Friday, July 30, 2010

Show #41 "Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead" with The Outfit Theatre Project

Being a non-expert on the works of William Shakespeare, more specifically, of Hamlet, my timing could not have been better.

Having just returned from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and experiencing their extraordinary production of "Hamlet," I was actually in a position to understand and appreciate the humor of The Outfit's "The 15 Minute Hamlet" and "Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead." Lucky me.

Tom Stoppard's "15 Minute Hamlet" is exactly what the title implies. It is a speed-through of the highlights and most quotable lines from Shakespeare's long, long play. What is usually performed in over 3 hours is condensed (with humor) into a 15 minute play.

On the other hand, "Rosencrantz et al" is a fictional "what if" story about Hamlet's two college buddies who are rather minor characters in the original play, but take center stage in this tale that asks the question, "what would happen if the ghosts of Hamlet's murdered college buddies roamed the earth, searching for the answers and the meaning surrounding their untimely deaths?"

The results are a mixture of comedy, absurd repartee and more Hamlet quotes.

This whole concept of Stoppard's got me thinking. What if a play like this was written about the "untold stories" of other supporting Shakespearean characters? After spending a week with many such characters in Ashland, Oregon, I have a few suggestions.

I would be interested to see a show called "My Name is Antonio, and I Never Get the Girl (or Guy)." This is based on viewing both "The Merchant of Venice" and "Twelfth Night," where characters named Antonio both end up alone while other characters enjoy happy resolutions to their romantic lives.

Then there is the would-be title "Working for The Man: or Do I Work for a Woman?" Of course, Shakespearean comedies so often have female characters who dress as men. Gender-bending needs to be showcased.

And then there is the one-man show called "I Am Horatio, And What the Heck is Wrong With My Philosophy?"

I guess the list can go on and on. I've only just begun.

Bravo to The Outfit Theatre Project for taking on this ambitious production. It is yet another way Shakespeare can be a part of Pierce County arts.

Photo courtesy of John Pfaffe

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Show #40 "Throne of Blood" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Of all the shows we took in this week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this was one I was anticipating the most. "Throne of Blood" is an adaptation of the Akira Kurosawa film of the same name, which is an adaptation of the Shakespearean play "Macbeth."

It's also another chance to see Japanese characters come to life here in Ashland, OR. Twice in one day even! I couldn't believe my good fortune!

But, even for this champion of non-traditional casting, this show had me thinking and re-thinking my position on this issue.

First off, I was totally prepared to see many non-Asians portray the Japanese characters. After all, the OSF company does not have that many Asian performers, and color-blind casting has been something I long admired about their theatre festival.

But, after seeing this show, with the exception of the actual Asians in the cast (there were two of them), and perhaps one or two other actors, I just couldn't buy this cast as being Japanese.

No, it wasn't their non-Japanese faces that did it. I could have seen past that.

It was a combination of their voices and their movement. They just didn't speak like Japanese warriors or moved like them. I was dismayed to have seen a company of Equity actors who hadn't properly done their homework.

Okay, I'm still a strong proponent of color-blind casting. But even with this sort of artistic affirmative action in place, you still need to do the job right.

There were a lot of things about this production I really enjoyed. But, unfortunately, it just didn't take place in Japan. It took place in Ashland, OR.

That's not good. But, thank you, OSF, for putting on this brave piece of theatre. There were so many things you did right in this show. With another cast, it has the potential to be brilliant.

Show #39 "American Night" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Here's a question for you: How many ethnic, cultural, racial, political and religious stereotypes can you portray (and totally blow out of the water) in one matinee?

I sort of lost count on that one, but my lame answer is this: LOTS.

This world premiere presentation of "American Night" was a non-stop, multi-media, multi-racial and multi-laugh whirlwind that spoofed so many of our whacky and (unfortunately) commonly held stereotypes in American society.

Hardly any group in our country was spared. In fact, if I was a member of a group that was NOT spoofed today, I would have felt a little left out.

This is a story of Juan Jose, an immigrant from Mexico who is studying for his citizenship exam. Desperate to pass this test and become an American, Juan pulls an all-nighter hitting his text book on US history and government. But, his all-night session is interrupted with what comes naturally: sleep.

Sleep, perchance to dream......

And dream he does, with all sorts of crazy and twisted results. This isn't revisionist history, this is hilarious history.

As anyone who reads this blog has figured out, I am a HUGE supporter of non-traditional (and multi-racial) casting in plays. If no one ever did this, I would hardly have ever gotten on stage during my life.

Here we have intentional non-traditional casting, done with a wink and a chuckle. There is a Japanese guy playing a Japanese guy. There is a black guy playing a Japanese guy. There is this Hispanic guy playing a sumo wrestler. But hold on, there is also a black cowboy, a Mexican revolutionist, a white lady tea party member and a Japanese Mormon.

Hey, I didn't even mention the Ku Klux Klan-er, Japanese game show host, Sacajawea and Jackie Robinson. Huh? Doesn't make any sense?

It would, but only if you saw this crazy, zany and wonderful take on American history.

Can you tell I loved it?

Yep....ethnic stereotypes are terrific, when placed in the right hands. And I am so glad we Asians (more specifically we Japanese) were included in this comical odyssey. It made me raise my hands cheering. Others noticed my excitement. One of the actors (the Japanese one) stopped and gave me a high five during his entrance. Just as the spotlight was on us.

How cool is that?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Show #38 "Twelfth Night" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

When coming to the Shakespeare in Ashland class this year, Twelfth Night was the only play I was very familiar with. Of all the plays the Bard has ever written, this is my favorite.

We saw this play in the evening following our viewing of the marathon Hamlet. Everyone was a bit worn out because of that, so I think it took some of the students a while to get into the spirit of the event.

Not me. I had been looking forward to this show for months. I was not disappointed.

Some of the production elements puzzled me, such as the Astro-Turf set, the over-the-top portrayals of some of the characters and some of the costuming choices. But, that really didn't matter to me. This was Twelfth Night, and that meant fun and laughter.

Again, non-traditional casting was a refreshing change from the usual and expected. Setting the play during Mozart's time was visually colorful and entertaining. The farcical approach to the story served it well.

One of the objectives of the class I am taking is holding discussions about each play that we see. Our students hold varying opinions based on varying backgrounds and educational experiences. It usually is interesting to hear their comments. Sometimes it is enlightening.

In an academic setting, there is this tendency to over-think the elements of the show. Perhaps I am just a shallow actor, but I find this tendency amusing. I suspect Shakespeare himself wouldn't even have thought of many of these theses and debates about his scripts.

To me, "the play's the thing." I guess in this case that means I don't want to lose sight of the fact that these plays are, first and foremost, entertainment. Yes, there are deeper and complex issues that are explored within the plays, but they were written and performed to entertain a mass audience. When I am not on stage, I am part of that mass audience.

So, that means I want to have fun and laugh. As an actor, I can't help but analyze the actors' performances and choices, but outside of that, I am there to be entertained.

"Twelfth Night" did just that. Bravo.

Show #37 "Hamlet" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Believe it or not, after being such a "theatre junkie" for well over a decade, I have never seen a production of Shakespeare's "Hamlet." I guess it's not performed too often. Clocking in at 3 hours and 20 minutes, I can see why.

The students in our Shakespeare In Ashland class were all abuzz about this show. Many of the participants are English teachers who teach this text every school year to their high school students. By contrast, I only read this script for the first time last week, in preparation for this class.

So, I had no pre-conceived notions about the play, so I guess it was hard to either impress me or disappoint me with this show.

I will have to say I was impressed in that I was thoroughly engaged in the story for the entire 3 hours and 20 minutes. That's hard to do.....

I also thought Dan Donohue, who played Hamlet, gave a performance worthy of a Tony. Too bad he wasn't on Broadway when we saw him. He'd be a shoo-in for Best Actor.

And, one of the other elements at the OSF I enjoy is their commitment to non-traditional casting. Here we saw an African-American Queen Gertrude, a deaf Ghost of Hamlet's father, female Rosencrantz and Guildensterns and a middle-aged Hispanic Horatio.

Some folks fussed a bit about some of those casting choices, but not me. Non-traditional can be an eye-opener and breathe new life into an old classic. There was also interesting updates to the time period. This was a modern Hamlet in a techno-savvy Denmark.

"The Mousetrap" show was performed as a hip hop number. Wow....what a delight. Ophelia was wired for sound when her father and the king attempted to entrap Hamlet. These were effective choices.

But, as supportive I am of non-traditional casting and performances, I did wonder at one thing. At the end of the show when the Norwegian prince Fortinbras enters the castle, the actor spoke, not in a Norwegian accent, but in an odd Scottish-sounding accent.

Yes, it was at the tail end of a long and otherwise brilliant production, but perhaps we in the audience needed an exercise break after 3 hours. Because we all shook our heads in unison.


Show #36 "The Merchant of Venice" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

For the serious theatre junkie, there is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR. It is roughly the equivalent of going to Spring Training if you are a baseball junkie. Well, not quite, because at the OSF, we are not seeing dress rehearsals or auditions to see who makes the team.

We are watching the "real thing," and enjoying professional theatre to our heart's content. For me, this means that I have tickets to six shows in five days here in Ashland. Not a world record, by any means, but definitely a whirlwind of viewing.

My first stop on this marvelous journey is "The Merchant of Venice." This show is considered one of Shakespeare's more problematic plays. It is often passed over for production because it appears to be anti-Semitic. I am here in Ashland as part of a class, Shakespeare in Ashland, that prepares teachers to present Shakespearean literature to their students. It is my second year participating in this class.

And, like last year, I am the only non-teacher in the class. My perspective is a bit different than the other students' (and the instructor's) but thank God I have another actor in the class with me (kudos to Adam Othman for being here)!

I am also one of the only ethnic minority among the participants, so I think my perspective is colored by that as well. At least, it affected my opinion of this production of "Merchant."

As I have said in earlier posts, I believe theatre needs to be even-handed in poking fun or outright criticizing groups of people in society. This was a very even-handed and fair production.

We can't help that William Shakespeare created an "evil" character in Shylock, and continually told us he was a Jew. We can't help that his chief tormentors were identified as Christian. But, this production stayed true to Shakespeare's words, while taking both a critical and sympathetic view of people, whether they be Jew or Gentile, male of female or Venetian or Moroccan.

And, of course, the overall show was made even better with the admirable performances by the OSF troupe of actors and technicians. It is good to see the pros at work.

That is the primary reason I come all the way down to Ashland. These guys are good.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Show #35 "Withering Heights" at Breeders Theater

Once again, my pre-Pulitzer Prize career is in high gear. It's July. That means one thing to this not-yet-famous small newspaper theater reviewer: Breeders Theater.

What is this, you ask? Breeders what? What exactly are they breeding?

Well, as the Highline Times theater reviewer for the past decade (or so), I have become quite a regular with this particular troupe. With only a couple of exceptions when I was busy being in a show myself, I have not missed reviewing a Breeders Theater show in years.

Familiarity....but in this case it does NOT breed contempt. It breeds.....familiarity.

Each January and July, the folks with Breeders Theater put on their unique brand of entertainment. Playwright (and journalism professor) TM Sell writes silly, spoofy theatrical ditties that, chiefly, are written to make people laugh.

A company of local actors (and pretty good ones, at that) perform said ditties at the E.B. Foote winery to sold-out houses where the audience sits in folding chairs, noshes on hors d'oeuvres and tastes an assortment of Foote wines.

A modest price of $20 is charged per person, and voila! You've got the perfect evening out for wine-loving Highline-area residents, assorted Red Hat ladies and anyone needing a diversion from their sober troubles.

As an official member of "the media," I score an invite to the preview performance, where I can nosh on those hors d'oeuvres, sip my semi-annual glass of wine and generate an intellectual critique of the actors' craft.

Okay....scrap the "intellectual" part, but it remains true that my twice-a-year stint as the newspaper reviewer for a Breeders Theater show is one of my favorite journalistic gigs.

To re-cap: I get to eat yummy food, drink wine, watch a show, and get paid to do it. This is pretty amazing considering I never studied journalism or theater in college. All of my brilliance in this field is thanks to on the job training....and a knack for mimicking the style of writing I've read in newspapers my whole life.

Not bad for a retired occupational therapist.........wouldn't you say?

Production graphics courtesy of Breeders Theater

Friday, July 9, 2010

Show #34 "The Cider House Rules: Part One" at Book-It Repertory Theatre a middle-aged female who is trying (without success) to get into better physical shape, I wish that I could burn calories and fat vicariously by watching active folks run around and work very hard.

If that were the case, I would now be in top athletic condition.

Sadly, that is not how it works. But, even as my sagging body sat in a cushy theater seat all evening, I felt as though I had had a work out just by watching all the hyper-activity on stage at the Seattle Center House Theater last evening. It was exhilarating. It was exhausting. It was great theatre.

So many times, I hear people say that good theatre doesn't TELL you the story, it SHOWS you the story. Whereas this is true, it usually makes folks leery of any play that has too much narration and the "breaking of the fourth wall."

But, narration is what Book-It does. It takes a piece of literature and, more or less, reads the story to you. Of course, there are actors who are moving (quite quickly and athletically) about the stage illustrating the story as the they are telling it. There are costumes, props, basic set pieces (just enough to tell the story) and light and sound cues to go with it.

But the narration and dialogue? All taken straight from the original source.

I must admit, I was a bit hesitant about seeing a show with Book-It. I wasn't sure I would be engaged in the story the whole evening, knowing that this is how they presented theatre. I feared I might be subjected to an evening of "book on tape" or something as dull as that.

Wow....I was totally wrong. Thank God for that.

In order to make copious narration be engaging and effective, the actors had to work at a brisk pace for the entire 3 hour show. Scene changes had to occur quickly, with set pieces placed on stage at a sprinter's speed. The actors' entrances were immediate and fast. The dialogue (and monologues) were swift, energetic and intense. What an athletic event!

"The Cider House Rules" has been divided into two parts, in order to include all the important and poignant details of the novel that the movie version edited out. That was a wise decision.

We were so wrapped up in Homer Well's story during his years at the St. Cloud's orphanage that we hated to end the tale there. Part Two will play in September.

We can't wait.

Graphics courtesy of Book-It Repertory Theatre

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Show #33 "The Female of the Species" at ACT Theatre

The women's movement has sure come a long way.

First, women fought to win to right to vote. This was followed by the right to run for public office, to join the military and to enter the work force.

Heck, we even won the right to our own cigarette brand (hence, the slogan by Virginia Slims, "You've come a long way, Baby") so we can develop lung cancer and blow out second hand smoke with equality. What more could the feminist movement achieve?

Well, Baby, we've now got our own theatrical farce.

And what a great farce it is. "The Female of the Species" is a delectable dish of half-crazed characters delivering emotionally-volcanic monologues in the midst of gun-waving battles and delicious temper tantrums. And that was just the first two characters who appeared on stage.

Never mind the over-wrought daughter, the manically wimpy son-in-law, the hyper-activist caveman cab driver and the motor-mouthed gay book publisher......

Ridiculous stereotypes? Insulting characterizations? You bet. But, folks, that's the whole point.

The feminist movement is no longer only made up of the activists without a sense of humor. Those who have come before us, the marching Suffragette and the bra-burner, are no longer on the cover of Life Magazine and the subject of political rallies and Sunday sermons.

We've come a long way since then. We can now poke fun at the women who paved the way for the many choices and opportunities that 21st century females can now enjoy.

And the best part of this play is this: it pokes fun at women (and men) of all walks of life. It laughs at the man-hating crusader, the male chauvinist, the "sensitive man," the housewife and stay-at-home mother, the career woman and the college co-ed. Nothing is sacred here, and that is how it should be.

Good farce is even-handed. It shouldn't exist to make fun of only one side of an issue. If it did, then it is only thinly-veiled propaganda disguised as theatre. Sadly, too much of theatre performed in the Seattle/Tacoma region suffers from this offense.

But this? THIS is good stuff. Thank you, ACT, for giving us this gift. It helps me keep the faith in local theatre and its willingness to present different ideas, not just the politically correct ideas.


Graphics courtesy of ACT Theatre

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Show #32 "Othello" with Theatre Artists Olympia

For the past two summers, Randy and I have enjoyed the art at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR. We are going yet again later this month. Can't wait to see their array of impressive productions and very impressive actors.

But, as a "warm up" to our now annual trek to Ashland, I decided it was time to see some local talent shake their Shakespearean booty. I heard through the Facebook grapevine that this particular production was terrific. The grapevine was correct.

Theatre Artists Olympia (TAO) is a company that is unfamiliar to me. But Randy and I are acquainted with some of the folks associated with this show, so the experience was new, yet still felt familiar.

These folks did just about everything right, from my perspective.

First, they chose one of Shakespeare's more compelling plays. This "Othello" was set in 1960's America, where racial tension and unrest were part and parcel to the times. Updating the setting of the play gave it a fresh perspective and approach that I enjoyed.

Second, the show was cast very well. With only one exception, all the actors filled their character's shoes perfectly. There was even one actor who was way too young to play his role, but he still worked out well. I was so pleased to see (although I already knew this) that you don't have to go to the OSF to see good Shakespearean acting.

Third, the staging and the costuming were spot on. I took slight exception to only one costume choice I saw that evening, but every other aspect of the direction worked well in my eyes.

Fourth, TAO was quite fortunate to be able to use the theatre space occupied by the Olympia Little Theatre. This was a small house (seating perhaps 100 at the most?) with a three-quarter thrust arrangement. The venue is intimate and well designed. This was also our first visit to this facility. What a great place for a theatre company to perform!

Lastly, they charged only $12 dollars for admission. Good theatre at an affordable price. It doesn't get any better than that. Bravo TAO!

Oh yes, I guess there is one other thing. After the actors took their final curtain call, one of the young men in the cast stepped forward to make a short speech. He walked up to a young lady sitting in the front row, took her hand and brought her on stage.

You can guess what happened next. He took out an engagement ring, got down on one knee and asked this lady to marry him. Thankfully, she said yes. We burst into loud applause.

You couldn't have asked for a better ending to that evening. I don't think the pros in Ashland can top that.