Theatre Reviews

“Into the Woods” at Village Theatre

Ah, Stephen Sondheim! Considered by many to be the finest contemporary creator of musical theatre. His fairy tale “Into the Woods” now playing at Village Theatre is a little too convoluted for me, but the music soars, and the production values are splendid.

First produced on Broadway in 1987, it garnered numerous awards and has become an international hit since. It’s a pastiche of a number of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perraut, and here they are drawn together quite effectively. Among its many characters are Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, the baker and his wife, Jack and his mother of beanstalk fame, and an evil witch. Each has a quest, and each must endure setbacks before achieving the desired goal. There are fairy tale curses hindering the quests and eventually happy endings, but getting there isn’t easy for any of the characters.

You don’t go to this production for the story, though do you? It’s the music that Sondheim is most famous for. And for you Sondheim fans you’ll find a cast that knows how to masterfully deliver his music. In addition, you also get spectacular effects with staging, lighting, and sound. Kathryn Van Meter gets credit as Director and Choreographer. Tim Symons is in charge of the music.

There’s lots of humor as these characters interact with one another and attempt to achieve their various goals. There are also a number of unexpected delights in the staging. I won’t tell you exactly what Jack’s cow looks like. I assure you, however, you’ll be charmed by it. Rapunzel’s hair, too, offers some surprises.

And there’s even a moral. We all have our “woods” to contend with, and it behooves us to review the choices we make so that we can learn from our experiences. There are consequences for our actions.

But note, if you like your theatre short and sweet this may be a bit much, and not only for young children. The program runs almost three hours.

Through Oct. 22 at Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N. Issaquah, 425 292-2202, boxoffice@villagetheatre.org

Oct. 27-Nov. 19 at Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett, 425-257-8600.

“TEH Internet is Serious Business” produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre

Calling all geeks, nerds, and super cool computer aficionados! Washington Ensemble Theatre has mounted a show designed for you and all your programmer, coder, hacker friends. It speaks your languages (enunciated and coded).

For others who still read books on paper and remember when electronic typewriters were cutting edge, you might be somewhat confused by this production. Let me amend that, you will probably be terribly confused by this production. But that’s not to say you won’t find things to like a lot about it.

As director Wayne Rawley reminds the audience in the playbill, “This play is full of jokes and insults…by people trying to make each other laugh at any expense….” And you will laugh, and. yes, sometimes you may be terribly puzzled. At other times you’ll be irritated because it’s so juvenile. But I suppose that’s the point. Think about who was and probably still is in the forefront of this digital revolution. It’s the image of a teenage boy that pops right up.

Director Wayne Rawley and his remarkable production team have provided his audiences with visual delights. The stage is composed of numerous levels, and the actors scamper from one to another throughout the performance, sometimes wearing Guy Fawkes masks. Their props are almost nothing but large square boxes that, like children’s blocks, can create astounding formations. This is a show to expect the unexpected.

My favorite part of the production was the lighting designed by Tristan Roberson. There are lights that create a colorful flashing checkerboard on the floor. There are 40 spotlights tucked into the back wall. The stage is sometimes bathed in red. So many lighting designs, so many colors flowing from all sides, so much to like. But don’t expect anything traditional. BTW you may walk out when the performance is over asking yourself, “Is this where theatre is headed in the digital age?” OMG!

Through Oct. 2 at 12th Ave. Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, 206-325-5105 or washingtonensemble.org.

Book-It Repertory Theatre presents “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

For this, Book-It’s second stage adaptation of Maya Angelou’s highly lauded autobiographical work, the theatre has brought together a talented cast under the direction of Malika Oyetimein. Ms. Oyetimen also co-adapted the play with Myra Platt, Book-It’s co-artistic director.

The story plays out on Christopher Mumaw’s minimalist stage where a few risers, a few props, and a bare floor are all that are needed. The actors and their words have power enough. I think most of us know the author and her story. Angelou grew up during the Great Depression in the segregated South. Needless to say, she was poor, deprived, and demeaned.

Somehow she persevered in conditions that could be likened to hell on earth. Her world included Klu Klux Klan raids, poverty, sexual assault, and the terror of walking in the white part of town. One would like to think it was a unique hell, but it wasn’t. Others suffered, and in Angelou’s writings she speaks for all of them and more: for victims of prejudice, for the poverty stricken, for vulnerable women, for those who live in endless pain or humiliation. It’s all captured in Book-It’s production.

Aishé Keita as young Maya and Brennie Tellu as grown Maya demonstrate so well the price of living with cruelty, yet they show also that the human spirit can rise above the most oppressive conditions. In one scene a group of family and neighbors gather by the radio to listen to the 1937 championship-boxing match in which the black Joe Lewis defeated his white rival. Their elation and sense of vindication, their pride and the dignity that came with it is palpable. It was going to be a long time until the country had a black president, but the Joe Lewis victory was indeed a milestone that brought self-respect to lives that were more likely to be demeaned.

So little else in Angelou’s early life offers self-respect. Her parents are more concerned with their own lives than with hers. She is thrust from one house to another, never gets the unequivocal love that every child needs. The production captures so well her personal victory. She perseveres—through pain, humiliation, physical and mental abuse—and she triumphs. Book-It’s production captures her victories.

Through Oct. 15 at Book-It Repertory Theatre, Center Theatre in the Seattle Center Armory, 206-216-0833 or boxoffice@book-it.org.

“King of the Yees” at ACT

“King of the Yees,” directed by Desdemona Chiang, addresses two extremely important issues. There is the question of how Asian Americans fit in American society, and there is an examination of the inter-generational conflict inevitable within ethnic communities as generations assimilate at different rates. Playwright Lauren Yee deals with these issues with humor, humor that, for me, is a little too broad, too lacking in subtlety. That said, I must report that the night I attended this show the audience appeared to love every one of the laugh lines and set ups.

Director Chiang immerses us in Chinese-American culture from the opening moment of this play. It’s main character, Larry Yee, well played by Stan Egi, is the patriarch of the Yee family and a person of importance within his community. But even more interesting is the fact that he’s a man with eccentricities, drives, and a zest for life that make him a splendid stage persona. He’s a devoted family man, but the commitment to his traditional Chinese American community is the driving force of his life. A political crisis in Chinatown upends him but draws him closer to his modern daughter and causes her to reevaluate her relationship to her heritage.

Daughter Lauren, well played by Khanh Doan, is an assimilated woman. She’s married to a Jewish man and moving with him to Germany. She doesn’t even speak Chinese, and what is even more puzzling to her father is the fact that she may not want children.

Of course you know that Lauren will gain deeper appreciation of her father and his commitments as the play progresses. The play is too long, could do with some judicious cutting, but this is early in its evolution, and it will, no doubt, be pared down as it moves on to other theatres in other cities.

What shouldn’t be pared down is the Lion Dance. The Lion Dance is a traditional element in Chinese culture. Performed during the Chinese Lunar New Year, it spreads the blessings of the Gods to the whole community. On this stage both Annelih GH Hamilton and Joe Ngo perform it with extraordinary athleticism and skill. The costume is unforgettable. The lion’s gigantic head moves; his body is covered in rows of white “fur.” He has a beard, a tail, and can perform amazing feats. It’s the most impressive element of the production, and worth the price of the ticket alone.

So here we have good actors in a good production of a play that still needs some work, but has one outstanding feature.

Through Oct. 1, at ACT, 700 Union Street, Seattle, 206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org.)

“The Who & The What” at Arts West

Love abounds in this play, written by Ayad Akhtar and directed by Samip Raval. It centers around a Muslim family consisting of two grown daughters and their very loving but very traditional father. Yes love abounds, but it is tested by faith. Harvard educated Zarina is writing a novel exploring the tensions that exist when traditional Muslim beliefs collide with contemporary life. When her father chances upon a copy of Zarina’s manuscript, fireworks erupt.

Zarina, subtly played by Monica Jolly, loves her religion but is disturbed by its assumptions and admonitions regarding women. She explores these issues in her novel. The mere writing about them is sacrilegious thinks her father. His response reaffirms to Zarina, what is troublesome about the relationship of women to the teachings of Mohammad. Mahwish (Haleu Alaji), Zarina’s sister, also struggles with the demands the religion makes on women, yet she does it quietly in personal behavior her father will never know about.

The heretofore loving family is torn apart by this issue, and we the audience watch highly gifted actors attempt to negotiate between modern feminism and traditional Islamic thought. Especially powerful is Abhijeet Rane as Afzal, the father.

His whole vision of the world is blown up by what he reads in his daughter’s manuscript. It’s sacrilege! It’s horrifying and heartbreaking! He can’t imagine his daughter believing such blasphemy, no less writing a book in which it is the central element. And worst of all, she’s planning to publish it. Rane’s performance is wonderfully nuanced. He is exquisitely controlled at times and then frighteningly explosive. He’s heartbroken. He’s livid. Yet he exudes love for his daughters despite being absolutely confused. How could this be happening to him?

The final character in this piece is Eli, a convert to the religion, who’s in love with Zarina. Andre Nelson is effective in the role, but sadly the role is somewhat undeveloped by the playwright. That is the only weakness in a play that you’ll not soon forget.

This production was co-produced with Pratidhwani, a local cultural organization that promotes the performing arts and artists of the Indian subcontinent

Through Oct. 1, at Arts West Playhouse and Gallery, 4711 California Ave. SW, Seattle, 206 938-0339 or www.artswest.org.