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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).

“Six Degrees of Separation” Produced by Theatre 9/12

If you are not yet familiar with Theatre 9/12 you ought to be. This is a teaching theatre where professional actors go to hone their skills (think Stanislavski or Stella Adler). The group presents one, possibly two, plays a year, and inevitably they are brilliantly performed. The plays are always among the noteworthy of American theatre, such as “Speed the Plow,” “Doubt,” and “Waiting for Lefty.” This winter they are presenting “Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare.

Director Charles Waxberg has mounted it in the round. Because the plays are performed in the Parish Hall of Trinity Church on 8th Ave., there are some limitations. The Hall has a raised stage, but the seats are not stepped for easy viewing. Generally, Waxberg seats the audience around the action, and that seems to work well. The sets are simple but most effective, and everyone in the audience has a splendid view.

“Six Degrees of Separation” won the Pulitzer in 1990 and was nominated for a Tony. It concerns a wealthy New York white couple into whose lives comes, unannounced, a young African American man who appears to have been mugged in Central Park and claims to be a friend of their children who are away at Harvard. Strange though his unexpected arrival is, the young man seems to know everything about the couple’s children. He’s gracious and suave. He says he’s Sidney Poitier’s son. On and on spins his tale, replete with details about their children and their own lives.

Meanwhile the couple is revealed to have big money, expensive paintings and lush living, but their lives seem somewhat hollow. Of course she wants to care for this poor wounded friend of her children. And, the fact that he is the son of a famous actor is almost too wonderful. The young man wants them to meet his father! The prospect of rubbing shoulders with celebrity is thrilling to them.

Ahh! Don’t they know that one must eschew false values, and certainly celebrity worship is one of them, Beware of con men. This one, this charming, well-spoken con man leaves a trail of broken lives behind him we learn as the play progresses.

Of course the acting is wonderful here. As I said, it always is. Theatre 9/12 quietly does its thing, and inevitably it delights its audiences. It has no set ticket price. Audience members are asked to make a donation when they walk in. It’s one of Seattle’s lovely little treasures.

Through Feb. 19 at the Parish Hall of Trinity Church, 609 8th Ave., Seattle, www.Theatre912.com.

The Thirty-Nine Steps at Village Theatre

“The Thirty-Nine Steps” began in 1915 as a serial spy story in an English magazine. Then came a book. This was followed by a Hitchcock movie in 1935, each version slightly or greatly altered. Over time it had evolved from serous adventure story to madcap farce, and that’s what we have on this stage. This current stage version was adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2005 and originally produced in England. It later became an award-winning Broadway show. It’s madcap farce involving myriad characters all played by the same four talented actors. Does it work? Well, if you love farce (or as the theatre calls it “creative meyhem”), indeed it does. If farce is not your thing, the show is labored and goes on too long.

Director Matt Walker has had his challenges. Imagine casting a play where all but one of your four actors must play a number of roles, each involving different costumes, sometimes different accents, always different persona. To add to the challenges, frequently the role changes must be accomplished in very few minutes.

Aaron Lamb, as our hero, evokes our pity and astonishment as he successfully evades disaster and comes up smiling. Emily Cawley has the versatility to play three roles with frequent interchanges. And Orion Bradshaw and Chris Ensweiler have too many roles to even recount—from gangster to cop, from farmer to shepherd. The roles demand enormous versatility and even acrobatic prowess.

Our hero is perhaps not as bright as he ought to be, but he’s bright enough to get entangled with a beautiful blonde. In this case their entanglement begins when they unwittingly are handcuffed to one another. One of the funniest scenes in the show is their effort to extricate themselves from that predicament.

There’s an extra special reward for Hitchcock fans here. Be on the lookout for sly references to famous Hitchcock films. What’s the crop dusting plane doing? And those birds? And is there a Bates Motel in this English countryside? There are others so see how many you recognize.

This is a skillful production, but I must repeat, if you are not a fan is this fast paced, deliberately silly genre, this may not be your fare.

Through Feb. 26 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah, and from March 3 to March 26 at the Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett, 425-257-8600 or VillageTheatre.org.

“Every Five Minutes” presented by Washington Ensemble Theatre

This production is disturbing and uncomfortable. It’s confusing and shocking, but it’s also unforgettable. Scottish playwright Linda McLean forces her audience to see just how torture impacts the individual subjected to it. Although her play doesn’t specifically call it “state supported” torture, you won’t be able to draw any other conclusion. And Director Ryan Purcell has made sure of that.

It begins with two couples enjoying a pleasant little dinner party. The party’s hardly begun when two thugs dressed in black break into the apartment and begin working over Mo, one of the men. The torture begins. Physical violence? Yes. Water immersion? Yes. Sleep deprivation? Yes.

We don’t know why Mo is being tortured or when. Is it that his memories of his ordeal are so real, the event might even be considered to be taking place all over again. Why is he subjected to this? Does he or did he have government secrets? Is he or was he a spy? Are we with him when the horrors are actually taking place or are we reliving with him the terrors and cruelties of the past? Is he insane or a political prisoner? Oh my God, is this what our country does to suspected terrorists or spies?

For 90 minutes the audience is caught in a whirlpool where reality and unreality collide. The torturers appear sometimes as clowns, at other times as vicious thugs. The interrogations are brutal. Loud noises fill the theatre. Lights flash on and off. And the dinner party goes on, a relatively quiet and oh so ordinary social evening.

The cast provides a powerful contrast between normal and horrific. Tim Gouran as Mo the tortured one becomes less and less alert as the time passes, one might say “less and less a fully functioning human being.” Nick Edwards and Tré Calhoun bring evil and horror to their roles as the torturers.

This is not an easy play to watch, yet in some horrific way it’s mesmerizing. And there’s no question that the playwright has a message, and it’s one we all need to consider carefully, especially at a time when state sanctioned torture is being reconsidered..

Through January 30, at 12th Ave. Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, 206 325-5105 Washingtonensemble.org.