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March 24, 2017 Comments Off on Reviews: Ghostlight’s “Macbett” & Latino Theatre Project’s “26 Miles” Feature Strong Scripts/Casts Views: 1248 *Seattle Theaterland, Arts & Entertainment, Reviews, Stage

Reviews: Ghostlight’s “Macbett” & Latino Theatre Project’s “26 Miles” Feature Strong Scripts/Casts

Smaller Seattle companies tackle two fascinating complex plays by two talented playwrights. Both of them (mostly) succeed.

Chris Shea, center, stars as Macbett in "Macbett" at Ghostlight Theatricals at the Ballard Underground. Photo: Steven Sterne.

Chris Shea, center, stars as Macbett in “Macbett” at Ghostlight Theatricals at the Ballard Underground. Photo: Steven Sterne.

Review: Macbett by Eugène Ionesco. Produced by Ghostlight Theatricals. Directed by Emily Harvey. Movement Direction by Kendra Pierce. Scenic Design by Brandon Estrella. Costume Design by Sam Gilworth. Lighting Design by Mary Heffernan. Sound Design by Iris Zacarias. Cast includes: Chris Shea, Darien Marcel Upshaw, Matthew Middleton, Madison Jade Jones. Now through March 25, 2017 at Ballard Underground.

Ghostlight Theatricals in Ballard have tackled Eugène Ionesco’s MACBETT, the famed playwright’s rewrite of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which is his tragic/farcical (farcitragical?) revision that features more laughs than the Bard’s take on the tale but with a similar sense of tragedy. Macbett features much of the cast of Macbeth and a basic through line with the Scottish general Macbett loyally serving the rather despotic-ish King Duncan alongside his fellow general Banco but veering his loyalties toward himself after some witches predict he will/should be King of Scotland. This propels Macbett into betraying not only Duncan but Banco as well and while he does eventually win the crown, he does so at great cost.

But, while Macbett features many of the characters and situations from Macbeth there are noticeable differences including replacing the character of Lady Macbeth with the Queen/Lady Duncan who seemingly conspires against Duncan and allies herself with Macbett..or, does she?

For fans of Ionesco unfamiliar with Macbett, it’s a bit different than much of his more famous/earlier work like Rhinoceros and The Chairs. It’s a bit less Theater of the Absurd, a bit less surreal…those elements are still present in Macbett which is a later work (1972) but Ionesco seems to be using more traditional forms of farce and even commedia with this work. It might not be as “deep” and meaningful and poetic as the early short works like The Chairs and The Bald Soprano or the Bérenger “Everyman” plays (Rhinoceros/Exit the King) but Macbett has resonance. The lead character of Macbett is himself a compelling one and re-imagining other characters like Duncan and the odd new hybrid of Lady Duncan which takes much of the character of Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare but adds interesting new layers and depths, makes Macbett a fascinating and complex work.

And, Ghostlight has largely created a professional and dramatically valid production of the play with a fine cast of actors including Chris Shea as a rather dim but personable Macbett as well as some terrific comedic scheming from Matthew Middleton as the vapidly pouting King Duncan and Madison Jade Jones as a very Malificent-ish Queen, all swirling capes and innuendo. Director Emily Harvey does an assured job of staging the play with some nice use of choreographed movement (assisted by Kendra Pierce as the “movement director”). This production also boasts some superb costume design by Sam Gilworth with some very handsome kilts and coordinating accessories making it easy to see who belongs to what faction in this series of “Game of Thrones-ian” clashes for the Scottish throne.

But, I will fault this production a bit for some overplaying in certain scenes including the opening where the actors are overdoing the farce by YELLING their lines and hitting the audience over the head with the irony of the absurdism. Audiences aren’t really that dumb and most people who pay $20 to see an Ionesco play probably really don’t need this sledge hammer approach to the material. “Less IS more” and director Harvey should have reined that in…it’s not necessary and it mars an otherwise fine production.

That said, it’s a smart production of a smart play and worth your time to check it out.

Alma Villegas as Beatriz in "26 Miles" at West of Lenin through April 8, 2017.

Alma Villegas as Beatriz in “26 Miles” at West of Lenin through April 8, 2017.

Review: 26 Miles by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Produced by Latino Theatre Projects and Producing Artistic Director Fernando Luna. Directed by Julie Briskman. Scenic Design by Kristina Hestenes-Stimson. Costume Design by Patrick Swett. Lighting Design by Zanna Paulson. Sound Design by Joshua Blaisdell. Projection Design by Mario Gomez. With Alma Villegas, Klara Cerris, Fernando Cavallo,  Jeff Allen Pierce. Now through April 8, 2017 at West of Lenin in Fremont.

There’s another smart play by another (really) smart playwright that I admire as much as Ionesco…it’s Quiara Alegría Hudes and her 2009 play 26 MILES and it’s being staged by the Latino Theatre Projects at the West of Lenin space in Fremont. Hudes is the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of Water by the Spoonful (beautifully staged by Theatre 22 two years ago in this same space) and a Pulitzer finalist for Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue and for writing the libretto to the musical In The Heights. The playwright is of Puerto Rican and Jewish descent and her work frequently touches on her background with characters that inhabit many different worlds all at the same time.

26 Miles centers on a 16 year old girl named Olivia Jacobs who also comes from a mixed parentage. She lives with her father Aaron and a stepmother who doesn’t seem to care much for her in a bland suburb of Philadelphia and seldom sees her Cuban born mother Beatriz who lives in Philly with her husband Manuel. The play opens with the hyper intelligent Olivia reading to us the latest edition of her self published ‘zine but later struggling with what appears to be a nasty case of flu and when her weak willed father fails to offer her much comfort with her illness, the girl reaches out to her semi-estranged mother to come get her.

Beatriz is delighted at this opportunity to reclaim the daughter she lost in a bitter custody battle with Aaron and ends up taking Olivia on a cross country odyssey with Yellowstone Park in Wyoming as their ultimate destination. Along the way, both mother and daughter struggle to reconnect with each other’s lives.

While 26 Miles isn’t as complex and complete of a work as the superior Water by the Spoonful, it still showcases the outstanding abilities of Ms Hudes at creating brilliantly sharp dialogue and emotionally compelling characters with complex relationships. The playwright has strong dialogue and plotting skills and her plays crackle with an electricity and a sense of urgency; they’re dramatic and hyper realized but still manage to be rooted in a sense of reality and purpose. The mother/daughter relationship is the chief one of 26 Miles and both characters are fully realized; flawed yet fabulous in their complexity. The two male characters aren’t as solidly fixed; they’re not as important to the story and they do get a bit short changed, especially the character of Manuel, the current husband of the mom Beatriz. This inequality does upset the balance of the play a bit but it still makes for a work that is important and dramatically compelling.

And, Latino Theatre Project has done a strong job of interpreting 26 Miles. It’s a simple production in a small space but due to the strength of the material and the reliable hand of director Julie Beckman (who also directed Water by the Spoonful in 2015) it’s a powerful piece of theater. Much of that success is also due to very strong performances from the entire cast including fine work from both men, Jeff Allen Pierce as Aaron and Fernando Cavallo as Manuel, but it’s the mother/daughter duo who dominate this story and Alma Villegas as mom/Beatriz and Klara Cerris as Olivia are both very, very good in their roles. They have a great rapport with each other and make for a believable mother/daughter pairing. Ms Cerris is a young actress to watch for and it’s a pleasure to see Ms Villegas make a return to the stage after many years of focusing on her music career.

But, I will give a small critique of the set design and use of the space for this production. I don’t think Ms Beckman and scenic designer Kristina Hestenes-Stimson have come up with the best solution on how to set the scenes to stage this material. The play does center on a cross country road trip with numerous scenes taking place in a variety of locales and there is a need to physically change surroundings to indicate those changes. Some of those transitions are a bit long and awkward and it does interfere with the flow of the story. They’ve set up the space in a very traditional proscenium style that hinders more than it helps. West of Lenin is a black box space and is very flexible. I think director and designer could have/should have come up with a better layout to facilitate the needs of the material. It certainly doesn’t destroy the play but it does distract from the material and performances.

I’m a devoted fan of the work of Quiara Alegría Hudes and for any fan of superb dramatic literature any production of one of her plays is worth checking out. Latino Theatre Project’s 26 Miles is no exception. It’s worth your time to buy a ticket.

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