Saturday, January 20, 2018

Children of a Lesser God at TLT

Hear here.
by Michael Dresdner  

Michelle Mary Schaefer, Jeremy Lynch   All photos by Dennis K, Photography
Children of a Lesser God, which opened last night at Tacoma Little Theatre, is a powerful, emotionally moving, deeply thoughtful play. The story, which is as far from a bit of froth as it gets, unfolds on a bare, almost non-existent multi-level set virtually without props and with only minimal costuming. An exceptional cast under the direction of Rick Horner brought it vibrantly to life.

Well-larded with emotion and nuance, the play, via the lead actress, tries to get you to see an inverted paradigm; a world where your normal is not normal and what you may call a “disability” is merely a different, and possibly much richer communication framework.

James Leeds (Jeremy Lynch) is a newly hired teacher at a school for the deaf. His mission and passion is to teach deaf students how to read lips and speak aloud rather than sign. In his view, that opens the world to them, an idea supported by principal Franklin (Kerry Bringman) and either eagerly or reluctantly by students Orin (Kai Winchester) and Lydia (Melanie Gladstone). Lydia, enamored with Leeds, tries to entice him, and he in turn fends off her constant advances. 

Michelle Mary Schaefer, Kerry Bringman 

Meanwhile, Leeds quickly meets and falls in love with the school’s deaf janitor, Sarah Norman (Michelle Mary Schaefer), and wants to teach her as well, though she’s older and not a student. Sarah wants none of it, and is content to use sign language as her sole and preferred means of “verbal” communication. Leeds even tries to reach her through her mother (Kristen Moriarty) with whom Sarah has a barely existent, strained and broken relationship. Nevertheless, by the end of act one the two are married, but the head-butting is just getting started. 

Jeremy Lynch, Michelle Mary Schaefer

Throughout act two she tries to make him see why she is content in her silent world as is, while he tries to convince her to join his verbal one. Each tries to change the other’s perception of both what is and what should be. It’s all complicated when a lawyer (Madonna Hanna) enters the picture representing the rights and desires of Sarah and Orin to become teachers at a school that traditionally only hires hearing instructors.

L to R: Madonna Hanna, Michelle Mary Schaefer, Kai Winchester
The conceit is that this all takes place in the mind of James Leeds, and because we “hear” what he “hears,” everything that is signed is also repeated aloud in some form. Thus, it is all abundantly clear to the hearing. For those non-hearing patrons, two screens astride the stage offer up all the spoken words, though of course, not the signed ones.

The entire cast was admirable, but most of the heavy lifting is done by Lynch and Schaefer. He has the vast bulk of the spoken dialogue, covering both what he says and what she signs. For her part, Schaefer relies on body language, posture, facial expression, and a beautifully fluid use of her hands during signing to get her feelings across. While both were exceptional (my reviewing partner likened Lynch to the late John Ritter), I was most impressed by the range and delivery that Schaefer brought to her part.

As I said, the barely there set by Blake York (who, perhaps ironically, also does the sound design) is merely a set of levels with chairs that are moved as needed. Costumes by Michele Graves are simple, and props are non-existent to the point that even pieces of paper are mimed. Hair and makeup is by Jeffery Weaver, and effectively unobtrusive lighting is by Niclas Olson. All that combines to keep the focus where it should be – on the acting.

The playbill also lists a sign language master (Darren Frazier), though it is quite obvious that the cast was chosen in part for their ability to sign, and a deaf community liaison (Melanie Gladstone, who also plays the part of Lydia.)  

If you go, and you should, be prepared to stay focused. It requires the full attention of the audience, since there is so much, both verbal and non-verbal, unfolding all the time. Put in the effort and you’ll be rewarded with a moving love story that may challenge your very worldview.

Children of a Lesser God
Jan 19 to Feb 14, 2018
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, January 6, 2018

American Idiot at Lakewood

It's something unpredictable
by Kaitlin Dresdner and Michael Dresdner

All photos by Tim Johnston 
American Idiot, the rock opera by the band Green Day, burst onto the stage at Lakewood Playhouse last night in an explosion of youthfully energetic song and dance that was both an intense and delightful experience. It was easy to be infected with their exuberance.

Director John Munn delivered a fast-paced, high energy ensemble bristling with more than enjoyable song and dance, and interspersed, as needed, with poignant emotion-laden lulls. Choreographer Ashley Roy (who also plays one of the female leads) managed to drive the young (many still in high school) cast to dance far better than one might expect.

It’s a true rock opera, as opposed to the musicals more commonly presented on this stage, in that there is very little dialogue or exposition. Except for a few diary entries, the entire story is told in song. Don’t get me wrong; it is not, mind you, a joyous story, but rather a paean to teen angst.

(Top to Bottom) Williams, Alford, Harris-Turner  

Largely allegorical, the story is told through the interwoven paths of three frustrated friends just out of  high school – what we’d call disaffected youth – trying to escape the suburbs into what they imagine is real life. Eventually, they all experience both love and loss, though not necessarily in that order.

L to R: Roy, Williams
Will (CoopeHarris-Turner) gets his girlfriend (Kiana Norman-Slack) pregnant and is forced to stay home, sinking into a desultory funk abetted by alcohol and pot.  Tunny (Tony Williams), seeing few options, joins the army where he is badly wounded, but in spite (or perhaps because of) his injury, he first imagines, then finds real love in the form of his nurse (Ashley Roy). Johnny (Mark Alford)  hits the big city to find hard drugs and affection with Whatsername (Dani Hobbs), but manages to blow it with drug-fueled erratic behavior.

L to R: Alford, Hobbs 
The young cast did an admirable job with the intense, energetic material they were working with, but they particularly shined in the large ensemble numbers.

At every juncture, it is clear, via the large ensemble song and dance numbers, that the striving, angst, and life experiences of these three in fact represent multitudes of their generation.

Members of that generation (and if you listened to Green Day, you know who you are), will find this show particularly poignant and nostalgic, but it is by no means accessible only to those who are familiar with their body of work. Green Day’s iconic punk-rock style is a perfect vehicle through which to explore timeless themes – frustration, hopelessness, and loneliness – and how to navigate through the marshy period between teen and adult. Even those who think they hate this style of music and wish those darned kids would just turn the volume down may find this show changes their mind.
When it comes to tech, I’ve nothing but praise to offer. The music came from an on-stage eight piece band (I know – the real Green Day was only a trio) led by Deborah-Lynn Armstrong. Fortunately, the intense and constant action on stage prevented  the presence of the orchestra from being distracting.

Costumes by Diane Runkel, and there were a lot of them, were exactly right. An exceedingly complex lighting design by Kate Wilson was executed flawlessly. The same could be said of the sound, by Aaron Mohs-Hale. The performers wore microphones, yet both the huge cast and live orchestra were balanced and clear. In fact, where the real Green Day is notorious for hard to understand lyrics, this production slowed it down just a bit, cleaned up some of the excess fuzzbox, and gave us lyrics we could clearly understand. Thank you for that.

To sum it all up, let’s borrow some lyrics from Green Day themselves:

“It's something unpredictable, but in the end it's right.
I hope you had the time of your life.”

American Idiot
Jan 5 – 28, 2018
Lakewood Playhouse