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Richard Gray as Chauncey Miles in The Nance. Photo by John McLellan.

Reviews: The Pluses/Minuses Of Two Interestingly Flawed Productions

November 10, 2017 Comments (0) Views: 136 *Seattle Theaterland, Arts & Entertainment, Reviews, Stage

Reviews: Two Plays Burning Like A Bitch At 12th Avenue Arts…

TWO, count’em, TWO big shows on view at the bee-yoo-ti-ful 12th Avenue Arts duo theater complex on Capitol Hill….and, they’re both kinda queer. One has a funny gay dude and the other is implicitly/explicitly lesbian in tone.

Nike Imoru stars as Coriolanus: Fight Like A Bitch the all female cast production from Rebel Kat Productions onstage at 12th Avenue Arts through Nov 18, 2017. Photo: John Ulman

Nike Imoru stars as Coriolanus: Fight Like A Bitch the all female cast production from Rebel Kat Productions onstage at 12th Avenue Arts through Nov 18, 2017. Photo: John Ulman

Review: Coriolanus: Fight Like A Bitch adapted from the play by William Shakespeare. Dramaturgy by Katharine Jett. Produced by Rebel Kat Productions. Directed and Choreographed by Emily Penick. Set Design by Julia Welch. Lighting Design by Andrew D. Smith. Sound Design by Sharath Patel. Sound/Music by Josh Schmidt. Costume Design by Nina Dobrev. With Nike Imoru, Wendy Robie, Melissa Topscher, Judith Shahn, Kate Witt, Katherine Jett, Yadira Duarte, Belle Pugh, Colleen Carey, Amanda Rae, Ayo Tushinde, Corinne Magin, Kyle Boatwright, Simone Bruyere Fraser. Now through November 18, 2017 at 12th Avenue Arts.

There’s nothing but women on view in CORIOLANUS: FIGHT LIKE A BITCH, a retelling of Shakespeare’s not particularly beloved play, Coriolanus, produced by Rebel Kat Productions. And, instead of the women all playing men, they’re playing their roles AS women with pronouns changed. It’s all very “Wonder Woman on Paradise Island-y” with this version of very ancient Rome solely populated by strong, fierce women…and, no explanation how they reproduce without any dudes around. (I’m guessing all the men live on a sexy all male island and once a year the men and the women meet to exchange…the things necessary to make babies).

This is one of those productions where I’m required to give you a bit of a synopsis…it’s not quite famous enough for y’all to know the story by heart. In a nutshell, Caius Martius is a bad ass general who is great at winning battles and wars against Rome’s arch rivals, the Volscians who are led by another bad ass general Tullus Aufidius who is majorly pissed she keeps getting bested in battle by Martius but is also admiring of Martius’s skill as a warrior. Meanwhile, the rabble in Rome are rioting over grain shortages which they blame on Martius and her ravenous army who must be fed in order to wage war. Martius is terrible at politics and her blunt talk frequently annoys the plebians and their two scheming leaders Sicinius and Brutus who really hate Martius. But, the plebs start to love Martius after she beats the Volscians (and is given the honorary name of….wait for it: Coriolanus!….and despite misgivings, Martius’s steely eyed mother Volumnia talks her into running for consul.

But Sicinius and Brutus muck that up and goad the easy to anger Martius/Coriolanus into pissing off the equally easy to anger/very fickle plebs who then turn on Martius/Coriolanus who is exiled from Rome and ends up in…Volscian territory where she aligns herself with her former foes to seek revenge on Rome for their treachery to Martius/Coriolanus.

It all ends badly.

From Twin Peaks to an all female production of "Coriolanus"....veteran actor Wendy Robie in "Coriolanus: Fight Like A Bitch" onstage at 12th Avenue Arts through Nov 18, 2017. Photo: John Ulman

From Twin Peaks to an all female production of “Coriolanus”….veteran actor Wendy Robie in “Coriolanus: Fight Like A Bitch” onstage at 12th Avenue Arts through Nov 18, 2017. Photo: John Ulman

Happily, Coriolanus: Fight Like A Bitch (yes, that is the official name of this production; if use of the “B word” offends you, take it up with the women of Rebel Kat Productions…) has been sharply adapted by the production team led by dramaturg Katharine Jett (who also nicely plays one of the scheming pleb leaders, Sicinius). It’s a brisk, to the point adaptation and director Emily Penick has done a great job of choreographing this action packed drama on the confines of Julia Welch’s terrific runway stage setting. It’s like Shakespeare meets RuPaul’s Drag Race but instead of “sissying that walk” these Amazon women are kicking ass and taking names.

Andrew D. Smith’s dramatic lighting and Sharath Patel’s sound design with Josh Schmidt’s music/sound design/creation are also highly effective in creating this very theatrical piece of theater. (Nova Dobrev’s stylish contemporary costumes are also an asset…they carefully differentiate each character and their position in Roman or Volscian society.)

I liked all of the cast but Nike Imoru is an ideal Coriolanus…touch as nails but with just the right touch of sardonic humor. Kate Witt was exceptional as Roman politician Agrippa, bringing just the right amount of “Hilary-esque” grit to her role. (Note to Seattle theaters: cast Kate Witt in more shows!)  Colleen Carey (who is lead producer of this project) was appropriately menacing and tough as the Volsician general Aufidius. She brought a nice rock ‘n’ roll swagger to the part.

It was also great to have veteran stage and television actor Wendy Robie back on a Seattle stage as the barracuda mother Volumnia, an adept player of politics both public and familial.

Does having an all female cast really make a huge statement? Maybe. It is empowering to see women in charge and not just objects of love, both maternal and sexual, to the needs of male characters. More importantly, it’s a tight production and yet another welcome female led project, after upstart crow’s similar all female Shakespeare production Bring Down The House from earlier this year in collaboration with Seattle Shakespeare Company. Fresh takes on very old material are welcome and are to be encouraged.

More women in charge of theater, please!

Carolyn Marie Monroe and Alex Garnett have to deal with Tim Gouran's train wreck loft guest in Theatre 22's production of Lanford Wilson's BURN THIS onstage through November 18, 2017 at 12th Avenue Arts.

Carolyn Marie Monroe and Alex Garnett have to deal with Tim Gouran’s train wreck loft guest in Theatre 22’s production of Lanford Wilson’s BURN THIS onstage through November 18, 2017 at 12th Avenue Arts.

Review: Burn This by Lanford Wilson. Produced by Theatre 22. Directed by Corey McDaniel. Scenic Design by Margaret Toomey. Prop Design by Robin Macartney. Lighting Design by Ahren Buhmann. Composer/Sound Design by Michael Owcharuk. With Carolyn Marie Monroe, Tim Gouran, Jason Sanford, Alex Garnett. Now through November 18, 2017 at 12th Avenue Arts.

Across the hall at 12th Avenue Arts, we have a much different production. It has 3 men and only one woman in it, but the female character centers this work. It’s Theatre 22’s production of Lanford Wilson’s 1986 play BURN THIS, a two act romantic dramedy that starts with the death of a gay man.

That gay man is Robbie, a promising young dancer in mid 80s New York who drowned in a boating accident with his boyfriend. Robbie’s two roommates, Anna who is also a dancer and choreographer, and the very gay ad man Larry suffer through the ordeal of Robbie’s funeral with his blue collar, homophobic, intolerant suburban New York family.

One of those relatives is Pale, Robbie’s older and rather manic brother who is estranged from his wife and kids and working long hours as a restaurant manager in New Jersey. He’s dealing with some guilt over Robbie’s death as well as his own set of demons (including some issues with booze and coke) as he grieves the loss of a brother. Pale shows up as a coked out mess at the loft shared by Anna, Larry and Robbie and despite being initially repulsed by his violent mood swings and brusque manner, Anna finds herself also drawn to him, much to the chagrin of her uptight, wealthy boyfriend Burton, a movie screenwriter.

Pale gradually worms his way into their lives while Anna begins to become more self-reliant and confident in her own talents as a choreographer. She uses the dynamic between herself and Pale to create a new piece of choreography which impresses Pale but angers Burton. Cue the improbable love song over the end credits.

Burn This is, frankly, an odd play. His breakout works, Fifth of July and Talley’s Folly won him awards and long runs and the success of those works enabled a successful Broadway production of Burn This which won acclaim for the performances by John Malkovich and Joan Allen. Yet, I don’t think this play actually belongs in the same category as those other works…it displays Wilson’s brilliant use of language and dialogue and for creating fascinating characters but….there’s something amiss.

The central romance of Burn This doesn’t actually make sense. Bluntly put, Pale is a crazy mess and any kind of meaningful relationship between him and Anna seems unlikely. She’s a nice artist type and he’s a crazy, coke snortin’ train wreck of a human being who has anger management issues. Why the hell would she want to end up with a time bomb like Pale? (Other than for a night of hot sex….)

It also doesn’t help that the other two characters are either a bit underwritten (the bland boyfriend) or a bit over written (the jokey gay roommate who is just there to be a jokey gay clown with funny quips but absolutely no exterior or interior life other than to be gaily funny). And, that brings up the question of….AIDS. Lanford Wilson wrote a play in 1985 revolving around one dead gay man and one supporting gay male character and the topic of AIDS never comes up once…with a plot that centers around the world of classical dance in New York City in the mid 1980s where obviously AIDS took a huge toll. It’s omission seems obvious and skittish. Why was Wilson unwilling to deal with that topic, even in passing?

Ok, so I’m not super keen on the material…but it has snappy dialogue and Wilson knows how to tell a story…even a far fetched one. Despite the fact the boyfriend character is a bit of nudge, the other 3 characters make up for it. It’s not a boring play but it’s also not really an important one either. It entertains modestly solely based on the skill of Wilson’s dialogue. Despite the press material calling this “Wilson’s masterpiece”, I think this ranks below at least 2 if not three of his stronger plays.

As for the actual production, it’s quite good. Theatre 22 makes a committed effort to have strong design on their productions and Burn This has a gorgeous loft set by Margaret Toomey with gorgeous moody lighting by Ahren Buhman. (The only major flub: there’s a character wearing some non-gorgeous Old Navy sweatpants in a play set several years before Old Navy existed…which isn’t a big deal obviously.)

Artistic Director Corey McDonald has done a fine job of staging and the cast is uniformly strong led by Carolyn Marie Monroe’s emotionally satisfying and tender performance as Anna and Tim Gouran’s greasy, volcanic portrayal of Pale complete with thick blue collar accent. Alex Garnett was very funny in the role of “Very Funny Gay Roommate” and even Jason Sanford was able to give some nice dimensions to the rather one dimensional boyfriend (his proud story about his one gay encounter is especially endearing).

This Burn This, despite the implausibilities/omissions in its script is worth checking out for the high quality of this production.

 

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