Two plays and a return visit from a beloved local burlesque show…here’s the poo on these Seattle area stage works currently running this weekend, March 14-16.
Review: THE ELEPHANT MAN by Bernard Pomerance. Produced by STAGEright. Directed by Robert Bogue. With Matthew Gilbert, Brian Lange, Michael Ramquist, Craig Peterson and Lorrie Fargo. Now through March 22, 2014 at The Lab at InScape.
Let’s start with STAGEright’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s dramatic hit from 1977, THE ELEPHANT MAN, the story of John (actually Joseph) Merrick, the Victorian Age performer born with severe abnormalities who was exhibited as a “freak” at carnivals and sideshows before being “rescued” by Dr. Frederick Treves and spending his final days in London Hospital where he became the toast of London society before dying at the age of 27. Pomerance’s theatrical look at Merrick’s life was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and the role of Merrick became one of those highly sought after parts that young actors yearn to get. It was also quickly established that the actor playing Merrick would not use make-up or prosthetics but portrayed the infirmities and deformities of the character through physical movement and position. It’s a challenging role, both emotionally and physically; most longer running productions of THE ELEPHANT MAN require a physical therapist to be on staff to help prevent physical harm to the actor playing Merrick through the use of exercises and massage.
It’s doubtful if StageRight can afford to have a therapist on hand for this low budget production. They’re a small, young fringe company and they don’t have a lot of money which is readily and woefully apparent in this ELEPHANT MAN. StageRight has done a nice job with previous productions including last fall’s ambitious staging of Adam Guettel’s FLOYD COLLINS which was set in the 1920s. But, THE ELEPHANT MAN is set in the 1880s and requires costumes, props and set design which are more difficult and more expensive to create. They’ve also built raised staging and levels for this production which is being presented at Satori Group’s “The Lab @ InScape” but if platforms aren’t thoroughly constructed and designed to be sound muffling, all movement on such platforms is loud and clunky. The skimpiness of the costumes and decor, and the clunkiness of the physical environment sadly reduces this production to a semi-amateur status.
The status is also earned by the uneven nature of the casting and the awkward direction by Robert Dogue. There are strong performances by strong actors as well as awkward performances by good actors all on display in this production, not to mention some work better suited for a small town community theater. The pacing is ragged and the transitions between scenes can be awkward. It’s not StageRight’s smoothest production which can perhaps be partly attributed to biting off a period work they’re not financially equipped to do and a lack of the right people in the right roles both onstage and backstage.
There is a saving grace or two in this ELEPHANT MAN and the chief one is the MAN himself, actor Matthew Gilbert’s extremely strong work as John Merrick. Obviously this is a very challenging role but Mr. Gilbert is physically, emotionally and artistically on target with his portrayal. He very successfully portrays the humanity and the humor of the character with great passion and restraint. It’s just a terrifically winning performance and the primary reason to see this production.
There’s other strong actors in this show as well including Brian Lange as Treves and Craig Peterson as Ross, Merrick’s abusive and manipulative manager. Both actors are very talented but both actors go off the rails in their work here and when that happens to more than one actor in a show you need to eyeball the director in charge…Mr. Bogue failed to keep these performances in check. Mr. Lange’s performance is basically fine until it completely goes helter skelter late in the second act as his character has a breakdown; there’s an embarrassing amount of flailing and emoting going on. The problem with Mr. Peterson’s work is that he seems to be under the impression he’s performing the mad scene from LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR on the stage at some huge house like the 5th Avenue or The Paramount instead of a wee space in the International District. He gives us a “10” when it needs to be a “5” at best. Stronger direction would have corrected and adjusted these mistakes.
And, a shout out for the scenic/projection design by Brendan Mack. The design concepts are very strong here, with an obvious sense that the entire production is set within a carnival sideshow stage. It’s not difficult to surmise that a couple thousand dollars and another week would have allowed them to reach the levels of success they desired.
THE ELEPHANT MAN is still a lovely play and STAGEright is still a local theater company to watch but my advice to them is: “Stay away from Period Pieces, unless you have the budget to pull it off” and, “Make sure you have all the right talent in place before you start a show”.
Review: GIRL YOU KNOW IT’S TRUE by Bixby Elliot. Produced by The Stay Up Late Show & Theatre Off Jackson. Choreographed by Diana Cardiff. Directed by Ed Hawkins. With Ian Bell, Andrew Tasakos, Daniel Christensen, Andrew Lee Creech, Barbi Beckett, Corey Spruill, Josh List, Michael Blaylock, Scott Shoemaker and Rebecca M. Davis. Now through April 5, 2014 at Theatre Off Jackson.
Last night’s theatrical treat was the West Coast premiere of a new play, GIRL YOU KNOW IT’S TRUE by Bixby Elliot and produced by actress Rebecca M. Davis’s production company, The Stay Up Late Show. It’s the needlessly complicated story about a nebbishy, 4oish, failed gay playwright who resorts to submitting his plays under the guise he’s an African American lesbian in a wheelchair. When one of his works is snapped up by a prominent New York theater company eager to exploit all his various “minorities du jour”, he must hire an actress to play him/his female alter ego. When the actress he hires actual ego goes out of control and “their” play is nominated for a Tony Award, things get really complicated. And, while this slice of Neil Simon wackiness is going on, the play also frequently cuts and interconnects with the similar sounding true life story about Milli Vanilli, the r&b dance/music group created by German music producer Frank Farian that featured two attractive young performers, Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus who were eventually exposed as vocal “frauds” who didn’t actually sing on the Milli Vanilli albums. AND, as an extra special treat, there’s also little monologues throughout the show from other celebrated fakes and frauds from history including Princess Caraboo and Christophe Rocancourt. There’s a lot of layers in this GIRL.
There’s also a ridiculous amount of terrific local talent, and frankly, it’s what saves this show. In lesser hands, GIRL YOU KNOW IT’S TRUE would be an over-written bore. The main plot involving the playwright “Bixby” (also the name of the actual playwright…how pwecious!) and the scam with the black actress is like some sort of ridiculous and discarded plot idea from “I Love Lucy” circa 1953…it’s dumb, unrealistic and not the slightest bit convincing, which is a huge problem since the script goes out of its way to compare the fictional plot with the actual frauds of Milli Vanilli. It’s a bad idea in a script full of them which include having two characters who basically sit throughout the entire production and who only have any “business” to do in the closing moments of the play. I think if Mr. Elliot stopped trying to be so cute and clever with his intricate plotting and focused on a plot that wasn’t so “wacky” he might have a decent piece of theater to produce. Otherwise, it’s just a silly sitcom combined with a bad SNL sketch or two.
I don’t like the play, but I adore most of the players and the actual physical production of this GIRL is quite strong. Ed Hawkins does a terrific job of directing…there’s a lot of plot and a lot of characters to keep track and he keeps everything running quite smoothly. And, I’m majorly in love with Robin Macartney’s deliciously simple set which used concentric rings of curtains to divide off playing areas. It’s a clever solution to creating multiple locations in a show full of them.
Finally, the actors are the comedy glue that hold all this together and GIRL has some very funny actors on hand including Ian Bell as the conniving but snuggable playwright; Andrew Tasakos as his put upon partner; Scott Shoemaker, completely wasted as one of the peripheral “chair sitters” and Rebecca M. Davis as the actress who hits it big as a wheel chair bound lesbian playwright. It’s like one of Mr. Bell’s Brown Derby parody movie productions at Re-bar stumbled down to the International District and exploded all over Theatre Off Jackson…and, thank the gods they did, because they bring enough comedy prowess to keep this show fresh and fluid.
There’s also strong ensemble work from Josh List as the Milli Vanilli manager Frank; Daniel Christensen as a bunch of folks including a funny riff on MTV’s cadaverous journalist Kurt Loder, and the very funny Barbi Beckett also playing a gaggle of characters including many of the talking head/real frauds. She’s a comedic treasure. Poor Michael Blaylock, like Poor Mr. Shoemaker, essentially plays a chair sitter/curtain puller for 98% of this production but he does it with great verve and flair despite the face these roles are essentially the theatrical equivalent of a sty in each eye. Kudos to both of them for enduring such roles. (I will also refer to both of them from now on as “Poor Mr….” in recognition of their bravery.)
FINALLY, Andrew Lee Creech and Corey Spruill have the unenviable task of recreating Milli Vanilli’s Rob and Fab (respectively) complete with ridiculous cornrow wigs, awful costumes and ludicrous dance moves (lovingly choreographed by Diana Cardiff and based on the original ludicrous dance moves from 1990). Mr. Creech is the luckier of the two; his Rob is better written and comes complete with a ridiculous German accent and an equal amount of German bravado. Poor Mr. Spruill is saddled with the lumpen Fab, who’s the practical one…also, the dull one as the playwright hasn’t really given him anything to do except be practical. Yet, both actors are in tune in with each on stage and make a fine team. You gotta feel something for these poor, but pretty schlubs who were coerced into this fraudulent situation.
So, I can’t recommend this play, but I guess I can recommend the production due to the talent involved. It’s a great production of a mediocre work…it’s the equivalent of “Downton Abbey” but minus Maggie Smith’s snark and all those awful musical pauses and reaction shots.
Review: HOUSE OF THEE UNHOLY. Conceived and Produced by Paula Now. Choreographers include Douglas Riding, Lily Verlaine, Waxie Moon, Miss Indigo Blue and others. Performed by Lily Verlaine, Waxie Moon, Indigo Blue, Inga Ingenue, Douglas Ridings, Red Delicious, Paris Original, Polly Wood, Gerard D, Heidi Von Haught, Tory Tiara, Jody Kuehner and Mimi Me. Singers: Sarah Rudinoff, Jen Ayers and Zack Davidson. Musicians: Andy Stoller, Ryan Burns, Darren Loucas and Mike Stone. Now through March 16 at The Triple Door.
Last but not least, we paid a visit to The Triple Door to check out Paula Now’s (formerly Paula the Swedish Housewife) for her remounting of her “Rocklesque” hit show THE HOUSE OF THEE UNHOLY, a 90 minute burlesque fueled journey to the hot arena rock of the 1970s with an emphasis on Led Zeppelin. Backed by a live band and singers (including Sarah Rudinoff) THEE UNHOLY’s individual acts combine live music with live dance performances that recreate the album cover looks to some classic rock of the period. It’s zexy, loud, colorful and packed with such amazing local performers as Lily Verlaine, Waxie Moon, Indigo Blue, Inga Ingenue and Paris Original, all huge stars in the world of New Burlesque. Paula Now is to be congratulated on taking New Burlesque to a different level, using music and themes not normally associated with Burlesque. It’s a risky, exciting work.
The downsides to THEE UNHOLY: if you’re not a fan of this genre of music, it can be a chore to fully enjoy. The audience for the opening show on Wednesday seemed to skew a bit older and straighter rather than gayer…there was excited applause for a drum solo. I liked the show but I’m not a fan of Led Zeppelin so it’s difficult for me to get too effusive. To be honest, I was hoping for more Karen Carpenter and less Robert Plant.
Secondly, I wish the show had more of a through line, but that frequently seems to be an issue in burlesque shows. It can be a bit vague. THEE UNHOLY’s numbers are connected by a cute maid who tidies up in-between sets but other than a musical genre connection and a general vague sense of Seventies era “naughtiness” there’s not much binding together this show. It’s a lot of pretty pictures strung together with a bitchin’ soundtrack.
Thirdly, and I hesitate to kvetch because it sounds like bitter, bitchy sour ungrateful grapes but if you’re going to give out comp tickets to press/critics then the seats need to be adequate, meaning the critic can actually SEE the entire stage. It’s hardly fair to critique a show that I only saw about half of, due to the fact I was on the far, far left side of the house. (It’s also an odd choice to make in a show that ends most of its numbers featuring the replication of a famous album cover. The effect was entirely lost on me due to my poor sight lines.) If you can give other NON-press people decent comp seats, then you need to give us press slobs decent view seats as well…so we can do our job.
That mini rant over, I can safely recommend the lovely THE HOUSE OF THEE UNHOLY to burlesque fans and specifically, burlesque fans who also love that “Led Zeppelin” sound from the 70s. It has some hot numbers….if you can see them. (But, beware the flying lemons…)