Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Great Gatsby at TLT

The great gamble  
by Michael Dresdner 

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

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

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

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

Now for the fun part; the players.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girls Night at Centerstage

An outsider’s view
by Michael Dresdner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Glengarry Glen Ross at Lakewood Playhouse

Half past midnight in the afternoon  

by Michael Dresdner

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

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

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

   L to R: Joe Grant, Kyle Sinclair

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

  L to R: James Winkler, Alan Wilkie

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

   L to R: W. Scott Pinkston, Frank Roberts 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 No, I didn’t.

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

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

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