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May 5, 2018 Comments Off on Theater Ketchup: “Familiar” and “The Wolves” Views: 509 *Seattle Theaterland, Arts & Entertainment, Reviews, Stage

Theater Ketchup: “Familiar” and “The Wolves”

Recent big productions from our big theater companies run the gamut from dramatic high school girls playing soccer to Zimbabwean family sitcom/dramedies…which should you see?

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My vote, (for overall excellence) goes to ACT’s delightful production of Sarah DeLappe’s astounding play THE WOLVES which is not only astonishing for its content but also due to the fact DeLappe is in her mid 20s and has crafted such a mature work of dramatic literature. On paper, it sounds…well, kind of awful. The 90 minute one act centers on a team of suburban high school girls playing some very competitive soccer but also having a typical dramatic life involving meaningful (and sometimes very ill informed) discussions on topics as varied as the Khmer Rouge, feminine hygiene products, favorite TV programs and life options post high school. Along the way, the play jumps from one soccer game  to the next over the fall season of what appears to be their junior year of high school for most of them, we also learn some secrets about these nine girls…including some revelations about who is using birth control; who has an eating disorder; who lives in a yurt…

The play seemingly appears to quickly delineate major characters from the less important ones, but part of Ms DeLappe’s skill as a playwright is the fact she creates beautiful moments for all nine characters in this story; everyone gets moments to “shine” but still remain important components of the whole. There are numerous through lines pursued and all intricately woven together. The Wolves is blessed with a sharp and articulate script populated by powerful female characters with a lot of depth and personality. Sarah DeLappe has established herself as an important playwright to be watched.

The play is melodramatic but…so is life and the lives of teenagers tend to be on a thrill ride of ups and downs anyway so it doesn’t harm the story being told. Mostly identified by their player jersey numbers, each character takes part in the various dramas going on simultaneously…aggressive star athlete #7 (Cheyenne Barton) and her problems with an older boyfriend; smart #11 (Meme Garcia) who copes with having both her parents being therapists; tough team captain #25 (Madilyn Cooper) who may or may not be trying to reveal somethings about herself; odd duck/new girl in town #46 (Alyssa Norling) who refers to soccer as “football”; team clown #13 (Rachel Guyer-Mafune) and apt to say things she shouldn’t; mostly mute and prone to vomiting when nervous goalie, #00(Martha Kathryn Smith); sweet girl #8 (Zoé Tziotis Shields) prone to tears and worrying too much about the other girls; the naive girl #2 (Emma Bjornson) with the overprotective family and tendency to get concussions; #7’s best friend is #14 (Emilie Hanson) who may not be as ready to go as fast as her friend…

This cast is exceptional, one of those occasions where every part is just perfectly cast with the result that a tight ensemble of actors (and acting) is formed. And, there’s also a mysterious 10th character (Soccer Mom) that turns up later in the action for an emotionally devastating reveal and as superbly played by veteran Seattle actress Christine Marie Brown, an equally important member of the ensemble.

I think the script is great as is the acting ensemble but it’s director Sheila Daniels who pulls it all together into this tautly choreographed package full of emotion and passionate female energy. This show IS very much choreographed; after all it’s about soccer but those athletic movements are artistically incorporated into the staging of the show and add to the dynamic of the production over all. It’s not surprising; we’re used to Sheila Daniels wowing us with her direction of actors and handling of tough material, and it’s apparent her love for this script and these characters has resulted into one of the strongest productions of the year.

The Wolves is a beautifully directed production of a play by a promising young playwright and fueled by the energies of a terrific ensemble of young female actors. It’s most highly recommended.

Review: The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe. Produced by ACT-A Contemporary Theatre. Directed by Sheila Daniels. Scenic Design by LB Morse. Costume Design by Melanie Burgess. Lighting Design by Robert Aguilar. Sound Design by Robertson Witmer. With Cheyenne Barton, Emma Bjornson, Christine Marie Brown, Madilyn Cooper, Meme Garcia, Rachel Guyer-Fafune, Emilie Hanson, Alyssa Norling, Zoé Tziotis Shields, Martha Kathryn Smith. Onstage April 20, 2018 through May 13, 2018 at ACT/Downtown Seattle.


The  cast  of  Familiar  by  Danai  Gurira,  directed  by  Taibi  Magar  at  Seattle  Repertory  Theatre.  Photo  by  Navid  Baraty.

The cast of Familiar by Danai Gurira, directed by Taibi Magar at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Navid Baraty.

There’s another newish play by a powerful emerging female playwright and featuring a very strong cast of actors happening across town at Seattle Repertory Theatre but the average age of the cast of FAMILIAR is a smidge higher than The Wolves, as it features the parents of adult children getting into a host of family squabbles as they gather for a wedding.

Yes, I can feel some of you reaching to scroll away to avoid a review of the 12, 345th play/movie/plot about a wacky family wedding situation but there IS a twist here…Familiar is written by the very au courant actress/playwright Danai Gurira, best known for her role as Michonne on the never ending zombie tv show, The Walking Dead and for her role as Okoye in the Marvel Universe Black Panther franchise, and, for more theater nerdy types as as the writer of the Tony Award-winning play Eclipsed. Though born in the United States, both her parents are from Zimbabwe and Ms Gurira grew up in Iowa and Africa and went to college in Minnesota.

The plot of Familiar echoes her own life as it centers on successful attorney Donald Chinyaramwira and his wife, Dr. Marvelous Chinyaramwira in their lovely Minnesotan suburban home preparing for the wedding of their elder daughter, Tendi, also a successful lawyer as well as a rather self-righteous born again Christian, who is to marry Chris, an earnest young white man and also a devout Christian, who works for African aid organizations. Both are virgins (and a bit uptight about it) and both Tendi and Chris have younger siblings (Tendi’s sister Nyasha and Chris’s brother Brad) who are not virgins and not quite as driven as their elder siblings and a tad annoyed for having to live in the shadow of their insufferable elder siblings.

Complicating matters further are family guests, one welcome (Marvelous’s youngest sister, Margaret, also an academic but less successful in life and fond of her wine) and one less welcome: the surprise appearance of Anne Mwarimba, an elder sister and a fiercely proud African woman who disapproves of her sister Marvelous’s upscale, Americanized lifestyle and general dismissal of traditional African beliefs and traditions. Tendi has gone behind her mother’s back and asked her aunt to perform a traditional “roora” ceremony where the bridegroom to be must make a settlement to the bride’s family in order to wed.

The result is: comedy and chaos with lots of room for fun family squabbling and conflict (Marvelous is definitely the bossy family matriarch who clashes with anyone who disagrees with her; Tendi and Nyasha also have sibling issues) and it IS fun, mostly due to the fact that it’s interesting to see how cultures that may differ from your own deal with situations common to everyone (all families bicker and weddings, regardless of a family’s background, tend to be a battleground for suppressed emotions and long held grievances). This universality is a bit cliche at times; the “wedding comedy” is an old, old, OLD source for comedic plots but Ms Gurira has a talent for creating rich characters and ripe comedy dialogue. Her writing gifts and the fact we’re immersed in a culture we have seldom seen portrayed in American media and culture, propels the comedy along and entertains while it enlightens. At times, some of the comedy is a bit broader than it should be when it strays into pure TV sitcom tropes but it’s also the kind of comedic shtick that audiences eat up.

My chief issue with Familiar is the dramatic elements and it’s not due to their presence (because the material is powerful and engaging) but how the comedy aspects and the dramatic are intertwined; it’s not always very smooth to go from the over the top sitcom shenanigans to the big dramatic revelations involving long held family skeletons that involve tragic elements of Zimbabwean history and the fight against colonialism (and subsequent dictatorial government) and years of revolution and death. The comedy is frequently very funny and the drama is moving and powerful but it’s a bit like there are two interesting plays in Familiar each fighting each other for the right to exist. The transitions aren’t always very subtle and it could be said this material feels a lot like those classic Norman Lear produced sitcoms of the 1970s like All in the Family and Maude that frequently featured dramatic material within the parameters of your jokey sitcom (as well as lots of screaming) but…those were 22 minute little plays where the plot is broken up by a commercial every 6 or 7 minutes to aid in changing the tone. You don’t have that device in theater and it can be…abrupt. Are these shifting tones an issue of the direction (by Taibi Magar) or of the play itself? (Maybe a bit of column A and a bit of column B….)

That said, there is a lot to like in Familiar (Like, you get TWO plays for the price of one!) with the chief one being a very strong cast of actors in the eight roles which are divided evenly between the older generation and the younger. Probably the chief delights are the trio of actresses playing the three elder sisters; they are provided with rich characters and sharp dialogue from the script but Perri Gaffney’s imperious Marvelous is a terrifically formidable family matriarch who is nicely matched with chief antagonist Wandachristine’s fiercely funny African sister Anne Mwarimba and the charms of wine guzzling family mediator, Auntie Margaret charmingly played by Austene Van.

These women are the heart of the play but the rest of the cast is strong, too, especially Aishé Keita as younger sister Nyasha who charms as the arty, less material driven sister coping with being in her elder sister’s shadow. Ms Keita, one of the two actors in this production (which originated at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis) with Seattle ties, including her much praised work in last year’s production of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings at Book-It Rep. Former Seattlite Quinn Franzen is also strong but in the rather underwritten role as the bridegroom, Chris. Elder sister Tendi is very well acted by Shá Cage (who seemed to be struggling with a cold/vocal issues on opening night) and though the character she plays isn’t very sympathetic, the performance is solid and compelling.

Michael Wieser is very funny as the younger brother; in fact, the character is more fully formed than the allegedly more important role of the bridegroom. And, Harvy Blanks is great as the mostly henpecked father, Donald. he doesn’t have much say in his household, or in the play into late into the proceedings, but when he does, it’s a powerfully acted and convincing moment. Mr. Blanks is probably the strongest performance on the stage because of that sincerity.

The design elements all originated with the Guthrie and their team of designers and they’re all strong designs including the big gorgeous set by Adam Rigg and Karen Perry’s terrific array of costumes that includes traditional African clothing pieces.

Familiar is very much an audience pleasing kind of theater event; the audience on opening night was very enthused by the comedy as well as the drama. The play has many, many strong elements but I just wish some of the larger (and, rather unlikely) comedy elements weren’t so…familiar. There’s a ridiculous moment towards the end of the play that gets VERY physical, but doesn’t actually make much sense other than to provide a comedy moment (and to lighten the tone from a bit of dramatic revelation that occurred shortly before). The audience seemed to mostly love it; it felt phony and contrived to me.

There’s much to love or like about Familiar. And Danai Gurira is also just as much a playwright to watch, as she is an actress of great charisma and talent.

Review: Familiar by Danai Gurira. Produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre in association with the Guthrie Theatre/Minneapolis. Directed by Taibi Magar. Scenic Design by Adam Rigg. Costume design by Karen Perry. Lighting and Projection Design by Tom Mays. Sound Design by Scott W. Edwards. With Harvy Blanks, Perri Gaffney, Aishé Keita, Austene Van, Shá Cage, Wandachristine, Quinn Franzen, Michael Wieser. Onstage at Seattle Repertory Theatre from April 27 to May 27, 2018.

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