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