“Familiar” at Seattle Repertory Theatre

“Familiar” by Danai Gurira at Seattle Repertory Theatre

Ahh! The joys and traumas of weddings . . . happy bride and groom, fractious family members and friends. It’s a wedding and the preparations for it that welcome us on this stage. Here the mother of the bride is in charge. The father pretty much obeys, but isn’t that the way it always is with American weddings? The thing that distinguishes this from most other American weddings is the fact that this family is a transplant from Zimbabwe.

But don’t expect much African ritual and verbiage, oh no, “We’re going to be refined and modern.” Ha! Show me any American wedding where the preparations maintain a calm, civilized demeanor. What we have here is a sitcom, trying too hard for laughs, played with a fine cast of varied colors.

On the serious side, the playwright (Danai Gurira) does address the difficulties of trying to maintain a traditional culture in a foreign setting and changing world. What’s the balance between old country and new country, she asks? What and who are we? To whom do we owe allegiance?

While the issues she raises are timely and terribly important, she explores them in a work that contains riotously funny scenes. There’s a sex scene on this stage that is one of the funniest, if not the funniest, I have ever seen.

The play, itself, could have used some judicious cutting, but the direction of this production by Taibi Majar is excellent.

One suggestion when you buy tickets: I had some difficulty hearing all the dialog. Some of it is lost as one moves to the far back of the theatre. Try to sit in the near rows. The dialog is too good to miss, as are the important issues related to identity.

Through May 27 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, 206 443-2222 or seattlerep.org.

Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves” at ACT

No this isn’t about the frozen north. There are no Jack London encounters. Instead we, the audience, are invited to listen to a group of adolescent girls talk about maturing and the things that matter in their lives.

Director Sheila Daniels introduces her cast as the members of a girl’s soccer team slowly assemble and warm up for practice. They sit on the green turf that covers the stage, legs spread as they stretch, and stretch some more, a necessary preliminary to any action on the field in order to reduce the chance of injury. It’s also a time to let their concerns and other feelings hang out. Caught between adolescence and adulthood they haven’t yet quite come to terms with their changing bodies, or with the embarasments associated with menstruation, or with their relationships with boys. They mine each other’s experiences, learn more here probably than in any classroom or at any mother’s knee.

As the play progresses a new girl comes to town, joins them on the grass and makes her effort to join the group. We see the frictions, frustrations, and insecurities that typify maturing in our culture. We are made aware of life events, including tragic ones, but even these didn’t add intensity to the production for me.

The play received overwhelming praise when it opened in New York. It was nominated for various prizes including the Pulitzer, and it won an Obie. Here at ACT, the audience on the night I was there responded enthusiastically.

I, however, found it tedious. Whether it was the play or this production, I found myself weary of watching leg stretches and ball bounces. I’m not entirely sure what caused my lack of enthusiasm since interpersonal issues, which I usually find fascinating, were raised. Perhaps it was the lack of action other than throwing a ball around. The set was a reasonable facsimile of a high school playing field. The uniforms the girls wore were reasonable examples of school sportswear.

Given the fact that mine seems an unusual response to this play, I suggest you look it up on the internet and see what the New York critics had to say.

Through May 13 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, 206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org

ALS Midsummer Night’s Dream Co-Directed by Howie Seago and Teresa Thuman

“Midsummer Night’s Dream” has always been Shakespeare’s most “magical” play with all those fairies and humans cavorting and scheming in the woods. Well, add to that a cast that speaks in both voice and American Sign Language and “magical” scarcely does this production justice.

This collaboration between Sound Theatre and Deaf Spotlight includes a cast of 20 seasoned actors. Among my favorites was Ryan Schlecht who brings all the required humor, and physical versatility to his role as Bottom. He’s not alone in providing humor, but there’s a certain élan to his performance that particularly delighted me.

Another standout in an outstanding cast is Thawin Choulaphan who plays the father of Hermia (Elizabeth Ayers Gibson, who also deserves kudos). As in so many of Shakespeare’s plays, value conflicts are highlighted, some conflicts as significant today and they were in olden times. Here we find Hermia who loves and wants to marry Lysander. Her father has selected Demetrius instead. In those days her failure to follow her father’s orders could result in her death. These, however are magical woods, and it’s a magical midsummer’s eve.

The action all plays out on a simple but ingenious set composed of risers joining each other at various angles (credit goes to Margaret Toomey and Kellie Martin). It’s effective without imposing a time period despite its modern look.

The genius of this production is the manner in which it serves both it’s hearing and its deaf audiences. On the night I was there, both were well represented and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the show.

The only time the two groups responded in their own unique fashion was during the “curtain calls.” Hearing members of the audience clapped as they are used to doing. Deaf audience members waved their arms vigorously over their heads, as they are used to doing. Soon, we were all responding with the joyous arm waves, all of us having appreciated a fine night at the theatre.

Through May 12 at 12th Ave. Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, tickets@soundtheatrecompany.org., 206 856-5520.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Book-It production of this Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel written by Junot Diaz introduces its audience to the corruption in the Dominican Republic and the difficulties of its immigrants who seek a new life in the United States. The adaptation and direction are by Elise Thoron.

Photo by John Ulman.

The play’s hero, an overweight recent arrival in the United States has dreams of grandeur while living a life of limits. He’s a nerd who loves science fiction and would love even more to have a girlfriend. He’s poised somewhat treacherously between two worlds: the world of his childhood and the contemporary world of the United States which doesn’t turn out to be quite as wonderful as he had anticipated.

This one-man show is fortunate to have a consummate actor playing the full cast that makes up the play. Elvis Nolasco is astounding. He’s Oscar, his friend, his girlfriend, a police sergeant, thugs, mother, sister, grandparents, and more. And he does all this with no costume changes. Instead it is through his voice, his gestures, his posture, and facial expressions that he populates the stage.

Meanwhile, we are given a powerful picture of life in Santo Domingo (that’s the country occupying the same Island as does Haiti.) Here corruption is rampant. Poverty, extreme poverty, is pervasive. The model for appropriate male behavior is the macho swaggering stud. Poor Oscar! He’s escaped that to be thrust into a world where fat kids are teased unmercifully and he has to learn a new language. Where loneliness and isolation are his lot. Nolasco captures all of it, all the heartbreak, violence, and naiveté of our young hero.

Kudos to the production team that has created a rather dark set that captures the mood. It’s perfect for this play.

Through May 6 at Center Theatre Seattle Armory, Seattle Center, 206-216-0833 or Book-It.org.

“Crowns” a Rollicking Musical at Taproot Theatre

I must begin with a disclaimer. I love gospel music, have been a fan for years and have seen performances on the East Coast, in the Midwest, and now in Seattle. This Seattle production wraps a story around the music, and that theatrical effect gives the overall presentation an opportunity to incorporate humor and plot into the evening. But the story is really secondary. It’s the music (directed by Aaron Norman) that overwhelms, causes you to bounce around in your seat, and provides the greatest pleasure.

Director Faith Bennett Russell, wisely focuses her cast throughout the production around the music. Six women and one man know this music and have personal experience with its power. They belt it out with an infectious joie de vivre. I defy you to sit quietly in your seat. If you aren’t yelling out your “huzzas”, you’re tapping your feet and wriggling in your seat to match the tempo.

Be Russell, Bethanie Willis and Tracy Michelle Hughes. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

The story is a simple one. Black women have a history with hats. Hats define them, connect them to their community and its past, give them status, and, on this stage, assist in their efforts to mend the heart and mind of Yolanda, a young woman going through a difficult period in her life. Hats are de rigueur for church on Sundays, and have been for centuries. You can tell a lot about a woman by the hat she’s wearing, and the women in this musical presentation have an enormous variety of amazing chapeaux to select from.

In their hats, this chorus belts out those gospel harmonies, blues notes, and religious verities. They dance, they praise the lord, and they fill their audience with a sense of wellbeing and appreciation. It’s toe tapping, arm waving, robust music whose appeal is hard to ignore. You certainly don’t have to be African American to find it mesmerizing. And of course, we can’t forget that it was an enormous influence on the greatest musical stars of the ’60s.

So, if you are looking for an evening at the theatre that will gladden your heart and fill you with positive spirits, consider Taproot’s current production.

Through April 28, at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, 206-781-9707, taproottheatre.org.