Saturday, June 2, 2018

Macbeth at TLT

By the pricking of my thumbs…
by Michael Dresdner

Seyton (Nicholas Anderson), Donnalbain (Kyle Yoder), Duncan (Dennis Worrell) , Macduff (Rodman Bolek)                        Photos by  Dennis K Photography
Tacoma Little Theatre chose a very solid and enjoyable production of Macbeth, directed by pug Bujeaud, to close out its 99th season. An outstanding cast working on a minimalist set by Erin Manza Chanfrau did just what should be done with Shakespeare; allow the words and the acting to work their magic without undue distraction from costumes, surroundings, or props.

I’m aware that everyone already knows the story, but let me frame it in just a couple of lines that will both recap the tale’s arc and provide an explanation of why it is still so relevant today.  

Macbeth, spurred on by both his nagging wife’s ambition and a prophecy from three witches that he’ll be king of Scotland, murders the king and usurps the throne. Of course, it does not end there. His fear spurs him to kill any other potential threats, including his close friend and ally Banquo. Another pair of prophecies by the witches convince him he’s invincible, but their words contain trickery making them technically true, but easily misconstrued by the egomaniacal Macbeth.

In other words, it’s a cautionary tale about how a disastrous combination of ego, paranoia, and unbridled political ambition can wreak havoc on a country.

Sound familiar?

As I said, the cast was excellent, but since it’s such a large cast, allow me to call out just a few of the leads.

Macbeth (Dylan Twiner) & Lady Macbeth (Kathryn Philbrook)
Macbeth (Dylan Twiner) and Lady Macbeth (Kathryn Philbrook), two roles that demand intense passion and emotion, were both superbly crafted by actors comanding a deep and convincing span of emotions. Philbrook’s “out damned spot” scene in particular was one of the best I’ve seen, replete with some sneaky prop assistance. 

Malcolm (Jacob Tice) & Macduff (Rodman Bolek)
The same can be said for Macduff (Rodman Bolek) and Malcolm (Jacob Tice), who also met their emotionally damanding scenes with admirable range and rage. For that matter, Jonathan Hart also deserves a call-out for fine nugget of acting in a very minor role. 
Ross (Maddox Pratt), Angus (Sean Raybell), Banquo (Jessica Weaver) & Macbeth (Dylan Twiner)
There’s some gender shuffling, rather to be expected with this director. One of the weird sisters (witches) is male (Ethan Bujeaud,) but it absolutely worked. Even more to the point, Banquo (Jessica Weaver) is female. Weaver was masterful at clarifying the unusual Shakespearean phrases, but what really made this work was how well she captured the nature and character of Banquo, something vastly more important than his/her gender.

As I said, there were no weak spots in the cast. They all deserve the bows they took.

Witch (Kaylie Hussey), Witch (Ethan Bujeaud), Hecate (Laurice Roberts) & Witch (Jackie V.C.)
This was all played out on an industrial dark set filled with pipes and concrete stained with grime and blood. It was meant, I suppose, to evoke a distopian present, where swords shine when modern weaponry is no longer reliable. If you are a fan of minimalist sets, and I am, you’ll find they work beautifully with a production whose acting and content easily stand on their own. As for the change in venue, I felt it neither aided nor distracted from this excellent presentation.

Bujeaud used the set in some clever ways. For instance, the behind-the-scrim, foot-stomping march of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane was particularly effective and even a bit intimidating.     

Lighting (Niclas Olson) worked well with the set to create both color and mood changes, amplified by Dylan Twiner’s sound design. Costumes (Michele Graves) were interesting, but somewhat uneven, with a smattering of kilts and tartans sharing billing with drab, utilitarian shirts and trousers, no doubt to convey that this is no longer the old Scotland. Even the witches wore inconsistent garb, as opposed to the more traditional “clearly we’re all the same and thoroughly eerie” outfits we normally see.

Freddy Tse did yeoman service as the fight choreographer in a play heavily laden with finely executed and often quite complex fight scenes. And as is often the case with a play this complex, stage manager Nena Curley deserves her own accolades.

All in all, this was a strong and enjoyable presentation to wrap up the season, and a good segue to a 100th year that many of us TLT fans are anticipating with great pleasure. If you are a Shakespeare fan, or even just a fan of Macbeth, this is an ideal opportunity to see it done brilliantly by some of the South Sound’s best.

June 1 to 17, 2018
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Little Shop of Horrors at Lakewood

Little shop, big rewards
by Michael Dresdner

Seymour (Niclas Olson) with Audrey II     all photos by Tim Johnston 

Little Shop of Horrors, the perpetually popular, delightfully campy, energetically silly musical, opened last night at Lakewood Playhouse to a well-deserved sold out house.

As it was directed by Chris Serface, I was expecting great things, and I was in no way disappointed. Serface has (again) assembled a fantastic cast of triple threat singing and dancing actors backed up by an equally stellar production crew. The result is a near-perfect version of an enchantingly fun musical laced with lovable (and lovably evil) characters, great music and dance numbers, non-stop action, and enough humor to keep the audience enthralled from curtain to curtain. In short, you’re in for a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Baby Audrey II with Seymour (Niclas Olson) 
Little Shop started out life in 1960 as a B movie, reputedly based on a 1932 short story about a man-eating plant. The 1983 musical version retained both a wealth of 60’s cultural references (Howdy Doody, plastic furniture covers, Levittown) and a modest dose of Jewish humor, all atop a score interwoven with upbeat period music, including doo wop, classic rock and roll, and even a bit of Motown.

Mr. Mushkin (Tim McFarlan) 
Sweet (and sweet voiced) nerd Seymour (Niclas Olson) works for gruff but likeable Mr. Mushnik (Tim McFarlan) at his failing skid row flower shop. Just after an eclipse, Seymour finds and buys an odd plant that seems to thrive only on human blood. He names it Audrey II after his beautiful but ditzy co-worker, Audrey (Jennifer Redston), a wonderful blend of Betty Boop cuteness and blonde cluelessness wrapped in a Bowery accent.

Crazy dentist Orin (Will Johnson), Seymour (Niclas Olson) 
Though she’s the secret love of Seymour’s life, Audrey is in an abusive relationship with a hilariously sadistic dentist (Will Johnson.) Johnson, a relative newcomer to Lakewood and acting alike, absolutely commands the stage in what is surely a break-out performance as the giddily twisted, gas-inhaling dentist, then returns in a handful of other guises. With a fine array of voices, postures, facial expressions, and mannerisms, he’s a veritable one-man-band of on-stage entertainment. This is definitely someone to watch.

As Audrey II grows ever larger, the plant brings fame and fortune to the shop while helping to sort out troublesome individuals, but what happens when the “bad guys” are all eaten and the plant is still hungry? 

Ronnette (Brittany Griffins) Audrey (Jennifer Redston) Crystal (Antoinette Nicole Bridges) Chiffon (Joelle Craft)
Tying things together is a thoroughly engaging doo wop trio with names reminiscent of the “girl groups” of the 60’s. Crystal (Antoinette Nicole Bridges), Ronnette (Brittany Griffins), and Chiffon (Joelle Craft), in exaggerated bouffant hairdos and bobby sox outfits, act as a Greek chorus to fill in background story lines with sixties era song and dance. They are one of the many high points of a play simply bristling with top-notch singing, dancing, and acting.

And let’s not forget Audrey II, an increasingly larger and more menacing series of puppets voiced by the multi-talented Eric Clausell and manipulated by James Wrede, reprising his puppeteer role as Tacoma Little Theatre’s Audrey II five years ago.

Audrey (Jennifer Redston), Audrey II, Seymour (Niclas Olson) 
The charming revolving set by Blake York, arguably the South Sound’s best set designer, was a perfect background for the efforts of a very talented production crew. Karrie Morrison handled the wonderful props and set dressing, and lighting design was by Kate Wilson. The costumes, which were an absolute hoot, are thanks to Blayne Fujita. Make sure you get a gander at the back of the dentist’s coat. We can thank TLT's Jeffery Swiney-Weaver for the superb and hilarious wigs and hairdos. 

An excellent live pit band (LaMont Atkinson, James Vincent Sloan, Joseph Ralston) was led by musical director Zachary Kellogg, and supplementary sound design was by Artistic Director John Munn. The masterful choreography was thanks to Heather Covington Malroy. Finally, let’s tip a hat to stage manager Ana Bury, more often seen either on stage or painting it.

Theatre regulars might have noticed that Serface and John Munn, the artistic directors of TLT and Lakewood respectively, have lately been “trading places” by each directing a play at the other’s theatre. This is just one of many cooperative initiatives that’s been raising the bar at both theatres.  

I really can’t say enough good things about this whole production, but I can tell you it all adds up to an evening of non-stop fun. Even though it has a month-long run, expect it to sell out, so get your tickets early. Frankly, this is a wonderful way to end a theatre season.

Little Shop of Horrors
May 25 to June 24, 2018
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Pillowman at TLT

The Brothers Grimm
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Andrew Fry, Jacob Tice, Christian Carvajal.   Photos by Dennis K Photography

The Pillowman, a violent, darkly malevolent, yet comedy infused drama by Martin Mcdonagh (The Cripple of Inishmaan, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) opened last night at Tacoma Little Theatre. The play marks the TLT directorial debut of Blake York, the man I regard as the region’s best set designer. If this is any example, he’s equally skilled as a director.  

While I always try to give my readers enough of an overview to help them decide if a particular offering is or is not their cup of tea, this one will be hard to box up without giving away things that should remain the audience’s discoveries. Thus, if this sounds flighty or insufficient, I apologize, but you deserve to take this journey of discovery without too many spoiler alerts.

Jacob Tice as Katurian 
The action takes place in a uniformly gray and imposing brick interrogation room where two contrastingly different totalitarian state “bulls” put the screws, both verbally and physically, to a prolific writer of fiction ridiculously named Katurian Katurian. As part of their tactics, the benighted writer must endure the screams of his mentally challenged brother Michael, whom Katurian spent much of his life protecting, going through a similar ordeal in the next room.

L to R: Jacob Tice, Sean Neely as Michael 

As his stories and the interrogators’ questions unfold, it is clear that a favorite topic of his is the torture and killing of children, often by their own natural or foster parents. But as writing is not yet a crime in this dystopian world, he’s puzzled as to why he’s there until he’s told that someone has been acting out his gruesome stories in real life. When he’s put in his brother’s cell, he discovers his slow-witted sibling is the perpetrator of this horrid reality.

Or is he?

Katurian himself confesses to six murders, including both of his parents, but soon after it’s made clear that at least some of these killings did not actually happen. Yes, there are definitely absurdist influences afoot, which my reviewing partner likened to Waiting For Godot. By the end, we’re really not sure of anything exept that one or another individual said this or that happened. Reality and truth remain as elusive as they are in real life.

Along with his finely crafted directing, York pulled together an absolutely superb cast for what is essentially a four-man play. Katurian is none other than Jacob Tice, a local actor who invariably excels at every single role he takes, and this challenging part is no exception. Playing off him in a long, terse, emotionally charged scene as his mentally stunted brother is Sean Neely, who did an outstanding and believable job of crafting a complex character who borders on insightful clarity while being saddled with physical tics and a confused moral compass.

L to R: Jacob Tice, Christian Carvajal as bad cop Ariel

The two interrogators, good cop Tupolski (Andrew Fry) and bad cop Ariel (Christian Carvajal) hold up their end just as admirably, deftly manipulating the tension in the room while sprinkling it with the occasional disarmingly comic comment. While the arc of the play is grimly serious, the random injection of noir comedy affords the put-upon audience both relief and texture.

At times, when Katurian tells one of the more than 400 stories he wrote, the walls of the cell slide away to let us see his words unfold. This action, played out by Ellen Peters, Tim Takechi, Alexandria Bray, and Nathaniel Walker, takes place on the other side of a backlit scrim, so we see it as a crisply defined shadow show. Once the story ends, we are back in the gray cell.

As we’ve come to expect at TLT, the technical side is most adroitly handled by “the usual suspects,” the theatre’s laudable stable of resident artists, though in this case, the story itself is so gripping that it’s easy to overlook their contributions. Director Blake York also designed the set, Michele Graves handled the costumes, Niclas Olson the lighting, Dylan Twiner the sound design, and Jeffrey Weaver the props, hair, and makeup. Ana Bury is the resident scenic artist, and the ever-capable Nena Curley is the stage manager.

Admittedly, this is not a night of jollity, but wrapped in its grim cloak there’s a rollercoaster ride of ethical challenges and intense emotions that effectively drag the audience through a visceral magic carpet ride. If the goal of a play is to make you feel and think deeply, this one gets an A plus, and it is hard to imagine a more flawless cast and crew to execute it.

How does it all shake out? Perhaps the best way to wrap it up is to paraphrase one of the lines of the play. “In real life there are no happy endings.”

Still, if your goal is seeing truly great theatre, here’s your chance. Gird your emotions, but go see it.

The Pillowman
April 20 to May 6, 2018
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Peter and the Starcatcher at Lakewood

by Michael Dresdner

Yes! A battle of sailing ships at sea!  All photos by Tim Johnston 

Tomorrow is Easter, Passover, April Fool’s Day, and even my granddaughter’s birthday; an eclectic confluence of mostly unrelated events all falling on one day. Thus, it is fitting that Lakewood Playhouse chose this weekend to roll out the fast-paced, highly enjoyable, comedic hodge-podge that is Peter and the Starcatcher.

The play, adapted by Rick Elice and directed by John Munn, unfolds just as you’d expect of something written by comedy writer Dave Barry and adventure author Ridley Pearson. It’s an unlikely concatenation of action and gags thrown together like a teenager’s plate on a buffet line; all appetizers and dessert. Everything is delicious, but you’d hardly call it a well-structured culinary presentation.

Lost boys, L to R: Boy (Emily Cohen),  Prentiss (Gunnar Ray), Ted (Nigel Kelley) 

There is a bit of a plot, convoluted and tinged with magic, that more or less sets up the famous story Peter Pan. We learn why Peter and the lost boys never grow up (magic star stuff that lets them relive their missed youth, stolen at an abusive orphanage), how Captain Hook lost his hand (nope, not to a crocodile), and why Wendy’s mother both remembers Peter Pan and allows him to abscond with her daughter.

Mostly, though, it is a platform to allow actors to zip through all their talents; acting, singing, dancing, and comedy, through fast-paced physical and aural gags, all with a vague air of improv about it. It’s a pastiche of all your comedy favorites, with hints of Marx Brothers, Monty Python, The Princess Bride, Blazing Saddles (yes, there are fart jokes), and many more.

Front: Kyle Sinclair. Back row: Chap Wolff, Milton Manase, Tony L. Williams, 

Fortunately, for this sort of thing only works with exceptional actors, the cast was well-chosen to pull off this rubber-faced and rubber-limbed mayhem. Leading the pack is Black Stache, played by Kyle Sinclair, an actor simply dripping with stage presence, agility, and great comic delivery. He would have stolen the show if it weren’t for so much outstanding competition from the rest of the cast.

L to R: Martin Larson, McKenna Sanford

Next up is Mrs. Bumbrake, the nanny of female lead Molly (McKenna Sanford). Bumbrake is played by Martin Larson, who delightfully minces his way into the hearts of those who loved Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage. Playing off him, and keeping up at every turn, is the bizarre, multi-faceted, love-smitten Alf (W. Scott Pinkston.)

L to R: Kyle Sinclair, James Wrede 

Young Ms. Sanford as Molly easily holds her own, though she and her father, Lord Aster, rendered with stoic imperialism by James Wrede, are the most normal and serious of the lot, which is not saying much. The Boy who will eventually become Peter is, true to form, played most adroitly by a woman (remember Mary Martin?) named Emily Cohen, who, as it turns out, was also the fight choreographer. Filling out the lost boy trio quite nicely are Ted (Parker Dean) and Prentiss (Gunnar Ray).

L to R: Gunnar Ray, McKenna Sanford, Parker Dean 

More silliness, singing, dancing, and flamboyantly clever production numbers ensue from the rest of this gaggle of talent, including Tony L. Williams as Bill Slank/Hawking Clam, Chap Wolf as the wonderful sidekick Smee, Aaron Mohs-Hale as Captain Scott, Milton Manase in several roles, mostly as a low-life heavy, and the diminutive Nigel Kelley as the island king Fighting Prawn. In short, it’s an outstanding cast with a huge mix of talents.

They had the good fortune of being supported by an equally adept crew. After proving himself again and again, Blake York has a well-earned reputation as the best set designer around. This one evokes a children’s tree house built with random found boards cobbled together haphazardly; the perfect backdrop for childhood fantasizing of anything from a castle keep to a pirate ship. Set dressing and props, and there were a lot of them, all terrific, were by Karrie Morrison.

Eclectic and interesting costumes were by Naarah McDonald, wide ranging lighting by Jacob Viramontes, and music was by Deborah Armstrong. On something as complex as this, we should also give a nod to the undoubtedly overworked stage manager Madisen Crowley.

The play is long, but the rapid-fire comedy and non-stop action make it move swiftly. It may not print itself on your memory as one of the great, epic stories, but I think it’s fair to say you’ll come away fully entertained.  

Peter and the Starcatcher
March 30 to April 22, 2018
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Jesus Christ Superstar

Thoroughly Modern Anachronism
by Michael Dresdner

All photos by Dennis K Photography

In 1970, the soon-to-be legendary duo of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a rock opera about the last week of Jesus’ life, as seen through the eyes of Judas. The result, anachronistically set in modern times but with all the period Roman references intact, is Jesus Christ Superstar, a dazzling song-and-dance extravaganza with all the dialogue delivered in song. This fast-paced, energetic, and visually stunning  version, which opened last night at Tacoma Little Theatre, is both directed and brilliantly choreographed by Lexi Barnett.

The Apostles
The play opens as his followers welcome Jesus (Bruce Hassl), replete with a Stratocaster guitar slung around his neck, to Jerusalem. Judas (Loucas T. Curry), in conflict with his close friend’s politics and his followers’ aggrandizement of him, tries to dissuade him. Judas is worried that the anti-Roman fervor and willingness to proclaim Jesus king will result in a backlash that will harm not only all of his followers, but many other Jews as well. He betrays Jesus to the priests, who are in league with the Romans and want Jesus gone. 

Apostle (Shauntal Pyper), Mary Magdelene (Allie Milburn) & Jesus (Bruce Haasl)

The rest, as they say is history – well, at least religious history – as Jesus becomes overwhelmed trying to help the sick and poor, is comforted by Mary Magdelene (Allie Milburn), has a last supper with his apostles, and eventually is taken, whipped, and crucified by the Romans.

The cast, in all its glory 

The very large ensemble cast, including dance captain Jill Heinecke, who must have had her work cut out for her, was tight, and impressive. In particular, the almost non-stop dance numbers were inventive, visually stunning, and bristling with all the energy and pageantry of a three ring circus. There are too many cast members to call out individually, but the ensemble certainly deserves a bow.

All this played out on Blake York’s stunning set ringed with metal tube grids holding huge shards of glass-like plexiglass surrounding a gigantic raked, horizontal cross that spans both the width and depth of the stage. Abetted by an ever-changing, strobing, multicolored light show (Niclas Olson) and props by Jeffery Weaver, who was also responsible for hair and makeup, it is, in a word, dazzling.   

Annas (Karen Christnesen), Priest (James Klarich), Judas (Loucas T. Curry), Priest (George McClure),Caiaphas (Aleks Merilo)
The costuming, by Michele Graves, was equally brilliant, and ran the gamut from priests dressed to the nines in matching suits and red power ties, to characters spanning a range of styles and periods including hints of Babylonian dancing girl,  modern grunge, 70’s era hippie, and even Hawaiian shirt casual.   

Harem Girl (Melanie Gladstone), Herod (Andrew Fry), Harem Girls (Caiti Burke) & (Shauntal Pyper)

The one opening night glitch, apparently caused when the sound program crashed earlier, was an out-of-balance and overly loud musical score. As a result, it was often hard to understand the lyrics, except for the three strongest vocalists in the cast, Jesus (Hassl), Mary (Milburn) and Peter (Christopher Sweet.)  

Yes, this property has been done a lot over the past 47 years, but TLT’s version most certainly holds its own, and is a visual and audio delight for its audiences. Not surprisingly, the packed house on opening night absolutely loved it. As a bonus, managing director Chris Serface revealed all the plays that will be in TLT’s upcoming 100th season during his curtain speech. There’s a lot to look forward to.

It’s a fairly short play (two 45 minute acts) and the intense pacing and energy makes it seem even shorter, but crammed in to that timespan is as much color, light, song, dance, beauty, and energy as you can ever hope to ask for.

Jesus Christ Superstar
March 9 to April 1, 2018
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Glass Menagerie

Blue Roses
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Niclas Olson, Jess Weaver, Dayna Childs       All photos by Tim Johnston
Bring up Tennessee Williams to most theatre folk and you’ll likely hear the term depressing in short order, and that epithet is well earned. The Glass Menagerie, superbly directed by Micheal O’Hara at Lakewood Playhouse, is no exception, but there is far more to this finely crafted, emotionally nuanced play that makes it worth producing (and watching) again and again.

With just four characters, Williams offers up a wider array of emotions, challenges, and complex human interactions than you would think possible. With very deliberate and measured pacing, director O’Hara and an outstanding ensemble cast made sure none of it got lost.

Set in the depression, the play is presented as the reminiscences of Tom Wingfield (Niclas Olson), before he, like his father, fled the family to join the Merchant Marine. The Wingfields are a broken, dysfunctional, financially struggling family. Tom and his sister Laura (Jess Weaver), both in their twenties, live with their overbearing and micromanaging mother Amanda (Dayna Childs) in the long shadow of an absent father who abandoned them sixteen years ago to roam the world.

L to R: Dayna Childs, Jess Weaver 
Matriarch Amanda clings desperately to her long gone, elegant Southern plantation life, a past when she was young, beautiful, and greatly adored by many “gentlemen callers.” She loves her children, and wants them to thrive in what’s turned into a terrifyingly gritty world, but sees them as misguided and flawed, and thus in need of her constant redirection. Alternately cajoling and berating them, she tries to force them into her vision of a successful family, as much out of love as desperation. Instead, she pushes them away from her and more deeply into their own self-destructive coping mechanisms.
Jess Weaver 
Tom, whose distasteful warehouse job provides their main support, smokes (and possibly drinks) too much, and spends countless hours “at the movies” avoiding the painful family dynamic that he is powerless to fix and loathe to tolerate. Laura, partially lame but cripplingly shy, sneaks around the house hiding from the awful present, and her painfully humiliating past, behind her Victrola records and her collection, a menagerie of  tiny glass animals.

At his mother’s insistence, Tom brings a co-worker named Jim O’Connor (Nick Fitzgerald) home to dinner to meet his sister. He is none other than Laura’s secret crush from high school. In what unfolds as perhaps the best and most sensitively acted scene of the play, upbeat, optimistic, self-improving Jim manages to drag Laura out of her shell and provide her, and the audience, with their first taste of real hope for something better. It’s a beautiful scene, and the two do an amazing job of creating something poignant yet believable.

L to R: Jess Weaver, Nick Fitzgerald
But in Williams’ inimitable fashion, it all gets dashed on the rocks of an unsuspected and relentless reality.

A multi-level set by James Venturini, with props and set dressing by Karrie Morrison, creates the appropriately dismal home of a woman clinging to the last vestiges of imagined elegance. It’s ably aided by subdued and shadowy lighting by Aaron Mohs-Hale, and spot-on costumes by Rachel Dimmig and Blayne Fujita. Lakewood’s artistic director John Munn handled the sound design very adroitly, with period music and such sound effects as an old time running projector overlaying Tom’s narration as his memories of the family unfold. Stage manager Alyshia Collins kept the complex interplay running smoothly.

I think the real question for audiences comes down to “do I want to see a story that is ultimately sad, but expresses itself through a wealth of beauty, touching connections, and real, heartfelt emotion.” Thanks to an excellent director and cast, this production comes off not as depressing, but rather as a moving and compassionate glimpse into one family’s challenged life. Some of that, of course, is due to Williams’ outstanding writing, but against all odds, it was a surprisingly enjoyable play to watch.

The Glass Menagerie
Feb 16 to Mar 11, 2018
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Children of a Lesser God at TLT

Hear here.
by Michael Dresdner  

Michelle Mary Schaefer, Jeremy Lynch   All photos by Dennis K, Photography
Children of a Lesser God, which opened last night at Tacoma Little Theatre, is a powerful, emotionally moving, deeply thoughtful play. The story, which is as far from a bit of froth as it gets, unfolds on a bare, almost non-existent multi-level set virtually without props and with only minimal costuming. An exceptional cast under the direction of Rick Horner brought it vibrantly to life.

Well-larded with emotion and nuance, the play, via the lead actress, tries to get you to see an inverted paradigm; a world where your normal is not normal and what you may call a “disability” is merely a different, and possibly much richer communication framework.

James Leeds (Jeremy Lynch) is a newly hired teacher at a school for the deaf. His mission and passion is to teach deaf students how to read lips and speak aloud rather than sign. In his view, that opens the world to them, an idea supported by principal Franklin (Kerry Bringman) and either eagerly or reluctantly by students Orin (Kai Winchester) and Lydia (Melanie Gladstone). Lydia, enamored with Leeds, tries to entice him, and he in turn fends off her constant advances. 

Michelle Mary Schaefer, Kerry Bringman 

Meanwhile, Leeds quickly meets and falls in love with the school’s deaf janitor, Sarah Norman (Michelle Mary Schaefer), and wants to teach her as well, though she’s older and not a student. Sarah wants none of it, and is content to use sign language as her sole and preferred means of “verbal” communication. Leeds even tries to reach her through her mother (Kristen Moriarty) with whom Sarah has a barely existent, strained and broken relationship. Nevertheless, by the end of act one the two are married, but the head-butting is just getting started. 

Jeremy Lynch, Michelle Mary Schaefer

Throughout act two she tries to make him see why she is content in her silent world as is, while he tries to convince her to join his verbal one. Each tries to change the other’s perception of both what is and what should be. It’s all complicated when a lawyer (Madonna Hanna) enters the picture representing the rights and desires of Sarah and Orin to become teachers at a school that traditionally only hires hearing instructors.

L to R: Madonna Hanna, Michelle Mary Schaefer, Kai Winchester
The conceit is that this all takes place in the mind of James Leeds, and because we “hear” what he “hears,” everything that is signed is also repeated aloud in some form. Thus, it is all abundantly clear to the hearing. For those non-hearing patrons, two screens astride the stage offer up all the spoken words, though of course, not the signed ones.

The entire cast was admirable, but most of the heavy lifting is done by Lynch and Schaefer. He has the vast bulk of the spoken dialogue, covering both what he says and what she signs. For her part, Schaefer relies on body language, posture, facial expression, and a beautifully fluid use of her hands during signing to get her feelings across. While both were exceptional (my reviewing partner likened Lynch to the late John Ritter), I was most impressed by the range and delivery that Schaefer brought to her part.

As I said, the barely there set by Blake York (who, perhaps ironically, also does the sound design) is merely a set of levels with chairs that are moved as needed. Costumes by Michele Graves are simple, and props are non-existent to the point that even pieces of paper are mimed. Hair and makeup is by Jeffery Weaver, and effectively unobtrusive lighting is by Niclas Olson. All that combines to keep the focus where it should be – on the acting.

The playbill also lists a sign language master (Darren Frazier), though it is quite obvious that the cast was chosen in part for their ability to sign, and a deaf community liaison (Melanie Gladstone, who also plays the part of Lydia.)  

If you go, and you should, be prepared to stay focused. It requires the full attention of the audience, since there is so much, both verbal and non-verbal, unfolding all the time. Put in the effort and you’ll be rewarded with a moving love story that may challenge your very worldview.

Children of a Lesser God
Jan 19 to Feb 14, 2018
Tacoma Little Theatre