Sunday, December 9, 2018

Scrooge! The Musical at TLT

Dickens, but with pizazz
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Emily Newland, Kaden Stanford, Olivia Zamira, Eva Hay, (Jeremy Lynch, Evie Merrill, Kenya Adams.
All photos by Dennis K Photography 

I rather suspect that Scrooge! The Musical, now playing at Tacoma Little Theatre, was created to add some welcome lightness and fun to the admittedly dreary and somewhat overdone Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol,” and in this case, it certainly does.

You know the story, right? Uber-miser Ebeneezer Scrooge (Andrew Fry) is visited in turn by ghosts of his departed business partner Jacob Marley (Joseph Woodland), and the ghosts of  Christmas past (Kathy Kluska), present (Chris Serface), and future (Alan Plaster.) Through the miracle of fiction, they manage to change the heart and mind of the old skinflint and make him do a total about face.

L to R: Joseph Woodland, Andrew Fry 
A very talented trio consisting of director Micheal O’Hara, musical director Zachary Kellogg, and choreographer Eric Clausell molded a huge and largely youthful cast into a most impressive ensemble. They set the tone right away with a powerful opening number that fills the hall with richly blended voices, along with often surprisingly intricate dance numbers. Better yet, they repeat the experience each time the chorus takes the stage.

Now and again one of them gets the chance to step out of the crowd and show us both great stage presence and equally fine vocal and dancing abilities. Some examples? Ok, just a few – it’s a large and able cast, after all. There’s Isabel (Allie Watkins), Ebenezer’s lost love with her beautiful and obviously trained vioce, Bob Cratchit (Jeremy Lynch), another finely trained singer with a most pleasant stage demeanor, the limber and energetic Tom Jenkins (Liam Loughridge), Mr. Fezziwig (George McClure who is way too spry for one his age, dammit,) The Ghost of Christmas Present (Chris Serface, the theatre’s managing artistic director who is also an outstanding actor who fills the room to bursting with his voluminous and thoroughly infectious ebullience,) and smallest, but certainly not least, the adorably winning Tiny Tim (Evie Merrill.) One gets the sense that there are probably quite a few more shining stars tucked away in that ensemble waiting for their shot. 
L to R: Andrew Fry, Chris Serface
It’s getting a bit tired to write this again and again, but as usual, they were backed by the regular and consistently excellent production team. Blake York’s initially stark set, a scrim-backed silhouette of the inside of a huge clock face, boasted four cleverly hidded doors for egress of both props and people. Back lit with changing scenery for locations, it also did a great job of creating starkly crisp shadows, particularly of Scrooge, when front lit. Scene changes had wonderful set pieces – street carts, a four poster bed, and Cratchit’s dining room, to name a few -- that slid silently and hermetically on and off stage.

An enormous array of excellent period costumes by Michelle Graves, with wigs and hair, by Jeffery Weaver, who is also the adroit props master, added to the rich panoply. Ditto for the varied and well though out lighting design by Niclas Olson, abetted by follow spot operators Kerry Bringman and Ku’uleialoha Hoapili. In this case, the music was “packaged,” meaning there is no live orchestra and the actors have to match pace and pitch with a pre-recorded score, a much more challenging situation than having a skilled conductor massaging the tempo and volume to those on stage.

Finally, one must acknowledge the Herculean task of keeping such a complex and lively array running smoothly. Kudos for that go to stage manager Nena Curley and ASM Courtney Rainer

All in all, there’s a whole lot of talent and even more energy flooding that stage for a Christmas offering that is decidedly more engaging and pleasant than the old Dickens standby that spawned it. You’d do well to consider spending a couple of hours with this delightful group during the holiday season.

Scrooge! The Musical
Dec. 7th to 30th, 2018
Tacoma Little Theatre

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Bell, Book, and Candle at TLT

Love in the Time of Witchcraft
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Victoria Ashley (Gillian), Jed Slaughter (Shepherd)    All photos by Dennis K Photography
Just in time for Halloween, Tacoma Little Theatre’s second play of its 100th year is Bell, Book, and Candle, a 1950s era romantic dramedy with a witch as its main character. As it was written, it was set in New York’s Greenwich Village, then a hotbed of artistic eccentricity. This production moves it to the more upscale Murray Hill neighborhood in the late 1960s, though I’m not sure why.  

Gillian Holroyd (Victoria Ashley) is a beautiful, statuesque witch with a cat named Pyewacket as her familiar. She, her Aunt Queenie (Wendy Cohen) and her brother Nicky (Max Christofferson) all have magical powers that they use with surprising frequency for thoroughly selfish reasons.

L to R: Victoria Ashley (Gillian), Max Christofferson (Nicky), Wendy Cohen (Queenie)  
For instance, she causes her hapless neighbor and tenant, Sheppard Henderson (Jed Slaughter) to fall irrationally in love with her. She does this not because she loves him, (witches, we are told, can’t fall in love) but merely because she finds him interesting and wants to break up his imminent engagement to a woman she hated in college. This seems a far cry from the behavior of the real Wicca community.
Victoria Ashley (Gillian), Jed Slaughter (Shepherd) 
She, Nicky, and Queenie proceed to use magic spells to upend Shepherd’s life while she keeps him in thrall, both physically and emotionally. Gillian does this with the help of her familiar, a real live cat who was surprisingly cooperative on stage. A minor complication comes in the form of Sidney Redlitch (Mike Storslee), an “expert” who writes books exposing the existence of modern day witchcraft.

L to R: Mike Storslee (Redlitch), Victoria Ashley (Gillian) 

The fly in the ointment is that if witches fall in love, they lose their magical powers. It takes most of the play for Gillian to figure out that she loves Shepherd enough to give up her “charmed” life in order to be with him. But by then it may be too late; he’s aware that he’s been manipulated by a real witch.

There are some excellent actors on stage working with a production, directed by Brett Carr, that is heavy on dialogue and low on action. They’re backed up with flawless technical support.

The set 
The set, by Blake York with dressing and props by Jeffrey Weaver and amazing painting by Jen York, is beyond gorgeous. Heck, even I would like to live in that apartment. It’s worth seeing this play just for the set, but it doesn’t end there. Costumes by Michele Graves are impressive, as is lighting by Niclas Olson. Considering all the difficulties of this production, stage manager Nena Curley also deserves a nod, as does Pyewacket’s trainer, Alyshia Collins.

But can we digress a little? If you’ll allow me a bit of armchair analysis, what bothered me about this play was a dark undercurrent of 50s sensibility – or lack thereof – concerning the “battle of the sexes.” Women in general, it was felt in some quarters, were mysterious and had sexual power over men who were in turn powerless to control their behavior. The most chilling aspect of that common mindset was that once she falls in love, a woman (in this case Gillian) loses all her power.  

Perhaps it’s best not to think about it too deeply and instead go with the conceit that this is merely a fanciful journey into “Love, Witchcraft Style.”  

Bell, Book, and Candle
Oct 26 to Nov 11, 2018
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Foreigner at TLT

Stranger in a hilariously strange land
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Blake York, Charlie Stevens     All photos by Dennis K Photography

On the opening night of their 100th year, Tacoma Little Theatre pulled out all the stops with an intensely funny and perfectly executed Larry Shue comedy called The Foreigner. It was so good that even this jaded, “seen it all before” reviewer was laughing out loud at the antics of director Cassie Pruitt’s wonderful ensemble cast.   

Sadly, I can’t tell you much about the play’s plot because it would ruin a lot of the very unexpected humor, so I’ll do what everyone else does; just offer you the set-up and hope you will trust me enough to go see it mostly on my say so.

L to R: Mikel Michener, Jen Aylsworth

S/Sgt. Froggy LeSueur (Mikel Michener) arrives at a Georgia hunting lodge to drop off his friend Charlie Baker (Blake York) for a few days while he goes on maneuvers. The ultra-shy Charlie is horrified at having to converse with strangers, so Froggy tells their host, Betty Meeks (Jen Aylsworth) that Charlie is a foreigner and speaks no English at all. She finds that thrillingly charming (why, honey child, she just never met no foreigner before) and quickly misinterprets every little action as stuff that’s plumb natural for foreigners, no matter how unlikely and absurd it is.

Rev. David Marshall Lee (Cody Wyld Flower) and his fiancĂ©, Catherine Simms (Caiti Burke) both take that as a free pass to be able to speak freely about private matters both around him, and in Catherine’s case, to him. Lee wants to buy the old lodge with Catherine’s money and turn it into… See, there you have it. One of the those things I mentioned that I can’t give away lest I ruin the comedy.

L to R: Jen Aylsworth, Cody Wyld Flower, Charlie Stevens, Brian Cox 

The rather duplicitous Reverend Lee is, we’ll soon find out, not quite so nice as he pretends to be when he shows up with a completely reprehensible stereotypical Southerner named Owen Musser (Brian Cox) in tow. There’s little reward in playing a truly bad guy. The better you play the role, the more everyone genuinely hates you, and Owen was outstanding at being despicable. From the moment Cox stepped on stage he crafted both a thoroughly obnoxious and a completely recognizable archetype.  

L to R: Charlie Stevens, Caiti Burke, Cody Wyld Flower 

Last, but certainly not least, is Ellard Simms (Charlie Stevens), Catherine’s mentally challenged brother. Gangly, a bit twitchy, and delightfully funny, Stevens made Ellard captivatingly believable. His breakfast scene with Blake during Act I was magnificent. Riddled with non-stop sight gags and almost no dialogue, the “slow” boy hilariously tries to communicate with this foreign tongued stranger, who plays along ad absurdum. It was both reminiscent of and better than the best work Laurel and Hardy ever did.

L to R: Caiti Burke, Blake York, Jen Aylsworth 

The key to this play is Charlie Baker, and Blake York hit that role right out of the park. With his range of facial expressions, body language, and grab-bag of strange voices and actions, he created a character that you couldn’t take your eyes off of, and couldn’t stop laughing at.

Each of these performers would have been justifiably praised on their own, but Blake’s work as Charlie was so outstanding that he actually overshadowed much of this exceptional ensemble. How good was he? Normally I despise standing ovations because they’ve become so overused, but when Blake stepped out on stage for his bow, he got one that was richly deserved.

Not content simply to act, Blake York also designed the beautifully realistic set (abetted by the talented scenic artist and painter Jen York) but then we’ve known for some time that Blake has pretty much captured the “best set designer in the area” title already. Add that to his skill as a director and you have a very different sort of theatrical triple threat.

Jeffery Weaver did his usual top-notch job on props, set dressing, hair, and makeup. Ditto for Michele Graves’ costumes, Niclas Olson’s lighting design, and Chris Serface’s sound design. In other words, the technical side was well up to the challenge of this extraordinary cast.

Opening night was sold out. When word gets out about this triumph, every other night will be as well. Trust me; go see this one. It’s hard to imagine a more wonderfully hilarious evening.

The Foreigner
Sept. 14 to 30, 2018
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Brighton Beach Memoirs at Lakewood

When salmon meets lox
by Michael Dresdner

L to R: Drew Bates, Andrew Fox Burden      All photos by Tim Johnston

Lakewood Playhouse opened their 80th season last night with Brighton Beach Memoirs, part one of the brilliant autobiographical trilogy by the deservedly legendary Neil Simon less than two weeks after his passing. It’s a masterpiece of timing.

By the time Simon turned his attention to his own childhood memories in this oeuvre, he had already racked up a string of close to 20 stage hits over as many years, including Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot In The Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Sunshine Boys, Murder by Death, and several others.

L to R: Andrew Fox Burden, Pamela Roza 

Eugene Jerome (Drew Bates) is almost 15, not yet recovered from puberty, and living in a barely middle class Brooklyn household in 1937, a time when war was already heating up in Europe. Eugene does double duty as the narrator who fills in details and delivers a stream of comical “observations” about his family, a technique that mitigates the painfulness of their very tenuous grip on solvency.

L to R: W. Scott Pinkston, Andrea Gordon 

His father, Jack Jerome (W. Scott Pinkston) works two jobs to support his wife Kate (Pamela Roza), their sons, Eugene and his 18-year-old brother Stanley (Andrew Fox Burden), Kate’s younger and more timid sister Blanche (Brynne Garman), and her two daughters, the beautiful 16-year-old Nora (Andrea Gordon) and her 13-year-old sister Laurie (Kate-Lynn Siemers), who has a heart flutter but is treated like far more of a delicate flower than she really is. Blanche lost her husband six years earlier to cancer (a word no one says in anything but a whisper lest uttering it would bring it on) and is completely dependent on the largess of her sister’s family. They all live crammed together in a small house where they must be constantly on top of one another.

At the opening of the play, Jack has lost one of his two jobs, and son Stanley, the only other wage earner of the bunch, is on the cusp of losing his. It’s just the first of  any number of calamities, mostly financial, that befalls the stalwart tribe, but they always manage to pull together and soldier on. The glue that binds them is a deep and real familial love, something strong enough to overcome whatever comes.

Meanwhile, Eugene is grappling with his lust for his cousin Nora, the dark secret of teen masturbation, and his dual desires to be a baseball player and a writer. Throughout, he’s fed a scattering of sage sexual advice by his slightly more aware older brother, confidant, and role model Stanley.  

L to R: Pamela Roza, Brynne Garman 

Although the males take much of center stage, the best scene, and the most authentic character portrayals, comes during act two, when sisters Kate and Blanche have it out. The argument dredges up all the long-suppressed resentments of childhood, from the common “mom always liked you best” issue, to the unyielding unfairness of being the older/younger sibling. Kudos to Roza and Garman for making that scene truly sparkle.

The set, by director John Olive with props by Karrie Morrison, was large, complex, and quite appropriate, though I have seen better paint jobs from past Lakewood teams. Lighting by Michalyn Thomson was bright and clear, but I would have liked to have seen it used for more delineation. For example, there are times when Eugene verbally (not physically) “steps away” from the action to narrate, and dim lights and a spot on him would have made those transitions more crisp.

Costumes, by Rachel Wilkie were right on target for both the characters and the time period, and if you like that period’s music, which I do, you’ll love the sound design by Artistic Managing Director John Munn.

My biggest issue with this play is how much it depends on a deep understanding of the culture it portrays. Simon peels back the veneer of classic Jewish angst to expose a very specific, and very common, family dynamic. However, though it is in English, he expresses it through the unique rhythm and musicality of Yiddish jargon. That may sound easy, but it’s rather elusive for West coast ears.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with salmon, but it’s not lox. Though this undoubtedly sounds effete and petty, for someone who grew up as part of that culture, this rather goyisha take on Simon comes off a bit like an all-white version of Raisin in the Sun.

Still, that hairsplitting is probably lost on most patrons, and to be sure, the opening night audience definitely found this both funny and delightful. My guess is that you will too.

Brighton Beach Memoirs
Sept. 7 to 30  2018
Lakewood Playhouse

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