Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at TLT

Dark Horse Opera
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Bert (Chris James), Ransome (Jacob Tice), Hallie (Jill Heinecke)  All photos by Dennis K Photography

A classic western called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opened last night at Tacoma Little Theatre, but this play is far more complex and nuanced than the famous movie version of the tale.

Directed most adroitly by David Domkoski, this is a play that goes well beyond both the scope and quality of the thin plots and stereotypical characters in many horse operas. What really made it exceptional was the outstanding ensemble cast.

Scene one opens with Senator Ransome Foster (Jacob Tice) returning to the small western town of Twotrees for the funeral of a man he obviously admires, but hadn’t spoken to in 20 years. It then goes quickly to flashback for the bulk of the play, triggered by the questions of a reporter (Margret Parobek in a sadly small role.)
Burt Barricune (Chris James)

Decades ago, Foster, an educated east coast greenhorn, arrived in the town after being beaten and left for dead on the road by Liberty Valance (Mason Quinn) and his gang. He’s hauled unconscious into the saloon by a tall, strong, capable cowboy and crack shot named Bert Barricune (Chris James) who plops him on the bar. There he’s revived and tended to by saloon owner Hallie Jackson (Jill Nicole Heinecke), aided by her longtime close friend and employee Jim Mosten (Nick Butler), a black man (yes, that’s key to the plot) who everyone calls The Reverend.

L to R: Sheriff (Ben Stahl), Hallie Jackson (Jill Heinecke)

The lackadaisical, play-it-safe sheriff, Marshal Johnson (Ben Stahl), arrives with his scruffy, taciturn deputy (Curtis Beech) and quickly decides to do nothing about the situation. After discovering Ransome’s satchel full of books and hearing some lines of Shakespeare, Hallie decides to let him stay at the saloon, but only after he offers to teach The Reverend, a savant with perfect recall, how to read.

L to R: Ransome (Jacob Tice) , Bert (Chris James)

Soon more of the town, including Hallie, are learning to read, something that does not sit well with quintessential bully, murderer, and classic bad guy Liberty Valance. He shows up with his sidekicks and kills a beloved character to get the town’s attention. When Foster straps on a gun bent on revenge, then asks Barricune to teach him to shoot, Valance returns to town for a shootout. Though it sounds thoroughly formulaic, don’t be fooled; there’s a turn of events you don’t expect, and a love story (or two) that you do.

L to R: The Reverend (Nick Butler), Ransome (Jacob Tice), Bert (Chris James) 

I really can’t say enough good things about this cast – all of them – for creating real, convincing, three-dimensional characters, something you don’t always find in a western. Tice plays Foster with just the right range of fear, bravado, and doubt; a complex man in a trying situation. Heinecke’s Jackson ranges from almost unapproachable tough gal to a woman with real love and feelings to offer, changing both accent and mannerismns to reflect the civilizing changes of two decades back east.

Chris James as Barricune is the classic adept cowboy with few words, but more than the expected dose of honor, who hides a soft heart behind a brawny exterior. Stahl’s sheriff is annoyingly uninvolved, exactly who the character is supposed to be.

L to R: The Reverend (Nick Butler), Liberty Valance (Mason Quinn)

There’s a scene in act one where Liberty Valance corners and intensely bullies The Reverend, and Quinn and Butler play it so well you can feel the tension and discomfort in your gut. In act two, a confrontation between Ransome and Liberty becomes a captivating exchange when both men outline and defend their life philosophy. Along with adding dimension and nuance to Valance’s character, it also reveals his disarmingly logical outlook and justification for who he is and what he does. That turns the lead up to the big showdown scene into a much more layered, and more interesting, encounter.

L to R: Ransome (Jacob Tice), Liberty Valance (Mason Quinn) 

As I find myself saying again and again during reviews, the set by Blake York, dressed by Jeffery Weaver and painted by Ana Bury, was absolutely perfect – exactly what we would envision for Twotrees’ saloon. Costume designer Michele Graves did a bang up job, obligingly putting the good guy in a white hat, the bad guy all in black, and making the tough saloon keeper look as masculine and dowdy as her character, no mean feat when you begin with Jill Heinecke.

L to R: Hallie (Jill Heinecke), Ransome (Jacob Tice)

Lighting, by Niclas Olson, was excellent, meaning too natural to notice. Similarly, gentle cowboy guitar music held sway both in the background beforehand and during scene changes. If you have your heart set on hearing the iconic movie theme song, you’ll have to wait until after final curtain.

To sum it all up, this play is good enough to captivate even those who don’t like westerns, and is an above and beyond treat for those who do.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
June 2 to June 18, 2017
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Pirates of Penzance at Lakewood Playhouse

An ebullient fromage
by Michael Dresdner

Major-General Stanley (Gary Chambers)   all photos by Tim Johnston 
Last night, in place of the typically understated British comedy, Lakewood Playhouse served up a bouncy, slightly cheesy homage to the well-loved Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance.

Energetic, a bit goofy, and definitely colorful, it was a bit far afield from the well-known D'oyly Carte version. For instance, the pirates in the opening scene were clad not in makeshift seafaring garb, but in a piebald tableau of costumes (Rochelle-Ann Graham) ranging from the ridiculous to the expected. Even the Major-General carried a riding crop instead of the expected swagger stick. Fight scenes and dance movements were on the whole more picaresque than realistic, and often comically exaggerated, as if Monty Python snuck in during rehearsals.

The rather motley pirates 

For those needing it, the convoluted story line opens with Frederic (Fune Tautala), the male lead, on the day his indentured servitude on board the pirate ship ends – when he turns 21, though being a leap year baby, he’s had only five birthdays, a real sticking point later. Valuing obligation above all else, he says he was a loyal pirate but now that he’s free, his hatred of their criminal ways means he vows to destroy them, but not before he points out to the Pirate King (John Munn, who also directed) why they are such unsuccessful pirates. You see, they won’t fight anyone weaker, they lose to those who are stronger, and won’t harm orphans. Yes, you get it; their savvy victims all claim to be orphans.

L to R: Ruth (Sawrey), Frederic (Tautala), Pirate King (John Munn) 

His nurse, Ruth (Kathy Sawrey), the only female he’s ever seen, (hey, he’s been at sea with pirates!) assures him she is in fact beautiful as any woman. That works until he meets the daughters of Major-General Stanley (Gary Chambers), and in particular daughter Mabel (Allyson Jacobs-Lake), the female lead of the play. Ruth also explains Frederic was meant to be a pilot, but she misheard, and apprenticed him to pirates instead, the first of several intentional word association misunderstandings. (This is nautical and before airplanes, so a pilot is the person who steers a ship, not a flying ace.)
The Major-General's daughters 
The Major-General orders the police, led by Sergeant Edward (Derek Hall) to arrest the pirates, (they fail, but no matter) and all manner of mayhem, dancing, and silliness ensues until the lovers unite and everyone turns good, bound by their mutual loyalty to Queen Victoria.

Sergeant Edward (Hall) and his cops 
Technically, the production was excellent, from the deft control of the stage manager (Nena Curley) to such subtle touches as the lighting (Aaron Mohs-Hale) during fades ending with a final spot on the queen’s profile. The unusual set (Blake York) had a generously raised (three steps up) platform thrusting out from a fake traditional proscenium background replete with the obligatory cameo portrait of Queen Victoria in the center top. Inside the arch were several background paintings (Carrie Foster) that slid aside like curtains to change the location scenery.  

What was odd was that the orchestra, an outstanding three-piece group (musical director Deborah L. Armstrong, Gus Labayen, and either Tai Taitano or sub LaMont Atkinson) was in a large square pit smack in the center of the thrust stage. Though possibly a bit distracting, being in the center of the action meant they were able to perfectly monitor both pace and volume. On the other hand, it meant that most blocking, fighting, and dancing was restricted to a veritable catwalk surrounding them.

The singing was, on the whole, stronger when the ensemble joined in, though there were some highlights among the leads. Tautala (Frederic), while more of a musical comedy vocalist than an operatic one, was strong, clear, and easy to understand. Ditto for Sawrey (Ruth) and Jacobs-Lake (Mabel,) though all struggled with the occasional false notes and weaknesses, especially in the lower ranges.

Mabel (Jacobs-Lake) 
Chambers (the Major-General) did a fine job with his signature tongue-twisting song, though his character, with his stuffed teddy bear and slightly mincing ways, was more Brideshead Revisited than Col. Blimp. Throughout the cast English accents came and went more or less as needed, such as during the confusion about the words orphan and often, both pronounced “ah-fin.”

The packed house on opening night seemed to enjoy the production very much, either because of or in spite of its departure from the norm. It certainly served up a healthy dose of bright, enthusiastic energy, and that may be just what we need in these trying times.

The Pirates of Penzance
May 26 to June 25, 2017
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Exit Laughing at TLT

Cotton candy
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Richmond, O'Hare, Ferguson     All photos by Dennis K Photography

Last night, Paul Elliott’s comedy Exit Laughing, superbly directed by Rick Hornor, opened at Tacoma Little Theatre to a packed house simply roaring with laughter from beginning to end.

Densely packed into this brisk, airy comedy are enough zingers and one-liners to fill at least three episodes of your favorite TV sitcom to bursting. If you are looking for pure, rib-tickling diversion, go out and buy tickets now. This show will sell out.

L to R: Richmond, O'Hare, Ferguson

The plot, which exists mostly as a platter on which to serve up classic humor, involves three women who’ve played cards together for years and, somewhat in absentia, their fourth who has just died. I say “somewhat” because her urn of ashes joins them for one last hurrah.

Connie (Carol Richmond) is the sensible, somewhat repressed mother of a 22 year old daughter, and the host of tonight’s gathering. Leona (Sharry O’Hare) is a classic, snarky, quick-witted and sharped tongued inebriate who loves her friends, though possibly not as much as her booze.

L to R: O'Hare, Richmond

Then there’s Millie (Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson), the quintessential clueless ditz who brings along the dead Mary’s ashes, which she has stolen from the funeral home. Why? Because Mary’s white trash relatives, whom we never see, are violating what this trio knows were her disposition wishes.

L to R: Parobek, Ferguson

Rounding out the cast of archetypes are Connie’s daughter Rachel Ann (Margret Parobek) beautifully filling the role of a volatile young woman with all the explosive passion and fickle heart of a stereotypical teen, and her missing date, who stood her up, showing up instead in the guise of ‘Officer Grayson’ (John Naden), a handsome young man working as a stripper but hiding a challenged past and the requisite heart of gold.


The small cast of five were all excellent, but far and away the most entertaining is the pairing of  O’Hare and Ferguson. These two, both outstanding actors separately, are pure comic gold together, and worth the price of admission all by themselves. They play off one another alternately setting each other up to show off their flawless punch line deliveries. Damn, they’re good.

All this plays out in one room of Carol’s house on a perfect set (by Blake York) right out of Golden Girls, only slightly more northern, and festooned with appropriately awful wall art (set dresser and props man Jeffery Weaver). Even Mary’s urn of ashes is a character in itself, a paradigm of the abhorrently tasteless. 

Ferguson, with an urn full of Mary's ashes 

The otherwise spot-on costumes (by Michele Graves) were all overshadowed by those of stripper Grayson (you’ll see what I mean). Predictably solid were the sound design by York and Chris Serface, and lighting by Niclas Olson. Oh, and let’s give a nod to stage manager Nena Curley and (temporarily absent but just as vital) assistant Noelle Shai Edlin for keeping it all running smoothly.

Bottom line: I’m willing to bet that you will find this silly, fluffy romp funny, thoroughly enjoyable, and over too soon.

Exit Laughing
April 21 to May 7, 2017
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead at Lakewood

“It insists upon itself, Lois.”
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Paul Richter, Frank Roberts    All photos by Tim Johnston 

Lakewood Playhouse is currently presenting a long Tom Stoppard double feature of Shakespearean bent; The Fifteen Minute Hamlet followed by Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead.

Both plays are quite well done, with strong individual and ensemble casts, good direction by Beau M. K. Prichard, a thoroughly appropriate set (Blake York) and props (Karrie Nevin), and excellent sound (James Venturini), lighting (Aaron Mohs-Hale), and costumes (Rochelle-Ann Graham). In short, the theatre did a fine job with both these plays, but let’s look at them more closely, one at a time.

The Fifteen Minute Hamlet 
The Fifteen Minute Hamlet is a thirteen minute, lickety-split, highly truncated, comic version of Hamlet, followed by a two minute version of the play as an encore, and in this iteration, another one minute encore of the same.

I assume it was presented beforehand merely as a refresher for those who are shaky on their Shakespeare, since it does not go into enough depth to explain Hamlet if you don’t already know it. There is perhaps some irony in the fact that Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are not actually in The Fifteen Minute Hamlet, but we’ll ignore that.

Led by a very impressive and physically adept actor playing Hamlet (Dylan Twiner), the ensemble cast did an excellent job. The same actors appear in both plays, and appropriately, in the same roles.

My one complaint was with the signs actors wore with their character’s names on them. Because they were written in fine lines on white cardboard under strong lights, we could not read them from where we sat. (Yes, I know who they were by their lines, but then, I know Hamlet.)

L to R: Paul Richter, Dylan Twiner, Frank Roberts 

Once over, it is followed immediately, without intermission, by the main event, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead. As you probably know, Rosencrantz (Frank Roberts) and Gildenstern (Paul Richter) are two very minor characters in Hamlet. Old friends of Hamlet’s, they appear briefly, are enlisted as spies against their old friend, accompany him to England, and conveniently disappear, only to be announced as dead at the end of the play.

Here they become the main characters, spending much of their time where the actors playing them really would be; backstage waiting for their entrance. This explains the brick wall set, that looks, appropriately, like the wings of a stage.

L to R: Frank Roberts, Paul Richter 
While waiting around, they engage endlessly in games, deep and largely directionless philosophical discussions, and various contemplations of the purpose of their existence. This is ironic because they are, after all, merely fictional characters.

They meet a troupe of actors (led by the excellent Nathan Rice, who is also the fight choreographer) heading onstage to do the “play within a play,” meant to trigger guilt in Hamlet’s murderous uncle. This inspires yet another foray into the meaning of life, theatre, and the universe.

Nathan Rice (foreground) and his troupe of actors

As I said, the entire cast and crew are worthy of praise, with a special nod to Roberts and Richter for doing the heavy lifting with massively wordy line loads. Kudos to everyone involved, on and off stage.

Now for the tough part, where I have to give you enough information about the nature of the play to decide if it is something you would enjoy, or at least want fervently to see.

Sigh. Here goes.

This is a long, and more pointedly, a long-winded and very wordy play, heavily larded with the sort of philosophical musings reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. To be honest, it reminded me of the many endless nights I spent at college in just such meandering discussions with my fellow philosophy majors. Of course back then, we were often – oh, who am I kidding – ALWAYS stoned.

Was it well executed? Yes, absolutely.

Is this sort of thing going to be compelling for you? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead and The Fifteen Minute Hamlet
​April 14th through May 7th 2017
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Gypsy at Tacoma Little Theatre

by Michael Dresdner

Cassie Jo Fastabend as Gypsy   Photos by Dennis K Photography

Musicals, I think, are best during times of stress. Letting the sparkling éclat of the swirling music, singing, and dancing wash over you is just the sort of delightful distraction we need to forget the daily news.

Gypsy, the musical currently at Tacoma Little Theatre, does that perfectly.

Based loosely on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, it chronicles the rather sad story of Rose, the quintessential stage mother relentlessly pushing her two daughters into the spotlight. Along the way she blithely uses anyone who can further her goal, from underpaid young (and not so young) backup performers, to her long-suffering admirer and reluctant agent, Herbie (Jed Slaughter), a veritable prototype for Chicago’s Mr. Cellophane.

L to R: Stephanie Leeper as Rose, Jed Slaughter as Herbie  

Eventually, Rose alienates both daughters; Louise who became the famed stripper, and her younger sister who became actress June Havoc. It’s not until the song "Rose's Turn," in an iconic scene toward the end of the play, that Mama Rose finally voices the truth; that it was really all about forcing her daughters to fulfill her own frustrated stage desires.

L to R: Julia Wyman as June, Cassie Jo Fastabend as Louise

Brimming with great music and lyrics by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, this version, superbly cast and directed by Chris Serface, is a delight. And typical of good musicals, their songs, in this case numbers like "Everything's Coming up Roses", "Together (Wherever We Go)", and "Let Me Entertain You” endure long after we’ve forgotten the play they came from.

The cast is too large to name separately, and there are too many sterling scenes to  tag individually, so permit me if I just call out a few of my favorites. Know, though, that from top to bottom, this wonderfully paced musical has an amazing cast, and all the top notch technical support such a fine group of actors deserves.   

L to R: Alex Koerger, Allie (as Chowsie, the dog), Stephanie Leeper, Summer Mays, Alexandria Bray

At the outset, the talented singing, dancing, acrobatic, baton twirling Baby June (Alexandria Bray, an outstanding dancer/acrobat with an adorably penetrating Betty Boop voice,) and her overshadowed older sister Louise (Summer Mays) are at an audition. Onto the stage bursts their mother, Rose (Stephanie Leeper), a brazen, hall-filling persona with all the brassy insistence of Ethyl Merman, who was both a producer and the lead in the original 1959 musical. Leeper nails it precisely, with boundless energy, a powerful voice, a far better figure, and better moves than the original.

In one of the most clever on-stage segues I’ve seen, Baby June, Louise, and their backup retinue of surprisingly good young dancers (Caleb Corpeno, Kepler Koerger, Liam Loughridge, Gunnar Ray) launch into their stage routine. Partway through, the lighting changes to strobe, and during the visual confusion, the young troupe is gradually replaced. When the strobe lights go off, the number ends with the now much older version of June (Julia Wyman), Louise (Cassie Jo Fastabend)  and their backup group (Charlie Stevens, Kyle Yoder, Jeremy Schroeder, Rico Lastrapes) having replaced the originals on stage. It was slick. 

"All I Need Is the Girl" is another wonderful but bittersweet scene, where a clearly smitten but soon to be disappointed Louise (Cassie Jo Fastabend) looks on as Tulsa (Rico Lastrapes) sings of his need for a female partner, all while doing a complex tap dance routine. Latrapes excels at tap, and Fastabend excels at conveying the sadly one-sided chemistry between them.

But my favorite scene was one in which three strippers give Louise the lowdown that the way to make it in burlesque is by choosing a gimmick. Each in turn does her own unique act.

There’s Mazeppa (Emilie Rommel Shimkus,) strutting her flawless voice and sinuous sexuality, the ‘elegant, refined’ Tessi-Tura (Kathy Kluska) with her veils, and the most surprising of all, Electra (Caiti Burke), fully wired with her… well, you’ll see. All three were spot-on accurate portrayals of the denizens of that class of seedy burlesque houses. (DAMHIKT)

Director Chris Serface deserves kudos not only for the excellent pacing and clever scene staging, but also for his unerring ability to put together an outstanding cast. Where he found all those very talented young (and not) triple threat dancers is a true puzzlement. And then there was Chowsie (Allie), Rose’s perfectly behaved lap dog.

In lieu of a live orchestra, Serface opted for a sound track, kept perfectly balanced without ever overshadowing the singers. It was a wise choice. Michele Graves provided the vast range of excellent, and often quite amusing costumes, though I’m guessing props master Jeffrey Weaver supplied the wealth of varied wigs.

Choreography, and there was a lot of it, is thanks to Lexi Barnett, aided by dance captain Jill Heinecke, who also played the role of Agnes. Musical direction was provided by Debra A. Leach with sound design by Dylan Twiner.

As usual, Niclas Olson did a fine job lighting the complex, rotating set by Blake York, above which hung a monitor displaying old time placards used to clarify location and scene changes. And with a play this complex, we need to acknowledge the fine, and unending, work of the stage manager, Nena Curley, and her assistant, Alyshia Collins.  

In short, Gypsy was a fast-paced, dazzling, thoroughly delightful evening of musical theatre that belies its two and a half hour run time. There’s a whole lot of wonderful here, and it’s well worth your time.

March 10 to April 2, 2017
Tacoma Little Theatre

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Rocky Horror Show at Lakewood Playhouse

ComicCon, the play
by Michael Dresdner

     (Top to Bottom - L to R) LaNita Hudson, Gary Chambers, Brandon Ehrenheim, Winnie Bean, Ensemble   All photos by Tim Johnston

With what has become a regular feature of their season, Lakewood Playhouse introduced yet another outre offering as the first play of 2017; The Rocky Horror Show. Directed by Alan Wilkie, this sci-fi/horror/comedy musical somewhat defies categorization. Let’s just say this property bears more similarity to ComicCon than to Mamet, and one suspects it was designed more to be an audience experience than to tell a story.

A comic parody of B-grade horror and sci-fi movies, both the play and movie versions have garnered a serious cult following since they were introduced in 1973 and 1975 respectively. Its devotees, some of whom were on hand opening night, dress in play-related costumes, yell out comic lines, and talk back to the narrator.

                       John Munn

Admittedly, for those who are not aficionados, it can feel like you’ve wandered into a private club where you are not a member. No matter. Even a neophyte will get more than a fair share of entertainment, both on stage and from the surrounding costume-clad patrons shouting out a stream of commentary and jokes.

The play opens when Brad and Janet (Jake Atwood and Jenna McRill), a sweet, ingenuous, engaged young couple, go looking for a phone in a nearby castle after their car breaks down in a rain storm. There they meet a collection of oddly dressed and oddly behaving characters ostensibly holding an annual convention.

   (L to R) Jonathan Hart, Jake Atwood, Brandon Ehrenheim, Travis Martinez

Once inside, each of the pair are quickly and easily seduced and bedded by the master of the castle, the tall, androgynous, gender bending, garishly clad Dr. Frank N Furter (Brandon Ehrenheim.)  Before long, the young innocents become part of the ongoing cross-dressing and sexual festivities.

   LaNita Hudson

Frank’s minions include his long haired factotum Riff-Raff (Gary Chambers), a vivacious and sexy groupie named Columbia (Winnie Bean), and the maid, Magenta (LaNita Hudson.) Hudson does double duty as the sinuous, sultry Usherette, and knocks it out of the park with the beautifully executed opening/closing song “Science Fiction/Double Feature.”

   (L to R Clockwise) Jake Atwood, Tony Williams, Brandon Ehrenheim Winnie Bean, Jenna McRill, Xander Layden (center, as Dr. Scott)

Rounding out the cast is Frank’s muscular lab creation Rocky Horror (Tony L. Williams), Eddie the delivery boy, and wheelchair bound Dr. Scott, a rival scientist (both roles played by Xander Layden), the audience baiting Narrator (Lakewood Artistic Director John Munn), and a gaggle of “Phantoms” who make up the ensemble. Of them, keep an eye on Jonathan Hart during the dance numbers, and especially during the pole dance in Act 2. You’ll recognize him by his spiky crest of blonde hair.

In truth, the rather thin story line is merely a framework on which to hang various scenes bristling with scanty and outrageous costumes and energetic song and dance numbers. All of it is heavily larded with comic one liners, sexual innuendo, simulated on-stage sex acts, and a good dose of gender ambiguity.

"There is a continuum between male and female” said Richard O’Brien, the creator of  the original play. “Some are hard-wired one way or another. I’m in between." This could explain a lot of what you’ll see onstage.

I won’t call out individual actors because in spite of the fact that there are leads, in truth this is a production that depends far more on ensemble strength than individual performances. As a group, they were very impressive, and the audience adored them.

    (L to R) Winnie Bean, Xander Layden (as Eddie)

Ditto for the varied and eye-catching costumes by Diane Runkel, lighting by Aaron Mohs-Hale, sound design by John Munn, and a simple, effective set by Erin Manza Chanfrau. Music director Josh Zimmerman led an on-stage band consisting of himself, Joseph Ralston, James Sloan, Ian Mengedoht, and Tai Taitano. Not only were dance numbers (by choreographer Kayla Crawford) varied and eye-catching, there were also a number of  clever human set pieces, including some entryway lions and a car with “working” windshield wipers and doors.

I suspect most people who go to this already know what to expect and have seen at least the movie, if not the play, numerous times. If you are one of those, this production is, again, worthy of your time. For anyone new to this cult standard, come take a look at what the others are talking about, now that you have a heads up about what to expect.

The Rocky Horror Show
Jan 6 to 29, 2017
Lakewood Playhouse

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Dracula at TLT

Bite Me
by Michael Dresdner

     L to R: Garrett, Christopher         photos by Dennis K Photography

Dracula has arrived at Tacoma Little Theatre with all the sturm und drang its devoted fans could desire. This script, penned by Stephen Dietz and directed by pug Bujeaud, is far closer to the original Bram Stoker book than most, and should appeal to both modernists and purists. This is a challenging version indeed, and as luck would have it, there’s a top-to-bottom superb cast to make it happen.

     L to R: Garrett, Morrow 

At the outset we eavesdrop on the naïve confidences of two sweet young women, Lucy (Brynn Garrett) and Mina (Jesse Morrow) who will soon be forced to shed their innocence as they either succumb to, or overcome, the insidious influence of Dracula (Michael Christopher.) The same will be demanded of the gormless Harker (Jacob Tice.) Sent to Transylvania to sell British land to Dracula, he’ll soon be forced to find the steel to become a protector of his true love and a hunter of evil. For his part, Dracula quickly sheds his civilized veneer when first dealing with Harker, and soon shows his true colors, displaying all the bravado, cape waving, and Jedi-like control powers we’ve come to expect.  

     Brian Wayne Jansen 

Brian Wayne Jansen, who plays the insane Renfield, goes from chillingly cool prologue and wrap up narrator to the tortured, demented soul under Dracula’s control in a role that is very physically demanding, to say the least. He’s not the only one. Even though they often appear while other onstage action tries to draw your eye, make sure you watch the cavorting of the two vixens (Ariel Birks and Kadi Burt) who creep and crawl as sinuously as slithering quicksilver while they torment Renfield, Harker, and others.

When first Lucy and then Mina start showing unexplained illness, weakness, and odd behaviors, Seward (Christopher Rocco), a doctor at the asylum where Renfield is being held and an ardent adorer of Lucy, calls on Van Helsing (Joseph Grant) for help. Along with Harker, they try to fight back against the sweeping tide of human destruction led by Dracula.

   L to R: Rocco, Grant 

Clearly, this is a very stark, black and white allegory. Darkness and night cloak evil and destruction, while daylight, in the form of the trappings and beliefs of the Catholic church, represent good and salvation. The bombastic, earnestly devout Van Helsing freely wields not only garlic, but crucifixes, rosaries, and communion wafers as his weapons of war. He slowly convinces the others that these, along with religious invocations, are the only tools that will defend against this incarnation of Lucifer.

That same harsh rigidity is reflected in the excellent set by Blake R. York. With the exception of a few columns for solemnity, everything from the stage levels and background windows to the crypts and beds is naught but straight lines and hard edges. Even the curved stairs are not smooth bends, but angled facets. Costumes (Michele Graves) and set dressing (Jeffery Weaver) sometimes add a note of color, but on the whole, they help reinforce the dark/light theme.  

When it comes to tech, though, the biggest bow goes to lighting designer Niclas R. Olson, whose complex and dramatic lighting changes clearly delineated not only times and locations, but moods and intentions as well. Kudos are indeed in order. And because the lighting, sound effects (Dylan Twiner), and stage changes are so complex and necessary, a special call out must go to the two women who made all of that unfold flawlessly, stage manager Nena Curley and her ASM Noelle Shai Edlin.

If you are a fan of this genre, and I understand that most people these days are, this is one version of this oft told story that you really should see. Favorite versions aside, this impressively ambitious presentation is bound to evoke both strong reactions and deep admiration for the crew that created it. Well done, my friends, well done.

Oct. 21 to Nov. 6, 2016
Tacoma Little Theatre