The advantage the bigger theater companies generally have is a bigger budget and thus more opportunities to engage an audience. Money can’t buy happiness or even success but it can buy the rights to bigger shows and better/pricier materials for sets and costumes and larger budgets for hiring experienced talent. Of course, if you’re a smart, gutsy, smaller theater operating on a tiny budget you’re forced to make on very little and sometimes that encourages greater creativity and more interesting and challenging productions. Two smaller companies, one that’s been around for quite awhile now and a more recent arrival to the Seattle theater scene have just debuted two new works…and, happily, both ARE interesting and challenging in their own quirky little ways.
Review: Murder Ballad. Conceived by and Book/Lyrics by Julia Jordan. Music and Lyrics by Juliana Nash. Produced by Sidecountry Productions. Directed by Billie Wildrick. Music Direction by Brandon Peck. Morgan Grody. Fight Choreography by Scenic Design by Catherine Cornell. Lighting Design by Alyssa Milione. Sound Design by Mike Miller. Costume Design by Darren Mills. With Sara Henley Hicks, Naomi Morgan, Jordan Iosua Taylor, Nick Watson. Now through November 13, 2016 at West of Lenin.
We’ll start with Sidecountry Theatre’s production of the very intimate chamber musical, MURDER BALLAD, a taut 80 minute sung through show that uses one of the more tiresome tropes in drama, the Love Triangle. Wild and footloose Sara is in a passionate but rather dead end relationship with downtown bartender/bad boy Tom but yearns for something more. When she meets sweet uptown grad student Michael, she settles down and the two marry and have a child. But soon Sara is unhappy within the bounds of matrimony and motherhood and she wanders back into the arms of Tom for a dirty little affair. When Michael discovers the deception, there are complications and confrontations and soon….MURDER!
OK, it’s not really that corny. Despite the threadbare plot, Murder Ballad has its charms, primarily a score with witty and memorable songs including a beautiful ballad, “The Crying Scene” sung by the show’s 4th character a narrator who mostly comments on the action (but also plays an important character role as well…no spoilers!!) Obviously with this small of a cast and this short of a running time, this is not an overly dense story show but because the music is so lovely and apt for the story and these characters, it all holds up. It’s an amuse-bouche of a show…a small but tasty morsel that’s packed with dense flavor. The characters have passion, despite their assigned familiar roles in the triangle and the Narrator is such a strongly written connective line, that is all blends well together.
It’s a smart show that’s well directed by Billie Wildrick with a finely honed 5 piece band led by musical director Brandon Peck. The design work is all top notch with Alyssa Millione’s moody, noir-y lighting design being a huge standout. (And, I’m gonna take a brief moment here to salute Ms Millione because she’s had a strong year of design work in Seattle theater this year, with one exceptional lighting design after another.)
Murder Ballad has a top notch cast led by frequent 5th Avenue/Village actor Naomi Morgan as the conflicted center of the plot, Sara. She’s great channeling both sides of that character. And, both of her men are strong too with Jordan Iosua Taylor continuing to impress with his take on the bad boy, Tom as well as Nick Watson equally charismatic as the nice guy Michael. They and the fourth actor on stage, Sara Henley Hicks as the Narrator are all young and newish to the scene and…we’re keeping an eye on ALL of them. Ms Hicks and Mr. Watson dazzled us in last month’s The Toxic Avenger musical where they played all the ensemble roles to great acclaim and Mr. Taylor’s star quality has been apparent in several shows in the last year including ArtsWest’s American Idiot last fall and last month’s Bad Apples at ACT. We have our suspicions that all of them will be seen on many more stages in the months to come.
Since it’s a Love Triangle show, I’ll also be a tad cliche and give Murder Ballad a hearty “thumbs up”. It’s provocative and sultry with a sexy score and strong performances.
Review: Mechanics of Love by Dipika Guha. Produced by SiS Productions. Directed by David Hsieh. Original music by Lauren Wilder. Choreography by Audrey R. Fan. Scenic Design by Brandon Estrella. Costume Design by Miko Premo. Props Design by Celeste Mari Williams. Lighting Design by Emily Leong. With Mona Leach, Manny Golez, Laurence Hughes, Josh Kenji, Kathy Hsieh. Now through November 5, 2016 at Theatre Off Jackson.
I also liked the even quirkier new play over at Theatre Off Jackson as SiS Productions, one of Seattle’s Asian American theater companies, stages a new play by Dipika Guha. MECHANICS OF LOVE is her odd little 80 minute “amuse-bouche” that also explores the complications of love except in this case it’s not a triangle but a three dimensional hexagon as 4 characters switch back and forth with each other as they try to figure out…the “mechanics of love”.
And, naturally, one of the four IS a mechanic.
Set in a vague “No Man’s Land” of an eastern-ish European city just outside the edges of formerly Communistic lands, “Mechanics” has an entirely different tone that Murder Ballad. We’re in AbsurdistanLand, somewhere between early Albee and mid Durang but with more melancholia and sentiment. Dancer Francesca has fled Russia with a broken spine but a determined heart to continue to dance. She also yearns for romance, children and charades and is hopeful she’s met her soul mate in Glen. The two fall in love and marry.
But, Glen is afflicted with memory issues and kinda/sorta forgot he is already married to the very efficient bureaucrat Faizi who enjoys running and charades (but not children). Faizi goes to confront Francesca but instead of being combative with her husband’s second wife, she quickly also falls for the dancer and invites her to live with her and Glen in a triad.
Meanwhile, Glen is confused and seeks advice from his friend, auto mechanic Georg who’s dissatisfied with being a mechanic. And, after Georg meets Francesca, he too also falls in love with her. Eventually, everyone loves everyone else (though oddly, Georg and Glen are always just “friends” while Faizi and Francesca have a more physical relationship; the playwright seems to be shying away from gay male physicality). Glen takes over Georg’s mechanic job and Georg becomes a successful florist. Someone then has children. And, someone dies.
It’s a very odd little play but it’s also rather charming. The ending is rather abruptly sentimental but it doesn’t derail the play. Director David Hsieh maintains the show’s odd rhythms throughout and evenly handles the very precise tone of the piece. He’s aided by the four actors who manage to play each character’s very specific kind of droll queerness without venturing over into it being too twee and fussy. I liked all four actors but the women do come off slightly better, partly because they have more firmly defined characters to play with more specific quirks. Kathy Hsieh’s droll purple clad dynamo Faizi and Mona Leach’s pink sprite Francesca are a delicious couple. And, Leach’s “dancing” almost rivals the awfulness of Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as Elaine on the TV show Seinfeld. Almost.
Mechanics of Love is a tad bit longer than it needs to be (the story runs out of air about 8 minutes before the play ends) and copping out on a physical love for the men is a bit weak but overall it’s a winning script and a lovely little production. I can “thumbs up” this one, too.