Tuesday, December 3, 2013

It's a Wonderful Life at TLT

A Curate’s Egg

by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Lydia Hedman, Dan Lysne, Kirsten Deane   All photos by DK Photography

In the stage adaptation of the obligatory seasonal indulgence It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s business, the Building and Loan, is a somewhat ramshackle place with a noble mission and a heart of gold. The same can be said for Tacoma Little Theatre’s production, directed by Maria Valenzuela. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but has enough heart to win over its audiences.

L to R: Jordan Talbot,
Jameil Jackson, Dan Lysne 
You probably know this, but bear with me for a short synopsis. George Bailey (Dan Lysne) runs the modest building and loan company started by his parents (Curtis Beech and Leigh Duncan) after being repeatedly foiled in his desire to flee the small town of Bedford Falls and see the world. When his partner and uncle Billy (George Mc Clure) loses enough money to shut down the business on the eve of a bank examiner’s visit, George decides to end it by jumping off a bridge. He’s stopped by a guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody (Gary Spees) sent by the Angel Superintendent (Andrew Fry) who acts as the de facto narrator of Bailey’s background story. Clarence shows George what the town and its inhabitants would be like if he’d never been born, and he realizes he is indeed a valued cog in the gears. Convinced, he returns to his wife and children to find that the whole town has turned out to cover the monetary loss and reassure George of how much he is loved and appreciated.  

Tom Birkeland, in wheelchair, with ensemble 
I must admit that I was particularly eager to see Tom Birkeland, who plays the wheelchair-bound Mr. Potter, George’s nemesis and the wealthiest, crankiest man in town. Birkeland has long been one of the South Sound’s most outstanding actors, but has been on medical hiatus for a number of years. He’s lost nothing; his performance was balanced, powerful, and flawless, and easily the shining light of the play. It’s nice to see the old timers showing the young how it’s done.

L to R: Kirsten Deane, Dan Lysne
A close second was Kirsten Deane, who played George’s wife Mary with just the right mix of warmth, coyness, affection, and ebullience. It’s a huge cast, too big to list, but there were other high spots as well, like the short but well-played role of the young George by Brian Loughridge, and the before-and-after maturation of Violet Bick, played by Allyson Jacobs-Lake.

With 27 separate scenes in a dozen different settings, the task of coming up with a set that worked for all must have been daunting. With a bit of imagination and a parade of moving furniture pieces, Blake York’s complex set held up quite nicely to the play’s considerable demands. The same can be said of Michele Grave’s costumes, Pavlina Morris’ lighting, Karrie Nevin’s props, and the sound design by Darren Hembd, which included a live piano accompanist, Zachary Kellog.

This is not slick, polished, professional theatre, but one could argue that it’s better this way. It’s a Wonderful Life is all about heart, love, and the regular folk of a town, and that’s just the feeling this production conveys. If you, like so many, need a yearly dose of this heartwarming Christmas classic, this play is a far better way to consume it than sitting in front of the TV for yet another rerun of the movie you know by heart.  

It’s a Wonderful Life
Nov. 29th to Dec. 22nd, 2013
Tacoma Little Theatre

Aladdin at Centerstage

The Dog’s Bollocks

by Michael Dresdner

Left to right: Terry Edward Moore, Kate Alden, Casey Raiha

Centerstage has now established a tradition of presenting English Panto each Christmas season, and they do it divinely. This year’s delightful entry is Aladdin, directed by Roger Curtis, and trust me, it’s the dog’s bollocks.

(For you Yanks out there, “the dog’s bollocks” is a British slang term meaning awesome.)

Pantomimes, or Pantos, are raucous, riotous, randy interpretations of fairy tales aimed squarely at families with children, larded with layers of humor sure to hit all ages, song, dance, and lots of audience participation. The players talk with the audience, encouraging them to help out, cheer the heroes, who enter stage right, and boo the villains, who enter stage left.

(Another note for you Yanks: In this case, Pantomime does not mean silent. After an 18th century audience clearly preferred the spoken preamble, a mime show’s savvy producers threw out the silent portion of their two part entertainment. Somehow, the name pantomime stuck, along with a host of traditional conceits.)

This year’s offering boasts incredible sets (Steffon Moody), stunning costumes (Deb Skorstad, Malia Seavy) and wigs (Jonni Whitby, Barbara Peterson), reams of often hilarious props (Becca Hines, Mary Sawyer, Laura Campbell), clever lighting (Amy Silvera), lots of songs, and superbly executed dance numbers (dance captain Katherine Jett) performed by the entire light-footed cast. As always, the heavy music load is adroitly handled by house musical director and resident genius David Duvall and his backup band (Andrew Carson, Mike Eytcheson, Kaarin Lysen, Matt Goodin)

In addition to the attractive and talented romantic leads, Aladdin and Jasmine (Casey Raiha and Kate Alden), Pantos typically have certain obligatory characters, often intentionally played by the opposite sex. For instance, there’s a “male” cop, PC Pongo, played by a young, sexy woman (the stunning Anna Marie Clausen) who is costumed so you don’t ever forget it. Abanazar is this iteration’s personification of evil (Terry Edward Moore ), the Emperor of Cathay (Dale Bowers) is the blustering, foolish father, and the necessary fairy godmother this year is a pair of male and female genies (Josh Williamson and Brynne Geiszler), she in traditional belly dancer garb and he decked out like an over-the-top disco dude. But my favorite repeat character is the ugly old hag of a woman played by a rather large male. Artistic director Alan Bryce took the droll but juicy part of Widow Twankey and made it hilarious. He was but one of many cast members who got to reel out one-liners filled with subtle innuendo, bad puns, topical gibes, and locally-aimed insults.   

One of my favorite bits, and one the audience is encouraged to help with, is a mockery of the song Twelve Days of Christmas where “a partridge in a pear tree” is replaced by “a bra that is made to hold three.” Don’t even ask what the rest of the days are, but be assured there will be enough custard pies hurled to satisfy even the most jaded theatre goer.

If you’re already a fan of Panto, this one is not to be missed. For those who’ve never experienced it, be certain to make time in your schedule to go to Aladdin at Centerstage, and expect what’s possibly the most delightful two hours you’ll spend this holiday season.

Nov.30 to Dec. 22, 2013

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Driving Miss Daisy at Dukesbay

Southern Comfort

by Michael Dresdner

   L to R: Syra Beth Puett, Malcolm J. West                                         photo by Jason Ganwich

If you are only doing one show in a season it had better be perfect. As luck would have it, this one is.

Driving Miss Daisy is the one and only play of the season for the fledgling Dukesbay Productions in its new quarters in the Merlino building, which also houses the Grand Cinema. Three ideally cast, outstanding actors make this play, directed by Julie Halpin, as good as it gets.

The setting is Atlanta in 1948, a time and place of societal rules and racial divides that dictate every step of the complex dance of social and business life. Daisy Werthern has just wrecked a brand new car, but still objects vehemently when her devoted son, Boolie, insists she stop driving. Daisy is a feisty, opinionated, proud, elegant 72-year-old Southern Jewish widow who wants no help, or interference, from anyone.

Over her objections, Boolie hires a mature black chauffeur named Hoke Coleburn to drive his mother. Hoke is the perfect foil for Daisy; proud, clever, picaresque, gentle, patient, and skilled in the ways servants gently guide their employers. Daisy distrusts him and resents his presence in her house, her car, and her life, but in the face of his deferential charm and almost endless patience, she slowly comes to accept him.

Through a series of short scenes covering the next 25 years, we watch the gradual transition from employee held at arm’s length, to what eventually becomes a deep and trusting friendship. The various scenes are often quite funny, always compelling, and ultimately, deeply moving.

Syra Beth Puett (who is from Alabama and thus comes by her accent honestly) plays Daisy as if the role were written just for her. She has the look, demeanor, attitude, rhythm, and voice down pat, and ages convincingly through the years. She’s so perfect that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this role at all, much less doing it as well.

The same can be said for Malcolm West as Hoke. He’s got a delightful range of facial expressions paired with the right voice, accent, and demeanor to convince us he’s the real deal; that rara avis of menials whose confident self-respect, innate goodness, and genuine compassion can turn a cantankerous, suspicious, white Southern lady into a true friend.

Rounding out the cast is Robert Geller as Daisy’s adult son Boolie, and though his role is smaller, he turns in the same outstanding performance. He’s completely convincing as the gentle but firm, loving but sensible son who juggles a successful business, his own family, and the frequent demands of his mother.

Dukesbay’s space is perfect for this intimate show. A very wide, but not too deep stage faces just two rows of seats, the second of which is on a riser. Thus, everyone is close enough to hear every whisper and ideally positioned to see each facial expression.

A clever, tri-partite set, which uses lighting for set changes, lets the action take place at Daisy’s home, Boolie’s office, or the car in which Daisy and Hoke spend much of the play. David Wehmhoefer is responsible for both the set and lighting. The right period music (Nic Olson) and well-chosen costumes add their deft touch as well.

If this level of quality is any example of what we can expect from Dukesbay, then we are in for a real treat, and they are a most welcome addition to the South Sound theatre scene.

This is a sort run, so I’m going to urge you in the strongest possible tones to go see it. Yes, it’s that good.

Driving Miss Daisy
November 8 – 23, 2013
Dukesbay Productions

While you are at it, you might also want to check out Alec Clayton's take on this play at:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Weir at TLT

A man walks into a bar…

by Michael Dresdner

from left: Robert McConkey, Brian Wayne Jansen, David Wright, Ellen Peters and Gabriel McClelland
photo by DK Photography

The best thing about The Weir at Tacoma Little Theatre is that there doesn't appear to be any acting in it. The cast is so good and so comfortable in their roles that instead of being aware of actors on stage, you get the feeling you've wandered, like a fly on the wall, into an Irish pub peopled with a batch of regulars. They sound and behave like familiar Irish barflies, even when their regular laconic routine is altered by one new visitor.

The barman, Brendan, adroitly and seemingly effortlessly played by Robert McConkey, hosts two of his obvious regulars. Jack (David Wright) is an older, salty character who fancies himself much more of a curmudgeon than he actually is. Jim (Brian Wayne Jansen) is a meek man, a blue collar, freelance worker cowed by life itself. They drink and engage in their normal, friendly chatter until Finbar (Gabriel McClelland), a local businessman, brings in an attractive young woman to whom he’s just rented one of his properties.

The presence of Valerie (Ellen Peters) adds a bit of sexual tension, both with the married Finbar and the three single men. She becomes the catalyst for their normal banter to give way to stories, each with some sort of supernatural twist, and each more recent in time than the last. They’re subtle, and could all possibly be explained with logic, though no one goes there. 

Ellen then tells her story, one of deeply personal, very recent pain, and touched only lightly with an eerie tag. It draws real compassion from all the men, and a palpable personal connection for the whole group.

After Finbar and Jim leave, Jack opens up with his own deeply personal story of lost love and missed opportunity, exposing his feelings far more than he normally does in his favorite watering hole. You are left with the sense that they've all opened up to a degree that prevents them from ever returning to their former superficial relationships with one another, and in turn, have permanently accepted Valerie into their circle.

The play was directed by pug [sic] Bujeaud on an absolutely perfect set by Blake R. York, with props by Katelyn Simpson, set dressing and scenic art by Jen Ankrum, and lighting by Michael Christopher. It’s the quintessential Irish pub, at least as we in the states imagine it to be. Costumes by Michele Graves, lighting by Michael Christopher, and subtle sound by Gabe Hacker all added to the realism of the tableau.

I have to admit I would have liked to have seen this in a more intimate, black box setting, but they managed to pull it off superbly even in this fairly large proscenium theatre.

My one bit of advice is to get tickets early. This is a very short run and the night I was there the theatre was packed.   

The Weir  
Nov. 8 to Nov. 17, 2013
Tacoma Little Theatre

For another opinion, here's Alec Clayton's review of The Weir at his blog: 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Pride and Prejudice at Lakewood

Austen translation 

by Kaitlin & Michael Dresdner

Foreground: Jacob Tice (left) as Mr. Darcy, Tony Onorati (right) as Mr. Bingley      photo by Kate Paterno-Lick

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel adapted for the stage will, of necessity, be different than the original. Compacting a literary masterpiece like Pride and Prejudice into a two-and-a-half hour production requires adjustments, which is to be expected. If you are a fan of the 2005 movie version of this literary classic (the one with Keira Knightly,) but thought it needed more comic relief, you’ll probably love the Lakewood Playhouse treatment of Pride and Prejudice. However, if you are a die-hard fan of the original Jane Austen classic, you may be less than amused.

The play revolves around the Bennets, who have five daughters and no sons. Thanks to primogeniture, a distasteful male cousin will inherit their home once their father dies. That encourages their well-intentioned but vulgar mother to drill into her daughters, and anyone else within earshot, the importance of marrying into money and position.

The eldest, Jane, who is beautiful, modest, and so reserved of emotion and speech as to be often misunderstood, falls for wealthy Mr. Bingley, though that pairing is beset by obstacles from his family and the ever-present class imperative of never marrying below one’s station. (To quote a very different movie, where a chauffeur’s daughter falls for the wealthy family scion, “No one poor was ever called democratic for marrying someone rich.”)

The second, equally beautiful daughter, and the true protagonist of the play, is the intelligent, strong-willed Elizabeth. She is at first offended and repelled by ultra-wealthy, aloof, prideful Mr. Darcy, but gradually comes to see him in a very different light as the truth about him slowly trickles in.

The remaining characters fill out the broad palette of this societal tableau. The other daughters range from severely bookish and reticent Mary to unabashedly coquettish and ebullient Lydia. Relatives and acquaintances run the gamut from the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the duplicitous Mr. Wickham to the thoroughly genial Gardiners. It’s a long play (easily two and a half hours,) with an abundance of mimed piano playing and real dancing, but it does eventually wind its way to a generally happy conclusion.

Rules of etiquette of the day made it almost impossible for people to speak frankly with one another, so there’s plenty of room for misunderstanding, privately nursed disappointments, and misguided reactions. That’s a large part of what creates the tension and frustration that drives both this genre and this story.

This version by Hanreddy and Sullivan, and directed by Casi Wilkerson, is substantially different than the original book. At times it seemed as if the story got the Disney treatment, where sour characters, like Mr. Bennet, are made more pleasant and likable, and distasteful archetypes, like Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins, become brassy, comic stereotypes. The vulgarization also extends to the language, which bounces back and forth between classical Victorian English, directly from the novel, and more modern phrases, often mid-sentence.

Steve Tarry’s well-executed Mr. Bennet was indeed more likable than his book persona. Both Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson as Mrs. Bennet and Paul Richter as Mr. Collins kept the audience laughing out loud with their antic portrayals, and Annie Coleman’s Caroline Bingley almost out-sneered Cruella DeVille. Mind you, these are adaptation and direction choices, and like them or not, they don’t imply poor acting. Still, I doubt Jane Austen would recognize them as her own creations.

Other cast members stayed, in varying degrees, closer to the originals. The leads, Jacob Tice (Mr. Darcy) and Rachael Boyer (Elizabeth Bennet) were both excellent, though their direction had them revealing rather more overt emotion than early 19th century societal mores would have allowed. Some actors, including Tony Onorati as Mr. Bingley, Elena Easley as Jane Bennet, and Christa Knikerbocker as “plain” sister Mary Bennet, managed, in spite of what was going on around them, to turn in excellent portrayals that were also entirely true to their origins. They were a welcome anchor to the original literature and stood out by not standing out. The remainder of the fairly large cast was mostly appropriate and more than decent, providing a reasonable and stable platform for the leads. 

There was no set to speak of, and the sum total of furniture and props consisted almost entirely of a table, a tray, and a mismatched set of chairs. (One wag at intermission insisted there was no scenery because it had all been chewed.) Everything, from the oft-played piano to teacups and letters, was mimed. Even clothing got into the act. In one notable scene, Elizabeth reads a from an imaginary piece of paper and then mimes slipping it into a non-existent pocket on her costume. 

The many major locations and settings in the story were also left to our imagination, abetted by lighting changes (Niclas R. Olsen), rearranged furniture, and the dialog itself. While the minimalism of the scenic design worked well for the space, it may leave those unfamiliar with the story a little puzzled about where they find the characters in a given scene.

Costumes (Frances Rankos), a challenge to be sure, were mostly impressive with occasional gusts of anachronism. If you keep your eyes centered and avoid looking too closely at the hats and shoes, you’ll be fine. Music, consisting largely of necessary piano playing, fitted nicely and was well chosen.   

I’m sure that for many, this is a delightful indulgence; a chance to wallow in the genteel world of the Regency era without wading through the occasionally tedious novel. Pride and Prejudice is perhaps the standard bearer of what Oscar Wilde sneeringly called “the three volume novel,” and like all classics, is something everyone should experience, perhaps more than once. With its upbeat pacing and overt humor, this may be just the version you’d most like indulging in.

Pride and Prejudice
Nov. 8th through Dec. 1st 2013
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Steel Magnolias at TLT

A perfect storm
by Michael Dresdner

L - R: Carol Richmond, Dana Galagan, Jessica Robins, Gretchen Boyt, Stephanie Leeper, Kathi Aleman.  DK hotography 

Steel Magnolias is an amazing property, beautifully written with endless wit, darting one-liners, richly crafted characters, and ultimately, deep, wrenching emotion. Tacoma Little Theatre graced it with an outstanding ensemble cast and a sterling director who added sparkle, humanity, and flawless timing to create a perfect storm of a theatre experience. This is truly a must-see play.

Great plays start with great choices, and director Elliot Weiner has made them well, choosing what felt like the perfect actor for each of the character-rich roles. He added excellent pacing -- fluid, snappy, and captivating -- and combined it with some very clever staging. A large imaginary mirror at the front of the stage allows the actors to look at one another in its reflection while always facing directly toward the audience. The conceit helps draw us intimately into Truvy’s carport-turned-hair salon so well that in spite of the proscenium stage, we feel like we’re right there among the scissors and combs.

Truvy’s hair salon is the ad hoc meeting place for six diverse but intertwined women from a small Louisiana town. Set against the backdrop of their own changing lives, the friends gossip, snipe at one another, complain, and reminisce about past and present husbands and lovers, and the vicissitudes of life. The lines are fast and very funny, and we’re soon roped in by each personality in this charming group.  

Things get tense when M’Lynn’s daughter, Shelby, who is about to be married, decides to have a child against the advice of her doctor,  who warns pregnancy could tip her diabetic state into mortal danger. M’Lynn is forced to walk that fine line between aching to force her daughter into common sense and fear of alienating her. Ultimately, Shelby’s choice leads to the inevitable, triggering a shattering emotional release from M’Lynn, cushioned only by the loving support of this circle of genuine, devoted friends.

The plays trappings -- set, lights, sound, costumes, props -- were all top notch, but this play is really about the acting. Fortunately, the six women in the cast were absolutely superb, right down to their comfortable Southern accents.  

Stephanie Leeper artfully crafts Truvy, the big-haired, flashy, doyenne of style, into a calming, caring den mother to her shy, confused employee and her circle of customer/friends. Jessica Robins plays her timid, unmoored employee Annelle, who eventually recreates herself through religion. Dana Galagan is bitingly funny as Clairee, an older, richer, wiser voice in the fray, whose mutual sniping with her equivalent counterpart, Ouiser (pronounced “Weezer”), adroitly brought to life by Carol Richmond, hides their thinly veiled affection for one another.

Then there’s Gretchen Boyt, the beautiful, sweet Shelby, a southern belle so charming that no one can help but love her. Capping it all is Kathi Aleman as M’Lynn, Shelby’s emotionally torn mother who struggles to quell her very obvious frustration at not being able to talk sense into her free-spirited daughter.

It is Aleman who brings the most powerful performance to the table, erupting into a passionate release of anger, pain, frustration, and tears at her daughter’s demise at the climax of the play. By the time she was done, the entire audience was riveted in stunned, tearful, breath-bated emotion. Atop a play filled with great acting, hers was a performance not to be missed.

Backing up all this stellar cast was a delightfully appropriate set by Blake York and scenic artist Brie Yost, along with wonderful costumes (Michele Graves,) lighting (Matt Lawrence,) and props (Katelyn Simpson.) Jeffery Weaver did a great job on hair and wigs, critical to a play set in a hair salon, and Lynn Harper Nelson was the dialect coach who helped with their vocal realism. Sound design, by Nena Curley and director Elliot Weiner, added yet another dimension to the play. In fact, the radio on the set almost becomes another character, waking up to spew exactly the right song for the moment and mood each time one of the women bops it with a fist.

It is rare when all of a production’s elements merge so deftly to create a such a notably outstanding play, and you really should see it when it happens. Steel Magnolias is only at Tacoma Little Theatre for three weeks. Make sure you don’t miss it.

Steel Magnolias
Oct. 18 to Nov. 3, 2013
Tacoma Little Theatre

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The 39 Steps at Centerstage

Déjà vu by four
by Michael Dresdner

You might want to scroll down and read my most recent previous post; it’s a review of The 39 Steps which opened one week ago at Renton Civic. Last night the same play, but with a different cast, venue, production team, and director, opened at Centerstage, and while the words and “plot” were largely the same, the presentation was decidedly different.

You’ll notice I put “plot” in quotes. There is one – the plot of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps – but it’s really quite irrelevant, especially in this version. The feeling you walk away with is that it’s merely a structural excuse for this excellent four person cast to stage something remarkably close to a series of Monty Python sketches. If you like that sort of thing, and fortunately, I do, you’ll be delighted with how very well they do it.

Robert Bergin, the only actor who inhabits just one character throughout, plays Richard Hannay, the protagonist, with an earnest combination of reserve and befuddlement reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. He provides a small measure of sanity needed to anchor the madness around him. Mariana De Fazio plays the three very different women who guide Hannay’s convoluted journey with an understated support that subtly but substantially aids and abets the rest of this well-meshed ensemble.  

It’s just this well-constructed acting backdrop that enables the two clowns, Vince Brady and Erik Gratton, to soar. They play a whole host of different outrageous characters hell-bent on grabbing the laughs, and boy are they good at it. With quick costume changes, a host of different voices, and elaborately energetic physical comedy, they play a wide range of short, tall, gruff, absurd, giddy, and foolish men and women. There’s one hilarious scene, with Gratton playing a short women, on his knees and in drag, trying to sit on a bed, that alone is worth the price of admission.  

There’s no set to speak of, save for an elaborate train trestle made of ladders and boards that appears in one short scene. Instead, the four actors hustle a variety of set pieces – chairs, tables, couches, counters, doors and windows on wheels, etc. – not surreptitiously like dutiful stage hands, but quite overtly, and usually in character. “This mockery,” they seem to say, “is brought to you by us, the actors, moving set pieces, providing our own sound effects, and changing our clothes, heights, and characters, right before your eyes.”

Aiding both the actors and director Cynthia White is an army of back stage denizens providing costumes by Julia Evanovich, sound design by Ray Pritchard, lighting by Amy Silveria, set design by Jerry Clausen and Greg Heinzel, and props by Sheila Criscione, Mary Sawyer, and Laura Campbell. Together, they make a team that delivers a night of ribald fun.

All this should come as no surprise from the theatre that so adeptly brings English Pantomime to the Puget Sound each year. If there’s one thing Centerstage has a good grip upon, it’s the combination of nuance and lunacy that is British comedy.

The 39 Steps
September 28 through October 20, 2013

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The 39 Steps

Two by four

by Michael Dresdner

Perhaps I should explain my sub-title, “Two by four.” Last night I went to see The 39 Steps, a raucous comedy at Renton Civic Theatre directed, oddly enough, by John Munn, the artistic director of the Lakewood Playhouse. It’s a play with just four outstanding actors playing a multitude of parts; hence the four. The two comes from the fact that in just one week, the same play, with a different director and cast, opens a few miles away at Centerstage, and if you keep posted, I’ll bring you that review next week.

While it may sound familiar, this is not the famous spy thriller of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock. Although it borrows the plot line, these 39 steps climb a decidedly different staircase.

Think of the prop comedy of Jonathan Winters overlaid with the goofy physical mayhem and overt sexual innuendo of Benny Hill and you’ll be on the right track. Add to that all the sound skills of a whole team of Foley practitioners with the mime skills of fine physical actors and you’ll have some idea of the tenor of the play.

Bob DeDea plays Richard Hannay, the protagonist and only character who stays in the same role throughout. Deya Ozburn primarily plays the raven-haired German woman Annabella Schmidt, Scottish red-head Margaret, and English blond Pamela. Almost all of the other male and female characters, and there are dozens of them, are portrayed by two thoroughly adroit clowns, Bryan K. Bender and Eric Hartley. To put it succinctly, all four actors are nothing less than amazing.

They are supported with wonderful costumes by Rachel Wilkie, spot on lighting by Curt Hetherington, clever props by Jessica Anderson, and superb sound effects by Jay Biederman.

With no set to speak of, the actors use props, mime, movement, and both self -generated and off stage sound effects to create an airplane dogfight, a careening car replete with working doors and windows, a comically defective window shade, conveniently moving doors, floating hand held windows, a typically rocking train, and more. There’s even a harrowing chase scene on a railroad trestle bridge created on nothing but the stage apron.

The two clowns, Bender and Hartley, flip back and forth through a maze of characters in seconds, often with no more change than yanking off one hat and replacing it with another, altering their voices, accents, mannerisms, and even heights in the blink of an eye. In one scene they start as annoying traveling salesmen on a train, then quickly become a newsboy, a conductor, a brace of cops and more, cycling back and forth through all the characters repeatedly with astonishing rapidity.  

To some extent this is an insider’s play for Hitchcock fans. It’s laced with subtle references to his characters and movies, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Naturally, that includes appearances of the big man himself, both as his typical cameo in human form and another time as a tiny silhouette during a shadow puppet show reflected on a back-lit scrim.

With so much mania packed into act one it’s hard to sustain that level of frenetic activity, and the second act, possibly because we’ve been inundated since opening curtain, occasionally becomes a bit tedious, especially for those not well versed in Hitchcock trivia. Still, it is a riotous three-card Monte of a play, designed to showcase the considerable talents of its actors while incessantly tickling the funny bone of the audience.

The 39 Steps
Sept. 20 to Oct. 5, 2013
Renton Civic Theatre

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Arsenic and Old Lace at Lakewood Playhouse

I’m not Mortimer

by Michael Dresdner

Martha Brewster (Rebecca McCarthy) 

The first of several running gags in Arsenic and Old Lace, the opening salvo in Lakewood Playhouse’s celebrated 75th season, is that the male lead, Mortimer, is a reluctant theatre critic who despises all the plays he sees. That’s the least of the unlikely scenarios we’re asked to accept as normal in this dark comedy that’s decidedly more farce than noir. Directed by Dale Westgaard, the black humor is played so broadly that it becomes almost a corporeal cartoon; a layer cake of absurdity made manifest.

At the heart of the play is a pair of achingly sweet but morally askew spinster sisters who care for lonely, single men with the offer of lodging. However, the room comes paired with a compassionately administered dose of poisoned elderberry wine, another running gag. Their nephew, the aforementioned Mortimer, discovers their peculiar take on charity, and their impressive body count, during one of his frequent visits inspired largely by his interest in their neighbor’s daughter, Elaine, who more than reciprocates his nascent ardor.

L to R: Abby (Diana George), Martha (Rebecca McCarthy). Seated: Mortimer (Jacob Tice) 
Also living in the house, and definitely adding to the lunacy, is their nephew Teddy, a bugle-blaring delusional convinced he is President Teddy Roosevelt. He unwittingly helps bury the many bodies while convinced he is digging the Panama Canal in the basement. All this occurs under the noses of the local police, several of whom visit frequently due to bugle noise complaints, and who, to a man, all adore the sweet sisters. One cop adds extra confusion by refusing to leave until Mortimer helps him flesh out the play script he’s writing on the side.

L to R: Mortimer (Jacob Tice), Jonathan (Chris Cantrell)

Things become much more complicated when yet another nephew, the long-absent and quintessentially evil Jonathan Brewster, shows up with both a dead body and a hapless criminal sidekick in tow. Jonathan, deservedly on the lam, has a much more serious-minded approach to his multiple murders. The sidekick is his plastic surgeon, ironically named Dr. Einstein, who surgically provides Jonathan with new faces as needed to evade capture. Hey, I said it was absurd!

Diana George and Rebecca Lea McCarthy play the Brewster spinsters, Abby and Martha respectively, with even more flightiness than charm. Two frequent house visitors are the “flaco y gordo” pair of police officers played by Kerry Bringman and Kenneth Loth, clearly meant to be evocative of Laurel and Hardy in both stature and nature. Ana Bury is the adorable Elaine Harper, one of the few totally sane characters on stage. Her love, and the play’s leading man, Mortimer Brewster, is nicely handled by Jacob Tice. Meanwhile, Jeffery Weaver cuts a wide and delightful path as the nutty Teddy “Roosevelt” Brewster.  

Chris Cantrell is both realistically threatening and convincingly evil as Jonathan Brewster, while Tony Onorati plays his German sidekick Dr. Einstein with overtones of Peter Lorre’s Ugarte from Casablanca, and with a decidedly unusual accent. Both Mark Peterson, as the play-writing cop, and Steve Tarry, as his somewhat jaded police lieutenant, bring excellent and realistic portrayals to the fray, along with some much-appreciated nuance. Michael Sandner, Patrick Gerrells, and Ernest Heller round out the other minor roles, along with Connor Tibke, who mutely portrays the two dead bodies we get to see.

Set designer Amanda Swenger outdid herself with a lavish and beautiful set portraying the Brewster living room, aided by set dresser Halley Phillips, propmaster Virginia Yanoff,  Kristen Zetterstrom’s lighting, and Lindsey Morck’s sound design. As she so consistently does, costumer Alex Lewington created both an accurate period setting and a stunning array of outfits, pin perfect from hats to shoes.  

Eventually, all the situations and people in this play get sorted out not so much by their actions, but by their natures. The lesson here is that good intentions equal good deeds, even when they’re not. If nothing else, it’s a very comforting way of wrapping up this convoluted cinnamon bun of a play.   

Arsenic and Old Lace
Sept. 13 to Oct. 13, 2013
Lakewood Playhouse

All photos by Kate Paterno-Lick

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged (Revised) at TLT

Barking Mad; or How Hamlet becomes a Great Dane
by Michael Dresdner

  * L to R: Luke Amundson, Coleman Hagerman, Blake York 

Again. She did it again.


Last year, after seeing her version of The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged (Revised) at Tacoma Little Theatre, I wrote “With her unerring eye for humor and a truly amazing cast, director Suzy Willhoft has brought one of the stage’s funniest properties to a new and greater height of hilarity and lunacy.”

That show was so well-loved that everyone involved realized its two weekend run was not nearly enough, so they brought it back for an encore. If anything, it’s even better with a slightly modified cast that has all the chops and incredible chemistry to boot. This time it’s here for three weeks, which is better, but still not enough.

Luke Amundson and Coleman Hagerman have returned from last year with a new partner in theatre crime, the redoubtable Blake York, to take us through a rapid and hilarious tour of all of Shakespeare’s plays in an hour and a half. There are reams of costumes (Michele Graves) along with dolls, puppets and other props (Sarahann Rickner), but mostly there are three incredibly funny guys cross-dressing, baiting the audience, changing characters and voices repeatedly, and flinging exceedingly funny lines in every direction. It’s all in the name of turning Shakespeare from imposing intellectualism into harmless, engaging farce.

The opening night audience adored them, as did I, laughing and applauding from the opening salvo to the anything-but-bitter end. Nor were they spared; during the second act the three actors goad everyone into becoming part of the raucous insanity.  

Of course, this play demands much not only from the actors and director, but from the backup crew as well, so a tip of the hat must also go to stage managers Sarahann Rickner and Sophie Nevins and lighting’s Niclas R. Olson.

And the good news? This encore is still only $10, so there is absolutely no reason for any right minded person to miss it.

For a more in-depth take, feel free to read my review of last year’s version of this same show at http://michaeldresdner.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-complete-works-of-shakespeare.html  

It all still holds true for this wonderful production.

The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged (Revised)
Sept. 6 to 22, 2013
Tacoma Little Theatre

* Photos by DK Photography

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Importance of Being Earnest at Lakewood

Éclat, élan, and earnest elegance
by Michael Dresdner

The cast                                                                                                          Photo by Dean Lapin                                  
The Importance of Being Earnest, which opened last night at Lakewood Playhouse, is undoubtedly the best of Oscar Wilde’s biting satires. It is, by any reckoning, an outstanding and completely enjoyable play to watch; flawlessly written, hilarious, and just dripping with those questionable British values Wilde saw as the underbelly of Victorian society, and skewered mercilessly.

I adore this play so much that I watch or read some iteration of it several times each year, both to bolster my own moral turpitude and to remind myself to always keep a sharp tongue in my head.

Or is that civil?

Whatever. The point is that a play of such perfection demands a director and cast equal to its brilliance. That is precisely what director Marilyn Bennett and her superb cast have given to us lucky Lakewood Playhouse patrons; a shiny, perfect apple of a comedy just bursting with juicy delight.

Ah, yes; you need a short synopsis, right? Trust me, it’s the amazing characters and gleefully funny dialog that makes this play, not the plot, but here goes.

Two elegant bachelor pals discover that they both engage in elaborate fictions to allow them to escape societal demands and instead pursue pleasure. They both pine for well-born young ladies, and thanks in part an inexplicable allure of the name, both insist they are called Ernest.

There are some serious obstacles, beyond the obvious fact that neither is actually named Ernest. One yearns for the cousin of the other, who is saddled with a gorgon of a mother blocking the way because of the suitor’s lack of any apparent parentage. The other yearns for the young, pretty ward of the first, but unless both are happily paired, neither will be. A lost cigarette case, a lost satchel, a lost novel, a lost baby, and a once careless former nursemaid help make a complete scramble of this Mexican standoff, but don’t worry. At the end, all is resolved in a comically unlikely manner, and everyone ends up happy.

Now for the good stuff; the lead actors.

The Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax (Deya Ozburn) is the daughter of Lady Bracknell, the inamorata of John Worthing (Bryan K. Bender), and the cousin of Algernon Moncrieff (Andrew Kittrell), who in turn pines for Worthing’s ward, Cecily Cardew (Cassie Jo Fastabend).

Ladies first, gentlemen!

Ozburn is amazing, adroitly donning the imperious, duplicitous mantle of Gwendolen with flawless timing, an unerring balance of coy sweetness and cutting innuendo, and a set of postures and mannerisms that make her the very best Gwendolen I’ve ever seen, on stage or screen. It was an absolutely perfect performance.

Did you catch all that? Good, because I am about to repeat exactly the same thing three more times, for Fastabend’s Cecily, Kittrell’s Algernon, and Bender’s John Worthing. Each actor crafted the epitome of Wilde’s characters with the same flawless timing, balance, delivery, and physical mannerisms.

Fastabend (L) and Ozburn spy on a seated Kittrell                 photo by Dean Lapin
Fastabend gave us a Cecily bursting with both kittenish enthusiasm and womanly wiles, her sweet innocence hiding the razor sharp claws of cutting verbal retort. Kittrell was a joy to watch as the suave, slightly foppish, thoroughly hedonistic Algernon. And last, though anything but least, was Bender, an actor who has consistently created some of the best performances we’ve seen on these local stages (Mozart, Benedick, Macbeth). His John Worthing was simply perfect; the ideal balance of refined, responsible landowner, and earnest, love-struck suitor.

The rest of the cast, Lady Bracknell (Syra Beth Puett), Rev. Chausuble (Aaron J. Schmookler), the butler, Merriman (Tony Onorati), manservant Lane (Michael Sandner), Miss Prism (Lee Ryan) and the housemaid, Felicity (Laura Shearer) are also quite good and definitely hold their own, but the leads set the bar impossibly high, and to be honest, those four love-struck leads both steal and make this show.  

It is a credit to both director and cast that every word, every nuance, and every bitingly funny line was crisp, clear, and perfectly understandable. That should be taken for granted, but becomes a problem surprisingly often. The director’s pacing was so wonderful that the time flew by, and as it should be, we were left wanting more.

Let’s not forget the splendid costumes by the always excellent Alex Lewingon, a cleverly simple set by Robin Dean, Larry Hagerman, and Hally Phillips, lighting by Alex Smith, sound by John Burton, and props by Patrick Casados. And, because they invisibly keep things running like a well-oiled machine, a nod to the stage manager, Kali Raisi.

Even the seating deserves an honorable mention. Lakewood is partway through the process of replacing the seats in the entire theatre, and we had the good fortune to sit in the new ones. They are sinfully luxurious and unjustifiably comfortable. Patron sponsorship is helping to pay for them, so we dutifully “bought” a seat, which will now sport a plaque with our august names engraved on it. Fairly few seats are left unsponsored, so if you want to be a theater immortal, talk to the box office.

The Importance of Being Earnest is the final play of the season, and I can think of no better way to go out in a blaze of glory than with a production that is so superb, so funny, and so thoroughly delightful. Go see it; I can confidently guarantee you an evening of pure, unadulterated pleasure. 

The Importance of Being Earnest
June 14th to July 14th, 2013
Lakewood Playhouse

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Laramie Project at TLT

Tolerance  is not enough
by Michael Dresdner

Photo by Galen Wicks 
“There are stories we love to tell, and there are stories we have to tell.”

That’s what actor Mark Peterson wrote in lieu of his bio in the playbill for The Laramie Project at Tacoma Little Theatre, and as is often the case with Mark, he aptly summed up just why this play is and should be on the TLT stage. 

The Laramie Project surrounds the murder and torture of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten and left to die tied to a fence outside Laramie in 1998. However, that is only a small part of the very real story this play tells.

The writers, Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, went to Laramie and conducted hundreds of interviews of the people there. With that they crafted not a slanted piece of propaganda or a shock tale, but rather an astonishingly even-handed revelation of what really happened and how the locals responded in both words and actions. It is that very honesty and lack of bias that makes this play so powerful.

Make no mistake; it is powerful. It’s the sort of theatre that does its job; to bring you to a very real place that you have not been before by taking you inside the minds of those who witnessed reality. For that reason alone it is well worth seeing.

Of course, if you are going to experience this, and you should, thank your lucky stars if you can see it with a cast of this caliber. Director Brie Yost deserves the accolades for that. Her genius began with assembling the ideal cast, then continued as she led them to create true éclat.

Jen Aylsworth, Russ Coffey, Mike Cooper, Rachel Fitzgerald, Marty Mackenzie, Jefri Peters, Mark Peterson, Tiffani Pike, and Jeremy Thompson each took on an average of ten roles apiece, flipping effortlessly between wildly divergent characters. They did it, to an actor, flawlessly. I could endlessly call out exceptional scenes for each and every one of them. Instead, I’ll just say this is as fine an ensemble cast as one can imagine.

What also comes across is the distinct feeling that the cast has bonded with one another well beyond the normal realm of what a production requires. Perhaps because of that, they adroitly become the close-knit Tectonic Theater Project, then become the varied and sundry Laramie denizens, all with gratifying proficiency.

Rounding out the experience was the support of an equally fine production and design staff. Sets are by Lex Gernon, costumes and props by Jeffery Weaver, lighting by Niclas R. Olson, and the stage manager is Bethany Bevier.

Don’t be put off by what sounds like a depressing subject. The Laramie Project is, in spite of its general subject matter, a thoroughly moving theatre experience. Go see it, for this is a show whose seats should be filled every night. Yes, Tacoma Little Theatre deserves your support for making this available, but far more than that, as a living, breathing human, you deserve to experience this sort of emotional fulfillment.

The Laramie Project
June 7 to June 23, 2013
Tacoma Little Theatre

For Alec Clayton's take on this play, make sure you read the review at his blog: