Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sleeping Beauty at Centerstage

A kinder, gentler Panto
by Michael Dresdner

   Princess Aurora (Sarah Mather)             photos by Michelle Smith Lewis

The traditional English Panto, which Centerstage has been offering lately in the December time slot, is based quite loosely on a common fairy tale. This time it’s Sleeping Beauty, but only the barest outline of the story remains. Mostly it is a platform for a clutch of the traditional Panto conventions; lavish costumes, overblown scenery, plenty of singing and dancing, a bit of rather obvious magic, general silliness, and lots of very broad comedy, both verbal and physical.

There’s also non-stop breaking of the fourth wall, since audience participation is a must in Panto. Many characters talk directly to the audience, encouraging (hounding?) them to respond with boos, call and response, chants, and warnings and advice to certain “clueless” cast members, like King Kevin (Dale Bowers.)

Chief among the audience warmers, and three of my favorites of all those on stage, were the good Fairy Moonbeam (Sarah Henley Hicks), her evil rival Carabosse (Katherine Jett), and the court jester of the stage, Jangles (Josh Williamson), a particularly and impressively tireless and energetic triple threat actor.  

   Carabosse (Katherine Jett) and her minions 

While former years have skewed the comedy heavily toward the ribald, this year was quite a bit more tame. It seemed much more targeted toward a younger audience, and in fact, opening night was chock full of youngsters who seemed to be enjoying it no end. The pace was a bit calmer, the jokes safer and clearer, and the whole presentation more kid-friendly.

While there were still a few innuendos and inside local digs, most of the non-stop humor consisted of  puns, groaners, and other word play oddly reminiscent of  some iteration of “The Boy’s Big Book of Jokes” that I owned some 55 years ago. You know; the sort of humor all adults have heard before, but that is generally deemed hilariously clever by the average sixth grader.  

What bawdiness remained was delivered almost exclusively by my favorite onstage character, Nurse Nellie. She follows a Panto tradition of a large and perhaps unattractive male posing as an older woman who is outrageous, gaudily overdressed, sarcastic, superior, and blessedly, without restraint. Think Dame Edna and you’ll be on the right track. As is often the case, the role was played by the theatre’s own Alan Bryce, and he is consistently brilliant at it.

Rounding out the cast was the youth and adult ensemble, which contained some very talented people. Oh yes, and there’s Helga, who is a gigantic but not particularly dangerous dragon. Hey, this is Disneyesque fare with no death or serious pain, admittedly a far cry from the tale’s grim Grimm origins.

One element I missed was the lead boy, normally an attractive young woman dressed rather provocatively but playing the male romantic lead. This time Prince Peter was a man (Cooper Harris-Turner), and his task and pleasure was to win Princess Aurora (Sarah Mather), who becomes sleeping beauty.  

Director Vince Brady called upon the talents of Catherine Cornell for the varied but exaggerated scenery, Laura Campbell for the almost endless props, Amy Silveria for lighting and sound design, and Janessa Styck for the wide range of costumes, including some truly spectacular headgear (and chest gear) on Dame Bryce. Music director Deborah Armstrong led the onstage band (Andrew Carson, Kaarin Lysen, Tai Taitano, Cal Neal) superbly, a characteristic that’s become the norm for these shows.  

One warning, should you decide to take your kids or grandkids: This is a long show. From curtain to curtain, with one intermission, it ran just ten minutes shy of three hours. The intermission itself came an hour and forty five minutes after curtain, so if you’re my age, consider hitting the john before the play starts. 

Sleeping Beauty
Nov. 28 to Dec. 20, 2015

Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Christmas Story at TLT

by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Fry, Loughridge, Gibbons, Walworth-Horn            photos by Dennis K Photography 

Thank you. Yes, that’s a deep, heartfelt thank you, from me and all reviewers everywhere, to Tacoma Little Theatre for this absolutely wonderful production of A Christmas Story.

Why? Because this 15-year-old stage version of Jean Shepherd’s popular movie is done by schools and community theatres almost every year, meaning we reviewers get – let’s say “treated” – to it again and again. All too often it is a hodge-podge of cute but tedious children, earnest but misguided production values, and spotty acting. This version, though, is the exact opposite. 

      L to R: Fry, Walworth-Horn

Jennifer York has directed a perfect play (yes, better than the movie) with brisk pacing, a superb cast both individually and as an ensemble, a set so good that at one point it got its own ovation, and all the trimmings – lights, music, surprising props, costumes – keeping pace.

What does that mean for you? It means this play is a pure pleasure to watch; funny, fast-paced, captivating, visually and aurally interesting for both adults and children, and best of all, completely believable. More on that later, but let’s take a break for a quick plot summary.

        Liam Loughridge as Ralphie in his imagined Red Ryder gear.

What nine-year-old Ralphie Parker (Liam Loughridge) desperately wants for Christmas is “a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass and this thing which tells time built right into the stock,” but everyone, from his mother (Heidi Walworth-Horn) to his teacher Miss Shields (Jessica Robins) and even Santa himself, dismisses the idea with the tired warning “you’ll shoot your eye out.” He plots to make it happen anyway amidst the nostalgic trappings of a boyhood in a small town in 1940’s Indiana.

     L to R: Fry, Walworth-Horn, Loughridge, Gibbons, Blake York 

Sub-plots abound. His father (Andrew Fry), who swears a blue streak while battling the indignities of a cranky furnace and the neighbors’ hateful dogs, manages to win “a major prize” in one of his many quiz contests. The prize is a garish lamp shaped like a woman’s leg. 

    Walworth-Horn vs. the lamp 

His mother, who understandably hates the  lamp, holds the family together, lovingly managing his slightly weird younger brother Randy (Mason Gibbons and Luke Miller, alternating in the role), who eats like a pig (literally) and hides constantly, and coddling her often clueless husband while feeding him the right answers to his contest quizzes.

    L to R: Saum, J.J. Greenwell, Loughridge

Ralphie has his crosses to bear as well, including a humiliating pink bunny costume from his aunt, the frustrating adults in his life, and the ministrations of school bully Scutt Farkas (Evan Sherman.) Fortunately, he has his friends, Schwartz (Tyler Saum) and the hapless Flick (J.J. Greenwell) who gets his tongue stuck on a frigid metal pole after a dare, to share his plight. And of course, there are the girls at school, including Helen (Haylie Hetland) and her friend Ester Jane (Gabi Grimmett), who has an obvious crush on Ralphie.

                      Blake York as grown up Ralph 

The whole story is narrated by a now adult Ralph, charmingly and adroitly unwound by the estimable Blake York, who deserves his own “major award” not only for his acting, but also for designing the amazing sets and sound cues. Along with the integrated narration, Blake pops in and out of the play filling the roles of other minor characters, including Red Ryder himself in full regalia. His appearance in the scene where Ralphie has to wear his pink bunny suit is a delight in itself.

                    The dreaded bunny suit. 

I can’t say enough good things about the actors, and I mean all of them, from the ensemble support (Ron Bauer, Veronica Bauer, Augusta Greenwell) through all of the child and adult roles. What really shone was their realism, individually and collectively as an ensemble, with no overacting in sight. They were completely believable and apropos, and that makes all the difference.

   L to R: Heidi Walworth-Horn, Andrew Fry 

Fry, especially delightful when his “prize” arrives, and his wife, Walworth-Horn, hone a thoroughly genuine and familiar pair of parents from that period, both as themselves and as how Ralphie sometimes sees them. Loughridge was top notch as Ralphie, hitting all the highs and lows needed for the role. Robins creates a superb Miss Shields, the teacher, then tops it with out-of-character high notes in the A+++ scene, the witch scene, and later as a silent but hilariously disgruntled elf in Santaland. I could go on and laud each actor in turn, but suffice it to say the whole cast was outstanding.   

And speaking of outstanding, let’s talk about the set. Built on a revolving stage with sliding panels adding more options, there are at least six different quickly alternating locations, all of them superbly rendered. The alley, with its weathered fence boards, the school room, and Ralphie’s house, inside and out, all share the same dun-hued color palette, the perfect backdrop to how Ralphie viewed his mundane, small-town surroundings. Only the glitzy Santaland set breaks the mold, sparkling as it would in a youngster’s vision.

                    The lamp, in all its glory 
Wonderful props by Jeffery Weaver ran the gamut from the expected lamp and gun to a surprising giant spider pin. All the props and set dressing in the house, school, and department store were exactly as they should be. Creative lighting (Niclas R. Olson) helped set both moods and discrete locations, and the sound support (Blake) was just ideal, with precisely the right familiar songs popping up at each juncture.

Perfect too, were the costumes (Michele Graves), and in this case, that’s saying a whole lot. I won’t go into them all as there were a lot, but I will say it was as outstanding a job of costuming as I can imagine. And because the show was so complex, with rotating sets, moving panels, pop-up animals (you’ll see) and endless quick changes of clothes, music, and lights, a tip of the hat goes to stage manager Nena Curley and her ASM Alyshia Collins. That was an amazing job of legerdemain.

       This one's mine. You can buy your own in the lobby. 

Let’s call this the ideal Christmas season treat for you and your children and grandchildren. It’s great for all ages, so take the family and indulge in a beautifully crafted and thoroughly entertaining comedy. If you like, do what I did; spring for a memento, sold in the lobby, in the form of the iconic leg lamp rendered as a night light. Be warned; it’s a short run and even opening night was packed, so get your tickets early and don’t miss this one.

A Christmas Story
Nov. 27 to Dec. 20, 2015
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Comedy of Errors at Lakewood Playhouse

Buttons and bows
by Michael Dresdner

   Front row: Sabrina Ebengho, Ben Stahl, Isaac Gutiereez       photos by Kate Paterno-Lick 

Re-imagining Shakespeare into different time periods and settings is part of the grand tradition of theatre, and that’s what opened last night at Lakewood Playhouse. This time around director Kristie Worthey has plunged A Comedy of Errors into the present day Pacific Northwest, with the two lost pairs of twins hailing from Seattle and Portland respectively.  

First, a quick recap of the highly confusing story line, just to refresh your memory. Egeon (called Aegeon in this version) and his wife had twin boys, both named Antipholus, for some reason. The parents bought a poor woman’s twin boys, born the same day, to be slaves for their boys. Both slaves are named Dromio. Perhaps there was a name shortage.

The family was riven in a shipwreck and divided as such: Aegeon raised one Antipholus and his Dromio, who are now “away” searching for their siblings. Meanwhile, the other pair were separated from their mother. The searching pair arrive in, well, Portland, in this case, unaware that their father and their mother, now an Abbess in the town, are both there, but unaware of one another. They are also unaware that the orphan twins they seek live right there in town, as a well-know, highly respected, and wealthy married man and his slave.  

   L to R: Ben Stahl, Frank Roberts 

As they make their way through the day, all four of the twins, in pairs and alone, are constantly mistaken for one another by townspeople, wives, and even each slave to his master. What ensues are inexplicably locked homes, seemingly illegitimate debts, lost gifts and money, confused sexual liasons, an arrest; you name it, whatever can go wrong does, until all parties are comically aggrieved and thoroughly confused. Eventually, all is revealed; the Abbess reunites with her long lost husband, Aegeon, and the two sets of twins discover each other, and their parents, for an all-around happy ending.

Worthey chose to set the play in a Portlandia version of Portland, OR, one chock full of weirdness in both behavior and dress, and even more odd, one where there are no long lines in front of Voodoo Donuts (named Zombie Donuts here.) The townsfolk cavort, joke around, make balloon animals, and generally act out with unfettered frivolity. They also trot out and play a variety of instruments , including flute, guitar, recorder, and saxophone, a nice tribute considering yesterday was the 201st birthday of inventor Adolphe Sax.

Naturally, this conceit gave Worthey the chance to add local references, timely gentle insults, and regional jokes to the text, some quite good. (Note to the community at large: “Deja Brew,” the punch line of one such gag, is actually a damned good name for a barista kiosk, and certainly appropriate for a Java Tacoma installment.)

As for the play itself, the original still shines through, relatively unaffected and largely unharmed by this local and modern treatment, with one minor exception. I was sorry to see the famous and outrageous “spherical like a globe; I could find out countries in her” rant get truncated.

And the actors? With all Shakespeare, the most important challenge for the actors is twofold; they must truly understand what the language is saying (since, after all, it is not in present day English), and they must make sure, with expression, delivery, and body language, that they somehow convey that meaning clearly to the audience.

On that score, the leads did an excellent job. A tip of the hat to Ben Stahl, who played both Antipholus parts superbly, to Frank Roberts, who likewise did an outstanding job of the two Dromios, to the flashy and brazen Jodie Chapin for a delightful Adriana, the wife of the local Antipholus, and to Cameron Waters, who not only played a wonderful Aegeon, but then morphed into the second Dromio for the final reveal scene. Stahl, in comparison, does the reveal alone, playing both Antipholus brothers via rapid onstage costume changes reminiscent of the train scene in The 39 Steps.

The set and lighting design by Brett Carr was simple and unobtrusive, which is, at least in my opinion, exactly what works best for most Shakespeare. Skyline and bridge cutouts let us know where we were, but otherwise the stage contained merely ramps, a platform, and hiding spots for the actors to create settings. Costumes by Nena Curley were, I assume, meant to be intentionally haphazard, and were. Clothing ranged from a “hey, look what I found in my closet” top hat and tee shirt pairing, to the “let’s raid the costume shop for something improbable” harlequin top dress sported by Balthasar.  

So now it’s time to ask the big question, the one that will tell you whether this version of the classic will delight or vex you. Since we’re so near Christmas, I’ll pose a seasonally themed version of the querry.

When you look at a stately spruce tree, do you think it is majestic and perfect as is, or just waiting to be made special with drippings of tinsel and brightly colored ornaments? Answer that and you’ll know whether what awaits you is an unbridled treat or well-executed burr beneath your saddle.

A Comedy of Errors
Nov 6 to Nov 29, 2015
Lakewood Playhouse

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Night of the Iguana at Dukesbay

The sound and the fury
by Michael Dresdner

   L to R: Malcolm J. West, Ellen Peters   photos by Jason Ganwich

The small but sometimes stellar Dukesbay Theater is currently showing The Night of the Iguana, directed by theatre co-founder Randy Clark. If you are a fan of Tennessee Williams, this is a chance to see one of his less frequently performed plays, though there may be good reason for that. In my view, this production does not represent the finest work of either the playwright or the theatre company.

It’s 1940 on the west coast of Mexico, where former Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Mark Peterson,) at one time locked out of his church and into an institution for exhibiting borderline atheism, has morphed into a bus tour guide. He deposits his all female group at the cut rate hotel of his friend, the recently widowed and decidedly salacious Maxine Faulk (Stephanie Leeper), who is more interested in bagging Shannon than gaining hotel customers.  

   Mark Peterson 

Shannon, peacock proud and intrusively loud, eschews both alcohol and Maxine’s advances, but his irrational and irritable behavior has turned the tour group against him. That and the fact that he indulged his penchant for young girls, this time with 16-year-old tour member Charlotte Goodall (Chevi Chung.) The leader of the tour group, a strident, square-jawed bulldog named Judith Fellowes (Maggie Knott,) is the tour’s own Carrie Nation, assailing Shannon while guarding, albeit unsuccessfully, Charlotte’s morals.

   L to R: Chevi Chung, Mark Peterson

New England spinster Hannah Jelkes (Ellen Peters), an itinerant artist who ekes out an existence traveling with her 96-year-old grandfather Nonno (Malcolm J. West), a former poet seeking to finish his last great work before his death, also show up at the hotel. It is sensible and sensitive Hannah who, after the raging Shannon is restrained from attempting to drown himself, manages to get through to him. Like oil on the waters, she calms both him and the play, and manages to stand out as a rare gentle voice amidst the otherwise rather intrusive on-stage din. It’s much appreciated; in an intimate, 36-seat venue like this, a little volume goes a long way.

  L to R: Ellen Peters, Stephanie Leeper 

As Shannon finally succumbs to alcohol, apparently one of his other self-destructive demons, he oddly becomes both calmer and kinder. The play moves to its resolution as he and Hannah both manage to clarify their own minds and actions, past and future, by letting down their guard and sharing their stories with one another.

Rounding out the cast are other bit parts, including Shannon’s downtrodden driver Hank (Robert Osborn,) and his replacement, an amiable zhlub named Jake Latta (Jeffery Weaver.) Zhlub, if you were wondering, is one of those hard to define Yiddish terms that suggests a sloppy, compliant, unremarkable plodder. That’s the character, mind you, not Weaver.

All this is played out on one of the nicest sets imaginable, an all faux stone hotel patio replete with ocean view, which was designed by Burton Yuen, built by Hector Juarez, and exquisitely painted by Jennifer York. Bethany Bevier did sound design, Nic Olson handled lighting, and Jeffery Weaver did triple duty as actor, costumer, and props master. Together they provided estimable production support.  

In spite of some well-crafted characters, including Weaver’s Latta, Leeper’s stridently sexual Maxine, and the welcome quiet of Peters’Hannah, the production in general suffers from a lack of modulation, nuance, and chemistry, which could be chalked up to actors, director, opening night irregularity, or something else entirely. Hopefully, it will calm down and mesh better as the run continues.   

The Night of the Iguana
Oct 30 to Nov 15, 2015
Dukesbay Productions