Archive for February 2015

“The God of Hell” by Sam Shepard presented by Stone Soup Downstage Theatre

Raise your flag, bake and decorate flag cookies, display flags in your home! This is America, and it’s time to show your patriotism! “The God of Hell” begins when a mysterious purveyor of American jingoism stops by Frank and Emma’s Wisconsin heifer farm. These good, unpretentious, hardworking Americans are confused by his presence, even more so when they realize he’s working for the government.

Playwright Sam Shepard knows that democracy is a fragile thing, and he’s worried about our democracy. This play was written shortly after 9/11 when paranoia was rampant and government interventions began to erode basic freedoms. It’s his warning. Be vigilant, you Americans; there are forces in government that don’t have your best interests in mind.

The message here is an important one. It is the duty of every citizen in a democracy to be aware and, when necessary, take action to protect their freedoms. In this production that message comes across powerfully. What doesn’t come across is Shepard’s humor. The play was written to be farce with a message. Somehow the farce part got lost in Director Joanna Goff Sunde’s production.

The actors deserve praise. Gianni Truzzi as Welch, the flag-waving government agent, powerfully captures both the sinister and preposterous nature of his character. Maureen Miko and Edwin Scheibner as Emma and Frank, the rural Wisconsin couple subjected to the harassment of the government, epitomize the stereotypical simple but honest farmer and his wife. And Keith Dahlgren, an old friend who is caught up in nasty government business, is the personification of victimhood.

The decision to play this without capitalizing on Shepard’s humor reduced the impact of this thought provoking reminder that democracies are weakened when the average citizen is ill informed or doesn’t pay attention

Through March 14, at Stone Soup Downstage, 4029 Stone Way N., Seattle, (800 383-3006 or stonesouptheatre.org).

“The Dog of the South” produced by Book-It Theatre

TheDogoftheSouth_2015_Ulman_-439-150x150

Jim Gall and Christopher Mosson, Photo by John Ulman

Eleven years after his smash hit “True Grit,” author Charles Portis published another popular book, “The Dog of the South.” The Judd Parkin’s adaptation of that second book, directed by Jane Jones, is now on stage at Book-It.

Its main character, Ray Midge, is one of those nice guys who too often finishes last. Poor Ray, his wife has run off with his credit cards, his beloved Ford Torino and, insult of all insults, with her first husband, the aggressive Guy Dupree. And so our hero Ray sets off to find them, retrieve his Torino, and win back his sweet Norma. Easy task, he thinks, just follow the trail of credit card receipts.

So begins a very long and, in this production, tedious adventure that moves from Arkansas to Central America and involves a vast cast of strange but often sympathetic characters. Fortunately, a number of those characters are well drawn and well played. It’s the characterization and acting that are strongest here.

Christopher Morson as Ray is on stage throughout the entire play, always sincere, often perplexed, sometimes lovesick, and usually naïve. His performance is impressive.

Jim Gall, as Dr. Reo Symes, captures the nuances and personality quirks of a character who’s a crank, charlatan and nut case. Suzy Hunt as the Bible thumping Mrs. Symes is a joy to watch. She’s so sure of herself and her God, so unwilling to accept any concepts or people who disagree with her worldview. Hunt plays her as a sharp-tongued old lady who often snarls out of the side of her mouth and greets the world with her hands on her hips.

Finally mention must be made of Joshua C. Williamson who plays Guy Dupree, the lothario who runs off with vacuous Norma. He’s the tough guy who is also the fool. It’s a wonderful combination when well done, and he does it well.

Lots of nutty, finely honed characters here, but the broad range of the novel is awfully difficult to capture in a performance. Sometimes words on the page don’t translate well to the stage. This production is a case in point.

Through March 8 at Center Theatre at the Armory in Seattle Center, (206 216-0833 or www.book-it.org)

“Dear Elizabeth” at Seattle Rep

DE_057_200

Suzanne Bouchard and Stephen Barker Turner in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Dear Elizabeth (2015). Photo: Alan Alabastro.

Love stories come in all shapes and sizes, and this is one of the more tender, if unusual, ones. For much of their adult lives the prize-winning poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop maintained a close relationship that is preserved in their letters, the more than 400 letters they wrote to each other over decades. Their love was deep, despite the fact that she was a lesbian and he was married (multiple times).

Of course their bond developed over the poetry, and in this gentle play by Sarah Rule, it grows in intensity with each passing year. Rule has her characters recite their poems to one another and read them aloud when they are apart. What a treat to hear two consummate actors deliver the verses.

Poets are often fragile individuals. They see and feel more than the rest of us do, and here Suzanne Bouchard and Stephen Barker Turner capture both the extraordinary intellect and the delicate emotions of their characters. Elizabeth was an alcoholic, so severe an alcoholic that in desperation she’d even drink wood alcohol. Robert, or Cal as he preferred being called, suffered from bipolar disorder and had a number of stays at McLean, the renowned mental institution and research facility outside of Boston where Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton and even James Taylor and Ray Charles were treated.

The story of Bishop and Lowell plays out on a Spartan stage (by L. B. Morse)…desk, books, a couple of chairs, the suggestion of bookcases. There’s no painted backdrop, just the concrete of the back wall.

Director Allison Narver has deliberately honed the stagecraft down to essentials, and by doing so she reinforces our attention on the connection between these two poets, the importance of the nurturing and feedback they provided one another, and the role poetry played in their lives. She allows no curtain to fall at intermission. Instead, the two poets, in isolation occupy their separate spaces on the stage, doing the difficult work that poets do.

The play reveals more than their relationship. It’s an exploration of American poetry in the mid to late 20th Century. There are references to Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore as well as to Yaddo and other writers’ colonies.

Subtle yet emotionally powerful this is a play that satisfies heart and mind.

Through March 8 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, 155 Mercer St., Seattle (206-443-2222 or www. seattlerep.org).

“Future Ruins: Rodrigo Valenzuela” at the Frye Museum

Hedonic Reversal #3

Rodrigo Valenzuela. Hedonic Reversal #3, 2015. Inkjet print. Commissioned by the Frye Art Museum and funded by the Frye Foundation.

Born in Chile, Rodrigo Valenzuela managed to move from the hardscrabble life as a poor, undocumented immigrant first in Canada then in the United States to recognition as winner of the “Stranger’s” Genius award and one of today’s young artists to watch. The transformation wasn’t easy. It took years of hard manual labor and then an MFA from the University of Washington to achieve that recognition.

Valenzuela’s work addresses the social reality of today’s upscale Seattle economy where the fortunate classes enjoy a level of privilege and comfort that has, in part, been made possible by the less fortunate low-end workers. He reminds us of the immigrants and people of color who do the untidy, low-paying, unattractive jobs upon which the favored classes depend.

In his videos, he poignantly directs our attention to those unseen people who do our dirty work. In El Sisifo, a three-screened video we see workers cleaning up a sports stadium. Repetitively bending down to pick up bottles, paper, garbage of all sorts, filling their plastic bags, dumping them into the trucks, speaking to no one, then doing it again and again. He likens their situation to that of Sisyphus who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill then watch it roll down and repeat the action forever.

In another video, nameless hotel maids tell their stories, the stories most of us never hear, and aren’t interested in hearing. He calls it Maria TV. These women are unlike the central characters in the Spanish language telenovelas but their lives despite the drudgery have something that is beautiful and mysterious, something the rest of us dismiss.

He explores Seattle’s boom time dissonance in his room-sized installation of 17 large-scale archival pigment prints on Dibond. Each print reveals construction materials arranged in abstract patterns. They are displayed within an environment of scaffolding and wall graffiti that bring to mind a construction or demolition site. According to Valenzuela we live with “the aesthetic of ruins without the social or economic failures that accompany them.”

The Frye commissioned the installation and El Sisifo.

Through April 26 at the Frye Museum, 704 Terry Ave. Seattle, always free, free parking, (206 622-9250 or fryemuseum.org).

“Letters Aloud”

Although I don’t usually write previews, I do want you to know about a special Valentine treat for lovers who love the theatre.

Jen Taylor and R. Hamilton Wright will read love letters both steamy and tender, letters filled with lust, and letters filled with longing. Some letters will be just plain dirty. Included among the lovesick writers are Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Virginia Wolf, Frida Kahlo, even Marlon Brando. I rather doubt they’d want anyone eavesdropping on their most private sentiments, but what a delightful opportunity for us.

Paul Stetler is hosting and Rob Witmer will provide the music at the new 12th Ave. Arts building on Capital Hill. Performances: Feb. 13 at 7:30 and Feb. 14 at 2:00 and 7:30. For tickets:Brownpapertickets.com/event/1148780