Two local plays examine things near and dear to us: issues of faith and family friction (both biological and chosen) and interventions and falsehoods and….FOOD! (Not really…)
Review: Grand Concourse by Heidi Schreck. Produced by Seattle Public Theatre. Directed by Annie Lareau. Scenic Design by Jenny Littlefield. Costume Design by Kelly McDonald. Lighting Design by Evan Christian Anderson. Sound Design by Jay Weinland. Properties Design by Robin Macartney. With Faith Bennett Russell, Hannah Ruwe, Tyler Trerise, Corey McDaniel. Now through June 11, 2017 at Green Lake Bath House Theatre.
First up: Seattle Public’s GRAND CONCOURSE by actress turned writer Heidi Schreck who has written both for theater and extensively for television a point I bring up immediately because Grand Concourse really feels more like a a 10 episode series on Hulu squashed down into an hour and 40 minute long play. It’s about Shelley, or more accurately Sister Shelley, a nun running a soup kitchen in a poor Bronx neighborhood while dealing with a number of issues including a serious loss of faith. In fact, “Concourse” opens with Shelley’s daily prayer which she times with the use of the kitchen’s microwave oven. She’s interrupted by the arrival of Issue #2, a young woman named Emma who has come to volunteer at the soup kitchen after dropping out of college. Emma is eager, but awkward and gets off to a rocky start with Shelley but after Emma reveals a big secret about herself, Shelley cuts her some slack. Over time, Emma also wins over the rest of the staff and the kitchen’s clients including Oscar a friendly (and cute) Dominican immigrant who works as a custodian and bounce at the church, and Frog, a colorfully friendly homeless man.
Though Emma wins over the hearts of the three characters and seems to change their lives, cracks begin to surface in her relationships with all of the other characters. And, that’s about all that can be said about the plot of Grand Concourse, without spoiling key plot points in the story. By the end of the play, all four characters have evolved and been changed but not necessarily for the better.
Schreck has a gift for dialogue and creating interesting characters and while they teeter on the edge of being a tad formulaic (a nun with faith issues; an adorable homeless guy; sexy but sweet immigrant boyfriend material) they have enough dimensions added to them to make them compelling in a way familiar to anyone who has watched a lot of dramatic episodic television. The plot does feel a bit rushed in times, as I mentioned earlier, it does feel like all the plots for 10 episodes have been pared down into one “greatest hits” package but the play never drags and why waste your time with 10 hour of TV when an hour forty of a live show will do the job?
I’m recommending this production solely because it is interesting but mainly because it has a great cast who do a fine job under strong direction from Annie Lareau. Corey McDaniel is appropriately adorable as the adorable homeless guy and Tyler Trerise is appropriately sweet as the dreamy boyfriend material guy, complete with sexy Spanish accent.
The two women have the meatiest roles and Hannah Ruwe is very good as the mysteriously layered student with a lot of secrets to reveal while Faith Bennett Russell is appropriately cast as the nun losing her faith and nicely centers the proceedings with her gravitas and natural charm as an actor. She has to give a heartbreaking monologue towards the end of the play that goes into graphic detail about an awful event that occurs (off stage) and it’s a powerful and profound moment for both the character and the actress who plays her.
Grand Concourse is, like a lot of theater emerging in the last 10 years or so, overly reliant on structures and characters created for episodic television but it is compelling and with a cast and direction as strong as this, it is very much worth seeing.
Review: Barbecue by Robert O’Hara. Produced by Intiman. Directed by Malika Oyetimein. Set Design by Julia Hayes Welch. Costume Design by Kelly McDonald. Lighting Design by Robert Aguilar. Sound Design by Matt Starritt. With Angel Brice, Macall Gordon, Kamaria Harris, Eryn Joslyn, Lamar Legend, Charles Leggett, Shaunyce Omar, Rachel Pate, Carol Roscoe, Cynthia Lauren Tewes. Now through June 25, 2017 at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center.
Intiman’s first production for their 2017 season is BARBECUE by Robert O’Hara who also wrote the terrific play Bootycandy, which was a hit for Intiman two years ago. Barbecue also has ties to the world of television and filmed entertainment but in a different way from Grand Concourse. Here, Robert O’Hara incorporates the actual world of Hollywood and celebrity pop culture into this play which on the surface simply appears to be a larger than life tale about a trashy dysfunctional family having noisy arguments about how trashy and dysfunctional they are…on first glance, it seems to be aping an episode of “Roseanne” or “Mama’s Family” except all the characters in this story have drug and alcohol abuse issues.
Barbecue opens with a white middle aged Bubba named James T. swilling a beer in a public park in an unnamed vaguely Midwestern city having a loud cell phone conversation with his sister Lillie Anne about what is about to transpire. Bossy sister Lillie Anne is gathering together brother James T. and two other sisters, Marie and Adlean to stage an intervention for their meth addicted youngest sister Barbara and subsequently send her off to rehab in remote Alaska. It’s all a tad hypocritical as James T. is an alcoholic, Adlean is a pill popper with cancer, and Marie likes both booze AND meth. The family all starts to gather together and the scene reaches a dramatic climax and ends with a blackout and then after a moment or two it resumes immediately following the previous scene but with one difference…
We pick up in the same park with the same set of characters, but this time James T. and Lillie Anne and Marie and Adlean are all played by African American actors who are all slightly younger and more attractive than their previous white counterparts. The family dynamic is exactly the same and they’re all gathered together for the same reason: to confront little sister Barbara. This new scene progresses and reaches a dramatic climax yet again with another blacking out of the lights and when we come back, we’ve returned to the WHITE actors who originally started out in this plot. This continues throughout the rest of Act One of Barbecue (and the eventual arrival of Barbara, both white and black in their respective parallel story lines) with the casts alternating back and forth but with the exact same plot.
It’s an intriguing premise and cleverly managed by both the playwright and director Malika Oyetimein but it’s also one that naturally raises a lot of questions. What is the purpose and intent of this structure? Is playwright O’Hara making a comment about the universality of our lives regardless of race? That one trashy family is just like another? But why are those two families so over the top and ridiculous? They have some basis in reality but…the craziness does feel like an over the top episode of good/bad television. The actions are too loud and obnoxious and the costuming is over the top and it all seems very…phony. Very, very entertaining to be sure but it’s a surreal and larger than life presentation which seems at odds with the playwright’s past work and the nature of shows produced by Intiman. It’s just too Hollywood to be real…
Cut to Act 2 and we’re back in the same park but this time we’re with…both the White Barbara and the Black Barbara together in the same setting. Interacting with each other.
And, I can’t say anymore than that, because it would seriously spoil everything that is great about Robert O’Hara’s clever and amusing play. Mr. O’Hara probably is touching on the universality of our existences but he’s got other fish to fry with here as he slyly brings in issues related to celebrity culture, the unreliability of both reality television and supposed literary memoirs, obsession with winning awards and the business of spinning lies to sell books, TV shows, movies, albums and any other pieces of entertainment culture. I do think the actual end of the play is a bit silly but it does tie everything together and we completely understand that everything we witnessed in Act One with the two versions of the same story shouldn’t have been taken at face value at all. It was all a spinning of subterfuge and falsehoods and a lesson not to believe everything you hear or see.
Malika Oyetimein’s direction keeps all the various balls in the air with great confidence. There’s a lot to keep track of here with the twin casts that actually do differ and the multiple layers of meaning in every version of every scene. She’s aided by a dream cast of actors who nail both the over the top nature of most of the first act as well as the more subtle take needed for Act 2. The entire cast is great but the standouts for me would have to be Cynthia Lauren Tewes as the pushy and stubborn white version of Lillie Anne and the hilarious Angel Brice as black Marie coping with numerous addictions including one for horrifying fashion choices (made real by Kelly McDonald’s super costume design). In Act 2 it’s the fascinating tag team of the Two Barbaras that steals the show with Kamaria Harris who seems to be channeling not more than a little bit of Whitney Houston diva-ness while Eryn Joslyn is all angry white trash spitfire…like sister Jackie confronting Roseanne in your favorite episode of that TV show.
Intiman’s Barbecue is saucy, infectious fun with a clever structure and a killer cast. It’s the perfect summer play.