We’re not starting off strongly with the 2017 Seattle area theatrical season.
I blame Donald Trump.
Two recent theater openings that didn’t quite hit the mark for me.
As always, it’s up to you to decide…
Review: Every Five Minutes by Linda McLean. Produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre. Directed by Ryan Purcell. Scenic Design by Ahren Buhmann. Lighting Design by Evan Anderson. Costume Design by Jennifer Oaster. Sound Design by Robertson Witmer. Properties Design by Cedric Wright. With Tim Gouran, Jesica Avellone, Jonelle Jordan, James Weidman, Nick Edwards, Tré Calhoun, Rebecca Love and Shaudi Bianca Vahdat. Now through January 30, 2017 at 12th Avenue Arts.
Washington Ensemble Theatre’s EVERY FIVE MINUTES starts out strongly. In fact, for the first 12 to 15 minutes of its roughly 80 minute running time I was enthralled and had high hopes for the production which opens with a couple hosting another couple for a casual evening get together but things very quickly go wrong as the host husband, “Mo” quickly unravels and seems to be suffering from some sort of schizoid episode…or, are we time tripping? It’s not entirely clear but it seems Mo is back home after being mysteriously locked up for a very long time for unknown reasons and he’s having problems with relating to both time and space due to his years of sleep deprivation and torture. It’s an interesting premise (and a timely one…) and the Orwellian/Kafkaesque themes of “Every Five Minutes” are its greatest strength. Scottish playwright Linda McLean has set up an interesting premise and director Ryan Purcell does a great job of staging these odd and complex shifts in time and mood (from friendly evening bourgie get together to raving delusional visions of terror and torture) with a superb lighting and sound design (by Evan Anderson and Robertson Witmer, respectively) and featuring a very strong acting ensemble headed by Tim Gouran giving a complex, emotionally compelling and frequently very nude performance as the central character, Mo. At its onset, Every Five Minutes is exciting, dynamic and compelling…everything we hope for in a terrific night of theater.
But, at about the 15 minute mark, the mood shifts and characters emerge and start speaking who, in my opinion, were for more interesting dramatically BEFORE they emerged as speaking characters, and the play starts bouncing about like a deranged rubber ball. Ms McLean is apparently well known for being a playwright who “experiments with form” and that’s great but the problem with experiments is that usually they fail….I mean, it took Heinz a lot of attempts (57!!!) to get that damn sauce right. The other thing with using different forms and styles (in any art form) means you really need to be a master of those individual art forms before you start mucking around and combining them in some clever “new” way. “Every Five Minutes” has a great beginning, then a lazy long middle section where anarchy and confusion reign, and then very weirdly tries (and fails) to get serious and solemn in the last 15 minutes and become a “real” drama.
I get why Washington Ensemble Theatre loves these kinds of plays. WET, like many theater companies, is artist led but most of the artists in charge are always actors or former actors (many playwrights, quite a few theater critics and most directors WERE actors at some point…) and actors love to be crazy and anarchistic and running around like idiots on stage doing crazy shit. As a former (ham) actor I acknowledge that love for those “big” stage moments. But, more than many other companies, WET has long had a problem with choosing messy shows primarily because they give actors an opportunity to run amuck and be messy. It’s partly why we love theater companies like Washington Ensemble Theatre and Annex and others of their similar disposition but to be honest, their best shows usually tend to be the ones that actually have a bit of structure to them and a semblance of cohesion. I’ve always been more drawn to their more “grown up” works (The Motherfucker with the Hat; Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo; The Tall Girls; Sextet; The Mormon Bird Play) than their nutty messes (a thousand productions with actors playing animals or children; the revolting Sprawl, last season’s gorgeous to look at but dumber than hell, The Things Are Against Us) while enjoying the ones that manage to combine some sense of form with an brilliantly odd concept and stylish execution (99 Ways To Fuck A Swan; RoboPop!)
And, to be honest, I’ve wondered if maybe I’m now “too old” to enjoy WET’s style of theater but…no. I really liked the crazy cat schtupping play last year (despite its title, 99 Ways To Fuck A Swan involved cat copulation and not swan seduction…) And, I wasn’t the only one to not enjoy Every Five Minutes. On the night I saw the production, a large number of younger student types (late teens/early 20s) were in attendance and I sat near a section of them. In the last 15 of the play as the focus of the material changed to a rather dull wrap up, my mind wandered a bit and I felt bad that I was no longer involved in the proceedings but then I noticed that a couple of the millennial aged audience members sitting by me were seriously fidgeting in their seats…and, I realized that incoherent “experiments with theatrical form” can be just as boring to a 20 year old as they can be to a perpetual 40 year old…cough, cough.
Despite Ryan Purcell’s assured direction and a strong cast led by Mr. Gouran’s focused performance but also featuring fine ensemble work from Nick Edwards, Rebecca Love and Jonelle Jordan (while wasting the talents of some others including Jesica Avellone as the wife who’s not given much to do by the playwright) AND the fact I really loved that first 12 minutes or so and its sense of nervous paranoiac tension, it’s a miss for me.
Maybe it needed some cats?
Review: Mothers and Sons by Terrence McNally. Produced by ArtsWest Theatre. Directed by Makaela Pollock. Scenic Design by Christopher Mumaw. Costume Design by Pet Rush. Lighting Design by Ryan Dunn. Sound Design by Kyle Thompson. Properties by Robin Macartney. With Jason Sanford, Isaac Spence, Evan Whitfield and Suzy Hunt. Now through February 11, 2016 at ArtsWest.
MEANWHILE, across town, the most interesting theater company in Seattle (or, more accurately, “most improved”) ArtsWest has an entirely different kind of play and production on its stage. It’s a very well made, very structured and very traditionally plotted MOTHERS AND SONS, their production of the Terrence McNally play from a couple years back. It’s ninety minutes, played in real time, about the mother of his former deceased (from AIDS) lover visiting a middle aged gay man now happily married to a much younger man and raising their son in a beautiful apartment overlooking New York City’s Central Park.
Mr. McNally is one of our country’s preeminent playwrights, best known for his plays Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Master Class, and Love! Valour! Compassion! but also for his librettos for musicals like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime. While “Frankie & Johnny…” was a romance between a man and a woman, the majority of McNally’s major works have involved gay characters and plots and frequently centered on the role the AIDS epidemic played in the lives of the gay community in the 1980s and 90s. Mothers and Sons is actually a sequel to a television drama, Andre’s Mother that McNally wrote for PBS in 1990 that starred Sada Thomas as Katharine (aka “Andre’s Mother”) and Richard Thomas as Cal, Andre’s boyfriend that centered on a memorial service for Andre in Central Park. Mothers and Sons picks up 20 years later with a very awkward encounter between the two as they settle up some unfinished business about their lives as Andre’s survivors.
Mothers and Sons is a very structured and well made play. It’s all one setting and ninety minutes with the two main characters plus the arrival of Cal’s husband Will and 7 year old son Bud. It’s also a bit of an awkward play…really, WHY is Katharine here and why do Cal and Will put up with her for so long? She’s a problematic and unwelcome house guest. The situation seems a bit contrived and unbelievable. Despite the heart felt emotion and some clever and beautifully written lines, McNally’s play does feel manipulative and trite at times; it teeters on the soap operatic which is ironic considering McNally’s love for actual opera (a frequent theme in many of his works). It’s a deliberate “gay men’s weepie” especially for any gay man over the age of 45 or so who had to live through that horrible era where AIDS darkened so many lives. McNally actually takes care to point out that survivor guilt is also a part of our grieving process as is the bitterness that the horror of that time is fading away as time passes.
These are important and dramatic issues and Mothers and Sons is a compelling piece of theater but for me, it did feel phony and maudlin and overly contrived in the way of an overwritten “we gotta wrap all this story up in 90 minutes!” way of TV drama. While I am a fan of Mr. McNally and many of his plays, including “Love! Valour!…” and “A Perfect Ganesh” both of which are “dreamier” more theatrical and non-realistic works than this play, I’m less invested in his Mothers and Sons.
As for this specific production, it does feature a lot of great things with the most obvious being Christopher Mumaw’s handsome set which is full of detail appropriate to an high end condo owned by a bourgie gay couple and Robin Macartney had to have worked overtime to gather together the many props and pieces needed to fill up this set for this production.
I’m also a fan of Jason Sanford as the “new” man in Cal’s life, playing his husband Will and young Isaac Spence as the son. They’re a believable father and son duo and appropriately charming and comfortble in their roles.
But, less successful is the casting and performances of our two main characters. I’m a big fan of both Suzy Hunt and Evan Whitfield both experienced Seattle actors but…we have an issue here of one performer being a bit too “grand” in their performance (Ms Hunt) while the other (Mr. Whitfield) is underplaying it too much. In other words, you have an actor who needs reigned in a tad at times while the other could use a shot of energy in their performance. And, while there is supposed to be awkward tension throughout this play, I think the chemistry is off here due to the performances not quite meshing. Some of that might be a casting issue and/or a performance issue but I also think there’s a directorial issue here as well and while I was very taken with Makaela Pollock’s work with her previous production (last fall’s The Big Dinner at 12th Avenue Arts) I feel less confident about her work here; as stated, the performances seem out of sync and some of the staging feels awkward. The play never quite gels and the disparate parts never seem to come together.
All that said, Mothers and Sons is engaging theater, but only if you enjoy weeping at the theater about dysfunctional families and the AIDS Crisis and fraught emotions and warm bonding between emotionally crippled old women and adorable live affirming young tykes… If so, it is the PERFECT play/production for you to check out.