Archive for March 2016

“Parade” offered by Sound Theatre

Madison Jones, Jeff Orton, Victoria Rosser. Photo by Ken Holmes

In this its tenth anniversary season, Sound Theatre plans to examine what it calls “The Long Arc of Justice.” First up is “Parade,” directed by Troy Wageman. It’s a powerful and extremely pertinent musical that explores the impact of bigotry on the values our nation holds dear and how easily strong voices can incite mob action.

It closely follows a true story. In 1913, deep in the South, a 13 year-old girl was murdered in the basement of a pencil factory. Blame soon fell on the Brooklyn-born, Jewish factory superintendent, Leo Frank (Jeff Orton). He was an easy target in a South struggling still with the lingering effects of the Civil War. Although Leo was married to a local woman of Jewish descent, she was more a southern belle than a matzo ball maker. Tori Spero as Lucille Frank expresses the breadth of her emotions and their swings as she tries to understand what’s happening to her husband.

She fits in. He doesn’t. Not only is he a Yankee, worse, he’s also a Jew, a sober man, no glad-hander or easy joker. He just doesn’t understand what it takes to “be southern.” He has few friends, and the cards are stacked against him. So, in this era, and, in this land of lynching, it’s not surprising that he fares badly. Orton captures Leo’s dignity, disbelief, and despair.

This is a dark story, designed to draw our attention to the void between ideals and realities. It forces us to take a good look at the dangers of mob rule and the evils of prejudice. As do many other dramas that deal with dark subjects, it draws the audience in bit by bit until we’re totally hooked.

Nathan Young directs the excellent nine-piece orchestra. Some adjustment in sound is necessary to prevent it from occasionally overwhelming the singing voices, but other than that it does a fine job of reinforcing mood and action. The songs move the story forward, but don’t expect to leave this theatre humming one of its tunes, excellent though they are. They aren’t candidates for a hit parade. One of the best numbers is the cakewalk choreographed by Scott Brateng that ends the first act. The orchestra is in top form, and the cast gives it all they’ve got.

The cast works well individually and as an ensemble. Production values throughout this performance are excellent. I especially liked the minimal but entirely effective set designed by Richard Schaefer. Note that massive tree trunk hanging over part of the stage. It combines an elegant simplicity with a powerful symbolism.

Through March 26 at 12th Ave. Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, (www.soundtheatrecompany.org).

Luna Gale at Seattle Repertory Theatre

The performance of Pamela Reed as Carolyn, the careworn and compassionate social worker at the center of this play, is, by itself, worth the price of admission. Through Reed we see the hellish realities for which social workers must find solutions. There seem never to b easy answers or sufficient hours in the day. Always there are extenuating circumstances, and, in this play, as there probably can be in real life, there is a self serving superior who makes judgments based on what’s best for his career rather than on what’s best for the client.

Reed is remarkable. Through body movements as well as dialog she makes us feel her fatigue and frustrations just as she broadcasts the depth of her empathy for her clients. Her acting is simply stunning. And a fine cast supports her. Among the best are Hannah Mootz as Karlie, the meth addicted mother of baby Luna Gale, whose placement is at the center of the play, and Anne Allgood as Karlie’s Christian Fundamentalist mother who wants custody of the child but may not be the appropriate custodian.

There are no easy answers here. Each scenario has its good points and its sinkholes. Yet Caroline works overtime day-after-day seeking the best solution, despite all the obstacles placed in her way.

Director Braden Abraham has honed the acting with precision and assembled a remarkable production staff. Michael Ganio’s sleek, ultra-modern set combined with Robert J. Aguilar’s lighting is stunning. The backdrop is composed of scenery panels with back lighting. The panels slide back and forth swiftly and quietly for each venue change. It’s particularly effective.

Award winning playwright, Rebecca Gilman, is known for the adroit manner in which her plays address contemporary concerns. (e.g. racial identity, rape, political correctness). Here she takes on the social service system as well as the devastation wrought by family secrets and lies. My only problem with this work is its tendency to be a bit too melodramatic as the complications of the plot play out. It does, however, leave one with a lot of questions about how the troubled citizens in our society find answers and at what cost.

Through March 27, at Seattle Rep, 155 Mercer Street, Seattle, (206-443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

“Assassins” by Stephen Sondheim at ACT Theatre

“Everyone’s got a right to their dreams” state the opening and final numbers of Stephen Sondheim’s and John Weidman’s “Assassins.” That’s a seemingly reasonable concept, but, as this show makes undeniably clear, it’s not very realistic in a society with more than its fair share of deluded, demented and dissatisfied citizens. The focus in this play is on those unbalanced Americans whose uncontrolled anger caused them to shoot at an American President. From Lincoln to Reagan, six presidents have been targeted, four killed. The life of every president after Lyndon Johnson has been threatened.

Sondheim, in good form here, aligns his music with the timeframe of each of his assassins and would-be assassins, beginning with John Wilkes Booth, who here is played in commanding fashion by Louis Hobson. Hobson makes Booth both a sympathetic and a frightful man. Booth’s an impassioned southerner seeking revenge and retribution for the havoc wrecked on his beloved south. In his deluded mind Lincoln is the source of that evil and deserves to be killed.

Booth returns near the end of the musical. There in the Texas School Book Depository he accosts the suicidal Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald’s life has been a failure. He thinks he has nothing to live for. Booth convinces him that immortality could be his. If, instead of wasting his bullets on himself, he killed the President, his name would go down in history. The scene where this negotiation takes place is one of the play’s strongest.

1516_Assassins_Kendra_Kassebaum_as_Sara_Jane_Moore_and_Laura_Griffith_as_Lynette_Squeaky_Fromme_credit_Mark_Kitaoka_thumb

KendraKassebaum_as_Sara_Jane_Moore_and_Laura_Griffith_as_Lynette_Squeaky Fromme Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Laura Griffith as Squeaky Fromme, the Charles Manson acolyte, flits around the stage like a stoned-out nymph with a distorted brain. Kendra Kassebaum as Sara Jane Moore is equally effective as a mentally impaired product of the ’60s. They both attempted to kill Gerald Ford and did it within days of each other. They are especially good within a truly fine cast.

In America, of course, “everyone’s got a right to their dreams,” and along with it, evidently, is the right to have a gun. It would be hard to leave this performance without having serious reservations about that second right.

This coproduction with The Fifth Avenue Theatre is being performed at ACT, through May 8, 200 Union St. Seattle, (206 292-7676 or acttheatre.org).

“Violet” at Arts West

“Beauty is only skin deep,” we’re told. But what if that skin is horribly scarred? If you are Violet and have been ridiculed, teased, and demeaned because of your scarred face, you decide to do something about it. And, if you are a rural southern girl, perhaps the only hope is a faith healing minister.

Thus we have the plot of this operatic musical based on a short story by Doris Betts and adapted for the stage by Brian Crawley. Much of the dialog is sung rather than spoken and accompanied by a six-piece band under the direction of R.J. Tancioco.

The music by Jeanine Tesori is the star of this show. It’s an amazing mixture of country, rock, classical, gospel and blues. It resounds through the theatre presenting unexpected transformations and combinations. The problem is that the sound system doesn’t work as well as it should so one is left wondering exactly how the music would have sounded with better technology. There are also times when it’s quite difficult to understand the cast members.

Director Andrew Russell has reconfigured the Arts West stage for the production seating audience members who choose to be “on the stage” in church pews around a large wooden platform. The action takes place on that platform and around it. This is not a production with massive and detailed sets. The minimal sets designed by Christopher Mumaw combined with the lighting by Ryan Dunn work exceedingly well.

Violet journeys by bus from her home in the mountains of North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she’s convinced that a television evangelist (marvelously played by David Caldwell) will heal her scar and make her beautiful. Along the way she encounters many people and has many new experiences. The most important encounter is with two soldiers, one black and one white. There’s a symbolic relationship between the scars that Violet and Flick, the African American soldier, carry, but that’s not as well developed as it might have been.

It’s no spoiler to tell you that Violet returns home looking just as she did when she left. The big difference is that within that scarred face is a renewed woman who realizes that a fulfilling life is possible and that beauty shines from within.

If you are a fan of eclectic music, you will indeed enjoy this.

Through April 3 at Arts West Playhouse, 4711 California Ave., SW, Seattle, (www.artswest.org/theatre/buy-tickets/).

“The Duchess of Malfi” presented by Green Stage

There will be blood! Of course there will. It’s a Green Stage “Hard Bard” production, known by the cognoscenti as Seattle’s master theatre of bloodletting. Thus, their presentation of “The Duchess of Malfi” is a blood-soaked take on John Webster’s 17th C Jacobean drama.

It’s a tale of love gone wrong, jealousy, treachery, and murder. And it’s all produced with Elizabeth Power’s excellent costumes, in the campiest manner possible. The widowed duchess secretly weds a man beneath her station. Her two brothers find out and life gets bloody awful for all of them.

Director Tony Driscoll must have had enormous fun casting the production. The two scheming brothers are presented as a contrast in sizes—one thin, the other very round. Nicole Vernon as the Duchess is regal, and lovely. She makes a properly noble but doomed heroine. And then there’s her baby, my favorite character. What a baby he is, almost six feet of him, with his nicely trimmed beard, tattoos, and voluminous diaper. His very presence on stage is funny.

Also funny is the somber scrub wench who returns frequently to the stage, mop and scrub bucket in hand, ever ready to clean up the blood. She says little, just washes away.

By the end of the play, everyone but the baby and the scrub wench have been killed. It all takes a little too long, but it does give the actors an opportunity to bleed profusely. Audience members are warned to avoid the front row if they don’t want to be bled upon (stage blood is washable). The night I was there, the front row was filled first. These were people who wanted the involvement with actors those seats provide.

This is a jolly romp for those who love camp. And remember Green Stage offerings are always free. Donations are gratefully accepted.

Through March 19, North Seattle College – Stage One, 9600 College Way North, Seattle, (206 748-1551 or www.greenstage.org).