Archive for February 2017

“Well” at Seattle Rep

This is a play that received rave reviews in New York. Here in Seattle some in the audience on the night I attended walked out fairly early in the production, and, among those who stayed, some gave it a standing ovation. I didn’t walk out, but I certainly wouldn’t give it a standing ovation.

Playwright Lisa Kron has written an autobiographical work focusing on the mother-daughter relationship. In this case, Lisa is played by Sarah Rudinoff and the mother by Barbara Dirickson. Neither character is in good health. Lisa considers her mother a hypochondriac, but Lisa too has her issues, and a good part of the play, probably too much of it, takes place while she’s undergoing treatment in a hospital allergy unit where milk of magnesia and enemas provide the focus for some of its humor.

Another emphasis is the racial integration of their hometown, an effort in which the mother played a key role. Mom is an active social advocate. Just as she and Lisa are sick individuals, so is their neighborhood sick. Fortunately, Mom’s interventions have salutary results.

So we have illness vs. wellness, and bigotry vs. integration in a play that purports to be really about the trials and tribulations of the mother/daughter relationship. For me it was just a bit too much.

The star role here is that of the mother. It might be Lisa’s play, but her mother is the powerhouse. We see her before we even know the play has begun. In halting, labored steps she climbs down stairs leading into the living room, where much of the play takes place, then sinks into a comfy chair and doesn’t seem able to move for the rest of the play. Barbara Dirickson as the mother gives her all the exhaustion, weakened condition, but steely convictions the part calls for. This woman may be a near invalid, but she has had the gumption and power to effect social change, despite her inability to meet all her daughter’s needs.

But don’t get the idea that this is a deeply message-driven play. It’s a comedy, and much of it is very funny, some of it a bit sophomoric, but there are lots and lots of laughs as the playwright explores the often difficult relationship between mother and daughter.

Through March 5 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, 206 443-2222 or Seattlerep.org).

Bring Down the House: Part 2: Crusade of Chaos

Seattle Shakespeare working in collaboration with “upstart crow collective” here offers part two of their adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy. It’s a bold and ambitious undertaking, adapted by Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski, and directed by Rosa Joshi.

Most of us are familiar with the history of the War of the Roses, the 15th Century conflict between the Yorkites and the Lancastrians for the British throne. Both were noble lines; both were convinced their man was the rightful heir to the throne, and, as in much of English history, their combat was marked by deceit, treachery, vicious fighting, and outsized egos. It’s all captured on this stage.

Heads are chopped off. Blood, quite a bit of it, is spilled. Drums boom, and the battles are accompanied by howls and screams. It’s realistic noise I would guess, and for those who love Shakespeare, these two offerings are thrilling to see. For others, they may be more than a bit too loud.

Center House Theatre is a relatively small space, not one well designed for arena-sized noise. I found the sound to be overwhelming. The all female cast is very good, but women’s voices when raised as loud as they can go have none of the deep tones possessed by so many men. Unfortunately much of what you hear is shrill. For me it was almost ear splitting. In a larger venue it would have worked better.

As in Part I of this theatrical duo, the acting is excellent. The scenic design (Shawn Ketchum Johnson) makes much of little and does it incredibly effectively. Straight back chairs combined with what looks like a kitchen table create a powerful throne when the action demands it. So much else is suggested by minimalist staging. And Geoff Korf’s lighting reinforces mood throughout.

I’m not sure either of these plays provided any new insights by having an all women cast, but I certainly appreciated the opportunity to see women playing these powerful roles. Wasn’t it true in Shakespeare’s day that all the actors on stage were men? Well, here we see just what talented women can do with male roles.

Through March 12, Center House Theatre, Seattle Center, (206-733-8222 or seattleshakespeare.org).

Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” an ACTLab and The Seagull Project Collaboration

Ah Chekhov, master playwright and social commentator! And now playing at ACT we have his last drama, “The Cherry Orchard,” directed by John Langs, and offering an exploration and examination of social change in Mother Russia. Anyone interested in theatre should have seen or should see this play, but, like all Chekhov’s plays, it moves slowly and demands concentration.

It’s the turn of the twentieth century, and life in Russia is changing. We see the ramifications of this change played out on the estate of Madame Ranevskaya who returns from an extended stay in Paris. She’s back where her beloved cherry trees are blooming. The family retainers greet her with warmth, and all would be well except for the fact that her debts are enormous, and she may well lose all that she holds dear. But she’s an aristocrat, tied to the values of a previous time. She’ll hold her parties, dance merrily, and do well at ignoring the warnings that her world is about to destruct.

Julie Briskman as our heroine, Ranevskaya, combines naiveté with hard-headedness. Oh she’s so delighted to be back on her dear estate and wants to hear nothing from anyone who might be able to address her looming financial problem.

Among her would-be advisors is Lopakhin, played by Brandon J. Simmons with delicious sophistication and command. He’s the son of a former serf, but the changing world offered him opportunities that he was well prepared to make the most of. He has a grand plan that would indeed save the estate, but our heroine wants no part of it. He’s a suave presence, so sure of himself, so far from his serfdom background.

Mention must also be made of Hannah Mootz as Dunyasha, one of the housemaids. No modest little house wren is she! She dresses like a lady, flirts and flits about with confidence. She sashays, holds her head high, and is the epitome of the changing social world.

In Jennifer Zeyl’s set, the floor on which the action takes place is elevated and the actual stage floor just below it is strewn with cherry blossoms. Gauzy floor length draperies speak to impermanence, yet elegant crystal chandeliers epitomize the old order. And there, centered on the stage are two potted cherry trees, in blossom.

As the play ends, the family have packed to leave, their goods, in disarray around them, are gradually carried off. Meantime, the sound of axes chopping down the cherry trees can be heard. It’s the end—of a play and of a social order.

Through Feb. 19, at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).

Taproot Theatre Presents “Room Service” a Broadway Success that Became a Marx Brothers Comedy

It’s the middle of the Depression, and here we have a theatre group holed up in a Manhattan hotel readying their play for production. They’ve not paid for the rooms, nor have they paid for the copious amounts of food they’ve consumed. And their bank account is hovering around zero.

The sharp talking, desperate, and devious producer must con his way into a few more nights and a few more meals just until a backer for the play appears. Then, of course, all debts will be paid, the play will be a huge success, and he’ll be rolling in money, and maybe the others will too. We know, that’s not what’s going to happen in this comedy that ran on Broadway for over a year in 1937 before it became a Marx Brothers movie.

Eric Hampton, Melanie Hampton, Daniel Stoltenberg, Erwin Galán and Christopher Moron in Room Service at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

When you think of the Marx Brothers you think of farce, wonderful, split-second timing. This production of “Room Service” is certainly funny but it isn’t quite farce. Directed by Karen Lund, the laughs come, lots of them, but a little too slowly and without the zaniness, or enough of that physical humor that the Marx Brothers brought to all of their comedies.

The acting is good, just not goofy enough. Erwin Galán as Gordon, the scheming producer who will bend, if not break, every rule to get this play off the ground, is a sharp talking con man driven by, what to him, is the most honorable of goals—mounting the play. If the hotel bellman is a thwarted actor, then encourage him, promise him a try out, but insist on the delivery of a banquet load of food before the tryout can take place. Offer to write in a role if it will encourage a prospective backer to turn over the desperately needed check. If there’s a body, hide it in the bathtub, and make sure the door stays closed.

Galán’s encounters with Mike Spee as Joseph Gribble the beleaguered hotel manager work well and are among the funniest in the play. Poor Gribble doesn’t stand a chance against the fast talking theatre producer.

There’s not enough frenzy or slamming doors for me in this production, but it brought loud and frequent guffaws from most of the audience. So, while not quite farce, it’s a funny play and obviously pleased the audience the night I was there.

Through March 4 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, (206-781-9705 or taproottheatre.org)

“Bring Down the House” Part 1: Throne of Treachery – Seattle Shakespeare Brings Us an All Women Production of Henry VI

The cast of Bring Down the House Photo by John Ulman

You’ll see no bright colors here, no joyful tints. This is a solemn exploration of vanity, ambition, and treachery, and it’s presented on a predominantly grey stage with the full cast dressed in tones of grey and black. And yes, the entire cast is female, and it works! Not only does the all female casting bring fresh talent to roles that would ordinarily never be theirs, but it offers new insights into Shakespeare’s trilogy.

Power is the central theme. How timely to experience Shakespeare’s exploration of the struggle to attain power, the destructive impact of that effort, and the fact that once one achieves it, it’s not always what one thought it would be. Personal ambition and ruthlessness rarely get one just what is wanted. Too often they result in havoc, in societal disruption. The price becomes very high!

Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski of upstart crow collective created this adaptation that reduces Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” trilogy to a two-part presentation. Early on cast members sport roses on their lapels, red for Lancaster, white for York. Ahha! This is the period of The War of the Roses, and the nobility must take sides. Things aren’t going well in France; the warring English lords try to figure out who will ascend the throne; and what role will Princess Margaret of Anjou play, especially with the scheming Duke of Suffolk as her lover. Plots against plots, perfidy, murder, revolts. They led busy lives these titled and conniving people.

It requires rapt attention to follow the various storylines (the Henry VI plays are not Shakespeare’s easiest) yet the action on the stage commands respect, even awe. Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s scenic design proves you can say a lot with minimal props, especially when the lighting is as significant as is Geoff Korf’s.

Special praise is due to Mary Ann Owen who joined the cast in a key role less than a week before opening. She replaced Suzanne Bouchard who sustained an injury.

The tale is, of course, incomplete, until the rest of the story plays out in Part 2 “Crusade of Chaos” that opens Feb. 3 and will then play in tandem with this.

Through March 12, Center House Theatre, Seattle Center, (206-733-8222 or seattleshakespeare.org).