Archive for March 2016

“Cotton Patch Gospel” at Taproot Theatre

“Cotton Patch Gospel,” here directed by Karen Lund, is great bluegrass, a whole evening of bluegrass, and, somewhat surprisingly, it is also a retelling of the life of Jesus according to Matthew and John. That makes it an especially appropriate production for this time of year.

But, if you think that the Easter story isn’t one that you need to review, think again. This is a show of such good music, that it has appeal for everyone who likes bluegrass no matter what his or her religious affiliation or lack thereof. Tom Key and Russell Treyz who wrote the text made a special effort of give it universal appeal. It’s filled with humor and delightful updates, one of which is setting the story in contemporary Georgia.

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Theresa Holmes, Benjamin Hunter, Randy Scholz, Sam Vance and Edd Key in Cotton Patch Gospel. Photo by John Ulman.

The music and lyrics are by Harry Chapin, and the on-stage musicians are masters of their craft. They include Theresa Holmes on guitar; Benjamin Hunter on fiddle; Edd Key on banjo, guitar, and mandolin; and Sam Vance on bass. They appear to be having such a good time as they make their infectious sound, you, in the audience, can’t help but share their enthusiasm.

The storyteller is Randy Scholz called, significantly, Matthew. In this production, he’s a nice southern boy telling of this strange but significant series of events that took place in Georgia a while ago. Mary, while on her way to Gainesville for a tax audit, went into labor and delivered her boy child in less than ideal circumstances. As he grew into manhood his life was filled with amazing phenomena.

The athletic, clever, intense, and funny Scholz, in a bravura performance, delivers parables that match the Georgia setting. Just imagine how the water-into-wine story might play out in Georgia. And think of Jesus being lynched rather than crucified.

Taproot has a long history with this play. The company worked to help playwright Tom Key develop its initial iteration back in the 1980s. As it was refined, it morphed into the musical we see today. Taproot’s connection with the work continued. The company produced it in 1994 and again in 2001. Now it’s back, and I defy you to keep your toes from tapping or your feet from stomping as you are surrounded with its irresistible sounds.

Through April 23 at Taproot Theatre 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, (206 781-9705 or www.taproottheatre.org).

“Mariela in the Desert” Presented by Latino Theatre Projects

The fragile Mexican household of the Salvatierra family is the centerpiece of “Mariela in the Desert” now playing at the Theatre Off Jackson. In this earnest production the patriarch José, a painter of some repute, is dying of diabetes. His dutiful wife, Mariela, cares for him, makes the best of the presence of his stern sister, mourns her dead son, and tries to focus on family rather than her own art. She too has talent, but hers is unrecognized.

They live an isolated life out on the desert, There, José had hoped, but failed, to set up an artists’ colony after he abandoned the city and the creatively rich circle of Mexican painters that included Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo. It’s not a happy picture for Mariela, and it only gets worse as the play progresses.

Directed by Fernando Luna, it opens on a fine set by Maggie Larrick. Central is the large bed, with its Mexican blanket, the bed where José will badger his wife, and welcome home the daughter whom the wife convinced (through a lie) to come and visit the patriarch before he died.

Although the play won the 2004 National Latino Playwriting Award, it’s got far too many subplots for me. There are the complicated family relationships, the difficulties of an artist’s life, the role of women in Mexican households, the impact of creativity on family, the ultimate price of deceit. It’s Mariela’s story that’s supposedly the central element, but that focus gets muddled. We didn’t need the sister-in-law or the art professor.

Though this play is flawed and the production is static, I was glad to have seen it, glad to be introduced to a work that might well be ignored by other theatres.

Through April 9 at Theatre Off Jackson, 409 7th Ave. S., Seattle, (www.latinotheatreprojects.org)

“Eulogy” at West of Lenin

Seattle’s favorite improv artist, Kevin Kent is currently displaying his charms at West of Lenin in the guise of the medium Eleanor Mae. You will probably hear her before you see her. Kent, beautifully dressed, but perhaps more than a bit over the top for a funeral mourner, quietly enters the space from the back and takes her seat.

She’s not quiet for long. As a professional mourner, she has a job to do, and do it she does. In loud and sorrowful tones she sobs; she wails; she keens. A black veil covers her face as she riffles through a large box of photographs, remembering and lamenting the loss of the departed ones who are depicted there. Eventually she rises, walks solemnly (on the highest heels you can imagine) to the stage. There she invites audience members to give her the photos they have brought so that she can properly honor their dearly beloved.

She peruses her cache, selects some, and gives her selections to the appropriately somber funeral director (Joe Kerry) who places one after another picture beneath the overhead projector. As the enlarged images appear, Eleanor “honors” them all with tales that they might well not recognize. Kent is amazingly quick with his improvisations—funny, poignant, just plain silly, and I do emphasize funny.

Those who have enjoyed Kent at Teatro ZinZanni, will find much to like here. And if you don’t know this Seattle improv master, “Eulogy,” directed by Jennifer Jasper offers a good introduction.

Through April 16, West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St. Seattle, (http://westoflenin.com/index.php).

My Heart Is the Drum at Village Theatre

Welcome to Ghana! Here, in a traditional village, Efua, an especially bright young girl, longs to continue school so she can become a teacher. Her father has other ideas. She will marry a local boy and work on the family farm.

Instead, she sneaks away in the middle of the night with her best friend. Off to Accra, the nation’s capital, she goes determined to study for her teacher’s license. Of course it doesn’t work out that way. If you have preconceived notions about peasant life and women’s role in developing nations, those ideas will be reinforced in this overly long production.

Efua, well played by Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako, is the country innocent lured into a high-class house of prostitution. The accepted truth in the year 2000, when this story takes place, is that intercourse with a virgin will cure AIDS. Wealthy men who have contracted the disease are willing to pay exorbitant prices for virgin partners, hence Efua is a valuable commodity. This musical has much to say to anyone concerned with women victims wherever they are.

Director Schele Williams fills the stage with the rhythms of Africa and impressions of its landscape. What the production does well is evoke the savannah environment. Carey Wong’s scenic design combines with Aaron Copp’s lighting to create magnificent visual images. One massive tree, a baobab perhaps, dominates many of the scenes. It’s a splendid evocation, especially when the stage is bathed in Copp’s elegant shifting pastel shades.

The orchestra under the direction of Christopher D. Littlefield reinforces that setting with its take on the afrobeat popularized by the Nigerian pop singer Fela Kuti. But too much of a good thing is just . . . well too much.

In the 1976 film “The Harder They Come,” Jimmy Cliff, Jamaican reggae star, wowed audiences as the poor but talented country boy who moved to the big city where, of course, he was immediately victimized. That’s an old story, but in that brilliant film, it was told with a new face. Efua’s story isn’t in the same league. The only thing new about this story is the African setting.

Through April 24 at Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah, 425 392-2202, and April 29 – May 22 at Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett, 425 257-8600 or villagetheatre.org.

George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” produced by Seattle Shakespeare

What’s Evie, a brilliant female Cambridge graduate in the late 1800s, to do when she finds out that her mother, Mrs. Warren, financed Evie’s upbringing as well as her education through the profits from the brothels Mama owned all over Europe? The revelation does nothing to improve the poor relationship Evie has with her mother, but it makes for a marvelous play.

It’s hard to believe that it was written more than a century ago, but not hard to believe that it was banned in London and shut down on opening night in New York. What Shaw was really offering in this clever work that’s both funny and instructive was an explanation, within what might be called a feminist perspective, of why prostitution exists.

Richard Ziman and Emily Chisholm in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Photo by John Ulman

His play documents the plight of women. Those who had to work were generally under employed, underpaid, and under valued. For some, the only way to survive or feed their children was to sell their bodies.

This production, directed by Victor Pappas, is a winner on all fronts—an excellent production of a great play performed by a terrific cast. Especially noteworthy among the cast members is Emilie Chisholm. As Evie she brings a confidence combined with charm to the role. Among the other standouts is Todd Jefferson Moore as the unctuous Reverend Samuel Gardner. You just know that he isn’t as virtuous as he pretends to be. And Shaw would be delighted at the manner in which Richard Ziman plays Sir George Crofts, Mrs. Warren’s business partner, the smarmy, self-satisfied member of the aristocracy.

My, oh my, what meaty ideas are here for us to think about long after the laughs are gone! Aren’t we lucky to have the talent in Seattle to mount this play so successfully? It won’t be closed down by the moral police here, instead it should be sold out for its entire run.

Through April 10 at Center Theatre in the Armory, Seattle Center, Seattle, (206 773-8222 or www.seattleshakespeare.com).