Saturday, May 29, 2010

Show #26 "Doubt" at Gold From Straw Theatre

There's no doubt about it....I find the idea of a brand new start-up theatre company to be exciting. Even their name, "Gold From Straw" perfectly describes the exhilarating feeling I get when I see what this infant company is about.

First of all, they have occupied the space formerly known as the Mecca Theater. For those who are long-timers here in Tacoma, they all know the Mecca as the X-rated porn theater it once was. Think infamous. Think sleazy. Think grime.

Now, the Mecca building is a gutted-out (but clean!) warehouse-like space that this enterprising company has magically turned into a theatre. A legitimate one. A shoe-string budget one. A marvelous and ingenious one.

Rented risers support rows of folding chairs. Large black curtains surround the performance space and separates it from the "lobby." The backstage dressing room is walled off by rows of cardboard and duct tape. The scenery on stage consists mostly of paper and a door frame.

Theatre on the cheap? Perhaps. But this is not cheap theatre by any means. This is Great Theatre!!!

John Patrick Shanley's story of suspicion, accusations and doubt in a Catholic school kept us riveted the entire evening. Sure, the writing is brilliant, but what was truly eye-popping was the quality of Gold From Straw's production. Four actors giving four terrific performances. Scenic design made with unexpected materials. Lighting design effectively done with only a few actual stage lights. The rest was done with flood lights. Yes, really.

Add to that, two nuns habits, one priest's outfit, a sweatshirt, a 1960's woman's dress and coat, a soundtrack, a couple of pieces of furniture and a few props and voila! You've got one of the best shows Tacoma has seen this season.

I hope Gold From Straw finds success here in Tacoma. We need new artistic endeavors. We need new ideas. We need to showcase more work from more Pierce County artists.

Welcome to the neighborhood, Gold From Straw. We hope you take off your shoes and stay a while.

Production graphics courtesy of Gold From Straw Theatre

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Show #25 "The Trip to Bountiful" at ACT Theatre

It was like coming home again.

The familiar sights, the beauty of the classic architecture, the energizing walk up the welcoming promenade.

It had only been a few years since I called that place "my favorite," but I felt as though I had been gone for a long, long time. Too long, in fact.

What in the world am I talking about here? Did my evening of viewing Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful" make me pine (like the story's main character)for a hometown from my long ago youth? It isn't what you think.

I'm talking about my return this year as a season subscriber to the wonderful ACT Theatre in Seattle. The Allen, their marvelous theatre-in-the-round mainstage, is my favorite performance space in the Seattle-Tacoma region. Not a bad seat in the house. A terrific view for every audience member. A large mainstage venue with an intimate, small theater feeling.

It was good to be back home.

It also helped that the play was very, very good. Truth be told, Randy and I were almost bracing ourselves for a dreary evening about a depressed old lady mourning over her long lost hometown named Bountiful, TX. Were we in for a surprise!

I found myself settling quite nicely in her shoes, feeling her longing and relating to her wistful remembrances of home. But unlike her story where "home" isn't exactly what she romanticized, my return "home" was everything I remembered.

I love theatre in the round! I love being so close to the action that you forget you're simply watching a show, not witnessing a personal event.

I know not all the shows this season will take place in The Allen Theatre. Some will be at their Bullitt Cabaret and others will be in The Falls Theatre. Maybe I will fall in love with those spaces as well.

But I doubt it.

I love The Allen. It's where I want to see shows. As an actor, it's where I wish I could perform one day.

After all, as Dorothy (in The Wizard of Oz) would say, (to mix my show business metaphors), "there's no place like..." Well... you know.

production photo courtesy of ACT Theatre

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Show #24 "The Grapes of Wrath" at Lakewood Playhouse

It's a tricky and somewhat sensitive and divisive issue for some people.

It has been the cause of riots and demonstrations. Some have been imprisoned and gone to war over this. And others have used it to give themselves a sense of entitlement or privilege.

What is this horrible issue, you ask? To put it bluntly, it is race.

In the theatrical world (as well as the television and film industries), race is no small matter. Even community theatre becomes a microcosm of the greater society in what they do, whom they represent and how they segregate.

Take a look at most theatres' season schedules. What sort of stories are being portrayed? For instance, during the Seattle Repertory Theatre's 2009-2010 season, aside from their production of August Wilson's "Fences," I believe I only saw two other actors of color on their stage all year.

Community theatre's track record is no better. At least we can applaud the Seattle Rep for presenting a story about the Black experience in America. It never occurs to most other theaters to do the same.

But to the fine folks at the Lakewood Playhouse, and their wonderful artistic director Marcus Walker, I shout a big thank you. Your commitment to include all actors in the community, regardless of ethnicity, is a tremendous and powerful statement.

"The Grapes of Wrath" is usually portrayed with an all-white cast. But here was the Joad family, with a Caucasian father and mother, but with a Black daughter and an Asian son. I also noticed other members of the ensemble who were Black and Hispanic. Suddenly, the Joad's story wasn't simply about a white family from Oklahoma during the Great Depression. It became about ALL of us.

Yes, there is an important role that "ethnic" theatre plays in our lives. Hats off to wonderful local theaters such as Tacoma Musical Playhouse, who recently staged "Flower Drum Song" and to Lakewood Playhouse, who announced as part of their 2010-2011 season, "The Joy Luck Club." These stories of America's people of color must be told.

But what of our other stories? Aside from the stories specifically about a particular ethnic group, are they not stories about ALL of us here in America?

Look around you. Do we not live, work, play and worship with our friends and neighbors of all ethnicities?

So why isn't the theatrical stage reflecting this great truth?

Ladies and gentlemen of the theatrical community, I respectfully ask you to widen the circle of your minds and hearts...and your art. I guarantee you, all three will benefit.

Production photo courtesy of photographer Samantha Camp

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Show #23 "Major Barbara" at Tacoma Little Theatre

Ah....Shaw. What can be said for an evening spent listening to the copious words of Nobel Prize-winning author and noted socialist George Bernard Shaw?

At the start of the evening, knowing the general storyline for "Major Barbara," I had braced myself for an on-stage debate between disparate philosophies. Andrew Undershaft, millionaire industrialist/arms manufacturer, does verbal and ideological battle with his elder daughter Barbara Undershaft, Salvation Army worker and Christian moralist.

And being a wee bit familiar with some of Shaw's beliefs, I also girded my loins for the onslaught of poisoned arrows that might ensue from a man critical of religion but who knew very little (if anything) about real faith.

This was not a play where the audience could enjoy some catchy tunes sung by lovely ladies in tap shoes, or a slapstick evening complete with banana peels on the floor.

No, this was war. But not the kind I expected.

On one side, you could hear High British. You know, the "I cawn't" and all that....

On the other side, I heard some lover-ly Cockney. "Moy nime's Bill Walker..."

Then, there were the in-betweeners, such as the character played by my friend Darrel Shephard. Not high English or working class Cockney. Something in between.

In other words, an evening of dueling accents.

Some wars are fought with cannons, such as the ones supplied by Undershaft. Other wars are fought with words and precise pronunciation.

So, this all begs a question in my mind.

In a world where most audience dollars go toward battles involving baseballs or soccer balls, is there a place for ideological or dialectical contests?

I would venture to say, yes. But, please make it entertaining. With all due respects to George Bernard Shaw, his dramatic verbiage plays about as well (in this day and age) as a scoreless baseball game that goes into extra innings. A lot of bats swinging but no hits in sight.

But, ultimately that doesn't stop us from coming back to the baseball stadium. We always live in hope that the next game will bring us more excitement. So it is with the theatre. There's always next time.

So....batter up.

Production photo courtesy of Leischen Moore

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Show #22 "Six Hotels" at Harlequin Productions

This was one of my first ventures down to our Capitol city to witness the healthy arts community they enjoy there. What a wonder to behold! There are so many good reasons for us to travel in the future down to Olympia.

Harlequin Productions occupies a remodeled old movie house on 4th Street. It is a warm and welcoming space for both an actor and the audience. Not a bad seat in the house and just the right amount of room on stage to put on a story set in multiple locations at once.

This evening, they were putting on a show that is a West Coast premiere by playwright Israel Horovitz. Apparently this is a part of an established collaborative relationship between theatre and playwright.

"Six Hotels" is a series of six short stories all taking place in hotels somewhere in the world. The evening was a mix of comedy, drama, love, politics, art and delightful irony. (I like the irony the best.)

I am not sure if this production is part of Mr. Horovitz' workshop process for this play. No one was asking for our feedback or reactions, so I guess this play is in its "final form." Too bad.

If I were to speak to Mr. Horovitz, I would tell him that his individual stories were all interesting and engaging....but not complete. They would all make good first scenes for a full-length story, but they must not end there.

What happens to these people after the lights go out? How could some of those characters be intertwined with the lives of the characters in one of the other stories? Wouldn't that make for a fascinating tale?

But, he didn't ask me, or anyone else in the theater.

So, as it stands, Randy and I spent an evening at the theater watching six incomplete stories, loosely strung together under the theme of "hotel."

It made for an interesting time at the theatre, but not the most memorable one.

But that's okay. I did learn one valuable thing, that I want to experience more live theatre (and more of those wonderful restaurants!!!) in Olympia, especially at Harlequin. Our state capitol is truly a treasure.

Production graphics courtesy of Harlequin Productions