who said it all but more succinctly:

Meet the new boss

Same as the old boss.

Through Nov. 23, at West of Lenin, 203 N 36th St., Seattle, (Brownpapertickets.com or 800 838-3006).