Sunday, October 31, 2010

Show #58 "Tales of Edgar Allan Poe" at Lakewood Playhouse

For a fundraiser, it was pretty good. Clever, relatively easy to produce, minimal rehearsal necessary and (I am guessing) low overhead costs. Oh...and did I mention the raffle and wine at intermission?

The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe was performed last evening as a radio play. Three microphones were set on the stage and a group of actors entered, dressed in 1940s style clothing, carrying scripts in their hands.

What we were treated to was a re-creation of a radio show, complete with commercial breaks (mostly for Camel cigarettes) and live sound effects. Three of Poe's works were presented, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven and The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

A company of eight actors provided all the voice characterizations and effects for these stories. These effects included the jingle for Camel cancer sticks, oops, I mean cigarettes....which, by the way, sounded pretty nice.

So, what was this whole event about? This was a fundraising weekend to celebrate Halloween, the Lakewood Playhouse Friends Fund and Artistic Director Marcus Walker's birthday. The show ran two nights, Friday and Saturday. I hear the Friday night crowd packed the house. A good time was had by all.

I came on Saturday night. We were a bit smaller crowd, but enthusiastic nonetheless.

The actors were fun to watch, or should I say, listen to. As a radio play, I found the show was much more effective when NOT being watched. I either closed my eyes during the show, or looked down at the floor. Imagining the whole experience as though I really was listening to my radio was just the trick needed to really be caught up in the stories.

My friend Corrie and I sat with great attention and interest in the front row of section I. You see, both Corrie's husband Joe and my Randy were actors in this event. This was not the first time Corrie and I watched our husbands perform together at this theatre. But it was the first time I enjoyed one of their shows while looking as though I was asleep.

Afterwards, some of the actors asked me if I was bored during the show. They noticed my "sleepy" eyes and wondered. I told them they did a good job, but when I STOPPED looking at them, their performances improved!

I guess that's the way of radio. It's a treat for the ears, not the eyes.

Thanks to cast member David Philips for this photo

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Show #57 "Reefer Madness: The Musical" at Burien Little Theatre

Seeing 52 shows in 52 weeks is by no means an accomplishment, especially if you run in theatre circles like I do here in the Seattle/Tacoma community. In Seattle, we are a theatre town. There's lots of it here to see and enjoy. Less so in Tacoma, but Randy and I have seen most of what Tacoma/Pierce County has to offer this season.

But, a goal is a goal. It motivates us to do something that we normally wouldn't do. So...last January, I set my sights on seeing a bit more theatre than the usual.

Now that this goal of 52 shows has been surpassed, it came to no surprise to me that, on our way to the theatre last evening, Randy and I confessed that we are feeling "burned out" by all this theatre viewing.

Alas! What heresy is this? Can the woman primarily known (by some) for parking her rear end into a theatre seat at least 57 times during 2010 be growing wearied by the task?

Burn-out is a common symptom of our American society that is constantly moving in over-drive. We move too fast, too furiously and too often. I am no exception. So, what keeps us going even when we want to put our transmission into "park" and just rest awhile?

Simple. Keep going, and experience something that re-fuels your tank. (Sorry about all the bad car metaphors, don't know what's come over me.)

That "something" for me was to see Burien Little Theatre's slam-bang production of "Reefer Madness: the Musical." Talk about re-feuling my tank....this was high quality, high octane entertainment. It is fun, irreverent, off-the-wall and the perfect cure for burn-out.

Just as I was saying a few weeks back about the show "In the Heights," this play is part of the new wave of live theatre. This is the direction live theatre needs to go, if we are to reach a new generation of viewers. In other words, we need YOUNG rear ends parked in theatre seats if theatre is to survive.

I am glad to report that Randy and I were one of the older people in the audience last night. The house was packed, and was I delighted! I was glad to see young people in the audience laughing and applauding along with the geezers like me.

It helped tremendously that BLT had a strong, well-acted and cleverly staged production to offer. It didn't hurt a bit that the music was fun, performances were right-on and the dancing was astounding (if you like "Dancing with the Stars," Reefer Madness will even give you a dose of ballroom dance!).

BLT is a true success story. Only a few years ago, this theatre group was on the brink of extinction. After experimenting with different genres of plays, it wooed its audience back with some tried-and-true shows but has also found a new audience with cutting edge and off the chart shows such as this.

Yes, even us theatre junkies get a bit burned-out. But what brings us back to life is spending time with a theatrical phoenix like BLT and seeing cutting edge entertainment (yes! it needs to be entertaining...not simply "avant garde") like Reefer.

So....I guess I'm good for another couple of shows, for now. least until December 31.

Thanks to Reefer cast member Brad Walker for this photo.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Show #56 "God of Carnage" at Seattle Repertory Theatre

Three words: "adults behaving badly."

That about sums up the opening show for the Seattle Rep's 2010-2011 season.

Well....okay. I will amend that statement. "Adults behaving badly (with jokes)."

THAT kind of sums up what "God of Carnage" has to offer the audience at the Bagley Wright Theater space at the Seattle Rep.

French playwright Yasmina Reza is a familiar name for me, having seen another work by her, "Art." And despite what I just said in the previous paragraph, her humor is actually not joke-driven. The laughs in her scripts are situational and relationship-driven. Usually, I like that. Not this time.

Whenever an author sets out to skewer something (in this case, the slippery journey known as parenting), I am there. Life must be met with humor, it is made for laughter. Difficult moments in life are made for loud guffaws. How else can we manage those hard times?

But, whatever we laugh at, or laugh with, there must always be one thing that remains in the situation. What is that? It is love. Without love, we are lost. So is our humor.

"God of Carnage" tells the story of two sets of upper income couples who knock heads over a playground spat between their sons. Politeness is the ground rule in the beginning, but soon, the gloves come off and mayhem ensues. Sounds like fun......

But what became apparent to me (and to Randy) as the play developed was that there was precious little love between husband and wife in both couples. And, naturally, none of the four persons on stage were friends with any of the others. So, the insults, flying barbs and temper tantrums failed to amuse us.

As I recalled the old sitcom "All in the Family" from the 1970s, Archie Bunker and crew also screamed, insulted and threw flaming arrows at one another. But the difference was, when all was said and done, Archie, Edith, Gloria and Meathead all loved one another. They were family, and they always stuck together when the chips were down. We never doubted that for a moment. Family squabbles were a source for humor.

Not so with "Carnage." By the end of the show, we had no doubt that all four characters probably despised one another, and that both marriages had little to stand on. Where is the humor in that? When we witness their fighting, it is sad....and positively annoying.

Apparently, much of the audience last evening would disagree with me on this. Several people gave the actors a standing ovation. I guess the actors did deserve some praise. With lesser actors, this show would have been totally insufferable. These four professionals showed how skilled their craft really is.

But, sadly, that wasn't enough. Without love in the story, I cannot laugh. Without the foundationa of love, all we can do is hate...and cry.

Photo courtesy of Seattle Repertory Theatre

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Show #55 "The Cider House Rules: Part Two" at Book-It Repertory Theatre

As my son Tim said last evening as we watched Part Two of "The Cider House Rules," it isn't like we were watching another play. We were actually watching one continuous play from our previous viewing of "The Cider House Rules: Part One." Sort of like seeing a 7 hour play with a 3 month-long intermission.

But, I couldn't help but see it as another play. Yes, it had most of the same characters in it, and it picked up where the other left off. But I liked this Part Two even a bit more than I liked Part One. And that's saying a lot, because I really liked Part One back when I saw it last July.

Part Two of "The Cider House Rules" is my favorite part of the story. Homer Wells' life developments and the poignant story of his fellow cider house-ers (the Black itinerant farm workers) is the part that moved me the most. Not to say that other storylines were not moving, but there are just certain themes that touch me more than others.

Take the theme of parent-child relationships. In Part Two, Homer's transition into fatherhood and even painful relationships such as Mr. Rose's with his daughter Rose were powerful themes for me.

Dr. Larch's "honorary" father-son relationship with Homer is summed up so nicely in his statement, "You are my work of art, Homer. Everything else has been just a job." That utterance so eloquently put into words how I feel about my own beloved sons. Nothing else I ever do in my life will compare in importance to raising Tim and David.

And the theme of class, race and privilege was an intriguing thread in the story that was played out in the orchard and in the cider house. Again, this is a theme that I constantly deal with in my own life.

I have no real commonality with the characters in this story, either in regards to race, geography or general family/lack of family background. But this story amazingly spoke the story of my life. Perhaps indirectly, but the thoughts and feelings were still there.

Theatre has that power. People from completely disparate places in life find that what is in their hearts are similar to the other. Their stories are totally different, but at the same time, they are the same.

I guess I've experienced this same phenomenon while watching movies and TV shows, but (if you hadn't already guessed) I prefer to experience this live and in person at the theater. It is somehow more potent when seen with live actors on stage in front of you.

Why? It's because there is also an unspoken relationship between actors and audience. This relationship cannot really happen with a filmed performance.

So...I liked Part Two a bit more than Part One. Oh yes, Part Two had one other thing going for it: it gave us a sense of closure, while still saying "to be continued." LIfe is like that as well.

Photography courtesy of Book-It Repertory Theatre

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Show #54 "Hairspray" at Tacoma Musical Playhouse

I needed to have some fun today.

I had sprained my foot while walking the dog the other day, and was still hobbling around with an ace wrap on my foot and a cane in my hand. Randy was gone for most of the day today, so I was once again on doggie duty.

Doggie and I went for walks in the pouring rain. Well....doggie went for a couple of brisk sprints around the neighborhood, while I limped with cane in hand and rain drenching me and my raincoat.

Granted, this doesn't qualify as the worst day in history, but I still was in the mood for some fun and joy. Some DRY fun and joy. Well...I got it!

Thanks to Tacoma Musical Playhouse, I was able to end my day humming, tapping my non-injured toe and laughing with glee. Yep, I got to watch "Hairspray."

You all know the show I mean. The one about chubby teen Tracy Turnblad who dreams of becoming a dancer on TV's "Corny Collins Show" in 1960's Baltimore. Her friends, both black and white, want to see the Collins show integrated on a daily basis, rather than accept the once-a-month "Negro Day" that is currently offered. Standing in their way is a manipulative TV producer and her self-centered daughter.

But, everyone knows that all's well that ends well, especially in musical comedies like this. Tracy gets on the show, gets the guy and gets the show to integrate. Happy ending.

And the journey to that happy conclusion was pure fun. Just what the doctor ordered.

I have been impressed with the good work that the folks at the Tacoma Musical Playhouse are doing. Their talent comes from all over the Pierce, Thurston and King County regions. Dedicated musical theatre performers will gladly (and repeatedly, show after show) hop onto I-5, drive a great distance and head toward Tacoma for a chance to do some good theater.

I don't blame them. TMP is one of the most successful theaters in this area, with an ever-growing number of season subscribers. If you are a theatre artists, and want to be seen by a large number of audience members (remember, in this business, exposure is everything), TMP is the place to be.

And tonight, the audience was big and appreciative. The cast got a standing ovation from many of us. Why? We laughed, we hooted and hollered, we tapped our toes, we had fun.

Yes, the Pacific Northwest rain was still falling. We didn't care. The cold, wet weather couldn't ruin our evening. We were enjoying "Hairspray," and nothing else mattered.

And there was a bonus. After Randy and I got home, it was HIS turn to walk doggie in the rain. Me? I stayed warm and dry, sat at my computer and gushed about "Hairspray."

Thanks, TMP. You made my day.

Thanks to Hairspray cast member Lexi Scamehorn for graciously posing for this photo!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Show #53 "In the Heights" at the 5th Avenue Theatre technically, this isn't the "local theatre," that my blog endeavors to cheer on and support. This is a national touring company with mostly New York-based actors performing in it, just like the production of "South Pacific" that I viewed earlier this year.

Although it may not qualify as a local production, it certainly qualifies as good theatre. Here's why.

First, this is an innovative show. I have to admit, when it comes to the genre of musical theatre, I am somewhat of an old hat. I like the traditional stuff I grew up watching. Thus explains my enthusiasm and pure joy while watching "South Pacific."

But "In the Heights" even had a traditionalist like me in awe. Imagine using a seamless blend of Latin salsa and hip-hop (in both the songs and the choreography) to tell an urban story of poverty, struggle and hope. Did it work? You bet it did.

Second, this is a show that celebrates a part of our ethnic landscape that is under-represented. I guess Rodgers and Hammerstein never got around to writing their Latino masterpiece...? So, while we Asians have our "Flower Drum Song" and "The King & I" (whose cultural authenticity is deeply in question, but that is the subject of another blog posting!), "In the Heights" is a beautiful and high-voltage testament to our Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters.

Well...okay, the Latino's were half of the cast in "West Side Story," but nevertheless, this was a rare theatrical treat for me.

And finally, this show represents the wave of the future for American Musical Theatre. It's hip. It's high energy. It showcases stories from actors of color (No, we don't have to "give Iowa a try"). It's fast-paced, non-stop entertaining story-telling.

In other words, this is theatre the next generation can embrace. With local theatre audiences made up of mostly middle-aged and elderly patrons, this is great news. It gives me hope.

Even after us old cronies pass on, theatre will live on.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Show #52 "The Lady With All The Answers" at ACT Theatre

I know I've whined in the past about those theatrical events that our local Equity theatres like to market as "plays." You know what I'm talking about, those one-person talk fests that feel more like (at best) an over-long story that should have ended about an hour before it did....or (at worst) an excruciatingly boring lecture by a senile professor who forgot that (s)he had an actual time limit that must be adhered to.

Yes, I am referring to those one-man or one-woman shows that our "big houses" here in Seattle seem to adore. Audiences seem to like them, too. I wonder why. Usually, I find them boring, sometimes pretentious and in general, not very engaging theatre.

Well, guess what. I found the exception to that rule.

Advice columnist Ann Landers is portrayed by the always entertaining Julie Briskman in a funny, warm and thoroughly engaging evening about the life and love of America's favorite advice-dishing twin.

Unlike other one-person shows, "The Lady With All The Answers" boasted a full set design. Landers' letter-filled office was recreated with charm and visual appeal. There was eye-catching costuming: colorful 1970's outfits complete with Landers' trademark bouffant hairdo. There was even musical interludes, as Landers takes out her collection of LPs and plays a few of them on her stereo turntable.

But what I liked the most was Briskman's Landers herself. Sometimes she read samples of letters sent to her over the years. Other times, she discussed chapters from her life, marriage and career. And then there were moments when the house lights would come up, and Landers would really break that fourth wall and look us straight in the eye.

That was when Ann Landers asked US a question! Us! Imagine that!

Thankfully, none of us in the audience were brought up on stage for some comic "bit." No, she didn't throw confetti at us (a la Carrie Fisher). She even kept us so entertained that ACT Theatre dared to put in an intermission after 45 minutes had gone by. They were sure we would all eagerly return to our seats and watch the rest of the show.

Yep, we did...and boy, that second act was even better than the first.

So......okay. I am now convinced. A one-person play CAN be entertaining and can make good theatre. But all the right elements have to be in place: good story, great acting, an appealing main character, humor, visually effective sets, costumes and sound design.

But that's still not enough. The show has got to have something else. Something that will grab me and make me want to stay until the end. Something that will make me sorry that the evening's end had arrived.

I don't know what that "something" is, but "The Lady With All The Answers" had it.

Graphics courtesy of ACT Theatre

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Show #51 "Under the Circumstances" at Tacoma Little Theatre

Nowadays I get pretty excited about the simple phrase "A World Premier." It means, something brand new. Something never done before. Something original.

When I see those words in regard to a theatrical production, it gets my blood pumping. You see, Randy and I also are in the process of collaborating with local playwrights to create new stories for the stage. Our community has loads of talent that are, for the most part, undiscovered. We want to help remedy that. Fortunately, so does Tacoma Little Theatre.

"Under the Circumstances" is a collaboration between TLT, the Northwest Playwright Alliance and Tacoma playwright C. Rosalind Bell. It is a deeply moving and relevant story about friendship, race, culture and the power of words.

Two brave actresses (Julie Novak Weinberger and LaNita Hudson) play writers who carry on a long-distance friendship between New Orleans and Tacoma. Yes! Tacoma!

Both women share their lives, their work and their writing with the other. Their differences in age, religion and race never stand in the way of great sistership. That is, until one of them writes a novel that, unintentionally, wounds the other.

This is a story about the power of our speech. It is also an honest, but artfully worded discussion around the issue of race. Rosalind Bell's poetic script invited us to think, feel and remember alongside these two remarkable women. We listened with rapt attention as they shared their innermost thoughts with the audience; things they, tragically, couldn't seem to share with one another.

But this is not the first discussion on race that I engaged in this past week. The evening before my son Tim and I attended a "Conversations on Race" gathering at our church, Trinity Presbyterian. This is part of an on-going conversation between four churches in the Tacoma/Hilltop neighborhood, attended by Christians of different races and denominations.

I praise God for meetings such as these. What a marvelous way to begin understanding and enjoying one another: to have a open conversation coupled with good food, fellowship and prayer.

But, there is also another way: theater. An engaging but powerful story brought to life by two actors can also spark conversation. And last evening at Tacoma Little Theatre, it did just that.

We held a post-play discussion in the auditorium. We continued the discussion out in the lobby. And several of us (including the playwright and one of the actors) took our discussion to a local restaurant which continued well into the night.

Imagine that, a play that started at 7:30pm that gave birth to an honest (but bridge-building) conversation that lasted until after midnight.

That is one powerful play. Don't miss it. It runs at TLT through Oct. 10. But, I suspect the conversation will run long past that.

Graphics courtesy of Tacoma Little Theatre