“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.

“Starball” at West of Lenin

Weird, wonderful, something for both adults and middle school aged children! This exploration of the night sky is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and I was enchanted from the moment I walked into the theatre.

But it’s not like a usual theatrical. The production takes place in a gigantic dome with “beach chairs” set up along its perimeter. Lighting is low. Before you enter, you are offered a tiny cup of what must be a “magical potion” (probably canned fruit juice, but what follows is magical and maybe the idea of a potion adds to the magic of the performance).

Two guides (John Kaufman and Dan Dennis) assist you to your seats. These astronomical chaperons encourage you to lean back, settle in, and wait for the surprises about to unfold.

And surprises abound as the night sky with its stars begins to twinkle. Our guides encourage us to note the four quadrants and look carefully at the stars. They point out some of our constellations, then give each audience member a card and ask us all to write down a dream we’ve had. The collected cards are all placed in a box.

Call it a treasure box because as some of the cards are retrieved and read, our guide weaves them into a new mythology, points out the stars that create this new constellation. Funny? Yes wonderfully funny. Thought provoking? Indeed! Illuminating about how our prehistoric ancestors explained the heavens? Of course! Inventive, creative theatre? Absolutely!

Only two more shows left, so get over to West of Lenin Sun. Sept. 10 or Mon. Sept. 11.

West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St. Seattle, 206 352-1777

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at the Bathhouse Theatre

No need to be a Chekov aficionado to appreciate this charmer presented by Lamplight Productions and Katie Soulé. It adds to the fun if you have even the tiniest understanding of Chekov so you can appreciate all the sly and not so sly references to his plays, but this award-winning work by Christopher Durang can stand completely on its own.

Directed by Ted Jaquith, the cast does well at capturing the angst of two siblings trapped by their own inertia in the house paid for by their successful sister Masha who is threatening to sell it. Masha, an actress reaching that dangerous age for women, shows up with Spike, her studly man/boy of the moment. She’s here to attend a neighbor’s costume party as Snow White. Her plan is to have her sister and brother dress as a couple of dwarfs. Of course it doesn’t go quite as well as Masha has planned.

Molly Hall as Masha captures all the egocentricity and imperiousness we expect from this the successful sister. Yet she also shows her vulnerability, especially when Spike, her current boy-toy (well played by Connor Kinzer) finds younger attractions.

Cindy Giese French as Sonia, the sister with the dull little life does well capturing the emptiness of that life. But sometimes, a little brown wren can outdo a colorful cardinal, and so she does. French gives the character just the right emotions.

Terry Boyd as Vanya brings a poignant sense of failure to his role as the brother with not much to look forward to and not much about his past life to remember with joy. “I’m in mourning for my life.” is a line that equally applies to both brother and sister. Yet this is a very funny play, with a poignancy here that is deeply moving.

The play was well received on Broadway in 2013, and since then has been mounted on stages throughout the country. By the way, there’s a cherry orchard on the property.

Through September 17 at The Bathhouse Theatre, 7312 West Green Lake Dr. N., Seattle, www.lamplightproductions.org.

Last Chance to See “Edible City: A Delicious Journey” at MOHAI

MOHAI’s ten-month long exploration of food and its place in Seattle’s economy and culture closes Sept. 10. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and stop by. Then again, you who have already enjoyed it may want to get another look at the history of Seattle’s tastes and innovations in food production and distribution.

Seattle food culture is rich, unique, and distinguished. From the oyster middens and spear fishing of its Native American peoples to the farmers markets and award winning restaurants of today, people in Seattle have sought great eats and have learned to capitalize on the riches that abound here.

This exhibit touches on many of the foods Seattleites of all ethnicities cherish. We learn of their history and the myriad ways we use this plethora of good things to eat. There are sections of the exhibit that explain how we’ve collected or harvested the wild foods as well as the farmed. Sure there are sections on salmon, morel mushrooms, huckleberries, oysters, cherries and so many more raw ingredients, but you’ll also learn about the industries that have grown up around our foods both wild and farmed.

Fascinating, too, is the story of the innovative food culture that developed right here in Seattle. Starbucks anyone? Canned salmon anyone? Five star restaurants anyone?

I would say this exhibit is a tasty treat, but I dare not lest you groan and throw tomatoes (locally grown of course) at me.

Through Sept. 10 at the Museum of History & Industry, 800 Terry Ave. N., Seattle, 206 324-1126 or mohai.org

“Much Better” presented by Really Really, a new Seattle theatre group

Poor Ashley (Alysha Curry), life isn’t going that well for her, at least she thinks it’s not. In many ways, Ashley is her own worst enemy. She’s not the best at fulfilling her responsibilities. Reality seems to elude her, replaced instead with fears. The most mundane subway ride could be a murder waiting to happen in her mind. But then her coworker Morgan (Ali Lawrence) tells her about a new medical procedure called “Neuroclear.”

Neuroclear is reputed to “make you the best version of yourself.” Just as a facelift takes what’s there and reworks it to make it beautiful or young, Neuroclear will take your not-so-great personality and emotional issues and make you outstanding. Think plastic surgery for the personality. After a visit to Dr. Keith (very well played by Lamar Legend)” Ashley signs right up.

Gradually she changes. Now she gets to work on time, learns the meaning of “moderation,” loses the constant fears. But in the process she seems to have lost herself. As she learns, almost too late, there’s a price for everything, including a changed personality.

Director Henry Nettleton and his scenic designer Angela Alvarez work wonders with a pared down set design. The characters move easily from home to work, from indoors to outdoors, and to various other locations with the simplest but most evocative props and furnishings.

One significant problem for me with this production was the sound level. I had a hard time understanding all of Alysha Curry’s lines. And I guess it goes without saying that, when you can’t understand the main character’s lines, you’re at a disadvantage.

The play, however, raises a serious question: When does one cease to be oneself? It was a semi-finalist at the 2017 O’Neil National Playwrights Conference, and the playwright Elisabeth Frankel has won a number of other awards.

Through Sept. 2 at 12th Ave. Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, Wed. through Sat., 1-800-838-3006 or www.really-really.org/much-better.