Two big new shows have opened recently at area regional theaters and both shows are on the didactic side.
Prepare to be edumacated!
First up was Metamorphoses at Seattle Rep, an adaptation of the epic poem by the Roman writer Ovid written in 8 CE that tells the mythic/historical story of the Greco-Roman world from its creation to the then present. It contains all the familiar myth stories we’ve encountered in literature, art and entertainment for the last 2000 years including the antics of the Greek gods and the history of the Trojan War and all the various voyages of Odysseus/Ulysses. Much of western culture is based on these stories and they’re an integral part of storytelling.
This new production of Ovid’s tales is a recent adaptation from a trio of writers in residence at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London: Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas and Sabrina Mahfouz. It’s firmly rooted in traditional ways of relaying this material….it’s classic “Story Theater” with the actors presenting us these stories as actors telling them to us AS storytelling actors slipping in and out of the various roles of the characters featured in each story. It’s very much a part of theaterical tradition to perform this kind of a material in this way….which is a problem if you’re not a huge fan of “Story Theater” presentation.
I’m not a huge fan of Story Theater. I prefer representational theater where actors play the characters who enact the story over presentational theater which always seems a bit…DIDACTIC (that word!)…like a school teacher lecturing you on something you’d rather just read for yourself. That’s not to say I haven’t ever enjoyed presentational theater; after all, that is the style of theater you primarily see at Book-It Repertory Theatre and Seattle Children’s Theatre and I’ve enjoyed productions at both those companies. But, it’s not really my go-to kind of theater.
And, this new theatrical Metamorphoses is also a barebones kind of adaptation….with just 4 actors playing all the roles on a simple set. There are some clever uses of the simple set (nicely designed by Sibyl Wickersheimer) but for a piece that’s all about the magical powers of Greco-Roman gods, it’s a bit dull and low key. Frankly, I’d like to have seen more/bigger use of lighting and sound design for this production. It all feels a bit like a “medium sized college theater program on a budget” rather than “Seattle Rep is a professional theater company with an endowment”.
There are also OTHER versions of Metamorphoses out there for the Rep to have staged including a very well regarded one by Mary Zimmerman who is justly famous for adapting/directing popular productions of classic material, many of them originating from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. Those productions are beloved for being full of magic and mystery and fantastic storytelling elements. We don’t really get much of that with this version. There’s very little magic and the storytelling is a bit all over the place; some of it is quite draggy and not particularly interesting while other bits just seem like bad Neil Simon sketches.
As for the cast, it’s all talented folks from the Seattle area we’ve seen in many other productions. They’re fine actors but the performances vary quite a bit from character to character they portray. Of the four, the one best showcased was Nike Imoru who got two of the best roles, as the weaver turned into a spider, Arachne and then as the witch turned spurned vengeful queen Medea. They’re both strong roles and Ms Imoru was great in both but both stories felt very rushed and fragmented, part of the problem when you adapt a dozen or so stories into an 80 minute show. It felt, at times. like “Metamorphoses Rock”, part of the beloved “Schoolhouse Rock” vignettes we watched as kids in between Saturday morning cartoons.
To be honest, this entire production felt a bit like theater meant for students…you’d have to cut some of the swearing but it really felt like it should have been staged for a room full of 10 to 15 year olds to introduce them to the Greek myths and Storytime Theater. The not particularly astute script and the rather bland direction of the material by Shana Cooper didn’t really ever rise above that interest level. While I really liked An-lin Dauber’s terrific color coded costume design, it’s not enough to get me to recommend this production for anyone with a very sophisticated theater palate.
Review: Metamorphoses by Ovid. Adapted by Sami Ibrahim, Laura Lomas and Sabrina Mahfouz. Produced by Seattle Rep. Directed by Shana Cooper. Scenic Design by Sibyl Wickersheimer. Costume Design by An-lin Dauber. Lighting Design by Thorn Michaels. Sound Design & Music Composed by Rodolfo Ortega. With Kjerstine Rose Anderson. Meme Garcia, Nike Imoru, Darragh Kennan. Onstage at Seattle Rep from January 27th through February 26, 2023. Tickets at: https://www.seattlerep.org/plays/202223-season/metamorphoses/
Meanwhile, over at ACT, we have a different kind of didactic theater but the focus this time is on history and specifically, the history of Black American theater. Which is a bit different from 2000 year old Greco-Roman myth history and one not much explored. It’s History of Theatre: About, By, For, And Near and it’s a brand new work by local Seattle actor Reginald André Jackson and a co-production between ACT and The Hansberry Project which is headed by its founder Valerie Curtis-Newton who directs this world premiere.
This is a prestigious production which also includes choreography from acclaimed choreographer Donald Byrd and includes a terrific ensemble of local actors including playwright Jackson plus Tracy Michelle Hughes, Be Russell, Arlando Smith, Amy Thone, Malcolm J. West, Dedra D. Woods and R. Hamilton Wright. It’s an important subject, and a fascinating one, mostly because it’s a story that hasn’t really been told…how did African-Americans create theater in this country when most of them were enslaved/the descendents of enslaved people and marginalized and segregated and persecuted by the rest of society?
It’s a topic ripe for discussion, research and study but how do you present this history to audiences AS a theaterical piece? And, make it entertaining? In a hundred minutes or so.
And, that’s one of the problems with History of Theatre: About, By, For, And Near…it’s a lot of material covering decades and decades of history and one that grapples with every aspect of our society: racism and privilige and money and power and misogyny and…it’s a lot to deal with. In a very short amount of time.
History plays themselves aren’t easy…most plays/films that deal with sweeping historical narratives frame those stories though the characters created to tell those stories. But, most of those kinds of stories focus more on character than actual historical fact. Yes, you’re learning a bit about early mid-19th century French history when you watch Les Misérables but you’re really much more into seeing Fantine die or Javert jump into that sewer.
Then there’s the option of using a framing device to tell your stories and that gets tricky, too. Frequently, those plays/films end up being very episodic in nature, bouncing from one story/piece of history then just abruptly jumping to the next. Sondheim’s musical Assassins would be a good example of that as it relays the 120 year history of presidential assassinations/attempts with a rather clunky framework of being in some sort of carnival sideshow purgatory. It “works” but Assassins is mostly beloved for its great songs than its lumbering libretto.
Mr. Jackson uses the framework approach for his “History of Theatre…” He centers his story on a local Seattle theater maker named “Sister Blacknall” who is approached by a big, local, ACT-ish theater company to create a theater piece about “the history of Black Theater” to fulfill a mandate to be more inclusive of non-white stories, audiences and theater makers. Sister Blacknall is hesitant but agrees even though she’s not sure how to approach such a huge subject matter. Fortunately for her, some sort of timey wimey deux ex machina plot device shows up to magically whisk her back to Seattle circa 1936 and backstage at The Seattle Negro Repertory Company, one of the few Black theater companies in the country. It was a project of the national Federal Theatre Project which was a branch of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) to create jobs for theater creators during the Depression.
Rather quickly (and illogically) the theater company accepts the presence of an early 21st century time traveler who proceeds to boss them around in rather a bullying manner as they help her create her History of Black Theater to be presented (somehow) to her bosses at ACT Theatre nearly 90 years in the future.
No, it doesn’t make a lot of sense but…SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF TIME, FOLKS!
So, the cranky Sister Blacknall bosses around the based on real people actors of 1936 to help her create her history of Black Theater piece and since it’s 1936 (or so) the discussion starts with the Black theater makers of THAT time period including one of the few names still around today (well, if you’re a theater nerd) that of the great actor Paul Robeson, the actor/singer/activist known for his work onstage and in film. After that segment, Blacknall works BACKWARDS in time to gain material and information about previous Black theater makers but strangely seems to insist on refusing to discuss the dreaded “M Word” in regards to 19th and early 20th century American theater/entertainment:
The Minstrel Show.
It’s an awkward segue into a complicated topic. The Minstrel Show was the highly popular and highly inflammatory theatrical entertainment that involved the use of music and ethnic humor by performers speaking in a Southern, rural Black dialect and utilizing exaggerated “blackface” make-up. It relied on stereotypical portrayals of Black people as ignorant and lazy and/or conniving and deceitful. It was performed by both white and Black performers and was one of the major forms of stage entertainment for many, many decades. Today, it is condemned as a highly offensive and racist relic of the past and for some, it’s a topic best ignored, which is the position taken by Sister Blacknall. She hates it and refuses to discuss it or allow it in “her” history.
But, the actors of 1936 argue with her, “yes it’s ugly but it’s also part of our history and you can’t dismiss it because you don’t like it”. Which is, in my opinion, rather a necessary part of relaying history…you have to examine the uncomfortable parts of history just as much (if not more so) than the easier to digest parts. And, I like the fact that playwright Jackson includes this as part of his plot…a modern 21st century character learning something from these characters from the past.
We then get to sort of/kinda learn about the topic and how it related to and led to other Black theater makers in the late 19th/early 20th century. The 1936 actors portray those earlier creators and while it was interesting to learn about people like Ada Overton Walker and Sissieretta Jones and the Hyers Sisters it’s also frustrating we really don’t get to see them PERFORM much of the work they contributed to the history of Black theater. And, although the great Donald Byrd did choreograph some movement in this show, there’s not nearly enough of it. Or, music for that matter. Much of what these artists contributed was rooted in musical performance…why not showcase more of that? It actually allows us to experience what made these people so important in the history AND it’s also…well….ENTERTAINING! I’d rather see people perform than rather dully recite their biographies.
So, that’s a problem. And, the awkward story structure. And, the time travel bit which just feels contrived and not well thought out. And, it’s a shame because this IS a really fascinating idea for a show but Mr. Jackson’s script doesn’t do the story justice. Instead of brief little bios of a few of the name players we need to see them actually act, sing, and dance. It’s the best way to learn about and appreciate the talents and lives of these “hidden figures” we need to know about. The most positive thing I can say about History of Theatre: About, By, For, And Near is that it made me seek out more information about the subject…which, was the intent of the creators of this production so I guess it was successful in that regard.
I need to also point out that the entire cast was great but I’ll give a shout out to Tracey Michelle Hughes as its strongest performer; she gets to portray several fascinating characters. And, Be Russell got one of the few musical moments in the show and it was also a highlight.
I also enjoyed the set design by Jennifer Zeyl which incorporated a lot of well done projections into the fabric of the set and those were well designed by Juniper Shuey. The projections showcased historical imagery of the historical theater artists as well as names of the many people the show didn’t have time to feature like the great mid 20th century actors Ethel Waters and Canada Lee.
Overall, it’s a well mounted production and it is of great interest, but for me, it felt like a “work in progress” as opposed as a final finished play. I recommend History of Theatre: About, By, For, And Near only for its subject matter and the strength of the talent involved in its production.
Review: History of Theatre: About, By, For, And Near by Reginald André Jackson. Produced by ACT. Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton. Movement by Donald Byrd. Scenic Design by Jennifer Zeyl. Costume Design by Cathy Hunt. Lighting Design by Robert j. Aguilar. Sound Design by Larry D. Fowler. Projection Design by Juniper Shuey. With Tracy Michelle Hughes, Reginald André Jackson, Be Russell, Arlando Smith, Amy Thone, Malcolm J. West, Dedra D. Woods, R. Hamilton Wright. Onstage at ACT from January 28 through February 12, 2022.
About the Author: Michael Strangeways
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Frankly, Passengers, the new production on stage at Seattle Rep
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Seattle Rep announced their plans for the upcoming 2023/2024 season
Compiled by Miryam Gordon from press releases. Musicals seem to