Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Miracle Worker at Lakewood Playhouse

The life of a soul  
by Michael Dresdner

   L to R: Liberty Evans-Agnew, Deya Ozburn         All photos by Kate Paterno-Lick 

Disabuse yourself of any notion that this play will be depressing, maudlin, or dispiriting, for it is anything but. The Miracle Worker, now playing at Lakewood Playhouse, is as superb and enjoyable a production as you can imagine. As easy as it might have been to slip into the noir, it is instead gripping, hopeful, and at the end, thoroughly rewarding, thanks both to skilled direction by Pug Bujeaud and simply amazing acting by the cast.

Yes, there are wonderful period costumes by Rachel Wilkie, especially Kate’s outfits, lighting (Daniel Cole) used to change our focus to make one stage appear as five distinct settings, and an unobtrusively convincing set by James Venturini that worked beautifully without drawing focus. But it is the cast, and in particular three leads, who made this show the absolute winner it is.

The play itself is superbly written, laced with foreshadowing, subtle parallels, and even some circular connections, all rewards for the observant theater denizen. For instance, the figurative ongoing tug of war for control of Helen between Annie and mother Kate actually plays out literally in one scene. The play even does a fine job of adroitly answering the classic question of why Annie Sullivan would devote such superhuman effort and patience to Helen. It’s all part of an ultimately closed circle of guilt and redemption surrounding Annie’s deceased younger brother, and comes complete with an insight into Annie’s own horrendous childhood.

You probably know the story. Helen Keller, struck blind and deaf by disease before the age of two, had morphed into a spoiled wild-child thanks to the guilty indulgence of her parents. When she was seven, they hired 20-year-old Annie Sullivan, herself almost completely blind in spite of several operations, who through extreme patience and tenacity set out to break through the wall of dark silence Helen occupied. After a frustrating start, Annie realizes that Helen’s enabling parents are undermining her efforts with well-meaning and loving over-indulgence. She insists that the only way she can get through to Helen, and get her to behave as well, is to have her to herself, isolated in an out building on the property. There, with no one to turn to but Annie, the two finally start to make some progress.

While the entire cast was worthy of praise, three women in particular stand out. All were completely endearing, and I found myself genuinely caring about these people whether their actions were right, wrong, kindly, or seemingly cruel. That’s the first step toward creating a play well worth watching.

   L to R: Liberty Evans-Agnew, Gretchen Boyt 

First, there’s Gretchen Boyt, who plays Kate Keller, Helen’s mother, and takes us convincingly through a range of severe and conflicting parental emotions. Struck with horror at Helen’s illness-induced debilitation, Kate becomes the classic enabler, showering Helen with extreme forbearance, love, and unfortunately, pity, to assuage her unfocussed guilt. Later she is forced to come to grips with the fact that she is a very large part of Helen’s problem, and Boyt lets us see the struggle of her internal battle between well-meaning indulgence and tough love.

Helen herself is played by Liberty Evans-Agnew, and it’s hard to imagine a young actor doing a better job of holding her own bracketed by such pros. With no dialog to fall back on, everything she does is physical, yet she both wins us over and thoroughly conveys the range of emotions Helen indulges in, from frustration and anger, to fear, trust, and love. This young woman does the part yeoman service in a performance that would be called marvelous by an actor of any age.

   Top to bottom: Deya Ozburn, Liberty Evans-Agnew 

Last, and most certainly not least, is Deya Ozburn’s staggering portrayal of Annie Sullivan. I have in the past praised Ozburn for very varied roles here at Lakewood in The Children’s Hour, Twelfth Night, and The Importance of Being Earnest, but this was a new high. Ozburn brings the tireless, highly focused Annie to life. She wears dark glasses to protect her sensitive eyes, and reads hunched over with her face a mere inch or two from the page. The bulk of her portrayal is physical, but when she does speak, her terse, emotionally vibrant words reveal a young woman with a tormented body and soul who somehow found uncommon strength and confidence from her travails, and one seriously worthy of our respect and admiration. 

Not surprisingly, much of the interplay between Helen and Annie is wordless, but highly energetic. During one scene in the first act, Annie chases everyone out of the dining room to be left alone with Helen. What follows is a long battle of wills between Helen and Annie that is surely both physically and emotionally taxing in the extreme for both actors. Not a word is spoken the entire time, yet that scene, the high point of the play for me, was by itself a brilliant tour de force for which both Ozburn and Evans-Agnew deserve kudos.
By the time the play ends with the final, uplifting reward of Helen’s breakthrough at the water pump, the audience has been treated to some of the finest performances of the year. This is a theatre experience that can take you well outside your comfort zone, then cap the adventure with palpable relief and pure elation. Grab your calendar and schedule a time to see The Miracle Worker. You will not be disappointed.

The Miracle Worker
Feb. 20 to Mar. 15, 2015
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Great Gatsby at TLT

The great gamble  
by Michael Dresdner 

Rarely do people say “it’s better than the book,” but The Great Gatsby at Tacoma Little Theatre is one such example. By putting together a flat-out amazing cast, director Dale Westgaard turned a multiple, triangulated love story into a showcase for outstanding performances, from the strong, compelling leads right down to the solid supporting ensemble parts.

    L to R: Daisy (Veronica Tuttell), Gatsby (Rodman Bolek)   Photos courtesy of DK Photography

Make no mistake; it was the cast who made this play a wonderful experience. Yes, the production support was there, but this is one case where the acting, pardon the phrase, took center stage.

The story begins on the fashionable shores of East and West Egg in 1922, where nouveau riche Jay Gatsby throws endless stylish parties fueled by bootleg booze. Said parties are spied on by old-money conservative Tom Buchanan and his yearning wife, Daisy, who was in love with Gatsby before he became wealthy, and before she married Tom. Gatsby’s goal is to win Daisy away from her husband and pretend the intervening years never happened. Tom’s goal is to bed other women but still keep Daisy. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, Daisy’s cousin, an appropriately moral Midwesterner who observes and gets involved, but can never adopt the loose ethics of this crowd of exciting Eastern swells. Naturally, it eventually all goes wrong, and everyone ends up either disappointed or dead.

Now for the fun part; the players.

Rodman Bolek plays a cool, stoic Jay Gatsby, convincing in both his love for Daisy and as a character who could have gone from rags to riches quickly through sheer determination (and a handy mob connection.) Veronica Tuttell crafts a Daisy that is fragile, passionate, weak, and confused, with a timorous voice and a winsome mien that makes it easy to see why both Jay and Tom want her. Jacob Tice, as her husband Tom, is amazing as the quintessential swaggering, sneering bully; a wealthy, right-thinking member of the superior race.

   L to R: Myrtle (Stacia Russell) and Tom (Jacob Tice)

Daisy’s recently arrived Midwestern cousin Nick Carraway is well-crafted by Kelly Mackay, who shows a fine balance while straddling the innocent, moral imperative with which he was raised and the enticing allure of money, women, illicit booze, and the pursuit of pure fun. He’s loved and pursued by the exceptionally sultry Jordan Baker, appealingly brought to life by Ana Bury.

     L to R: Jordan (Ana Bury) and Nick (Kelly Mackay)

Stacia Russell treats us to, among other scenes, a wonderful drunken rage as Myrtle Wilson who is in a rather one-sided illicit affair with user Tom Buchanan. She also does a great contentious scene with her poor, benighted husband George, played by Mason Quinn, who gives us a painfully accurate portrayal of a timid man taken advantage of by both his wife and her lover, a man he thinks is his friend.  

No less impressive was the thoroughly believable chemistry between all the couples, whether loving or contentious. That goes for Nick and Jordan, Tom and Daisy, Jay and Daisy, Tom and Myrtle, and George and Myrtle.

I won’t mention all the supporting players (I’ll leave that to my dear friend Lynn Geyer) but I will say they were worthy of the leads, from Kerry Bringman’s mob heavy Meyer Wolfsheim to the earnest witness, Mrs. Michaelis (Kaylie Rainer) ­­­­who, behind the main action, recreates the events of the car accident in mime for the policeman’s benefit.

To solve the insurmountable problem of a play with many lavish indoor and outdoor scenes, designer Blake York gambled on minimalist; no sets at all. Instead, there was a large screen at the back of the stage on which was projected images of an appropriately elegant room, picturesque garden, roadside, or shoreline. The one downside to that was that when the stage lighting came up, it washed out the image a bit, and there were times when actors cast shadows on the scrim.

Nor were there a lot of props or furniture pieces; just a few chairs that doubled as couch or car seats, a drink cart or two, and at one point, an armoire. What scene changes there were, mostly moving chairs and drink carts on and off stage, were done not by shadowy, black-clad stagehands, but by minions in livery, yet another delightful touch.

The upshot of this was that the actors were very naked on stage; they had almost nothing in the way of props, furniture, or set to distract the audience or aid them. Consequently, there was intense focus on their acting alone. Such a minimalist set could be a disaster for a weaker cast, but in this case it reinforced just how outstanding these actors were. In short, the gamble paid off, thanks to a superb cast.

And the costumes? Divine. Frequent changes meant MANY lavish period costumes by Michele Graves, appropriate not only for the time and income, but for the character personalities as well, right down to Gatsby’s swim suit and Daisy’s classic fringe flapper dress. Equally outstanding were the sweet wigs by Jeffery Weaver. A nod as well to Ben Levine for sound design and Pavlina Morris for lighting, but a double nod to choreographer Elizabeth Richmond Posluns, who must have had her hands full getting a few of the less-than-spritely dancers on stage to do flapper era steps.   

While this production is a surprise and delight, there’s a bit of bad news. This is a short run; only three weeks. So GO NOW! Don’t miss it. And if there are any high school groups out there listening, seeing this is vastly more pleasant than trudging through the book. If you have to read The Great Gatsby, plan a trip to TLT. I wish I could have done that when I was in high school.

The Great Gatsby
Jan. 23 to Feb. 8, 2015
Tacoma Little Theatre

Girls Night at Centerstage

An outsider’s view
by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Hilary Heinz, Meg McLynn, Anna Clausen, Kate Alden

Let me say at the outset that I am not the target audience for Girls Night: The Musical, now playing at Centerstage. It appears to be aimed at the past 40, unerringly heterosexual female, preferably one who has been married (at least once), had children, and imagines herself wilder and raunchier than she really is.

As I am a retirement age male, please feel free to intone “but it’s not MEANT for YOU” after any unflattering or uncomprehending comment I might utter. With that out of the way, we can dive in.

Neither a play or a true musical, Girls Night is collection of loosely strung together song and dance numbers. There’s no real plot or arc and little in the way of cohesive flow.

Set in a karaoke bar, the conceit is that four longtime friends get together to drink, get down and dirty, and remind one another of their checkered past and patchy present. The official occasion is the engagement of the fifth friend’s daughter. We don’t meet the daughter, but missing mom, who died in a motorbike accident at the age of 17 and keeps watch as an angel, narrates and adds needed exposition.

The women, engaging in almost non-stop singing and dancing, are decidedly better than the property they are working with. They are all quite good, in spite of being cast as rather unrealistic, two-dimensional stereotypes.

    L to R: Alicia Mendez, Anna Clausen, Kate Alden, Meg McLynn, Hilary Heinz

Alicia Mendez plays Sharon, the aforementioned dead-at-seventeen, not-so-guardian angel trying to join in the fun, if only vicariously. Her job is to stitch together the otherwise unconnected chunks of energetic song and dance.

Statuesque and clear-voiced Anna Marie Clausen creates Liza, the snarky, athletic, well-heeled presentation wife brimming with self-confidence. I’m sure I’m not the first to compare her (favorably) to Cameron Diaz. 

Then there’s Anita (Hilary Heinz Luthi) who functions normally only thanks to mood controlling drugs, a matured version of the sweet but dippy paste-eater we all remember from grade school. Luthi reinforced Anita’s essential lack of cool with a lanky, puppet-like style of dancing and movement that was quite endearing.

Carol (Meg McLynn) is an overtly sexual, decidedly raunchy character whose clothes clearly blare “slut.”  She dances hard, sings harder in what some call “belter” style, and vaguely reminds one of a 40-year-old Bette Midler with untamed hair.

My easy favorite among the five was Kate Alden as (coincidentally) Kate, a married school teacher – make that schoolmarm – who was always well-behaved but plain, and except for cutting loose at this karaoke night, still is. Alden managed to maintain the overlay of her somewhat gawky character even while singing and dancing vastly better than her mousy persona had any right to be capable of doing. She then clinched it in the second half (there are no acts here) delivering an entirely delightful drunk Kate, something that is difficult to do convincingly. She did it all marvelously.

Both the musical director, Amy Jones, and the choreographer, Leslie McQueen, deserve props for the flow and energy, while costume designer Karl Ruckdeschel did a nice job of identifying the various personalities definitively by their outfits.

And what of the property itself? Let me just say that it’s a far cry from the cleverly crafted and smoothly integrated barbs of, say, a Tina Fey or Amy Sedaris. The humor was more like a series of giggly, dirty Facebook memes, often dabbling in penis, merkin, and other sexual themes. Like most memes, they were generally familiar, a bit ham-handed, and easy to see coming. If I were downright cruel, I might call the writing vacuous. Luckily, I’m not.

At the core of this production are song and dance numbers mostly fitting into the karaoke genre; songs with more elan than relevance. At times it seemed the dialog existed more to cue a song than the other way around. The women on stage did their all to extend the energy to the crowd, encouraging everyone to get up and dance in the aisles along with them, but it was much more fun watching them.

Unfortunately, some of the song choices have been forever tainted by their popular culture connections. It is hard to hear “Don’t Cry Out Loud” without seeing the anorexic beauty queen from Drop Dead Gorgeous, and impossible to avoid images of The Birdcage during “We Are Family.”

Come to think of it, this whole play would have been more compelling done at The Birdcage, since drag queens are easier to swallow as female stereotypes. Perhaps next time. 

Again, this was aimed not at me but at the mostly female audience. They seemed to be having a good time and relating to the genre, so take that for what it’s worth. I’ve done my best to paint an accurate picture. Perhaps the best thing is to see it for yourself and either agree or disagree. 

Girls Night: The Musical
Jan. 22 through Feb. 8, 2015

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Glengarry Glen Ross at Lakewood Playhouse

Half past midnight in the afternoon  

by Michael Dresdner

  L to R: Joe Grant, Mike Slease, Kyle Sinclair, Alan Wilkie, James Winkler  
   Photos by Kate Paterno-Lick

Lakewood Playhouse, under the tutelage of John Munn, who also directed this play, is presenting David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross as this season’s “out of the box” offering, their term for shows that are more challenging to audiences. Yes, it’s risky, for a number of reasons, but it’s also a play that won both a Pulitzer and a Tony, so it’s got pedigree.    

Most of the action is set in an office of men selling real estate for investment purposes to hoi polloi dazzled by dreams of greed, a practice once derogatorily termed “swamp busting.” The set by James Venturini is spot on accurate, dressed with beyond-perfect props and amazingly sweet details by Jeffery Weaver. Costumes are right on the money, as they always are when done by Alex Lewington.

   L to R: Joe Grant, Kyle Sinclair

The main denizens of the office are the office manager, a nepotism-placed ferret named John Williamson (Kyle Sinclair) and four salesmen. W. Scott Pinkston does an outstanding job of creating  Richard Roma, the slick, self-confident predator currently at the top of the sales heap. Similarly, Joseph Grant is excellent as Shelly Levene, once a powerhouse salesman now reduced to desperation, trapped in a job that has squeezed him out like a used lemon, but forlornly trying to prove he’s still got it.

  L to R: James Winkler, Alan Wilkie

Dave Moss (Alan Wilkie) is a crude, conniving man, easily driven to the unethical, but cagy enough to protect himself by roping others into his nefarious schemes. George Aaronow (James Winkler) is the nebbish of the office, a plodder who is perhaps more aware than anyone else of how much he hates his job, and for good reason.

   L to R: W. Scott Pinkston, Frank Roberts 

Theirs is soul-sucking work where the brief exhilaration from landing a sale barely makes a dent in the constant degradation of what they do; sell land for more than it’s worth to people who don’t want it and often can’t afford it. The stink of stress and self-hatred clings to an activity where the only job satisfaction is money. Not surprisingly, they’ve come to despise their customers, more marks than clients; each other, because of the competition; and ultimately, themselves.

Rounding out the cast are short but well-delivered appearances by Blake (Mike Slease), a successful and arrogant bully from the head office there to apply pressure and pit the salesmen against one another, James Lingk (Frank Roberts), a timorous, hen-pecked client with buyer’s remorse, and a refreshingly calm and focused cop named Baylen (Dave Hall.)  

It’s a strong cast, top to bottom, the proof of which came from a comment by my co-reviewer. She said she just kept looking at Joe Grant (who plays the furtive, pathetic Shelly Levene) and thinking “there must be something else you could do to make a living.”

Here’s a nugget I rarely share: Just past my second decade I was pressed to work in a “swamp busting” office somewhat like this one. My horrified reaction to it went a long way to convincing me to spend my life, as I in fact did, as a guitarmaker.

For those of us who abhor such characters and endeavors, and there are many in the community theatre circle, it’s hard to imagine leaving the theatre any way but depressed. Of course, that may well be the point. Mamet is showing us the dark reality of one particularly ugly facet of the working world, and to be fair, that is one of the jobs theatre is supposed to do.

And what of the famed “bad language” the play is noted for; all the “fucks” and related verbal coarseness? Do men – and it is only men in this office and this play – who are locked in a soul-numbing job in which they scorn their customers and hate one another almost as much as themselves actually talk this way? Yes, Virginia, they really do.

Granted, there are patrons who would ask “But is that really necessary?” That’s the wrong question. One should ask “is it really appropriate?” and the answer to that is “yes, that level of realism is very appropriate,” and frankly, that’s what makes it necessary, if theatre is to be honest.   

Now for the big question one must always ask after a night of theatre: Did I enjoy the experience?

 No, I didn’t.

But that’s not because it wasn’t well done (it was), or because it was a bad property in the sense of it being a poorly written play (it isn’t). It was because it opens a doorway into a piece of reality that I’d rather not immerse myself in for two hours.

As they say, your results may vary; it might be just the thing your psyche needs.   

Glengarry Glen Ross
Jan 9th to Feb 1st, 2015
Lakewood Playhouse

Monday, December 8, 2014

Scrooge! The Musical at TLT

An upside down review
by Michael Dresdner

   The Scrooge! cast.                                photos by DK Photography

The set was amazing, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

See what I did there? I stole (and altered) the first two lines from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the endlessly performed and frequently re-imagined story that is the basis for Scrooge! The Musical now playing at Tacoma Little Theatre.

Granted, the first thing you see in any play when the lights go up is the set, but this time the set is so amazingly good that it set a high bar for the rest of the production. You know how some people go to see The Nutcracker each year in part because of the amazing Maurice Sendak sets and costumes? Well, I’d suggest that similarly, TLT keep this set. It’s that good.

I’ll get to the rest of the production, which, incidentally, was chock-a-block with talent, in a minute, but bear with me. This set, designed by Blake York and ably abetted with set dressing and props by Jeffery Weaver (who also did wigs) and painting by Jen Ankrum, was a marvel not only for how incredibly good it looked in every iteration, but also how cleverly it morphed. With actors very adroitly moving and rotating its various parts, it becomes about a dozen brilliantly convincing locations, some with wonderful special effects built in. 

I won’t say this is the first time I’ve seen a set outshine actors, but it is the first time a set was so good it gave really good actors a run for their money. In the past I’ve both praised and dinged Blake York for his varied sets, but this set a new high point for his talent. You really must see it.

Tight on its heels was the outstanding musical direction and keyboard work of Terry O’Hara and his quartet, filled out by Roxane Hreha, David Stedman, and Cal Neal. They did a superb job with the music, such as it is. More on that later as well.

And since we’re doing this review upside down, with production values lauded first, I’ll go on to say that the choreography (Alisa Merino with dance captain Julia Luna), lighting (Pavlina Morris), sound (Darren Hembd), and costumes (Michele Graves) were a worthy accompaniment to said set. Now, I could nit-pick and point out that Bob Cratchit’s costume – indeed his whole family’s garb – was way too new and flashy for one so poor, but that’s a minor point. 

And what of the cast? Quite good, as a matter of fact. The singing, dancing, and acting were all well above average, right across the board.

   L to R: Jeff Kingsbury, Chris Serface 

I could call out some of my favorites – Chris Serface, who was having way too much fun and was therefore quite enjoyable as Christmas Present; Derek Hall’s Bob Cratchit, shining both in song and acting; the charming and acrobatic Steven Walker – but that would detract from the rest of the cast. The truth is, from the lead, Jeff Kingsbury as Scrooge, down to the bit parts, this was an ensemble cast in the very best sense; they were all good enough to deserve mention, but blended so well as to not demand it. In short, it was a very good cast, top to bottom, individually and collectively.

   L to R: Audrey Montague, Derek Hall, Harrison Devlin 

Ok, so let’s recap; great set, great production values, wonderful actors, choreography, musicians. A perfect musical, right?

Not quite.

This is one case where the property itself pales in the face of so much talent both on and off stage, and no amount of effort can make up for a completely forgettable musical.

Act one, which is a grinding one and a half hours long, was often tedious (act two had much better pacing,) but that’s the least of the play’s problems. It’s a trite, gap-laden retelling of a story that, fortunately, everyone already knows (you’ll notice I did not even bother to give you a plot synopsis) with music that at best is uninspired and derivative. It’s songs sounded more alike than different, and none of them rose above the ranks of ‘failed show tune.’

Now, before you Scrooge! loyalists jump down my throat, stop and think about how easy it is to plant an earworm from any great musical. Why? Because the songs are inspired and divinely crafted. Here, I’ll prove it by planting a few earworms with just first lines. “All I want is a room somewhere,” “Maria; I just met a girl named Maria,” “Seventy six trombones led the big parade.”

See? Now try that with this musical.

I’m not saying the music isn’t pleasant. It is, but these musical offerings are to worthy composition what doggerel verse is to real poetry. I’m sorry, but that’s my call.

Nevertheless, there are people who love all iterations of A Christmas Carol, and for them, or anyone who appreciates the craft of theatre, this is worthy of its holiday time slot. Forget the lame music and go see this excellent production of an embarrassingly middling musical for its numerous merits. You’ll probably like it as much as the opening night audience, who gave it a standing ovation.

Scrooge! The Musical
Dec. 5 to Dec. 28, 2014
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Little Women at Lakewood

The Alcott Family Pablum …oops, …Album.
by Michael Dresdner 

  Cassie Jo Fastabend, Marissa Tate (hidden in shadow)               all photos by Kate Paterno-Lick

There are two groups of people who will absolutely love Little Women, now playing at Lakewood Playhouse; those who revel in Louisa May Alcott and her ilk, (surely an acquired taste, at least for males,) and those who appreciate the craft of theatre. It’s a rather mundane slice-of-life script, delivered up by a near perfect cast, director, and technical crew. In other words, all the sizzle, not much steak.

   L to R: Cameron Waters, Laura Strong 

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve filled the blank space above, where I’d normally tell you the plot synopsis, with a nice photo, since there really isn’t a plot to speak of. Instead, Alcott gives us a mid-19th century marriage minuet; a partially autobiographical account of a fairly normal family successfully marrying off its surviving daughters. Yes, one of them dies, but you probably knew that already.  

Now, you don’t need to take my word for it that this is not Indiana Jones or Harry Potter. We can listen to Alcott herself, who said, while writing it, “I plod away, although I don't enjoy this sort of things." After sending the first 12 chapters to her publisher, they both agreed that they were dull.

That being the case, let’s spend our time on the cast and crew, beginning with the director, the redoubtable Suzy Willhoft, who provides a veritable case study of how to do a theater-in-the-round production correctly. After skillful casting, she added dynamic blocking to an open-feel set to create convincing, well-paced scenes with no blocked lines of sight. Trust me, that’s way harder than it sounds, and she’s a master at it.

   Ashley Mowreader 

Now the cast, beginning with the “little women.” Jo is played, appropriately enough, by the thoroughly delightful Cassie Jo Fastabend, who delivers her lines with the  crisp clarity and machine gun pace of The Gilmore Girls. She’s the spritely Tigger of the family, a bouncy tom-boy with enough boundless energy to drive both her family and this production.

Meg, the “mature” sister, was calmly and convincingly created by Laura Strong, and her stalwart, even-tempered suitor John Brooke, husband material if I ever saw any, was nicely executed by Cameron Waters. Ashley Mowreader was Amy, the artistic and socially mobile sister who added much of humor in scene one with her frequent (yes, intentional) malapropisms. Then there’s Beth, just too sweet for words, whose Pollyanna persona was left to Marissa Tate to craft. Each sister did a wonderful job of fabricating separate, endearing, and very identifiable personas.

   L to R:  Marissa Tate, Joe Grant 

Our own Beau Brummel of the South Sound, Joe Grant, did a flawless job, as always, of  bringing his character, Mr. Laurence, convincingly to life while simultaneously making the costumer look good. No one wears costumes so well, though his “son” Laurie, played by the ever appealing Coleman Hagerman, is starting to give him a run for his money. Hagerman is one of those actors who is so comfortable on stage that you barely believe he’s acting.

Mrs. March was Carol Richmond, one of the more than capable old hands of this and other local theatres, and she was as refined and realistic as we expected from this very talented actor. Ditto for Syra Beth Puett as Hannah Mullett, the housekeeper, whose role, while wonderful, was way too small for such a skilled actor. Darrel D. Shiley, Jr. was Mr. March, playing a character a good bit nicer than the real life one he was based on, and Virginia Yanoff did a very credible job as cranky Aunt March. And let’s not forget John Munn as Professor Frederich Bhaer, who, like Marley, seems to be visited nightly by the ghost of accents past.

A lovely and very workable set by Dylan Twiner, lighting by Niclas Olson, and delicious costuming by Kelli McGowan and Diane Runkel, aided by wigs and hair (as well as props) by Jeffrey Weaver all contributed to this extremely well crafted production.

In other words, everything about this play is right except possibly the property itself. It’s like eating a meringue; it’s delicious, but you walk away without having gotten any real sustenance. Still, it is lovely to eat, so if you are female, home and hearth inclined, or simply an aficionado of fine theatre craftsmanship, put this on your attendance list for the season.

Little Women
Nov. 7 to Nov. 30, 2014
Lakewood Playhouse

Friday, October 31, 2014

Tea at Dukesbay Theater

Shadows on the Rising Sun
by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Kathy Hsieh, Susan Mayeno, Eloisa Cardone, Aya Hashiguchi, Joy Misako St. Germain         Photo by Jason Ganwich

 Dukesbay Productions opened its season last night with a flawless and gripping presentation of Velina Hasu Houston’s play Tea. With it, the fledgling company has definitively affirmed its credentials as a top notch theatre group, laying to rest any suspicion that last year’s Driving Miss Daisy was merely a fluke. Yes, they still dispense such candy floss as Java Tacoma, but clearly, they can deliver the goods as well.

The play opens as the lights go up on a beautiful, crisply serene teahouse with low table, sliding shoji screens, and a sweeping, sumi-e style backdrop. Foreshadowing the conflicts to come, Kate Smith sings “God Bless America,” followed by Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” which in turn gives way to a calming, traditional, Japanese samisen song. In spite of appearances, we are just outside Ft. Riley in Junction City, Kansas, and the year is 1968.

Himiko (Eloisa Cardone) steps out on stage, barefoot and bewigged, her forlornly slack kimono draped over her “American” dress. She launches into a powerfully heart-wrenching disgorgement of emotion, revealing years of pain, disappointment, and betrayal. Then, with dignity and hope both exhausted, she takes her own life.

From that moment on, the five women of Tea will hold you in thrall through an intimate, deeply evocative journey into the lives and travails of Japanese “war brides” striving  to survive in post-war America.

By the time the virtual curtain dropped some 90 minutes later, my stomach was clenched and my mouth parched. This play was that powerful.

While gathered to deal with the aftermath of Himiko’s suicide, four other brides, each with a decidedly different story and finely crafted characters to match, sip tea and recount the past so vividly it comes alive. All five, the living and dead, tell their stories through flashbacks, at times portraying their younger selves both here and in Japan, their very Americanized children, and even their occasionally boorish husbands.

All giddily in love at the time they wed, these five women had no idea what cultural bias and upheaval they’d face stateside once their military husbands brought them “home.” Aided by well-chosen costumes and props, they flesh out their stories.

There’s Himiko Hamilton, married to an abusive Southern redneck and trying to cling to her dignity in the face of egregious hurts, and magnificently brought alive in an absolutely stellar performance by Eloisa Cardone.

Like a still, deep lake, Teruko MacKenzie (Joy Misako St. Germain) is an anchor of serenity, so contentedly devoted to her husband that even her daughter feels some slight.

Setsuko Banks (Susan Mayeno ) copes surprisingly well, her Asian fortitude as her bulwark against the added disdain she had no idea would come from having married a “black” soldier.

Atsuko Yamamoto (Aya Hashiguchi) married a Japanese-American, and wears her haughty superiority proudly, seeing herself as therefore more Japanese than the others.

The most Americanized of all, Chizuye Juarez (Kathy Hsieh) wears slacks and has mastered not only English (replete with requisite nicknames,) but much of her accent as well, perhaps an overreaction to her Latino husband.

The entire ensemble cast is amazing, individually and together. These are all performances of the highest caliber, and every one of these women deserves the loftiest praise an actor can get.  

Technical support is no less. Adroitly directed by Randy Clark, the play unfolds on a wonderful set designed by Burton Yuen and built by Hector Juarez, with a divine bamboo and wood floor painted by Jen Ankrum and Blake York, and a sweeping sumi-e backdrop designed by Lois Yoshida and painted by Steve Chanfrau. Nicolas Olson and Bethany Bevier did the excellent sound and lighting design, and Jeffery Weaver assembled a flawless array of costumes and props. During one segue there’s a moving, period-evocative slide show by Mick Flaaen.

I really can’t say enough good things about this play, so I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say this is everything great theatre is meant to be; a gripping story, magnificent acting, and ideal technical support. In short, this is one production you really don’t want to miss. 
Oct. 30 to Nov. 16, 2014
Dukesbay Theater