Review: In Arabia We’d All Be Kings by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Produced by Theater Schmeater. Directed by Julia Griffin. With Drew Hobson, Elena Flory-Barnes, Nik Doner, Michael Ramquist, Yolanda Suarez, Ayo Tushinde, Brandon Felker, Andrew Shanks, Samuel Hagen, Jacquelyn Miedema, and Draeko Damen. Now through February 13, 2016 at Theater Schmeater.
And, Seattle/America/The World’s love for Stephen Adly Guirgis continues with yet another Seattle premiere for the playwright who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year for Between Riverside and Crazy. Washington Ensemble Theatre debuted his The Motherfucker With The Hat to great acclaim earlier in the month. Now an early work of Guirgis has its local debut with Theater Schmeater’s production of his 1999 play, In Arabia We’d All Be Kings, which centers on a ragtag collection of societal misfits who hang out in a seedy Hell’s Kitchen dive bar. In a series of interconnected vignettes, Guirgis weaves together a tale of friendship, betrayal, failed expectations, and crushed dreams between an interesting array of characters that include: a recently released convict (a recurring theme in the playwright’s work) and his drink caging girlfriend; a dimwitted crackhead and his equally dumb hooker/girlfriend; a sweet natured, Star Wars loving bartender; a sullen Puerto Rican teenager and her mom; an alcoholic old man who sprouts the title line while lamenting his/everyone else’s lot in life: “In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings!”
Even in this early work, Mr. Giurgis displays his great gift for powerful and frequently very funny dialogue, that, in some ways echoes the similar talents of director/screen writer Quentin Tarantino. But, where Tarantino rambles and drops topical non-sequitur into his dialogue for the sake of being “daring”, Giurgis more cleverly creates believable and realistic characters who inhabit grittier and far more realistic worlds than the show-offy oddballs in Tarantino Land. This play is an early work, and it does ramble in places, but it’s both emotionally powerful and dramatically compelling. You quickly fall for the charms of these down and out characters.
It also helps that Theater Schmeater has put together a good team to stage this work led by Julia Griffin’s assured staging and adept direction of the strong cast. Despite the choppy nature of the play, Ms Griffin does a terrific job of unifying the scenes by having an actor completing one vignette visually acknowledge the arrival of the first actor in the subsequent scene with the exchange of a knowing glance. It’s a nice directorial touch.
She’s aided by a very strong ensemble of actors. There’s no actual lead role in “In Arabia” but the play does open and close with two characters, Lenny the just released con and Skank the dimwitted meth head and both actors playing these roles, Drew Hobson and Nik Doner, are just terrific. Mr. Hobson nicely channels the rage and fear of Lenny as he negotiates his return to the outside world, while Mr. Doner impresses as the always hustling street trash who’s incapable of making any sort of rational choice when it comes to living his life. Both actors are far more than “fine” in these roles…they excel. And, make a great stage acting duo.
As does Jacquelyn Miedema as Chickie, the dim girlfriend to Skank, and Ayo Tushinde as the angry teenager DeMaris. The pair have a great scene together where Chickie is trying to teach DeMaris the art of street hookin’ but the teen’s anger issues (and, frequently brandished gun) keep getting in the way. It’s a scene that’s both very comedic but also equally heartbreaking and both actors convincingly portray all the nuances in the scene.
But, the entire cast is just great…even in the smaller roles like Sam Hagen’s sweetly naive bartender who crushes on Chickie, and Michael Ramquist as the sad, old bum Sammy, one of those impossible to play stereotype characters that Mr. Ramquist nevertheless does a superb job of portraying and making realistic and believable.
Technically, this show is pretty bare bones despite a clever attempt to use projections to portray various scene locales though the projections are sometimes washed out with the uneven lighting, which also at times under lights some of the actors. Julia Evanovich’s costumes are realistically gritty and appropriate for time/place/character.
In Arabia We’d All Be Kings is a slight but compelling early work by one of our most promising playwrights. (As I earlier stated, the plot roams around a bit and the villain of the piece, involving the gentrification of the neighborhood during the reign of Mayor Giulani is a tad heavy handed, complete with “evil” gay developer who’s a bit of a creepy stereotype.) But, this well directed production offers a talented acting ensemble to deliver Mr. Giugis’s clever dialogue. It’s well worth seeing for fans of the playwright and the strong, gritty stories he dramatizes.
Review: Really Really by Paul Downs Colaizzo. Produced by ArtsWest. Directed by Makaela Pollock. With Joshua Chessin-Yudin, Frederick Hagreen, Annelih Hamilton, Anna Kasabyan, Jessi Little, Riley Shanahan, and Jordan Taylor. Now through February 14, 2016 at ArtsWest.
Over in the Land of Lovely Sunsets, Brisk Winds, and Nesting Gay Bears (aka “West Seattle”) the fine folks at ArtsWest are staging a different kind of ensemble piece, that’s equally as provocative but set in the present and featuring a much younger/more affluent set of people with problems.
It’s Really Really, the northwest premiere of the 2012 drama by up and coming writer, Paul Downs Colaizzo that centers on the relationships between college students on a small East Coast campus. The play, like In Arabia We’d All Be Kings, focuses on interplay between peers and features the dramatically required, “betrayal, failed expectations, and crushed dreams” we’ve come to expect from drama. But, unlike the characters in the Giurgis play, the 20something millennials of Really Really aren’t at all likable…they’re a pretty sordid lot, more interested in their self-centered, self-obsessed lives than anything or anyone else. It’s a pretty damning portrayal of his own generation on Mr. Colaizzo’s part.
The play takes a standard “he said/she said” structure and plot as we switch back and forth between the apartment of the “she”, Leigh, a young woman from the “wrong side of the tracks” who shares the space with perky go-getter, Grace, and with the “he”, Davis, a jocky student of higher means who shares his ratty bachelor pad with hyperactive, underachieving frat bro, Cooper. Cooper and Davis throw a wild, all night party to kick off finals week at the college and Leigh and Grace attend that party. Missing from the festivities is Jimmy, the wealthy fiance of Leigh and a teammate of Cooper and Davis, who had gone out of town to visit his family.
Gradually, pieces of the story begin to emerge as we learn that something happened between Leigh and Davis on the night of the party. Was it rape, as Leigh claims, or was it something else? Davis had blacked out and doesn’t remember while Cooper claims he was listening at the door and heard…what? Meanwhile, Jimmy swears to get revenge on Davis and the various friends, teammates and family members of the pair, begin to take sides…or, run for cover.
Really Really is an interesting piece of drama…and, a maddening one. It raises many tough questions about gender, class and integrity…and, doesn’t really answer any of them. That’s fine; questions shouldn’t necessarily be all neatly answered and all plot threats don’t need to be tied up by the end of a play, but Mr. Colaizzo takes a rather messy approach to creating these dramatic dialogues. He throws in just about everything except the kitchen sink and he’s not afraid to explore/exploit some rather hoary stereotypes and rather dated scenarios from days gone by. The main female character of Leigh could have been lifted lock, stock and gold-digging barrel out of an old Barbara Stanwyck or Ida Lupino movie circa 1940. It’s not that there aren’t modern day “gals/guys from the wrong side of the tracks using their wiles to trap a rich spouse” around today (hello, Anna Nicole! hello, whichever gay porn star dating Marc Jacobs!) but it IS presented a bit anachronistically here. The oddness of the plot thread becomes even more apparent when Leigh’s trashy, blowsy, loudmouth sister Haley shows up to support her beleaguered sister in her hour of need. It’s a moment straight of a 40s potboiler, just without the pencil skirts and gum chewing.
And, the sexual politics of Really Really are a bit brow raising…it’s not considered politically correct (it’s actually quite dangerous) to suggest a woman might be lying about being raped. Mr. Colaizzo tackles that landmine strewn topic and others as well, and forces audiences to deal with some tough issues. And, for millennials, he’s not afraid to point out some unpleasant generalizations about perceived issues of being self-absorbed and selfish. No one comes out well in this play; every character is crippled with weaknesses and a failure of moral resolve. It’s every man/woman for themselves.
As a production though, ArtsWest has done a commendable job with staging Really Really. It’s very well designed with a clever, bi-level set by Julia Welch, that’s able to present both of the principal locations simultaneously.
They also have a talented ensemble of young actors on stage led by assured work from Jessi Little as Leigh and Riley Shanahan as Davis. She has the more thankless role as Leigh, which isn’t a particularly sympathetic role but the actress nicely creates a multi-layered performance as a character with rather base motives. Davis is originally more sympathetic but as more and more aspects of the character’s personality are revealed, Mr. Shanahan does a fine job of making the character one of the more realistic portrayals in the show.
In supporting roles, the stand outs are Joshua Chessin-Yudin as the ultimate college bro, Cooper and Anna Kasabyan as the trashy older sister, Haley. Both actors aren’t afraid to give “big” performances of characters that are already a bit broadly written. There are times when both might be amping up the intensity to a level “11” when a “9” might suffice, but I’ll always cut talented actors a bit of slack if they’re really sinking their teeth into their performances. (And, it’s the director’s job to keep that in check…) They both give a lot of energy to the show and propel the momentum forward; without these characters or the strong performances, Really Really would be a bit flat.
Really Really tries to present some serious contemporary issues in dramatic form but unfortunately it does stray into the land of cliche…there are times when it feels like a very special episode of Beverly Hills 90201: The College Years. It is dramatically compelling and this production has strong elements and a talented cast; the play itself might be best described as a “good early attempt” by the playwright. But, it might be the rare piece of theater capable of drawing in a younger audience eager to see work that represents their generation. It’s not a flattering look at Generation Y, but to an audience raised on MTV “reality” shows, it could be reason enough to try out live theater. For older audiences, it’s a mixed bag of smart theater craftsmanship and overwrought melodrama.