I’m behind on theater reportage!
Let’s get to it and talk about two current Seattle productions featuring strong roles for women.
Review: Well by Lisa Kron. Produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre. Directed by Braden Abraham. Scenic Design by G.W. Skip Mercier. Costume Design by Deb Trout. Lighting Design by L.B. Morse. Sound Design by Matt Starritt. With Sarah Rudinoff, Barbara Dirickson, Reginald André Jackson, Adrian LaTourelle, Chantal DeGroat, Liz McCarthy and Emma Blessing. Now through March 5, 2017 at Seattle Rep.
First up, let’s check out a fierce female character over at Seattle Repertory Theatre about a woman dealing with both physical health issues as well as mental ones…oh, and while coping with a fascinating but exhausting mom who threatens to derail her “one woman” show. It’s WELL, the popular theater piece by noted writer/performer Lisa Kron who’s best known for her solo autobiographical pieces (and, since “Well”, has gone on to win a Tony Award for her work on co-creating the hit musical, “Fun Home”).
“Well” isn’t a solo show but Kron’s character is at the front and center of the piece which examines her life and her relationship with her mom as they deal with health issues that have plagued both of them. The play is roughly divided into three “worlds” which is how the set is physically portrayed onstage. To the right is her childhood home where her mother Ann resides throughout the play. To the left are various scenes depicted in the story she tells of growing up in Michigan in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Kron’s home base is the neutral zone of center stage where she goes to relate her story and “escape” from the other elements OF her story. Only in “Well” the other elements of her story refuse to honor that neutral zone and very quickly both sides of the stage/the story intrude on that neutrality as the mom character “Ann Kron” interrupts “Lisa Kron” and then proceeds to interfere in stories being told on the far side of the stage by 5 other actors playing numerous roles but also “playing” themselves. Soon, chaos reigns and Lisa Kron’s neatly tidy little story is quite messy and out of control.
Which is the chief fun of “Well”.
It’s a clever idea and a cleverly executed script. Kron wants to relate several different things with this work and largely succeeds as she tries to unravel her complicated relationship with her delightfully meddlesome mother who has suffered lifelong debilitating mystery illnesses which she calls “allergies” but may or may not be related to environmental illnesses including chemical insensitivities. Kron herself suffers some similar issues as a youth and part of the play relates her own time with seeking “wellness” in an allergy clinic but she gets does get better and her mother doesn’t which leads Kron to ask the question, “WHY is she ‘well’ but her mother is not?”
I like the story Lisa Kron is telling here and I like the characters and I like the actors PLAYING these characters in Seattle Rep’s production. The ensemble of Reginald André Jackson, Adrian LaTourelle, Chantal DeGroat, Liz McCarthy and especially Emma Blessing who is very funny as a sharp tongued childhood bully who torments both young and old Lisa Kron, is a strong one. Veteran actress Barbara Dirickson returns to Seattle to play the mom “Ann Kron” and she’s a huge delight. Beloved Seattle actress Sarah Rudinoff is ideally cast as Lisa Kron and gives a funny, compelling, well centered star performance. They’re all a joy to watch.
But, to be honest, I didn’t really love this production. Maybe it was the night in question…sometimes opening nights can have a weird rhythm but I never really felt like this production was in sync…it felt off kilter and undefined. I’m going to have to lay some of the blame on Braden Abraham’s direction; it never feels very focused or confident. Yes, I’m aware this play is centered on the concept of it BEING a play that gets out of control but in order to portray that kind of deliberate anarchy you have to stage it with the utmost precision and confidence of what is happening onstage and internally for the actors and the audience. For me, the production felt very tentative and unsure of itself. The actors/characters spent too much time lurching about in uncertainty which harms the intent of the piece. Maybe time will improve the confidence of the actors and of the staging…hopefully.
Again..I like the material and the actors and I can recommend “Well” solely based on that but it’s a tepid recommendation from me solely based on the charms of Kron’s writing and the talent of the actors on stage. I have to say I regard this production like Lisa Kron regards the health of her mother…I wish it could be better and don’t understand why it can’t be.
Review: Bright Half Life by Tanya Barfield. Produced by New Century Theatre Company in collaboration with The Hansberry Project. Directed by HATLO. Scenic Design by Catherine Cornell. Costume Design by Christine Tschirgi. Lighting Design by Jessica Trundy. Sound Design by Evan Mosher. With Tracy Michelle Hughes and Rhonda J. Soikowski. Now through March 11, 2017 at 12th Avenue Arts.
We also have a pair of strong female characters portrayed by a pair of strong female actors at New Century Theatre Company’s current production of BRIGHT HALF LIFE, by native Portland playwright Tanya Barfield and produced in collaboration with The Hansberry Project at 12th Avenue Arts… but, what’s it all about?
“Bright Half Life is the moving love story of Vicky and Erica that spans decades in an instant—from marriage, children, skydiving, and the infinite moments that make a life together…”
In other words, it’s one of those time trippy plays that bops around back and forth over the many years of a relationship in non-sequential order and continually returning to specific important moments to see the full story. And, similar to the 2012 Nick Payne play “Constellations” except for the fact that play dealt more with “what if” scenarios in a relationship replaying various equations of “if THIS happened, then THAT would happen” over and over again.
Seattle Rep did a production of “Constellations” a year ago that I liked but didn’t love (I’ve actually warmed a bit to that chilly material over the course of time…which happens with a lot of art; some of it takes time to appreciate. Or depreciate.) Tanya Barfield’s work in “Bright Half Life” is similar-ish but quite different; it’s more theater experimental than metaphysical transcendent. The time lurches in “Bright Half Life” propel the story both forward and backward at the same time but to what avail? The couple at the heart of “BHL” are interesting but are they really THAT interesting? What does this play have to really offer other than a dramatic device and the novelty of having a lesbian couple at the center of its story?
To be honest, the “gimmick” of the time lurches didn’t really do it for me as a play goer. It does feel gimmicky and forced after awhile. In “Constellations” that device had a point; it was integral to the structure of the story being told. Here, it just feels like the playwright’s attempt to get noticed for using a “clever” story structure. The play is only about 75 minutes or so but it felt longer due to the fact it gets repetitive and a bit exhausting to watch the characters lurch around in time. Frankly, it’s novelty wore off at about the 6o minute mark and after that it was just a slog to get to the end. Which is actually too bad because Ms Barfield HAS created a pair of intriguing characters with Vicky and Erica; they’re fully formed and fascinating and you do feel great empathy for them as characters. It’s easy to become invested in both of them as individuals and as a couple through all their ups and downs over the many decades of their complicated relationship. I liked Vicky and Erica and their story but I didn’t really like the way that story was being told.
That said, I did enjoy many moments in this play with a main favorite being a problematic date involving a traumatic ride on a Ferris Wheel for Erica who has an issue with heights. (I also hate Ferris Wheels…they’re revolting). It’s a funny/sweet moment in their lives and very well acted by Tracy Michelle Hughes as Vicky, the more practical/conservative half of the couple, and Rhonda J. Soikowski as the free spirited/irresponsible and acrophobic Erica. The charms of this acting duo are the chief reason to check out “Bright Half Life”…they give excellent performances.
I also enjoyed the imaginative lighting design by Jessica Trundy which utilizes dozens of home lighting fixtures used as part of the scenic design. They apparently spent most of their lighting/set budget at IKEA and Goodwill…which is what smart designers on a budget do.
I can recommend seeing “Bright Half Life” chiefly for things like the clever lighting and strong performances and memorable individual dramatic and comedic moments in the play, but I can’t really recommend the play itself despite the strengths of some of its elements. Unlike “Well”, which I would gladly see performed in another production, I have little desire to see another production of “Bright Half Life” despite the charms of its two characters and their essential story.
Neither of these productions fully satisfy but it’s still good to see women’s stories told by female artists. The actors and artists involved overcome issues of style and structure enough to make both productions worth a look.