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

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Underpants at TLT

by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Dale Bowers, Cassie Jo Fastabend     Photos by Dennis K Photography 

Silly. Thoroughly silly. That’s the most succinct way to describe the bit of fluff called The Underpants that opened Tacoma Little Theatre’s 98th season last night.

Written by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and directed by Jennifer York, it’s a situational comedy deeply larded with set ups and punch lines, double entendre, and sexual innuendo. Yet in spite of the fact that sex, lust, and adultery are the central theme, it’s actually clean enough for a G rating. Though bad intentions and willing partners abound, no one actually manages to bed anyone. 

Set in 1910 Germany (for no apparent reason) the entire play takes place in the living room/kitchen of an apartment and is executed by a handful of very competent actors. And speaking of the set, it is outstanding; another spot on job by Blake York, replete with and adorable period stove, refrigerator, and eye catching stenciled “wallpaper.” Ditto for costumes by Michele Graves, props (and I assume the wonderful set dressing) by Jeffrey Weaver, and lighting by Niclas R. Olson. In short, everything well up to TLT’s high standards.

    L to R: Ben Stahl, Cassie Jo Fastabend, Deya Ozburn

The play opens with Theo Maske (Jed Slaughter), a rigid, mysoginistic, mid-level bureaucratic drone, berating his “little wife” Louise (Cassie Jo Fastabend) because while watching a parade on the street, her underpants fell down. He’s sure people noticed and that ruination will follow. This being a comedy, the exact opposite happens, but that’s later.

They want to rent out an upstairs room for income, and accidently do so to two people, both of whom want to be there because of the morning’s underpants incident. Frank Versati (Ben Stahl) is an almost accent free Italian poet whose instant lust for Louise has him torn between wanting to consummate adultery or simply write poetry about it. His barber, Benjamin Cohen (Andrew Fry), who repeatedly insists he’s not a Jew, is also smitten, but his goal is to block Versati’s intentions. Meanwhile, Gertrude Deuter (Deya Ozburn), Louise’s best friend who lives upstairs and eavesdrops via the floor vent, comes and goes regularly, attempting to both push Louise into what she sees as a much needed fling, and get one for herself with husband Theo. Eventually a Scot named Klinglehoff (Dale Bowers) and “The Distinguished Caller” (Bob Lozier) make appearances, but their roles are superficial at best.

                              L to R: Deya Ozburn, Jed Slaughter 

It’s not hard to imagine this played to the absurd, with exaggerated accents and physical histrionics, but this version has been dialed back to retain a modicum of decorum. Depending on your comedic tastes, that could be welcome or disappointing.

If you are getting the impression that this is a long, elaborate, TV comedy sketch reminiscent of its SNL roots, you’re spot on. And yes, it is genuinely funny, fast paced, and quite pleasant to watch, with the added advantage that there are no commercial interruptions. Admittedly, you may see some of the jokes coming from a good bit off, but that’s ok.

In any case, don’t look for deep meaning or emotional upheaval. This is mindless entertainment, and may be just the thing to ease back into the theatre season.

Did I mention that this play was silly? Thoroughly silly.

The Underpants
Sept. 16 to Oct. 2, 2016
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Avenue Q at Lakewood Playhouse

Manners en brochette
by Michael Dresdner

L to r: Crawford, Trekkie Monster, Hall    All photos by Tim Johnston 
 Avenue Q, which opened last night at Lakewood Playhouse, is an in-your-face, irreverent, bawdy assault on a host of issues “polite” America usually avoids, done in the form of a musical.

It manages to carom off topics like sex, masturbation, nascent racism, internet porn, schadenfreude, homelessness, homophobia, and the relative uselessness of the college educated middle class (at whom it is largely directed) by having the normally unspeakable voiced by puppets, or more specifically, Muppets. That, it seems, makes it both funny and palatable, though it was clearly written to tweak the noses of the politically correct, the religious mid-West, and those who still read Miss Manners. In other words, the complacent, white middle class.      

Front: Lazaroo, Williams, Davis. Behind: Brown, Hall, Sinclair, Crawford
To be fair, it is very funny, quite well written, and fiendishly clever. Victoria Webb directed a highly talented collection of actors and puppeteers with brio, resulting in a fast-paced, compelling performance.

Along with the Muppets are three “human” actors. Brian (Connor Brown) is a somewhat directionless Jewish nebbish who lives with his tough, pushy, Asian girlfriend named Christmas Eve (JasminRae Onggao Lazaroo). Their landlord at the seedy apartment on Avenue Q is Gary Coleman (Tony L. Williams.) Yes, that Gary Coleman, the African-American actor made famous by the TV show Diff’rent Strokes whose somewhat troubled life is mocked in the play’s song “It Sucks to be Me.” The real Coleman died in 2010, but not before publicly stating he wanted to sue Avenue Q for their portrayal of him.

L to r: Lazaroo, Williams, Brown
 The three humans interact seamlessly with a host of Muppets with very real and specific personalities brought to life by the extraordinary puppeteers Kyle Sinclair, Taylor Davis, Derek Hall, and Kayla Crawford. The conceit is that although we see them on stage, their Muppet actions and expressions, often mimicked by these puppet masters, are strong enough to make us relate to the Muppets and not the humans behind them. For the most part, they quite succeed at that.

L to r: Sinclair, Hall, Crawford
All in all, the acting and puppet work was excellent, and the singing, especially on ensemble numbers, was also very good, though all of them, with the thankful exception of Derek Hall, could have benefited from a bit more vocal power, especially on some of the songs.

L to r: Muppet Kate, Davis, Muppet Rod, Sinclair 
There’s a rather thin plot which mostly serves to introduce the various topics the musical chooses to lampoon. Princeton, newly graduated with a BA in English, can only afford lodgings on seedy Avenue Q, where in addition to the humans he meets mousy, lovelorn kindergarten teacher Kate Monster, her boss Mrs. Thistletwat, closet homosexual Rod and his hapless roommate Nicky, sexpot Lucy, internet porn addicted Trekkie Monster, and a brace of devil-on-your-shoulder advice givers called, appropriately, the Bad Idea Bears, who promote sex, booze, and even suicide. There’s even a gaggle of animated singing cardboard boxes. Along the way the characters, human and Muppet, reveal their biases, find love, sex, work, disappointment, failure, and sometimes even rewards.

The Bad Idea Bears 
Many of the songs are well described by their titles alone. They include Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, The Internet is for Porn, What Do You Do With a BA in English?, Schadenfreude, about the pleasure we get from seeing others in distress, and If You Were Gay, a nod to incipient homophobia which was more cleverly covered a decade earlier by Seinfeld’s famous “not that there’s anything wrong with that” episode, The Outing.

As for the production support, it was awesome. The cleverly repainted and repurposed Noises Off set (Larry Haggerman, Dylan Twiner, Carrie Foster, Ana Bury), worked beautifully, as did wide ranging lighting design (Brett Carr) and sound design (Nena Curley). Props (Karrie Nevin) and costumes (Stephanie Huber) held up their end just as well, and the puppet instructor (Lance Woolen) deserves a special bow. So, too, does the outstanding orchestra (LaMont Aitkinson, Bruce Carpenter, David Close, Joseph Ralston, Greg Smith, Dexter Stevens, Lauren Trew, Jesika Westbrook) under the direction of Josh Zimmerman.

Yes, this was an outstanding production, but…

Ok, this is where this review is going to get a bit excoriating, so if you’d rather avert your eyes and skip to the end, I’ll completely understand.

You see, the problem with Avenue Q is that it has become, at least in this area, a bit dated. Here in the PNW, where we have legal pot, marriage equality, Dan Savage, and on the down side, recently increasing homelessness, many of these once taboo topics are no longer appropriate objects of avoidance and titillation. Perhaps this is still thrillingly outré in Peoria, but much of coastal society has moved on.

Granted, the musical debuted on Broadway in 2003, back in the heyday of the first Dubya administration and much has changed. Being awkward and clueless about homophobia is no longer cute, and homelessness has never been funny. Nor are saying “masturbation” and having an awareness of internet porn so unspeakable.

On the other hand, we haven’t moved ahead at all on racism, and the plight of the unemployed over-educated is not much better either. Still, the musical is clearly from the viewpoint of the young, college educated white middle class, and its humor would no doubt fall flat on the ears of many of those it mocks.

And we’re back…

As I was saying, this is a very well-produced, directed, and acted musical with a unique and clever style. My guess is that you will enjoy it (as did the opening night audience) though there are certainly segments that will, perhaps quite intentionally, make some folks decidedly uneasy.

Avenue Q
June 3 to July 3, 2016
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Noises Off at Lakewood

 …and a plate of sardines as The Beaver.
 by Michael Dresdner

   Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson     All photos by Tim Johnston

The rollicking Michael Frayn comedy Noises Off, directed by John Munn, opened last night at Lakewood Playhouse to a house filled with both patrons and laughter. There’s a good chance you know this play, since it is done very frequently by school and community theatres because it’s a fine excuse for physical comedy, scantily clad bawdiness, and over-the-top acting, three things such folk seem to adore.

The opening music (sound designer Nena Curley) is a foreshadow of the sort of entertainment you are about to see. It’s the theme from Fawlty Towers. And to cap things off, the play music ends with Liberty Bell, the theme from Monty Python. Yep, it’s that sort of comedy.

   L to R, back row: Ferguson, Chambers, Rogers, Davy, Bury, Fitzgerals, George. Front: Tarry 

The premise, with its play-within-a-play double character list and both backstage and onstage personality quirks, is so complex that I’m likely to lose you by outlining it, but I’ll try anyway. Fortunately, it hardly matters if you catch it all, since the real hilarity comes from the manic farce that unfolds. Think of it as a three ring circus that gets progressively more inane as it melts down further in each act.

The play opens with droll and frustrated Lloyd Dallas (Jonathan Bill) trying to direct the dress rehearsal of the first act of Nothing On, a comedy that is nowhere near ready to open. Lloyd is secretly canoodling with both Brooke and assistant stage manager (ASM) Poppy.

   L to R: Bill, Davy, George, Rogers, Chambers, Ferguson, Tarry

Stage manager and all around handyman Tim Allgood (Nick Fitzgerald) also understudies several roles, and is assisted by Poppy Norton-Taylor (Ana Bury) who is far more unstrung and histrionic than real ASMs usually are.

Dotty Otley (Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson), who has a thing for cast member Garry but plays up to Fred to generate envy, is scattered both on and offstage, unable to remember proper exits and prop handling, in particular the constant movement of a plate of sardines that probably deserves its own billing. She plays Mrs. Clackett, the housekeeper, in the play, Nothing On.

   L to R: Chambers, George

Garry Lejeune (Gary Chambers), whose name is an apt play on jejune, is inarticulate offstage, but not on, and plays Roger, a real estate agent. Brooke Ashton (Jennifer Davy) arrives with Roger playing the quick-to-undress but clueless Vicki, an amorous tax agent.

Frederick Fellowes (Jim Rogers) and Belinda Blair (Diana George) play Phillip and Flavia Brent, the husband and wife owners of the home where this all takes place. While Blair is stolid and mature one who tries to keep everything together both on and off stage, Fellowes, who also plays a sheik in the play, is timid and so unstrung that he gets constant nosebleeds from any stress. Finally, there’s an aging booze-hound of a once great actor named Selsdon Mowbray (Steve Tarry) who plays a burglar.

Got it? I thought not.

   L to R: Tarry, Bury, Ferguson, Rogers

In each act we see a repeat of Act I of the play-within-a-play. First we see a not-ready-to-open dress rehearsal where we meet the quirky characters and their characters. In act two, the stage spins around and we see the same act later in its run, this time from backstage. By now, things have deteriorated and injuries, mix-ups, jealous actors sabotaging one another, and problematic sets help derail the play. Act three is from the front again, where we see the same Act I later in the run, this time so riddled with inter-actor contention and mishaps that the whole thing has devolved into a maelstrom of non-stop inanity.

In this play, the set (by Larry Hagerman and Dyan Twiner) is a critical element, since the whole thing must spin around from front to back for each successive act. It also must be two stories tall with a very functional staircase and an abundance of sturdy, slamming doors. While it worked great, its painting and appearance was definitely on the drab side for such an upscale country home. Perhaps that was intentional, to get us to ignore the set and focus on the action. Then again, perhaps not.

Props, including more sardines than you think should ever appear on stage, were nicely done by Karrie Nevin, quite appropriate costumes were by Diane Runkel, and lighting was by Brett Carr.  

Like all ensemble plays, the whole cast must work together to make it all gel, and therefore all deserve the same level of praise. However, I’ll admit that my personal favorites were Steve Tarry, Jonathan Bill, Jim Rogers, and Diane George. Oh, and Nick Fitzgerald. And…, oh, forget it, go back to what I said before. It’s an ensemble cast and they all sink or swim together.

The last word? This is the epitome of what farce is all about, and one of those shows every theatre goer should see at least once and, if you actually want to catch all the action and nuance, more than once.  

Noises Off
April 15 to May 8, 2016
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at TLT

The Divine Miss M
by Michael Dresdner

     L to R: Sonia, Masha, Vanya  (Childs, Leeper, Larson)            photos by Dennis K Photography 

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, directed by Frank Kohel at Tacoma Little Theatre, may well be one of the best comedies you have never heard of, in part because it debuted only four years ago. Funny, fast-paced, and rich with enormous personalities, it’s both a dream and challenge for the right cast of actors, and this production definitely has the right cast of actors.

   L to R: Sonia, Vanya  (Childs, Larson) 

Gay, tranquil Vanya (Martin Larson), lives with his sister Sonia (Dayna Childs) in a gorgeous Bucks County, PA house. After caring for their parents until death, they’ve hit middle age with no jobs and not much of a life to speak of outside their comfortable digs amid a cherry orchard. Named by parents who were fond of Chekov, they bemoan their rather pointless life and comically argue about trifles while Sonia frequently reminds us she alone is adopted. They’re attended by a flamboyant cleaning woman named Cassandra (LaNita Hudson), who, like her namesake in Greek mythology, uses her gift of second sight to make constant dire predictions that no one believes.

   L to R: Spike, Masha, Cassandra (Tse, Leeper, Hudson)

The siblings are supported by their movie star sister Masha (Stephanie Leeper) who owns the house and whose very successful career as an actress is starting to wane. Having blown through five failed marriages, she shows up to visit accompanied by her latest boy toy, Spike (Freddy Tse), a preening, lusty youth deeply enamored with his own well-toned physique. He brings a neighbor’s visitor to the house, a young aspiring actress named Nina (Leena Lambert) who inadvertently inspires envy in Masha, whom she idolizes, and lust in Spike, whom she doesn’t.

    Masha (Leeper) 

Masha, grandiloquent and controlling, decides they should all go to a costume party with her dressed as Snow White, Spike as Prince Charming, and the others as dwarves. Sonia alone balks and dresses in a sequined purple gown which inspires her to break out of her shell and channel “Maggie Smith going to the Oscars.” After the party, a frustrated Masha, who failed to be the center of attention, announces she’s selling the house, making the jobless siblings homeless and adrift. 

    L to R: Vanya, Nina, Sonia  (Larson, Lambert, Childs) 

Cassandra, who has more or less predicted this, decides she should change bad tidings instead of merely warning of them, with, among other methods, a voodoo doll. Eventually, calm is restored, a happy ending ensues, and all three siblings discover the peace they can give one another.  

While the play is admittedly short on plot, it is very long on character development, and all of the outstanding actors in this ensemble cast get their chance to shine. Leeper’s Masha is a sweeping, stage commanding divine Miss M sort, a grand hurricane of a character. It’s the best work yet I’ve seen by this fine actress. 

    L to R: Masha, Spike  (Leeper, Tse) 

Larson’s charming, mild mannered Vanya gets his chance to break out in act two, where he brilliantly erupts into a long tirade about the decay of society as seen through a staccato litany of dozens of lost cultural references. His wonderful performance hit home with references all too familiar to people my age.

      Vanya  (Larson)

Childs, whose Sonia is initially mousy and self-questioning, does her delightful character change as Maggie Smith cum Norma Desmond, but returns only partially to her other persona once the purple dress comes off. Hudson, who always commands the stage whenever she steps on it, crafts a Cassandra that is exotic, riveting, and just intimidating enough to be thrilling. Tse makes Spike everything the older generation loves to hate about the younger; flip, insensitive, selfish, and phone-tethered. Lambert, as Nina, contrasts them all with ineffable sweetness and youthful purity.

    L to R: Nina, Vanya  (Lambert, Larson)
The production crew is equally deserving of accolades. Michele Graves did a wonderful job of costumes, both normal and party version. Lighting by Niclas Olson and sound by Chris Serface were, as they should be, appropriately right and unobtrusive. The stunning set built and painted by Blake and Jen York and propped by Jeffery Weaver was dripping with stone work, wood beams, and just the right furniture and knickknacks to satisfy those of us, like me, who’ve actually lived in Bucks County.

Though the pacing is brisk, this is none-the-less a very long play, about three hours with intermission. It’s also one that is heavy on Easter eggs and theatrical and literary references, including a dose of Chekov, but don’t worry, everything you need to know is cleverly explained in exposition by the characters. 

In the final analysis, this is a terrific ensemble cast and crew, both separate and together, bringing a delightful and richly crafted play to life. On top of that, this is a rare chance to see a great work by a fine cast before it becomes a well-known classic.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
April 8th to 24th , 2016
Tacoma Little Theatre

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Last Night of Ballyhoo

Southern Comfort Shabbos
by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Steven Walker, Stacie Hart                 All photos by Dennis K Photography

Set in Atlanta at Christmastime in 1939, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, which opened Friday at Tacoma Little Theatre, opens a window into the world of well-off Jews in the deep south. Presented as an unabashed comedy, it abounds with funny, quirky, and thoroughly entertaining characters blessed with equally funny dialog. Director Jeff Kingsbury kept the pace apace, and chose an extremely talented ensemble cast that made the play delightful to watch.

Ballyhoo is a yearly festival for southern Jews, and culminates with a socially imperative dance on the last night. It’s a time when a young single Jewish woman wants to appear in the right dress and on the right squire’s arm.  Much of the action in the play revolves around the two young women in the Freitag/Levy household , a grand home in a wealthy section of Atlanta, and how these two very different characters approach the problem of whose arm to grace at the Ballyhoo dance.

    L to R: Jill Heinecke, Russ Holm  

Adolph Freitag (Russ Holm) is the patriarch of a household that consists of his widowed sister, Boo Levy (Stacie Hart) and her daughter Lala Levy (Katelyn Hoffman), and his widowed sister-in-law, Reba Freitag (Kim Holm) and her daughter Sunny Freitag (Jill Heinecke). Where Sunny is a smart and somewhat reserved Wellesley student more interested in her mind than her dates, her cousin Lala is a would-be social butterfly, consumed with the new Gone With The Wind movie and focused largely on snagging just the right beau.

   L to R: Steven Walker, Kelly Mackay 

Sunny rather inadvertently lands Joe Farkas (Kelly Mackay), a New York Jew who Adolph hired and brought south. The problem is that Joe, a “real” Jew, is baffled and rather disappointed with Sunny’s lack of religious awareness.

   L to R: Jill Heinecke, Kelly Mackay 

Meanwhile, the somewhat envious Lala sets her sights on Peachy Weil (Steven Walker.) Peachy is the one character on stage that is almost a flat-out comic stereotype, a wealthy, garishly dressed, loud braying ass of an entitled young man, one of the “right” sort of Southern Jews. While this can be called scenery chewing in some situations, here it works perfectly as a single glaring counterpoint, in part because Walker crafted the character so adroitly.

These Atlanta Jews are what my mother would have called “g’ligum layd’n din Jews” (ersatz  or imitation Jews), and what Hillel calls “bagel and lox Jews,” or Jews in name only. Almost completely clueless about religious rituals, holidays, or even common Yiddish or Hebrew words and phrases, they are seen in the opening scene decorating their annual Christmas tree.

   L to R: Kelly Mackay, Katelyn Hoffman  

What they are aware of is that in spite of their wealth, they are at times discriminated against. Strangely, though, they belong to a subset of European Jews who in turn discriminate against another subset of European Jews, those who come from east of the Elba river. Bear in mind this is 1939, and that sort of local origin discrimination went away, for the most part, after the Holocaust was revealed.

New Yorker Joe Farkas is one of the “wrong” type of Jews, yet on another level, he looks down on Sunny’s lack of her own religious awareness. But don’t worry. It’s a comedy, so it will all work out fine in the end.

   L to R: Jill Heinecke, Russ Holm 

Every member of this superb ensemble cast deserves praise, for convincingly consistent southern accents and beautifully crafted characters, but allow me to spotlight just a few. Russ Holm creates a wide ranging, rubber faced, picaresque Adolph whose perfect comedic timing and offhand droll responses, both physically and vocally, are simply flawless. But after Sunny asks if he’s ever been in love, he changes the pace convincingly with a shy, bittersweet story of an unrequited crush from afar.

   Kim Holm 

Kim Holm (coincidence?) does an equally fine job creating a comical and thoroughly endearing Reba, a chirpy, well-intentioned mix of motherly wisdom and genteel Southern cluelessness. I just loved watching her. In perfect counterbalance was the more serious and focused Boo (Stacie Hart) who is all about steering and protecting her daughter, whatever course that may take.

      L to R: Stacie Hart, Katelyn Hoffman    

All this is played out on a beautifully elegant set by Blake York, painted by Jen York, and in a huge array of superb costumes by Michele Graves, from Lala’s bizarre Tara dress and Peachy’s shocking argyle, to the more sedate and apt outfits befitting the station and nature of the others. Lighting by Niclas Olson was excellent (I especially liked the car headlights behind the oriel windows), and sound was jointly by Chris Serface and stage manager Nena Curley. 

As thoroughly impressive as this was, there are just a couple of minor points that bothered me, and one was Joe Farkas. Don’t get me wrong; Mackay was charming, delightful, and perfect for the role. It’s just that a New York Jew familiar with Yiddish speaks a certain way and with a rhythm that goes beyond mere pronunciation. At one point he says to Sunny “a shaynum dank dir im pupik,” (thanks for nothing) and I had trouble understanding what he was saying even though I grew up hearing that phrase, and a whole lot of other Yiddish as well.

Again, it’s a minor point, but while I am on minor points, the curtain call was, well, overdone, especially for what really is an ensemble offering. It had me yearning for something shorter and simpler, and I’m undoubtedly not alone in this. In my experience, most actors despise elaborate curtain calls, but it seems many directors love them. Ok, enough whining about minutiae.

Here’s what you really need to know. This is a charming, very funny, fast-paced, and thoroughly engaging play chock full of some of the finest actors you’ll see plying their craft. There was not a single weak link in the entire cast, and their skill and synergy turned an excellent, lighthearted slice-of-life ensemble offering into an absolute must see play.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo
March 4 to March 20,2016
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Death of a Salesman at Lakewood Playhouse

Gut punch
by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Gabe Hacker, Joe Grant, Tim Samland                              Photos by Tim Johnston 

We thespian fans like to nurse the curious belief that when all the literal and figurative stars are aligned, community theatre can rival the best anything on screen or stage, professional or not, can offer. Last night, Lakewood Playhouse proved that belief at the opening of Death of a Salesman.

To begin with, Arthur Miller’s famous play is superbly written. Set contemporaneously in 1949 in Brooklyn, NY, it walks around inside the challenged and deteriorating mind of Willy Loman, a plodding salesman slipping into failure at age 63. Through flashbacks, memories, and current events we are introduced to a man baffled that his lifetime belief in getting others to admire and like him never built the bridge to success he always pictured.

    L to R: Martin Goldsmith, Joe Grant 

Willy’s failure to snag the ideal life he imagines for himself causes him to alternately resent or admire those who succeed, beginning with his deceased older brother, whose wealth came fast and easy. He at times idolizes and vilifies his sons, who learned from their father to present a false personal façade to the world . They are, like him, deeply flawed and on some level aware of it. His favorite older son Biff is a high school football hero whose life becomes derailed after the one-two punch of a personal failure followed by the devastating discovery that his adored father has feet of clay. His younger son Happy keeps his father as a shining example, recreating much of both the good and the bad.

   L to R: Joe Grant, Kathi Aleman 

Propping Willy up is an unconditionally supportive wife who tries valiantly but vainly to protect his inflated self-image. She cajoles her sons to come to his aid and to help her save him from himself, while at times defending them to their father. With an insurance policy that means he’s worth more dead than alive, suicide seems not merely a way out, but a way for Willy to save his wife, his finances, his sons’ potential and dreams, and even his own delusional self-image.   

Pacing, blocking, and a solid overall vision are all important in making an almost three hour play fairly zip past, and director James Venturini nailed them all, but the real key to creating such flawlessly amazing theatre is casting. It’s here that he really shines, putting together a top to bottom cast, each and every one of whom is stellar.  

     L to R: Joe Grant, Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson

Willy Loman is the role of a lifetime for the right actor, and knowing his work, I assumed Joseph Grant would be perfect, but he went way beyond even my steep expectations. Grant dragged us into Loman’s tortured psyche and through the roller-coaster of his somewhat delusional aggrandizement, uplifting hopes, crushing disappointments, creeping self-doubts, perceived betrayals, and ultimately, unbearable helplessness. It was an expansive, wide ranging yet finely nuanced creation.

Had he been alone, it would have been brilliance enough for one play, but he was in good company. Kathi Aleman as his long-suffering wife Linda brought to life the ideal balance of believer, supporter, and protector of her husband and sons. She crafted a perfectly believable wife and mother desperately trying to staunch the leaks in the cracking dike of what should have been their American Dream life.  

Tim Samland gives us Biff, the high school hero quick to take advantage of his adoring fans, including nerdy neighbor Bernard (Charlie Stevens) who ultimately makes good, just like his stolid and tolerant father Charley (Martin Goldsmith.) When a failed class sends Biff running to his father for salvation, he instead discovers him in a dalliance with delightfully giggly Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson, and the betrayal makes him see his erstwhile hero as a fraud. Like a caroming billiard ball, his life heads off in another direction, but never really finds its mark. The scene between Samland and Grant where they confront, accuse, attack, and ultimately hug one another in tears is one of the most powerful and finely crafted pieces of acting you’ll ever see.

     L to R: Kathi Aleman, Gabe Hacker, Tim Samland, Joe Grant 

Gabe Hacker is wonderful as Happy, the younger son who follows in his father’s footsteps trying to smooth things between people, paint himself larger than reality, and get others to admire him, even if it takes a lie to do it. The rest of the cast holds their own as well in this estimable ensemble.

An impressive set by Blake York, replete with floating vaulted ceiling beams, established exactly the house we needed to imagine. Costumes by Rochelle-Ann Graham were excellent, as was the subtly supportive sound designed by John Munn, props and set dressing by Karrie Nevin, and lighting (uncredited.) It was all part of a perfect package.  

Look, this is not fluff or light fare. It’s long at almost three hours with intermission, but it is completely captivating and the time flies by. Be warned that you will be put through the wringer emotionally as the characters’ internal pain, delusion, and disillusionment is laid bare. Talk about bated breath; there were scenes when it seemed as if no one in the audience was even breathing.

But when such intense drama is presented so masterfully, and by such skilled, nuanced, and brilliant performers, it is worth the pain. I doubt you’re likely to see a better production of this important work anywhere or at any time. Grit your teeth, gird your loins, and put yourself in this cast and crew’s capable hands for the theatre experience of a lifetime.

Death of a Salesman
Feb 19 to Mar 13, 2016
Lakewood Playhouse

Photos by Tim Johnston