Archive for October 2017

“The World of Extreme Happiness” at Seattle Public Theatre, Produced in Association with SIS

I’m an enormous fan of Desdemona Chiang who directed this play. And, over the years, I’ve been impressed with the acting of a number of members of this cast. In addition, I’ve come to expect really good productions from this theatre company and from SIS. I found little to like in “The World of Extreme Happiness,” an exploration of the costs of modernization in today’s China by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Production values are weak, and the play is more than a bit polemical.

Historically girls haven’t fared as well as boys in China, and, as this play points out, they still don’t. It begins with the pains of labor that result in the birth of a baby girl in a contemporary rural village. Her father, who has little use for daughters, tosses her into a slop bucket from which she is rescued. The play follows her to maturity.

As a young adult full of hope she heads to a big city to forge her career. It begins in a public bathroom where she cleans the toilets and washes the floors. Depressing! Dead end! Ah, but all is not lost. A colleague takes her to a self-help guru who introduces her and others to the power of positive thinking.

Of course she sets about to rebuild her life. But she encounters so many of the inequities that are inherent in China’s effort to reimagine itself. Poor factory girls aren’t sharing in the economic boom that has enriched the educated men and women who revitalize the nation. No, the factory girls live in depressing dormitories far from their homes. They carry out mind-numbing tasks for relatively little recompense.

Our heroine’s life like that of the other village girls stuck in the huge cities is miserable. These women are exploited, unhappy, and suicidal. The play successfully portrays the human cost of societal transformation, and it identifies the early losers in the revolution. It’s an important story and has elements that could make it fascinating, if only it weren’t so preachy.

Sadly this choppy production is also flawed. Few stage props or sets are used. Much of the action plays out on an almost bare stage, sometimes on the floor and out of sight of some audience members. The highly creative lighting (Emily Leong) doesn’t compensate for the paucity of stagecraft. This isn’t “Waiting for Godot” where stark staging works perfectly.

As China has engineered its astounding transition, there have been casualties. We see it on this stage.

Through November 5 at Seattle Public Theatre, 7312 West Green Lake Drive N., Seattle, 206-524-1300,

Kate Hamill’s “Pride and Prejudice” at Seattle Rep

Don’t come to this performance expecting a traditional outing with Jane Austen and her charming cast of characters. Oh, all the main players are there, but they are inserted into Kate Hamill’s madcap, zany, and farcical adaptation of this highly revered Austen favorite. If you are a traditionalist, this probably won’t be for you. If you love clowns, circuses, farce, and ridiculous situations this is a variation of Ms. Austen’s work like none you have ever seen before.

Ms. Hamill is a highly regarded playwright who has been lauded for her whacky adaptations of the classics: “Vanity Fair” (Thackeray), “The Seagull” (Chekov), “Sense and Sensibility” (Austen), among others. “Pride and Prejudice is the latest of her inventions to be staged, and Seattle Rep’s production is it’s second outing.

Emily Chisholm (Jane), Kjerstine Anderson (Lizzy), Hana Lass (Lydia), Rajeev Varma (Mr. Bennet), and Cheyenne Casebier (Mrs. Bennet) in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of Pride and Prejudice. Photo by Alan Alabastro.

Upon entering the theatre, you’ll suspect that something different is going on here. The stage is fully revealed. No curtains or backdrop create an illusion. Instead, Scenic Designer John McDermott has filled the cavernous space with the oddest assortment of “things”. There’s a ship’s bell, an old Victrola, costumes hanging all over the place, a massive pianoforte from another era, a row of mirrors of the sort used by actors to apply makeup. If you wonder why they and all the other things are there, keep wondering. There’s little to explain their significance and there’s little need for that as the play progresses.

From the opening moments, chaos reigns. Actors run about, emotions are oversized, lots of noise, cross dressing, etc. The only thing you won’t find is subtlety. Director Amanda Dehnert has made sure of all of that.

If you like the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers with a bit of Monte Python thrown in, you’ll find plenty to like here. There’s lots of action; there appears to be little coordination. But that’s not a flaw. It’s a carefully contrived mechanism to reinforce the humor. So too is the outsized emotion. This is broad humor…very broad. If insanity on stage is not your thing, skip this. Otherwise, enjoy the romp.

Through October 29 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, 206 443-2222 or SEATTLEREP.ORG.