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September 11, 2017 Comments Off on Reviews: Fall Theater Kicks Off With 2 Interesting Shows About The Immigrant Experience Views: 209 *Seattle Theaterland, Arts & Entertainment, Stage

Reviews: Fall Theater Kicks Off With 2 Interesting Shows About The Immigrant Experience

I saw four theater productions this weekend as we kick off the fall theater season in Seattle (or, if you like, the 2017/18 season for those of you on an archaic theater calendar system based on a bye gone era where theaters mostly shut down in the summer in a time before air conditioning). The first of the four, BLUES FOR MISTER CHARLIE got reviewed separately (check it out HERE) and I take a brief look at the charms of Seattle Rep/Public Works Seattle’s weekend production of THE ODYSSEY over HERE. The other two productions have a common theme and an interesting one: they both look at the lives of immigrant families to the US, one from Pakistan and the other from the Philippines.

Sisters Zarina (Monika Jolly) and Mahwish (Haley Alaji) have some "sister" talk in this rehearsal photo from ArtsWest's production of Ayad Ahktar's THE WHO & THE WHAT onstage through October 1, 2017

Sisters Zarina (Monika Jolly) and Mahwish (Haley Alaji) have some “sister” talk in this rehearsal photo from ArtsWest’s production of Ayad Ahktar’s THE WHO & THE WHAT onstage through October 1, 2017

Review: The Who & The What by Ayad Ahktar. Produced by ArtsWest and Pratidhwani. Directed by Samip Raval. Scenic Design by Lex Marcos. Lighting Design by Ryan Dunn. Costume Design by Kelsey Rogers. Sound Design by Brian Murphy. Props Design by Andrea Spraycar. With Monika Jolly, Haley Alaji, Abhijeet Rane, Andre Nelson. Now through October 1, 2017 at ArtsWest.

We’ll start with the play about Pakistani Americans…a journey to ArtsWest in West Seattle for their season opening production of Ayad Akhtar’s THE WHO & THE WHAT, the playwright’s follow up to his Pulitzer Prize winning first play, Disgraced which with The Who & The What will form a part of Akhtar’s planned 7 part cycle of plays, films and a novel concerning the Muslim-American experience.

“Who/What” centers on Afzal, a self made Pakistani immigrant in Atlanta who has become successful as the owner of a cab company and his two daughters, Zarina, an intellectual struggling with writing a novel, and the younger Mahwish who is engaged to a young Muslim man but also flirting with a non-Muslim Hispanic she met in college. Afzal is a widower who is fairly moderate as a Muslim, but he did insist that Zarina end a relationship with a non-Muslim while she was in college and he’s now nagging his daughter to settle down and actually marry a Muslim man and start producing grandchildren. Zarina gave into her father’s wishes when it came to her previous relationship but she resists his efforts in matchmaking while she confronts her own issues with Islam which include doubts about certain aspects of the life of Mohammad, the Prophet including an origin story in the Koran about why Islamic woman should wear the hijab. Currently, Zarina is working on a novel that examines intimate details of the life of Mohammad but she is crippled by writer’s block.

Afzal is actively working on finding Zarina a man to marry and when he discovers Eli, a white convert to Islam and an intellectual who has actually already met Zarina at a conference, she initially resists the matchmaking but eventually caves in when she realizes that she and Eli ARE a good match and the first act of Who/What concludes with Zarina connecting with Eli and breaking through her writer’s block and continuing with her work on the novel (which is titled: “The Who & The What”).

Act 2 picks up a bit in the future after weddings for both Zarina (to Eli) and Mahwish who married her fiance but still pines for the non-Islamic man she crushes on. Zarina has finished her novel and given it to Eli to read but isn’t entirely pleased by his response to the material; he admires her gifts as a writer and the beauty of her language but worries that the controversial nature of the work will anger the Muslim community and create problems for them. Things get worse when the rest of the family reads the book and relations between all the characters deteriorate.

The Who & The What once again demonstrates that Ayad Akhtar is a writer with great gifts at creating interesting characters, riveting dialogue and fascinating insights into not only Pakistani-American cultures but also specifically into Islamic ones. There’s a lot to learn here especially for non-Islamic audiences unfamiliar with the Koran and the life of Mohammad. And, Mr. Akhtar also nicely balances the drama with some sharp humor.  These characters are interesting and the basic premise of the plot is promising and engaging.

That all said, The Who & The What is also a minor work and one that pales considerably in comparison to the much praised Disgraced and even his third play, The Invisible Hand which was produced almost concurrently with this play. Having now seen productions of all three of these plays (Disgraced, a national co-production with Seattle Rep and other theaters was very successfully albeit controversially staged in January of 2016 and ACT produced a successful production of the riveting The Invisible Hand in 2015), Who/What feels more like an early jejune work compared to the more sophisticated and daring work on display with the other two plays…frankly, it feels a bit too much like episodic television. There are times where the soapy plot elements feel like they are lifted from a year long plot thread concerning the problems of Pakistani American characters in a serial drama written by Shonda Rhimes. The plot has great potential but never quite lives up to it; it feels like we are scratching at the surface. And, the play feels underpopulated…it needs more than 4 characters and it needs more depth and definition to both plot and the characters involved in that plot. As it is now, both the sister character and the husband Eli are underwritten…they’re just plot devices in the main conflict between father and daughter.

It also has to be said that Afzal is a great character but also one that borders a bit on over familiarity….we’ve seen the meddling, matchmaking parent, (frequently an immigrant with an accent) in plays, books, and films for…how many decades? Mr. Akhtar has enough talent to make Afzal a flesh and blood character but….just barely/kinda/sorta.  Yes, there is a reason this kind of character reappears so much in narrative storytelling; these characters actually exist in the real world but because The Who & The What is so minimally told, Afzal never quite becomes a breakout character; he’s trapped within the boundaries of being a narrative cliche…the ethnic dad crying out: “I HAF NO DAUGHTER/SON!” and ripping their shirt in existential agony.

The limitations of some aspects of the script aside, this is a solid production that’s well staged by Samip Raval and handsomely designed. The four actors are also strong with Haley Alaji as the conniving rebel sister Mahwish and Andre Nelson as Eli, the mostly understanding and patient husband giving compelling performances…despite the fact both these roles are underwritten. Monika Jolly originated her role of Zarina in the original production of this play in 2012; she’s obviously at home in the part and grounds the role with an assured sincerity and sense of serenity. Abhijeet Rane was very much a crowd pleaser with his work as the dad Afzal, nicely nailing the inherent humor in the role but also the poignancy of his heartbreak in his perceived betrayal. His charms as an actor prevent the character from slipping over into true cliche.

The audience at Saturday’s performance very much enjoyed The Who & The What..they gave it a standing ovation (increasingly the norm at ALL productions now). Despite admiring Mr. Akhtar’s gift for language and the strength of this ArtsWest production, I can’t quite muster that much love for it but can recommend it for people who enjoy episodic tv dramas. Meanwhile, I will wait for future, more mature and complex work from Mr. Ahktar, one of our most important contemporary playwrights.

Sara Porkalob wrote and stars in DRAGON LADY at Intiman. Photo by Robert Wade/Intiman Theatre.

Sara Porkalob wrote and stars in DRAGON LADY at Intiman.
Photo by Robert Wade/Intiman Theatre.

Review: Dragon Lady by Sara Porkalob. Produced by Intiman. Directed by Andrew Russell. Scenic Design by Jennifer Zeyl. Costume Design by K.D. Schill. Lighting Design by Robert J. Aguilar. Sound Design by Erin Bednarz and Matt Starritt. With Sara Porkalob. Musicians: Pete Irving, Classic Jimmy, Mickey Stylin. Now through October 1, 2017 at Jones Playhouse/University of Washington.

Finally, I caught the third (or, is it the fourth or fifth?) iteration of Sara Porkalob’s fascinating solo show DRAGON LADY where she creates 30 different characters as she tells the true tale of her grandmother Maria and her journey from growing up as a child of a tough Filipino family of gangsterish origins and working in a nightclub in Manila to marriage to an American sailor of Hungarian extraction and immigration to the Pacific Northwest and raising five kids on not much money. It’s a warts and all approach; the Dragon Lady doesn’t always make the best choices but Ms Porkalob’s tale is definitely a Valentine to her crazy family, even if the edges are burnt a little bit. Originally created as part of an assignment while attending Cornish College of the Arts, Dragon Lady has actually gone through more than 4 or 5 versions; the actress has performed various takes of Dragon Lady at several venues and festivals in Seattle including this past January at Cafe Nordo where “Madame Dragon’s 60th Birthday” was a huge hit…see my review of that version HERE.

Now, the Dragon Lady has metamorphed into its latest production as the closing show for Intiman’s 2017 season at Jones Playhouse at the University of Washington. Now billed as a musical, this latest version includes more musical numbers sung by Ms Porkalob (beloved pop standards of the last 60 years or so) backed by the band she had at Nordo. It’s now two acts with an intermission (running about 2 hours in total) and largely contains all the material in the earlier Nordo version with some changes here and there but with far more music and far less delicious Filipino food…as in none, sadly.

Does it all still work? Yes it does!

But, it also doesn’t.

First with the good news: Sara Porkalob is a ridiculously gifted performer and Dragon Lady is worth the price of admission just to see her play 30 different characters including many members of her own family and at different ages in their lives. That’s not an easy job to pull off; I’ve seen other solo shows featuring acclaimed actors playing multiple roles and when push comes to shove, most actors (even very talented ones) can have a hard time pulling off 6 or 7 unique voices let alone 30. It’s a tour de force performance by a performer who obviously loves what she does. She’s equally at home with comedy as the drama and she’s got a belt and gift for selling a cabaret song that many performers would kill to have. Over the years of seeing theater in Seattle I’ve been lucky enough to see a handful of young performers demonstrate they’re the Real Deal…brilliant performers with winning star appeal and the ability to create their own material and Sara Porkalob is in that select club with Jerick “Jinkx Monsoon” Hoffer, Richard “Major Scales” Andriessen, Justin Huertas and Kirsten DeLohr Helland. The kids are alright!

And, Sara Porkalob has great gifts as a writer as well. The individual stories in Dragon Lady are frequently superbly crafted. The play as it exists now really consists of two main stories: Dragon Lady/Maria as a young woman in Manila working in the nightclub and getting pregnant with her first child and some explicit drama involving the father of the child, then cut to years later and the focus switches to the Dragon Lady’s young children trying to survive in an 1980s trailer park in the Pacific Northwest.  Both stories are terrific but…frankly, they’ve not been successfully combined. They actually exist as two separate stories, like in a book, but onstage that can be problematic. Andrew Russell’s staging doesn’t really unite the various aspects of this material. It’s too unfocused and imprecise. To be blunt, he didn’t really bring anything to this table as a director.

And, I’ll be honest…I prefer the Nordo Dragon Lady production to this current Intiman “musical” labeled one. There’s been some re-writing of material, especially in the first part of the Manila set story which feels weaker and less focused than the version I saw at Nordo in January which had better direction than this current production, which was credited to Ms Porkalob herself. The actual framework of the Nordo production actually aided the storytelling…it gave the show definition and structure. Yes, it was built around the need to serve food and drink to the patrons but I think the bare bones of that production (the theme of the night was the fact it was Dragon Lady’s 60th birthday celebration) needs to be brought out more in the latest iteration. It’s still somewhat present to a minor degree but not enough to serve as the foundation for the play. Personally, I think Dragon Lady needs that structure and a talented Dramaturg/Director to work with Ms Porkalob to take the piece into a final, artistically cohesive form. (And, to properly place the songs within the context of the play’s story; it’s all a bit haphazard at present even if the songs are lovingly and engagingly performed.)

To be clear, I’m a huge fan of this work and Ms Porkalob and I heartily recommend seeing this production while you can. It’s still a great story with a beautiful performance and a terrific backup band with a funny and charming set design from Jennifer Zeyl. It is very much worth your time to experience the delights of the “Dragon Lady” and her fascinating family while enjoying Sara Porkalob sing gorgeous Shirley Bassey songs.

I just look forward to its next leap in its artistic evolution.

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