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September 13, 2014 Comments Off on Theater “Catch Up” Column: “Perestroika // Godot // Chorus Line” Edition Views: 1372 #Theater and Stage, Arts & Entertainment, Stage

Theater “Catch Up” Column: “Perestroika // Godot // Chorus Line” Edition

The heavenly cast of Intiman's "Angels in America". Photo by Chris Bennion

The heavenly cast of Intiman’s “Angels in America”.
Photo by Chris Bennion

It’s September and the dreary, draggy theatrical dog days of summer are done and every theater company in Seattle is premiering their autumn season. It’s only the 13th of the month and I’m already waaaaay behind on reviewing, so here’s three (hopefully) brief looks at shows that have opened in the last 10 days.

Review: Angels in Amerca, Part Two: Perestroika by Tony Kushner. Produced by Intiman Theatre Festival. Directed by Andrew Russell. With Anne Allgood, Charles Leggett, Ty Boice, Alex Highsmith, Timothy McCuen Piggee, Quinn Franzen, Adam Standley, and Marya Sea Kaminski. Now through September 21 at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center.

We’ll start with the second half of Intiman’s summer mega production of “Angels in America” the Pulitzer Prize winning play from Tony Kushner that examines the AIDS crisis of the late 80s through the eyes of a group of extraordinary characters including a Mormon family, a trio of gay New Yorkers, the real life closeted gay Republican lawyer, Roy Cohn and an Angel. Part One, Millennium Approaches which opened in early August, was raved over by idiots, cautiously criticized by a handful of reviewers for its unsure direction and lackluster performance and mostly panned by me for all of the above plus considerable snark about the odd casting of the production.

I’m still underwhelmed by the casting; fine actors in roles not ideally suited for them, but I”m happy to report that the second half of “Angels in America” the richer and denser, Perestroika, is far better directed and acted than the messy first half. Director Andrew Russell seems more confident and assured in his staging and the majority of the actors who seemed to be floundering in Part One, now seem far more relaxed and comfortable in their roles in Part Two. Two of the more unsure performers from my viewing of Part One, Anne Allgood as the Mormon matriarch Hannah Pitt and the Ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and Charles Leggett as Roy Cohn, now seem to have strong handles of their respective roles and they’re among the highlights of Part Two. The pair’s scenes together with the Ghost of Ethel Rosenberg taunting then nurturing her hateful antagonist Roy Cohn crackle with sharp wit and pathos. Mr. Leggett’s final moments on stage as the monstrous Cohn are powerfully acted and heartfelt. And, Alex Highsmith’s over the top performance as the pill addicted Mormon housewife Harper Pitt from Part One, seems to have matured and leveled out in Part Two; it’s far less mannered and obnoxious and far more enjoyable and appropriate to the role and the play.

Timothy McCuen Piggee as the flamboyant nurse Belize and Ty Boice’s highly conflicted closeted gay Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt, are still the acting highlights of this production, giving sensitive and commanding performances.

And, Part Two just confirms for me, my belief that Adam Standley as the Angel chosen apostle Prior Walter and Quinn Franzen as the highly conflicted and verbose ex-boyfriend Louis Ironson, still need to switch roles.  They’re both very talented actors and they’re both fine in their roles, but….physically and emotionally, they would each shine in the other’s role. In my opinion. (Which I had when they announced casting last spring and continues to this very day after seeing both performances in  both parts of the play….)

There’s also improvements in other areas as well, even with design elements. Robert J. Aguilar’s lighting effects are more dramatic and include lights embedded in the stage floor. Jennifer Zeyl’s rather oppressive Federal building style set is stripped down and more effective in Part Two as well, though her representation of “Heaven” late in the play is obviously hampered by budget constraints; it looked cheap and hastily conceived and constructed. And, Mark Mitchell’s “Aunt Jemima Meets The Patchwork Girl of Oz” inspired heavenly garments are just odd and gaudily high handed. They’re obnoxiously twee and too referential on the minor “Oz” subtext of the scenes set in Heaven. They distract rather than enhance the production.

And, there are still some blatantly odd creative choices that continue to hamper this production including the strange decision to show the “reality behind the curtain” as the rigging of  Marya Sea Kaminski as the Angel is clearly shown on stage as stage hands attach the wires to the actress in plain view of the audience. While Kushner emphasizes that this is a highly theatrical/non-realistic play, I think this deliberate “behind the scenes” staging is overtly distracting to the experience of being immersed into the world of the play. In my view, it was a poor decision.

Still, all in all, Perestroika is an improvement over the first part of the play, Millennium Approaches…though, I’m hazarding a guess that continued performance has also vastly improved the performances in that half of the play as well. Intiman’s “Angels in America” isn’t the theater highlight of the year, but at least it has leveled out to be a competent albeit flawed production of an immensely brilliant play that continues to resonate as a great work of dramatic literature.

Todd Jefferson Moore and Darragh Kennan. Photo by John Ulman

Todd Jefferson Moore and Darragh Kennan. Photo by John Ulman

Review: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Produced by Seattle Shakespeare Company. Directed by George Mount. With Darragh Kennan, Todd Jefferson Moore, Chris Ensweiler, Jim Hamerlinck, and Alex Silva. Now through September 21 at the Falls Theatre/ACT.

Waiting for Godot is The Big Deal in this year’s Beckett Festival, the mega theatrical event with dozens of Seattle theaters presenting pretty much the entire canon of the legendary Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. Seattle Shakespeare Company snagged the right to stage Beckett’s most acclaimed work, probably largely due to the fact that Seattle Shakes’ artistic director George Mount, who also directed this production, was one of the local theater artists who championed this tribute and celebration of Beckett.

But, here’s the thing with Great Artists and their Art. Sometimes it doesn’t age well. Things that seemed shocking and different 50 or 100 or 1000 years ago tend not to feel that way to later audiences. While Mr. Beckett’s plays and their themes seemed new and revelatory in the middle of the 20th Century, they now feel a bit….dated. Who can be shocked by a play about two Everyman characters at a crossroads wondering if God…ot is ever going to show up? It just feels….like it belongs in the “Museum of Academic Works That Have Merit And Importance And Artistry But Are Actually Kind of Boring To Sit Through”. It also doesn’t help that Beckett and his heirs have been notoriously picky about the production of Beckett works; there is no deviation from the text or creative license allowed.  “NO!” is always the answer if a theater company wants to do an all-woman “Godot” or attempt to alter the mise en scène too drastically. The fact that Seattle Shakes has set their production on a representation of an old variety hall stage could be enough to have old crabby Beckett spinning in his sepulcher.

So, to cut to the chase, while I think this is a fine production of “Godot”, that’s carefully and lovingly directed by Mr. Mount, with strong performances from leads, Darragh Kennan and Todd Jefferson Moore as Estragon and Vladimir, respectively; and well designed sets, lights, costumes, sound, etc, I also have to state that I was largely and greatly bored by the entire evening.

I dozed off. Twice. Once in each act, right after the secondary characters, Pozzo and Lucky show up. (Not because of the performances of Chris Ensweiler or Jim Hamerlinck who give fine performances.) And, I should state, I didn’t show up to the performance tired or sleep deprived.

I was just very bored.

Yes, “Godot” is a great work and an important work by a major literary figure but it’s so dated and dry and academic. There’s nothing very revelatory to reveal anymore with this work. Its symbolism is a cliché. (Yes, I realize that opinion just made Beckett fans choke on their quinoa and kale salads….) And, since you’re not allowed to get very creative with a Beckett production….it’s like going to a museum and watching the paint dry on a refurbishment of an old exhibit.

I should also note that I’m not a huge Beckett fan. (Obviously). Yes, he’s a major literary/dramatic figure. But, for me, he pales in comparison to Brecht or even Ionesco. If Seattle were to undertake a Brecht Festival or tackle the major plays by Ionesco, I’d be dancing a happy little jig. Different Dead Old Artists Strokes for Different Folks.

If you love Beckett, then go check out Seattle Shake’s production of “Waiting for Godot”; it’s a fine presentation worth your time.

If not, then go see a fresh, new play….actually, there’s one upstairs at ACT. While Seattle Shakes is presenting “Godot” in the Falls Theatre at ACT, upstairs in the Allen Theatre, ACT has a brilliant new play called ‘The Invisible Hand”onstage. It’s highly recommended and metaphorically guaranteed to not make you sleepy!

The company of A Chorus Line at The 5th Avenue Theatre.     Photo Credit Tracy Martin

The company of A Chorus Line at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Photo Credit Tracy Martin

Review: A Chorus Line. Conceived and Originally Choreographed and Directed by Michael Bennett. Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante. Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Lyrics by Edward Kleban. Original Co-Choreography by Bob Avian. Choreography for this production recreated by Kerry Casserly. Music Direction by W. Brent Sawyer. Direction by David Bennett. Produced by the 5th Avenue Theatre. With Andrew Palermo, Chryssie Whitehead, Greg McCormick Allen, Taryn Darr, Trina Mills, Stephen Diaz. Now through September 28 at the 5th Avenue Theatre.

Finally, the 5th Avenue Theatre is saving TONS of money with their current production of the beloved musical “A Chorus Line”.  The sets are virtually non-existent and the costumes are cheap! PLUS, this production is a very faithful recreation of the Broadway original from 30 plus years ago complete with original choreography and the same damn gold costumes used in the big closing number!

On the plus side: “A Chorus Line” is a charming show with great music, comedy, drama and dazzling choreography. It’s HIGHLY entertaining and great fun to spend two hours with a gaggle of Broadway gypsies as they all compete for 8 spots in a new B’way show at a high stakes casting call overseen by the show’s Michael Bennett-ian (with a touche of Bob Fossee heterosexuality) director/choreographer. WHO will live? WHO will die? WHO will reveal the juiciest secrets as each auditioner reveals their innermost skeletons in their closets?!?!?

On the non-plus side: “ACL” is starting to show its age a bit. It’s score feels a little too embarrassingly 70s synthesizer-y; it could use a re-orchestration. Isn’t it time to redo the choreography and the closing number costumes? Paul’s big monologue about being gay and his troubled childhood, which was praised and admired back in the day, just sounds like internalized homophobia and self-hatred.

But, the 5th Avenue’s production is charming enough that you can look past the show’s signs of age. It IS a lot of fun and the opening night audience was in love with the production and its performers. If you’re a fan of “A Chorus Line”, you’ll have a good time.

I will give it one critique. Several of the singers are guilty of the sin of “Stand There And Just Belt The Entire Song” Syndrome, a lazy and ill-formed recent cancer inflicting modern musical theater and one that needs to be stamped out by tough directors/musical directors. Songs in musical theater tell stories and they require nuanced acting and performance, not just a firm stance and a big voice that screams at the audience from beginning of song to the end. There are supposed to be “highs and lows” emotionally in most songs, certainly musical theater songs from the past. It happened more than once in “ACL” and especially in “At The Ballet” the sweet number featuring three of the female dancers revealing that going to ballet class was a way of escaping difficult family/home life situations when they were young. All three actresses just belted the entire number which lessened its emotional impact.

Otherwise, the show featured your usual triple threats of talented young performers with standouts being Taryn Darr’s funny turn as Val and her show stopping number “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” (aka “Tits and Ass”) and the campy fun of Charlie Johnson’s take on Bobby, the demented and most out of the gay characters. Kudos also to Michelle Terese Grimm’s “costume coordination”. Since she’s not given the title of “Costume Designer” I have to assume that a significant chunk of the costumes were rentals (definitely the awful and ill fitting gold closing number costumes) but I’m assuming the majority of the audition clothes were locally sourced, and if that was her job, she did it well. The 70s dance wear is charmingly and thoughtfully original and brilliantly accessorized and coordinated. You’ll leave the theatre humming “What I Did For Love” and craving 70s inspired sportswear….

Final tally for this review:

Angels in America: Perestroika – It’s fine and an improvement over Part One but not a must see and ultimately a disappointing production of a major work of dramatic art.

Waiting for Godot – Also fine but dry as an academic’s chalkboard. For Beckett fans only.

A Chorus Line – Dated but entertaining fun for fans of the original.

 

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