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January 31, 2014 Comments Off on Reviews: Of Kings, And Cupcakes, And Laughing Dogs… Views: 1385 #Theater and Stage, Arts & Entertainment, Stage

Reviews: Of Kings, And Cupcakes, And Laughing Dogs…

(It’s only the first month of the new year and I’m already getting behind on theatrical reviewing duties, so it’s time to play catch up. You’re getting three plays in one review, kids, so sit back and strap yourself in for some brief critiques of three currently running productions in the Seattle area.)

George Mount in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s 2014 production of “Richard II.” Photo by John Ulman.

George Mount in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s 2014 production of “Richard II.” Photo by John Ulman.

Review: RICHARD II by William Shakespeare. Produced by Seattle Shakespeare Company. Directed by Rosa Joshi. With George Mount, David Foubert, Dan Kremer, Reginald Andre Jackson, Peter A. Jacobs, Brenda Joyner, Mike Dooly and Kate Wisniewski. Now through February 2, 2014 at Center Theatre at Seattle Center.

We’re starting with the one that’s closing this weekend and the reason why I’ve dawdled…I really didn’t have a lot to say about Seattle Shakespeare Company’s current production of RICHARD II. It’s not a bad production….and, it’s not a great production. It simply exists. Look at it this way…let’s say all of Shakespeare’s plays are like an entire run of your favorite high end television show, like THE SOPRANOS or MAD MEN or BREAKING BAD. Some episodes of those shows are so brilliant, you can never forget them. Occasionally, they had a episode that was so stinky, you can’t get it out of your head because it was so out of the norm for that series to have a craptastic episode. And, the bulk of the episodes of any given series are relatively strong and compelling ones but not necessarily ones you remember every detail about, or need to rewatch with much frequency….they’re just good, ole middle of the road yarns to keep you entertained until the next brilliant episode comes along.

In my opinion, this RICHARD II is of the middling sort. It’s fine and has entertainment value, but it never quite makes the leap into “Must See Theater”. And, I do need to be honest and admit that I’m not a huge fan of Shakespeare’s English history plays…they’re a bit droning and reek of dull classroom lecturing. And, “Richard II” is often confused with the far juicier RICHARD III…that’s the one with the humpbacked king, the dead kids in The Tower and “my kingdom for a horse!”. It’s a lot more fun than this moody and brooding tale about the alternately silly then depressingly profound Richard II. It’s the rare occasion when the “III” is better than the “II”. (Yes, I’m aware that “Richard III” is not a “sequel” to “Richard II”…they take place a hundred years apart.)

As for this RICHARD II, it has a talented director in Rosa Joshi and the production is well staged. The cast is strong with fine work in particular from Dan Kremer as John of Gaunt and David Foubert as Edward Bolingbroke who succeeds Richard as Henry IV. However, I can’t say I found a lot to love with George Mount’s portrayal of Richard…for me, the performance never felt organic, or of the moment. Every moment and inflection was too overworked and calculated; Mr. Mount’s George was too chilly and clinically executed for my tastes. I know others much admired this performance…to each their own.

The tech/design work is fine. This is obviously one of Seattle Shakes’ “well, we gotta keep the budget low on this one, ’cause we wanna be in the black at the end of the season” shows. The set/lighting is simple but attractive and appropriate for the production. Jocelyne Fowler’s costumes are handsomely rich and evocative. It’s a thoroughly polished production of a middle of the road Shakespearean play. If that’s what you’re in the mood for, then please attend and support the work of Seattle Shakes.

Heather Hawkins, Alex Garnett and Jeff Orton in ArtsWest's production of THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED.  Photo by Michael Brunk.

Heather Hawkins, Alex Garnett and Jeff Orton in ArtsWest’s production of THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED. Photo by Michael Brunk.

Review: THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED by Douglas Carter Beane. Produced by ArtsWest. Directed by Annie Lareau. With Heather Hawkins, Alex Garnett, Jeff Orton, and EmilyRose Frasca. Now through February 16, 2014 at ArtsWest.

Over at West Seattle’s ArtsWest, we’re a world away from classical theater and in the very contemporary land of Douglas Carter Beane’s satirical comedy THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED, his winking look at life in a Hollywood actor’s closet. Mitchell is a rising young movie star visiting NYC, when he gets one of his “yens” for male companionship and drunkenly calls up a gay escort agency to send over one of their studs for hire. Alex, the stud in question, has his own set of sexuality issues; he works as a male prostitute but identifies as straight and has a quirky girlfriend named Ellen who has her own set of problems to deal with, including a lack of focus on what she should be doing with her life. When Mitchell and Alex begin falling for each other, the repercussions of that new relationship wreck havoc on the lives of all three of them which leads to a deus ex machina in the shape of Diane, Mitchell’s hell on wheels agent who dominates not only Mitchell’s life but the entire plot of the play. It’s a big, juicy “eat all the scenery” kind of role and it won its original Broadway creator, Julie White a Tony Award.

And, we come to the first issue with ArtsWest’s current production of LITTLE DOG. The role of Diane is a 12 on the Richter Scale and Heather Hawkins, who is portraying the role, is an actress with a big capacity to max out that scale, so the result is: You have a Force 12 actress playing a Force 12 role and it’s 144 times too much power on that little stage. Ms Hawkins gets many laughs, but she’s also KILLING some laughs because there’s too much going on. There’s no light/dark contrast with the performance; it’s just always big and loud and too intense. You’re supposed to actually like this rather unlikable character but Ms Hawkins ratchets up the volume so much, you end up disliking both character and actress…which is a shame because LITTLE DOG is a cleverly written show and for the most part, this is a strong production. And, so far it seems like I’ve been chewing excessively on Ms Hawkins, but when an actor is giving a performance that’s too big, it’s ultimately the director’s job to make sure that gets corrected and while Annie Lareau has physically done a fine job of staging this production, she seems to have neglected some work with her actors.

That also includes the two men in the show, Alex Garnett as Mitchell and Jeff Orton as Alex. Both men do fine work but there are times when their more naturalistic playing style veers into too much understatement which then contrasts abruptly with Ms Hawkins’ style. Meanwhile, EmilyRose Frasca as the girlfriend Ellen somehow manages to play her role at a level that’s perfectly suited for both her character and the text of the play, with the result she walks away with the show with a charmingly quirky but earnest comedic performance. She’s the actor in The Three Bear’s House who made all the right choices and everything’s “just right”.

Design and tech wise, this is a very strong showing for ArtsWest where sometimes the sets and tech work can be a little bit of the “lets put a show on in the barn!” variety. Jenny Littlefield’s sexy sleek upscale hotel set has to also portray other locations and it all works beautifully. Tristan Roberson’s lighting design is also a huge asset and complements Ms Littlefield’s work. But, I have to give a ding to the costumes, just because John Allbriton put Diane in nude pumps…which are an abomination in the eyes of the Fashion Gods, in my opinion. And, to Mr. Allbriton’s credit, it’s not easy dressing a Hollywood agent on an ArtsWest costume budget.

Despite a final scene resolution which stretches logic, THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED is a smartly written play and this is a strong production well worth seeing and not just because it has some sexy male nudity from two attractive male actors…though we’re not approving of the fact that one of the actors in question decided on a full chest waxing. (That we can never approve. )The direction should have been stronger and some of the performances could use a tweak but it’s still worth a trip to West Seattle to check it out.

AMERICAN WEE-PIE at Seattle Public Theatre. Tracy Leigh (as Linz) and David Goldstein (as Pableu). Hate the play; like the production; adore the actors. Photo: Paul Bestock

AMERICAN WEE-PIE at Seattle Public Theatre. Tracy Leigh (as Linz) and David Goldstein (as Pableu). Hate the play; like the production; adore the actors. Photo: Paul Bestock

Review: AMERICAN WEE-PIE by Lisa Dillman. Produced by Seattle Public Theatre. Directed by Anita Montgomery. With Evan Whitfield, Tracy Leigh, Alyssa Keene, David Goldstein, and Stephen Grenley. Now through February 16, 2014 at The Bathhouse Theatre at Green Lake.

Finally, we bop up to “Canada”, aka Seattle Public Theatre’s space at The Bathhouse Theatre at Green Lake for their production of a new play, AMERICAN WEE-PIE by Lisa Dillman. The play premiered just a year ago, in Chicago, and this marks its West Coast premiere.

I hope it also marks its West Coast curtain.

That might be a bit harsh, but WEE-PIE is definitely one of those adorably “twee” little quirky plays that are so beloved of theater companies eager to create new works via playwriting work shops and programs. It has a small cast, noble themes, cuter than thou situations and plot that would prefer to be a quirky series on cable television but somehow got crammed into a two hour play. Judging by the themes in WEE-PIE and the overall tone, I’d say that the playwright Lisa Dillman probably got the idea for the play while feverishly snoozing in front of her television about 5 years ago as that adorable but ultimately doomed piece of quirk known as PUSHING DAISIES was playing in the background. Both that show and this play are cut from similar bolts of whimsical, pastry covered cloth. But, “Pushing Daisies” had charm and wit (and the cutie pies, Lee Pace and Kristin Chenoweth) and WEE-PIE has…less charm, little wit and confusing/conflicting content that’s either too sweet or too sour and not particularly edible, regardless.

But, what’s it about? Nebbishy middle aged drone returns to hometown for his mother’s funeral and to settle up her estate with his workaholic bossy older sister. Nebbishy guy runs into kooky high school class mate who talks him into staying in town and working for her and her equally kooky French husband in their gourmet cupcake shop. Nebbishy guy’s life seems to be improving, then shit happens and he has to fix it all through the power of…WEE-PIEs. The end.

It’s adorable (but really, it’s not) and that’s largely due to the script which isn’t sure what it’s supposed to be…the tone varies drastically throughout between surrealistic silliness and relatively realistic normality. Neither one really works with the result it’s hard to fall in love with these characters or their issues. Nebbishy guy is kind of sweet, but he’s so stupid when the story starts out, it’s hard to eventually love him. The sister is so awful and mannered and horrid that even a drastic second act redemption can’t save her. The kooky couple remain pretty kooky throughout, so they actually fare the best….at times, you wish they would just take over the whole play, even when they step out of any sense of reality. And, there’s a fifth actor who’s stuck playing three characters, none of which are very interesting and all of which just slow down the plot. It’s a sugary mess of contradictions.

But, oddly enough, I very much enjoyed the PRODUCTION of this play I hated. The design work is great, despite a tiny budget, with all the elements brilliantly working together. Andrea Bryn Bush’s set is thematically tied in with Candace Frank’s adorable costumes through the use of color which are dominated by a monochromatic scheme with brilliant splashes of color cheekily popping up in the nooks and crannies. Tim Wratten’s lighting design and Rob Witmer’s sound design are major elements of this production; the plot sort of depends on both to a large degree and the excellence of the design makes up for the paucity of the script itself.

As for the actors, Evan Whitfield is a huge plus in a role that is largely negative. It’s hard to play a nebbish with any charm or conviction but Mr. Whitfield does both. It helps that his character is the bland center of the show, so he’s not cursed with too much cutesy pie character schtick unlike poor Alyssa Keene as the unfortunately unsympathetic and obnoxiously pushy sister who comes complete with a speech impediment and a chip on her shoulder. David Goldstein as the Frenchiest French chef you’ve ever met, also has to deal with an excessive amount of the cutes, but at least his character is sympathetic. Both actors are fine; I just wish they had better material to work with.

Meanwhile, adorable Tracy Leigh kind of runs away with the show as the nutty former high school classmate with the sunny outlook on life. It’s a big performance of an overwritten larger than life role but somehow Ms Leigh keeps it all in check, complete with ridiculous little “Kramer” like jigs of happiness when things go right. In lesser hands, this performance could be a mess, and she BARELY keeps it within the bounds of reasonable insanity, but I’d ALMOST go see this show again, despite the fact I don’t like the script, just to see Tracy Leigh do that little happy jig.

I can’t recommend AMERICAN WEE-PIE with conviction due to the irritations of its script, but the individual elements of the show are quite strong. You’ll have to judge it for yourself.

Also: when is a theater company going to give Tracy Leigh a starring role in a brilliant script? She’s always in ensemble pieces at smaller venues. SOMEONE GIVE THIS WOMAN A STAR VEHICLE TO SHINE IN!!!

 

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