Insightful, Fun New Works Open Village & On the Boards Seasons
Through different angles, season-openers at Village Theatre and On the Boards offer timely challenges on how we humans deal with each other — and are funny, too.
Theatre is unique in its promise to bring people to the same space to experience a story told live, together. Two recent shows go further, seemingly asking, Now that you’re here together, how will you treat each other from here?
The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes is a big new, original musical developed at Village Originals, and now having its full production to open Village’s mainstage season. The show closed its Issaquah run this weekend, then moves to Everett through November 18.
In Howard Barnes, the show’s less-than-noteworthy title character has shut his emotions down after rejection years ago until, to his horror, his life is swept up into musical, with sudden tune outbursts that no one else can hear.
Barnes knows nothing about musicals, and indeed has never seen one (unless “Laser Floyd” counts). Thankfully, he has a guide who knows them all — Maggie, a coworker in HR who sparks his interest (not that he’ll admit it). She’s awkward, too — she spends a rapid-fire ramble confessing her adoration for 60 straight breathless seconds or so, earning some big applause from the audience — and they’re an endearing match.
With Maggie’s lead, Barnes establishes first he’s in a contemporary musical, further narrowed down to a new musical — “Is that bad?” / “Only if you want anyone to see it” — before, gasp, discovering he’s in the really uncharted territory of an original musical. But all musicals are simply quests (as she informs him) and, uncharted territory or not, this quest is basically a Wizard of Oz-style journey to find the musical theatre patriarch, “Stephen Lloyd Von Schwartzenheim,” and satisfy his demands a la Into the Woods … with a pinch of Sweeney Todd, and a dash of … well, everything. Only by completing the quest will he be able to feel — and get rid of his personal musical nightmare.
To lead Barnes through his quest, Maggie needs to both keep them away from distractions — here, the hilarious subway-performer Fuchsia Springtime interlude (“poetry, poetry, poetry … and stuff”) is a winner, and acclaimed dancer Alex Crozier gets to let loose in the “dream ballet” — and vanquish enemies, some of which Barnes may have constructed for himself. He gets help from friendly intruders, too — like inspiration from the avant garde performance troupe, the Experimentals.
If it was not yet obvious, it’s a good time to note that the show riffs on approximately the entire “musical theatre canon” — and the program lists out the evidence by naming all the shows that get referenced directly. The brilliance in Howard Barnes isn’t just the magnitude of references — and yes, it’s voluminous — but the way they’re woven in to keep everyone on board. The musical theatre trivia masters will have plenty to work with, and dabblers will pick up references; but even the most musically clueless (of which I may always count myself as bordering upon) will follow the plot and much of the humor. Howard Barnes is a witty show that doesn’t lose anyone — and that’s not an easy balance.
Though Barnes (the character) does some emotional digging, and occasionally unraveling, this is an upbeat, optimistic view on human interaction and possibility — a category we could all use more of these days. Without giving anything away, the path to resolution is both sweet and takes an unusual form. And at 90 (ish) minutes with no intermission, the show kicks along and doesn’t get bogged down — until the finale, oddly enough, which went on far too long for my taste.
The show’s many set changes — not slight, but major ones (hockey arena, Barnes’s tiny studio apartment, Von Schwartzenheim’s palatial apartment, and a subway train, for example) were done in rapid-fire, seamless transitions, and those were crucial in keeping things moving. The design by Christopher Mumaw was clever, realistic and visually appealing. Similarly for costume design (by Rose Pederson), which also demanded a lot and changed often.
And as usual, Village has put together a great cast, from the lead through the ensemble. Noteworthy call-outs: Joshua Carter (Barnes) played the role of average guy so well, at one point midway through the show I couldn’t find him, twice passing over “that random guy on stage” while looking for the center of attention. It doesn’t sound like it, but that’s a compliment, both for convincing playing and versatility — for when the show demanded he command the stage, he did that solidly, too. Jasmine Jean Sim (Grace) was wonderfully villainous — “Commitment-phobic” and a puppet scene a la Avenue Q are standouts — and, where needed, sweet too. Taryn Darr (Maggie) was just as awkward, funny, tender and in-charge as her role alternately called for; and Jeff Steitzer was perfectly over-the-top as Von Schwartzenheim. Among ensemble characters, it was fun to see the dancer-bod Alex Crozier as stereotypical fat tourist guy, as well as being all stage-cute with real-life fiance Paul Flanagan; Nik Desantis look relatively tiny (having just played Edna Turnblad in Village’s Hairspray); and Sarah Russell get some standout vocal parts. The whole ensemble worked well.
One gripe — on Village’s programming and musicals in general, not limited to this show: how long has it been since Village had any queer-identified main characters on its stages? (This point was accented with a line in Howard Barnes itself: “Do you know what this means? You’re gay!” / “That’s ridiculous!”) Same-sex relationships were raised in Sincerely Yours, a short-run written by its high school cohort. (This piece and production, by the way, were exceptional — someone better pick it up.) But on the main stage and primary development pipelines? Looking sparse.
Just about the opposite in most respects was Our Carnal Hearts, a small play with intimate staging and a very short run, September 13-16, at On the Boards. Where Howard Barnes is more light-handed in its prescriptions, Rachel Mars is not nuanced at all: she’s taken the form of motivational speaker-preacher hybrid, working over the audience in the round, picking apart the things we’re all guilty of — whether comparisons to others or outright ill-wishing upon them — and admonishing us all to do better in how we relate to others and their fortunes.
But the delivery is artistic, not obnoxious; humorous, not grating; incisive, not trite. Key to this are four singers around the stage, who open with some sort of chants that eventually coalesce to “millionaires and billionaires and Wall Street executives.” They’ll come in throughout the show, too, singing hooks for emphasis and to pick fun at the center of attention (Mars). And of course there’s Mars herself: building a community by coaxing us into admitting (to ourselves) all the awful things envy has made us think of one another; and parading around with a ridiculousness that borders on self-deprecating.
Our Carnal Hearts is long-gone, but sets the tone for an On the Boards season that raises notions of human interaction and connectivity and, as usual, plays with form. This is also a season where that connectivity will stretch geographic bounds far, reaching globally (Mars hails from the UK) and with an increased emphasis on hyper-local (with the new Artists in Residence program, for example). More info on the season, events and resident artists here.
The next mainstage shows are this weekend and next: Youarenowhere (October 18-20) and After (October 25-27), both from New York-based artist Andrew Schneider. The two related shows consider what it means to exist — and ultimately die — as a single life in our modern world, with relationships to technology and each other.
After that, the next On the Boards mainstage show isn’t until until early December (12/6-9), with Okwui Okpokwasili’s Poor People’s TV Room — another relational piece, this one working with intergenerational performers to recover buried histories and produce “a narrative by brown women contending with the meaning of their bodies in relation to each other.”
In between, Dan Savage’s Hump Film Festival will take over the On the Boards space, showing lots of amateur short flicks on … a different kind of human relations. This one’s a rental, not part of OTB’s lineup; info here.
The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes runs through 10/21 at the Village Theatre (Issaquah location), followed by performances 10/26 through 11/18 at its Everett location (various times, see Issaquah schedule and tickets here, and Everett schedule and tickets here). Tickets up to $74. (Financial accessibility note: Village offers discounted tickets for same-day rush, including new $20 Section B rush tickets available to all; some discount advance tickets also available on Goldstar; free parking is available near both Issaquah and Everett locations, though bus service is limited. Gendered bathroom policy: Village encourages patrons to use bathroom matching their identity, though policy isn’t posted and doesn’t accommodate non-binary-identified people. Issaquah main theatre has single-stall, gender-neutral bathrooms upstairs, accessible by talking with house manager. Physical movement accessibility: Village is wheelchair accessible.)
Our Carnal Hearts has closed, but view upcoming shows here at On the Boards, in Lower Queen Anne. Tickets $26 advance (increase week-of) for mainstage shows; festival tickets lower. (Financial accessibility note: On the Boards offers subsidized options, including a Ticket Bank of free tickets available by lottery to those with financial need; bus service is available in the area; parking is scarce (depending on nearby events at Seattle Center), and most parking is metered every day but Sunday. Gender-neutral bathroom policy: restrooms are all gender-neutral, multi-stall upstairs and single-stall downstairs. Physical accessibility: OTB is wheelchair accessible, with elevator to main level from lower level.)