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August 10, 2013 Comments Off on Feminists, Gorillas, Puppets & Bluegrass: A Mixed Bag Of Seattle Theater Views: 1984 #Theater and Stage, Arts & Entertainment, Stage

Feminists, Gorillas, Puppets & Bluegrass: A Mixed Bag Of Seattle Theater

Sometimes, if you’re a live theater nerd, you just feel like going on a theater bender and seeing as many shows as you can, in a short period of time. If you review theater, sometimes you’re compelled to do so, just to keep up but even if you’re just an average theater nerd, it can be a necessity to devour as much theater as you can, as fast as you can. It’s like binge eating. Sometimes you devour a lot of junk food and sometimes you cram yourself full of deliciously nutritious grub and frequently, it’s a combo platter of Little Debbie snack cakes and free range asparagus lightly grilled and seasoned. Mr. Strangeways has seen 4 shows in the last three days and it was definitely just such a grab bag buffet, ranging from high priced organic treats to bargain basement bags of sodium and corn syrup.

Jeffrey Fracé and Kirsten Potter star in ACT's "Rapture, Blister,Burn" now through August 11, 2013. Photo by John Cornicello

Jeffrey Fracé and Kirsten Potter star in ACT’s “Rapture, Blister,Burn” now through August 11, 2013.
Photo by John Cornicello

Review: “Rapture, Blister, Burn” by Gina Gionfriddo. Directed by Anita Montgomery. With Kirsten Potter, Jeffrey Fracé , Priscilla Lauris, Mariel Neto, Kathryn Van Meter. Now through August 11, 2013 at ACT.

We’ll kick off with the organic. ACT is closing up shop this weekend on their highly praised production of Gina Gionfriddo’s “Rapture, Blister, Burn”, a topical comedy about modern relationships, friendship, feminism and the choices we make in the pursuit of a career and a healthy personal life. It centers on Catherine, a 40something academic and highly successful author who’s back in town to care for an ailing, but adorable mother, and also reconnect with her college roommate and her husband, who happens to be a former flame of Catherine’s. The roommate, Gwen, has chosen a life as a wife, mother and homemaker but she’s having regrets about all of those choices and envious of the seemingly carefree lifestyle of her very successful friend. Meanwhile, Catherine is doubting the choices she has made, and yearning for the stability of a loving relationship and the nurturing embrace of having a family and a home of her own. Things are complicated by the fact that Gwen’s marriage to the perpetually stoned and under achieving Don is on the rocks, and Catherine and Don both still have feelings for one another. When the two women actually decide to act on their desire to swap lives, complications arise.

“Rapture” is a smartly written show and Ms Gionfriddo knows how to write witty, verbose, and intelligent dialogue. During the course of the play, she presents a mini history of feminism that covers Betty Friedan, slasher films, torture porn and Phyllis Schlafly. Director Anita Montgomery manages to balance all that intellectualism and discussion with a deft handling of the comedic aspects of the material as well as the more dramatic. All the design elements are very strong, with Brendan Patrick Hogan’s witty sound design getting much deserved praise; his music choices offer a wry commentary on the proceedings.

The actors are all strong with Kirsten Potter giving a commanding performance as Catherine, a role that requires an ability to project strength and intellect as well as self-doubt and fear. She’s well matched by Kathryn Van Meter as the abrasive but equally compassionate Gwen, and Jeffrey Fracé  as the ineffectual man in the middle Don. Mariel Neto is also strong as Avery, a 21 year old graduate student who offers a contemporary viewpoint on the discussions of modern feminism and relationships, giving a funny but fully complex and realized performance. But, it’s Priscilla Lauris as Catherine’s adorably sweet mother Alice who steals the show; it’s an audience pleasing role that’s perfectly performed by Ms Lauris.

The only downside to “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is its tendency to “crowd please”. The plot and the characters have complexity and some depth, but there are times when things resort to sitcom simplification and the “well made play”. Ms Gionfriddo does come from a television background; she’s written/produced for Law & Order and other shows, and the hint of the formulaic and crowd pleasing drifts into “Rapture” more than one would wish. It doesn’t kill the intelligence or wit of the material, but it does weaken its overall effect. The old lady character Alice IS adorable, but frankly, we’ve seen the “adorably, cute, funny but wise Old Lady” in a thousand other scripts. Audiences obviously love that stock character, but the safety/familiarity of that character and a few other tidy devices in the “Rapture” script moved it from an “A” grade to a strong “B+” over the course of the performance. It is, however, a smart, well done production still worth seeing.

Verdict: Organic and Healthy and Delicious. Could use a bit more spice.

Review: “Precious Little” by Madeleine George. Produced by Annex Theatre. Directed by Katherine Karaus. With Sarah Papineau, Taryn Pearce, Mary Murfin Bayley. Now through August 31, 2013 at the Annex Theatre.

Meanwhile, over at Annex they also have a new play that examines feminine relationships, academia and a yearning for domesticity. But, Madeleine George’s “Precious Little” also involves linguistics, lesbians and a talking gorilla…it also lacks the wit and intelligence of “Rapture, Blister, Burn”. But, it does have a cute old lady…speaking some obscure Slavic language!

It also has a far smaller cast…and, no men. Brodie is a 40something linguistics professor who has decided to have a baby on her own. As she copes with the challenges of being pregnant over 40, including difficult visits to her obstetrician, she’s also involved in a problematic relationship with a female grad student, and dealing with the aforementioned cute, old, Slavic lady and her suspicious daughter. Meanwhile, she’s also developing an oddly sympathetic relationship with a “talking” gorilla at the local zoo.

Yes…you read that synopsis correctly. I wrote it, and saw the production and it doesn’t make much sense to me, either. I faulted “Rapture” for being too “well made” but “Precious Little” fails because it rambles all over the place without any sense of direction or coherence. There a lovely moments in the script and production…Brodie seeing her baby for the first time on ultrasound; the Slavic lady remembering both beautiful and horrific moments from her previous life; the gorilla reaching out to both the audience and Brodie, but the rest of the script is such a jumble of ideas and inconsistencies that it outweighs the few moments that actually mean something.

It doesn’t help that many of the characters are stupidly written. Brodie casually mentions that “the university frowns on staff dating students, but it’s ok” when of course, in reality, no university in the world allows such a thing. The grad student herself is presented as sort of a lout and other characters, are presented equally as unbelievable and far fetched with poor Taryn Pearce forced to play the majority of such characters. In fact, this seems to be a deliberate intent of the author; there’s the central character of Brodie and then two other actresses play all the other parts with Mary Murfin Bayley getting the better part of the deal as she expertly plays the older, more sympathetic characters like the gorilla and the sweet Slavic lady, and Ms Pearce relegated to the thankless task of playing oafs and shrews. She does a fine job playing all those characters,  but the need for her to constantly change costumes (onstage) slows down the performance. The messiness of the construction of the material and its inability to really say much of anything other than, “we all need to communicate with one another!” derails this production from the get go. The moments that do work are sabotaged by everything else around such moments.

Verdict: Free range but way too many ingredients in the pot. Try again.

The Master disciplines his loyal servant, Torgo.  Puppets by Rachel Jackson and Paul Velasquez. Photo by Bob Koerner.

The Master disciplines his loyal servant, Torgo.
Puppets by Rachel Jackson and Paul Velasquez. Photo by Bob Koerner.

Review: “Manos: The Hands of Felt” adapted by Rachel Jackson. Based on the film “Manos: The Hands of Fate” by Harold P. Warren. Produced by Vox Fabuli Puppets and Pressing Pictures LLC. Directed by Bob Koerner. Choreography by Kendra Hayes. With Nik Doner, Jana Hutchison, Rachel Jackson, Sann Hall, Raymond L. Williams, Paul Velasquez. Now through August 17, 2013 at Richard Hugo House.

There were few expectations for the remount of a popular production from last year as Vox Fabuli restages an encore of “Manos: The Hands of Felt” its all puppet cast version of a notoriously bad 1960s horror film, “Manos: The Hands of Fate” that was famously parodied on “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”. “Manos” the play closely follows the script of “Manos” the film as it details the making of a terribly amateurish movie in the deserts of west Texas at the hands of its writer/director/producer and star Harold P. Warren who had little talent and zero capacity for necessary things like plot, dialogue, continuity or any of the basic fundamentals of film making.

On paper, “Manos: The Play” seems like a sure bet. Puppets/Parody/High Camp and strong comedic performers should all add up to a night of high humor. Sadly, for me, it didn’t and part of the problem might have been that I wasn’t high…At heart, “Manos” is barroom/fringe/late night drunken/high as a kite theater and to properly enjoy it, you need to see it drunk/high as a kite in a dingy (but delightful) venue like Re-bar. (The dude sitting in front of me on Friday night must have smoked two bowls, ’cause he was REALLY enjoying the show…) It needs to be in a cramped space and full of drunks and with the acrid smell of urinal cakes and cheap beer in the air. But, for some odd reason, Vox Fabuli is staging “Manos” in the relatively large space of Hugo House and with the reassuring but highly sobering smell of chalk dust and literary earnestness permeating the nostrils. It’s not the right venue.

The production also suffers from the stage space being TOO big and the production values being far too low. I think they’ve got the idea that a puppet parody of a notoriously bad and under budgeted film should also be “bad” and “cheap” looking but the problem with theater involving puppets is that it really does require some clever lighting and staging to focus the audience’s attention on the PUPPETS and not the actors, (who are always present and visible on stage). The hit puppet musical “Avenue Q” solved this problem with its witty script, careful direction and attention to lighting. “Manos” just plunks the poor actors on stage with harsh, spare lighting and very minimal staging. It’s clunky and I spent half the time feeling bad for the sweaty actors under the harsh lighting.

There are huge pluses in this show, primarily the very funny and talented cast led by Nik Doner as the vainglorious Harold P. Warren, with terrific support from Jana Hutchison as the leading lady; Rachel Jackson as the ingenue; Sann Hall as a dog and various other characters; Raymond L. Williams as the evil, Master and especially Paul Velasquez as the henchman, Torgo. There are some clever bits and funny lines, but the best moment in the show is a big production number towards the end, with choreography by Kendra Hayes. It’s very clever and sharply executed but the show needs more such moments.

“Manos: The Hands of Felt” has its charms, especially if you’re drunk/stoned but ideally it should also work if you’re NOT drunk or stoned. A script revision, a stronger sense of staging, and better lighting would lift it up from a mild, bar room amusement to an actual event worth dragging the AA members in your life.

Verdict: a pot brownie/beer chaser kind of show.

The Half Brothers, David Nixon, John Ackermann and Rick Miller.

The Half Brothers, David Nixon, John Ackermann and Rick Miller.

Review: “The Half Brothers Brand Old-Time Variety Show” Music & Lyrics by John Ackermann, Rick Miller & David Nixon. Additional Text by Keri Healey. Directed by Scotto Moore. With John Ackermann, Rick Miller, David Nixon, Tim Moore, Troy Mink. Fridays/Saturdays at 11pm at the Annex Theatre now through August 30, 2013.

Finally, we come to my favorite production of my four show spree: Annex’s just opened late night weekend offering of “The Half Brothers Brand Old-Time Variety Show”. It’s a brisk and charming entertainment focused on the considerable musical talents of “The Half Brothers” aka Seattle musicians/performers John Ackermann, Rick Miller and David Nixon and basically it’s just an excuse to enjoy an hour plus of some deliciously entertaining yet topical bluegrass music.

“The Half Brothers” is structured around an old tv variety show with the Brothers performing their numbers followed by the announcer setting up commercials for the show’s sponsors and demonstrated by “Grandma Half”. But, as the show progresses, the old fashioned folksiness of the music is sinisterly replaced by a corporate philosophy as the sponsors became increasingly consumed by larger and larger multi-national conglomerates. The cheery homespun cornbread cooking demonstrations and sweet natured accompanying songs about the eating of said cornbread are replaced by anxiety inducing ads for financial institutions and songs about staying up all night worrying about how to pay the bills. Soon, pink slips start flying and the Half Brothers Family find themselves made redundant.

Basically, the show is a musical number, followed by a comedy bit, and repeat ad infinitum, but because of the talents of everyone involved, there’s nothing wrong with this simple structure and director Scotto Moore keeps everything moving along at a lively pace. The Half Brothers have written clever songs and the accompanying comedy bits written by Keri Healey are equally sharp and sassy. The performances are top notch with Tim Moore as the smooth talking announcer (and, mean harmonica player) and Troy Mink doing his usual outstanding job as one of his patented flustered/exasperated Southern grannies. The Half Brothers themselves don’t say much, but the musical performances are acted as much as they are performed and their subtle reactions to the proceedings of the plot are an integral part of the show.

Even if you’re not a huge fan of bluegrass music, the funny charms of “The Half Brothers Brand Old-Time Variety Show” and the expert performances by all involved, make for a highly recommended night of music and comedy. It’s one of those shows where you’ll find yourself clapping along to the tunes, with a big, dumb grin on your face because you’re having a helluva good time. Also: who doesn’t enjoy watching Troy Mink make messy food on stage and getting exasperated about it?

Verdict: A delicious blend of corn bread and corn likker!

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