Hey…Theater companies and their seasons and the individual shows they produce. It’s all a crap shoot.
Sometimes you roll the dice and you clean up and other times…not so much.
Two of our most beloved theater companies in Seattle, Strawberry Theatre Workshop and Seattle Shakespeare Company who both had new productions open this weekend, can attest to that. Strawshop just opened its third and final production of the year, their take on Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist classic, Rhinoceros while Seattle Shakes took on one of the less seldom produced Shakespearean plays, The Winter’s Tale to open their 2016/2017 season. Strawshop’s previous show, their June production of 9 Circles got rave reviews while Shakes got more of a mixed response to last spring’s take on the frequently staged tragic romance, Romeo & Juliet.
A spring hit for Strawshop and a mixed bag for Shakes.
That just flip flopped with their new fall shows.
Review: The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. Produced by Seattle Shakespeare Company. Directed by Sheila Daniels. Choreography by Marc Kennison. Music by Rafael Molina. Set Design by Tommer Peterson. Costume Design by Kelly McDonald. Sound Design by Harry Todd Jamieson. Lighting Design by Reed Nakayama. With MJ Sieber, Galen Joseph Osier, Reginald Andre Jackson, Darragh Kennan, Brenda Joyner, Finn Kennan, Jonelle Jordan, Jasmine Jean Sim, Rachel Guyer-Mafune, Mark Fullerton, Denny Le, George Mount, Rudy Roushdi, Amy Thone, Spencer Hamp. Now through October 2, 2016 at the Leo K. Theatre at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
We’ll start with the Seattle Shakes’ show, their gloriously lovely and divine version of The Winter’s Tale, the very odd tragic/romantic/pastoral comedic/magical fairy tale that probably dates from the last decade of Shakespeare’s career. The first 3 acts of the play are dark, dour, and highly dramatic but then the play rather abruptly changes locations and tones to become a lovely light romantic comedy for the last two acts. It all hinges on some of the usual Shakespearian plot devices. King Leontes of Sicily becomes insanely jealous (for not any sound reason) and convinced his beautiful wife Hermione is cheating on him with his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia who has been visiting the court for the last year.
The Queen is pregnant and the deranged Leontes is convinced that Polixenes is the father. He orders a minion to kill Polixenes and then throws his wife into prison and won’t even allow their young son to see his mother. Hermione gives birth to a daughter and Paulina, a noble lady of the court and best friend to the Queen pleads on her behalf but to no avail. Leontes orders the baby be destroyed. But, no one seems to mind the King’s wishes because both Polixenes and the baby end up back in Bohemia (separately) with the baby placed with a family of shepherds…and, a convenient box of letters which prove that she’s actually a Princess of Sicily. To make things more fun, both the young prince and the Queen drop dead and dumbass Leontes finally realizes he’s been a fool and now must suffer torturous guilt for his actions. Gloom and Doom prevail in Sicily!
Cut to Act IV and its 16 years later and the lovely princess, named Perdita, is the cutest shepherdess in all of Bohemia and the Prince of Bohemia, (Polixenes’ son) is hot on her tail unaware she is of royal blood. Meanwhile, Autolycus, the comic relief con artist and merry maker, speeds the plot along by aiding Perdita and her Prince, who are having issues with his daddy, Polixenes who isn’t very happy his son is keen on marrying a shepherd’s daughter. Somehow, through quite a few unlikely but delightful events, all the Bohemian characters end up back in Sicily where all is revealed and EVERYONE (except the poor dead Sicilian Prince) lives happily ever after.
Normally a crazy plot that switches gears 2/3 of the way through a play can derail the intentions of the best director and team of theater artists but happily Sheila Daniels has a firm grasp on the reins and does a superb and confident job of staging both very different sections of this play. The gloomy drama of Sicily plays like the darkest, juiciest episode of “Game of Thrones” complete with a brilliantly anguished performance from Darragh Kennan as the jealous Leontes and Amy Thone at her fiercest as the tough as nails Paulina who tries to keep him on track. Their big confrontation scene is electrifying and Shakespearean acting at its best. Brenda Joyner as the tragic queen Hermione is also riveting while young Finn Kennan in his professional acting debut as the young prince Mamillius is suitably adorable and realistic in his role playing the son to his real life dad, Darragh.
And, Ms Daniels also triumphs in the staging of the airy and light filled Bohemia scenes aided by strong choreography work by Marc Kenison and the original music of composer Rafael Molina. It’s a delightful sunny romp and miles away from the misery of the first part of the play but it all works as a whole thanks to the staging and some terrific design work from Tommer Peterson (a simple but highly effective set that uses a quartet of multi-purpose pillars and simple wooden platforms); Kelly McDonald’s gloriously rich costumes, and clever lighting design/effects by Reed Nakayama. The Winter’s Tale is a beautiful show to look at and experience.
While the Kennan Family, Amy Thone and Brenda Joyner were the acting assets of the Sicilian set scenes, the focus in Bohemia is on the delicious comic timing of the clowns in Act IV especially MJ Sieber stealing scenes as the roguishly endearing conman Autolycus with Mark Fullerton and Spencer Hamp giving him a comic run for the money with their delightfully doltish rustics. But, the entire acting ensemble is on form here, with fine work from the entire cast. The acting coupled with gorgeous design work and on point direction make this a must see theater event.
The Winter’s Tale is a fantastic treat that manages to embrace both the darkness and the light inherent in Shakespeare. It’s a superb production and one of the best productions from the Seattle Shakespeare Company team in quite awhile. It’s highly recommended.
Review: Rhinoceros by Eugène Ionesco. Produced by Strawberry Theatre Workshop. Directed by Jess K. Smith. Choreography by Alyza Delpan-Monley. Set Design by Greg Carter. Sound Design by Erin Bednarz. Lighting Design by Ryan A. Dunn. Costume Design by Adam Zopfi-Hulse. Mask Design by Zane Exactly. With Shanna Allman, Shawn Belyea, Lacy Katherine Campbell, Brandon Felker, David S. Klein, Amy Mayes, Conner Neddersen, Jéhan Òsanyìn, Carol Louise Thompson, John Wray. Now through October 8, 2016 at 12th Avenue Arts.
I wish I could say the same for Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s awkward and ill thought production of Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros now on stage at 12th Avenue Arts on Capitol Hill. Ionesco’s take on the follies of conformity and mob mentality as it examines a small French town where all its inhabitants but one are turned into actual rhinoceroses over the course of a few days. It’s a misfire from director Jess K. Smith and the usually reliable Strawshop team; it’s heavy-handed, turgid and seemingly misses the points that Ionesco is making about mobs and conformity. There should be no “bad” or “good” guys in Rhinoceros. A mob is a mob is a mob regardless if that mob is voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Members of a society pressuring other members of a society to follow the will of that herd is what this play is about. Redneck bigots in a country bar can be rhinoceroses…so are a clutch of liberal tattooed hipsters sitting in Linda’s Tavern chugging down cans of PRB. Blue and green clad Seahawks fans on a Sunday afternoon are rhinos…as are May Day protestors throwing bricks through a Nike store’s windows…while wearing Nikes.
Yet, Jess Smith not so slyly sneaks in a Time magazine with a photo of Trump on the cover not to mention obscenely heavy handed video footage projected on the set that awkwardly combines shots of real rhinos intercut with film of Nazis and Fascists goose stepping across Europe circa 1938. Ionesco was obviously attacking fascism with Rhinoceros but he was more broadly attacking ANY form of group mind think, both left and right. This production is trying too hard to make “rhino-ism” only be about ONE perspective from one mob mentality. There’s a reason why Ionesco includes a long section in the play with different characters arguing about the rhinos having one horn or two. IT DOESN’T MATTER…A RHINO IS A RHINO!
There are other issues with this “Rhino” as well. This play is an absurdist, satirical farce and timing is so important when dealing with such material. Unfortunately, this play has serious issues with its pacing and the direction of the actors. Rhinoceros is a play that should just zip by and have a sense of airiness to it (despite the seriousness of its message) but this “Rhino”, like its namesake, is heavy, lumbering and mired to the ground…it never lifts and it never aspires to be much of anything. As a result, most of the actors seem out of step with the material with only Brandon Felker, as the Logician and Lacy Katherine Campbell as Mrs. Boeuf (both small roles) having much of connection to Ionesco’s intent and to the necessary timing required to play these scenes. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast seem a bit lost.
And, none more so than our lead, Bérenger, the rather shyly sweet and curmudgeonly character who resists the urge to conform. For reasons unknown, director Smith has cast a female actor, Carol Louise Thompson in this traditionally male role and…it doesn’t work. I don’t know if Ms Smith is trying to make a feminist point or purely a theatrical one but I was resistant when I heard about this casting and I have to say I’m even more resistant now after having seen the performance. Ms Thompson is a fine actor but this performance is over the top and heavy handed. She’s playing the part like it’s Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple and it just doesn’t gibe with Ionesco. I’m not convinced this is a role that should be genderfree (no, not all roles work with that kind of casting; I have no need to see Death of a Salesman with “Wilhemina Loman” or “Mama Roy” in Gypsy belting “Everything’s Coming Up Roy!”) But, since Bérenger is supposed to be an “everyman” character I think it MIGHT be possible to gender switch the role…IF you have the correct actor IN that role and the correct director directing it but…sad to say, I don’t think THIS production of Rhinoceros has either one of those things. Which is a shame for many reasons because:
- Rhinoceros is a great play…when correctly done
- Strawshop is a great theater company
- Jess Smith and Carol Louise Thompson are great theater makers
But, sometimes it just doesn’t work.