Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Great Divorce -- Taproot Theatre Company

Nathan Jeffrey, Pam Nolte, and David Dorrian (L-R). Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

The Great Divorce
Taproot Theatre Company
January 27- February 27 2010
Tickets and Information

C.S. Lewis is known to many as the author of the beloved Narnia series, but his writings extended far beyond that. Lewis, a devout Christian, wrote many treatises, fables, essays and books on religious themes, using his considerable talent with words and imagery to unfold his ideas. The Great Divorce, adapted for the stage by George Drance and the Magis Theatre, is one such book: Lewis' dreamlike adventure on a bus ride though Hell and Heaven and what he observes there.

The Great Divorce is less a straightforward story, and more a theatrical meditation, a collection of meetings and moments strung together by Lewis' narration and his constant wonder at the strange place he is now in. The play manages to be highly philosophical and fantastical, without losing what makes each vignette work: the connection between human beings, and the sincere desire of each denizen of heaven to bring everyone else up to heaven with them.

Jenny Cross and Candance Vance (L-R). Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Director Scott Nolte's staging of the play has a measured pace, giving the audience ample time to truly understand the sometimes complex theology surrounding them. David Dorrian, as our narrator C.S Lewis, carries the backbone of the show, but it is the ensemble around him that creates the swirling energy of the piece. Each plays multiple characters ranging from gray ghosts to lively angels and every kind of human in between, and each new turn is fresh and clear.

Mark Lund's set opens backwards into archways that suggest wide spaces beyond, inviting the audience as well as the characters. Window panes play host to Jody Briggs' gorgeous light design, which conveys dawning mornings and muddy streets alike. Sarah Burch Gordon's costumes bring us a new level of the story, from her carefully nuanced grays and tweeds of the early ghost people to the bright contrasting colors of the heaven dwellers.

Taproot's swift turnaround from the fire of October 2009 is a testament to the great support offered by the community, and the theater's space now looks shiny and clean, though still as cozy as ever. But what is most important is that the caliber of theater offered by Taproot remains high, and that their 2010 season has opened well. The Great Divorce is not a play for everyone; those looking for a rollicking escape from daily life would do well to search elsewhere. But for an evening of thinking theater, of a play that presses your philosophical opinions and gently offers new ways of thought, Taproot's show never once missteps.

Review by Kenna Kettrick

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Speech and Debate - Seattle Repertory Theatre

Speech and Debate
Seattle Repertory Theatre
January 15 – February 21, 2010
Tickets and Information

Plays dealing with adolescent issues are nothing new, nor are plays dealing with controversial topics like abortion, sex scandals, closeted homosexual Republicans and censorship. What makes Stephan Karam's Speech and Debate remarkable is that it manages to confront all these topics without pretension, and without trying to be provocative or to shock the audience.

Speech and Debate revolves around the lives of three outsider highschool students in semi-conservative Salem, Oregon, each of whom has secrets, like any teenager. Solomon (Justin Huertas) is determined to be a reporter, writing an all-important article about the pattern of anti-gay Republicans being outed—most recently the mayor of Salem. Diwata (Erin Stewart) yearns to be an actress, but is continually passed over for the school plays. Howie (Trick Danneker), a gay teenager from Portland, just wants to finish highschool and leave. All three students are soon tangled together by their own secrets, blackmailing and bullying each other in attempts to get what they want—a chance to perform, a real article published, or just to have a normal senior year.

(L-R) Justin Huertas, Trick Danneker, Amy Thone, and Erin Stewart in Speech & Debate. Photo by Chris Bennion.

What makes this play sing as brilliantly as it does is the tight writing, fast pace, precise use of technology, and—most of all—the acting of the three leads. Huertas, Stewart and Danneker portray the lanky physicality, verbal tics and tenacity of awkward teenagers to perfection. (“That is my private journal,” Stewart screams with outraged indignation, when Huertas bursts into her life after finding her public internet blog.) Amy Thone carries her double roles as a teacher and a local reporter quite well, but the play truly belongs to the other three. They capture complicated and varying emotions without hesitation and with an enormous amount of humor.

The design also plays a large part in making this particular production work so well. Matthew Smucker uses his characteristic straight lines and flat planes to great effect in creating a sterile-looking highschool classroom, that feels like every public school classroom in the United States. Smucker also designs the projections that begin each scene, and set the quirky tone for the entire play. Matt Starritt's sound design—incorporating everything from Lady Gaga to “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”—keeps the pace jaunty and the atmosphere lively, while Christine Meyer's costumes enunciate each character clearly and, sometimes, hilariously. Andrea Allen's direction is light and swift, incorporating her actors' talents and her design elements into an engaging whole.

By the end, Speech and Debate hasn't solved large controversial issues, or even passed judgment on any of them. The value of the play lies not in shoving problems in our faces, or trying to be provocative. Rather, what works is its straightforward and hilariously honest portrayal of Howie, Diwata and Solomon grappling with their own problems—ones that we all recognize, whether we are their age or far older.

Review by Kenna M. Kettrick

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Electra - Seattle Shakespeare Company

Seattle Shakespeare Company
January 7-31 2010
Tickets and Information

In all times and places throughout history, vengeance has been and shall remain a central issue and topic of debate. How do we balance Justice with Vengeance? Which is which and how do we avoid getting lost in the grey area in between? Director Sheila Daniels tackles this rather personal struggle (as one can read in her director’s notes in the program) through Sophocles’ intensely cathartic play, Electra. Frank McGuinness’ 1998 adaptation of Sophocles’ ancient text brings the profound suffering of the characters to life through language that is both raw and lilting. Every member of the cast has great facility with McGuinness’ text, and Daniel’s direction keeps each word immediate while retaining the power of the poetical.

In playing the title character, Marya Sea Kaminski eliminates all conventional boundaries and tears through the text. Her passion becomes our catharsis as she takes the audience far beyond any comfort zone Seattle Shakes has provided in the past few months and brings forth a new beast of emotional rollercoastering to which most Seattle Theatre-goers are not yet accustomed. Orestes (Darragh Kennan), Electra’s brother who has been exiled since childhood, beautifully portrays his realization of the extent of the horror that his family has suffered while he has been raised so far away from it. Susannah Millonzi, as Electra’s sister Chrysothemis, is torn between her sister and the family that controls her and, in her struggle, brings the audience into the tempestuous pain that she feels. Also of note is John Bogar as Aegisthus, the despis├ęd and murdering king, whose stage time is perhaps four minutes at the most, and yet brings the audience to wish him dead within the first seconds of his entrance. Each member of the cast pours everything they have into this production; there is no weak link among them, and there is no emotional fourth wall to protect the audience from the truly Greek catharsis of this play.

Marya Sea Kaminski as Electra and Susannah Millonzi as Chrysothemis. Photo by John Ulman.

Every design element works in concert with Daniels’ directing to create a piece that feels modern while transcending any specific time period. Andrea Bryn Bush’s set, with its straight lines and chain-link fences, hints at majesty and ruthlessness not unfamiliar in our modern era of urban warfare and subversive tactics. Andrew D. Smith’s lighting design sculpts the space and the story, nearly a character of its own, as is Robertson Witmer’s sound, dissonant, chiming and thunderous. The costumes (Pete Rush) taste of ancient Greece from modern elements, and are tailored specifically to each character—for example, spotless and silky for the queen, but a dirty tank top and ripped skirt for Electra.

Electra is a story of revenge, suffering and triumph that could easily descend into melodrama, losing the honest characters within it. However, with McGuinness’ inspired adaptation, a cast of truly brilliant actors, and Daniels’ pitch perfect direction, this Electra hauls the audience through ninety non-stop minutes of tragedy at its best to the dramatic end and shows the humanity of the story all along the way.

Review by Kenna M. Kettrick and Andrew J. Perez