Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Wrap-up For the Rep.

Pullman Porter Blues by Cheryl L. West, Directed by Lisa Peterson.
Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, Directed by Braden Abraham.
Inspecting Carol by Daniel Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory Theatre Resident company, Directed by Jerry Manning.
American Buffalo by David Mamet, Directed by Wilson Milam.
Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler, Directed by Braden Abraham.
War Horse based on the book "War Horse" by Michael Morpugo, adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford in association with Handspring Puppet Company, Originally directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, US Tour Director Bijan Shebani.
Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire, Directed by David Saint.
Boeing, Boeing by Marc Camoletti, translated by Beverly Cross and Francis Cross, Directed by Allison Narver.
All of the above, Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Normally play reviews, particularly those for the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where the Lovely Bride and I have season tickets, carry this blog through the cold dark months of the winter. This year, I got behind with a bunch of reviews from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and just let things slide from there. So now I'm at the end of the season, and really need to sum up, for my own internal housekeeping if nothing else (plus the fact that I will probably have to come back to this some time in the future and figure out what the heck I was thinking).

This, the Seattle Rep's 50th Season, was OK. Not great or stellar, but OK. More wins than losses. The things that bothered me about it rarely had anything to do with the work, or the actors (both of which tend to be superior), and more with the larger issues of putting plays onto the stage.

The first out the door was Pullman Porter Blues, which falls into the category of being the annual "play with music" - not a musical, but a play built around extant songs - a revue with more narrative thread. There is one every year.  The year is 1937, the night of the Joe Louis/ Braddock fight, the place is the Panama Express, a train running from Chicago to New Orleans. Three generations of Pullman Porters are on the train, for various reasons, and the three men espouse different methods operating with a white-dominated world. The race relations are front and center here, but so are the generational problems, and indeed every member of the family is keeping secrets from the others. It trundles along nicely, though the ending is a little neat. The best parts were strong performances from Larry Marshall and Cleavant Derricks (Yeah, he was in Sliders - deal with it). In general, it felt like a show running through its paces en route to New York. Who knows, it could be another Light in the Piazza, where it does well and everyone remembers when it was here in Seattle.

Glass Menagerie could have been very good, but for this one I bailed. Having done enough straw hat theater and having a Mom-in-Law who directed same, I have had more Tennessee Williams than the normal human lifetime allowance. However, it is "Classic Play You've Heard Of Which Is Not Shakespeare" entry into the year.

Inspecting Carol should get a pass from me. It is another good go-to-play for small theaters (again, I have run lines with the Mom-In-Law when she was in a local performance), but it was created here at the Rep, so it makes sense for it to show up for its 50th. Local play makes good. But this performance left me a bit flat. I think backstage comedies work best when you are already comfortable with the actors as actors and not as roles. The cast for Inspecting had a lot of strangers to it, so that linkage was lost to me. The name Repertory carries with it the idea of a permanent company. This is weakened by plays that are another company just using the stage (Pullman, for all its goodness) and actors "who are pleased to be appearing at the Rep for the first time". That latter is not a crime, and often we'd like to see more of them in the future at the Rep.

[Oh, and when you're going through the program booklet at Intermission, count the number of actors with credits in Law & Order and CSI. Those are the modern actor equivalents of the FDR's WPA.]

American Buffalo was my least-favorite play. Deeply loved the language and rhythm of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Rose, but this play, about a junk-shop operator and his friends planning the heist of an expensive nickle,was just missing it for me. Possibly it is the limited number of characters - Mamet's abusive, self-righteous characters go better when they are bouncing off multiple targets when then they are bound in a tight, whining loop. The production subverts the dark message of the play as well, culminating an action-heavy sequence of shop destruction with a cascade of pillows, pulling the rug out of the entire scene. It really didn't work for me.

Photography 51, on the other hand, was the best play of the season, combining a good script with effective direction and excellent acting. It is the story of Rosalind Franklin and her role in the discovery of DNA. Kirsten Potter, who previously showed up in Or (and, being honest, is one of the voices in Guild Wars 2), was excellent in the role of Franklin, equally sympathetic and off-putting. Crick and Watson were laid out in broader, more cartoony strokes, but it was an excellent presentation. More of this, please (do I need to add that almost the entire cast had previous experience on the Rep's boards?)

Forgive me while I continue flogging a deceased equine in War Horse. The idea of a Rep is to have a common pool of performers. And I can go with (and enjoy) seeing different actors, as at least there is a continuity of direction, management and even things like lighting and stagecraft. A sensibility should permeate a theater company's production, and to some degree does with the REP, even when guests from out of town come to visit.  However, War Horse is a completely different production operation, a touring company for a nationally-known show, and performed in a completely different building than usual (the spotty old Paramount, a theater that makes you appreciate the sight lines of the Bagley-Wright). There is no continuity here, and it feels like a field trip than part of the regular theater experience. I would have preferred another performance in the Leo K to this.

Yeah, but what about the play? Well, its a Broadway performance - heavy on spectacle, light on character, direct and simple on plot. Plot is boy meets horse, boy loses horse, WWI arrives (which, we establish clearly, was a bad idea for everyone involved), and finally (spoiler) boy finds horse. The spectacle is great, and the puppeteers handing the horses are brilliant and subtle and the tech spectacular. But it really isn't a Rep production.

Good People gets back into the line with a play about American class distinctions, and makes a good pairing with Pullman Porter Blues in the idea of separate worlds. Margie from South Boston (Ellen McLaughlin) re-encounters an old boyfriend who has "made good" and left the neighborhood. The characters are sharp, the acting good, and the accents (I am so told by a Bostonian who was sitting next to me) were good enough for army work. But what I liked about the play is that it is missing something that bothers me with other plays, like God of Carnage or much of Edward Albee. In this other plays, one party or another talks about leaving, no one ever really leaves, because you need to have them all present. This particular play minimized that feature, and where it raised its ugly head, you got the feeling there was a natural reason to set down the coat and return to the discussion. A good play.

And finally, Boeing, Boeing, which is, according to Wikipedia, the French equivalent of The Mousetrap, being performed relentlessly there. It is a farce set in 1962 (later a movie with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis) where a man in Paris (a slick Richard Nguyen Sloniker) is juggling three stewardess girlfriends on a tight timetable. Then there are some snags and all three women show up at once. Whackiness ensues.

And it is whackiness finds its epicenter with Mark Bedard, who is the best friend from Wisconsin who stumbles into this shambles. I didn't find his Groucho is OSF's Animal Crackers particularly engaged or engaging, but his sheer joy of slapstick works wonders within the smaller and more intimate house of the Bagley-Wright. He pulls off fully that comedian's craft of making you believe that what he is doing and saying is the first time he has ever done or said anything like that. Combine that with the three stunning stewardesses (Rep Vets Bhama Roget and Cheyenne Casebier, with newcomer Angela DiMarco, who should also come back), a long-suffering maid (Anne Allgood) and a extremely technical set, and you have an animated Playboy cartoon from the early 60s. The humor is as broad as the accents and the result is a little truffle of silliness, a good way of closing out the season on an up note.

So to recapitulate - Broadway Hopeful, Old Master, Local Favorite, Lesser Work by a Name Playwright, Excellent Play About Something You Haven't Heard About, Broadway Field Trip, Good Solid Play, Giggly Farce. And that's a good summing up for the Rep at 50.

More later, but in smaller bits.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

In Which I Read Quietly

So the other night I attended a silent reading party. It is a regular thing up on First Hill, in the Fireside Room of the Sorrento Hotel, and runs the first Wednesday of the month. Usually my Wednesdays are booked with other things, but my tai chi classes don't start until next week. The Stranger always pushes it, talking about soft chairs, soft music, and soft lighting.

My purpose, in part, was to jumpstart a book I've been reading - Playing at the World, by Jon Peterson. It is the story of the birth of D&D and all the games that preceded it, and should I ever finish the tome, will provide a review. It is a good book, but like a lot of books, I have set it down at one point and not picked it up again (I have a number of such orphaned books on my bedside bookshelf, and they merit an article on their own). Playing at the World is a doorstop of a book, richly detailed, and I had ground out at the detailed analysis of hit points descending from the Fletcher Pratt naval rules, and wanted to pick up the book again, but other events and opportunities conspired against it. So my goal was to read without distraction.

Anyway, I got there late, because we were having a good design discussion at the office (why such discussions always break out at 5 PM is a bit of mystery). I arrived and found the Sorrento an older hotel with a smallish restaurant converted entirely to people deeply immersed in books. All seats were taken, most nooks were filled, and crannies were at a premium. Moving among the reading herds, I could feel that vibe of readers wanting to maintain their space (The literate are a kindly people, but possessive of their reading space, including the additional space they are saving for late-arriving friends). I ended up just outside the room, parked at a chess table. A kindly waitress brought me an expensive but completely serviceable glass of reisling, and I hunkered down and set to reading.

And it was OK. Lighting was typical for an older hotel, subdued, which is good for meals and problematic for reading, in particular texts with small print. Music was provided by Will Bielawski on the harp,which was excellent, though when he went into "Ashokan Farewell", also known as "That song from Ken Burns' Civil War", I suddenly was reading the text in Garrison Keilor's voice.

I stayed about an hour, pressed through the section on Fletcher Pratt and the difference between mitigation and endurance in dealing damage in miniature games (and its later effect on D&D), so I consider it to be a success. Would I go again in the future, I would:
     a) Arrive earlier
     b) Go with a larger printed text, or, better yet, use a back-lit e-reader.
     c) Look older so some young child will take pity on me and offer me a better seat.

The idea of a silent reading party looks pretty good, and should some local bar in the Renton/Kent area with a dead Tuesday night decide to pick it up, I would encourage it. As it is, I'm glad I checked it out, but don't really need to return.

Unless, of course, someone saves me a seat.

More later,