Saturday, March 29, 2014

Java Tacoma: The Merry Wives Americano at Dukesbay

A grab bag of gags
by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Aya Hashiguchi, Marie Tjernlund, Chevi Chung                          Photo by Jason Ganwich

In her curtain speech, Aya Hashiguchi described this play quite accurately, though perhaps unintentionally, as “63 minutes, just like television.” Java Tacoma: The Merry Wives Americano at Dukesbay Theater is the fourth installment of a series set in a fictional coffeehouse called Perky’s, and true to Aya’s words, it had more in common with a TV sitcom, or gentle improv, than a true play.  

Leave your expectations of story arc, plot build, and denouement at home. You won’t find them here, but that’s not to say you won’t be entertained. In spite of less than ideal pacing, a dearth of ensemble cohesion, and a storyline that barely exists, this turned out to be a very pleasant hour, with the laughs sprinkled liberally throughout like the nuts in a good almond bark.

Oh, there’s a plot bit about a cop (Micheal O’Hara) named Frank Coppola (get it? Cop, Coppola, Francis Ford… oh, never mind) trying to shake down the coffee shop owners after an accidental death, but it’s silly, easy to see through, pointless, and completely unrelated to its namesake Merry Wives of Windsor. Forget all that and instead enjoy the unexpected mix of funny non-sequiturs, low puns, impressions, charmingly exaggerated characters, and Tacoma-based inside jokes.

This is a world where people and props show up for no apparent reason other than to be a conduit for gags. Thus, a karaoke machine with no plot relevance whatever allows several cast members, individually and in groups, to indulge in intentionally amateurish but surprisingly enjoyable bouts of show tunes and oldies. It also lets two characters argue for no apparent reason about how to pronounce karaoke. See what I mean?

Some characters fill the same ad hoc role. John (John Pfaffe), a mostly irrelevant but charming customer, breezes in, complete with makeshift costumes, to do rapid-fire impersonations of classic lines and characters from popular movies, from Darth Vader and Princess Leia to Clint Eastwood and Jimmy Cagney. And you know what? He’s thoroughly entertaining! So is Kate, perfectly overplayed by Marie Tjernlund, flaunting a garishly “stylish” costume and all the haughty superiority of Miss Piggy, sniping in turns at her hapless rivals, vegan baker Jeri (Susan Mayeno) and cafe owner Bert (Jack House).  

Rounding out the coffeehouse regulars are Bert’s wife Linda (Aya Hashigughi) and daughter Anna (Chevi Chung), and the highly irregular Sharry O’Hare as a delightfully inept employee who’d rather be working at Bluebeard, another local reference that is trotted out enough times to make you wonder if they paid for product placement.

Although there is no costumer listed, costumes were very solid, adding to both the humor and character identity. Pay particular attention to the shoes, some of which are simply wonderful.

Changes in lighting (by Ali Criss) are used to direct our focus on this simple but effective set (by director Randy Clark), and included the unusual use of a gobo “window light,” instead of the more traditional blue lights, to allow safe scene changes. Sound design was by Joe Kelly with original music by Allan J. Loucks. Though I don’t usually mention the set painter, this time it’s worth a nod. Take a long, close look at the superb fake wooden floor painted by Jen Ankrum.

For whatever reason, this tossed together collection of random silliness actually works, and along with some delightful characters, creates a funny and worthwhile night of featherweight theatre.

Java Tacoma
March28 to April 13, 2014
Dukesbay Productions

Friday, March 14, 2014

Chapter Two at TLT

The second time’s the charm
by Michael Dresdner

    Brynne Garman, Robert Alan Barnett                                                       all photos by DK Photography

Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play Chapter Two, now at Tacoma Little Theatre, is in turns a funny, tender, anguished, poignant story of love the second time around. The script is reputedly based on the playwright’s meeting with and marriage to Marsha Mason shortly after his first wife died.

Under the direction of Alyson Soma, an ensemble cast of four outstanding actors soars in this superbly written play. Simply put, this production is magnificent, all the way around.   

George Schneider (Robert Alan Barnett) is coming off the perfect 12-year marriage after losing the love of his life to cancer. He’s not ready to move on, but that doesn’t stop his well-meaning brother Leo (Kent Phillips) from arranging dates for him. Across town, Jennie Malone (Brynne Garman), recently divorced after a bad six year marriage, is similarly pushed into dating by her friend Faye Medwick (Holly Rose). Curiously, the two matchmakers, Leo and Faye, are in unhappy marriages and exorcise their demons with an extra-marital dalliance or two.

Kent Phillips, Holly Rose

When George and Jennie reluctantly meet, the sparks are immediate. We get to watch the awkwardness, joy, and witty repartee of a clever, well-matched couple doing the mating dance while dashing headlong into almost immediate wedding plans.

However, George’s baggage soon catches up with him. He begins to derail this near perfect love out of fear that embracing this joy means being untrue to his mourning, and to the memory of his equally perfect deceased wife. As his anguish engulfs him, stalwart and loving Jennie tries to find the right words, and the right way, to prevent this new love from shattering.

An ideal ensemble cast, and this surely is one, contains actors who are excellent at crafting their characters on their own, but who also have seamless and dynamic chemistry with one another.

Kent Phillips, Robert Alan Barnett

Barnett convincingly goes through the ups, downs, and doubts of coping with both loss and love, pairing beautifully with Phillips, as his adroitly played, upbeat, somewhat cavalier brother Leo. Similarly, Garman and Rose, each ideal in their individual characters, share an almost sisterly bond that rivals that of the men.

  Brynne Garman, Holly Rose 

Barnett and Garman, as the newly enamored couple, are thoroughly convincing and a delight to watch together. Truth be told, there is more than a trace of Marsha Mason, on whom the character is based, in Garman’s strong and deeply devoted Jennie.

A clever and well-designed split set, built by Blake R. York and designed by Curt Hetherington and Bill Huls (who also did lighting and sound design, respectively) lets us see George’s and Jennie’s apartments side by side, merging as if by magic in a shared sofa, with lighting used to focus our attention on wherever the action is. Michele Graves does a fine job with costumes (the 1977 play is moved to more or less the present time) using them to help delineate the personalities of the characters. Ditto for Jeffrey Weaver’s props, again, deftly expressing the personalities of the apartments’ owners.

The last word? A great script, a terrific cast, and unfailing offstage support have joined to create a completely delightful theatre experience, and one you definitely should not miss.

Chapter Two
March 14th to March 30th, 2014
Tacoma Little Theatre

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

12 Angry Men at Lakewood Playhouse

 Zoo Storyor Fear and Loathing on the Acting Trail
by Michael Dresdner

    The cast of 12 Angry Men                                                                       Photos by Kate Paterno-Lick

Here’s the good news/bad news, folks. I won’t be reviewing 12 Angry Men at Lakewood Playhouse (you decide whether that’s good or bad news) because I am in the cast.

Instead, I’ll supply a peek behind the testosterone curtain and reveal what it is like to be in a man-cave of this magnitude; a play with nothing but men in the cast, and thirteen of them at that. 

But first, I need to deal with the fear and loathing comment.

Truth be told, the normal theatrical fear has been eliminated in this play thanks to one cast member who shall remain nameless. I’ll get to him in a minute.

By fear, I refer to every actor’s greatest dread: “going up.”  It means being on stage in front of an audience with no earthly idea what your next line is. The silence is deafening.

This is the stuff of literal nightmares for most actors. My own personal version, which I normally have at least twice with every show I do, has me in the wings, knowing my entrance is nigh, not only with no idea of my lines but no clue as to the nature of the play itself. I grab other actors and ask them “Can you at least tell me what this play is about, so I can make something up?” About that time I usually wake up and quickly remind myself that someday I’ll grow up to be a reviewer and will no longer have to suffer these night sweats.

At any rate, that can’t happen in this show. Why? Because one cast member has, remarkably, memorized THE ENTIRE PLAY and adroitly inserts the correct line whenever anyone goes up. We all love him for it, but most of us think he’s actually a flesh-toned robot, since no real human could do this. He’s like the Deep Blue of live theatre.

The best part of any all-male cast is the notable lack of backstage drama, something that varies with the composition of the cast. At the “way too much drama” end are plays heavily populated by a mixture of both sexes of hormone-infused teenage actors. Plays like that should issue seatbelts, because trust me, they’re a rocky ride, replete with the angst-ridden lovelorn forever donning sack cloth and ashes because of the fickle affections of fellow thespians.

In the middle are the normal mixed-gender plays, with their olio of mild flirting, awkward conversations, and dressing room fights over whether it’s way too hot or way too cold, who owns the makeup that eight people have now used, and whether or not you have a legal right to a particular spot at the mirror simply because you’ve adorned it with something of yours in a theatrical version of peeing on one’s territory.

This play has none of that. Instead, there’s an odd mix of helpfulness and the obligatory male, insult-laden banter, delivered with more affection than vituperation. We may be 12 Angry Men on stage, but we’re frighteningly amenable in the green room. Perhaps the contrast is part of it; several people, notably jurors #3 and #10, release plenty of rage on the boards in what must be a very cleansing ritual, and almost everyone gets to pop off at least once.

Maybe that’s the real secret behind creating good theater; balancing the natural lunacy of actors with a healthy outlet for their mishegas. (It’s a Yiddish word meaning “craziness.”) That and plenty of air freshener.

At any rate, what has emerged onstage is a surprisingly good version of a surprisingly good play. Although I have a hard time seeing it fairly from the inside (I see mostly warts and flies), I’m told by those I respect that it is a damned good play indeed.

Perhaps you should take their word for it and come see for yourself. Hey, you can always come back to this blog and post your comments if you disagree too vehemently.

12 Angry Men
Feb. 21 through March 16, 2014
Lakewood Playhouse

Friday, February 7, 2014

True Love: The Cole Porter Love Songbook at Centerstage

The Perfect Valentine 
by Michael Dresdner  

This year, David Duvall, in the guise of Purple Phoenix Productions, has come up with the perfect concert/performance for Valentine’s Day weekend. 

Four outstanding Seattle-based singers – Laurie Clothier, Connie Corrick, Hugh Hastings, and Eric Polani Jensen – backed by Duvall’s outstanding 9-piece Purple Phoenix Orchestra will present True Love: The Cole Porter Love Songbook at Centerstage.

This is a perfect pairing; Porter is the ultimate writer of love songs, and Duvall’s arrangements are consistently superb. In fact, this is Duvall’s tenth tribute to Cole Porter.

Struggling to remember some of the Cole Porter songs you adore? Let me help. In this heartstring-tugging concert you’ll hear, among others, It’s De-Lovely, At Long Last Love, I Get a Kick Out of You, Easy to Love, Let’s Do It Let’s Fall in Love, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, What is This Thing Called Love?, My Heart Belongs to Daddy, Just One of Those Things, Begin the Beguine, From This Moment On, Night and Day, and of course, the title song, True Love.

There are only two shows being offered; one on Saturday evening at 8 pm  on February 15th, and the other a matinee on Sunday afternoon at 2 pm on February 16th

If you’ve been to other concert performances staged by Duvall, you already know that they are a divine, exhilarating, non-stop tidal wave of amazing music performed by equally amazing musicians. If you haven’t been to one… well, what are you waiting for? Take advantage of this Valentine’s Day treat and experience one of the finest performance juggernauts the Puget Sound has ever produced.   

True Love: The Cole Porter Love Songbook
Feb. 15th and 16th, 2014

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Nerd at Centerstage

It’s all geek to me

by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Chip Wood, Brandon Brown, David Gehrman, Jenny Vaughn Hall

The Nerd is one of the funniest plays ever written. It’s frequently performed by local theatre groups, but rarely this well. Centerstage has put together a terrific director and an absolutely superb cast. It is laugh out loud funny, fast paced, and totally delightful, but there’s only one week left to see it.

The play was written by Larry Shue and is directed by John Dillon, who directed the first production of it. According to the program notes, he also helped convince Shue to write this tale of a nerd who comes to visit and comically upends several peoples’ lives. 

Willum Cubbert, a dejected architect, is unhappy with his current job and about to lose his girlfriend, Tansy McGinnis, who wants to move east for a job as a TV weathergirl. His friend and neighbor, Axel Hammond, wants to prod Willum out of his rut, apparently by constantly peppering their three-way conversations with barbs of hilarious, snarky sarcasm. 

Years before, Willum was wounded in Vietnam and his life was saved by one Rick Steadman, who disappeared before Willum awoke in the hospital. A grateful Willum wrote to the elusive hero telling him he’d do anything for him at any time.  When Rick eventually shows up, he turns out to be a loud, hilariously annoying, clueless doofus. Homeless, Rick moves in, and in short order his antics drive everyone to distraction, ultimately causing Willum to do something rash and life-changing.

L to R: David Gehrman, Brandon Brown (in bag)
The play needs the perfect actor to play the nerd, and David Gehrman is it. With pants pulled up to his chest, a pocket protector in his shirt, and glasses repaired with adhesive tape over the bridge, his rubber-faced expressions, loud braying voice, gawky posturing, and absurdly illogical actions were both hilarious and cringe-worthy. He makes the audience roar while making life hell for the grateful but hapless Willum (Brandon Brown) and the sweet, patient Tansy (Jenny Vaughn Hall). Adding spice to the mix is Axel, played with delicious acidity by Chip Wood, who comes off like a youngish Tony Randall blessed with the wickedly well-timed humor of Paul Lynde.

Then there’s David Natale as Warnock Waldgrave, Willum’s boorish, bombastic hotel-building client, and his obnoxious son Thor (Shane Collins). Dealing with both, largely by breaking dishes, is his angst-ridden wife, Clelia, played by Elinor Gunn, who with her very first line made us laugh out loud and love her at the same time.

The set, by Michael Ward, was spacious and spot on, as were the props by Trista Duval. Outstanding  period and character-defining costumes by Rachel Wilke were wonderful. Added support came from lighting designer Amy Silveria and sound, including lovely between-set songs, from Johanna Melamed.  

By the way, be sure to read the director’s notes in the playbill. They are very illuminating.

As I said, there’s not much time left to see this production of The Nerd at Centerstage, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a smoother, funnier iteration of this gem anywhere.

The Nerd
Jan. 24 through Feb. 9, 2014

Monday, January 27, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird at TLT

The Children’s Crusade
by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Gunnar Johnson, Jim Rogers, Liberty Evans-Agnew                       Photos by DK Photography

There’s an adage in theatre; avoid sharing the stage with dogs or children, as they are sure to steal the audience. Tacoma Little Theatre’s production of the classic play To Kill a Mockingbird proves just that with three young performers grabbing the limelight, not with banal cuteness, but with bona fide acting chops. With several outstanding adult performances adding to the mix, this is a play worth watching.

Set in 1935 in Maycomb, Alabama, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story of bigotry and its antithesis, personified by a town full of people who are often both more and less than they appear to be, is told through the eyes of a young girl named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. She, her brother Jeremy “Jem” Finch, and neighbor Charles Barker “Dill” Harris (a character based on Lee’s real life childhood neighbor and friend Truman Capote) spend their time enjoying a bucolic youth and speculating on the reclusive and mysterious Arthur “Boo” Radley.

Turmoil rears its head when her single father, lawyer Atticus Finch, is asked to defend a local black man accused of beating and raping a trashy white woman named Mayella Ewell. The charge is leveled by her worthless, arrogant father, Bob Ewell. Atticus must stand alone against intense bigotry in this segregated town, and ends up humiliating the Ewells in court. Despite his valiant efforts, his hapless and clearly innocent client is convicted, then killed by a racist mob.

Scout, Jem, and Dill try to make sense of it all, aided by Atticus’ understated wisdom but often challenged by the almost universal racism of the rest of the town. When a drunk and angry Bob Ewell attacks Jem and Scout as they return from a school pageant, they are saved by a silent, shadowy giant who kills Ewell before carrying an unconscious Jem home. Scout is surprised to find their savior is the painfully shy “Boo” Radley. Atticus and sheriff Heck Tate must then figure out how to balance honesty with morality in resolving the dilemma of how to deal with this heroic murder. 

In Lee’s original book, a grown up Scout recounts the events that deeply affected her and her values. The play version by Christopher Sergel, directed here by Jennifer Niehaus-Rivers and Martin J. Mackenzie, replaces the adult Scout’s reminiscing with a neighbor who provides the exposition. While Heidi Walworth-Horn was excellent as the neighbor/narrator Maudie Atkinson, I prefer the original concept of a story told in recollection by Scout. In addition, while the book and movie transition fluidly through vignettes that create the backstory, the play scenes are more disjointed, especially in the first act, robbing the story of some of its energy.

    L to R: Austin Kuetgens Brooks, Liberty Evans-Agnew

When it came to the acting, youth led the way. The children playing Jem (Gunnar Johnson) and Dill (Austin Kuetgens Brooks) were flat-out excellent, but the jewel of the crown was Liberty Evans-Agnew in the lead role of Scout. Beyond great stage presence, which all three exhibited, Evans-Agnew clearly “got” who Scout was, and presented the disarmingly appealing character clearly, accurately, and charmingly.

Also endearing were a delightfully cranky Wanda Moats as the aged, infirm neighbor Mrs. Dubose, and an actor who is obviously also a talented singer, Marion Read, playing a convincing Calpurnia.

Speaking of women, Zenaida Smith’s portrayal of the duplicitous, cowed Mayella Ewell was chillingly good, creating a deeply moving character from a role that could easily have devolved into a shallow stereotype in the hands of a lesser actor. For that matter, the same could be said about Mitch Burrow portraying her father, Bob Ewell, who was real enough to be frightening.

Some of the other supporting roles were worth a respectful nod as well, like Travis Barnett covering both Boo and Nathan Radley, Frank Tompson as a quite realistic Judge Taylor, Noah Nieves Driver as the timorous but indignant Tom Robinson, and Kerry Bringman as the curiously unbigoted sheriff Heck Tate.  

To be truthful, there were weaknesses in the production. Based strictly on opening night, I’d say a good bit of air can be squeezed out of it. Erratic and sometimes slow pacing caused it to lose some of the dramatic energy it deserves and needs. Even Jim Rogers’ noble and reserved Atticus came off rather pallid and unsure, also contributing to the play’s inconsistent energy. Fortunately, these things frequently affect opening nights, so I expect they will clean themselves up in later performances as the actors become more sure of themselves and their lines.

A rather complex set by Blake R. York worked surprisingly well, aided by moving furniture and props by Katelyn Simpson, and lighting by Pavlina Morris. Unobtrusive music and sound by Darren Hembd helped subtly set the time and scene, as did costumes by Michelle Graves. Dialect coach Syra Beth Puett also deserves an offstage nod for successfully injecting a plausible southern accent into a gaggle of Pacific Northwest actors.

Weaknesses aside, it’s a powerful and moving play with enough top-notch acting to help you easily overlook its challenges, and even those are likely to evaporate by the second weekend of its run. In short, I’d suggest you put To Kill a Mockingbird at Tacoma Little Theatre on your “well worth your time” list.  

To Kill a Mockingbird
Jan. 24 to Feb. 9, 2014
Tacoma Little Theatre

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Lakewood

True Gritty
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Niclas R. Olson, Kirsten Deane, Steve Tarry                            All photos by Kate Paterno-Lick

This month, Lakewood Playhouse has chosen to put on Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a play that is widely acclaimed, yet not easy to watch. It takes the audience deep into the midst of a dysfunctional marriage mired in not physical, but rather emotional sado-masochism.

This is hardly the first work in which an artist, in this case a playwright, intentionally pushes the audience well outside their comfort zone in an attempt to show a particular slice of life, engender a gut response, or simply shake up viewers. Thus, while it is a finely crafted play that is well executed by this director, cast, and crew, it is nevertheless, not for everyone.

Perhaps I should stop and quickly explain my goals in reviewing a play so you understand how this can be helpful to you.

First, I try to give you enough information about the play itself to decide if it is the sort of thing you would want to spend time experiencing. Second, I give you an idea of how well or poorly it was executed.

Not surprisingly, there are some plays that get rave reviews for their craft but are not going to be your cup of tea, and frankly, this may be one of them. Let’s dive in so you can decide.

George (Steve Tarry), a rather plodding college professor, and his wife, Martha (Brynne Garman), the daughter of the college’s president, are in a long marriage that has devolved into an almost constant game (his oft-repeated term) of alcohol-fueled verbal and emotional assault on one another.  They have very different styles of attack; he is witty, droll, passive-aggressive, and erudite, while she is a somewhat traditional manipulative harpy who alternately purrs, snarls, swears, and screeches.

L to R: Brynne Garman, Kirsten Deane 
Nor do they take a break from their hostilities when they invite a new young professor, Nick (Niclas R. Olson) and his sweet, naïve wife Honey (Kirsten Deane) over for drinks. As the night wears on, the older couple turns from their mutual destruction to attacking their guests, after first drawing them in to discover sufficient information to be able to truly hurt them. As Nick gets drunker, he responds combatively in kind, while his wife repeatedly retreats to the bathroom to vomit out both the pain and the alcohol.

In time we get the sense that some of this vituperation is for show, some for the sport of the game, and perhaps some to elicit a response from their guests. Still the “game” is played with verbal barbs that are not blunted for safety, and everyone gets wounded. However, at the very end of the play it becomes clear that, at least for George and Martha, this really is a game; a dangerous one, perhaps, but one they can put away at the end of the night and envelop back into their marriage of need, if not love, for one another.

Larry Albert’s directing was excellent, as was the very challenging work by the small, four-person cast. Tarry, who as George gets the cleverest lines of well-crafted word play, did a wonderful job of bringing an overlay of calm and an almost Will Rogers style wisdom to the maelstrom. With a mature aplomb, he’d slide his barbs in like a shiv, leaving the more direct battering to Garman’s Martha.  Olson and Deane did a fine transformation from fresh-faced and sober to decaying drunks, a change that was particularly well nuanced by Deane’s innocent Honey.

A simple, appropriate set (James Venturini), lighting (Amanda Swegen), set dressing (Hally Phillips), and sound (John Burton) all helped create the scene. Diane Runkel’s costumes established the time period nicely, with Nick’s iconic tie almost single-handedly telling us the year. In short, it was an excellent production, if you like that sort of thing.

And there’s the rub. If theatre for you is something to make you cheerful at the end of the night, this play won’t do it. However, if biting drama that will take you through realistically gut wrenching emotional upheaval is a ride you favor, come see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Lakewood Playhouse.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Jan. 10 to Feb. 2, 2014
Lakewood Playhouse