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January 23, 2016 Comments Off on Theaterland Review Round Up: “The Birds” // “The Motherfucker” Edition Views: 1789 *Seattle Theaterland, Arts & Entertainment, Reviews, Stage

Theaterland Review Round Up: “The Birds” // “The Motherfucker” Edition

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Review: The Motherfucker With The Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre in collaboration with eSe Teatro and The Hansberry Project. Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton. With Erwin Galán, Anna Lamadrid, Ali Mohammed el-Gasseir, Moises Castro, Meg McLynn. Now through February 1, 2016 at 12th Avenue Arts.

So. Much. New. Theater. This Month.

No time for horsin’ around…let’s get to it.

We’re starting with Washington Ensemble Theatre’s season opener, their co-production with two other theater companies, eSe Teatro and The Hansberry Project. It’s acclaimed playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis and his 2011 play, the controversially titled The Motherfucker With The Hat which had a highly publicized run on Broadway with Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale starring. The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets prissily fumed about that “naughty” title and claimed the play would have been more successful w/o the profanity.

Shocker. We don’t have a problem with it. It’s great fun to say out loud to Uber drivers and casual acquaintances.

Uber Driver: Oh, you’re going to a play tonight…what are you seeing?

Theater Critic: (hesitates slightly but the driver is young and seems “cool”): “The Motherfucker With The Hat

Uber Driver: Cool! I wanna see that play! What’s it about?

Theater Critic: Some motherfucker. With a hat. Chris Rock did it on Broadway.

Uber Driver: Awesome!

But, I digress…

The Motherfucker With A Hat is a briskly paced look at a recently released convict named Jackie who’s spent some time in the slammer for some youthful crimes that were largely fueled by his problems with alcohol addiction and associated issues of anger management that go along with that addiction. He returns to New York City to live with his long time/long suffering girlfriend Veronica who has her own issues with addiction. Meanwhile, Jackie is living clean with the help of his swarmy AA sponsor, Ralph who doesn’t appear to like the presence of the using Veronica in Jackie’s newly sober life.

Problems quickly arise for Jackie when he discovers a strange hat in Veronica’s apartment and quickly accuses her of infidelity with “the motherfucker with the hat”. The couple bitterly argue as Jackie demands to know the identity of the said “mf”.  He suspects the neighbor downstairs and decides to seek vengeance despite Veronica denying the affair, and Ralph trying to defuse Jackie’s fury. Jackie acquires a gun which he ends up having to hide at his Cousin Julio’s apartment. Meanwhile, Jackie is also staying with Ralph and having to deal with Ralph’s frustrated wife, Victoria. Things all come to a series of rather comically violent confrontations as we discover the identity of the “motherfucker with the hat”.

Stephen Adly Guirgis has a sharp ear for dialogue and “Motherfucker” is packed full of smartly funny discussions and dialogues between the characters. Mostly well plotted and paced, the play does start to drag a bit towards the end as a major confrontation scene between two characters gets a big long winded and repetitive, and the ending is a bit abrupt, but overall it’s a funny yet sweetly sad look at the lives of some fascinating characters.

And, this is also a sharply staged production superbly directed by Seattle director and theater educator, Valerie Curtis-Newton, who also heads The Hansberry Project, Seattle’s acclaimed African-American theater company. As usually is the case, she not only does a great job of organically moving the actors around the stage, she also develops rich, but complex emotional relationships between all the characters; a Valerie Curtis-Newton directed play always feels like you’re eavesdropping on private conversations. She has a great gift for creating these atmospheres where the actors are really able to click with each other. As a result, the shows she directs tend to move forward with great vigor and emotional resonance. They feel “real” even when they are heightened reality.

She’s aided by a strong cadre of actors led by Erwin Galán as Jackie, the volatile emotional center of the story. Mr. Galán gives a powerful and centered performance that grounds the entire production and the strong work of the supporting characters. He’s aided by the deliciously slimy swarm of Ali Mohammed el Gasseir’s conniving Ralph, who can apparently convince anyone to buy into his blatant bullshittery. And, as the women, both Anna Lamadrid as the morally complicated girlfriend Veronica, and Meg McLynn as the put upon wife of Ralph offer up strong support in richly written roles.

But, the comic charmer of the evening is Moises Castro who delightfully plays Jackie’s thickly accented and rather fey cousin Julio who provides most of the comedic punch but also manages to bring in some lovely nuanced shadings of warmth and emotional heart to his character and that character’s relationship with Jackie. It’s a terrific performance in a show that’s blessed with strong performances by talented actors.

This production is also blessed with a smart multi-functional set design by Pete Rush, and clever lighting design work from Evan Anderson and sound design from James Schreck. All the design elements, in tandem with the direction, made the many scene changes seamlessly smooth and effortless.

The title might shock some people’s Grandmas, but if you have a hip granny who loves smart, well produced contemporary theater, then grab that granny and any other coolass relative or friend and take them to 12th Avenue Arts to check out The Motherfucker With The Hat. It’s a must see production.

Wish we loved the play as much as we love this gorgy poster design by Melanie Wang.

Wish we loved the play as much as we love this gorgy poster design by Melanie Wang.

Review: The Birds by Conor McPherson. Adapted from the story by Daphne du Maurier. Produced by Strawberry Theatre Workshop. Directed by Greg Carter. With Shawn Belyea, Meme Garcia, Sarah Hartlett, Sean Nelson. Now through February 20, 2016 at 12th Avenue Arts.

Across the hall at 12th Avenue Arts, one of WET’s two other sister anchoring theater companies, Strawberry Theatre Workshop also has a new production up and running. It’s an adaptation of the short story, “The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier which was the basis for the famous Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. This version of the tale, is by noted Irish playwright Conor McPherson who adapted and directed this play originally in 2009 in Dublin.

Every version of The Birds is notably different from the other, with the basic plot being the same…for some unknown reason, (never fully explained in any version of this story) all the birds in the world have turned violent towards humans, and attack them with the intent to kill. As the world collapses into chaos, scattered remnants of society huddle together in isolated communities to try and survive.

This play, focuses originally on a pair of strangers, one male and one female, who end up trapped in a remote cabin in the woods by a lake, seeking shelter from the bird attacks which appear to be timed to the tides; the birds only attack when the tide comes in, and retreat when the tide goes out. The two form a bond but things start to change when other people begin to enter the picture. One of the questions posed by the play: are the birds the “bad guys” in the story, or are humans the ultimate enemy?

On paper, this play has a lot going for it: A great premise and a famous title with a long artistic/entertainment pedigree. And, the actual production also has much going for it…a beautiful set design by Tommer Peterson that recreates every rustic woodsy cabin you’ve ever been to. Plus, Reed Nakayama’s atmospheric lighting and Brendan Patrick Hogan’s terrifying, non-stop sound design which obviously is centered around the bird attacks, are superbly well done and the chief highlights of this production. (I’ll also include a shout out for Melanie Wang’s insanely beautiful graphic design for the poster and publicity art.)

But, the tech/design elements are the ONLY reason to see The Birds. It’s great to look at and listen to, from a design perspective, but from a dramatic perspective, the script is turgid and hackneyed. The characters are not interesting. Their situation really isn’t that interesting. The dramatic tension between the characters is dumb and cliched. A main plot line is the jealous tension between the two female characters over the male character. That’s an old-fashioned, lazy, and frankly rather insultingly misogynistic way to develop drama between two women onstage.

The whole play feels..bland and uninspired. It’s not helped by the turgid pacing. I think the story itself is slow but McPherson’s story construction is so choppy, consisting of a number of short scenes taking place over a period of time. Making matters worse, is the amount of time between those scenes as a stage hand kept appearing during the blackouts to make fussy little changes to the set and props. While a few of those changes were necessary as they involved moving several important/large set pieces to different areas, many just felt gratuitous…simple moving of small props from one place to another. Many of those changes could have been done by the actors on set. The presence of the stage hand was bad enough; it broke the feel of intimacy being isolated in this cabin with just a couple people, but all that busy work really slowed down what little momentum the play has.

And, while we were huge fans of Greg Carter’s direction of last year’s Strawshop production of  Our Town, here his directorial gifts seem to falter. This show has issues with pacing and energy, which also seems to have affected the actors. Sarah Harlett and Shawn Belyea as the main two characters, are both talented actors, but here they seem under energized and a tad bland. Meanwhile, Meme Garcia as the female interloper is too broad in her performance while Seattle musician/arts editor at the alt weekly paper, The Stranger, Sean Nelson gives an odd, off kilter performance as the mysterious 4th character in the show. The character he plays is supposed to be “odd” but we have to say the performance is also on the “odd” side as well.

Oddly, when 12th Avenue Arts opened a year ago, Strawshop had the superior production (the superb Our Town) to the WET’s disastrously messy opener, Sprawl. This year, they’ve flipped positions. Go see The Motherfucker With The Hat; avoid The Birds. Or, just pop your head in the door to see the delightful set. That, and the other design elements are worthy of your attention; sadly, the play itself is not.

 

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