What. The. Hell. Is. Going. On. In. Seattle TheaterLand. This Month.
We have a ridiculous bounty of theatrical riches this September, which is always a big month for new theater after the summertime lull. Normally, out of 25 or so new openings we might get one or two really terrific productions and another handful of competently good shows.
But, this September we already have been treated to Intiman’s terrific production of Wedding Band, not to mention Seattle Shakespeare Company’s delightful version of The Winter’s Tale (review here) and now we have two more superb productions to add to that list: ACT’s just opened boxing play, The Royale by Marco Ramirez and Book-It Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of novelist Ruth Ozeki’s Japanese set A Tale For The Time Being about a misfit teen aged girl coping with a suicidal dad, bullying at school, Buddhist grannies and cosplaying French maids forcing girls into prostitution. It’s a delicious grab bag of thrilling theater this month.
Review: The Royale by Marco Ramirez. Produced by ACT-A Contemporary Theatre. Directed by Ameenah Kaplan. Scenic Design by Carey Wong. Costume Design by Rose Pederson. Lighting Design by Ben Zamora. Sound Design by Sharath Patel. With Jarrod M. Smith, Lorenzo Roberts, G. Valmont Thomas, R. Hamilton Wright and Zenobia Taylor. Now through October 9, 2016 at ACT.
I’m going to start with an excessive amount of praise for ACT’s The Royale, the new play by Marco Ramirez, a major up and coming new writer best known for his extensive work on television. The Royale is a very slightly fictionalized take on real life early 20th Century African American boxer Jack Johnson who became the first black male superstar athlete. Exploring similar ground to the 1967 play (and 1970 movie) The Great White Hope that starred James Earl Jones as another version of Johnson, The Royale tackles the period between 1905 and 1910 as “Jay Jackson”, attempts to become the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, but can only do so by fighting the current reigning champion who is white. Previously, whites and blacks didn’t compete so Jackson and his team have to convince the reigning champ to agree to the fight.
But, racist attitudes of the era mean there is much opposition to this bout and fights, lynchings and attacks against the black community lead some, including Nina, Jackson’s sister, to urge the boxer to reconsider this controversial match up for fear it will lead to further reprisals against African-Americans, including Nina’s young children who have already been threatened by violence.
It’s a tautly written play that opens with a bout between Jackson and a young contender named Fish. The younger fighter holds his own against the more powerful Jackson and he is asked to join the fighter’s team that also includes his trainer Wynton and his white manager/promoter Max. Originally very confident of his talents and with a fierce drive to succeed, Jackson begins to have some self doubts during a press conference where he learns of reprisals against the black community as well as death threats against himself. After his sister arrives and warns him of the dangers of going forward, the play concludes with the big match itself…only it’s not quite the battle or the opponent you’ve been expecting to see enter the ring with Jackson…
Where do we start with our praise for this production? Well, it might be wise to kick off with an obvious pull quote:
ACT’s The Royale is a rock’em, sock’em tour de force hit and a must see for any intelligent theatergoer.
I’m a big fan of the play itself, though I do think the first two thirds of the play are stronger than the final third. I’m not entirely convinced by the actions of the sister or the play’s final confrontation. It seems like an arbitrary conflict and it’s not quite as satisfying as the lead-up. And, a final act of violence seems a tad contrived and overly melodramatic.
That said, the direction of this play does overcome any issues with its ending. Ameenah Kaplan is an exciting new(ish) theater artist with a background in film, acting and choreography and all of these skill sets are very much apparent with her physically powerful and very self-assured direction. This play is in constant motion, like boxers themselves while in the ring, but it also moves with a dancer’s grace as well as one that very much references cinematic techniques. Ms Kaplan is creating visual montages with her stage choreography that is very much like seeing a film live on stage. Many brave directors attempt to achieve that kind of fluidity but only exceptional ones can pull it off. There are times when you want to gasp out loud at the bold, smart choice the director makes. The opening fight scene is probably the most inventive piece of stage direction I’ve seen…well, maybe ever. The rhythmic pulse of the action is mesmerizing and hypnotic and the 80 minute running time of The Royale just flies by. It’s a bravura feat of direction by Ameenah Kaplan and I hope she returns to Seattle to direct here in the future.
And, the cast just excels under that direction with superb work from Zenobia Taylor as the sister, Nina; Lorenzo Roberts as the young fighter, Fish and G. Valmont Thomas as the world weary but wise trainer, Wynton. Meanwhile, Seattle veteran actor R. Hamilton Wright gives a terrific performance as the manager, Max. Mr.Wright is in fine form here; energized and obviously very excited about working on this material with these actors and this superb director. When you have smart, talented actors of great experience like Mr. Wright and Mr. Thomas, they have to have these kinds of roles to give them something challenging and rewarding to play and when you combine their level of expertise with all those other components, you end up with superb drama like this.
And, I can’t leave out the excellent work of Jarrod M. Smith, an out of town actor brought in to play Jackson and one I hope will return to Seattle. He’s commanding and mesmerizing in the role and superbly leads and centers the cast and the play itself.
Design and tech work on The Royale is also up to the task with a simple but very effective ring set by Carey Wong. Rose Pederson’s costumes are rich and beautifully tailored and both Sharath Patel’s sound design and Ben Zamora’s lighting design are integral and vital components of this highly collaborative and fully realized production.
It just doesn’t get much better than this in theater. ACT’s The Royale is not only the best production on stage right now in Seattle but it’s one of the three best productions I’ve seen in Seattle in six years of reviewing theater. Lovers of superb theater would be very foolish to miss this opportunity to experience it.
Review: A Tale For The Time Being. Adapted by Laura Ferri from the novel by Ruth Ozeki. Produced by Book-It Repertory Theatre. Directed by Desdemona Chiang. Scenic Design by Catherine Cornell. Lighting and Projection Design by Tristan Roberson. Costume Design by Christine Tschirgi. Sound Design by Robertson Witmer. With Khanh Doan, Mi Kang, Mariko Kita, Scott Koh, Kevin Lin, Michael Patten, Rachel Ren, Annie Yim. Now through October 9, 2016 at the Center House Theatre, Seattle Center.
If boxing dramas aren’t your thing but you enjoy “timey wimey” adaptations of books about Japanese school girls coping with being a teenager and Japanese-American novelists coping with writer’s block, then you might want to check out Book-It Repertory Theatre’s very entertaining but also emotionally moving take on Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 novel, A Tale For The Time Being. It cleverly entwines those two through lines while referencing Marcel Proust’s masterpiece novel, À la recherche du temps perdu aka “In Search of Lost Time” but also finding time to bring in Buddhist philosophy, World War II kamikaze pilots, ecology, Japanese pop culture including “Hello Kitty”, and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan. AND, manages to do all that in about 2 and a half hours.
The writer is Ruth Ozeki herself, or at least a fictionalized version of the writer who inserts herself into the story from the get go with “Ruth” discovering a carefully wrapped up parcel floating in the waves off her beachfront home in British Columbia. Inside the plastic is a Hello Kitty lunchbox and inside that lunchbox are a curious assortment of journals and letters obviously penned by more than one person. One journal is relatively recent and written by Nao, a teenaged girl who is Japanese by birth but American in her upbringing. Other writings in the parcel include a journal and letters in both Japanese and French that date from World War II.
Ruth is supposed to be working on her memoir but finds herself drawn to Nao’s colorfully told story and keeps returning to the journal and begins researching the fate of Nao and her family with help from her laid back Canadian husband, Oliver. The book and the play, jump back and forth in time to not only tell Ruth’s story as she relays the story of Nao, but also stories within those stories about Nao’s suicidal father, her 100+ year old great grandmother Jiko who is a Zen Buddhist nun/feminist/pacifist radical and her uncle Haruki who wrote the WWII era journals while he awaited his fate as a kamikaze pilot.
Yes, that description sounds like a bewildering alphabet soup of characters, plots and ephemera but Ozeki’s fascinating tale is carefully constructed and well adapted by Laura Ferri. There are times, especially in the second of the two acts, where plot feels a tad rushed but overall Ms Ferri does a commendable job of keeping all the various plot threads tied together and dramatically compelling. Due to the wealth of story being told and the way the play engulfs us in these unique worlds and cultures, it was, for me, one of the few times a Book-It adaptation really made me want to go out and read the original source material, if I hadn’t already read it prior to seeing the stage adaptation. It’s such a rich story, that you need to experience more of it after seeing this play.
Much of that can be attributed to Desdemona Chiang’s excellent staging. Ms Chiang has established herself as one of our best theater directors with her innovative and boldly thoughtful direction. With “A Tale” she does her usual fine job of creating visually compelling scenes while shaping strongly focused and emotionally rich performances from her cast headed by Mariko Kita as Ruth and Mi Kang as Nao. It’s very much a “twinned” piece of drama with both Ruth and Nao paralleling each other’s lives as the story explores the fluid nature of both roles as Ruth is not only the “writer” but also the reader of Nao’s story. Ms Kita gives a very grounded and centered performance; the play revolves around her telling and relaying of both her story and Nao’s as well, and she superbly gives us a sense of “home” around which the rest of the story spins. She’s aided by the delightfully laid back performance of Michael Patten as her husband Oliver who adds a nice touch of practical whimsy to the proceedings.
But, it’s Mi Kang’s Nao who undergoes the rockiest journey as a Japanese girl raised in America and forced to return to Japan as a 15 year old and completely out of sync with Japanese society and how to survive in a Japanese school environment. While she’s viciously bullied, harassed and eventually assaulted multiple times by her peers, she also has to cope with the deterioration of her father as he battles his own depression and self-worth. Ms Kang participated in theater while attending college, but pursued other life goals for her career and this is her professional Seattle debut. She is excellent in the role, and highly compelling and believable as a teen girl and I think Ms Kang needs to pursue other acting opportunities in the future.
The rest of the ensemble is also quite strong with exceptional work from Khanh Doan as the wise but adorable Buddhist granny/nun Jiko. Ms Doan is no where old enough to actually be a Buddhist granny/nun but she very convincingly plays one on stage. She’s aided by Christine Tschirgi’s excellently designed costumes which run the gamut from WWII kamikaze pilot uniforms to naughty French maid cosplay costumes. Catherine Cornell’s set design focuses on some utilitarian but quite beautiful screens, as well as a clever tree of rubbish and refuse that ties in the environmental elements of the play, as well as the time shifts. It’s all beautifully and evocatively lighted by Tristan Roberson with Robertson Witmer’s usually superb work on the sound design. It’s a handsomely designed show.
Despite the rushed nature of the storytelling towards the end, this is a very thoughtfully composed and executed adaptation of a very multi-layered book. It definitely makes demands on the reader/theater goer but Seattle is a city of book lovers as well as fans of genre material that explores shifts in place and time. A Tale For The Time Being is a clever, engaging play and highly recommended for fans of the genre as well as anyone fascinated by explorations of different cultures.